“CAN I CHANGE MY MIND” by HAIKU

HAIKU (Me, Tom Majesky, Kris Adams 1978)
(Left to right, kneeling: Me, Tom Majesky. Standing: Kris Adams)
HAIKU 1981 Photo 2 copy
(Left to right: Mark Powell, Tyrone Lampkin, Me, Tom Majesky)

It’s a simple question. Can I change my mind? Tyrone Davis asked it so plaintively in 1968. I heard that song on the radio in cars and I wanted more. I loved that little sliding rhythm guitar part. I loved the simple sweet soul music chords. I loved the whole note horn parts. I loved the half-growled, half-groaned singing of Tyrone Davis. It was the perfect combination.

A few years later I would go down to the record store in Hartford, Connecticut, walking down Park Street through Frog Hollow, to Joe Cyr’s Belmont Record Shop at the corner of Park and Washington Streets. I would get many 45’s there. They always had what I was looking for. And if they didn’t they would order it for me.

In the late 70’s into the early 80’s I formed the band Haiku with my friend and housemate Tom Majesky. His girlfriend at the time Kris Adams made a trio. It was me on piano and vocals, Tom on guitar and vocals, Kris on vocals.  I populated our repertoire with my favorite soul songs and arranged them. In 1981 we added Tyrone Lampkin (of Parliament/Funkadelic/Brides of Funkenstein fame) on drums and Mark Powell on bass.

In 1981 we went into my friend Ron Scalise’s studio The 19 in South Glastonbury and recorded a bunch of songs. Here is “Can I Change My Mind”, with Tyrone Lampkin on drums and Mark Powell on bass.

TO LISTEN CLICK HERE:

SHE RAN UP TO THE BALCONY AT THE BLUE NOTE IN POZNAŃ

GRAYSON HUGH Blue Note Jazz Club 9:18:12
(The photo that Polly took that night during my introductory solo song at The Blue Note.)

It was Tuesday, September 18, 2012. Polly and I were performing the last concert on our Acoustic Tour 2012 – six venues, six cities – in Poland.

ACOUSTIC TOUR 2012 POSTER copy

One of the songs I performed was “Look Homeward Blues”. It was the one song I performed without Polly. It was a five to six minute piece that was simple in its classic blues structure, but less conventional in its improvised sections between the verses. The idea was to build this song up from a quiet, steady, almost folk guitar-picking style to a roaring climax that pulled out all stops, referencing high energy gospel playing, African and Latin rhythms, Stravinsky-like orchestral figures, free jazz and classic soul.

So as I was “Travis picking” away on the piano keys, and singing about leaving and looking back to your childhood home, she exited the stage and ran up the stairs to the balcony and snapped, among others, the photo you see at the top of this page.

THE BRODMANN GRAND AT THE BLUE NOTE I PLAYED copy 2
(The Brodmann Grand at The Blue Note in Poznań.)

It was a good night. The concert grand there (a Brodmann) was a truly amazing instrument. Playing it felt like butter, but with tremendous body.

During this whirlwind tour, we barely had time to catch our breath. In the first half of the tour, we had the luxury of being driven by our host/promoter’s cousin, who was in fact a professional driver. When Spielberg was making “Schindler’s List” it was Stasio (or Stan, as he preferred) that drove him around. Stan was a wealth of information and I learned alot about Polish history from him as we drove through the countryside. He was fond of saying” the history of Poland is sad and complicated”.

We thought we were prepared, traveling as light as we could (thanks to my über organizer wife) but of course it was inevitable that we forgot a thing or two. One of those things was a stand for our video camera. We finally tracked one down at a galleria (mall) in Kraków. But the stage at The Blue Note is quite small. The only place I could place the camera to get a halfway decent shot was directly behind me. So I was able to get a couple videos, primitive as they are with only one camera.

To watch the video of us performing my song “Somethin’ Curious Goin’ On” from that show, click HERE.

BLUE NOTE MARQUIS copy
(The front door at the Blue Note in Poznań, with my poster.)

POZNAN CASTLE copy
(The Blue Note is located in the ground floor of Poznań Castle, pictured here.)

We had the whole second floor
(They put us up in this building directly across the courtyard from the Castle.)

OUR BIG HOTEL ROOM IN POZAN CASTLE (we had a whole floor)
(Our accommodations. The door to the kitchen and bathroom are visible through the door.)

It was a very relaxing stay at Poznań Castle. And to give us an entire floor all to ourselves was certainly generous, but, admittedly, a bit spooky. Perhaps I never should have taken my dad up on his suggestion that we kids should join him in watching “The Canterville Ghost”, starring Charles Laughton, but I confess to listening just a bit to carefully for the sound of chains rattling across the stone floor, when I got up to use the loo during the night.

Stare Miasto (Old Town) Poznań, Poland copy
(Stare Miasto, or Old Town, Poznań.)

The day following our concert our host and promoter Jaroslaw took us out for a tour around Poznań, where he went to college. Poland has endured many tragedies, and its largest city of Poznań has seen its share. The tears of the persecuted and executed have seeped into the stones over the centuries.

But on that day we walked through the old cobblestone streets with our friend, this center of faith, music, education and humanity was shining with tears not of pain and suffering, but of love and mercy and hope.

THE PATH OF THE ARTIST

 HORSE BARN HILL copy(Here I am, on my path.)

“Look at every path closely and deliberately, then ask ourselves this crucial question: Does this path have a heart? If it does, then the path is good. If it doesn’t then it is of no use to us.” – Carlos Castaneda

•                                        •                                        •

Budding Writer copy

(Me, age four, engaged in one of my favorite activities: drawing.)


“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

As far back as I can remember, which goes back as far as my before my first birthday, I loved the spell that stories, illustrations, symphonies and songs, paintings and movies put me in. Not to mention the way the air felt in different seasons, and the way sunlight looked at different times of the day.  I was fascinated by trees, animals, which included dinosaurs and gorillas. And girls. There was not ever a time in my life when I wasn’t under the spell of girls. I just assumed everyone had deep feelings as I did.

While I loved being read to at night, I made up my own stories and drawing the pictures to accompany them. I would read these “books” to my parents, and they patiently listened. Soon I was reading the stories for myself. I also loved movies. They brought me to exotic worlds where all my senses were activated and inspired. To this day, when the humidity of August begins to fade, and the long shadows in the late afternoon begin to be filled with fallen leaves, I instinctively have the urge to rewatch the Beatles’ movie “A Hard Day’s Night”, because I first saw it in August while vacationing with my family on Lake Winnipesaukee. When the days begin to shorten in October and you can feel the cool Canadian air in your bones, I have the desire to reread the book I first read in fourth grade, “The Village Band Mystery” by Lee Kingman, about the adventures of some Finnish-American families in Cape Ann, Massachusetts. When March gives way to April, the rebirth of green makes me want to reread “The Wind In The Willows”, that opens with Mole doing his Spring cleaning. Christmastime finds me reliving once again the short blustery days of that Welsh village where Dylan Thomas made affectionate fun of his aunts and uncles. There are so many season and nature-inspired memories of works of art for me, the reverse is also true. In my songwriting, no matter what the subject is, I like to write about the details: the light, the feeling of the air, the shadows across faces, the roofs and porches and windows of houses, the personalities of cities, bridges, streets.

As I say in my song “Angels On My Side”:

“So many pictures my heart has taken
so many faces, so many gone
this house is full of sacred places
that will not fade my whole life long”.

To hear “Angels On My Side” click HERE.

Whiting Lane, West Hartford, CT Grade 4 1959 - 1960
(My Fourth Grade Class Photo. I am third from the right, second row.)

 

During the early grades of elementary school, when our class put on plays, I was often cast by the teacher in the lead parts. I don’t remember particularly striving for or even wanting this preferential treatment but I admit that I liked being at the center of attention. I was, I definitely enjoyed making people laugh, and not just kids my own age, but grownups too. It was a kind of power I had, and it made me feel good to hear my performances inspiring laughter as well as applause. I recall an occasion when several classmates objecting to this kind of favoritism, asking the teacher why “Grayson always got to be the star.” I can’t say I blame them. I was, admittedly, as my Aunt Mary used to say, with her long Southern drawl “one double-boiled ham”.

Another thing I remember my classmates saying was “Grayson has such a WILD imagination”. That used to irritate and perplex me. I would wonder why they were saying that. Doesn’t everyone have an imagination? I considered myself to a normal kid. I liked baseball, played battle games with toy guns, rode my bike all around town with my friends. I guess my drawings, which were usually of monsters, and perhaps the fact that I liked to stand before the class and vividly describe dreams I had for “show and tell” made them say that. No other kids in my class seemed to want to do these things. I remember concluding, and I still feel this is true, that most people just don’t use their imagination much, preferring to live life very practically.

Our school had, in the second and third grades, bookshelves beneath the big windows full of books with solid orange covers. These orange books were biographies of notable Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Washington, Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea. I devoured them all. Then I wanted more.

I got a children’s library card and would walk up to the West Hartford Center and take out as many books as were allowed. I went through phases: dog books, the novels of Jack London,  Edgar Allen Poe, more biographies of explorers. To this genre I added scientists, composers, artists. Having loved the Boris Karloff film, I was fascinated by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus”. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” came next. I had a good friend who shared this love of Gothic monsters with me. When we weren’t playing long army games where we raided the backyard vegetable gardens of our neighbors, our idea of a good afternoon was to sit outside and read our copies of monster books. We also loved Mad Magazine and Cracked Magazine. I also liked the cartoons of Charles Addams.

One of my uncles was a film producer, writer and director. He made what were known as “B” movies, mostly action-packed dramas. He did have some well-known actors in his film. Robert Taylor did his last role in Uncle John’s “Johnny Tiger”. Taylor plays a widowed, white schoolteacher who goes to a Seminole Indian reservation. The movies also stars Geraldine Brooks, Chad Everett and Ford Rainey. uncle John also worked with  Dina Merrill, Richard Egan and John Agar. When I was ten years old, I wrote a “screenplay” and gave it to my uncle, asking him to use it in one of his movies. My “screenplay” was just one long scene about a mysterious man, walking over a hill, coming into a town. Rambling on for about ten pages, I thought it had the makings of an epic film. I also asked him if he could introduce me to Hayley Mills, who I had a huge crush on, making much of my tenth year full of heartache. He said he would see what he could do about both requests.

