Neal Casal – “I wish the world was as gentle as he was..”

August 27, 2019 Leave a comment

My doubts had doubts. I didn’t know what I was doing. All I know is that there was, finally, something about this batch of songs that kept me awake at night, thinking that things were possible. It was 1998.

I was working with George Graham at WVIA. George had a suggestion.

“I think we should ask Neal….I hear him on these..”

Neal Casal.

George has worked with Neal on a previous session. He thought our styles would mesh.

I didn’t know what to say….I think I stammered something like….”um…er….well….I mean….do you think he would do it, because I doubt he’ll…you know….?”

I had Neal’s records. We played a show together when he passed through the area. I was a huge fan. Just listening to “Fade Away Diamond Time” and “Rain Wind and Speed” made me a better songwriter…because I discreetly stole from both of them. He was so understated, so quietly inventive. He did everything well. Gorgeous singer, writer of great melodies (“Bird in Hand” still makes me cry), wonderful lyricist. As a guitarist he served the song better than anybody I’d ever heard. He had a pitch-perfect ear. And he was as gentle as the sunrise.

George said “let’s ask him”, and he did and Neal not only said yes, he suggested bringing his friend John Ginty with him. John had played keys on all of Neal’s records up to that point. And so there it was. It wasn’t just that I was intimidated, It was that I nearly shit myself. That’s the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

casal16

Neal during the “Song About a Train” sessions

I had no idea how to make a record. None. It was suggested that Neal and John were so good that we’d only need a day to rehearse the songs….they’d come up on a Friday night, and we could record on Saturday and Sunday. My girls weren’t born yet, so Neal got Kiera’s future room….and John got Alyssa’s. We played for a few hours and I spent the entire time grinning like an idiot. If anybody needed to rehearse it was me. By the end of the night Neal and John knew the songs better than I did.

They were fully engaged. We tweaked and cut and added and worked on arrangements. What struck me was how into this Neal was. He wasn’t just connecting the dots I had laid out. He was saying “let’s try this…..let’s try that…what do you think about this?…” He was softly pre-producing the record, ultimately…something I didn’t realize at the time because I had no idea what a producer was or what one did. And he was forcing me to believe in myself, because it was clear he believed in the songs. If they were good enough for him….well that was good enough for me.

So I didn’t shit myself, although I never got over feeling just a wee bit intimidated. This was the kind of talent I was unfamiliar with. Right out of the box, you get to work with Neal Casal? I didn’t know what normal was, but I knew this wasn’t it. But I savored every last drop.

Neal woke up the next morning, and being the perfect gentleman, thanked my wife for her hospitality. He remarked how he slept hard to the sound of the river that rolled along across the street, and off to the studio we went to make “Song About a Train“. In two sessions it was done. I played his Martin acoustic on just about every track. He was right there the entire time….adding harmony, gorgeous fills on the guitar, impeccable slide playing…..and taking some co-lead vocals. And always, without fail, encouraging me. Pushing me forward. When the energy flagged, he brought it back. When I started to see frogs on the wall trying to cut the final track, it was Neal who brought me outside for some air and talked me off the ledge. It’s his record as much as it’s mine.

I think I’ve made better records since, but I never made one that meant more. It convinced me that I could do this. And I can honestly say that if I hadn’t made this one….with Neal and John, things would have turned out a lot differently for me. And not better.

I woke up this morning to the news that Neal is gone. And the world suddenly seemed a little meaner. Neal was like the cool breeze you felt on a warm day. A man in constant motion, brimming with ideas. The music oozed from him the way mortals sweat out booze the morning after. He had become the consummate sideman (most notably with Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson), but had front-man talent and charisma. But as always, Neal followed the music. Wherever it took him. Stage right or standing on the center X. He deserved everything that he got. And he deserved so much more. I’m not sure he ever realized that last bit.

We stayed in touch the way most folks do these days. Email first….then social media. I grabbed every record he made as soon as he made it, and never stopped being a fan first, completely inspired by his gifts. I probably last heard from him a year ago. As always, he seemed to be in a good place, open to anyone and everything that might cross his path.  Forever the restless wanderer.

He always treated me like an equal, even though I wasn’t.

I just wish he was still here.

I wish the world was as gentle as he was.

In a bit..

