I cannot believe that it has already been five years since the greatest weekend of my life.
(Originally posted November 2001 in the "News" section of my old webpage, Mike Novak's Sad, Sad World)
Here we go! This weekend in Nashville, Friday 9 November to Monday 12 November, turned out to be one of the most powerful weekends of my life. The weak metaphor that I've kept using for people was that seeing my songs come alive in the hands of these musicians was like watching your children grow into adults over the space of a weekend.
We headed on down Friday morning, taking advantage of a day off from school since we'd had Parent-Teacher Conferences the night before. Those had turned out to be a blast, as usual, with a lot of good conversations with the people who really make the difference in my students' lives. P.J. and I grabbed our rental car, which we decided to upgrade to an SUV – an Envoy, to be precise – in order to accomodate our instrument cases and our desire to breathe. We headed on over to the Sacred Heart Parish Center, late after I picked up a prescription, to find Mark having given up waiting for us and in the middle of re-stringing his guitar. After another side trip to pick up some guitar pedals that Mark had left at a friend's, we finally hit the road some two hours late.
My nervousness at lost time resulted in me being pulled over some twenty miles south of the Bend for driving at 73 miles per hour. Writhing in embarrassment and tolerating the giggles of the lads, I was shown great mercy by the patrolman and let off with a warning. Resolved to drive as I ought, we rolled into Indianapolis a bit less than two hours behind, where an increasingly-pacing J.P. Hurt greeted us with relief. Having loaded him up, we hit the road south and enjoyed several hours of conversation. Kevin was having to drive separately due to his work schedule, so I kept an eye out for him in the rearview mirror, not doubting Joanna the Saab's willingness to go faster than I was.
We got into Nashville towards dinnertime and met at Mike McGlinn's place, having confirmed via cellphone that Kevin was not too far behind us. After some introductions and re-introductions and Kevin's arrival, Mike took us over to Underground Sound where we'd be recording so that we could unload our instruments. Apologizing for an unseemly amount of pornography shops along the way, Mike assured me that Nashville had more to offer. He also kept up a running monologue on a number of microphones that he'd been showing me, very little of which I actually understood, but which had the effect of assuring me that the production was in very capable hands.
After unloading, we headed over to drop off our luggage at the hotel. Mike had mentioned that his wife Beth worked at a hotel and could arrange our accomodations. Pleased to have another worry taken off my mind, I had agreed enthusiastically. When he had said "hotel," I imagined something along the lines of a Days Inn. What Mike and I rolled up to in his pickup truck left me gasping: the 5-star luxury escape of the downtown Nashville scene. It was the restored Union Station from 1900, now accomodating weary travelers instead of weary passenger trains. We climbed up the back way, hauling our bags and laughing together about how astonished we were by the place. As we went in, Mike led the way, walking backwards and photographing the band in order to capture the event. As the place was packed on a Friday night prior to a Tennessee Titans' game, this became something of an event itself. Mike is a former Notre Dame offensive lineman, closer to seven feet tall than six, and we did not possess the look of the other guests of the hotel. Whether it was the longer hair of some of us or the facial hair that set us apart, we silently screamed "Band!" Shoulders were tapped, fingers were discretely pointed, questions were asked behind hands pressed to ears, as everyones' faces passed between the peculiar American awe of the celebrity and the questioning look of trying to figure out just which celebrities we were. We laughed at the absurdity of it all, and continued to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. Mike made quick introductions of us to his wife, who was quite busy, and we tried to adequately convey our gratitude. Later, as we left, I was laughing quietly and told Mike that I felt like he and Beth had set me up on the Rock Star Weekend Fantasy Getaway Tour. And we hadn't even gotten started yet.
After heading back over to the studio, we began to do some set up and some practice for tomorrow. Mike was hard at work trying to piece together the equipment that he wanted to use and we tried to stay out of his way. It was amazing to see the quality of what he had to work with: his descriptions to me became a tangled mess of the latest digitial recorders and Beatles-vintage tube pre-amps and instrument microphones used in L.A. in the 80's and who knows what else. We did take the time to enjoy a small feast together, though, and prayed for a miracle of music and friendship while operating under the constraints of a deadline.