My parents and teachers thought, for a while in my childhood, that I might become a painter or commercial artist. For as far back as I can remember, I was drawing. It gave me joy. And I remember that joy in vivid detail. I used to fill the big notebooks of cheap blank paper that my parents bought me with my drawings. My specialty was trees, dinosaurs, monsters, and, when I was in fourth and fifth grade, battle scenes. My friend Don Evans and I would lie on our stomachs in one or the others’ kitchens and draw panoramic battles on the reverse side of large drafting paper. Don’s dad was a nuclear engineer and always had sheets of it. The large paper was a great medium for our epic confrontations of armies that included different time period uniforms, weaponry and, of course, gory details of violent battle. But I always included trees, mostly blown-apart ones.

There were certain books that my parents read to me, mostly by my father, in his soothing, deep British accent that he never lost, that I loved the best: “The Wind In The Willows” by Kenneth Grahame, the Uncle Wiggily books by Howard R. Garis and “The Real Story Book” by Wallace C. Wadsworth. The illustrations for “The Real Story Book” were done by Margaret Evans Price. Her animals, details of landscapes such as bushes, reeds, trees all captivated me so powerfully that I still go back to them in my mind. Not to mention her colours, which seemed saturated with the very sky, earth and turn-of-the-century garment dyes she illustrated. I still have that book, a bit torn, with some of its illustrations embellished by my hand in pencil.

PETER RABBIT - ILLUSTRATION BY MARGARET PRICE EVANS copy(The illustrations of Margaret Evans Price enchanted me. Just from gazing for hours at her work, she was teaching me about shading, depth, perspective. Soon I was adorning all my drawings with those short tiny little lines, which I found out later they called crosshatching, on the edges of clothing and everything else.)THE LITTLE RED HEN - ILLUSTRATION BY MARGARET PRICE EVANS copy(Because of this illustration by Price, I am, to this day, obsessed with sumac bushes, their leaves and their conical red fruits.)

E.H. Shepherd Illustration for the WInd In The Willows(What could be better than a cozy house beneath a big oak tree, as depicted in these illustrations by E.H. Shepherd for “The Wind In The Willows” by Kenneth Grahame?)

I was an avid fan of monsters, in books as well movies. On many Saturdays my mother would tell me and my middle brother Dave to take our baby brother Robbie to the double feature matinee. We would dutifully obey, taking turns holding Robbie’s hand on our walk to West Hartford Center. There we would watch double features of every imaginable variety of “B” (often “C” and “Z”) movies about space aliens, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, Dracula, The Invisible Man, War Of The Worlds, I loved them all. Robbie still remembers being scared stiff at the scene when the long arm of the alien tries to locate Gene Barry in that iconic farmhouse scene.

THE CENTRAL THEATER 1966, Photo by Tom Mahon

(Central Theater, 1966, in “The Center”, West Hartford, CT. The site of many a sci-fi and monster movie double feature on Saturday afternoons in the 1960’s. Photo courtesy of Tom Mahon.)

CENTRAL THEATER, 1940 Painted by Dr. John M. Fitzsimmons

(“Central Theater, West Hartford, CT”. Painting by Dr. John M. Fitzsimmons.)

fm056

(Often, after church, I would buy the latest copy of “Monsters Of Filmland” at a newsstand that happened to be right across the street, much to my missionary grandmother’s horror.)

Eventually I outgrew the gore and monsters, to my parents’ relief, and became more and more interested in piano playing. Piano (and drums and singing) had always come so naturally to me, that I didn’t consider it “a path”. I still devoted most of my time to riding my trusty Columbia bicycle all over the neighborhood.  We rode in groups, seven and eight year old bicycle gangs, as it were, all over our peaceful little suburban neighborhood. A year or two later, when some of my wealthier friends were sporting fancy “English” ten speed bikes, I developed an even fiercer loyalty to my battered old red and white Columbia. I became something of a three speed dynamo on it, and festooned it with cartoon character decals I would buy each week, with the small allowance from my parents. My favorite was a wolf.

I remember vividly the obsession I had with these decals for my bicycle. My friend Leonard Egdish and I would compare decals and salivate at the cool one the other had just bought. We would ride our bikes together up to Central Wheel on the hill leading up to West Hartford Center. I can still smell the bicycle grease and the sun-warmed wooden floors in the back of the store where the back door was often open in the Summer and where the decals were on display on a bulletin board on the wall. I’m sure we drove the proprietor crazy, as we lingered there for a good hour or two, agonizing over which two colorful decals to spend our thirty cents on. Yes, that’s what they cost. 15 cents each. That was alot of money in 1960 when I was nine, going on ten. Enough to make each decal decision very important indeed.

The rest of our days (school was but a minor and irritating interruption in our lives), we played day-long wiffle ball games that invariably got us scolded by various grouchy neighbors with equally grouchy and vociferous dogs. Then there were the Wild West and Army battles, inspired by television series like “Bonzanza”, “The Rifleman”, “Have Gun Will Travel” and World War II movies that held a sort of mystique for us, since most of our dads were veterans of that war. These battles all involved sneaking quietly around garages and behind trees, and mostly much over-dramatic falling down after being “shot” by your friends. I specialized in getting shot and falling down, and knew the best yard hills to display my gifts. I can still walk, with the accuracy of a cartographer, the lawns, garages, back and sideyards, past the lilac and other bushes, trees and gardens that were the staging grounds of our battles.

Toy guns were so much fun in the late 1950’s and early 60’s! I loved Colt 45’s, with their sleek long barrels, Winchester lever-action rifles and the tiny but dangerous Derringers, all three of which Palladin and Bat Masterson were experts with. Of course I wasn’t thinking of guns as serious weapons.  I was still just a child, having fun in the fantasy world of Western television shows and movies. The only experience I had with real guns was with 22. rifle at YMCA Summer Camp. It was in the fifth grade, after my vision had dramatically improved when I discovered I needed glasses in the fourth grade. I discovered I was quite a good shot, and even won a prize or two for marksmanship.

Me, Frank and David in front of 32 Walkley Road, March 1962 copy(1962, The Cool Ones. On the left is me, with my new glasses, cousin Frank in the middle, on leave from his prep school, Rumsey Hall, wearing his blazer, and brother David, wearing Dad’s Merchant Marine cap. We are standing at our house at 32 Walkley Road in West Hartford, Connecticut.)

When my parents sent me to piano lessons, I was less than thrilled. I had already been playing any piano I could get my hands on. Our family didn’t have one until I was in the fourth grade. At my lessons, I  would add my own improvisational touches to the boring exercises, much to my first teacher’s irritation. I was more happy to learn things on my own, listening to records. A neighbor from our street showed me the basics of boogie-woogie and I added that to my technique. But a classical pianist, though I loved the music, I was not meant to be. Rock and roll and jazz were calling.

In fourth grade, after seeing a jazz band at a school assembly, I begged my dad for a saxophone. Always one to encourage his son’s interests, he came through the back door after work one night with a brand new Conn Alto Saxophone. I still remember the smell of the case, the felt pads, and the whole “reed thing”, which seemed very exotic to me. Rico, Number 2 and a half, Alto. Soft enough to bend notes, but not on the ridiculous side of soft as to be a wambly, honking mess. The softening of the reed in your mouth for ten minutes or so always reminded me of sucking on a piece of bamboo.

I took lessons from Lou Solloway, a former member of Woody Herman’s big band, for three years, from fourth through my sixth grade, in the back of Pearlmutter’s Music Store in Hartford, Connecticut. In the sixth grade, he invited me to play in his big jazz band, which rehearsed at the Jewish Community Center in West Hartford, and gave a few concerts a year. That was a thrill, playing with the big guys. From seventh grade through age eighteen , I studied with Hartford Symphony First Clarinetist/Alto Saxophonist Henry Larsen. I would practice in our third floor hallway, which had great natural reverb, the sound carrying down the staircase over the balcony.

My material? Boots Randolph, Paul Desmond, later it was Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Junior Walker. When I was ten, I would put The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo A La Turk” on my dad’s stereo and pace through the dining room and living room, playing along with Paul Desmond’s solo until I had it down note for note. I did the same with Boots Randolph. I played alto mostly, but I also played baritone in seventh grade dance band, First Tenor in eighth grade, and First Alto in ninth grade and in high school.

To hear one of the only existing recordings of my alto sax playing, from my self-titled 1980 album playing click HERE.

I still drew, but mostly that part of my brain emerged only for family Christmas cards and drawings for friends.

SANTA'S DRAGON CORRAL(A Christmas card by me, 1975, depicting Santa using dragons as reindeer substitutes.)

I was always playing music, writing stories and poems. I was captivated my dad’s African drumming records by Babatunde Olatunji (his was a very eclectic record collection) and the rhythm of soul music and blues caught my ear. In 1960 I bought Ray Charles’ album “What’d I Say” and learned his electric piano part.  I could combine my love of words and visual imagery, with music. I’ll never forget the first song I wrote, in 1963, at age thirteen. My other influences were folk musicians like Dave Van Ronk, Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan, so I imitated the “Travis” finger-picking style on the piano that I still occasionally do.

I thought much of the pop music on the radio was insipid and wimpy, preferring the exciting rockabilly of Elvis, The Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, the bluesy songs of Fats Domino and the country piano curls of Floyd Kramer. Jerry Lee Lewis was an extension of boogie-woogie, but I didn’t care for his singing. Little Richard, now, that was some great singing, piano playing and I thought it very cool that he stood up while he played. I would use that stance on all my later tours with my bands.

But when I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, my thirteen-year-old brain exploded with inspiration. That was it. I knew, officially, without any doubt at all, what my path would be. This certitude about my vocation went much deeper than some lame “direction I’d like to pursue”, or “something I think I’d be good at”, mumbled without one milliliter of passion in some clueless guidance counselor’s office.

I remember, on an early August day in 1965, listening to The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” as it played on the radio of our Rambler station wagon. My father was driving our family northward to the far, clean, wide-open lake country of Vermont, and a fully-produced documentary of my life as a successful rock musician unfolded in my brain. As I listened to the song and gazed at the scenery behind the raindrop-covered window, I remember knowing exactly what my job was.  All I had to do was to capture, with just the right chords on a piano, and with just the right true, sacred words that were born from the photographs my soul was taking, all those deep moments in my life that would just float on by if I didn’t write them down.  It was my mission to transcribe these feelings, and I knew that in doing this I would be creating records of human experience that not just myself, but all other people of the world could feel and understand. I didn’t formulate this mission of mine in actual words. I knew it instinctively. I knew that like a painter capturing feelings with paint, canvas, lines and colors, I would do it with music and words. It was that simple. Love, desire, passion, anger, fear, tears, the long lush brown hair of my girlfriend, her long legs in black tights, her arms, her smile, her name and face and terrifying spiritual grace that haunted me throughout the day and night, even at fourteen years of age.