–tf

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Confessions of a Tragically Hip virgin…

August 21, 2019 3 comments

Comedian Martin Mull once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

It’s pretty arrogant of me to lecture you on what makes my brain dance, trying to convince you that it should make your brain dance too. We all have our tastes, our blind-spots, our secret crushes, and that one band that we drag around to anybody who’ll listen and say “you gotta hear these guys…”

We like what we like, hate what we hate, and can’t live without what we can’t live without. And if we’re serious about music, our ears are always open. But still….

But still, time spent reading about music takes away from the time you should be listening to it….so I won’t blather on too long here. But a few things have been building up. And I’m feeling a bit word hungry today.

ltr-th-1024x576I’ve just recently discovered The Tragically Hip. As a dumb American, this doesn’t make me unique. How a nation that championed bands during the 80s/90s/2000s that were not worthy to shine Gord Downie’s black stage boots could largely overlook a group this exciting is beyond me. But it happened. I was there. I should know.

The Hip tore up Saturday Night Live one night, and the next night played to 40 drunks in a Saint Louis bar. That’s on us red white and blue-ers.. We missed the train……and longtime Hip fans must be tired of morons like me jumping on the bandwagon after the balloon has landed.

It was the Netflix doc that introduced me. I read a post about it from a Facebook friend…saying that it moved him to tears. So I pulled it up…..grabbed a lager…and everything changed.

I’d never heard these songs before. Ever. And I kept inching the volume up….until my sleeping kids started yelling downstairs for me to turn it down. Apparently “Courage” turned up to 11 was bothering them at 1am. Who knew? This would need to be addressed….but later….

The brotherhood of the band. The tragedy of Gord’s diagnosis. The friendship. The love. The pre-show kisses. The way all of this affected an entire nation. When I get excited watching something, I stand and pace. I’ve only done this during sporting events, and Long Time Running.

But still…..the fucking songs. It was relentless….snippets mostly from the doc….it wasn’t until later that I heard the original versions (and saw the final Kingston show in its entirety). I was a Hip virgin….and it was like lying under Niagara Falls with my legs spread.

Bobcaygeon. Blow at High Dough. Wheat Kings. Fifty-Mission Cap. Poets. Grace, Too. Fireworks. Little Bones. Ahead By a Century.

(To long-time Hip fans, the above list is so blatantly obvious it doesn’t conjure up words at all, just a sound. “Duh”. But be cautioned. It’s easy to forget that there was a time when you too heard these songs for the first time. They weren’t always there. It just seems that way. I’d felt this feeling only once before. The first time I heard The Who.)

I’d never heard songs this good, coming at me so fast. I was dizzy. As soon as it was over, I watched it again. Cue the kids yelling all over again. More understandable this time, as it was inching past 3am now. But still….

I got more the second time. The lines started to jump out…

“Could have been the Willie Nelson / could have been the wine”

“You said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey / and I never saw someone say that before”

“No dress rehearsal / this is our life”

Who was this dying madman?

I was jealous of Canadians. We don’t have a band like this. A band that meant this much to so many. A band that seemingly lifted a nation. Fucking Justin Trudeau was singing along from the balcony in his Hip t-shirt, flexing his pecs. Can you imagine something like this happening in America? You cannot. Something like a third of the nation was singing along to “Ahead By a Century”. What could we offer to compare?

I shudder to think of what we’d come up with in 2019.

It wasn’t annoying nationalism either. The flag waving might make the uninitiated think otherwise, with the potential to be as misconstrued in Canada as “Born in the USA” was here, but Downie was giving a voice to folks long ignored. And as his remarks  to Trudeau at the end of the Kingston show proved, he wasn’t afraid to hold feet to the fire.

He had balls, in other words.

Downie was a national treasure. A combination of Dylan and Springsteen and Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder and Michael Stipe and the ghost of Elvis, all rolled up into various lamé suits. Imagine all of the living dying on the same day…..along with Presley’s grave being defaced by vandals during the funerals…and you might be somewhere in the neighborhood of what I was seeing. The intensity of it all was almost frightening. No hockey arena in Canada could satisfy demand. With eloquence an American hasn’t heard from a politician since pre-2016, Trudeau spoke of the need for a “cathartic cry”. I didn’t get it then. I get it now.

But that band.