After a slap-happy, giddy return to our rooms that night, we woke for an early Saturday morning mass at the local cathedral where Mike was a regular fixture. It seemed to me the exact place to dedicate the proceedings. Earlier I'd been trying to think of what to call this group of musicians, and the only name that leapt out at me was The Renaissance Men, which is exactly what this crowd was: possessed of an astonishing variety of talents, all held to a high degree, and brought together in the unity of music. The Cathedral of the Incarnation has an astonishingly Italian look to it, giving the band, I thought, just the right kind of setting, liturgically and visually. I took advantage of this by grabbing a few photographs as we left after Mass. Mike had stayed up well into the night continuing to set up and, to our surprise, had appeared that morning having shaven off his beard with what seemed an almost monastic or classical Jewish symbolism: he was dedicating himself for some great deed. My favorite picture is this one, which I took of the lads with the striking columned bell tower of the Cathedral rising in the background.
The Renaissance Men are: J.P. Hurt, P.J. McCurry, Michael McGlinn, Mark Lang, and Kevin Fleming
So, we headed over to Underground Sound to begin the recording. We immediately hit our first snag: there was a buzz coming from somewhere that we couldn't track down. One little glitch lead to another and time began to pass....
My plan was to begin things with success. You can't hang out with the pshrink like Kev and not start to think in terms of manipulating people. [ahem!] I mean, um..., behavior modification. Yes. Seriously, it struck me that like any good gig, you want to start with a bang. In order to build confidence among the group, it seemed to me that a success right off the bat would be just the thing to give us the confidence needed for the quick creativity that this project would demand. Our rehearsal the night before showed me that there was only a passing familiarity with the music that I'd sent everyone on my demo tape. In fact, Mike's comment that it was one of the funniest things that he'd ever heard was downright alarming, although he apparently meant my and Mark's conversation throughout the tape. I decided to kick things off, therefore, by recording On My Way. This tune was about – and written on – my and Kevin's road trip in the summer of 2000. Kevin had been contributing a far better guitar line than I could for some time, and between that and the fact that he was on the trip, had come to feel a real sense of "ownership" of the piece. We had decided to record it, therefore, with Kevin playing guitar as well as doing percussion and singing some background vocals that we had been playing with. Mark was tapped for the guitar solo and J.P. and P.J. were given comparatively light duty in adding a bit of extra percussion. While we waited for Mike to pull off his technological wizardry, we were able to give On My Way a bit more extra rehearsal time than other songs were going to receive. We went for, and achieved, a folky road-song kind of feel: trying to create that quintessential American phenomenon: the driving song – the thing you listen to on a long, lonely highway which can let your spirit soar even as your body remains still and concentrated behind the wheel.
Meanwhile, Mike continued to work, plagued by what seemed to be an endless little stream of problems. It was frustrating, not knowing enough to be able to help him. I continued to do that awkward dance of checking in with him to see what we could do, while trying not be a complete pain in the rear in my nearly-complete uselessness. I was afraid that he'd begin to grow frustrated, especially as the waiting got to a point where rehearsal had gone as far as it could for the moment and began to just turn into play. The guys began a jam session in the back room where the microphones were and I was hoping Mike wasn't feeling neglected, especially since I know he loves to jam with the best of them. But then – Success! It was almost noon, but every little bug seemed to have been worked out and we were ready to record.
Kevin and I went first, laying down the rhythm guitar part while singing our respective vocals. Mark then followed with the lead guitar part, which was a bit nerve-wracking for him as he was playing on Mike's nylon-stringed classical guitar. Mark usually just plays steel strings, but the solo came out as a flawless piece of interpretation. Kevin then added his percussion track, using a djembe that we'd acquired on location, and finally J.P. and P.J. added in shaker and tambourine. P.J. confessed later that it was a nice way to ease into his first recording session. After reviewing the tracks and being pleased with ourselves, Mike decided to add in some sticks for just a little more percussion flavour. The final result was gorgeous.
