FEAR ITSELFBurning Electric Wheels on Auto-Tuned Horseless Carriages
I’ve never liked cities—not one bit—so it was first with dread, then some trepidation, then eventually the inevitable resignation to the necessary, that I regarded the upcoming shows in New York City. Upon arrival, I disembarked from the band’s tourbus with all the enthusiasm of a lamb led to slaughter. Upon setting foot to ground, I immediately began to have…wonderful experiences and a really good time, in direct contravention of my intentions and expectations. Now, several days later, I’m drinking coffee at it through the early morning brainfog and opening my laptop to write, in an effort to recreate, diagnose and define exactly what the hell just happened.
I’ve always wondered why…no, how…people can love a city. I love and belong in the mountains, always will. They are my church, my solace, my inspiration, my school, my spirituality, the yardstick by which I measure myself and where I go to get grounded when I feel that life has removed me a bit too far from what is real and I need a taste of what Doyle called “Nature’s calm strength and majesty”.
Cities, not so much. I have always derived more fascination and wonder from the smallest miracle of Nature than from the grandest accomplishments of humankind. And while individual people can sometimes be smart, crowds are without exception radiantly stupid, the strongest currents of power and popularity—both of people and of ideas—inevitably existing at the level of the lowest common denominator. So filling a big ugly heap of concrete with humans, noise, traffic and smog has always been a good way to repel me.
At the same time, though, I enjoy the company of people who are vividly alive; whose eyes shine the most brightly and with whom conversation is the most engaging. Artistic types are almost always that way, hence my enjoying their company. And the greatest number of artistic types are in cities. And it’s a fact that cities have personalities…no one city’s character is exactly like any other. New York is of course vividly, unabashedly alive, radiating fast-paced energy at all times, her arteries aflow not only with commerce, but with art and culture. Rampant, robust, unfettered, unapologetic celebration of expression is everywhere. Floods of it. It is clearly a matter of great civic pride; I like that about the place. I only wish it translated to the size of the pit orchestras on Broadway, but that’s a different subject.
It was in this setting and against this backdrop that I found myself in Manhattan with Hotel California, playing a huge convention called APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters), which encompassed 1,000 shows in all, most of which were at the midtown Hilton. The energy on the streets of Manhattan is vibrant to some, manic to others and famously very high at any time, day or night. I couldn’t walk at any reasonable, normal pace; I charged everywhere I went. The place just does that to me. Looking up at the ribbon of sky from the bottom of the deep, narrow corridors of commerce gave me a strong sense of being in an ant colony, assimilated into a frenzied collective driving the thriving, striving machinery of endeavor, following the commandments of bright ads for the latest chic, garishly displayed on 80-foot tall LED screens affixed to buildings. All the while, the soundtracks that my head generated were high-energy.
We were commuting in from Jersey each day in a rental vehicle (our huge tourbus had no business trying to negotiate Manhattan, and no place to park)…the traffic was on a par with LA’s worst on a good day and if you’re in the wrong current at the wrong time, it’s gridlocked. Viewed from the spot where you’ve been sitting in traffic for half an hour, a sign advertising “one-bedroom condos for 1.1 million and up” makes one ponder what unlikely pathology might explain the place’s popularity.
But I have to set the record straight about something: New Yorkers are not rude. That stereotype in the collective pathos needs to just go away. Pretty much without exception, everyone I talked to, everywhere I went, was really friendly and helpful. Ditto the experiences of everyone in the band; we all remarked on it. Not one of us had a negative interaction the entire time, neither in Jersey nor in NYC. Some great visits with old friends I hadn’t seen in far too long were good for the soul as well, and I met a new friend I had known only from facebook; he runs an arial photography business and faced the challenges of getting into Manhattan to meet in person and take in the show, for which I’m honored and very grateful. At one point, having changed into my gigging attire in the first stall of a very busy men’s room in the middle of the APAP convention’s 3rd floor melee, I left my reading glasses and bluetooth (a nice one) perched on the TP dispenser housing. Realizing my mistake 90 minutes later, I made my way back there to find them undisturbed. “Touche, New York, touche”, I thought to myself. Despite my preconceptions, precocities and predilections, I found myself opening up to the good things the place has to offer.
