1) “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” -- “... and a brand new world began”
I am a big fan of the pop music of the Fifties and early Sixties. Born in 1950, I have many fond memories of the songs of that era, particularly their over the top romanticism. Whether it was slow dancing at a house party to “All I Have to Do is Dream” by the Everly Brothers or listening to Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby” on the transistor radio at Westhampton beach, these songs inspired me and fed my romanticism.
I was encouraged to write songs by my mentor Lou Stallman, a Brill Building composer/lyricist who, himself, was co-writer on many great songs of the Fifties and early Sixties such as “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” and “Round and Round.” Lou had heard me finger pick at a sleep away camp where I was a counselor (and author of the camp song.) and where he would come every summer for one week to co-write and produce an original musical with the teen campers. After hearing me play guitar and perform the few instrumentals I had composed, he encouraged me to contact him in New York City when I returned from summer break.
Lou was co-owner of Bornwin Music, a music publishing house in New York City, along with Stanley Catron who later became a Vice President of BMI. Lou and Stan had assembled a “stable’ of writers and singers whose careers they were shepherding; some of the talent they had put together included singer-songwriters Click Horning, who became my playing partner of many years, and Robert John who had a big hit with the song “Sad Eyes.” Lou published and produced many of my first songs with Bornwin Music, some of which were submitted to and “held” by such groups as the Turtles.
“A Hundred Pounds of Clay” is a prime example of the romanticism of 50’s and early 60’s pop music that I loved as a teenager and still treasure as an adult. It was a hit by Gene McDaniels in1961.
2) “Talking to the Wind “... leave me lie under the sky, I’m talking to the wind”
Some songs take a long time to complete. “Talking to the Wind” is one of those songs. It began sometime in the fall of 1972, just a year after my graduation from Harvard. I was visiting my friend Mike at his rural commune in Vermont, took a walk in the woods and ”had a puff.” Before I knew it, I was in a world of my own, deep in “dialogue” with the natural world, surrounded by the glorious colors of a New England fall. I walked back to Mike’s house and wrote the first two verses which had to do with the wish to be undisturbed while experiencing the joys of being in nature. For years, it remained an unfinished song. Many years later, I had a crush on a co-worker with stunning “rainbow” eyes. Before I could figure out what to do with my feelings, she moved away to get married, vanishing with “the wind.” I translated this experience into the bridge and new third verse of the song. All of a sudden the song had a motive -- my dialogue with nature was, in fact, a plea. After all if the wind took her away, perhaps the wind could bring her back.
3) “Buckets of Rain” -- “I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like”
I was first introduced to the brilliant songwriting of Bob Dylan through other artists who interpreted his songs. It all began with “Blowing in the Wind”, tenderly sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. Then Judy Collins recorded a haunting version of “Tomorrow’s Such A Long Time.” By the time the Byrds sang “My Back Pages” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” I, like so many of my generation, was hooked. My favorite Dylan songs, sung by the bard himself, tended to be the more tender ballads - “Love Minus Zero No Limit” and “She Belongs to Me.” Then Blonde on Blonde blew me away with “Stuck Here in Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and, in my opinion, the most beautiful song ever recorded, “Just Like A Woman.”
“Buckets of Rain” appears on Dylan’s “comeback” album, Blood on the Tracks. The song is the last one on the record, full of longing, contradictions and insight. This is Dylan at his best. Fans of the original song may notice that I took liberty with the opening line, singing “buckets of rain, buckets of beer” rather than “buckets of rain, buckets of tears.”
4) “I’m a Missin’ You” -- “...turned with my eyes and realized, I’d be missin’ you””
I got the serious bug to be a performer while an undergraduate in college. I was a headliner at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Harvard Square and was writing songs at a breakneck speed. Upon graduation, I moved back home to New York City to pursue my musical dreams. I did a few solo gigs and soon was performing with fellow singer-songwriter Click Horning and guitarist Dan White in a group called Moonshine. While we were attracting interest from record companies such as Vanguard (and opening for such future stars as Bruce Springsteen), gigs were few and far between. At the time, I was living with four roommates on West 110th Street near Cathedral Park. Sadly, my room, which I shared with my girlfriend Stephanie, looked out over a dark and lonely air shaft. I soon needed a break from NYC (no wonder with such a gorgeous view!). I hitched a ride to California without Stephanie who stayed behind at her job. When the car’s motor blew up in Iowa, I was forced to take a Greyhound bus the rest of the way. On a long and lonesome layover in Santa Barbara, Ca. I found an alcove near the beach, took out my guitar and wrote this tune. The song was recorded many years later at Fred Story’s Concentrix Studio in Uptown Charlotte. It was a one-take job, recorded live with Click Horning backing me on rhythm guitar and vocals. As for Stephanie, she too abandoned the room looking out on the air shaft and I never heard from her again.