The summer that my grandpa died
I journeyed way out west
A time to think. A time to mourn.
For seeing what was best.
To see that my horizons
had yet to be discerned
To come to be comfortable
that I'd so much yet to learn.
The land was broken. The land was fenced.
Was it open or was it tamed?
The long Wyoming highways
are really a narrow range.
But the sky was vast and conquering
of every borderline:
life and death, time and space
and maybe yours and mine.
The old man at his rest now
This young man on his way
No set destination
I'm just here today....
Grandpa was a character
a stubborn, solid soul.
Up was down, blue was red
that's the way our talks would go.
The man could try the patience
of a stone, that much is true
But he built a family, he built a home,
hell, he even built a school.
The mountains stand together
yet each peak is alone
I rode on with my brother
and our thoughts were not our own:
past and present scenes
Hopes fears jokes regrets
All that our lives might mean
The old man at his rest now
This young man on his way
No set destination
I'm just here today.
I'm just here today.
I sought my own emptiness
'cause a friend said that's what I fear
And the rhythms of the world
they brought that silence near
And here on bus near journey's end
I grope for words to cast
my feelings into sculpted thoughts
to make some wisdom last
Oh grant that leaves may comfort me
as I blow on my way
Oh clear from me this summer's haze
let me see the depth of day
And bring at last that pleasure's smile
that simple, subtle grace
of seeing in each moment
my God face to face
The old man at his rest now
This young man on his way
No set destination
I'm just here today.
I'm just here today.
Everything that I'd hoped for had happened. We had one track under our belts, it was high quality and had given us high energy. Looking to continue the wave of energy, I consulted my master plan sheet, which was on the back of an envelope, and decided to follow with St. Peter's Sunrise, a rockabilly three-chord rush of drunken giddiness about my first time in Rome, careening around the Vatican. I figured your average, three-chord rock song would be so simple that success would continue to flow.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
As it turned out, it was as easy as I'd hoped to teach the song, but once we were actually preparing to record, someone raised the very pertinent question: "How are we starting this?"
Good question. I was listening to P.J. playing a run that he'd written for the keyboard when suddenly I was struck with a bit of inspiration. What if we start out with the just the organ, I asked, playing the basic chords, but slowly, so that it has a church-organ sound – just to set the St. Peter's mood? Suddenly, the Renaissance Men burst with the creativity that I'd come to expect. "Yeah, and then what if...?" The questions flowed, the ideas swapped, and suddenly we had a plan. The only thing was, I no longer really understood the plan. In 15 or 20 minutes, the song had metamorphed from a rockabilly jamboree to a sort of world beat groove. The song was recorded with this new sound and I began to be frustrated as I was asked questions while we listened to it afterwards. In retrospect, I could see that in trying to trust the instincts of the guys, I had virtually abidicated any leadership roll: I wasn't adequately transmitting the "vision" of the song that I had, and when we later received the rough mix, I was disappointed by what seemed its lackluster quality. It was full of ideas, but lacked direction. Some careful editing or re-recording would be needed to save it.
It was dinnertime. Time for a break. We'd skipped lunch in order to make up for lost time and now it was time to re-energize. Mike, having been joined during the day by Jerry Luby, a friend from the Cathedral who was a studio musician, lead us over to an English pub where we could load up on staples like meat pies, beer and good conversation.
After dinner, we returned to the studio and took up the work again. Maybe the time off was exactly what we needed. It may have been the food, but I prefer to think it was the friendship, yet whichever it was, we had been restored. I decided to try a song that was really happy in order to rescue us from the mixed emotions of our previous effort. What followed was something of a shock. In the space of the next 20 minutes, we learned, arranged, practiced and recorded in one take what we were sure was a hit: My Mom. A somewhat child-like sounding anthem to moms in general and mine in particular, it had a simple, upbeat rock-n-roll feeling, with some of my Beatles' influence showing through, and was punctuated with a scat line that reinforced its child-nature. P.J. had abandoned the keyboard for the guitar, having come up with a little riff that added a perfect, playful energy. We began recording the first take, with a bit of my usual tension in my mind, listening as I sang, wondering how it would turn out. As we got to the bridge (Mark's favorite part, as he'll always tell you)
It's not to sayI looked up as I was finishing this and suddenly realized that everything so far had been perfect. I met Kevin's eyes through the plastic shield of the sound wall we'd built around the drums and saw that he knew it, too. He began to beat on the ride with a look of joy on his face and I relaxed into repeating the first verse, scatting with a bit more looseness and abandon...