In those nascent days of my songwriting, I already felt the powerful thrill of this craft. Whenever I succeeded in captured these wild feelings, and written them both in my mind and on paper, I would be so overwhelmed with surprise and gratitude that I would often cry, the goosebumps prickling my skin.

A fine sight I am, I would think, suddenly becoming conscious of myself, looking around, feeling ridiculous. Yet I knew, once again, I had been gifted with something.

I would be a writer, and a singer, of songs. I would be a creator of worlds.

“My music had roots which I’d dug up from my own childhood, music roots buried in the darkest soil.” – Ray Charles

The rest of my junior high and high school years were mostly spent playing in bands I formed, and waiting to get the hell out of school so I could work at music full time. And get out of school I did, early, in my junior year, agreeing to get my G.E.D. and obtain gainful employment as a dishwasher so I could afford an apartment. In junior high I formed The Braekirk Aggregation (a rock and soul cover band with an obscure Scottish name). We played The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Zombies, The Blues Project, The Yardbirds, and, of course, “Louie, Louie.” When I was auditioning guitar players, the real test was how well they played a solo from that song. Next, in my sophomore year of high school, I joined The Last Five, a local band of older guys that already had a record out, the 45 single called “Kicking You”. At age sixteen, I took the place of the lead singer and pounding the Vox Continental organ. The keyboard I played, and the P.A. was provided by the flute player/backup singer that worked at a local music store. We played bars (they’d have to sneak me in sometimes since I was the only under-age one), fraternity parties and nightclubs. I played with them for just a couple years, and most of my memories of those performances and rehearsals are heavily infused with the nauseating smell of Canadian Club blended whisky and spilled beer.

PORTRAIT BLUES SLIGHT BLUE TINT copy(Firmly on the artist path, 1970, with my first real band Portrait Blues. From left to right, seated: Me – lead vocals, keyboards and songwriter; John Weber – guitar, David Stoltz – bass guitar. Left to right, standing: Mark Kaplan – tenor sax and flute, Ralph Rosen – drums and blues harp.)

The first band I formed that played my own songs was Portrait Blues. I started it with a bass player I met at a party named David Stoltz. We later added Ralph Rosen on drums, John Weber on guitar and Mark Kaplan on tenor sax and flute. Ralph also played an incredible blues harp, so when he got his harp out and sang a blues, I would get on the drums. We played together from 1969 until 1973, when our guitarist left the civilized world and joined a monastery. This band was a huge joy for me. I would stay up all night in my apartment, composing and writing out the parts for a new song, and the next day I’d bring it to the band to rehearse. They were all extremely good at their instruments, so usually by the end of that rehearsal the song would be pretty much ready to be performed. It was a blues and soulful rock band with elements of jazz and what might be called ‘progressive rock’ today.  There was also a deep, juicy sense of humour, and a love of the surreal and the spiritual in life that bound us together. We were not just band-mates, we were great friends.

To hear Portrait Blues’ recording of my song “Spring” click HERE

PORTRAIT BLUES Recording Session, 1970 Retouched
(Portrait Blues recording session, 1970. Clockwise: me on piano and vocals, Ralph Rosen on drums, Dave Stoltz on bass, Mark Kaplan on tenor sax, John Weber on guitar.)

 

Grayso In Toggle Coat, 1977 copy 2(Me in Newton Corner, Massachusetts, 1976.)

“My style of songwriting is influenced by cinema. I’m a frustrated filmmaker. a fan once said to me, ‘Girl, you make me see pictures in my head!’ and I took that as a great compliment. That’s exactly my intention.” – Joni Mitchell

In 1976, I saw a notice in the Hartford Advocate about an independent filmmaking school in Guilford, Vermont. It was called The Atelier. Founded by a Swiss-American filmmaker whose name escapes me now, the only requirement for admission consideration was an essay. The subject for the essay was the reasons why you wanted to be a filmmaker. Tuition, if you were selected, was free, The only fees, were modest living expenses in a communal house. I couldn’t believe it! Over the course of several nights, I wrote a forty page (typed, single spaced) piece detailing my aspirations as a filmmaker, including in it my favorite films, directors, a portion of a screenplay, what I did and didn’t like in movies, and a brief history of not only myself, but Art in Western Civilization, if I recall correctly. I told my girlfriend (we were living together at the time) about it, and, though it meant we would be apart, she was behind me 100 per cent. That alone gave me an instant stomach ache, a headache and anxiety. But I was determined to see this through.

I received a phone call a couple of weeks after mailing my short novel to the address in the ad. It was the head of the school and he said I was in. We scheduled an appointment to meet at the school where I’d be given a tour of the place. We could discuss the living costs and other details then, he told me.

My girlfriend dropped me off (I still didn’t have my license) at the bus station in Hartford. From there I took a Greyhound bus to Brattleboro, Vermont. The bus stop at Guilford was a small gas station in the middle of huge, empty and quite beautiful fields. As instructed, I used the gas station pay phone to call the number given to me, and in about twenty minutes, a station wagon pulled up, and the passenger door swung open, revealing a large, disheveled bear of a man wearing, of all things, a beret.

We returned to the school, which was a group of several old houses, The whole place looked like a farm, because that’s what it once was. After telling me he liked my essay, although it may have been a hair lengthy, he (I can’t recall his name, and no information exists online of this school) gave me a tour of the various buildings, including the “dorm”, communal kitchen, dining room, movie theatre and animation studio. Whoa! Animation studio? There was nothing in the notice about this being about animation filmmaking. But yes, that was, indeed, what this school was. And your “study”, as he described it, pretty much consisted of was carrying out his ideas, doing errands and chores and learning the art of animation. The students at The Atelier were, in short, poorly paid employees who helped this person make his animated films.

I would not be one of them.

Polite as always, I waited for an opportune pause in his tour presentation, and expressed my thanks but told him this was not at all what I was looking for as a student of film. He told me I was passing up a great opportunity, and I told him, again, thank you and proceeded to walk back the four miles to the small gas station, where a Greyhound bus would be passing on its way back to Hartford in approximately three hours. Chalk it up to a life experience, I told myself, as I read, re-read and read again the packets of flower seeds on a rack.

Not to be deterred, a month later, in September 1977, I enrolled in a course on independent filmmaking at The University of Bridgeport which met once a week. It was a non-matriculated course. From the ten times this class met, I got some ideas of hand-held and guerilla-style 16 millimeter camera techniques, and watched the teacher’s independent film. Shortly before the Spring semester was to begin, there was a professor’s strike and the class ended. I got some money back.

So instead of becoming a filmmaker, I made movies that happened to be songs. “Bluewhite”, written in 1977 and one of the songs on my 2010 album “An American Record”, is a perfect example. To see and hear it click HERE.

UNION TRAIN STATION, HARTFORD CT 1977 copy

(I passed through the Hartford Train station, known as Union Station, many times. I took this photo with my Miranda 35mm single-lens reflex camera, a birthday gift from my mother.)

I decided I would give this filmmaking thing one more try, So in November 1977 I called NYU and asked for the Film Department. I was put through to the head of the Department Film Haig Manoogian (Martin Scorsese’s mentor). After speaking with him for a while, he said he would see me in his office. A few days and another Greyhound bus ride later, I was in Professor Manoogian’s office at the Greenwich Village campus of The Tisch Shcool Of The Arts at New York University.  Having read some of my screenplay ideas, Manoogian saw my passion and was impressed, he said. But when he asked me how I would feel taking the prerequisite general education classes, it made me pause. I left his office that day, telling him I would get back to him within one week about the scholarship and thanked him for his time. As I walked around the streets of New York towards the bus station, I knew in my heart that my destiny lay with music. Going into filmmaking was not meant to be, I told myself. I knew I was not prepared to do what it would take to devote myself to this study. Suddenly I was no longer torn about this question. But it took the act of physically going to New York and spending an hour in the office of one of the most respected people in the field, to clear my mind. From then on, I put all my energy into writing, recording and performing music.

I returned to the medium where I felt completely at home. Music and words. Songs. Or as Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, author and former music critic Leonard Pitts Jr. so accurately put it, in his review of my 1992 album “Road To Freedom”: “If you love words, if you’re one of those people for whom heaven is a rainy day and a good book, then know this: Hugh doesn’t write words — he writes pictures.” – Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald, October 19, 1992

LEAVING HARTFORD TRAIN STATION 1987 copy(Getting out of Dodge. Hartford’s Union Station, headed south toward New York City.)

“You can only lose what you cling to” – Buddha

Sometimes your path leads you to a new place. I put off moving out of “Dodge” (what I sarcastically called Hartford, Connecticut in the early to mid 1980’s), until I don’t think I could have physically or emotionally endured one more month, week, day – hell, one MINUTE in a place that clearly offered me no future. I could see my friends settling down, getting married, carving out nice little ruts in which to live the rest of their lives. Meanwhile I was playing in a jazz fusion band that I had quickly grown bored with and was accompanying modern dance classes at The Hartford Ballet. I was writing my own songs, saving them for a record that I was convinced I could make somehow, sometime soon. For extra confusion, in 1984, at the age of thirty four, l fall head over heels in love with an eighteen year old girl, one of the dancers studying in the teacher training program there. A year later, the age difference finally became clearly an insurmountable obstacle and I was single again. But not for long. At the club where I played in the boring jazz fusion band, I met the ex-girlfriend of a guitarist I had worked with off and on. Soon she was my girlfriend. We spent nearly every day of the Summer of 1985 together. It was very deep. We declared our love for each other. I wrote poems and songs about and for her. Then, at the end of that August, she told me she had accepted a job in San Francisco. No problem. We’ll have that most romantic of love affairs: a long distance relationship. Bullshit. A few months and a few round trip flights to San Francisco later, we broke up in grand style, standing in the grass of the great meadow outside the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.

To hear “Over The Wires”,  a song I wrote about this long distance love affair, click HERE

“The only sin is mediocrity.” – Martha Graham

I had no desire to be merely comfortable or to settle for a boring life. It came down to this: I knew I was a talented as anybody making records in the mid 80’s, if not better (there was never anything wrong with my ego). Now I had to get the world to see and hear that. In one of my school notebooks that I wrote in, I made a list of the places I should go where I could get a record deal. The list was short. 1) New York, 2) Los Angeles and 3) London, England. I had a couple friends in Los Angeles and some family in London, but the expense of just getting there loomed as a large impasse in my mind. New York won out by default.

