Suggested Song: Diamonds and Rust, Joan Baez
Suggested Drink: Green Ghost cocktail. Gin, Chartreuse, lime juice.

well I’ll be damned
here comes your ghost again
but that’s not unusual
it’s just that the moon is full
and you happened to call

Joan Baez performed at the Olympia in Paris last week on a stop through her final tour. Her voice was dynamic as ever, and touch with the guitar fluid and delicate. I went to the show thinking, “okay, she’s a legend so why not?” What I enjoyed was a concert of surprising grace and emotion, Baez introducing each song in flawless French, the audience reverent and hanging on every word and note. When she played Diamonds and Rust, her heartbroken dig at Dylan, it got me thinking about that particular ghost in her life; the ghosts we all suffer.

Our lives are inhabited by the otherworldly. They are spurred from memories to comfort or vex. Angels glide in when invited; our ghosts slip away only when ready.

Do they exist? They very much exist for those who very much believe. You can accept or deny their presence in your life, but cannot question this fundamental principal: we create our own realities, those versions of who we were and how we were loved, and the laws of the universe that govern our future. Did Dylan love Baez? I suspect that she was convinced yes in the early days, then a time she suspected no longer, and perhaps later doubted everything. So reality is conveniently pliant and the truth selective. Diamonds and Rust provides some hints to Baez’s own take.

It’s January in Paris and you are freezing.
I see you framed in a soft falling snow and feel warm.
How’s the weather?

I’ve started lighting a candle for my sister every evening. She’s with me instantly, glowing against the wax and flickering along the wick. She sits with me at the piano and I ask her advice over dinner. Cathy lifts my mood and lowers my tensions, like she always has. She calms and encourages, so she is real, as evident as my fingers on the keys, floating in on angel wings. And at the end of the night, when I blow out the candle, she lifts away on the last glimmer of flame until I call again.

Sometimes we confuse angels from ghosts. We doubt our memories and question emotions. We visit old haunts to call new spirits, we light candles and recite poems in the hopes of conjuring the angels of old. Sometimes they come. Other times we find nothing but phantoms and smoke.

Chambre 35 at the Hotel Emile, with its clawfoot baignoire and 3rd floor view down Rue du Roi de Sicile, is haunted. Not-yet-lovers soak in the steamy bath with rose petals and champagne. They tease and tempt and soap each other toes. He’s never seen a woman so enchanting, no moment so inviting, as her and now. Ever. He’ll do nothing to risk the spell, just lay back submerged in this sudsy bliss until she slowly floats over him, plants her kiss and smiles, “ce maintenant le lit, non?”

Have you been in moments like this, completely surrendered to the dream and memory? But when your eyes open you are alone. You had called an angel but conjured a ghost. The image dissipates like smoke from a blown out match and you wonder what was real, ever. Diamonds and rust Joan, just diamonds and rust.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Downtown Train, Tom Waits
Suggested Drink: Thurston Howl, rum, brandy, gin, pineapple and grapefruit juices. (to sooth those weathered pipes)

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.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

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 bar

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.

 

Eduardo Garcia (L) and Adrian Arreguin (R) of Nueva Generacion

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.

Bill

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.

Bill

 

stay close to me
don’t let go
fingers gently
whispers softly
so close to me

linger2Our 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.

Bill

lift me up
don’t let me break
don’t let me lose
this life of faith
I’m tough
but tough ain’t enough

Mark Stock, Ponder

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.

Enjoy.

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
strange

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!

Daisy
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
tonight

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.

Bill