MY COFFEEHOUSE BEGINNINGS

ESPRESSO:HAMMOND B3 GRAYSON copy 2

In the mid 1960’s, if you were a budding singer/songwriter of junior high school age, the only venues available to perform with your band were school dances, the local YMCA or American Legion Hall and churches and synagogues. You were still under the drinking age so, though it certainly didn’t stop you from drinking at age 15, it did make it nearly impossible (and illegal for the club owner) to get a gig at a nightclub.

It so happened that many churches had their own coffeehouses. Mine (Center Church in downtown Hartford, Connecticut) had The Blue Door.  It was a trend in the country. Coffeehouses were springing up everywhere. Most college campus had one, and people were buying and renting old buildings in cities and in the middle of the country and starting their own. There was the whole beat poet/cool jazz/coffeehouse connection going back to the 1950’s. In the mid 60’s the folk scene was just starting to explode and coffeehouses were cool all over again.  As a writer of poetry and musician this connection appealed to me. And I loved coffee. Strong coffee. Espresso. I wasn’t wearing a beret (not yet) and my facial hair was just beginning to come in, but I identified with the whole poet/writer/musician-as-hero archetype.

So it was natural that I would find my way to coffeehouses. One of the first songs I wrote, a rather melodramatic epic called “Faces At Dawn”, featured what I called my piano- travis-picking style. Having listened to a lot of folk guitar playing (Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Leadbelly, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary) I developed a piano style incorporating the rhythms and sounds of these guitar players. The result was something I still do on occasion today. Basically it’s me imitating guitar picking on the piano.

I showed “Faces At Dawn” to my girlfriend in 1965, an aspiring folksinger named Christine Larsen, and I remember watching her perform it at a coffeehouse. The relationship ended a few months later, but the song survived, as was so often the case in my life, and I had my first taste of being “the songwriter”.

In 1968, almost twenty years before I would actually move to New York to chase down a record deal, I got the urge to perform there. A friend of mine, Robin Lilienthal, who lived in the house owned by the Quaker Church in our town, told me about a place called The Bitter End in the Village. They held ”folk music hootenannies” on Tuesday nights. You could just show up early in the day, play a song and see if you got picked to perform later that night. Robin said he would pretend to be my manager, in case of discovery by a record label mogul. (Supposedly this was where Bob Dylan got discovered, so who knows?) So we rented an electric Wurlitzer piano, packed it in Robin’s car and drove into Manhattan from Connecticut. I played at the audition, got picked, and then sat around waiting for the show to begin and for my name to be called. It would be a long wait, but an interesting one.

After sitting through a pretty lame comedy monologue by the MC, the host told the audience to stick around later for all the many hootenannie acts, but first we were going to hear a very talented young singer. At which point a tall, skinny guy hopped onto the stage dressed in a white Navy uniform and sporting a military buzz cut. His name was Loudon Wainwright III, and he mentioned something about being on leave. He then proceeded to sing some funny,self-deprecating songs, one of them about a dead skunk in the middle of the road. Robin and I both liked him, but I was too excited and nervous about my New York debut to give him or anything else too much thought.

Since we had arrived shortly after noon, we had our choice of seats and were sitting right in front of the stage in the tiny club. As the many hootenannie acts began to perform, there was a distinct lack of what I call “eye contact hiding space”.

I don’t know about you, but when someone is singing and playing and it’s just not very good, I invariably develop an intense, face-flushing embarrassment for the performer and become fixated at staring at their hands or the guitar bridge, anything to avoid looking into their eyes because THEN THEY WILL KNOW I THINK THEY SUCK. And I hate, I repeat, HATE to hurt someone’s feelings. I will tell an ornately constructed lie of Hughmongous proportions, complete with sturdy flying buttresses of flowery compliments, rather than say to someone “Did you ever consider never singing in public again?” I don’t know why but I’ve always been this way.

Did I mention there were many hootenannie acts? It turned out, as the last one to be called, I didn’t go on until 3:30 in the morning. There were four people left in the audience, one of whom may have been a custodian. My ass had fallen asleep seven times in that hard chair, and when my name was called I almost couldn’t move. But I did. By Jiminy, I waited all day and night, I was gonna give them a show! I performed three songs, at least one of which was lugubriously dramatic and slow, which I realized, while singing it, might have been a poor choice.  It was called “One Thing I Can’t Hide”. But I made sure the other two were bright and peppy. After all it was almost dawn, late, even by New York standards. They were: my old chestnut “Who Are You And How Are You” (written that year at age 18, a true folk song, complete with piano travis picking) and a loud bluesy one I had written at a couple years before called “There’s A Time”. The people left in the audience all woke up when I played that one, from the volume, if nothing else, and gave me some very nice applause. There was, of course, no pay. This was a hootenannie, folks. It was also the last time I played for free.

The whole point of this story is that coffeehouses really were fun places to perform and to hear music in. And, unless you doing a hootenannie, you got paid pretty well. People were there for the music, and they as a rule really listened and were quiet and well-behaved. Even if much of it was amateurish and not so great, it was all very heartfelt. It was a time.

And the coffee was good.

To hear the 1992 version of that song that pierced the early morning coffeehouse air click HERE.

WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT

"AN AMERICAN RECORD" CD COVER 2010 (photo by Grayson Hugh) copy

In the Summer of 2006, I was in my second year living in a sober house in Wareham, Massachusetts. After having my life implode as a result of alcohol, I had begun the process of rebuilding myself, my spiritual life, my physical health and my musical career.

One of the gifts I received early in my sobriety was the seed money for a new album. A rehab counselor from The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission who knew my work was able to secure some funds for me to begin work on, as he put it “what I do best”. It turned out he had been a fan of my music since the 1988 release of “Blind To Reason”. His name was Dean Gilmore. We became good friends and would talk for hours about books, music and life over shared breakfasts and cups of coffee. I dedicated the album to him. But I wouldn’t release it until four years later.

The journey of what I would eventually call “An American Record” began slowly, with several rhythm tracks recorded at Wellspring Sound Studios in Acton, Massachusetts. I ended up keeping only three of these for the record: “Swamp Yankee”, “Zoe On The T Train” and “What It’s All About”. The creative process of selection, rethinking songs, adding new ones had begun and what I had imagined would take six months to a year at most, took on a life of its own. Since this was to be, essentially my “comeback record”, I didn’t want to rush it. My good old friends and former band mates from the early Connecticut days had signed on to do the album: Tom Majesky on guitar, David Stoltz on bass and Rob Gottfried on drums. My other good old friend and former backup singer, Polly Messer, after hearing about this project from Rob, had called and offered her services as harmony singer.

I remember recording “What It’s All About” in Acton, in December of 2006. I took the bus from Wareham to Boston, then the train to Acton, record, then made the return trip. It was an all day affair that I did on a Saturday. Ignoring the conventional production wisdom of recording the piano and lead vocal separately (to make mixing easier) I decided to record the vocal and the piano live together. I wanted the intimacy of the performance. This song, about the sacredness of love and nature, was too personal for me to record in stages. 

After doing several takes, I had one I was happy with. I did some overdubs on a couple other songs, had the engineer make me a CD copy of what I done that day to listen to, then he dropped me at the Acton train station.

It was about 7pm, dark and cold, and as I walked onto the platform it began to snow. I looked at the snow falling down through the lights on the railroad tracks, and suddenly wanted to share this moment with someone. Grayson Hugh was back and I wanted to tell somebody.

Who did I think of?  In the past it would have been my parents, my brothers. I would always share good news of my musical career with them; it was my immediate family I’d call after doing a t.v. show in London, a concert in Spain or Atlanta or from a phone booth in Wales.

But that snowy night in December 2006, my first thought was to call Polly. Even though we had not yet begun “a romantic relationship”, there was a deep connection between us, and it was her I wanted to share this moment with.

Thankfully she was home, and I can’t really remember what I told her, but I said I just wanted to tell her I had just recorded a song that was very important to me, and I couldn’t wait to have her hear it.

It turned out that “What It’s All About” was the second song I asked Polly to sing harmony on. After she had recorded her vocals for “Swamp Yankee” on January 21, 2007 (including the amazing high Indian chant at the end) I kept writing her into more songs. I wanted to keep seeing her at these overdub sessions. Since I had let my driver’s license expire and had not renewed it yet, it was Polly that was soon picking me up at the Hartford train station and transporting me to stay at my dad’s in Bloomfield or one of my two brothers in Wethersfield and West Hartford. Then she’d drive the hour back to Danbury, get a few hours sleep before getting up at 5 to go to work!

These first overdubs (there were several layers) were done at my guitar player friend Tom Majesky’s home studio on Whitney Street in Hartford, where I had also lived before moving to New York in 1987. After recording, we’d all sit down to eat big delicious meals prepared by our friend Suzy Langlois who was also living there at the time. It was, I realized in retrospect, a courtship conducted in cars, recording studios, and over these meals. I was also introducing Polly to my family in the process. In my clueless way, I was falling head first in love with her as we harmonized and ate delicious big meals.

Though it was becoming increasingly obvious to my family and those around us, I still had no idea that we’d end up married. Not until I proposed to her on I-84 one night, on the way home from one of these sessions. It was an uncharacteristically undramatic move for me, but there was never an instinct that had become so clear in my heart and mind. We had to be together. We were together. In many ways, we always were.

You just don’t know, you cannot know, ahead of time. You just have to be there and experience the journey. That’s what it’s all about.

To watch the video for “What It’s All About” from “An American Record” click HERE.

 

 

BAND NAMES: THE QUESTING

GRAYSON age 14 on Walkley Road Basement Rec Room Steps 1964 copy

I remember like it was last week: the angst of my young rock ’n roll band days. I’m talking about fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old. I’d sit around with my friends (some of whom actually played instruments) having “meetings” in my family’s basement rec room, spending long hours eating potato chips, drinking coke while we thought up band names, most of them really, really, bad ones.

The process was endless. It involved the shouting out of lame name ideas, followed by derisive guffaws of laughter and observations about one’s mother and other such rank-outs. Some heated discussion would ensue, accompanied by the emphatic shaking of heads and dismissive gestures, then the process would repeat. Not one good name was ever thought up at these meetings. But we did have good discussions on what clothes to wear. Denim jackets were discussed. And we laughed a lot.