I had to get away.

Click HERE to see a video of my band Grayson Hugh & The Wild Tones performing my song “I Had To Get Away”. 

I started taking day trips into New York, armed with cassettes of my songs I had recorded at a 24 track studio in Connecticut that a friend of mine, Ron Scalise, co-owned and was head engineer at. Ron would also turn out to be the ex-husband of the woman I would later marry, but that is a whole other story. I would make lists of names of anyone associated in any way with bands and artists, then track down their phone numbers or addresses. It was literally a knocking-on-doors campaign. It was a first step.

The drummer of one of my bands, ex Pairlament-Funkadelic member Tyrone Lampkin, gave me keyboardist Bernie Worell’s number. I called him and met him at a recording session he was doing with producer Arto Lindsay. He listened to some of my songs (I had brought my Sony Walkman and headphones) and his eyes lit up. He called out to the other guys “Hey guys! Check this cat out!” I asked him to keep me in mind for any recording or touring work. He said he would, but nothing came of it.

Another drummer in one of my bands that I had known since junior high school gave me the numbers of bassist Fernando Saunders, who was playing with and producing Lou Reed. The other number belonged to drummer and producer Narada Michael Walden.

I knew exactly one person living in New York. Well, that’s not entirely true. Family friends Betty Allen and Ed Lee lived on Riverside Drive. Aunt Betty (as I grew up calling her) was an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano opera singer and appointed Director of the Harlem School of The Arts in 1979, by the former Director Dorothy Maynor. But I hadn’t seen her and Ed in thirty years; I couldn’t just call them up and ask if I could crash on their couch.

So I called the other person I knew there. The fact that she was an ex-girlfriend didn’t deter me in the slightest. We had lived together when she was studying dance at the Hartford Ballet and I was the modern dance accompanist there. She escaped (wisely) in 1976 from my increasingly frequent bouts of drinking and hitchhiking to Maine which I’m sure scared her. Hell, it scared me. I wasn’t yet ready to do anything about it, however. Her mother gave me her phone number in New York. I called her and we agreed to get together to talk about how she might help. At that point, we were on friendly terms.

She told me she had married the owner of a chain of funeral homes and had also converted to Judaism. It turned out that she did know some people in both the music and movie business. How I was never quite sure, but, as she was quite pretty, I could imagine older men in positions of power being attracted to her. She knew people like legendary film producer Sam Spiegel and Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun.

She arranged a meeting with Ahmet and he appeared very distracted, as if he couldn’t care less. He was looking through his mail while he listened to one of my songs from my 1980 self-titled album. It was called “When You’re Young And In The Picture”. It was one of those time when people listen to my music when I am present, when my jaws clench and every muscle in my face and arms and legs seem frozen. I hate it. I’d rather be far away when somebody listens to my music. After it was over, he remarked “It’s kind of simple, isn’t it?”

I had the urge to slap his face. Here’s a guy who wrote “Chains Of Love”, “Mess Around” and”Sweet Sixteen”, the epitome of ultra simplicity. It was obvious that he just wasn’t present in the moment, he wasn’t really listening. If he had, and listened to the ending of “When You’re Young & In The Picture”, he would’ve heard the non-simplicity and interesting jazzy depth of that section. A connection with Atlantic Records was not meant to be, I quickly concluded. It was obvious that he was just half-heartedly doing a favor for my ex-girlfriend. All I knew was that she and another young female friend had joined Ertegun on Summer vacations. It was all just a bit creepy to me.

ME & RON 1980

(Me, on right, and my good friend Ron Scalise, in 1980. Ron not only recorded and mixed my 1980 album “Grayson Hugh”, he took the tapes down to legendary Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida and mastered the record himself. Eric Clapton’s huge hit “Layla” was recorded there, as well as The Allman Brothers’ third album “Eat A Peach”, and The Bee Gees’ “Main Course” and “Spirits Having Flown”. We were both perfectionists and this photo caught us in that extremely prolific time of our lives, our early thirties. We were so “young and in the picture.”)

To hear “When You’re Young & In The Picture” click HERE.

In 1986, after hemming and hawing for a good ten years, I left Hartford, Connecticut for good and moved to New York City. My apprenticeship as the artist I was meant to be was over. Perhaps I waited longer than I should have, but that reluctance was what it took to get me to the point of unbearable unhappiness. I had to stop reading The Village Voice, which used to be so enjoyable for me, because my jealousy at reading about other musician’s concerts or records filled me such a rage, I would throw the paper across the room and curse loudly. At 35, I was still relatively young, but I had become a very bitter person. Even with my lack of objectivity, I had read enough novels and seen enough movies to know I was in danger of becoming “that cranky guy” with a bad case of sour grapes. The thought of me at age 70, boring people with my “I coulda been a contender” soliloquy, filled me a dread worse than my fear of failure.

So I resolved to snap out of my inertia, tuned in to my very healthy ego and forced myself to get the hell out of Dodge.

I told myself that I would live there, by whatever means it took, and not leave until I got a record deal.

That’s what I did. And amazingly, I did get that record deal, with RCA Records. Not overnight. It took a good year. But it actually happened. I still remember the moment I heard my A&R woman’s voice on the other end of the phone saying “Grayson, we here at RCA have decided to sign you”.

I know how fortunate I was, believe me. The odds of getting signed to a major record label, at any time, are not very good at all. You have a better chance at winning the lottery.

I always tell people that it wasn’t the eleven months of camping out in a friend’s barber’s basement room, sleeping on an army cot that was the most difficult thing. Not being cold in that unheated space during the Winter months. Not the feeling of hopelessness that would overwhelm me as I commuted back to Hartford on weekends to play in a wedding band, while I worked at Sarah Lawrence College during the week, accompanying for dance classes. It wasn’t the physical discomfort, or the anxiety and the ego-killing doors that were slammed in my face for a year.

It was the leaving that hometown and striking out for the unknown, following my dream, that was the hardest thing. It was that leap of faith that took the most courage. Everything else was up to God.

The path of the artist is definitely not an easy one. But if painting a picture, or making a photograph or film, or writing a poem, a book or a song is the thing that gives you that ineffable ecstatic feeling that makes your soul fit into it’s true shape, then it’s the only path.

THE PATH ENDING PHOTO

•                                        •                                        •

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AIN’T NOBODY HOME

"100 Years Of Solitude" Book Cover

Sometimes a novel inspires a song. This was the case with “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez and my song “Ain’t Nobody Home”.

That statement however lacks so many details that I consider it as weak and incomplete as to say “The earth contains people.”

The truth is that I read the book sometime in the early to mid 1980’s, while living in Hartford, Connecticut, before I moved to New York. Events, such as recording, arranging, auditioning band members and tour deadlines, began to accelerate after 1987, when I signed my recording contract with RCA, so it had to be in the more contemplative, pre-New York chapter of my life. Back in the Whitney Street house days I had many free hours of weekend daylight to spend either taking long bike rides through the countryside or reading a book like “One Hundred Years Of Solitude”.

But it wasn’t just “the book” that inspired the song. It could have been one phrase, one image. If fact I have one specific image in my mind, that Márquez’s words created. I can’t take a photograph of it. That technology has not yet been invented, and I hope it never is. The imagination is the sacred domain of one’s identity.

There are a couple photos I’ve seen that I’d like to share that relate to this theme of an abandoned palatial estate and the mystery of the deep South American jungle.

SWIMMING POOL AY ABANDONDED JUNGLE MANSION(Photo by Amanda Sue.)

I will tell you that when I read the first six sentences of Chapter One, I literally jumped for joy. I mean I stood up and bounced in the air and yelled “Holy Shit! Yes!” or some such words. Here are those sentences: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands…”

Actually the sixth sentence is incomplete here, because “sparrow hands” was all I needed in that one to thrill me. The images contained in just these first few lines of prose were enough to make me so happy that I was beginning to read a book that was bound to be filled with such mind-paintings. Going to find ice. Clear water over polished stones, that were white and enormous. Prehistoric eggs. A world so new that you had to point because things lacked names. Ragged gypsies setting up tents in March. Pipes and kettledrums. Bringing a magnet to the jungle. Sparrow hands! Sparrow hands! The painting in my brain began to assemble, and this guy, Márquez, he knew how to construct the colors, how to make the words.

Cracked Marble Floor in Abandoned Estate in Jungle(Photo by Tino Selecta.)

I was fortunate enough to have a Pulitzer Prize winning author (he was a music critic at the time) write about my album “Road To Freedom”: “And his lyrics! If you love words, if you’re one of those people for whom heaven is a rainy day and a good book, then know this: Hugh doesn’t write words — he writes pictures. Like “Forever Yours, Forever Mine”, which speaks of “steep September daylight when the shadows fall at four” and “eyes just staring down the college street strewn with the paper of sycamore leaves.”  – Leonard Pitts, Jr., The Miami Herald, Oct. 19, 1992 

I was so glad that Leonard Pitts GOT IT. He completely, 100% got me. This is what excites me about the world. Images. Of course you use images in different ways. Films, painting, songs, conversations, the best comedy – and writing. And the words that Gabriel García Márquez had written in “One Hundred Years Of Solitude”, besides their brilliance in the construction of an amazing story, inspired many, many pictures in my mind. These pictures, in turn, made me want to write a song.

So when people ask me (especially in radio interviews, or sometimes in person, for a magazine or newspaper article, or, most annoyingly, three seconds after stepping off the stage): “What inspires your songs?” – my eyes glaze over, my tongue gets not just tied but locked, and any answer at all to this question runs and hides like the groundhog I sometimes see, scurrying back to the safety of his home under our backyard deck.

I don’t know! It’s a picture! There is no message! Well, of course there is, but it’s too complicated to get into right now, I tell them, or I wish I had told them later, when I’m listening to the archived interview.

Sometimes, in the rare heat of introducing a song at a concert, I will actually attempt to explain with words what happened at the beginning of creating it. You want to see people’s eyes glaze over? Perhaps I am imagining that, or it’s the glare of the lights in their eyes, I don’t know. I don’t really want to know. I just want them, and me, to enjoy the visual story, and the additional element of my music to enhance it.

The magic is in the dreaming. That’s what it’s all about. Writers, painters, songwriters, filmmakers, we are dreamers. And we share our dreams.

SALGADO(Photo by Sebastião.)

That all being said, there IS a thread of a story. Here’s what I know: I imagined an abandoned palace, in the middle of the jungle. Who lived there before? It looks like they left in a hurry. A long time has passed since they left. There are old rusting guns in the hall, a snake (I’m surprised there’s only one) in the swimming pool. Lots of jungle vines crawling everywhere. Moss in the cracks of marble.

