By 9pm the party had swelled to over 50 people. The dining room table was overflowing with offerings. The wine was flowing. The Apostles were rocking the house. Lakshmi was up next.
We played to a distinctly Harlem crowd. It was a diverse cross section of America. The youngest attendee was no more than three and the oldest into their eighties.
Our substitute bass player was a no show and Jeff Young generously offered to jump in and cover. With his eyes glued to my hands, as they moved over the guitar’s ebony fingerboard, he deftly laid out a groove. The crowd cheered. They were primed.
I made the announcement that we would be marching to the garden. I asked everyone to take a piece of scrap paper and write down something that they wanted to let go of, a fear, grudge, loss, something that was no longer serving them.
“We will stuff them into Joey’s pockets and free them in a puff of smoke.”
Everyone got to work. The children were the most earnest.
With drums and hand claps we made our way out into the night and beneath the swelling moon. Joey was ignited. In a burst of fireworks he erupted into flames.
Video: Birgit Nagele
Much later, in the wee hours. Kosi emailed this poem to me.
Dancing With Joey
The crowd has gatheredwith drums and bells and chants –Joey dies today. I die today.My self loathingmy psychosomatic neurosismy roadblocks and insecuritiesare tossed into the fire.I am tossed into the fire.I am the dirty sacrifice.I dance with the wooden demon.My palms against his palmsour fingers lock.My bare feet crack the kindlingand splinterwhile the flames that lick my thighsburn his clothesand my clothes off.
He wraps flaming wooden arms
around my waist as I
breathe in smoke
the burning wood and sage and bitterness
from his lungs.
lick my neck and bare chest
melt my skin.
I am burning…
His hips press my hips.
He pulls me down
into the ashes.
I am consumed…
Black diamonds appear where nipples were.
My pubis is burnt into rubies.
The music crescendos.
Charcoal burns my back.
My body screams.
The music screams.
Flames lap between my jewels
to the empty spaces
where the rubbish things –
my bricks — are singed into ash
and Joey’s charred wood
I am golden.
I am precious.
I am purified.
I wrote “I want you for my man.” I think more than a year ago. When I first played it I was so proud of myself for having written such an upbeat tune. I thought it might be wise to have one or two. Jeff’s immediate response was. “That’s not upbeat, it’s all whiny and complain-y.” So it remained ensconced on my hard-drive in the “lyrics” folder.
I had written it in Brooklyn after going to a birthday party at a Mexican Restaurant in Sunset Park. I don’t know if any of you have been out there, but it is out there. It was a warm June evening and the sun was setting late. Fireflies had just begun making their appearance. As I was heading home an impossibly lovely young woman agreed to accompany me on the long train ride. We spent more than an hour talking about everything. Nothing ever came of it. I was happy enough not being treated as if I was invisible. (Note: See Lakshmi tune “Invisible Man”)
Then a few weeks ago I thought that maybe I could change some of the lyrics and have Kosi sing it from the opposite perspective. It would only take a little tinkering. Kosi liked it and like everything she knocked it out of the park. But then she suggested we sing it as a duet. So I fiddled with the text a little more and we changed it to a duo. I’m still fiddling with the text. Just ask Kosi.
I wanted a Mama and Papa’s kind of sound and to that effect we added a lot of harmonies. We had a big Harmonic section that was supposed to be in the middle where one by one each band member joins in. While rehearsing it during a run through it ended abruptly. Everybody laughed.
“That was way cool.” Amos said.
“Yeah. Lets keep it just like that.” was my reply.
I don’t know if you remember the night of December 21, of 2010 but it was the winter solstice and it occurred simultaneously with a lunar eclipse, also known as a “blood moon”. According to NASA the last time these astronomical events took place in sync was on Dec. 21, 1638, and it won’t happen again until at least 2094. That was the night I wrote the original lyrics for Cold Wind Coming. The song opens with that setting:
Pale moon rising, through clouds of amber and grey.
I had set an alarm for 2:30am. I built a fire out in the back. The trees were bare and there was a thin coat of snow.
I didn’t finish polishing the lyrics until I went to Santa Cruz the following spring. I knocked off 5 half finished projects there in one week with the aid of the magical coffee from LuLu Carpenters and daily sessions of Bikram Yoga.