For a while during the Fall and Winter of 2007, during the making of  “An American Record”, I commuted from Cape Cod to Connecticut on weekends. One of the things I did to shorten those three hour bus trips (besides counting all the red tailed hawks I’d see in the trees) was to make lists of ridiculous band names. For laughs later on, I’d read them aloud to Polly.

Ladies and gentlemen, boy and girls, musicians of all ages and at all stages, I present some of these names to you now. Who knows – you may just find the perfect one for your band!

BAND NAME LIST 1

THREE BENS AND A HUR
THE HOWDY DO’S
THE DOWDY HUCKS
HUCKLEBERRY SLIM
THE GIDDYUPS
THE FEW FARTHINGS
FARMINGTON HEDGE
THE WEDGELYS
SQUEEZEPANCE
SQUAREDANCER
SURGE PANTS MORNING
PANTING IN THE MORNING
WITHOUT YOUR SISTER
PANTS ATWIST
YER SISTER IS FRANTIC
SISTERHUT
WUZ SISTER HERE?
R U HUR SISTER?
SISTERFEAR
FAINTING SISTER
O YER SISTER
I HEAR YA SISTER
UNCLE SISTER
THE LETHARGIC HOMBRES
FIVE SISTERS AND A COUSIN
OF DIRT AND SISTER
GONE WITH THE SISTER
RBEL WITHOUT A COUSIN
BEACHBLANKET COUSIN
PAUL ANKA IS A MARMOT
FABIAN’S JOY
NEPTUNE’S LUNCH
DOLPHINS WITHOUT BROTHERS
THE QUARTERMASTERS
ENOD QUICKEN
THE YE BOBS
THE WRATH OF FILBERT
THE MANY DOBBS
THREE KINGS AND A LADY
THREE DORKS AND A CHANCELOR
THE HALL MONITORS
THE RICKY VAN HERKIN PROJECT
DAVID BARTHOLMEW’S LAMENT
TOUCH MY ROBE
STANDS WITH A TWIST
THE JACK LEMMON TWISTS
THE LIL’ BOBBERS
NIGHT OF THE LIVING SISTERS
ENTER THE COUSIN
FINAL SISTER
COUSIN SANCTION
DON’T LOOK BACK, COUSIN
SISTER  VS. COUSIN
COUSINSISTER
THE SINISTERS
THE SPINNING
THE MT. AUBURN WHINERS
THE FAMOUS JOHNS
THE YOUNG QUIPS
BONANNIGEN
THE BALBOAS
THE PONCES AND A DE LEON

BAND NAME LIST 2

THE POO POO HEADS
THE PUPU PLATTERS
FIVE DICKS AND A JANE
THE CORDUROUYS
LITTLE JOHNNY ROY & THE DICKIES
STARTLED COAT
EVENTUAL BURLAP
THE STUNNING MORMONS
BIG AMISH
THE VERY LOUD LUTHERANS
MENONITE THUNDER
THE FALLEN SHAKERS
FOR HOWARDS’ SAKE
LADYSHIP BLONDE
THE HACKING COUGHS
A HINT OF COUSIN
TORRINGTON RISING
SHUDDER TO THINK
THE LONGSHANKS
ODIOUS CLOVER
HAIL THE ROLLOVER
THE SWANKS
THE BOSSIES
THE PLAYDOUGHS
FIVE RUGS IN A HOUSE
HOUSECOATS
HAWTHORNE’S ROOF
JEFFERSON ALOOF
THE UNIDENTIFIED SINGING OBJECTS
THE FREEZING STRINGS
THE HONEY CLAMS
THE PASSING PHASES
THE RECTOR
BILL BOW BONNETT

NOTHIN’ ON IT

AQUA PEANUT

THE SEA WORTHIES

THE NEW BEDFORD SEETHERS
WHALE’S RIB
SOMETHING SPONGY
SEEING TURTLES
SMOOTH AS ASTRID
UNCLE LUTHER’S RAINCOAT
GREAT GALOSH
THE FRIGGINS
FLEBOTTOMUS HIGGINS
THE CARL SANDERS PROJECT
PARSLEY, PAGE, ROSEMARY & TOM
UNCLE TOM’S COUSINS
THE SHABBYTOWN TIGERS
THEY CALL ME MR. HUGH
TRUTH OR COUSIN
THE CLUTTERS OF TEETH
ON RYE WE GO
THE BARDS OF SOUTHBURY
THE HILLS OF VERNON
TIDES OF GRANBY
BY GOLLY GOSHEN
COVENTRY LOTION
BILLY & THE DOO RAGS
THE FLYING STALAGTITES
FEAR OF SINGING
COUNTING COUSINS
COUSINS AHOY
COUSIN HO!
COUSINTRAIN
COUSINWISH