that she's perfect
It's not to say
that life's aways been kind
but to say that of all our moms
Quietly, patientlyAs Kevin's final fantastic drum fills faded off and Mike said "clear" into our headphones, we burst into excited chatter and shouts of laughter. We pulled off our headphones and rushed out of the back room to gather around Mike at the soundboard. As the music began to play, whoops, shouts, laughter and excited talking were joined by dancing around the room. Progress came to a decided halt as My Mom was played three times to the insistent band members. I was told more than once, "I didn't know why you wanted to record this song – I didn't think it would work at all...." It was the kind of confession and penance designed to please a songwriter. Confident predictions of "radio hit" and a "surefire hold on the Mother's Day music market" were made and it took some time before we could pull ourselves away from listening in fascination to what we had just done. Somewhere in the madness Mike had picked up his guitar and strolled into the backroom, nailing the guitar solo in his first take, and thereby adding to the "live" magic of the whole affair. It seemed a matter of destiny more than creativity.
knotting my laces when I was three
teaching me the tricks of life:
how to ride a bike
how to choose a wife
la da dee, da dee da da...
I decided to follow this by jumping into the most similar-sounding song, and so we began to work on Begin To Be. Although this didn't come together in the same 20 minute miracle, it was nevertheless imbued with the same magic. Again, of the Beatles' school of bright rock, Begin To Be was an unusually-upbeat break-up, or at least "good-bye" song that I'd written for Jen Sushinsky as she was leaving to begin her three years' work in the Dominican Republic, which I rightly figured foreshadowed breaking up in a more formal way. Livened by Mark joining in on harmonies, P.J. turning to the piano, and a rhythm section dominated by J.P. dancing all over his new custom-made bass and Kevin's energetic double-time on the choruses, Begin To Be strikes me as pure pop sweetness. I somehow managed not to squeak in surprise when Kevin, in a moment of bizarre inspiration, somehow – without breaking his rhythm – twisted in such a way that he ran his elbow through the chimes suspended above his drums, without breaking his rhythm in any way. I know I already said that and that it looks like a sloppily-constructed sentence, but it had to be said twice. It was unreal. What it came down to was this: Begin To Be was just fun, fun, fun. It was in high spirits, therefore, that we called it a night.
We headed back to the hotel and tried to settle in, but the spirits were high and we were full of too-loud laughter and the kind of slap-happy humour that you get when you put five guys in a small room. Bizarre, unexpected comments and jokes were made, people roared, giggled, and the number "138" will never have the same meaning to me ever again.
And this doesn't even cover Sunday...
So the adventure continued. Sunday dawned and once again we were enjoying the beautiful breakfast layout at Union Station, and answering the excited questions of a young woman named Nicole who had waited on us the day before and was very curious as to how the project was going.
The "project" was now facing a challenge. I had come down to Nashville with 12 songs in mind. Mike had been gently trying to tell me for weeks that I was insane without saying that I was insane; that this was just too much to do in two days of recording. Having decided that The Jamming Song – also known as Meta-Music – was just extra fun and that Adam and Eve was still too lodged in a major re-write stage, I had whittled down the list to ten songs that I really wanted to get in the can. This meant that we needed to do six songs today. As we'd done four the day before, despite having lost the entire morning, I thought it was possible, but I kept my intentions more or less to myself. In the meantime, Mike had put in ridiculous hours through the night to fix the problems he'd had with the board, stripping it down and relieving us of all the continued tech problems that we'd been having. The very picture of dedication.