When I returned to NY and introduced it to the band we had a hard time with it. I had envisioned it as a Reggae number but I had a difficult time singing and playing on the upbeat so it turned into like some kind of metal thing. I was fine with that for awhile and thought “well, lets explore it.”
We struggled with it for some months and it never seemed right. About two weeks ago we discussed it and I reminded everybody that it was originally intended to have a Reggae beat. We spent about 15 minutes analyzing and discussing what exactly makes Reggae sound… like Reggae. Then we broke it down and each of us kind of spoke sang what we should be playing.
I told Kosi that she should sing it. She knew all the words already and it would make it a lot easier for me. (Actually, She knows the all of the words to every tune we do. She’s just that way.) She looked at me blankly however.
“Are you talking to me?”
“Who elses job is it to do the singing in this band?” I asked her.
We tried it in rehearsal right before the following gig. It clicked. I knew it was a good piece and we were finally on the right track. We even tried performing it that night. The sky didn’t even fall.
This week I spent hours crafting a solo for it. My hands were so sore that I went down to Chinatown to see if I could get a massage for them. The brute assaulted me. He pounded away at my back and feet and didn’t even touch my hands.
Despite the cramping I really enjoyed working on it. It’s interesting to take the techniques I developed to learn other peoples material and apply them to my own work. Hope you can come hear it. -Rene
I am in Provincetown for the Tennessee Williams festival. We had a blast of pure sunshine yesterday and I spent the afternoon biking along the National Seashore. Today it is grey, heralding the end of summer, tomorrow.
Last night Lou, one of the actors in the festival, invited me to a little party on Captains Wharf. He and his partner are renting the weather-beaten shack where Williams fell in love with Kip. It is the very location of Something Cloudy Something Clear, the piece he is playing the lead in. We drank wine on the dock and traded theater tales. At one point I got to sit in the room where TW wrote The Glass Menagerie. Listening to the sound of the ocean beneath the floorboards and the laughter of the gulls, I could imagine one could get a lot of work done in place like that.
That is what the week has been like so far. Riding a bike along a starry sky in the charming narrow streets of P-town. Lots of little parties with actors and directors and producers in restaurants that are too expensive. Annka and I have been ruminating for some time about making a musical for TGL. I have an idea of something like a cross between The Odyssey and Help… only for the stage.
On Saturday I head back to NYC. It’s a long drive for my little Smart. On Sunday we hit the boards again with The Goddess at Paris Blues. This is my last trip for awhile. Or at least so I think. I have a half dozen new pieces to work out with the band, all in various states of completion, waiting in my black mother of pearl embossed notebook. It is going to be nice having a long stretch of playing with the gang.
Last Sunday, our first back, we had a full house. The band played better than ever. Kosi’s singing is white hot. It really feels like we are starting on a higher level. I can’t wait to see what we build to this round.
It’s been a while since I have posted my friend. In that time I have journeyed to California, and unlike the tune I have returned. From there I went to Reno Nevada and then onward to the Black Rock Desert in the north. I attended Burning Man. I was a first time “Burner”. As a novice I experienced that special thrill only the uninitiated feel. It filled me with fresh inspiration. Not only musically but spiritually. I caught a glimpse of what our future could be. If only that contagion of generosity that permeated Black Rock City could spread beyond the dust storms of The Playa and onto the great expanse of the American continent.
I have in mind a Hip Hop song based on the experience. You need a lot of words to rap and I have a long tale to tell. Lets see how it goes.
We rehearsed for the first time in weeks. The A team is back together again. Most remarkably Kosi, who has not taken a day off since I left, has risen up another level in her singing. I can’t wait for you to hear her and to see you all again.
This is a tune I wrote during a jam session at The Harlem Flophouse. At inception it was a silly song with the opening lyric “I don’t like your mother.” There is a recorded version of it in the music section of my website. We were laughing like crazy when I penned it. But the tune stuck with me and in the following days and weeks I added lyric after lyric. Eventually I had to accept that it wanted to be something more than what I had originally intended. I had so much material by that point it was easy to cut out the jokes.
