I have to work all night tonight — kind of like college, remember? When we pulled those all-night study sessions … but this is different. This is just me over-promising work in a casual way, unable even to say “Maybe Not” when I should be saying “ARE YOU COMPLETELY INSANE???”
But that’s not why I’m writing. For about six years now it has been my intention to find the time to say a simple thanks to the musicians that have made an enormous difference to the well-being of … myself, not to mention the thousands, maybe millions of others. Talk about a lasting force of good. If I could produce just one piece of quality music that soothed even one other human soul on an ongoing basis, then I would concede that this life was by no means wasted.
Take Tom Waits. And this is a very specific episode, so it certainly didn’t have to be Tom Waits, but he sure was in the right place in the right time – at least for me. It was January of 1998. One more season in the Bering Sea. I had already put in my resignation, but agreed to go up for one more — just one more Bering Sea adventure, after nine previous years of them. However, it was quite over for me at that point. I had just weeks before lost my father, and a few weeks before that, lost my marriage (slipped out of my pocket, really … ) and I was pretty much floating along, hoping for some kind of soft landing amid the darkness of that northern sea.
The short of it is that I somehow managed to leave behind in my Seattle co-op ALL music except for two ninety-minute cassette tapes of Tom Waits. And so I sat up there in the wheelhouse, working the night shift (which is black as pitch that time of the year in the Bering) for a full month and a half, headset on, lounging on the soft sofa on the port side of the wheelhouse, listening to the lilting, ragged voice of Tom Waits, while the Norwegian FishMate ran the boat, and chatted with his colleagues on the radio. The nature of that season was that for the first month, almost no one showed up during my 12-hour shifts. No sliced scalps to sew up, virtually no persistent coughs, or various complaints. The money was good, if I remember. The processors stayed down below, and I stayed up above, listening to Mr. Waits each night through, and brewing English Breakfast tea with cream. I may have spoken six words to my Norwegian friend that season, which was not like me, but I was literally healing from the music.
And how many times since then, and long before, have I reached for a pair of headsets, almost in desperation, or as a junkie might reach for a needle — a fundamental need for solace? I have a playlist on my phone named “Endless Dead” and it practically is that. Grateful Dead that just goes on … and on. I have had this playlist for nine years now and I never, ever get tired of it.
It’s an unlikely pair, Tom and Jerry, in this context. But they are by no means representative. No, we must mention and thank deeply those people who have been woven through our consciousness from literally the beginning, when I am sure that my father must have been playing them through the house as I lay awake staring at the ceiling in 1962 or so …
There are the Tenors — Lester Young, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Ben Webster .. and even Scott Hamilton. In context — there were games of hearts with the Twins that lasted listreally for days, with Zoot Sims playing in the background, and with a running commentary/argument between Bob Purcell (mainly, with amiable agreement from Bill) and my father. The position from Bob/Bill was essentially that jazz music stopped evolving in the 1960’s. That Zoot Sims, while he forged on well enough as he aged, would be the last true jazz tenor — all others who came afterward were pale imitations. Although Zoot Sims was actually a friend of Dad’s — in fact, he interviewed him in the 1960’s, and we still have that recording in some format somewhere – wine glasses tinkling as they slid further into the drink — he argued vociferously that the notion that Jazz music was done, was downright offensive. That innovation was built into the soul of the music, and that the Twins’ minds were closed like traps, slammed shut at some point in the early 1960’s, when the jazz scene in NY started to fade.
These hearts games took place in one of two places — 38th and 4th Avenue or so, at a photo-retouching studio where Bill worked, and which he had the key to – a place for the four of us to sit at a table for a weekend — and the farmhouse in Ulster Park, where we would pick up the Twins at the Poughkeepsie train station, since they never learned to drive when they arrived in NYC from Zanesville in 1954, and in fact hardly ever left their apartment at 37th and second avenue … apartment F. But always was the incredible jazz music, flowing through and mediating those conversations about music, art, politics, and culture.
And the altos — is there anything more beautiful than the flowing sound of Paul Desmond, playing Take Ten? Although, the funny thing is, music is utterly contextual. That is to say, about eight months ago I was visiting with friends in Las Vegas, and there was an occasion where we wanted to listen to some music through some kind of clever little speaker that you simply hooked your iPhone to through bluetooth, and I was the only one who could get my phone to work. And I excitedly said “You guys have to listen to this — it may be the most incredible music ever … ” As Paul Desmond started to play, a strange flash — just a split-second, really — where I was suddenly occupying their perspective and listening to this music for the first time, and from the context of their lives … and it was just not that impressive. It lasted a second, but enough time for me to become faintly embarrassed. A strange episode. At this very minute, co-incidentally, I am listening to Take Ten, and I’m enjoying it as much as ever.
It would be an exaggeration and quite dramatic to suggest that Tom Waits “saved my life” in 1998. This is something people toss out, mainly for dramatic effect, or to hold your attention. Not me. I mean, there was absolutely no danger of me throwing myself into the icy black water forty feet below the bridge on a calm night – never even crossed the darkest reaches of my mind. But it would not be an understatement to say that I would have a very different two months had it not been for his gift of mournful, plaintive , and honest songwriting, and singing, of a kind. And so it goes, more and more, as I find myself tasked with long and painful tasks that require some sort of medicine, and music it is. The other week my wife and I, working alone for 90% of it, moved our family of six out of a ten-year nest over the course of 72 brutal hours … 71 of which was spent listening to Jerry Garcia and company, along with Ben Webster, Bob Dylan, and a whole bunch of great musicians from Cape Verde.
And so, again – thanks Fleet Foxes, Tom, Jerry, Angelique Kidjo, Paul D., Lester, Zoot, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, the Buena Vista Social Club, and, of course, Ms. Peyroux who sounds a like like Billie Holiday … just to name a small few. I hope you all know how much you help us out here on this little planet …