BAND NAME LIST 3

THE AWFUL PUPPETS
THE POPPETS OF POMFRET
THREE CLOWNS IN A FOUNTAIN
FIVE CROWS ON A PINETOP
THE PINETOPS
PINESAP PERKINS
THE GO JIMBITS
THE NIMWITS
THE ROTTEN HULLS
HOUSE OF DOBBS
THE GOOD JOBS
THE DANDIES
THE ROCK CANDIES
THE WHEN
BLEED THE CHORDS
COUNT THE COUSINS
THE YOUNG MASTERS
TASKER
THE DANCING MASTERS
THE LYRES
SAXOPHONY EARL
THE CHESHIRE DUKES
THE FLUKES
THE BRISTOL POMPS
LORDS OF DANBURY
FLEABAG TRUMPET
BIG STRUMPET
THE AFFORDABLES
THE HORRIBLES
BUILT FOR JOY
BIG JOY MATTENTOS
GOODER THAN BETTER
LEAD BUTTER
ORION’S UDDER
SLIPPERS OF HERCULES
LAFCADIO’S EASE
THE EMBER PEAS
HOMER’S SEETHING
SWEETPEA TEETHING
PROMETHEUS LEAVING
SEMI CONSCIOUS
PAPPY TATER
THE OLDEN NOTIONS
FROSTBITER
THUNDER RUMBLER
JACK B. TUMBLER
LAUGH ME UNDER
ASUNDER
BILLY O’WONDER
FIND YOUR ETHER
THE FIRST AND SEEN
THE NEEDY
THE MUSTARD DUMPLINGS
THE RUDYARD KIPLINGS
THE RUMPLED STILL SKINS
THE EASY BISCUITS
FLEUR DE LANCE
MAJOR PANTS
THE SHANTY COUSINS
COUSINLOAD
FOOD FOR COUSINS
THE FIVE SORROWS
THE NO TOMORROWS
THE TASTY LICKERS
SNICKERS, THE FLIRTY FERRET
LITTLE TOMMY SKERRIT
THE THORNY BRANCHES
BAD HUNCH
THE HUNCHBACKERS
THE LOUSY TRACKERS
FINNCKY MADIGAN
THE FLABBIGANS
ROWDY HUTCHER
SKULLY ESTHER
ISTHMUS
THE PANAMANIANS
EAST OF WINSTED
THE FLYING BUTTRESSES
ASLEEP IN THE PANTRY
ELMER GANTRY
ICHABOD’S WAISTCOAST
THE PANTALOONS
PINNOCHIO’S TOMB
FLOSTAM & SPANDEX
BIG MYRTLE MILLS
THE FIVE HILLS
THE PILLS
I GOT THE CHILLS
THE EMPHATICS
THE LYMPHATICS
THE YOUNG CHIVES
YOUNG BURL IVES
COUSINS WITH HIVES
BITTER INGOT
FINDY FINGER
THE HARES
PURETY FINGER
THE PRAIRY HAIRS
THE BURNING FIGS
THE EARWIGS
MOLLIFIED PORK
THE HUSBUBS
THE CHERRY WEXLERS
THE HOG PUPPIES
EXTREME NEIGHBORS
WEAK BUT NOT SILLY
WEST OF PHILLY
GUSHY LADY
TUMBLEWEED SHADY
MISTER POTATO HORN
THE CAPE OF GOOD WICKER
SALLY-EYE FROBISH
THE VAN HARKINS
ITSY BITSY KRAMER
LITTLE TINY SUMACS
A SEQUIN TOO FAR
FOR THE LOVE OF BUTTER
THE ANNOYING PASSENGERS
THE PALTRY FLECKS
THE LITTLE SPECKS
THE NASTER SMUDGERS
SHINY DROPLETS
TOUCHING THE COUPLETS
TOUCHY THE CLOWN
BIG DONUT DOWN
THE FALSE PECANS
LOUDENFOLK
STINKY YOLK
NO HOPE
SOME HESITATION
THE HIJINXERS
THE HOWDY JIMS
ME, HER & HIM
THE PUFFINS
THE UNDERSUNG
THREE BIRDS AND A TONGUE
CONNIE’S LUNG
THE CLEAVERS
THE DECEIVERS
THE MEAT WEAVERS
THE LUNCH HEAVERS
THE LITTLE BROWN BEAVERS
THE FLYING SHARDS
THE SIDE YARDS
LEO AND HIS TARDS
THE SPUTTERING IMPLOSIVES
GUSTY DANCER
BAD FILAMENT
OLD HANK
FISHTANK
LUMBERFRANK
PETERFROZEN
GEEZERHOSEN
RALPH ROSEN
CORN B. SHAWTUCKS
NICELY PEEBLES
RICE SQUEEZEM
YOUNG DOWDY HORBACK
THE NAUGHTY JELLIES
THE VOWELS OF TUESDAY
RUCKUS
UNCLE TOM’S FOOLERY
LIVERY JUNCTION
ERIC THE FLAKEY
TIRED AND ACHY
MOSTLY OVER
THE FEEBLES
THE BILL WEEVILS
SPUTYN DEEVIL
FLOYGEN
DOLLY HOYGAN
BIFF SHMOYGAN
SHEBOYGAN
SCHMOO
THE NEGATORIES
THE LLOYDS
THE BATHROYDS
BAD PIGEON
THE FUNNY LITTLE MAYORS
SLEEPBLANKET
LUNCHBOX
HUCK BENNAGIN
THE FIVE GESTURES
GONE TO MARKET
FISHING FOR COUSINS
FLANNERY O’SHIRT
THE NORWEIGIAN MINISTERS
HELL BENT FOR VINYL
QUESTIONS FOR LIONEL
THE OLD BILL GHERKINS
YOUNG PETER PERKINS