When Kosi joined the band I asked her which tunes she wanted to sing. The Mystery was her first request. She was curious about where some of the lyrics came from. Usually I like to be oblique in my answers about the origins of tunes. I like to leave them open to a multitude of interpretations. But the truth is that I have very well defined methods. One of them I call “the snapshot”. A snapshot is a series of descriptions of what I am actually seeing and feeling at the moment. They often contain specific images which may appear to be unrelated to the content.
I told Kosi that “the picture” mentioned in the song actually exists. I dug it out of a drawer and showed it to her. I thought it would be nice for her to have a real image to go along with her performance.
Another method I use is stream of consciousness. This lyric came about that way.
I don’t like the mystery
Or when it falls at night.
And just because it’s history.
Well it doesn’t make it right.
You have to be in the zone for ones like that. I thought it was beautiful when I first heard it. I didn’t change a word, even though I have no idea of what it means. What I do know is that it conveys something I was feeling in such a powerful way that words cannot describe it. They can only define the parameters.
When things like that happen I stand aside and let them be.
We are winding up our extended stint at Paris Blues. It has been a personal milestone for me. It is not a trivial thing to have a weekly gig in NYC that pays. Even my mother is impressed. When I first started studying the guitar a few years back my teacher asked me what my goals were. I told him then that all I wanted was to have a weekly gig at some dive bar that pays. He shrugged and said “That’s certainly attainable.” And here we are.
I have always had a knack for tune-smithing. It took me a long time to appreciate it. I was always the guy in theater pieces who played the character that played the guitar. I often came up with original material. Once when I was 17 I won the role of Feste in 12th Night at our town’s little summer theater. A town called Chelmsford Massachusetts. The play was being staged as a Western. In a single night I scored the entire piece. At our first rehearsal, as we got to the first musical interlude, the director instructed us to ‘just skip over this for now.” I raised my hand and voiced that I had written something already. He raised an eyebrow and asked me to me play it. We went through the entire script just like that, pausing at each song and me offering: “I got that one too.” Every piece save one was kept in the show, along with a completely original tune that was done as an encore. I am sure I stepped on somebodies toes that night but nobody ever said a word to me about it.
See. To me it seemed like a trick. I could never figure out why everybody didn’t do it. If only they knew how easy it was. You just make it up.
I spent most of my life trying to do what was hard for me. I wanted to accomplish something. I wanted to be master of my own fate. It wasn’t until I bought The Harlem Flophouse that I learned what it was like to feel the wind behind your sails.
The theater phase of my life ended when I bought that house and for seven years most of my creative energy went into realizing that project. During that era I had two friends who were professional musicians. One of them an international opera star. Whenever he was in town they would want to come over to jam with me. I could never figure out why. I wasn’t much of a musical technician. I could do a few things but nothing like them. We would sit in the spooky main hall of that Victorian townhouse and I would channel music from out of the ether. Several of the pieces the band now plays like Love Monkey and Frankie and Ronnie came from those sessions. That is what they liked. That was why they wanted to hang with me. One day I woke up and realized that I had a gift and that I should embrace it.
I have to give thanks to my yoga practice for my enlightenment. Luckily I only had to learn the lesson of accepting what is offered to me a few thousand times before I could hear it. That is why the band is called The Goddess Lakshmi. She is the Hindu goddess of abundance.
After my epiphany I decided to seriously study the guitar. That is when I met my teacher, Scott. And that is when I began to really write and record music. I stumbled onto an online music community where I was able to share and develop new works. I received a lot of encouragement and positive feedback there.
While playing solo at one of the Flophouse parties I met Jeff. He asked me if I had a band. I told him, no, “but I am interested”. He said the magic words “I play the bass.” We started practicing and developing work together. We began playing open mics which pretty much sucked. Typically you had to show up at 6pm to get on the list. Then you had to wait until past midnight to play one or two songs. At that point you were performing to a room full of nobody listening. That is where I learned the trick of adding a 6th or 11th chord to the end of each tune. Given the right cue people will applaud almost anything. It’s kind of like feeding fish. If you don’t believe me just go to any Broadway show.