When I was a child, my favorite gym sport was dodgeball. This instrumental song has the erratic tempo of a dodgeball game where you never know who is going to be the next target of the ball! It is recorded with me on 6 string guitar and 12 string guitar. Fred Story plays the piano, bass, drums and synthesizer, all of which give the song, to my ears, a “Love is Blue” feel.
6) “Angel without Paradise” - “you were living on a rainbow, you were walking on air”
My mother was a talented poet and huge supporter of my songwriting. I once asked her for some titles to write from and she gave me a list of over 40. This was one of them. Once I had the title, the song itself came fairly quickly. I was not, however, prepared for what would happen when I performed the song in Atlanta, Georgia.
I was the featured entertainer at a “New Age” weekend retreat led by motivational speaker Arnold Patent. After playing this song, a woman came up to me and told me the following: “I loved your song “Angel Without Paradise” and wanted you to know that I think the song was written for me. You see, I am a “walk-in” from another planet. I was told on my planet that I needed to come to Earth and inhabit (i.e. walk into) the body of someone who lost their love of life. I left a beautiful world behind to come to your planet. My name is Angel.”
Stunned, I realized I had three choices of how to interpret her story:
She was schizophrenic
She was lying so as to impress me
She was telling the truth
I chose to believe #3 and spent the rest of the weekend with her!
7) “Go”...“ why I had to leave, I’ll never know, something just told me to go”
After two frustrating years in New York City trying to land a record contract, I decided to set out for the West Coast and explore the burgeoning music scene in L.A. At that time, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt were both based in Los Angeles and were huge stars. Following an ill-fated road trip to Mexico, however, I thought it wise to spend some time in San Francisco before I moved to L.A. My year in San Francisco turned into a year long detour from pursuing my dreams in the city of angels; while San Fran is a great tourist town, as a resident I found it to be depressing. Far away from home with little rhyme or reason as to why I was there, I spent hours wandering aimlessly around Golden Gate Park asking myself, “Why am I here? “Who am I?” and “Why did I leave the comfort of family and friends on the East Coast?” This song emerged from these feelings of heartsickness and homesickness.
8. “Forever Eyes “... “never thought I’d see a color bluer than the skies, till I saw forever eyes”
When I was dating my future wife, Elaine, we took a trip to New Mexico. While driving to Taos, she and I stopped by the side of the road where I took a picture of her with a backdrop of snow in the desert. Her eyes looked magically blue in her blue jean shirt. This was the original image for the song. Our getting married two years later spelled the end of my single years, a turn of affairs that was woven into the second verse of the song. Over time I added a bridge and third verse to make the song more universal. “Forever Eyes” could as easily apply to a higher deity as to a human being.
9) “In This Together” …”it won’t do to run up to the attic and hide”
Click Horning is my favorite “unknown” songwriter. He nearly made it big in the late 60s when he was produced by Tom Wilson (the same producer who made Simon and Garfunkel a household name) and released a record on Laurie Records. His deep baritone voice, steady flat picking and lyrical depth of his songs have always moved me. In the summer of 1970, I was considering dropping out of Harvard to pursue a career as a musician and was spending time in New York City working as a cashier in Grand Central Station. At night, Click would play his beautiful songs at the apartment on West 10th Street where he crashed with his sister and her husband, owners of one of the first bar/restaurants in Soho. There were drugs being passed around and the nights were rich with song, laughter and the longings unique to being a 20 year old on summer break in Manhattan. Click was like an older brother to me and to his eternal credit, he encouraged me to finish my college education before pursuing a career in music. This is one of my favorite songs of his, written by a father to his daughter.
10) “Days of Old San Juan” …”if I knew then, what I know now”
I once found a letter that my mother had written to a good friend of hers, decrying the fast pace of life in America. She longed for simpler days associated with her youth. That letter was written in the 1950s! Of course, in comparison, the 50s seem like a much more laid back and uncomplicated time than our current era. But I think the point is made that as we age, we all seem to long for halcyon days we associate with the past.
Growing up, my family had a beautiful summer house near the water in East Quogue, Long Island. There were only a couple of homes around us and we had an uninterrupted view of Shinecock Bay. Because there were no fences and few cars, our dog Blackie was free to chase rabbits undisturbed while we looked on from the porch. Fireflies filled the night air and laughter was a common currency.
Over time, our view was blocked by new construction,fences were built and our pastoral Eden was slowly tarnished and lost. Eventually the house was sold after my parents died.
This song is about our universal longing for simpler times. It is also about the wisdom that comes, too late, after the breakup of a love affair.
Ironically enough I have never been to San Juan.
