What is it that goes bump in the night?
In my house, it may be the icemaker, that deposits a new round of icy cubes just when the house is dark, settled, silent. Bang.
What goes bump? Normally, not Neil Young. But something woke me at 4 AM this Monday morning to find Neil Young on Showtime cable, in a documentary of a concert in Nashville at the famed Ryman Auditorium.
Why I woke up early will be a part of my wonderment for the rest of this day. For now, it proved to be a gift of sorts, reminding me generally of the role of music in my life and particularly, this epic concert over a two day gig in 2005. My son, Thomas, gave me a copy of the documentary one Christmas and it became part of the soundtrack of my life. I was immediately impressed with one song Neil did with Nicolette Larsen, titled Comes a Time. One line of poetic lyric landed squarely on my psyche: “This old world keeps spinning ’round, it’s a wonder tall trees a’int laying down, Comes a time.” What an apt description of my world at points.
One fine day, some years later, my phone rang. It was was my son, Thomas, calling from Nashville. He was inviting me to his upcoming gig, playing a pre-concert for Neil in Nashville, giving me a chance to see one of the most energetic shows of my life at the Ascend Amphitheater, as Chris Farley would say, down by the river.
Synchronicity is an odd thing, something I am studying in Carl Jung’s labrynthian theory. I am slow to ascribe cosmic connection to what may just be coincidence, but this seemed a bit strange, even to me. Just last evening, I came across a recording of Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl, which is a song that hooked me on Neil’s artistry. My friend, Alan Jackson, played it for me on his cheap record player during my freshman year at Emory. I had made fun of Neil’s voice in the past, but in that song, I caught a whiff of his soul, as he sang for his group Crazy Horse, driving the signature one note solo with a repeated D note.
Prior, I remember as a 7th grader going on the safety patrol trip to Washington, D.C. being fascinated by the plaintive lyrics and feel of his work on For What It’s Worth by the iconic Buffalo Springfield. Neil and I have quite a history, so being with him in Nashville was a culminating experience. To wake to him this morning prompted my reflection, random as it is, on the soundtrack of my life. Like me, my music memory will be inconsistent but spirited. My taste is wildly varied, eclectic to be sure, but always sensitive to the role of spirit underneath the beat and tone.
One of my first strong music memories was when I was emerging as a hormonal adolescent, discovering the primal force of music, alongside my emerging sexual drive. I remember sitting in Roger Hasting’s downstairs room, listening to Elton John’s live 11-17-70 album, still my favorite production of this artist. Later, I would sit at my piano and try to bang out those chords, sequestered in my basement so that only my dog would bear the pain of my learning.
Paul McCommon and I had the fearful honor of selecting the band for our Junior-Senior Prom, as we were the officers of the Junior class. My fear was palpable, that Keith Melton, the President of the Senior class, would not like the band that we chose, and would kick my young ass. Taking that abject fear in mind, our common (get it) taste was for horn bands, namely Chicago, the silver second album that I listened to constantly. Terry Kath’s guitar solos, and killer, tasty horns dominated my junior year. And of course, Colour My World, was the classic slow dance song of adolescent dreams., although I preferred the bad boy Stones’ Wild Horses for its plaintive soul. We booked Thrasher for the dance that was held at the Atlanta Progressive Jewish Club, which now houses the Turner Broadcast Network, visible from the Atlanta Connector. Look for it on the right, as you are heading south, next time you are sitting in traffic. Good news: Keith liked the band, and I later booked Thrasher, with a Freddie Mercury looking lead singer,twice at Emory. He was awesome on the cowbell leading off on Honky Tonk Woman.
My senior summer, driving my badass midnight blue Firebird Formula 400, I lived off of the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks, playing in my 8 track, stuck on Jumping Jack Flash, and my favorite for unknown reasons, Sympathy for the Devil, introducing me to the E blues progression. I remember specifically a moment of pulling into the golf course where I worked with Sympathy turned up to 11. All was “right” with the world from my vantage point on that day. I was ready to launch. Freedom was in the air, although so close to the airport, jet fuel smell intruded.
My soundtrack in college veered toward more folk rock, remembering the Eagles bursting on the scene with Take It Easy. Jackson Brown, Crosby, Stills, Nash….and later Young were some of the mainstays, though odd adds like Gino Vanelli might find its way into my eclectic juke box mind. The iconic Layla haunted me with Duane Allman and Eric Clapton’s killer guitar solos. However, reverence must be accorded to Pink Floyd and Dark Side of the Moon. Many nights, watching the blinking red lights from the WAGA television tower outside my Emory dorm room would dominate my psyche. A sophisticated Steely Dan also wandered into my consciousness.
A strange thing happened in my fraternity house that sent me down a new path. We had a baby grand that would lend itself to my banging chords, more often than not, Sympathy, or some other three-chord rocker. Or it might yield to Kevin Getzendanner’s attempts at Elton’s riffs. But a new day came for me when Tom Greenbaum showed up from Shaker Heights, Ohio to master the 88s on that beer-soaked piano. I joked, but was probably correct, by saying Tom’s parents put him on piano instead of Ritalin for his hyperactivity. He had memorized the entire Sinatra catalog of songs, and introduced me to a classic live album, Sinatra at the Sands, with the Count Basie Orchestra. Unbelievable. Under My Skin did exactly that.