Once we played at a bar called The Karma Lounge. I had no idea what kind of place it would be. We got there and I found out that they catered to Hip-Hop spitters. These vampires charged $20 bucks for every tune you played as part of some phony contest. I wanted to walk out but Jeff said. “We’re here and we have our gear, just pay the man.” The hall was filled with the blackest negros I had ever seen. They came on the PATH train from the vast slums of New Jersey. They had saved their dimes for their big chance in New York City. I wondered what they would make of us but unlike everywhere else we had played they were quiet and attentive, laughing in all the right places.
Then I got the idea of playing at house parties. There was free food and drink. People actually listened before they applauded. We played at a couple of different lofts in SoHo. Hollis joined the band as a gift for awhile. I had met her during an Anusara immersion. She was used to drumming for much bigger acts (she plays for Boss Hogg) but she liked what I was doing. One weekend we had a gig in The Lower East Side at Orchard Ally park. Hollis couldn’t do it. She was out of town for her mothers 70th birthday. That’s when we got Amos. We knew it was a fit. Shortly afterwards when Hollis quit, he officially joined as the groups percussionist. He is also an experienced composer. He has more than once lent his expertise as we shepherded a new tune out of the gate and onto the dewy pasture of live performance.
Here’s the part about Paris Blues. When I first moved to Harlem eleven years ago I was immediately drawn to this venue. But every time I went in I never saw more than three people in the joint. Eventually, despite the fact that the place was dripping with ambiance, I lost interest. Then I got the idea of making a gig there. It took me several tries to work up the courage before I went into that dark and silent place. I met Sam, the dapper and elegant owner who had presided over several decades there. Sam looks like the best dressed dude in a Blaxploitation Flick. I offered to play for free. He enthusiastically accepted. But this was the deal. Once we started drawing an audience he had to pay the band. He agreed.
A few weeks later during one of the snowiest winters in NYC ever, we began playing. Soon after we started the venerable jazz musician Les Goodson began a Wednesday Night open mic. Then Atiba Kwabena started playing on Thursdays. Now a place that was sinking into the mire of Harlem’s forgotten history is alive and kicking. Unlike most spots it is truly multi-racial and multi-generational. Lakshmi itself has fans as young as 3 and well into the golden years too. This is something I am very proud of.
Around about February I resurected Love, a tune I had written in Germany ages ago. Amos and I talked about how much more effective it would be as a duet. So I went to one of Les’s open mics. That’s how I met Kosi. That whole story is in a previous post. And with that the band was complete.
Since then there have been nights where we have played to two or three people and nights when the joint was jammed. There have even been moments when we sang to an empty bar. Everybody in the band sings, by the way. After about eight weeks the bar started to pay us and they have stood by our agreement, paying us no matter what the house is like. Now I just have to figure out what our next step is.
The Black Orchid of Paris Blues: The Sublime Miss Kosi
We were working on a new song, called “I want you for my man.” (Sadly, this song is not about a threesome.) The production was coming together well, complete with Mamas-and-the-Papas style harmonies and pretty girls with big skirts dancing on platforms in the background. However, it was missing it’s single most important element: raised lighters.
Once I recognized the lack, I was forced to admit with embarrassment that I can’t light a lighter.
Seriously, though. I can’t.
As I spoke my confession to my band mates during rehearsal, the room went silent. I could feel six eyes peering at me in complete horror. I wished somebody would say something. Anything.
Finally, Jeff spoke.
“You mean,” he stammered, “you mean if I were here dying, you couldn’t light me a bong to save my life?”
“No, I couldn’t.”
“Not cool, man.”
I wrestled with the disturbing image of our esteemed bass player slowly dying of marijuana deficiency while I stood by watching helplessly. Jeff was right; that was not cool. What kind of friend and band mate was I that I couldn’t even come through with such a simple act of relief at such a critical time of need? The thought nearly brought tears to my eyes.
“But wait!” I gasped, suddenly brightening up with the glow of revelation. “I could light it on the stove!”
The tension in the room melted away like warm cotton candy. The potential crisis had been averted and all was right with the world again.