Fay and Sinclair always locked in, as if sharing the same watch. Langlois always there….sometimes laying back, sometimes stepping forward…..but always paving the way for Baker to take flight. And in front of it all was Downie, one for the ages. A gyrating dynamo with the soul of a street poet, waving the white handkerchief as if constantly surrendering, his dance moves reminding me of a man filled with tequila trying to shoo away bugs, trying to make eye contact with every single person in the arena….and probably coming damn close. He’d fill the songs out with mumbling raps….hilarious, mind-bending, nonsensical, brilliant. His was a brain that had no off switch, even cancer could not change that. He gave us his all. Every. Single. Time.

And I missed it all while it was happening. And that makes me feel like an idiot.

But it’s a late day for regrets. So I take what I can get.

For months I’ve listened to little else but this band. “Road Apples” is a particular favorite. I consider “Bobcaygeon” one of the the greatest song of the 90s. I once sat on my front porch and drank a 6 pack of PBRs listening to nothing but “Wheat Kings” on repeat. I do not dabble in anything. When I go, I go hard.

I’m so grateful to have found this band. To all my friends I have relentlessly badgered about needing to find them too, I apologize and promise not to do it again.

Until the next time I see you and say “you gotta hear these guys….”

To all those who have known all along…..I wish I was with you for the ride.

In a bit..

–tf

 

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Peace and Love and Dollar Pints

July 19, 2019 1 comment
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Dog whistles no longer required….

July 15, 2019 Leave a comment

The President of the United States is a racist.

That’s pretty fucking clear. If you think otherwise at this point, then you either have not been paying attention, or you’re one too.

Hell, even Trump himself doesn’t deny it anymore, saying that being called racist “doesn’t concern me… because many people agree with me.”

So there you have it. Being racist is Ok, because other people are racist.

Got it?

His racism, both cruel and casual, is the new normal. In the same way that it’s barely news when he says something stupid, it barely registers when he goes all KKK on Twitter. Nobody is shocked. Fellow republicans smirk, shrug, hide, or double-down to ingratiate (and thus debase) themselves even further. (See “Graham, Lindsey”)

todayDog whistles aren’t even required anymore. He’s going straight for “non-white women who dare disagree with me should leave the country and go back where they came from”. Even if these non-white women are….you know…native-born Americans. Such hateful rhetoric is expressly banned on Twitter (which “prohibits targeting individuals with repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category.”) but, well….you know. There are rules, and then there are rules for rich white men.

It’s just locker room talk, right?

To Trump, an “American” is white.

I don’t know how we got here. I don’t know how we get past this. He hasn’t just created divisions, he’s pissed all over the very fabric of the nation. And his approval rating hangs steady around 50%.

No matter how often he lies. No matter what racist drivel he spews. No matter how many women accuse of him of sexual misconduct. No matter how many dead war heroes he attacks, or how many disabled people he mocks, or how many times he thinks that Frederick Douglass is still alive. Or how much violence he incites. Or how often he embarrasses this nation on the world stage. Or how often he literally brags that his minions are so dumb he could shoot them and not lose their support. No matter. His IQ and narcissism leave him incapable of feeling shame, or empathy.

His head is empty, his heart is black, and his dick is tiny.

That’s a bad trifecta for a guy who runs a fucking Dairy Queen. This idiot is President of the United States.

And so it goes.

What does continue to amaze, however, is the silence and thus acquiescence to all of this from the Republican party.

It’s almost like Trump invited every single one of them over to Trump tower and got pics of them being peed on by Putin’s hookers. What else could possibly turn the grand old party into an emasculated pile of bobble-heads?

Watching Pence recent border visit, as he started vacantly into cages filled with pleading human beings begging for water, and simply turned away without a word, was surely one of the most monstrous photo-ops I’ve even seen. And yet don’t for a moment think that it wasn’t well thought out….and that Pence, one of the world’s biggest pussies, didn’t have his marching orders. The cruelty on display is intentional. Pence was sent down there to do a Himmler impersonation for the cameras, for much the same way Trump broadcast weekend ICE raids that did not materialize. To be a cruel dick. And to be seen as being a cruel dick. Because, again, the cruelty IS the point. What would shame normal people energizes these monsters.

But why?

Trump fears what he does not understand. And since he’s a fucking idiot, this means he fears pretty much everything.

