I’ve wanted to be rock star since I was young. I gave it the old college try as a teen, then surrendered to the odds and went off to college. But I never gave up on the dream. I kept on writing music and making bedroom demos through my 20s, and recorded a proper studio album in my 30s. It was a decent effort, but my voice just didn’t have that edgy rock n roll bark that I so loved hearing in the greats: Daltrey, Waits, Cobain, Bon Scott. I couldn’t find my howl.
A lot of us are inspired but mediocre at things we really love, particularly when we’re young. Passion and effort aren’t always enough, unfortunately. But there are plenty of examples of mediocrity flowering into something truly special in later years. Consider Czech composer Leos Janacek. He penned a respectable piece at 22 in the late 1800s, and then spent his next 30 years mostly doing folklore research. Janacek kept plugging away in his spare time but didn’t find real renown until 62, with the completion of his opera Janufa, to be followed by Sinfonietta and then many other classics.
Why his later-in-life bloom? Maybe he finally had time on his hands to immerse more deeply, or it was the continued honing of his talent, or the inspired provocation drawn from his ache for the beautiful Kamila, married and 35 years younger, for whom he took a hard tumble just about the time Janufa was in work. Love bloomed, he soared, the rest is for us to enjoy.
Another good example is Charles Bukowski. At 24 his “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” got published to some decent reviews. Then he went on a prolonged bender and deep dive into the seedier side of life. Like Janacek, Bukowski kept at his craft but had little to show for it. His real break through came at 51 with “Post Office,” which he wrote in 3 weeks after quitting the Postal Service in LA as a carrier. (I picked up a copy at City Lights in SF earlier this year. What a great read.)
I was at a Chagall exhibit in Aix-en-Provence last week, at the beautiful Hôtel Caumont in the center of town. Chagall established himself as a transcendent and successful painter early in life, and unlike Janacek and Bukowski kept the acclaim rolling. But what I admire most about Chagall is his leap into distinctly different and challenging forms of art in his later years: ceramics and stone sculpture and stained glass, starting in his mid 60s. You think I’m this, but now I’m that. Allez allez, keep up!
Maybe you’re in your 50s or older and thinking that the window of passion possibilities has long closed. That comes down to the commitment you are ready to make and embarrassment you are willing to suffer. But who cares about embarrassment? No one will say at your funeral, yeah she was great at X but really embarrassed herself at that Y thing she so loved. No, a best friend or sibling or child will say that you had a real passion for Y and immersed yourself deeply in it. You will produce something authentic that people will either embrace or reject, but everyone will respect the effort.
I went back into the recording studio last year with a binder full of songs and a talented bunch of musicians. A new album after a 25-year pause, this was my Janacek moment in more ways than one.
Why now? My confidence was buoyed by the inspired material and quality of the crew, but more than that my voice had taken on, finally, enough gravel to sing what I wanted to hear. Age and more than a few Bukowski evenings had lined those silky pipes with a rough patina of smoky leather. It just wasn’t my time at 30. It might be now. I’ve found my howl.
it leaves me paralyzed
I can’t look away
I hold my hands up to my eyes
but I’m blind and it’s too late
it leaves me powerless
to the brilliant blazing high
the way she moves her summer dress
leaves me paralyzed
La Rondalla was one of the best bars in San Francisco. It offered a harmonious Mission blend of local latinos, buttoned up hipsters, dykes wandering over from the Lexington on 19th, torn up punkers, hippies from the Haight, and just every day folks hanging at the dim serpentine bar, drinking high-octane margaritas under the year-around christmas lights, and listening to mariachis blow their soulful sounds from south of the border.
Big Tom Gold was my go-to drinking pal there. We’d amaze at the age range of the house band, a Mexican family led by dad on violin and the rest, 8-9 in all, strumming guitars, bowing on fiddles, or blowing their trumpets. Everyone sang. They were brothers, dads, cousins, or uncles.The youngest were under 10 and learning their craft. And that’s what makes this song interesting.
