I was born on December 4th, the same day as Rilke, The Dude (Jeff Bridges), Jay-Z, the English film star Gemma Jones, Chris Hillman from The Byrds, Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys, Fred Armisen….somehow, this partial list is a good one to be part of. I’m not sure how they maneuver or maneuvered through the world, but I tend to move sideways - maybe because my moon is in Aries?
I’ve never really fit in. When I was a boy, around 9 years old, I remember making a choice between being an impressionist or a musician. On the playground at school I would have the other kids in stitches with my song parodies. Maybe this is how Weird Al started. One of my big hits back then was my take on “She Loves You”. It went something like: “She hates you, No, No, No - You think you’ve lost your love / well you know darn well you did / she says she hates you cause you’re a crazy mixed up kid”. At least, I think that they were laughing with me, and not at me.
9 years old was the pivotal year for me. On the debut Translator album in 1982 I wrote a song called “Necessary Spinning”. There wasn’t really a chorus, but the refrain was “Sometimes I wish that I was 9 years old again”. The Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Who, The Supremes came into my little mind at that age. Altered my DNA. Hearing The Beatles for the first time was more powerful than taking acid. Better, and certainly more profound. My first band was called The Present Tense. I was the drummer. I had a red sparkle 4-piece drum kit. Like an 11 year old Don Henley, I was a singing drummer. We were a good combo. A record company recorded a single with two songs that I co-wrote with the guitarist - “Lost” and “Illusions”. These two titles could easily be the title of my autobiography. Funny how some things are set at that young age. I still have the acetate of that original recording of “Lost” - a bit of it appears as a hidden track on my first solo album from 1999, “The Boy Who Rode His Bike Around The World”. That version was played by studio musicians with me singing over it. They recorded another take with The Present Tense playing. It is charming. But, as bands do, we split up. The single never came out. I was a has-been at 12. I switched to piano and guitar, and for the next couple of years I started to seriously write songs. A friend of my parents gave a tape, certainly a reel-to-reel tape, to someone at a publishing company. They signed me to a publishing deal at the age of 14. I got an advance of $25 per week, a small fortune for a 14-year old. All I had to was write songs. The deal lasted for 2 years. I never told any of my friends about it at the time - see, that’s the sideways movement that I mentioned earlier.
My other love was (and still is) speaking and reading French. I graduated from school with honors in French, and went to the university in Grenoble, France for a semester. But, like that boy on the school yard all those years before, I was torn. Should I become a translator at the U.N. (my goal at the time), or put a band together? One afternoon I was walking down a street in Grenoble and stopped in front of a music store. There were guitars hanging in the window on display. It was like a scene in a film. Time stood still. I knew that it had to be music. When I got back to Los Angeles after the semester abroad, I wanted a band but I had zero idea how to do that. I’d play with people, but nothing really fucked with my mind like I wanted it to. I briefly took an office job in a life insurance company. They were training me to be an underwriter. Really, my job was to deny coverage to as many people as I could. I never really understood how that was a good strategy for the company. I pretty much hated every minute of it. I turned 21 when I was working there, which is also when I quit.
Several important things happened right after that. First, I saw David Bowie & the Spiders From Mars live. I was that kid pressed up against the stage, right in front of Mick Ronson. Soon afterwards, I went to see Bob Marley & The Wailers at a club in LA. I went out and got my Les Paul because both Ronson and Marley played one. I still use that guitar. Also, my friendship with Dave Scheff took off. He and I have been friends for many years. Dave is the most musical, intuitive, creative drummer I know. The fact that I have been able to play with him for decades now is the greatest gift that I could ask for. Finally, the relationship I was in blew apart. I suddenly lived alone and plunged head first into music. Dave and I played in a Beatle band that toured Japan in 1979. On the flight back we decided to start a band - that group would be Translator. He knew a bass player, Larry Dekker. We were a trio in LA for around six months before we stole guitarist Robert Darlington from another group and moved to San Francisco. That is the line up that would eventually record 4 albums for 415/Columbia Records between 1982 and 1986. We split up, and just like with The Present Tense, I found myself thinking “what in the fuck am I supposed to do now?!?”. We have done several reunions through the years. It is always a blast. Another couple of important events happened right after the break up. I saw Oasis at a small club in San Francisco. It was one of the loudest shows I’ve ever attended. I had to step outside to catch my breath before diving back in. It was glorious. Then Blur’s “Parklife” came into my life and blew my brain away. But most crucial was discovering PJ Harvey. I saw her “To Bring You My Love” tour in San Francisco, and I think it altered my DNA in the same way that The Beatles had done when I was a boy. I can still see her crawling on the stage whispering “Little fish, big fish swimming in the water…”. Stunning.