Then, Tom introduced me to the inimitable Oscar Peterson, who I had never heard of, although my mother and Clint Eastwood had lured me into piano jazz with Errol Garner’s Play Misty for Me. On a bet, we got a trio together, Mark Jones on “Wipe Out”drums, me on muddy acoustic bass, and Tom driving the train on keys. We spent many evenings in the parlor playing, having way too much fun. Someone would request a song, Tom would tell me what key it was in, and then, off we would go in a cloud of dust. I do remember playing the entire list of songs from Pippin, with Magic To Do serving as our spirited break music. We played at the Prado, where I would later work as a bouncer…such is the training for a priest. who’s going South of God.
In seminary, I lived in a house with a covey of divorced South of God ministers. Everyone was depressed, so we drank a lot of beer, listened to Gordon Lightfoot, and partied to Jimmy Buffett. Somewhere along the way, Willie Nelson came into my musical mind and he decided to stay. That was an odd add to my repitoire, that is until I discoverd my deep roots in Texas through my McBrayer grandmother. Later in Texas, Willie and a whole bunch of Texas songwriters took over my head, and I was lucky enough to hang with a few. My genetic code has the Caribbean beat, the Nashville twang, and the Texas heat blended in a mongrel mix. My son claims some of that juicy fruit in his songwriting as he lives out my unrequited dreams in Music City.
I give you all that jumbled, eclectic background to tell you about my current soundtrack, and it’s a strong one. You can thank me later.
It emerged for me last year as I was driving to the courthouse here in Glynn County, Georgia for the Ahmaud Arbery trial. I would leave my home on St. Simons Island, cross the causeway to Brunswick, take a left on Highway 17, hang a right onto Gloucester into downtown. During the drive in, and on the drive back home, I would play a particular album. It was by my current favorite artist, Jon Batiste.
I had learned of his genius watching him lead the band, Stay Human, on Steven Colbert’s late night show. He is unmistakably from New Orleans, growing up in a legendary musical family, natively bringing that Delta soul and bayou accent. But Jon was trained at Julliard and has a broad range of chops that is astounding. What’s exciting for me is that he is only beginning to blossom as an artist and one can only imagine where he will take this profound gift.
The album I listened to, my soundtrack, is called WE ARE. It was named “Album of the Year”, winning one of his three Grammys just a few weeks ago. As he received this singular award, he seemed genuinely surprised by the honor, but took the opportunity to opine of the role of music. “You know I really, I believe this to my core, there is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor. The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it the most. It’s like a song or an album is made and it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.” That was clearly the case for me an this album.
I was impressed with Jon’s attitude as to his art. “I like, thank God., I just put my head down and I work on my craft every day. I love music. I’ve been playing since I was a little boy. It’s more than entertainment for me. It’s a spiritual practice.” I know a bit about that.
Jon’s sincerity and spiritual depth is winsome. His work “found” me when my move to a new locale was fresh, leaving me with a sense of isolation, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic that squirreled us away in our singular homes. The societal stresses even reach into the island culture where I reside, and the starkness of racial division was made pungent in the wake of the murder/lynching of Ahmaud Arbery by three self-appointed vigilantes. February 23rd, in the fateful year of 2020 was the date, months before my move to the area, so the news was fresh. The trial of those three took a year and a half to come to trial.
Going to the trial daily, joining the Glynn County clergy in supporting the family and the community provided me an opportunity for work with which I was familiar. I thrive in the honest-to-God community that makes up the ethos of a small town. But the concommitant cost and stress was recognizable to me early on. Southern gothic scares the hell out of me, after reading Harper Lee and Flannery.
Batiste’s album became my therapy, as I prepped for the extraverted work of gathering with the group outside the courthouse. And, it provided me the calming depressurization on the way back home in the afternoon. It was Jon that rode alongside me daily, boosting me with a deep sense of joy, lamenting the pain of suffering and loss, urging the commitment to “tell the truth”, and rocking me with the brave assertion of freedom. It kept me going, inspiring me as I moved through this tough time.
I commend you takiing a listen. The album is packed with a variety of styles, but each song has a common feel of a “spirited soul” that is who Jon is at his core. I double-dog-dare you to listen to the song Freedom, and not move your bones, even if you are ancient like myself. I am sure that people who were riding alongside my Tahoe, crossing the causeway, thought there was a wild man loose in Golden Isles as I was rocking it on the road. And they would be right.
So, Jon Batiste, with his Delta blues infused jazz, injected with a bit of Gospel, aligns well with my soul. It helped me through a rough patch of transition in my existence. And truth is, music has always functioned like that for me. Negotiating developmental transition, moving through challenging times, music has provided me a base for my soul’s progress. In my planning, I schedule time for music to infuse and enrich my soul, feeding me spiritually for the work and life that I live. It can be Ralph Vaughn Williams, Emmylou Harris, or Charlie Parker. It’s like a vitamin, a nutritional supplement that gives me what I need to live with verve and commitment.
I hope you will take the time to listen to We Are, and see how it moves you. It may not be your proverbial “cup of tea”, and as Jon would say “that’s alright!” But my be;iief is that we all need to find ways to soothe the soul, particularly in the troubled times we find ourselves in. I encourage you to reflect on where you get your “juice”, and then be intentional about taking the time to get your soul fed. Truth is, you are responsible for the care of your Self. No one else will do it for you.
One of the lyrics of Jon states it well: In this world with a lot of problems, all we need is a little loving. Thank you, thank you, for your love.