Women are for his amusement. To fondle. To forcibly kiss. To compare to Ivanka. That these new brown women in Congress both mock his idiocy, and refuse to be intimidated by it, scares the fake-tan off of him. So he starts running around in circles, chewing at his own tail. His rage manages to be both frightening and pathetic at the same time. The former because it’s tolerated, and the latter because…..well….because it’s tolerated.

As a nation, I thought all these battles had been fought and won already. I was wrong.

A President can call actual Nazis “very fine people” and remain in office. And on and on….to today. Where he can tell Americans they should “go back where they came from”.

There are new rules. Or perhaps there just aren’t any rules at all anymore.

It’s our collective shame. We own it.

In a bit..

–tf

 

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Independence Day and the Baby Balloon

July 3, 2019 Leave a comment

The government went to federal court a few weeks back and argued before incredulous judges that it shouldn’t be required to provide detained migrant children toothbrushes, soap, towels, or showers.

To level set for y’all….a man named Michael Scott Moore was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2012 and was held for two and a half years. Moore felt the urge to issue a tweet saying “Somali pirates gave me toothpaste and soap”…quickly followed by another tweet by a former prisoner of the fucking TALIBAN….who tweeted “The Taliban gave me toothpaste and soap.”

So…yep….there you are. We live in interesting times Bubba…

Trump supporters are furious with congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and not just because she’s a woman and….you know….not white), who likened the cages detained migrant children are kept in to concentration camps. That kids are in cages in the first place does not at all draw their ire. Nor did the fact that a congressional delegation that toured border facilities reported they witnessed children drinking water out of toilets. Such claims were dismissed as fake news on the same day Trump’s newly appointed press secretary got inadvertently beaten up by the bodyguards of his latest man-crush, that dreamy North Korean dwarf and mass murderer Kim Jong-un, who still has nukes despite Trump lobbying hard for a Nobel Peace Prize for disarming him using nothing but sangfroid and an autographed copy of “The Art of the Deal”. So….nothing to see here folks.

trump_baby_blimp_gettyAnd tomorrow our grand high exhaled mystic ruler will throw himself a Nuremberg style rally, complete with military tanks and planes (hopefully Trump doesn’t order the military to shoot down the Trump Baby Balloon) and squirming Generals, with plenty of white supremacists in red hats cheering him on. You’ll be happy the know that according to the President, the parade will feature “the brand new Sherman tanks” despite that fact that production of Sherman tanks ceased over 60 years ago. So I can’t wait for that part (A US Army spokesperson has warned DC are residents to “not panic” when they see tanks rolling through their neighborhoods, so don’t say loads of thought hasn’t been put into this). Oh, and engineers have been examining the Lincoln Memorial to determine if the weight of stationing tanks there would affect the Lincoln Memorial’s foundation. So there’s that. Trump’s ego is threatening to damage the fucking Lincoln Memorial. This is all so normal.

I eagerly await the price-tag of all this dick-waving, which is being kept under wraps because…well….you know.

Of course all of this would have been considered insane before 2016.

But we’re now in an age of walls and terrified angry white people and Orwellian doublespeak. Dissent has once again become disloyalty. Traditional allies are out, and dictators are the flavor du jour. The free press is labeled an “enemy of the people” because, let’s face it, what’s more founding father-ish than that eh? Our moral authority in the world has not simply been eroded, it’s been eradicated.

Humanity has become a form of weakness. Trump has somehow turned into a political colossus, having cowed his own party into a level of astounding subservience that would be hilarious if it weren’t so fucking scary, all this despite communicating to the American public at the level of a bullying 4th grader, appealing always to the dark side of human nature. His administration is, banana republic-like, filled with obsequious toadies and blood relatives. His supporters remain cult-like in their devotion, not even wavering when he bragged about being able to publicly shoot them with no blow-back. Democrats, as usual for democrats, have no coherent strategy, and are currently tearing each other apart on a debate stage near you. A pedophile is one again running for congress in the state of Alabama, and it’s increasingly likely that he’ll win this time. Because of course he will.

(Locally, the mayor of Scranton just resigned, barely a step ahead of the federal prosecutors chasing him down for bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. So at least some things felt normal…)

Sometimes it seems like I’m the only person in the midst of this maelstrom who feels like he’s not living in the same country in which he was born.