BAND NAME LIST 4

GASEOUS CLAY

YE MUSTER
YE OLDE DAMP
HAMPER
TUSKIT
MUSK AND LOG
FOGSAVER
FUEL OMELETTE
LIQUID SOCK
RUSTY LOCK
HOCK
HOCKANUM
WAMPUM BUSTER
HOCK YER BANNISTER
RAVING GYPSUM
GLADDY HANDLE
HANDLEBAG
HANDLE PLEASURE
MISERY OF TRENT
SONS OF SHILLSWORTH
HASHY BROWN
TANG
YOU RANG?
AND THEY SANG
CHEESY WHIZ
LUMPY FIZZ
IT JUST IS
ASK LIZ
FOREIGN DUMPSTER
MISTER SHAKEY
LIL’ QUAKEY
QUAKERS OF NEAR
EARTHQUAKEY
OLD FLAKY
OLDENHAUS
BAD BLOUSE
YOUR SISTER”S SPOUSE
EGGS OF EDDIE
HERKY JIM
MUCMUC
CINDERFOOT
BITTERLUCK
CUMBER’S CLOUD
YER TOO LOUD
SAP
FOLDING HAT
RUNNING STRANGELY
LAKES OF RANGELEY
NOSERUNNER
TROUBLEBUNION
THE LONDON AIRYS
THE IRSH FAIRYS
THE SEVEN LARRYS
BURMA DAVE
FLESHWIG
THE JOHN HEIDLEBERG DANCERS
JORGLE PHLEGM
YOU AGAIN

FARE THEE WHEN

IT’S THE END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BLIZZARD SONG (THOSE DAYS OF INDECISION)

PRINCETON IN THE SNOW

TO HEAR “BLIZZARD SONG” CLICK HERE.

In the Winter of 1986, I got a job at Princeton University as accompanist for modern dance. I was on my way to my destiny, determined to get a record deal. I kept my apartment in Hartford, Connecticut, playing in a weekend wedding band, while I stayed weeknights with a friend in Manhattan, worked my accompanying job at Princeton, pounded on doors of record companies and did occasional recording sessions with some well known rock and jazz artists.

A little history: Since my late teens, when I discovered to my pleasant surprise that I could get paid to improvise on the piano, I had “day jobs” as a modern dance accompanist. I mean who wouldn’t love this job? Performing (showing off, really) in front of beautiful girls dressed in leotards? It was a no-brainer. It was no coincidence that all my girlfriends from the 70’s and 80’s happened to be dancers. I would look forward to those bright, hopeful, crisp days of September when new batches of lovely young female dancers would present themselves as my new audiences (er, classes).

It wasn’t all lechery. I was good at this job. I made the classes fun for the students. Many of them thanked me for enlivening their classes, instead of lifelessly playing the same old boring Chopin preludes over and over like some of the other accompanists. Instead of putting them to sleep, I would mix it up with occasional bursts of singing, humor, soul music quotes and the occasional performances on saxophone, recorder and various percussion instruments. I enjoyed it too, and I got alot of satisfaction from making these classes fun. And it left my nights free to earn money playing with my bands in the clubs.

I had many of these jobs, starting at The Hartford Conservatory, with the legendary, German-born Truda Kaschmann. Truda brought me to play for her classes at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. I went on to accompany at The Hartford Ballet, Trinity College, The Loomis Chaffee School, The Ethel Walker School, Wesleyan University, Julliard School of Music, The Alvin Ailey School, Milton Academy, The Boston Ballet, The Boston Conservatory, Walnut Hill School For The Arts, The Martha Graham School, The José Limón School, Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Sarah Lawrence College and Princeton University. I also played master classes for choreographers Gus Solomons Jr., Bill T. Jones, Moses Pendelton of Pilobolus, and was commissioned to compose scores for Viola Farber, Prometheus Dance and Bennett Dance Company.

But in the Winter of 1986, I was at Princeton. It was a very snowy Winter. I was in a state of transition. My life was in motion. I was on the way, moving out of my hometown of Hartford, Connecticut to New York City, where I would eventually get a record deal with RCA Records. During the week I camped out on an army cot in a friend’s basement barber shop basement in Manhattan, and commuted to Princeton. On the weekends I returned to my apartment in Hartford where I played in a wedding band. The Princeton commute took two and half hours each way. It involved taking the subway from East 85th Street to Grand Central, waiting for and getting on the not-always-punctual New Jersey Transit Train, getting off at Princeton Junction and taking the five minute train ride, known as “the Dinky Line”, from Princeton Junction stop to the campus. Sometimes the timing of the various trains would not line up, for whatever reasons, and I would arrive late for my first class at Princeton, which I hated doing. I’d rather be two hours early than be late for work. I remember being so stressed sometimes from the running through the streets and down the halls of Grand Central station, that I would break out into big, itchy hives that would last a few hours.

While my own life was imbued with a deep feeling of impermanence, there would be these moments on those snowy days at Princeton where I would become suddenly intensely aware of the self-contained, protected world there. The dance studio was steaming and filled with that fresh, cold air smell of snow-soaked coats and wool scarves. Every now and then, for a few minutes at a time, drinking my coffee-to-go from the campus dining hall, I would be overcome with happiness. Perhaps I identified with those college students. Shut off from the realities of getting a real job, settling down, getting married and all the rest, there was a wonderful, safe coziness to those wintry campus yards. I imagined hunkering down under the snow-drifted roofs for a romantic weekend with a girlfriend. Any girlfriend. How about that fascinating Chinese student? Or that Nordic-looking girl with bangs and glasses? Or that one in the green denim jacket that looks like she’d really like both hiking and poetry? I could read her my poems. Oh yes, I dreamed.

