Notes on “Visitors”
For most of my songwriting life, I believed that one shouldn’t spend too much time explaining what a song “means” – I figured that if a song didn’t communicate its own story, it couldn’t be a very good song. But as I’ve tried to write more intentionally and with greater craft (note I said “tried,” not “succeeded”!), and as friends and listeners have asked, I’ve decided that a little clarification can’t hurt. So here are some notes on the songs on “Visitors.”
Albion: I’ve always loved “John Wesley Harding,” which in some ways I think is Dylan’s best album. The songs are odd – small, timeless parables and allegories, often Biblical in their imagery, with layers and layers of meaning. “Albion,” written in 2015, is an attempt to tell a story in that way – the tale of three lost souls and their would-be rescuers (who might or might not be the same), and about different kinds of earthly and heavenly power that can – and can’t – save us from ourselves. Charles, the imperious one, is kingly or political power (and hubris); Rockefeller, the secretive one who says nothing, is the silent and smug power of money; and Angel – well, you know. Charles and Rockefeller end up badly – the one buried in the muck of politics and other with blood on his hands. And Angel, aware of the futility of human institutions, simply gives up and ascends to heaven. Albion itself is a reference to William Blake’s primordial man before the Fall – the untarnished soul to which we seek to return, but never can.
(And by the way, I used to hike in the Sangre de Christos when I lived in Santa Fe, and the fall aspens really were amazing – a sky of shimmering gold leaves, with glints of white-as-snow bark below . . .)
In Her Name: This is the newest song on the album, written in March 2016. I have a friend whose name has different meanings in a surprising number of languages, from Hawaiian to Hindi to Latvian. “In Her Name” is a Leonard Cohen-esque attempt to call upon as many of those meanings as possible to imagine all the unique things a person might be – without ever revealing the person’s true name. It’s a departure for me to work within the constraints of someone else’s language, and the song was a lot of fun to write.
The Devil Every Day: The basic frame of this song dates back to a day in 1983 when I was riding my bicycle along the Chicago lakefront and passed some kids smoking pot and having a good laugh. It grew in pieces over the years (and was pretty much re-written for this album in 2015) to become a song about a broken relationship, new beginnings, and forgiveness and acceptance. And I’ve always wanted to be a rocker! (And thanks to my recording engineer Derek Bianchi for the killer electric guitar work on this track!)
Tomorrow is a Long Time: Perhaps my favorite Dylan song of all. So simple and evocative, with a directness that can’t be constructed or song-crafted but only felt – it’s been a good and essential friend for decades. And to have the great Happy Traum playing on it is beyond a dream – I grew up listening to him play with his brother Artie and with Dylan on Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, and I was privileged to meet him in 2015, when I attended Richard Thompson’s Frets & Refrains music camp, where Happy is faculty. To have Happy Traum appear on an album of my songs is something I couldn’t have imagined any more than leading a mission to Mars. To say I’m grateful doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. And his playing, as it only could be, is perfect . . .
Where You Are: Yet another old song made new. I’ve been a Springsteen fan(atic) since 1975 but never felt I could write in his style until “The River” came out in 1980. I was feeling, and wanted to capture, the sweet romantic longing and desperation that characterized his early work, but because I wasn’t working within rock, I didn’t know how to get there. “The River” opened that door and this song followed. It’s been written and rewritten probably ten times over, but its heart is in “Drive all Night” and “The Price You Pay.” (And yes, I did go see the recent “River” tour when it hit the Bay Area – and unashamedly cried through most of the concert.)
Visitors: Also a new song written in 2015. My father-in-law Dr. Jacob Igra passed away on January 2 of that year. He was, quietly and simply, a great man. “Visitors” is a small song of consolation for the family. The lyrics are in interweaved quatrains called Rubaiyat stanzas, a structure that repeats the rhyme scheme aaba with the third line of each stanza forming the dominant rhyme for the next: aaba/bbcb/ccdc, etc. The form (Persian in origin) was first used in English by Edward Fitzgerald in “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” but I learned it from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” his famous meditation on death that very much influenced this song. I am grateful to co-writer (and bassist extraordinaire) Cary Black for helping me complete the music to these words.