I wrote Paralyzed after a memorable evening at La Rondalla, and when it came time to record, … well it just seemed to scream for a mariachi treatment. I reached out to one of the top bands in San Francisco – Nueva Generacion – and started a discussion with the leader Eduardo about backing me in the studio. I came to learn that his group was the younger generation of the La Rondalla house band Tom and I would listen those many years before. Eduardo was one of those little tykes all sombrero’ed out and playing guitar with his dad and cousins. It is a small world. Eduardo’s arrangement on this song really brings the mariachi sound, and the musicianship is incredible. I hope you enjoy.
walking on a bed of coals
I dive into the falls below
I handle snakes and sell my soul
anything for you
cause you’re my baby
you’re my babe
What do Adam & Eve, Tony & Maria, and Howard Marshall & Anna Nicole Smith have in common? They were irrational, dangerous relationships that confounded everyone in their sphere, … except the couples themselves. When you are willing to face the ridicule and scorn of friends and family, face all of the well-intended “what the hell are you thinking??” judgements, and the only real reply you can come up with is, “she’s my babe”, well then you know you have something worth fighting for.
Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello fame was invited to play drums on this track and it was his idea to give it a rockabilly spin. Jon Followes raves it up with a wicked flurry of lead guitar riffs, inspired by the original playing done by my good friend Wayne Ditzel, who played on the demo way back when. She’s My Babe reminds me of those great Blasters hits from the early ’80s, the golden age of LA-based rockabilly revival. I hope you enjoy it.
stay close to me
don’t let go
so close to me
Our modern lives run on hyperdrive these days it seems. Too few of us take time to truly appreciate the important things: a great meal enjoyed with close friends or family, a long but easy Sunday wander, getting caught up over a pot of tea, or resting warmly, intimately with someone we love deeply, … particularly after the main event. It’s one of life’s divine pleasures, but too often cut short as we rush off to rejoin the tedium of our daily quotidien.
Linger With Me was recorded at the amazing La Buissonne studios in Provence, France. Sony recording artist Daniel Mille brings his special genius on accordion and Laëtitia Costechareyre delivers the french heat purred sensually through the musical interlude.
This song also serves as an homage to Serge Gainsbourg, my favorite french songwriter of the popular music era and a man who never let an excuse for provocation go unfulfilled. I’ll be Gainsbourg and you Jane Birkin, linger with me.
lift me up
don’t let me break
don’t let me lose
this life of faith
but tough ain’t enough
Physical pain can drop us to our knees. Emotional pain can too, and then so much more. It breaks us from within, aching the heart and stirring tears of anguish or fury. Sometimes we beg, sometimes we howl. Anything to cut the pain. Anything to stand again.
There are 2 opposing versions of How Hard on this record, placed at different points in the Last Night at the Ha-Ra story arc. I howl through take 1, a rollicking blues adaption backed by the Vivid Stage group. I asked Rie Sinclair to take a shot at the reprise version, paired with just a simple, sad piano and guitar arrangement. Her unique voice on the song is transcendent and tender. I won’t explain the song’s role in this rock drama. It’s not important. How Hard is meant as a psalm really for all of us in pain and asking why.
I hope that you both renditions.
show me what you need
spend my final dime
then tell me you need more
and I’ll glad turn to crime
live my life by your design
your wish is mine
soon you’ll find
that I’m mad
Mad is another pre-release from the Last Night at the Ha-Ra album. It is an ode to the rash and reckless behaviour that stems from a mad passion for someone, someplace, or something. At some point I think most all of us have considered it, some have embraced it, and if you have no idea what the song is about then you’re not diving deep enough. The original version, in a softer arrangement, was recorded on my 1996 LP Eskimo in the Sun and can be heard here.
David Bouet joined us on drums for this track, all the way from London! The piano coda played so soulfully by David Dower replaces the guitar on the original version. David, any chance you can come up with something sweet to replace my guitar track on that outro? I’d say he did in indeed.
put the needle in my arm
let it drip and I’ll be gone
in a fog of summer holidays
then plant your kiss upon my head
lay me back upon our bed
and when I’m dead
the love you see
will never be
I have few fears, thankfully. Some of us spend much time suffering over the state of the planet, the incompetents in power, that mole on our back, how we are perceived by others. I do care, I just don’t dwell.
I will admit, however, to an uncomfortable fear of dementia. It comes down to the richness of life and a heavy dose of vanity. I know where I want to be interred, I know who I want at the podium and the music playing at that fateful fête (what’s on your playlist?), and I know how I want to be remembered. I don’t want to be remembered like that. No one chooses to be remembered like that.
Strange is another early release I’m sharing from the Last Night at the Ha-Ra album, sung by the character Reggie to his wife Daisy. There have been suspicions and now a prognosis, and he has asked her, the partner and true companion of his long life, to think about accepting this unthinkable favor.