So I wrote, a few years later, this song about those days. It’s about that world-away-from-the-world, those magical, hidden days and nights between college campus days and “real life”. After the blizzard, the sun comes out, and you both emerge from the blizzardy eaves of the ivy-covered dorm rooms where the icicles are melting into the bushes and yards. You walk down the street in search of coffee, deeply in love, wrapped in the safety and surety of sexual infatuation and a romantic dream.

Sure you’ll have to face reality some day. But for now, who cares?
“It’s the time of indecision
every night and every day
every dream and every vision
help me now to slip away”.

 

 

MARVIN…WHAT’S GOIN’ ON?

Marvin Gaye. His records meant so much to me. They became a part of my cellular structure, influencing everything from the way I sang, wrote, arranged and just thought about my own music. And though I tried, for about ten minutes in my youth, to sound like him, of course I never did, and that was a good thing. It forced me to find my own voice.

Marvin was the CHAMPION of not only singing, but of layering his vocals like gorgeous, thick yet articulate tangles of vines, branches, tendrils, city streets, fogs and mists. He could bring on a weather front with that voice.

He also had so many brilliant arranging and production ideas: like, for instance, layering one or more horns playing their hearts out, enough in the background to be not a “part” but just a vapor of a feeling. He had equally stunning imagination when it came to setting up grooves, like a film director creating scenes in a movie. Besides being a dangerously gifted singer and composer, he was a superb drummer and pianist. He could do it all. He could sing smooth or add the growl to his voice with amazing control. He could “beg”, sing gospel, the blues, jazz, he could croon, trill, chant, hum and just open his mouth and make the very act of vocalizing sound absolutely effortless. I always said it really didn’t matter what word or syllable or sound he was singing; when it came out his throat the sound became art. If anybody else other than Marvin sang the lyrics “you sure do love to ball”, I would scoff at the unimaginative cliche. When he sang it (in the song of the same title on his 1973 album “Lets Get It On”) the line just worked and it became a part of a soulful, melodic, rhythmic truth.

When I first heard his song “What’s Goin’ On”, in the Summer of 1971, on the jukebox at Jimmie’s Pizza in West Hartford, Connecticut, it exploded like a big blossoming bomb in my brain. I remember the instant feeling of being haunted by a beautiful loneliness, a voluptuous sadness, an inner city of tears populated by saxophones and crowd voices and bongos and strings and the all-important major seventh and minor ninth chords that held up the whole thing.

A brief story.

When my major label debut record “Blind To Reason” came out in 1988, RCA sent me on an eleven city promotional tour. They were catered affairs at recording studios, to which radio executives and key record store people were invited. (Remember record stores?) I’d wait in a room somewhere while they’d play the album, then I’d do a solo set on the baby grand piano. My product manager at RCA told me they had done this with Bruce Hornsby, and it was very successful in establishing good will with radio and retail accounts. The cities I went to were New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and Detroit. It was alot of fun and it did help my radio play and record sales.

When I was in Detroit, one of the radio people invited me and my manager on a private guided tour of “Hittsville, U.S.A.”, Motown’s first headquarters on 2648 West Grand Boulevard. I was thrilled to go to the place where I knew Marvin Gaye had recorded many of his first hits.

It was a cold and grey Winter day when we arrived at the museum in the New Center area of Detroit, a mixture of small to medium sized commercial buildings and modest residential homes. We were greeted by a very nice young woman who proceeded to give us a tour. I remember being surprised (and comforted) by the no-frills style of the place. After some trouble getting the film projector started, we watched a short documentary in a small room that reminded me of a church basement, complete with the requisite well-used, folding metal chairs. Then the woman showed us the cozy, diminutive recording studio, and I was again amazed at the smallness of it all. As she and my manager talked,  I asked if it was alright if I looked upstairs, where they had a few rehearsal and office rooms. She said that would be fine, so up I went.

As I walked around, music was playing on speakers somewhere. As I peered into a room with a tiny upright piano and a chair, the song “What’s Goin’ On” began.

There I was, standing there, alone in a cold room of a house in Detroit where one of my musical heroes sang and recorded, and suddenly his voice was there with me. I mean his voice was an actual presence in that room with me. As Marvin sang “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying”, that’s exactly what I started to do. Cry. No one could see me, and I gave in to the emotion.

In that moment, in that room, hearing that wonderful song again, it was as if a journey of my soul had been completed. And from the very bottom of my heart, I thanked Marvin for his voice, for his music, for this song, for his soul.

I am not embellishing or romanticizing when I say that I felt his spirit answer. It was as if the air around me caved inward in the shape of a smile. I was not alone. He was with me, not just in voice, but in spirit, and I’ll never forget it.

God Bless you Marvin. You did so much more than make records. You wrote stories and poems that will live forever in my soul.

To hear “What’s Goin’ On” click HERE.

CHRISTMAS 2015: THE YEAR OUR TREE FELL DOWN

I’ve heard somewhere that everyone is allowed at least one Christmas disaster story. We now have ours. Christmas 2015 will now be known in our family as “the year our tree fell down”.