Let It Rise: Really old roots, this one – from Jerusalem in 1980. I had a close group of friends there, including one person who – for reasons I never quite understood – wouldn’t ever quite share all the wonderful things inside her. This song recalls her. I’ve also always loved the interweaving of songs ever since I heard “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” as a kid, and this song gives me a small chance to do that – as well as to finish with a great big Phil Spector-ish vocal build, with my friend Loryn Barbeau doing a pretty fair Ronnie at the end!
Christmas Day: There must be a thousand songs on the trope of “the guy who can’t commit and lives to regret it.” There’s a reason for that, though – it’s a theme with real emotional power around sadness, lost opportunities, late-breaking awareness, and the fact that time moves only in one direction. This is my attempt to visit that storyline in a way that (I hope) is emotionally authentic.
Normal Life: It was the early ‘80s, I was living in Berkeley, unattached (and pretty much unmoored) and wondering if I ever would have the kind of life generally considered (then, anyway) as normal. And the guy in the apartment upstairs had a thing for George Winston’s “Autumn,” which is a great record until you hear it several times a day for months on end. I never performed this song back then because I wrote it in a jazz guitar style that I can’t play (!). Thanks to Ed Johnson for being a real musician and allowing this song to come to life!
Sweet Words and History: Another song with roots in Jerusalem in 1980. I think this one pretty much tells its own story . . .
Antonia: Well, this is a song I never expected to write! I’ve always loved Richard Thompson’s songs about dangerous women (like “Valerie” – just a killer song!), so I decided to see if I could create a femme fatale of my own as an homage, and Antonia is who came out . . . Thanks to my dear friend Paul Weiss for coming up with the chord progression for the bridge (even if it was mostly a defensive measure because he got tired of my playing blues as nothing but 1-4-5 over and over again . . .). And thanks also to Ed Johnson for the great horn charts (and to the horn players for playing them so well). I can’t tell you how much fun this one was to put together!
Sweet Little Mystery: Why John Martyn never made it in the States is one of the great musical mysteries. The guy was fantastic (he died in 2009). He got his start in the British folk scene in the late 60s (his long-time bassist was Danny Thompson of Fairport Convention) as a breathtaking finger-style player, but expanded his sound into amazing places (he was the first guy to play an acoustic guitar through an Echoplex and developed a percussive playing style that influenced everyone up through Michael Hedges). He also had one of the greatest, most soulful voices you’ll ever hear and wrote absolutely perfect songs that have been covered by Clapton and lots of others. This song is from the 1980 album “Grace and Danger” that most people consider one of his two masterpieces (along with "Solid Air" from 1973). If these notes do nothing else, I hope they encourage you to check out those two albums. In my book, they're every bit as good as “Blood on the Tracks” and “For the Roses,” and better than almost everything else.
The Librarian’s Garden: This is kind of a hodge-podge of ideas, images and references. It’s ostensibly about two married couples (and maybe an ex or two) and their complex lives, but there are crazy shout-outs to “A Doll’s House,” “The Waste Land,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” “Star of the County Down,” and who knows what else. Not entirely sure what I was thinking . . . Thanks to the wonderful Libby McLaren of Flower & McLaren for the cheesy organ part – still makes me smile every time I hear it!
Three Horses: A new song (2016) and like “Albion,” an attempt to tell a story allegorically and thus to bring the album full circle. We all know that Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul in exchange for mastering the Delta blues guitar. But what if some small act of grace could have saved Robert from the Devil’s clutches? And what if that same act of grace might save each of us from those who would judge us, both in this life and the next? In the end, if there is no lovingkindness, there is only death . . .
Thanks for listening to "Visitors"!