Complicating matters was the fact that Kevin had to clear out by noon in order to get back on the road and up to Chicago for business. With this in mind, I prioritized and decided to try to get two songs in for which I definitely wanted the full drum set. We kicked off with Requiem, a piece I'd written for the death of my uncle Joe, based off some conversations we'd had about what the experience of death might be like. For this arrangement, I had come up with the idea of putting J.P. up front. In fact, I wanted the bass to be the only instrument that was heard at first, for the twofold result of having what I thought would be a cool sound and for robbing J.P. of his usual complaint that he's too far down in the mix. We rehearsed it for a while and I sprung the last surprise on J.P.: I wanted him to play his six-string bass in such a way as to mimic the high/low pattern and range that I achieved on my twelve-string guitar. J.P. followed me with only the startling comment that, "This is hard." Not that that could stop him, of course.
We began recording. As far as its chord structure goes, Requiem is a simple piece, but we were giving it a more layered, careful arrangement. Following J.P.'s bass, Kevin slowly built up the percussion off of the high hat. P.J. entered in with minimal organ and Mark followed with the guitar. I began to sing, although that was more-or-less just a temporary measure. As the lyrics gave way, we moved into the second "movement" of the song, which was entirely an instrumental: a guitar solo that Mark and I had been planning for this tune for years. A long build-up would lead into a bridge section and then return to the original motif. This was intended to take the listener beyond the imagery of "stepping into the dark" that the lyrics painted of death and try to paint a sonic vision of what that experience might be like. It is implicitly a Christian vision in that it builds anxiously and then soars into joy during the bridge section--the moment of death--and then returns to the original theme, but soaring up in the high octaves, taking what was familiar and seeing it again transformed into ecstasy. And then the guys surprised me by taking a long "outro" to let the themes trail off into a wistful silence. At least that's how it comes out with careful editing. I was treated to quite a bit of laughter when we listened to the take as my vocal "conducting" was left in the original mix. During the buildup my instructions sounded rather like a man coaching his wife during delivery, and comments like "feel the power and transcendence," I was told, caused more confusion – or at least amusement – than clarity.
Mike really shone here, taking care to direct P.J. into adding a number of layers to his part: organ, piano, and something I think he called "padding" which would end up giving the song so much depth with such minimal sound. Mark and I went back to take care of the vocals, Mark taking the first part of the lead and doubling himself on the chorus while I sang the "response" of the later verses.
It was then left to Mark to plug in the electric guitar for the first time in the sessions to lay down the central solo. I wasn't quite satisfied with the first few attempts no matter how good they sounded and how free of mistakes they were. The third take, however, was the charm: as he leapt into the bridge, the guitar turned triumphant in a way that it hadn't before, and as I watched through the window in the door between the rooms, I was screaming and whooping as Mark soared through the solo. As soon as he was clear, I ran into the back room to proclaim my joy even before he could disentangle himself from his cords.
The second song to record before Kevin had to leave was a number called Springtime of Tomorrow. This has the distinction of being the only lovesong I've ever written for a girl while in a monastery. I thought perhaps it might be unique, but during the Chrysogonus Fest in 1997 when I was introducing the piece, Chrysogonus assured us that the monastery, "is a great place for love songs: that's what it's all about!" So apparently this song is part of a particularly obscure Christian monastic tradition, perhaps obscure lest it be misunderstood. This was an "oldie" of mine, but one rather rarely played, perhaps owing to the more complex arrangement of it that J.P. had worked out back in '96 with me. It featured my one funky bit of theory: a key change from the relative minor to the relative major, allowing me to more-or-less stay on the same vocal line while the band "brightened" around me. It also is distinctive for being an extremely happy song despite being in D-minor; a fact of almost mystical fascination for J.P. for reasons far beyond my comprehension.
Regretably, this would be the second song to run into complications, although I wasn't aware of it at the time. Only when I heard the rough mix did I decide that we'd recorded it too slowly on the take that we kept. Not that it's a loss: there are a number of options open to us in bringing the song up to my satisfaction.