Actually there were several mini-disasters, minor bumps in the road, that led up to the bigger one.

First, in late November, our car started making an ominous knocking sound. We brought it in and were told the oil had run out and the warning light failed to come on. Not what you want to hear from the car guy right at the start of the Christmas shopping season. So we got the necessary repairs which were fortunately covered by our warranty; and we dodged a bullet of major engine damage. Minor bump one.

Then the kitchen sink started leaking water into the cabinet below and we had to hire our trusty handy man to put in a new one. Trusty handy man, in turning off the water in the basement, found a leak in the furnace pipe. He said ” you should call a real plumber to fix it”.  One real plumber later, our modest budget for presents was down to a few farthings. Oh well. The last thing you want at Christmas is a flood in the kitchen. Bump two. Surely it would be smooth sailing from here.

Not a chance.

Normally a very healthy guy, I got a nasty cold right at the start of December that turned into a “mild pneumonia in the right lung”. I hate to think what a bad case might feel like. I never had pneumonia before and this one rendered me pretty much useless for the whole month. I don’t recommend it to anyone.

So my poor wife, the ever-energetic Polly, put up Christmas all by herself this year. Not only did she get all four of her unique artificial trees down from the attic, she also carted all the boxes of vintage ornaments and lights down our skinny attic steps, decorated all the trees and the rest of the house, put her Christmas Village up on top of our grand piano, and then proceeded to clean and cook for not one, but two Christmas gatherings we were hosting.

I meanwhile dutifully obeyed my doctor’s instructions and rested, drank copious amounts of water and generally felt like a useless sloth. Another description of my state that my wife not so cheerfully provided was “sitting there like a prince”.

Guilty as charged. And I remain in awe of her stamina.

Finally, a week before Christmas, I felt good enough to get out of the house to help her accomplish two major tasks. The first was to get the food for the coming celebrations. Over the mountain and through the woods we drove to the giant food warehouse where the entire population of western Connecticut was also shopping that day. After confirming our recently renewed and recently lost membership cards, we were allowed to proceed and wander the giant food warehouse to purchase giant amounts of food.

Our second mission was to get a real live Christmas tree, the first real one of our seven years of marriage. So, filled with nostalgic images of fragrant pine boughs, lights and angels, Polly and I went to the nearby nursery and hunted down the perfect specimen. We chose a big fat eight foot tall balsam fir. We noticed they had a couple of heavy duty metal tree stands with big spikes that cost about $100. They looked capable of securing a redwood. I got the fairly big plastic stand we already had from the car and asked the tree guys if it would be adequate. They assured us it would, nodding vehemently in that way that knowledgeable tree guys use, as if to say “stand aside, sir, we are knowledgeable tree guys, have no fear”.

So the knowledgeable tree guys made a fresh cut and tied it to our car roof. Back through the woods and over the mountain we drove, our hearts brimming with yuletide cheer.

With some authentic huffing and puffing (mostly on my part) and minor scraping of walls (on the tree’s part), we got the beautiful evergreen up to the second floor of our old two family house and into the newly appointed Christmas room. Into the tree stand we guided it, and with some angling and tightening of the screws, the Christmas tree was up. The house already smelled like pine woods of northern Maine! I didn’t even mind the pine sap on my new flannel shirt, it smelled so good. We gave it its first four gallon drink of cold tap water, and Polly began the process of stringing the old-fashioned large size lights and hanging her many ornaments.

We were both excited that Polly’s son Rosario (and my stepson) would soon arrive. He had just completed a grueling first semester of graduate school and we looked forward to having him home again and seeing his reaction to the new Christmas tree.

He loved it, as we all did. It was a very thirsty tree and had to be watered twice a day.  We took turns crawling under the bottom boughs with freshly filled water bottles. Christmas spirit was building! The tree was up and smelling great, glowing with the light of red, green, blue and white bulbs, the long table was set up, and it was a pleasure to wrap presents there in the Christmas room with Aaron Neville, Amy Grant, Vince Gill and Bing Crosby singing Christmas songs on the boombox.

One last mission was announced by Polly: get the Santa with two reindeer up on the outside second story porch. Since the new tree was blocking the door to the outside porch where Santa needed to go, we used the window to the roof next to the porch. In an unusually warm December, it had grown colder and rainy two days before Christmas. But I borrowed our neighbor’s good ladder and Rosario, Polly and I brought Santa up to his porch-top position. Rosario climbed the ladder, being the lightest and nimblest of us. I was ladder-holder. Rosario and his mom made some last minute repairs with some duct tape, hooked up the cables and – Voila! – Santa was ready for his midnight ride!

Christmas Eve dinner – celebration number one – went smoothly. Everybody ate a little too much, exchanged presents, laughed, told stories and had a wonderful time. After everyone left, determined to stay ahead of the game, Polly washed half of the dishes before getting to bed at 1:30 in the morning. We both fell asleep like yuletide logs.

An hour later, with dreams of sugarplums dancing in our heads, we were awakened out of a deep sleep by Rosario with these words: “Uh, guys, there was a huge crash – it was the Christmas tree. It fell over. I think we better deal with this right now.”