As I sit here now, warming my feet by a skid row coal stove, it occurs to me that a stove would be a useful thing to have handy in case I ever need to light an emergency bong. However, I’ve never brought a stove with me to a show. None of my dresses have any pockets and my breasts are not large enough to store one inside my bra. How unprepared I’ve been! How will I ever come through in time of need, should the situation arise?
As such, dear audience, I now leave the charge to you. If any or all of you would be so kind as to bring your stove with you the next time you come see the Goddess Lakshmi, you would be doing your part in preventing accidental death by marijuana deficiency.
But don’t bring a lighter. Or matches. I can’t light them either.
Jeff brought his step-mother to rehearsal yesterday. Given the cast of characters in our band one wonders why he didn’t just bring a homunculus for us to stick pins into. Among the amusing nuggets we were able to mine was this gem of a tale about his first car ride as a ten year old with his new mom. Apparently he was not pleased with her presence and informed her by kicking the back of her seat for the entire trip. Now we know what to expect on tour.
We were preparing a new piece to present. It is entitled The Invisible Man. It has nothing to do with Ralph Ellison. It sprang from a conversation I had with a friend of mine during his visit to The City. He remarked on the remarkable number of outrageous beauties that inhabit our island. “Yes.” I replied. That is a pleasure I never tire of. They come here from all over the world. Unfortunately they quickly master the art of making one feel invisible.”
We had the usual amount of wrangling over form, feel, and harmonic structure. Its a struggle with these cats but well worth it. The tune unfailingly re-emerges much stronger.
Then it was Kosi’s turn to present a new piece. It is entitled Uptown (as in I don’t want to go-no-mo). It was nice to see somebody else wriggling on the hook. She did handle it admirably. A lesser man might have been reduced to tears. The cats quickly chopped it up but it is durable and I have a feeling it is going to be something to hear.
He was sitting alone in the corner of the dark bar, mysterious figure that he was, with one hand on a Sugar Hill brew and the other tapping a violent rhythm like thunder on the table in front of him. His hat was pulled down over his eyes, drawing a shadow over the man. Except for his nervous rhythm, he seemed cool and calm– impervious to wiles. My first thought was to dismiss him and carry on my business of drinking until the drinking was through, but something about him made me curious, and from the way he sat, turning to face me every time I crossed the room, I could tell that he was curious too.
Finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I approached him. He invited me to sit beside him, which I did, reluctantly. He said his name was Rene Calvo, and removed his hat as I sat down. I could now see his eyes, which were dark, like coal. He inquired my name, which I told him. When he asked what I do for a living, I told him that I was an out-of-work jazz singer, but that these days I spend most of my time dreaming.
“Really?” he said, suddenly appearing more animated. “I have a rock band and I could use a female singer.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Everybody wanna be a rock star.”
He showed me a postcard of his band, featuring himself surrounded by three well-dressed Nubian princesses. He was wearing a long suede jacket in a charming shade of hibiscus red and holding a guitar, while his princesses looked on alluringly. The top of the card read “The Goddess Lakshmi.”
This was not enough to convince me, as anyone can have any mumbo jumbo printed on a postcard for distribution.
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
“Why should I trust you? You’re a stranger.”
“Yes, but I’m an open book.”
Even as I was pondering these words, he pulled back the curtain in front of what I thought was a wall, and what lay before me gleaming was a twisted three-ring circus of activity. He stepped inside and beckoned me to follow. I froze, petrified but ever more curious. I watched as he approached the two gentlemen who seemed to be in the center of the activity.
“What’s going on, boys?” he said, jovially addressing the pair.
One of them, a fascinating figure whose skin was as black as ebony on one side of his face and a titillating white on the other, was lighting up a bong. This character, I found out later, was called Amos Christ.
“Hey! Fucking a dude! Party’s on!” he drawled, taking a hit.
“Yeah, baby!” the other quipped, pulling down on what looked like a chauffeur’s cap. I found out later that his name was Jazzy Jeff. “Skeeze my pole!”
“Skeeze the pole; pass the bowl!” Rene laughed, and took a hit from the bong.
“Who’s at the door, man?” Jeff asked after a second. I trembled like a king hemmed in by his pawn, wondering if now was the time to run.
“Yeah, man, let that sweet thing on in. Let her on in, man.”
To be continued…