APAP is basically like the NAMM show, but instead of musical gear manufacturers exhibiting their stuff to retailers, it’s touring acts and agents putting their best foot forward for high-level promotors and venue owner / operators from all over the planet. It’s a huge affair and costs the acts a lot of dough to perform there, so consequently most acts (mostly tributes, but some are the real thing) have their I’s dotted and their T’s crossed. The mean average quality of shows there is somewhere between good and A-freaking-mazing. And it’s an interesting scene: Describing a five-minute gestalt to my fiance on the phone went thus: “Cher’s down the hall dressed in black lengerie next to Stevie Nicks, who is practicing her pirouettes. Janis Joplin just killed it in the room we’re playing later, Michael Jackson’s kicking back on a bench, Abba just delivered compliments to my playing, I exchanged five fist bumps with The Temptations on the escalator and there goes Paul McCartney.” But the dancers, acrobats and other circus performers lend the coolest elements. Something about a lavishly made-up and costumed human on stilts walking next to a befeathered little person just makes me smile. It just does.
In stark contrast to all this, the entire fourth floor was set aside exclusively for Jazz and related substances, providing calm refuge from the melee and cacophony of the other floors. It was there that I had the honor of getting demoralized and inspired (demoraspired?) by a great Brazilian Jazz guitarist named Diego Figueiredo. Being a Jazz hang, everyone was dressed in the muted colors and studied understatement of the urban sophisticate’s uniform. Except for me, that is; I wore my customary and beloved military cargo pants, T-shirt and hoodie everywhere I went, lest my crass disregard for the aesthetic come under scrutiny.
And I started to get it. I started to understand the allure of New York and despite my best efforts and closed mind, I felt myself really starting to dig it: New York is a beloved and priceless family history for many factions whose families landed here; she’s a beautifully designed building, a skater in Central Park, she’s Wall Street power-brokering the entire planet, she’s that homeless lady bundled up and asleep on the sidewalk in 12 degrees under that overpass, she’s Lady Liberty and the United Nations Headquarters, she’s a songwriter with a world-changing imagination, a bass player wheeling his upright down the street to the next gig, she’s tacky industrial sculpture and some of the world’s finest art, she’s ugliness and beauty, she’s sticky, stinky and delicious, she’s The Halal Guys serving up the most amazing chicken over rice faster than people can even pronounce it. She’s as unforgiving a mistress as a Himalayan mountain if you don’t have your shit together and like any city, she kills people all the time.
But more than anything, New York is culture. And her culture springs primarily from her art, though her art affects more than just her culture because there’s more to art than culture. I’ve often said that, if asked to justify the grievous crimes of humankind to any intelligent non-human species, I’d point to the London Philharmonic playing Stravinski, Debussy or Ravel’s Bolero; I’d point to Jimi Hendrix, to Michael Brecker…but art, in New York or anywhere, is more than humankind’s saving grace: art is FUN. It just is. Its higher purpose is a sharing, among humans, of the best things humanity has to offer to humanity, to the future and to the cosmos. The collective experience, not just among artists but with the audience too, build the zeit and are all a part of the thing. As a musician and as a human, I derive much of my spiritual sustenance from “sharing the things I know and love with those of my kind”, to quote (yet again) the brilliant Walter Becker lyric from Deacon Blue. For me, the interaction between musicians is the whole point (that’s probably why I’m a composer / arranger). When that interaction is missing from my life or is at too base a level, it ain’t a healthy thing for me. And it’s no secret that many of the world’s greatest living musicians are in New York City. So I genuinely enjoyed dipping my feet and ears in that flood of rampant, robust, unfettered, unapologetic expression.
I saw some amazing talent at the convention every day, though almost all were visiting from elsewhere. The violinist and cellist accompanying an acrobatic troupe were as good as any I’ve ever heard (a string duo is very exposed and had better be damn good); there was a progressive avante gard fusion big band from Norway that absolutely ASTOUNDED me; it was reminiscent of, and almost on the level of, “Wide Angles“ by the Michael Brecker Quindectet…a man by the name of Brian Owens, out of Missouri, can SANG like nothing you’ve ever heard (he does a Marvin Gaye tribute, but he could probably make Take6 into Take7)…but the highlight of the whole thing for me was an explosively, deliriously brilliant act out of Minneapolis called “Rhythmic Circus“. All are kids between 20 and 30; five-man rhythm (keys/bass/guitar/drums/percussion), alto sax, trumpet and 4 fantastic tap dancers. The percussionist is also an AMAZING beat boxer and vocal sound FX guy. They didn’t do any covers, I don’t think. They had great music, great dance, and the auditory spectacle of “Heatbox” (megatalented beatboxer/percussionist guy) trading fours with mega-talented tapdancers…it was hilarious, it was blindingly brilliant and above all, it was FUN. Do yourself a favor and check out Rhythmic Circus, out of Minneapolis. Everyone I spoke to about them agreed that they took the cake of the entire shindig.
So anyway, yeah. New York. That happened. Here I am, lover of mountains and the calm majesty of Nature, having had a great time in the Big Cement Apple and very much looking forward to my return.