Polly later said she could not wake her brain up. We were staring at the fallen Christmas tree and all the smashed ornaments which had landed smack dab in the middle of the decorated Christmas dinner table, and watching a small but lively brook flowing from the tree stand down the hall into the living room. I was blinking but couldn’t take it in. The fallen tree just looked so huge and strange, lying on its side like that.

Then two very clear thoughts appeared in my brain, as we scrambled to find every towel in the house to blot up the river of pine-scented tree water. My first thought was “that’s the last time I trust knowledgeable tree guys” and the other was “at least it wasn’t a fire.”

In seconds we bonded together, like the incredibly strong family we are, and tackled the problem. After we mopped up the water, I held the tree (mmm, still smells good, though – man, my shoulder is burning..); Rosario, engineer that he is, improvised a wire buttress between the trunk and the porch door to see if it could support it better; and Polly rescued the remaining ornaments from the branches and swept up the shards of the broken ones from the floor and rug. It became apparent, after several attempts at securing it with wire, that the tree would just not stay up. Its volume had expanded, after drinking all that water, to the point where the “less heavy-duty” stand could no longer support it.

Not wanting to risk another toppling, and needing to get at least two hours sleep before getting up to prepare for Christmas Day dinner, we decided to cut our losses and put the tree out on the porch. It could keep Santa and the reindeer company, like a small horizontal forest. We’d deal with getting it over the porch railing later.

We got the lights off, Rosario went to bed, and Polly and I stayed up and packed all the ornaments away and brought them back up to the attic. We also hung the wet rug pad out on the clothesline and lifted the new Persian rug up a bit to air it out.

I have to hand it to my wife and Rosario – and to myself, too. It could have become a traumatic, holiday-destroying disaster, but, by keeping a positive attitude and a sense of humor, we solved the problem, got a few hours sleep and were able to enjoy our Christmas Day with our family.

And we got a story out of it.

Christmas 2015. The year our tree fell down.

 

© 2015 by Grayson Hugh

 

 

 

 

 

 

IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR (AND THE PERFECT TIME TO RELEASE “BACK TO THE SOUL”)

back-to-the-soul-poster-copy

It’s Saturday, late August, and a good day to mow the lawn.

It’s a bright sunny day, with just a hint of that Canadian dryness to come, but still humid enough to work up a good sweat. As my ancient gas-powered lawnmower gives our front yard hill its weekly crew cut, at least ten surprised crickets scamper out of their daytime naps in the grass. And just like the crickets, big fat memories of this time of year come tumbling out of my mind. The memories are powerful physical sensations that have been slumbering, stirred to life by the combination of the almost-September sunlight, the sweet-sour smell of grass and that circular hypnotic sound of locusts in the trees.

I think of of apples. Orchards. Wild grapevines. Honey. Bees, drunk on fermented nectar of fallen fruit. Corduroy pants, for some reason (must be my new school clothes). The Labor Day Fair of my hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut. Going back to school. The thrill of a new girlfriend. Who would it be?

And I think of music.

It is a law of nature that late Summer-early Fall is the perfect time for new music. It is the perfect time to hear a new record and a great new band. Like, for instance, The Beatles.

I’ll never forget seeing their movie “A Hard Days Night” in August of 1964, with my brothers, while on a family vacation at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

In that Summer of my fourteenth year we were staying on an island with friends of ours who had a house there. One day all of us kids miraculously convinced the grownups to give us a boat ride to the mainland to see the new Beatles movie at the little wooden theater in the town of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. It was a life-changing event, and I think I knew it was, even at the moment of experiencing it. The thrill of hearing that music, and seeing those four Englishmen doing what I knew I would be doing one day – playing concerts of my own songs! – was ingrained forever in my brain, blood and bones. After watching the movie twice, as I walked along the sidewalk with the early fallen leaves crunching under my feet, I knew without a doubt what my life’s work was going to be.

WOLFBORO TOWN HALL - Old Movie House Where We Saw A HARD DAYS NIGHT in August 1964 copy(A very nice woman from the Wolfboro Town Hall gives my brother Rob, pictured here, and I a tour of what was once The Memorial Theatre, on the town hall’s second floor. It’s here where all three of us Hugh boys watched “A Hard Day’s Night” in late August 1964.)

That memory is so vivid, and the happiness within it so huge, that whenever I get a bit discouraged with the battles and challenges of being a singer/songwriter and recording artist, all I have to do is listen to a song like “Tell Me Why” or “Can’t Buy Me Love” by The Beatles and I am instantly recharged with hope and inspiration.

Which is why I’m so happy that it just so happened that my new album “Back To The Soul” was released to the world just last week, in this “inbetween the seasons” time, on August 12, 2015.

Recorded in Charleston, South Carolina during a record cold snap last February, mixed and mastered in Connecticut during the Spring, “Back To The Soul” is a return to not only my roots in southern soul music, but to the kind of excitement one feels at falling in love, at beginning a new school year, starting out in a new city, embarking on a new chapter in one’s life.

It’s that time of year.

I hope you feel it too.

TO LISTEN TO “BACK TO THE SOUL” CLICK HERE.

TO PURCHASE THE “BACK TO THE SOUL” CD CLICK HERE.

 

© 2015 by Grayson Hugh

tumblr_inline_nrdt9f2JVF1qdq1a2_540BACK TO THE SOUL Album Cover 600 pixels