And I must say I liked the idea of the suddenly vacated palatial residence of any ruling figure, be it the pompous president of the America, the rapacious ruler of a South American country, or the conquering king of some middle eastern land where magical carpets used to levitate. My dislike is equal for all those humans intoxicated by political power. I despise without discrimination all the glib cruelty of kings and queens and all the heartless, hedonistic emperors of every era. The idea of them suddenly being just instantly gone fills me with happiness.

There is nobody home. And forget the veracity of that English idiom, which of course, if you look into the eyes of the current potus, could not be more true. But take that phrase literally. Were they taken by aliens? Angels? Ex-wives? I don’t know where they went to. There’s certainly a lot less information about the former inhabitants of this stately home than in Márquez’s book.  At least he was kind enough to provide, in page before the first chapter, a diagram of the Buendía family tree. In my song, everybody just vanishes.

“What does your song symbolise, Grayson?”

“Oh, shut up”, I say. Suffice it to say, I never liked the heavy hand, or should I say, the lard ass of symbolism. Take Nathaniel Hawthorne for instance. You were probably forced to read him in seventh or eight grade, too, right? Enough said.

Symbolism was invented by people who like to attend literary club meetings and probably also really like the sound of their own voice.

No. A song, a picture, a poem, just is. Appreciate it for that. You can invent all sorts of stories about it, that’s great, and I hope you do. Make them your own stories, and share it, if you like, with others, who will in turn make up their own stories about it.

Therefore I ask you, the reader, what have we learned?

I don’t know what you’ve learned. How could I ever presume to know what goes on in that head of yours?

I do, however, hope that I have provided some background information about my song “Ain’t Nobody Home”.

I hope you enjoy it and that it inspires many, many pictures to explode softly like puffballs in your head.

To hear my original demo of the song, that I recorded shortly after writing it, in 1990 click HERE.

To see me and my wife Polly Messer performing this song live at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center (The Kate) on April 6, 2012, click HERE.

Here are the lyrics:

AIN’T NOBODY HOME
words & music by Grayson Hugh
(Inspired by “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Márquez)

Jungle vines are creepin’
on the palace steps
on the marble floor
there’s moss in the cracks
through the shattered stained glass
sunset on the wall
there’s a snake in the swimmin’ pool
and guns in the hall

They’re gone
ain’t nobody home tonight
they’re gone
ain’t nobody home tonight
yeah they’re long-gone

Don’t know where they went to
didn’t leave a note
didn’t take the airplane
didn’t take the boat
might have been the river
in the middle of the night
risin’ through the bedroom
in the cold moonlight

They’re gone
ain’t nobody home tonight
they’re gone
ain’t nobobdy home tonight
I said they’re long-gone

Interrupted
gone without a clue
now the house is empty
and we don’t know
we don’t know what to do

Now the throne is empty
and the phone is dead
we’re talkin’ to the spirits
down by the river bed

They’re gone
ain’t nobody home tonight
they’re gone
ain’t nobody home tonight
they’re gone
ain’t nobody home tonight
they’re gone
ain’t nobody home tonight
© 1990, 2009 by Swamp Yankee Music/ASCAP

 

LOOKING FOR LOOSESTRIFE

FINAL PHOTO OF LOOSESTRIFE FOR INSTAGRAM(A field full of purple loosestrife, in Washington, Connecticut.)

Purple loosestrife. Even though technically it’s an “invasive species”, I have always loved its brave red colour that appears every August and lasts through the days of September. There’s a bit of a bittersweet feeling to seeing this bloom, as it signals the slow fading away of Summer and the coming of Fall.

Every early September, in the days when I was living in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston, my mom, who lived in Newton Corner, and I would go on annual “loosetrife hunts”. She was a damn good amateur botanist. She could tell you whatever weed or flower or tree you were pointing at was. She would have scouted a new location of a thriving batch of loosetrife and we’d head out into the countryside of Suffolk County and beyond. She would drive and keep in suspense as to our destination.

When we’d get there, we’d park and sometimes have to hike into some woods, or through some meadows or pastureland, encountering small groups of curious cows. And there, on the banks of a brook or river or in some secret wetlands, was that burning blush of that faithful and fearless weed, adorning the landscape with its vivid hue. I’d get out my camera (this was in the late 90’s, when earnest photographers like me had single lens reflex cameras, not iPhones or other camera phones), and we’d spend an hour or more there, me taking pictures, and she pointing out new angles and talking about the history of the area, and the different plants and animals that lived there.

My mother loved nature, and got to know it all her life. She never stopped learning about plants, trees or animals. In her late seventies, for instance, she struck up a friendship with a noted herpetologist who had written a great book about turtles, though I can’t recall his name unfortunately, or his book. I will look online later for him.

They became steadfast pen-pals, writing letters to each other often. He even encouraged her to publish her own book about nature. But she would rather be a spectator, she told him.

Mom was a great letter writer. She hated emails and refused to use that technology when it became S.O.P. (standard operating procedure) for most of the word. And I understand her disdain for it. Writing longhand is so much more personal. What a joy it was to receive a new letter from her, with her hard to decipher cursive! I would have sometimes get out my magnifying glass to determine if an “l” was really an “i”, or a “b” just had to be an “c” with a mistaken crown on it. This slow decoding was always worth it. I still have many of her letters, which are treasures, full of her insights, which were usually spot-on, about people, relationships, and nature.

I, as you may suspect by now, have digressed from my main topic (though I’ve always thought that digressions are one of the best ways to discover new things.) At any rate, this is a picture of purple loosestrife, that I came across on a ride with my wife, Polly, through the Connecticut countryside, not far from where we live. Mom would have loved it, and I hope you do too. She would have stopped the car, no matter who was coming up behind her, or even if a school bus was unloading a large group of noisy kids a few feet away.

Today, as I look at the slightly-withering loosetrife, I get that knee-jerk punch of anxiety delivered to my stomach. I fear, for just a moment, the inexorable rushing of time and the uncomfortable sensation of aging.

Then, as I think of my mother, I remember to take the advice that she always gave and the attitude that she lived by.

Slow down. Stop your car. Wander through a field. Take a photo. Love where you are, when you are. And write a hand-written letter to someone about it, using a good old envelope and stamp from the U.S. Postal Service. They have some great new ones of the National Parks.

There’s so much beauty all around us, that changes in form but is always there.

We just have to slow down and see it.

 

SEE YOU AT THE LABOR DAY FAIR

Summer 1964 Isle La Motte, Chopping Wood copy 2(Me, age 13, August 1964, in front of my brothers Dave and Rob, up in Vermont, on Isle La Motte, trying not to think about returning to school in two weeks. But we had the Labor Day Fair to look forward to.)

Back in the mid 1960’s, the West Hartford Labor Day Fair was a big deal. It may not have had ox-pulling contests or prizes for the biggest hog, or jars of homemade jam and pickles like some of the more rural Connecticut Autumn fairs, but it did have plenty of gut-wrenching rides, teeth-wrecking candy apples and splendiferous cotton candy that would evaporate instantly in your mouth, igniting sugar bombs in your brain and enough hot dogs to feed a medium sized English village for a week.

For one whole day, which also happened to be the very last day of Summer vacation, the vacant lots between the old American Legion hall and Williams Ford, behind the library and police station, became home to the most wonderfully trashy carny town. You cajoled your parents into bringing you there or, when you were a bit older, walked there yourself. And there you stayed, until the last rotation of the Ferris wheel, hanging out with your friends, eating foods with no nutritional value whatsoever, like fried dough, chocolate pretzels and funnel cakes and drinking equally unhealthy beverages like Coke, Dr. Pepper, Orange Crush, A & W or Hire’s Root Beer, Lime Rickey, White Birch Beer and Cream and Grape Soda. It was a day to throw dietary caution to the wind, and to ride every dipping, dropping, spinning, bobbing, lurching, lunging and gravity-defying ride that was there. This was your last day before school started, and you’d be damned if you didn’t stretch out and enjoy every precious second of freedom.

SODA POP BOTTLE TOPS   FRIED DOUGH STAND SNOW CONES & COTTON CANDY

(Food and drink at the Labor Day Fair.)

Along with a hint of Canadian air that made you want to wear that flannel shirt for the first time since last Winter, there were songs on the radio that became forever imprinted in your mind as harbingers of Fall. Early September was the time when you reluctantly returned to the spirit-killing fluorescent light of classrooms, hallways and crowded cafeterias. But it was also when you saw many of your friends for the first time in three months. And it was the time when, as if by magic, mysterious, unknown, beautiful girls would appear, floating in and out of rooms, occasionally locking eyes with you and severely affecting your physiology. To this day, there are certain songs that bring me back to those times when my life got busy again, when my brooks of inspiration turned into mighty rivers, when a new band of mine started rehearsing and performing, when I fell in love and my new girlfriend inspired me to write new songs. Coincidentally, September is also when my first major label record came out (“Blind To Reason” on RCA Records, Sept. 24, 1988).

BILLBOARD COVER SEPTEMBER 24 1988 copy 2

There were some great songs that were on the radio in 1964 and ’65, when I was about to start my eighth and ninth grades. Many of them were English, as it was the height of the “British Invasion”, which was really a host of British bands who were by fascinated by our American soul music, as well as some country. Even in their writing, as in the case of The Beatles, this influence was evident. I’m certainly not the first person to observe that these Brits were giving our own music back to us. I can say, without a doubt, that we needed it at that time. The insipid “vocal stylings” (sounds like the design of a split-level suburban house) of crooners such as Pat Boone and others were churning out songs that had not one centilla of rhythm or soul. American record labels, owned by rich white men, in all their racist glory, got white singers to record the black songs they “discovered”.

At any rate the songs back then mostly had English accents. Just listen HERE.

And HERE. Imagine, if you will, slow-dancing, at the age of fourteen, in Suzy Brigham’s basement, to THIS song. And, at the school dance in the cafeteria, you could really bust your moves at a faster tempo with THIS song.

Meanwhile, at the Labor Day Fair, THIS song was playing as you walked over to that girl who you hoped would be your new girlfriend, and asked her if she’d like a soda.

“Thanks”, she said, with that sweet voice. “I already have two.”

In fact she did, and the second one apparently belonged to that guy who was now walking toward you.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you guys tomorrow at school,” you say, lamely, as THIS song starts playing in the speaker right above your head, putting you momentarily in a depression as deep as the Grand Canyon.