Strange was recorded at La Buissonne studios in Provence in February 2018 with my Vivid Stage Productions group. Jon, David, and I played various instruments depending on the arrangement, and invited special guests to help create something truly soulful and melancholy. Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello and the Attractions joined us on drums, Sony recording artist Daniel Mille brought his sublime feel for the accordion, and Isabelle Cordier from the Avignon Symphony Orchestra packed her cello for the drive to Pernes les Fontaines, where we had hunkered down for a week of recording sessions.
Enjoy, … and create your playlist now!
am I looking grand ’cause your dazzling
and we’re gonna shine in the bar light
at the Ha-Ra
leading the cheer out with the crowd
singing our song out in the night
Daisy is the opening track off the Last Night at the Ha-Ra album, just completed this summer. It’s a cabaret call to the night, a revelry to mix and mingle and shine, and to stop being “so bored with ourselves.” If it provokes you off the couch and out the door, well then I’ve done my job!
Daisy was recorded at La Buissonne studio in Provence, France with my Vivid Stage Productions group. Veronique Bourges of the Avignon Symphony Orchestra joined us on violin. The glasses clinking in the solo section were recorded at the Ha-Ra club in San Francisco, with the help of good friends and fellow drinkers Mike Sottak and Mike the Garbageman Page. The background chatter comes from the Lone Palm bar in SF’s Mission District. Both were recorded on my iPhone 5. Modern technology!
Click the orange button below for a listen. Please share with any and all who might enjoy enjoy. More coming soon.
I’m sitting in 36D – center section aisle (mon préféré) – and after 12 hours on this United flight from Munich I admit to some ache. The pilot has just turned on the seat belt sign and provided an update on the cool, foggy San Francisco weather adding, “we should be on the ground shortly.” Blessings to an imminent touchdown.
I haven’t written a dispatch from San Francisco since my last trip here in February. I haven’t written anything since February, actually. Why the pause, my first writing laps in 8 years or so? Now that’s a question I’ve been pondering too. The well isn’t empty, but the motivation has been flagging. I’ve been stretched with other projects, but that’s nothing new. A mystery. Perhaps we just need a breather sometimes to rethink and resync.
Is there a better city than San Francisco for inspiration, to get that figurative pen back to paper, whatever one’s form of creative art? None that I’ve know of. So here’s to a refire of the creative flame. Let’s see what develops. We’ve just touched rubber to tarmac, … and off we go.
Dispatch #1 – A Sense of Place
Noe Valley is a beautiful family neighborhood in the sunny center of San Francisco. It’s a perennial locals’ favorite but never a trendsetter. While the must-live-here-now quarters like the Marina, Hayes Valley, and the Mission bloom and fade on the shifting whims of the hyper-paid, transient hip, Noe Valley remains a priority destination for those seeking longer-term permanence in this city by the bay.
It hasn’t escaped the gentrification wave and real estate bubble burning through the city. There is a scattering of all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars and quirky concept stores in the neighborhood now, but many of the boutiques along its 24th Street core remain in family hands after 30 years or more. Haystack Pizza, 24th Street Cheese, the Dubliner bar; I was a regular at all when Noe Valley was my first San Francisco home so way back when – the late ‘80s while studying at SFSU. I’m back in Noe Valley again this week, back to my morning buzz at Martha’s Coffee, my evening beer at the Dubliner.
Place plays an elemental role in life. It frames our quotidian and colors that community of friends and strangers who fill our days. When I take a pulse on how things are going – as I am this year – it’s the what I do, whom I love, and where I live that get the most critical reflection. Getting the where right is so important.
At 60 I’m ready for at least 1 more grand adventure, one more lifting of the anchor for parts unknown. This new course doesn’t have to be geocentric. It might just be the what or with whom. It is certainly not guided by a quest for more cash or greater security, which often fuels the flight in younger years. The eternal wanderlust for personal growth and new experiences, the adrenaline rush from knowing you’ll likely fail spectacularly … but what if not?, … that stubborn unwillingness to accept that this is it at any age; yep, this is the propellant.
I’ve rambled a bit through the years, living here and there in the States and now in France. A few of these places have left their mark, have spoken to something inside that is authentically Bill. Aix-en-Provence, where I’m living now, moves me at a deep level, and San Francisco as well. If I believed in past lives I’d say that I have wandered those streets before. And whenever I’m in the magic kingdom – Bagdad by the Bay, as the great columnist Herb Caen used to say – there’s no neighborhood that I love more than Noe Valley. Now off I go to Martha’s for the morning cup. Onward!