The tempo wasn't the only thing: Mark and I had come up with an introduction for the song that we liked, where we would enter into the tune with a contemplative, wistful slowness, perhaps akin to the beginning that we'd worked out long ago for his own The Search for Sophia. In retrospect, I'm not sure that it worked. As the song eventually needs to get up to a dancing rhythm, it might have been too plodding for what I wanted to get to. The lyrics invoke the image of dance right from the start, and a "slow dance" is not really what the song is about....
Dance with me
Laugh with me
Let these days
flow past with me
worry about itself
That runs away
and hides from me
Let's find it
and make it all our own.
We got through it without noticing the problems at the time. I don't know how. In order to try to fill the space created by the slower tempo, I sang "wide." In other words, I over-sang and the result was enough to make me cringe. Ask me to play it for you sometime if you want a good shudder. And a good laugh.
What did turn out to be fabulous for this song was the ending. [This was eventually edited separately and appeared on the CD as the track Tomorrow.] The last song on Midnight Oil's gem of an album Blue Sky Mining has a blissful meandering piano exit. This popped into my head as we were discussing the finish of Springtime and I had P.J. do something similar. But this wasn't meandering; it was beautiful. In fact, it's my favorite part of the entire recording. Mark came in to play with him on an acoustic guitar and the soulful duo ended up creating variations on the theme that added levels of longing that I only dreamed of with the introduction Mark and I had originally worked out. Our idea for the transition from the last part of the main body of the song was to have Kevin do a roll on a cymbal. The problem was that Mike only had one mallet. What followed was perhaps the silliest part of the entire venture. We tried to make one out of a drumstick, a sock and some duct tape. We then must have spent twenty minutes trying to get the right roll sound. Nothing doing.
[In what became the drawn-out process of finishing the CD while I was in the middle of doctoral studies at Marquette, I began to re-conceive Springtime of Tomorrow as an electronica piece, which played to my options because getting the band back together in Nashville at the required time wasn't going to be possible. As an electronic piece, P.J. and I were able to re-arrange and execute Springtime by ourselves, this time at County Q Studios, with Michael McGlinn having set us up with his friend – the much in-demand Mike Purcell – engineering for us (just after finishing work on Jewel's new pop album). Telling us numerous stories from the engineer's perspective (particularly as he's a "secret" in the industry, called in to digitally correct artistic flaws) he just shook his head about how poor much of what is marketed musicaly was, paying us a great off-handed compliment in saying, "You guys are the real deal." So, with his help, we squeezed re-recording Springtime into a schedule already thick with mixing and mastering the set, which had, by its completion in 2004, gained the title Life and Other Impossibilities.]
Noon came along and time was up. Kevin left and we moved on to the remainder of the list. There were four songs that I still hoped to do and once again the lads graciously agreed to work through lunch. What to do next? For Simple Things, I had an idea that involved a fiddle, so Mike put in call to his friend Jerry who'd watched us the previous night. We began to work on What They Have. Generally this is picked as my best lyric, along with Tunisian Blue. It's a tune that is based off of a letter that a student wrote to me as she was spending the summer in France, and carrying on a romance with another student, with both of whom I had become friends. The love was very intense, and showed certain maturities that I found unusual for a 17 and 18 year-old. Her letter and later descriptions of that summer, of exchanging letters and seeing one another for a day in Paris moved me very much. But it was obvious that what they had was too much for their ages. I taught the piece to the lads and P.J. hit upon a very stark organ sound which was perfect: as though we had just stepped into a small, empty church lost in the countryside of the south of France and began to play and pray the organ. We started the tape going and as the song began to weave around us, Mike graced it with slight, perfect lines of flamenco guitar, giving it the Mediterranean flavor that was needed along with the tasteful power that comes through restraint: he only played what was essential, everything else was rejected. Once again, I was blessed to have the song turn out as hoped. A final outro produced a solo by P.J. that was inspired directly from God and nothing more needs to be said about that.
