30 November 2016

Somewhere in New Jersey

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A music industry veteran named Mike Ragogna “discovered” me at the Sidewalk Café in the East Village, sometime in the mid-1990s. I was playing one of my first real gigs, and he was there to see a friend whose performance preceded mine. Mike heard something in my rough early material, and wanted to help. We recorded a demo at Sound on Sound—the same demo I sent to an address on the back of one of Peter Case’s albums—but he couldn’t convince his employer to take a chance. In their defense, Razor & Tie was mostly a re-issue label, and had only recently started to dive into developing artists like Dar Williams, who already had a profile.

Mike’s next move was to introduce me to his mentor, Tommy West, who was Jim Croce’s great friend, producer, and sideman. Here’s Tommy playing piano and singing Bad, Bad Leroy Brown on Midnight Special in 1973:

Tommy and his partner, Terry Cashman, made their own records as a duo and a trio with Gene Pistilli. They could have been contenders, but Tommy didn’t like working on the road, so they centered their business on production and eventually relocated from the Northeast to Nashville, where they made more than their share of hit records. By the time I entered the picture, that partnership had run its course, and Tommy was working out of his barn/recording studio. That barn/studio—Somewhere in New Jersey—is where we met for the first time and where we recorded Playing God and Welcome To My Century:

Tommy took to my songs right away, which didn’t surprise me at the time, because not many people had heard my songs. Now, of course, I know how hard it is to even get someone to listen to a song, much less appreciate it.  What did surprise me at the time was that Tommy wanted to not only produce but also finance a recording project. He only asked for half of the publishing on the songs we recorded together, which still seems perfectly reasonable; he also owns the masters to the recordings he made. We’ve never had a contract, and I’m not worried about it. It’s not like my publishing and masters are valuable anyway!

We made Playing God in fits and starts in the late 90s. It took long enough—and/or, I was developing rapidly enough as a songwriter—that not a single one of the songs from my original demo was even recorded. We built the tracks from the ground up, with me playing acoustic guitar to a click track and a placeholder vocal provided by the aforementioned Mike Ragogna. That’s right, I wasn’t even allowed to play and sing at the same time! It’s possible that Sal Maida played bass along with me on those super-basics, but Dave Bush definitely overdubbed the drums, an unusual approach. I suspect Tommy was thinking: this guy’s beyond green, and we mustn’t confuse him.

One of the best things about working with Tommy was spending time out at his place. I’d take New Jersey Transit from Penn Station and stay for a few days, sleeping in the barn/studio, lunching at the general store, and generally enjoying the country life. I still fantasize about sleeping in the downstairs bedroom, which was dark as a dungeon, but in a good way. These exterior shots speak to the cozy, pastoral vibe:

Of course, the #1 best thing about working with Tommy was benefitting from his skills, aesthetic, experience, and bedside manner. He’s a superb singer and piano player, if you can get him to sing and play. He contributed harmony to The Latenight from Welcome To My Century, but only because I couldn’t execute or possibly couldn’t grasp his idea for the chorus:


Tommy presented an even-keeled front in the studio. He remained calm when the DA-88s broke, when I couldn’t nail a vocal, when someone was behaving annoyingly, etc. If you run into Tommy, and really want to understand his “cool under pressure” demeanor, ask him to relate his “Greensleeves” story, which is definitive and not for the faint of heart. Anyway, he let me grow into the studio and pursue my vision, which may not always have jibed with his. For example, I think he might have taken a simpler, acoustic-oriented approach on both albums, whereas I wanted to make rock (or, more precisely, folk rock) records. In hindsight, perhaps deferring to him would have made sense?

The sum total of the Somewhere in New Jersey experience is that I made two records and felt like part of the family. In fact, I saw Tommy’s wife (Ann) and step-son (Brad) in Boston when I was on tour in the Spring. Ann, by the way, is a therapist, which came in handy when the relationship that informed many of the songs on that first record went South.

The demise of that relationship figures into the story of my second album, Welcome to My Century. We recorded a bunch of songs, but then the project stalled, ostensibly because Tommy went to Canada to make a Christmas album with Anne Murray. Anne Murray deserves part of the blame, but I also suspected Tommy of manufacturing delays, hoping I’d write something other than angry breakup songs. He adamantly denies this, but there’s no arguing with the end result: some of the last songs written for Welcome To My Century were also some of the best, including Valentine’s Day and Tolstoy. None of the angry breakup songs—e.g. Secondhand Apartment, Forget About You, and Burn—made the cut.

Everyone should get to make records in a studio like Somewhere in New Jersey, where there’s wisdom and love but no clock. When it wasn’t going well, you could go outside and clear your head. I did just that when, one afternoon, I stopped liking the original third verse to Valentine’s Day. Instead of panicking, I sat under a tree and wrote a new verse:

Who has had to bear the heaviest blow?
Devil may care, God only knows
God only knows, some of us guess
We could be wrong, nevertheless
Nevertheless, we are here now
Speaking in tongues, sorting it out

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