June 7, 2018
Dispatch #2 – Graduation Day
The motivation for this trip west was the high school graduation ceremony for my daughter Stella. One of those big life moments for her and for her proud parents as well. The wave of emotion that swept over me as she first appeared in the auditorium wasn’t a surprise – I knew what was coming the moment I’d see her in that purple cap and gown – but it was still a struggle to keep my pride in check. I’m a teary guy, what can I say?
Stoicism is a guy thing, maybe even more so an American guy thing, I’m not sure. We imagine ourselves as cowboys carved from some noble stone. What me cry? Never! Nothing stirs me more than music and certain songs can put a fine crack in the cool façade. Stella’s mother used to tease me for that vulnerability. When the Beach Boys Don’t Worry Baby came on the AM radio of my treasured ’66 Mustang, sitting behind the wheel and a warm California breeze chasing us down some coastal highway, well lets just say things would get a bit misty. I’m even moved as I write this now, hearing that brilliant third verse in my head:
she told me baby, when you race today
just take along my love with you
and if you know how much I loved you
baby nothing could go wrong with you
oh what she does to me
when she makes love to me
and she says don’t worry baby
I went to an Irma Thomas show last night at the San Francisco Jazz Center. She has a backstory that is as fascinating as the timbre and range of her voice. Doing studio work by 13, two marriages and 4 kids by 19, over 30 singles and 20 albums and a history of small victories, but always in the shadow of Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and other better-known contemporaries.
Irma is 77 now and still brings it big. She had the committed crowd firmly in the palm of her hand, and for good reason. Her voice remains sure and strong and after 60 years in the business she knows how to command the stage. She had us on our feet for much of the night, white handkerchiefs waving New Orleans style as she worked through an endless string of requests from her long back catalog of hits.
We’ll all be lucky to still be bringing it at 77. Doing something we love, something so natural and sure that it seems destined. When I think about the kids graduating with Stella this week, about their futures and all of the questions and uncertainty they face in a world of rapid churn and change, I can offer just 1 piece of advice: never stop trying to find your reason for being alive. It’s rarely evident and you may keep asking the big questions well past midlife. But it’s that journey of discoveries and doubts that makes life as beautiful as a teary sing-along in a classic car or the sultry voice of an American soul queen. Sing on.
June 9, 2018
Dispatch #3 – For a Few Dollars More
The average selling price of a family home in Noe Valley in April this year was a cool $2.5 million. For the monthly rent on a 2-bedroom flat prepare to fork over $4,300. Welcome to the new world of San Francisco economics.
It’s not just the lodging that hurts. A veggie sandwich at Dolores Park Cafe ran me $14 earlier this week and my chai tea at Bernie’s last night was a steep $3.50. When you remove their cost for the tea bag – about 10 cents wholesale according to my back-of-the-envelop calculation – that’s some pretty pricey boiled water. But imagining their rent along that prime spot on 24th Street, I get it.
It’s an unvirtuous upward cycle driving this madness. A surge in the tech industry is once again pulling in boatloads of high-paid software engineers and designers who are young and hip and want to live in uber-cool San Francisco, not the uber-uncool suburbs of San Jose. And with the average salary for a tech worker now hovering around $150,000 they can afford it (well okay, maybe with a roommate!).
To woo the best and brightest, many of the newly minted barons of tech like Twitter and Salesforce are setting up in downtown now, and those that remain in Silicon Valley are providing wi-fi’ed commute transport from the city and back, … which feeds the need for even more pricey condos and chai lattes and all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars in neighborhoods like Noe Valley. Sitting at Martha’s Coffee earlier this week, I counted 7 massive luxury buses in 14 minutes rolling down 24th Street, picking up riders for the hour drive south to Google, Apple, and other large corporate centers.
So where’s the problem? The techies are happy, their employers are happy, the city with its coffers full of higher tax revenues is happy. The problem is the loss of diversity, and that has always been at the heart of San Francisco’s unique color and flair. How does a cab driver or cellist or schoolteacher afford $14 sandwiches and $4,200 leases? They don’t.
I like tech workers okay and count a number of friends among them. I just don’t want to be limited by only their interests and sensibilities. There’s only so much bar talk about stock options and fundraising and blockchain that I can take before my attention disorder gets provoked. Yawn, pass the wine please, … and where do I set up my tent?
June 10, 2018