In a bit..

–tf

 

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The romance of rock and roll

June 29, 2019 Leave a comment

Is that the right thing to call it?

I’ve never really been in it though. I’ve merely traveled its periphery. Listening to it, obviously. Reading about it. Watching it. Doing it in small doses, on local stages. But I never had to courage to pile into the van and make a go at it…day after day…night after night. Chasing whatever it is that this music forces you to chase. If I had a do-over, who knows? But as that theatrical rock star O’Neill once said, it’s a late day for regrets.

But still…after all these years I’m still in love.

guitarYou can’t do it alone. Rock and roll is not a solitary pursuit. Even Dylan said “fuck this” and grabbed an electric guitar and a band. I suspect because he was hearing sounds in his head that required a gang. And since that day at Newport, Dylan, that most lonely of loners, has rarely gone anywhere without other noise-makers alongside him. He may not have ridden the same bus (his guitarist on the Rolling Thunder tour was Mick Ronson, who once answered the question “Isn’t Bob great?!” with the reply “I don’t know. He’s never spoken to me.”), but he knew stuff “Like a Rolling Stone” needed more than its brilliant lyrics and his Woody Guthrie cap.

My friend Bret Alexander (former member of a pretty decent band himself) told me once that there’s a tendency for bands, retrospectively, to (quoting a Jackson Browne song) “forget about the losses and exaggerate the wins”. I suspect this is true in the same way it might be true when any old friends get together over a nice warm fire and choice beverages. In my very regional experience as a musician, my eyes light up over the memories of good nights. I have to think harder to conjure up the shitty ones. Oh they’re there….but I just have to dig deeper for them. It’s very much like being in love.

I just finished making a record with my band the Shillelaghs. I think that’s what kick-started this train of thought. Because it was everything rock and roll is supposed to be. It was just us….all friends…..creating new music…..bouncing ideas off each other….trying new things. The control room looked like a dorm room…..beer cans and chip bags and odd aromas when the drummer was there, and when it wasn’t filled with music it was filled with laughter. I wanted to make a double album not because I had that many songs (I didn’t), but because I didn’t want to stop hanging out with these guys. And for a brief moment (Ok, maybe more than one but still)….I pictured us piling into that van and playing these songs wherever anybody would have us, like circus performers. But an early alarm clock beckoned, along with bills that I still can’t pay even in my 9-5 existence. Not to mention the fact that I failed to live out the lyrics to “My Generation”, which means I’m old. Sooo…..

And who knows? If we were all 20 somethings and took that leap, we might’ve ended up wanting to kill each other in that van…..our camaraderie replaced by fear and loathing. In other words, we’d end up like 99% of bands in the history of the world.

But still…..the stories we’d have for that night by the fire, eh?

And at the tail end of all this, I discovered The Tragically Hip.

The great Canadian rock and roll band.

I’m almost ashamed to say that it took me this long, because I thought my snotty “I have better taste than you” radar was infallible. The fact that I could completely miss one of the great turn of the century catalogs in rock and roll while it was happening both pisses me off and makes me feel like an American dolt. It took a fucking Netflix documentary about the band’s last tour and the subsequent death of their lead singer to brain cancer for me to jump on their bandwagon. I’m sure they appreciate my impeccable timing very much.

Their final concert was broadcast live in Canada….and one THIRD of the entire nation watched it. The Canadian Prime Minister was there….wearing a band T-shirt, singing along to every single word. The band has no equivalent in the United States. Nothing even comes close. When their leader Gord Downie died, the entire nation mourned. A US pundit suggested that if Springsteen, Dylan, and Michael Stipe all died on the same day in this country, we might understand, but even then probably not.

They were together for over 30 years. The same guys. Friends since childhood. They were a gang. They were what a band should be. They had what I wanted. I’m sure they wanted to kill each other at times….but they never wavered and never let anybody else inside that circle. On the last tour a terminally ill Downie insisted on kissing each band member on the lips before each show, whispering “I love you so much” into each ear.

It’s all impossibly romantic…..and it only seems possible through the prism of rock and roll.

In a bit..

–tf

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New Shillelaghs record coming soon…

June 18, 2019 Leave a comment

Peace and Love and Dollar Pints coming this summer!

shillelaghs

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