Once Jerry had arrived, we began to work on Simple Things. This was the first full song that I ever wrote, back in the summer of '88. It's about walking down a gravel road. That's it. Nothing more. It is pure rockabilly joy, sacramental bliss. Jerry was out of practice on his fiddle and I was trying to simply dictate an entire entrance/solo to him; this did not work. But he jumped in to fill in for Kev on the drums and did some cool brushwork while Mark and I jammed and J.P. played the happiest stepwise bass that Dies Irae – my name for his new guitar – had ever heard.
But I take delight in the simple things I see
and the noises that surround
I find comfort in the blowing breeze
and the motion all around
After burning through that, we started working on Tunisian Blue, another song that I'd written for Jen. This one was one that had taken an enormous amount of time for me. The chords had come and then several months later, the melody became apparent to me. Months after that, on a plane over the North Atlantic, all the sights that I'd seen with Erik G and Hugh Carter – sights that kept making me think "I wish Jen could see this" – burst out onto the back of an ATM slip from Rome and became a travelogue/love song. On a giddy romantic flush from that, as Erik looked over my shoulder and I occasionally softly sang lines to him to see if he thought they worked, I was hit on by a flight attendant: apparently the song made me radiate romance. But, of course, I was already involved and, honestly, he wasn't my type. Mike took his time with this, guiding us into laying down a rich percussion layer. J.P. gave us a steady conga groove and Jerry added a bit of texture with a shaker and another thingie whose name I disremember.
Time was now running out. Mike wanted to be done by six so that we could hit Mass, have dinner, and be done. It was a good plan. Instead of burning us a disc for the ride home (a decision that would give us much pain later), I opted for using the last hour to record the tenth and final tune.
Allison By Moonlight has one of the odder origins of my tunes. I was strumming a fellow teacher's guitar one day in-between classes back in '99. As my sophomores came in for Church History, I continued to play. I did this a lot and they were used to it and made no notice, even as I continued to play after the bell rang and they chattered while I quietly took attendence up at my podium. As I finished up, I suddenly found myself playing a chord I'd never played before: an Eadd9, to be precise. I began to move around and found a progression that I loved. Squatting down next to the podium so that I could hear exactly what I was doing while the kids still took advantage of the delay to talk, I had an image in my head of a girl lost in thought, walking through moonlit trees.
When I straightened, I had the simple progression memorized and looking out at my class, I noticed a girl named Allison who was sitting there. A week or two earlier, she'd heard me play What They Have and had teasingly insisted, "Write a song with me in it! Write a song with me in it!" I saw her now and, with this image in my head, knew that the song was going to be called Allison By Moonlight.
Later when I began to work on it with Mark, I decided to keep the tune centered around the music, with only the most minimal lyric involved. We were listening to the great Wes Montgomery at the time, and the demo that we made was heavily influenced by his jazz guitar.
I then forgot about the song.
Only as I was preparing to record in Nashville did I trip across the tape that had both Allison and another instrumental that I'd done with Mark called only Ionian G, based off of its mode and key. This was subsequently incorporated into Metamusic.
We started brainstorming what to do on this one. Mark had carefully worked out the guitar tones that we wanted for this, still having a strong base in the Montgomery while also full of Lang. The real trick then became finding an organ sound to match the bellsy sound of the guitar. We went through an endless variety of soft organ sounds; we plugged in other keyboards; we switched, we compared, we experimented. Finally, J.P. gave me a "good enough" nod and lo! it was good enough.
We started playing and we ended with magic. I set out the rhythm on the twelve-string, J.P. having declined playing that on a separate track by saying that I could play the finger-numbing piece as well as he could. I nearly needed to have my heart started again. Could he have really said that? Wonders! I set out the pace, concentrating furiously on not putzing up and muffing the notes. In fact, I concentrated so hard that I forgot to count. Suddenly I wondered, "Have I done the progression eight times? Four? Six?" I looked over at J.P. wildly and saw him staring at me expectantly, his eyebrows raised as far as they would go. I shrugged and nodded into the change. He followed and then mercifully took over, telegraphing the changes to us all from then on, which is what I should have told him to do in the first place. And some magic happened. Warts and all, that first take turned into a blissful, slow lullaby of a jam that took all we'd done over the weekend and gave thanks for it. Mike sensed what was happening and quietly came in to take these last shots. Then he picked up a shaker and faded in. After ten minutes and seven seconds of soaring, I quietly sang:
Allison by moonlight
Allison by moonlight
she's walking ...