“Oh,” she says, in a  sudden burst of energy. “I’d like you to meet my cousin Ned. He’s visiting from Virginia.”

Just then the sun comes out from behind one of the few clouds in the sky and it seems to you like she is smiling a little longer than necessary at you. The sun is back-lighting her hair, making her look positively angelic.

She beats you to the punch. “Maybe we can go to a movie sometime, on a weekend?” Her voice just gets more sweet and silky each time she speaks.

“Yeah, that sounds great”, you reply, as your heart jumps up and down like a frantic little kid, excited about getting ice cream.

“In the meantime,” she says, playfully, “we could try out this Ferris wheel. I hear it goes really fast.”

A smile spreads across your face and you fumble in your pockets for those bills you had put in there this morning.

“Sure!” you reply. “I….I thought I..”

“My treat,” she interrupts. “you can get the next one.”

It’s happening again. That feeling of something new is starting up. As you look at her smiling face and shake her cousin’s hand. who has just told you it was nice to meet you, the possibilities of your life open up inside your heart like one of those huge, panoramic Hudson River school paintings. The late afternoon September sun is shining on her hair, on the Ferris wheel and in your chest.

As you both sit down in the seat and fasten your bar, you hear another song starting over the speakers. How perfect, you think. You look at her and smile, as the music begins to unfold its wonderful feeling. The Ferris wheel starts to move, with a sudden jerk. You can’t stop smiling as you listen to that great SONG.

As you head down the tenth dip on the Ferris wheel, she looks at you and you look back. Her perfume smells great. So does her hair. You look at the sky, which is fading slowly from bright blue to dark purple, and you remember those last weeks at the beach.

“It really was a great Summer,” you say aloud, half to yourself, half to her.

IMG_7369(The beach, like the moon and sun, is always there.)

 

 

A GOOD FRIDAY NIGHT DATE

MORNING GLORY ON WEEPING MULBERRY TREE copy

(Morning glory-covered weeping mulberry tree in front of our friends’ house. Photo by Grayson Hugh.)

Polly and I recently had a long overdue visit with our friends, Kim, her mother Carol and Kim’s son John, who are also neighbors of ours. Polly made a delicious cherry pie and we brought it down the street to their house at 2 in the afternoon. We sat in their cozy front room, protected from the hot Summer sun by their air conditioning and the shade of the weeping mulberry tree that takes up most of their small front yard. Every August this tree, with the help of Carol’s green thumb, sprouts bright blue morning glory flowers that last nearly to Halloween.

We had our coffee and pie and visited hard, as my grandmother used to say.

Somehow we got to talking about buying things online. Somebody said how convenient it was, and Polly said how she preferred to go to the store, hold the article in her hand and, if it was clothing, try it on in person. I get what she means.

Then our friend Kim said “And I know streaming movies is convenient, but I miss Blockbuster.”

Oh, man, that hit a nerve with us. Then Polly told the story of our Blockbuster Friday night dates.

In the early days of our courtship, in 2007, while Polly and I were just beginning to co-produce “An American Record” on weekends, I would take the Peter Pan bus from Bourne, Massachusetts to Hartford, Connecticut on Friday afternoons. I had not as yet renewed my drivers’ license. Polly would pick me up at Union Station in Hartford, which served as both train and bus station.

From the bus station, we’d head to Danbury, Connecticut where Polly lived. Our first stop, after getting a quad tall no-foam latte with whole milk at the Starbucks drive though, was at one of the two Blockbuster Video stores that were in Danbury at the time. It was both relaxing and exciting to wander slowly down the aisles together, looking at the movies, talking about what we were in the mood for: action, comedy, thriller, quirky independent film or one of those Summer blockbuster (pun intended) epics like “Independence Day” or “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”. Or perhaps a black and white 60’s British dry comedy like “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or a black and white over-the-top sci-fi British classic like “The Day of the Triffids”. Looking at the covers, reading the blurbs, deciding on which videos to get – that was half the fun.

BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO STORE AISLE

(Blockbuster Video.)

TAPEI TOKYO Shot 1

(Taipei Tokyo in Danbury, Connecticut, sadly and mysteriously closed since 2013.)

Our next stop was Taipei Tokyo, maker of the most delicious cold sesame noodles, Szechuan dumplings and ginger chicken with string beans. We’d get the food to go.

What more could you need? A couple great movies, some good food you both liked, and each other. That’s a good Friday night date!

Polly and I used to frequent Taipei Tokyo often. We got to know the owners and I always enjoyed mispronouncing Xièxiè (thank you) in my very limited Mandarin. Then suddenly in 2013, they were gone. We were crestfallen. An era of congenial, relaxed dining had vanished.

Just like Blockbuster Video.

Now, yes, we stream Netflix and Amazon Prime movies (a smart tv and the Prime membership a Christmas gift from my brothers). And instead of wandering the aisles of Blockbuster, we now wander the aisles of Bethel Library, which has a really good selection of films.

Though we’ve not found a restaurant nearby that can come anywhere close to Taipei Tokyo’s dumplings, we’re still searching.

And we still have each other.

 

 

SONGS OF SAUDADE AND HIRAETH

ON THE WALES-ENGLAND BORDER copy

(In 1987, when I went to Wales for the first time, to visit the land of my fathers, as the train  crossed the border – depicted in the photo above, taken from the train window – I felt an incredible surge of emotion. I can only explain it as an ancestral gravity in my soul. All while I was there, it was as if I had finally come home, yet I knew I had to leave again. It was the hiraeth I was feeling.)

According to Wikipedia, Saudade (European Portuguese: [sɐwˈðaðɨ], Brazilian Portuguese: [sawˈdadi] or [sawˈdadʒi], Galician: [sawˈðaðe]; plural saudades) is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.

The only other word at all that is akin to saudade is the Welsh word hiraeth. [HEER-eyeth] [ How to pronounce hiraeth].

Despite being hard to translate, saudade has equivalent words in other cultures, and is often related to music styles expressing this feeling such as the blues for African-Americans, dor in Romania, tizita in Ethiopia, or assouf for the Tuareg people. In Slovak, the word is clivota or cnenie, in Czech, the word is stesk and sehnsucht in German.

I would add to Wikipedia’s list the Portuguese musical style of fado. And, to their section of literature that is written in the tone of saudade, I would add Marcel Proust’s seven-volume-long novel “The Remembrance Of Things Past”, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”. There are, I’m sure, other examples.

But let’s stick to music. I have made a list. And, yes, I myself did write a song (mostly instrumental) called Saudade. Perhaps it stemmed from my love of Brazilian music and the berimbau my good friend percussionist Joey Cardello made for me.

•••••

MI0003768911

1) Chega de Saudade – Written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and performed by João Gilberto. The song was first recorded by Brazilian singer Elizete Cardoso. The music was composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and the lyrics were written by Vinícius de Moraes. João Gilberto’s recording is the most famous. Chega means no more, enough.

To hear “Chega de Saudade” sung by João Gilberto click HERE.

••••••

cesaria-03(Cesaria Evora.)

2) Sodade – Written in the 1950s by by Armando Zeferino Soares, a Capeverdean composer. Recorded in 1992 by Cesaria Evora on her album Miss Perfumado. Sodade is a song in the Coladeira style, a Capeverdean genre. Musically it uses the cycle of fifths and The common small band Coladeira instrumentation is a vocalist, violão (guitar), a cavaquinho (four stringed guitar that plays rhythm) and some percussion. Bigger bands adds acoustic bass, a rabeca (violin), clarinet, trumpet and percussion such as a shaker, güiro, cowbell, congas.

To hear “Sodade” by Cesaria Evora click HERE.

•••••

CRISTINA BRANCO (Cristina Branco.)

3) Saudade by Cristina Branco, Portuguese fado singer. Fado (Portuguese for fate) is a genre of Portuguese song, similar to American blues but always melancholy, not up tempo. The instrumentation is usually a singer accompanied by traditional 12 string Portuguese guitars or mandolins. She often records with one of the world’s leading fado guitarists Custódio Castelo.

To hear”Saudade” by Cristina Branco and 12 string traditional Portuguese guitarist Custódio Castelo click HERE.

•••••

TAMMY WYNETTE(Tammy Wynette.)

4) Longing To Hold You Again – Performed by Tammy Wynette. Written by Don Robertson. Country music has more than one song about longing and yearning. This one is one of my favorites, mainly because of the sheer soul-scorching tone of Tammy Wynette’s amazing voice.

To hear Tammy Wynette singing “Longing To Hold You Again” click HERE.

•••••

Marvin+Gaye(Marvin Gaye.)

5) Distant Lover – Performed by Marvin Gaye. Written by Marvin Gaye, Gwen Gordy Fuqua, Sandra Greene. When I first got the album this song is on, “Let’s Get It On”, in 1973, I would listen to it over and over, getting happily lost in the tangled vines of all his background harmony parts, that he loved to do himself.  His missing and wanting became mine, for my own distant lover. She had recently moved away to the other coast of the country. During those long weeks inbetween our airborne visits, Marvin consoled me with his own saudade.

To hear “Distant Lover” by Marvin Gaye click HERE.

•••••

BB KING 2(B.B.King.)

6) The Thrill Is Gone – Written and Performed by B.B. King. What superlatives can be added to this great man? He wrote it, he lived it, he done it the best. And when the thrill is gone, that’s when you miss it the most.

To hear this Master of The Blues perform “The Thrill Is Gone” click HERE.

•••••

BRYN TERFEL(Bryn Terfel.)

7) Suo Gân – Traditional Welsh lullaby. Sung by Bryn Terfel with The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland. Conducted by Edo De Waart, 2002. Welsh men used to sing to escape the bleak hardship of their lives spent mostly down in the darkness of coal mines. The women sang hymns and went to Chapel. The tradition of singing, writing poetry and just being really emotional continues in Wales. I always say we Welsh are the Italians of the U.K. And what other county holds an annual week long festival of poetry and music? The Welsh, of course! It is called the Eisteddfod (pronounced eye-steth-vod. The double “dd” in Welsh in pronounced like a “th” sound and a single “f” is like a “v”. Two “ff”s are like an “f” in English. There are no “v”s in the Welsh alphabet.) The Eisteddfod  is held the second week of July in Llangollen in North Wales. Even though I am a first generation Welsh American, I have always been proud of my heritage.

To hear my home boy Bryn Terfel sing “Suo Gân” click HERE.

•••••

BULGARINA WOMEN'S CHOIR(Neli Andreeva, in center, and The Philip Kutev Choir.)