11) “Twilight Dream”
This instrumental was born from a theme written by Click Horning. He called it “The Gypsy Song.” I took the theme, which can be heard in the very first verse of the song, and expanded on it. I love the way the final recording swells and recedes and think it would make a fitting song for a movie soundtrack (Hollywood are you listening?).
12) “Right to be Wrong” -- “won’t you take off your mask, your disguise”
This song emerged from a line I once read in the newspaper, the author of an Op-Ed declaring that he had a “right to be wrong.” This line resonated with me. I believe that if we were all less afraid of failing and looking bad to one another, we would have more fun and exude greater authenticity. I am honestly not sure to whom I was referring when I directed my lyric to “you, with your watery eyes.” Not even sure what I meant by watery eyes. I guess it is up to listeners to determine what this line means to them!
13) “Couple of Hats Boogie”
Click and I briefly performed with Fedora hats using the name A Couple of Hats. This song is an up-tempo boogie we recorded with Fred Story on electric bass. It was largely influenced by the guitar work on Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
14) “Sembolina, Kumbalina” ... “a whimsical song for the afternoon”
While in college, I made friends with a commune of hippies who lived nearby in rural New Hampshire. I adopted an adorable white Husky pup from them shortly before graduation and took her with me to a tiny apartment in New York City. How I loved that little dog! However, I felt guilty keeping her cooped up in the apartment while I went to work in Greenwich Village where I sold bean bag chairs at a Pier 16 store. Although it broke my heart, I soon gave her back to my friends in New Hampshire where she could roam freely with her canine family. “Sembolina, Kumbalina” was my nickname for her. Click and I initially recorded this song as a demo for Vanguard Records. We were offered a contract for a single but turned it down in hopes of securing a deal for an entire album.
15) “Steel Rail Blues” ... “went into town for one last round and gambled my ticket away”
Next to Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot is my favorite troubadour. When I first heard this Lightfoot song recorded by George Hamilton IV in 1966, I immediately bought the 45 disc at Colony Records on 49th Street and Broadway, took it home and played it non-stop. This was a rare occurrence at the time since the version of the song is decidedly Country and I was a Jewish kid growing up in NYC. It is beautifully sung by Lightfoot himself on his first LP released that same year and has always been one of my favorite story songs. Click Horning and I trade lead vocals and Fred Story adds a stand up bass. This take was recorded live without overdubs.
16) “When All the Sand Castles Fall”
I was about 6 months old when I was a sidebar in the New York Times. My composer father Josef Alexander was about to have his first symphony performed in Carnegie Hall and the newspaper did a feature on him. I was in a baby carriage in the photograph which showed him composing at the piano.
This image coincides with my first memory in life which is not visual but auditory. It is Bach’s C Major Prelude which my father often played as a warm up piece and which I undoubtedly heard when I was a baby. Hearing this magnificent piece brings me back to a serene, watery, pre-conscious place.
This instrumental song was inspired by a brief love affair and is my humble attempt to write a piano prelude. It was performed by me on the piano at Jay Howard Studio in one take.
17) “The Poet’s Soul” ... “you loved us all, with the poet’s soul”
My mother had four sons. She also wrote four books of published poetry and had many other literary pieces published in the New York Times. She was the most loving mother one could imagine, never losing her patience and bestowing great kindness on us all. She and my classical composer/pianist father were quite the bohemian couple. Parties at our Manhattan apartment included many of the top artistic figures in New York City ranging from Leonard Bernstein to Walter Matthau.
My mother also suffered greatly. She lost my oldest, mentally ill brother to suicide, my father to a heart attack and she herself eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease, the most cruel fate for such a loving, literate soul. I was in California when she died and wrote this song on the bus and flight back home, planning to sing it at her funeral. While I did not finish the song in time to do so, I recorded it soon thereafter at the end of a long recording session, live and in one take. Fred Story added a haunting piano track years later.
18) “You’re Not the Only One” ...”don’t complain, about the fire and the wind, smoke and rain”
This is another song that took years to finish. It started out as a reproach to a friend who complained a lot about her love interest. My point to her at the time was that we all suffer from love’s indignities so why not make the most of the situation? Years later, it occurred to me that the song would be more interesting if the protagonist was actually in love with his friend, longing to have a romantic relationship with her but keeping his feelings secret the whole time she was complaining about her dead-beat boyfriend. I love the folk arrangement of this song, the only waltz on the record.
19) “Soul River”... “sing me a song, I can call my own”
This song has its origins in the metaphysical novel The Alchemist. We all rest upon the souls of those who have come before us. Life itself is a great adventure. Only when we become silent, can we glimpse the mystery of it all…”the scent of the pines, the spark of a star.” As we age, the desire grows to be a child again, innocent, wide-eyed, rocked to sleep by the lullaby of the ancients.