and all was complete. This was the band's song: my contribution was giving some form or some direction, but the bulk of the music of the piece was found in the conversation of their solos. And what a talk! We congratulated ourselves and began to clean up. This naturally took some time, but it was necessary, I think, for me to calm down from the wild ride of emotion that recording this had been. We shut down the lights and headed out for Mass.
This was just the right way to end things. We stood in the back of the Cathedral and gave thanks. J.P. met some fellow ACE-ers and proved that Notre Dame is really everyone's mother after all. We then headed back out to Mike's place, pausing only to allow him to deliever communion to a shut-in that he served. We gave ecstatic calls of victory to Kevin and to my Mom (in celebration of My Mom) and then retired to the McGlinn estate for pasta and a big jug of wine. Mike's wife, Beth, couldn't join us due to a catastophic headache, which was a disappointment, as she had managed a great deal of the enterprise from behind the scenes and deserved to be part of the celebration. We talked, I think we sang – I know I made Mike sing at least one tune from his forthcoming Virtues project – and then somewhere along the line, I apparently fell asleep. Like I said, there was a jug of wine. Somewhere farther along the line, Mike sat me down for a quick, but sobering, talk on my the deeper implications of what we had made over the weekend. "This isn't something you put on a tape and hand out to people and say 'this is my demo.' You have responsibilities to this music." This has given me plenty to think about, and seeing the reactions of people to the rough mix – particularly people who didn't know who or what it was – has convinced me to see just how far I can take these songs.
In time we headed back to the hotel. There the walking had woken me enough to join Mark and P.J. for some quiet talk in the lobby. It was a fine and proper ending to the experience: music segueing into the quiet talk of friends.
There was even room for experimental pictures of Mark, and you can't ask for more fun than that in this day and age.
The next day we woke to a fine breakfast, our last, and an almost completely deserted hotel. Once again Nicole was waiting on us and we filled her in on the adventures of the previous day. Suddenly we realized that J.P. was no longer sitting with us. We looked around and saw him sitting at the grand piano near the dining area. He opened the keyboard, seemed to study it for a moment, absorbing it, and then launched into a Gershwin prelude that perfectly fit the 1900s grandeur of the room. We sat and purposefully lost ourselves as the music filled the space. In fact, we stayed forty-some minutes past the time that we had to leave in order to keep our schedule. Gershwin gave way to the unfathomably glorious lines of A Íosa, Mhic Mhuire, an Irish prayer that we knew from Folk Choir days, to a composition by a contemporary Windham Hills artist to the rocking third movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. This was spoiled for a bit by some silly ass on the staff turning on the muzak system but we took care of that quickly. Otherwise the staff seemed to really appreciate his talent or else pretended that no such thing was happening.
When all was done, we checked out, saying good-bye to Beth and to Nicole. I ended up saying good-bye to Beth a few more times, as it happened that we completely screwed up our parking arrangements and now couldn't be let out without paying some forty dollars in cash that none of us had. I ran back into to talk to Beth a few more times before I finally understood the man outside (and made Beth understand inside) what it was that was needed for us to drive out. By the third time I dragged Beth out of her office, I had begun to feel rather an ass myself. But that was the worst of it.
We pulled out from Union Station, hit the road and spent the entire time back reliving, disecting and resurrecting the entire experience. Despite our late start, we managed to get J.P. back on schedule so that he could give his piano lesson on time and all was extremely well with the universe. The generosity of the McGlinns and of all my friends had made something happen that I'd never expected to happen on this level: a work of art had begun to be formed that truly reflected my hopes for it. It was a real work, not a sketch or a half-baked idea, but something much fuller. And it continues to give to me, which is all I could hope for in any art and in any gift of friendship.