8) Malka Moma – Traditional Bulgarian Woman’s Choral Music Performed by Neli Andreeva & Philip Kutev Choir. Once heard, you are haunted by these voices.

To hear “Malka Moma” click HERE.

•••••

GET IT WHILE YOU CAN RECORD COVER

8) Saudade – Written by yours truly, Grayson Hugh. In the Fall of 2012 my old friend and very talented guitarist Norman Johnson asked me to make a guest appearance on his upcoming album “Get It While You Can” (Pacific Coast Jazz 2013). I played him my song “Saudade”, that I had written while living in Manhattan in 1996. He loved it and asked if he could put it on his record. So I sent him the chart for it and he arranged it for me, him on guitar, drums, percussion and acoustic bass. When I wrote, I was missing the country (living in New York City), missing love (I had recently left a relationship that I wasn’t happy in) and missing being happy, busy and fulfilled (having left a dead end record deal, I was still looking for a label that “got” me and my music). So I wrote this song about what the Brazilians call saudade and we Welsh call hiraeth. Hard to pronounce and hard to explain and hard to explain how to pronounce,, but you know it when you hear it and when you feel it.

To hear “Saudade” click HERE.

 

 

FRENCH ROAST COFFEE AND A SUMMER SONG

YOU CALL THIS COFFEE? copy

You know the scene in the movie “Godzilla” when the French investigator played by Jean Reno takes a sip of American coffee, grimaces and yells “YOU CALL THIS COFFEE?” to anyone and everyone and the world in general that is apparently so willing and even eager to settle for so much less in his beloved national drink.

I feel your pain, Jean. Why anyone would want to drink brown-coloured, weakling water with no taste when they could take just a little bit of time and have delicious, full-bodied, smoky-sweet and dark and deep, double-roasted coffee full of gently sloping wake-up feelings and good dreams – is beyond my comprehension.

But that’s what they serve in practically every restaurant, diner, greasy spoon, pizza parlor, bar, community center, church, temple, fast food joint and truck stop in America.

IT AIN’T COFFEE!

Here, now, I shall describe the easy and proper way to make the best cup of coffee you will ever have. Once you taste this – you will never fade back into the flocks of brown-coloured water drinkers.

FRENCH ROAST COFFEE BAG

STEP ONE. Get yourself some beans that are roasted not once, but twice. You want those coffee beans to crack twice to really release all their flavor and oil. There are several different dark roasts: Italian, Vienna, Espresso, French. You can go even darker with Spanish Roast, where the beans are roasted past the second crack and just shy of the third crack, in other words, right before the beans ignite! I personally prefer French Roast have drunk nothing but that since around 1978. My wife and I like the reliable quality of Starbucks, but do some research and get the beans you like. (As for Turkish Coffee, that’s a whole different texture and taste, almost like sipping sweetened mud. Fortune tellers often appear for the full ritual.)

COFFEE BEAN GRINDER

STEP TWO. Grind your beans fresh each time. A tip: the longer you grind them (the more your ground coffee looks like dust) the stronger and full-bodied the taste.

POLAND SPRING WATER

STEP THREE. Use only spring water. Every city water system in this country has chemicals in it, and, even with a filter, you’re going to get some coming through. Why would you want to put even small traces of fluorine, chlorine, nitrates or pesticides in your coffee?

MANY COFFEE MAKERS

STEP FOUR. You can boil spring water and use the drip method, use a French press or an automatic drip coffee maker, whatever you like. I prefer drip. I like to smell that powder of ground beans explode with aroma slowly as it drips through. The important thing is to make it fresh. And forget those single cup Keurig deals. You have to use awful little stale, pre-packaged coffee packets and they taste just like it sounds, no matter how convenient and enticing it looks.                                                                                                                              

FULL CUP OF FRENCH ROAST COFFEE ON PIANO

STEP FIVE. Drink your wonderful double-roasted coffee. I like mine black, but do with it what you will. It will make you a nicer person and also very smart.

I have spoken, and it is so.

Now that you know how to make great coffee, here’s a song called “Verano” I wrote that began with me going into a store to buy French Roast coffee beans. It talks about how this girl used to come out to see me and my band on hot Summer nights, and there was this mysterious strong connection between us…

Enjoy the song. Enjoy the coffee.

To hear “Verano” click HERE.

Here are the lyrics.

• • • VERANO • • •
words & music by Grayson Hugh

You were leaning in the corner
putting bananas away
I was there for some French coffee beans
you said “maybe when you make a million
you take me out”
and I said “that sounds good”
but I didn’t know then
just how good it was gonna be

I had been watching you
for a while already
you with your brown eyes
like a fawn in the ferns
you used to come out
to hear my group play rock ‘n roll
I used to wonder
how much you knew about me and you
cause I knew something
about you and me

It was in the air like the cool moonlight
shining, shining, shining
out in the summer yards and fields
the last full powerful moon
before September begins to bring out the grapes
I believe we both knew each other
I think we wanted to talk to one another
but Time she was waiting
and hesitating
all the life behind us
and the life she saw before us
the strange rules of destiny taking shape
on the night
when we slowly uncovered
the secret
of you and me
verano, verano
verano, verano….

 

© 2017 by Swamp Yankee Music/ASCAP

 

 

WHAT’LL I DO WITH THE BABY-O? And Other Detours With Dancers…

GRAYSON AT DEKE & ARLEEN'S, NEWTON CENTRE, MASS. 1997 copy

(Me, 1997, in my friend Deke’s study in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. We gathered here often to talk, and to listen to one of his many cherished vinyl records.)

In 1996 I had just moved from North Carolina to the Boston suburb of Newton Centre, living in the third floor apartment at the house of a great friend I’ve know since kindergarten, Deke James. He had invited me, in an act of generosity I will never forget, to live with him, his wife Arleen and six year old daughter Olivia.

Who invites you to move in with them, to become a part of their family for as long as you need to, no worries about rent, pay what you can, when you can? Who invites you to become uncle to their daughter, brother-in-law to their wife? Who offers to give you, free of charge, their legal advice as an attorney and, upon reading your publishing contract, discovers that they, my publisher at the time, still owe you ten thousand dollars? Who does this? Your best friend in the world, that’s who.

ARLEEN & OLIVIA, ME, CHUCK & DEKE

(Left: Arleen & Olivia, across the street from Rick Walker’s Rock ‘n Roll Cowboy Clothes Store, at their old location across from the Boston Common. Right: Deke, lower step, on higher step, Deke’s Harvard roommate and good friend Chuck Gentry and me. For this photo, I lent Deke my old rock ‘n roll vest, and Chuck my “Road To Freedom” hat.)

DEKE & ME, LOOKING OUT AT OCEAN, HULL, MASS. 1996

(Deke and I, surveying the surf, Hull, Massachusetts, 1996.)

I was, a year and a half later, to begin teaching songwriting at Berklee College Of Music. I would also connect, through friends at various universities, with several modern dance choreographers who had their own Companies. Soon I was receiving commissions to compose scores for them. These choreographers included Rebecca Rice, of The Boston Ballet, Diane Arvanites and Tommy Neblett of Prometheus Dance, Christine Bennett of Christine Bennett Dance and Julie Larsen of Milton Academy.

SHARPENED BERKLEE PHOTO, 2000

(Me at my desk in the Songwriting Department of Berklee College Of Music in Boston, October, 2000. There was a Starbucks just across the street, thank the Good Lord.)

In the time before my Berklee teaching began, I also made some extra money, which came in very handy at that time especially, by accompanying for modern dance classes at Boston University, The Boston Conservatory, Walnut Hill School For The Arts and at Milton Academy (where singer-songwriter James Taylor, in the time-honored tradition employed by creative souls everywhere, left the premises before his scheduled graduation).

Speaking of leaving high school early, I should explain how I discovered modern dance accompanying as a means of income. When I told my parents in my junior year that high school had nothing of value for me, they agreed that I could “drop out”, as long as I got my G.E.D. and a job. If I did these two things, I could stay at home for one year. After that I would have to get my own place.

I complied with their conditions. I took the G.E.D. test immediately and quickly. In fact when they returned home from driving me to the neighboring town for the test, I was already back, having hitchhiked home. Thus began a year of not one, but many jobs. I was a landscaper, fence painter, piano tuner, dishwasher, stockboy, and a clerk at a bookstore. I even got hired by the Hartford Courant on the strength of my typing skills. When it was explained to me, however, that I would not in fact be an ace reporter, chasing down stories in exotic locations, but sitting at a desk in a window-less room typing copy all day, the job somehow seemed less Hemingway-esque. So I kept searching, working job after meaningless job. The only consistency in my life from the age of seventeen to eighteen was the shows I was playing with my band Portrait Blues, mainly at the local YMCA, at churches, coffeehouses, community centers and private parties. Still too young to play in bars, that income was not enough to pay for an apartment.

TRUDA KASCHMANN AT HARTFORD SEMINARY

(Truda Kaschmann, circa 1974.)

Then one day my father told me about Truda Kaschmann. She was a modern dancer, a student of Mary Wigman’s. Born Jewish in 1906 in Munich, Germany, she came to America in 1934 at the age of 28 with her husband, Dr. Joseph Kaschmann, a physician, to escape the rising tide of Hitler’s anti-semitism. My dad was well-known in the artistic community of Hartford through his classical radio shows and narration for The Young People’s Concerts of The Hartford Symphony.  He and Truda became friends and he provided the narration for her educational program “Dance Is Another Language”. He suggested I ask her if she needed a pianist for any of her modern dances classes at The Hartford Conservatory.  She did. In fact she needed an accompanist for most of her classes, and eventually I was playing not only all of her Conservatory schedule, but for her classes at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington and The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury.

Truda was a 5 foot 2 inch dynamo. Though she was already in her late sixties when I met her, she was in astonishingly good condition. To show her students one of the benefits of a lifetime of dance classes, she would invite them to walk across her stomach as she lay supine on the floor with her legs extended and crossed. I’m talking about adult students walking across her abdomen! She was tough as nails, but with a heart of gold. She loved my playing and would tolerate with a laugh the occasional times I’d be so involved in my music I’d forget to stop when the exercise was over. I can still hear her shrill, bird-like call, with that strong German accent “Stop Grayson! Stop!”

Sometimes, after playing for her all day, at a dinner break around 7 pm, she’d give me a sandwich of pumpernickel bread with cream cheese. I think she made them especially for me, knowing I was a starving young musician.

She was, as they say, a mensch. The list of her former students include Alwin Nikolais, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. I loved her and will always be grateful for not only that first full time job she gave me, but for the freedom she allowed me in it and for her friendship.

Dance accompanying was a perfect fit. I was paid to improvise, which I loved to do, and for pretty girls, besides! I played for other dance teachers at The Conservatory, adding percussion, vocals, saxophone and my own version of “prepared piano”, when I’d stick wedges of cardboard in upright pianos or lay coat hangers and other objects across the strings of grands. A couple years later, I got jobs with the School Of The Hartford Ballet and with Judith Dworin at Trinity College. I became adept at playing for various techniques: Graham, Limon, Cunningham, Nikolais. Soon I was playing master classes for Bill T. Jones, Gus Solomons Jr., Moses Pendelton of Pilobolus and The Paul Taylor Dance Company. This day job income, along with the money I earned from my various band gigs, carried me through my move to New York in 1986 (and subsequent signing with RCA Records in 1987). For the first year in New York I also accompanied at Princeton University, The Ailey School, Julliard and Sarah Lawrence College.

DANCERS seamless copy

(Dance students at Sarah Lawrence College, 1987.)

Viola_Farber_1958

(Viola Farber, 1958.)

One of the more interesting collaborations with a choreographer happened in 1982 when I decided to go to Viola Farber’s studio in Manhattan without an introductory phone call. I simply looked up where her company’s studio was, buzzed the bell, introduced myself and, upon meeting her, asked if she might be interested in some original music or an accompanist. She invited me to play for her company class, which, as it happened, was about to begin. I sat at the piano and, when it seemed obvious a tempo would help, provided it. When the exercise was more abstract, I added my voice, singing occasionally into the clusters of piano notes, playing the strings with my fingers, muting them and playing the piano like a drum. I remember feeling a kinship with the movement of her dancers, yet also a complete detachment, as if it didn’t matter at all what I did.

When class was over, she walked over to me and said “You’re very good.” She asked me if I’d like to perform with her company for two dance concerts she was giving in a few weeks. She mentioned that she’d also love it if I could record what I was doing for her use later. When I asked her about the type and length of music she would like me to record, she said “Just do what you were doing for 21 minutes.”

It was a most interesting experience. For the two live performances, I played piano, alto saxophone, hand drum, mbira and sang. For the recording, I played piano, sang, read various pieces of text I had written, played mbira, and enlisted my brother Robert on African drums. I called the piece “21 Minutes for Viola Farber”. I learned from Ms. Farber that music and dance can exist simultaneously and be completely independent from each other. It was an attitude of nonchalance that was very freeing. It really didn’t matter what sounds I created to accompany her movements, and yet it did. The success, if you will, of such a performance, based largely upon instant improvisation, depended upon what I have decided to call the “trueness of the trance you are in together”.

I suppose you could also say if the dancers are dull, boring and unoriginal amateurs, and the musician(s) are as well, such a collaboration will be pretentious, stupid, dull, bad. But if everyone is excellent at their instruments, and very imaginative, then beautiful and interesting things will happen.

To hear an excerpt of “21 Minutes for Viola Farber” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

In Boston, I walked. Having gone through a few years of harrowing financial difficulties, I had given up my leased car. I could have renewed my drivers license, but the expiration date, my birthday, came and went. Never underestimate the power of sheer laziness. Looking back now, I think this act of non-action was one of the first steps I took, quite unconsciously, toward disappearing. I didn’t fully vanish, for about four years, from the world until 2003. But that’s a whole other story.

So it was through my accompanying work that I became intimately acquainted with that vast, sprawling subway system in the greater Boston area known as “The T”.  To get to Milton Academy, for instance, I had to walk fifteen blocks to the Newton Centre T stop, take the Green Line to Park Street, take the Red Line to Ashmont, take the Mattapan Line to Milton, then take a city bus to a certain bus stop, where the head of the Milton Academy Dance Department, Julie Larsen, would pick me up and bring me to campus. This process was multiplied and repeated, with various, color-coded permutations, depending on which school I was working at that day. When I moved to an apartment in Weymouth in 2001, the commute to Berklee took about an hour and a half.

THE BOSTON T SYSTEM

(The Greater Boston T system, a labyrinthian tangle of underground, street level and elevated subway rides. I always thought it was one of the great things that gave Boston its identity. I did, after all, write a song about it – “Zoe On The T Train”.)

KT NIEHOFF

(KT Niehoff.)

It was at Milton Academy that I met Seattle-based dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and musician KT Neihoff. For a two week period she was a Guest Choreographer there. KT had come up with a vocal version of an old Appalachian folk song, a lullaby called “What’ll We Do With The Baby-O”. She asked me if I could make a recording of it for her and add some vocals and percussion. So I raided the Milton Academy Band Room, found a marching band bass drum which sounded good hand-played, sang some harmonies with her and later added a mountain dulcimer. I recorded it all on my 4 track cassette recorder. Unfortunately the only recording of this venture that survived is one extremely sibilant cassette track. I still like it, with its Southern mountain roots and garlands of time-worn images strung on the beat like faded old hex signs on kudzu-covered barns.

There’s a funny story about this song. In 2007, after reconnecting with my old friend and former backup singer Polly Messer, as we were preparing to record her harmony vocals for “An American Record”, I made her a compilation cassette of some of my recordings she hadn’t heard in the 13 years we had lost touch with each other. As a humorous whim, I added this song, knowing it would stand out as something very odd along with all the other songs.

She told me later when she first heard it, after enjoying all the other songs I had sent her, she shook her head and thought “Hmmm, this does not compute!”

To hear “What’ll We Do With The Baby-O” (tape hiss and all) click HERE.

•                    •                    •

Inside:Out, Before The Performance

(The stage at the Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Outside Summer Dance Concert Series.)

For choreographer Rebecca Rice (who taught modern dance at The Boston Ballet) I composed a solo piano piece that she set for solo dancer. The world premiere of “Crosscurrents” was performed on May 3, 1999 at The Robsham Theatre at Boston College. It was danced by Isadora Wolfe. In 2014 it was performed again, this time danced by Julie Fiorenza at the Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Outside Summer Series.

It just so happens that my cousin J.R. Glover has been Director Of Education at The School at Jacob’s Pillow for some years now, so it was great to see her again when my wife Polly and I attended the June 20th performance three years ago.

JR & Polly in a golden light

(Cousin JR showing Polly and I around Jacob’s Pillow.)

JR in the studio

(JR showing us the Ruth St. Denis Studio.)

To hear “Crosscurrents” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

PROMETHEUS DANCE ON STAGE DURING HELL BENT

In 1999, through a Meet The Composer Grant from New England foundation For The Arts, as well as a Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, I was commissioned to compose a score for choreographer and Prometheus Dance co-director Diane Arvanites. The world premiere was performed on April 21, 1999 at The Emerson Majestic Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. Christine Temin, of The Boston Globe wrote “set to a powerful score by Grayson Hugh Hell Bent is one of the most compelling rhythmic dances this side of Twyla Tharpe’s The Fugue.”

I had worked with Diane at The Boston Conservatory and Walnut Hill School For The Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. She loved the music I provided for her modern classes. And I loved inspiring her and her students. I played piano, sometimes sang, played African rhythms on various drums, played pennywhistle, kalimba and even accordion. Once, when I was furiously pumping a small Chinese accordion during a particularly fast and energetic exercise across the floor, she stopped the class, and, laughing, asked me “Is that a TOY?”

We always had fun, and I was very happy to hear recently that she and her co-director Tommy Neblett got married. I wish them all the very best and perhaps we will collaborate again one day.

To hear “Hell Bent” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

CHRISTINE BENNETT

I had been playing for Christine Bennett’s modern classes at Boston University in 1998, When I accepted the job teaching Songwriting at Berklee College Of Music, I gave my notice to the Dance Department Chair, as my schedule wouldn’t accommodate doing both.

One day in ’99, Christine called me at Berklee and asked if I might like to get together to discuss a possible collaboration. We met at the Starbucks across the street from Berklee and talked about her idea for a new dance work. When she described the theme, that of grandmothers, time, memories and a sort of inner house where sacred memories live, I was immediately inspired. We worked very closely together in the process of building a score for her choreography. She loved the evocative sounds of some of my folk instruments that I wanted to use, and so I began to compose for a collection of these instruments from different parts of the world. We agreed that using these primal voices of different musical cultures would be augment the emotions conjured up in the dance.

MY FOLK INSTRUMENTS, WEYMOUTH, MA. 20001

(Some of my folk instruments used in “Inner House”: Two Shanais, Berimbau, Shurti Box, Didgeridoo, Cuica, Gopichand, Navaho Thunder Stick, Cane Quills, Mbira, Ukulele, Metal String Drum, Hand Drum.)

Part 2 of “Inner House” features spoken text as well as music. The text was written by members of the Bennett Dance Company. They were asked to write something about their grandmothers. Christine Bennett sent them to me and I constructed a narrative, using only the words of the written pieces. This was especially poignant for me as I asked my mother Jean R. Schafer to read the part of the grandmother. She had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but she was still living at home, with her husband, my stepfather, and functioning fairly well. Her sense of humour was still very much sharp, and the emotion she put into her reading gave me chills.

The three of us, she, my stepdad and myself, attended the world premiere of “Inner House” on March 2, 2001, and when I heard her voice as the dance evolved onstage, tears ran down my cheeks. I will forever be glad and grateful that my mother agreed to record this part. It will always remind me of her determination and her strong spirit. That spirit is with me always.

INNER HOUSE TEXT AND CREDITS FROM PROGRAM

To hear “Inner House (Part 2)” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

Of all the different directions I’ve taken musically, from playing in a Texas Swing band, performing with a free jazz trio, playing in an African drumming ensemble and composing music for stage and television, my “detours” with dancers have been some of the most enjoyable. There is something about the human body in motion, moving through space, that really speaks to me.

Not that I’m much good at it myself. My brothers and I still laugh about the times our father would put on “The Rite Of Spring”, and the two of us (me age 4 and David age 2) would dance around the living room for our grandparents, causing them to laugh so hard they’d be coughing and choking and spitting up their coffee. Even though I had no real concept of what I was doing, I remember taking it very seriously, and thinking I must be really good, they’re clapping so loudly! There was alot of leaping, and rushing off behind the hall wall as if it were a curtain, then leaping back out again.

•                    •                    •

It’s good to get off your main path in life now and then, and follow the dusty back roads. If you always play it safe and stick to the “planned route”, you miss out on learning new things about the world and yourself.

Explore.

You never know what treasures might await you down there.

DUSTY ROAD