The “Boy Who Rode His Bike Around The World” album came out 13 years after the band broke up. Why did it take so long? Whatever the answer is, is lost in the haze of time and memory. But it is a fantastic album. Produced by Marvin Etzioni (Lone Justice), a very close friend of mine. Dave Scheff played drums, of course. We borrowed Hugo Burnham’s (Gang Of 4) drum kit. Translator had toured with them back in ’83 or ’84. Larry Dekker played bass on most of the songs as well. Sort of a mini Translator reunion, but definitely a solo album. I called it “experimental pop” when asked. Really, it is just a bunch of my latest songs at that time. My mom was very ill during the making of this album. I can hear it when I listen to it.
Solo album number two is “Charm Offensive”, from 2003. I had put a band together to play shows around LA, where I was living at the time. Robbie Rist (Cousin Oliver in The Brady Bunch, and a super talented musician) played drums, Derrick Anderson on bass and Casey Dolan on guitar. The album was produced by Ed Stasium, who had produced two of the Translator LPs - as well as The Ramones and many others. To this day, a good friend. A really cool sort of power-pop album, but not really. Again, just an album of the current batch of numbers. Some fast, some slow. A uptempo rock and roll cover of “She’s Leaving Home”. My mom had died in November 2000, and several of the songs were written with her in mind - especially “Narcolepsy Baby”. The band would travel to the UK and play at The Cavern Club in Liverpool. It was totally fun and mind-blowing to see all the Beatles sites. The 9-year old in me was freaking out. But the familiar restless stirring was already bubbling up in my being. The band was great, but I was still looking for something.
We recorded one more album. A really groovy record called “Flicker Of Time”. These were all songs that the four of us rehearsed like crazy. Getting them down in the studio was pretty easy - we knew them really well. I remember playing a gig at a club in LA where we debuted a few of those songs. One in particular, “Cartoon Safe”, got a huge response. That made me really happy. Out of the blue, the other guitar player quit. We soldiered on as a trio for a while - made a video for “Cartoon Safe” (it is really fun - check it out on YouTube!), played a handful of gigs. And then, my dad got really sick. He died in December 2009, 5 days after my birthday.
I wrote a whole bunch of songs after he died, played them for Marvin Etzioni and he said it sounded like an album. We decided to do the record with just me playing everything. That spelled the end of the solo band. That album is “Projector”, a record I am really proud of. It is so very naked and direct.
During the first decade of the 2000s, I had taken a job at one of the major music publishing companies. I learned a hell of a lot about that world. I’m glad that I did it, but the familiar sideways restless feeling came back, of course. I began recording an album right before I quit the job. My wife and I moved to Portland Oregon where I finished two albums - a very cool duo record with Dave Scheff called “New Blue World”, and a disc that became “Tall Tales And Alibis”, a triple album. Album One was my more twisted pop songs, without bass or drums - Album Two was the moody dark record, mostly solo guitar and intimate vocals - Album Three was a rock and roll album with a hand-picked group of friends in LA. That triple album unleashed the floodgates of songwriting for me. The songs on this record seemed to focus on the search for human connection. The lyrics are all pretty raw, which is why I think of the album’s title as a sort of tongue-in-cheek title. Like, “Is this all actually really me? Or are these just made up stories and lies?”. I don’t know the answer to that. A bit of both, I guess. I did know, however, that I wanted the next one to be a single album. My version of a rock and roll record.
Before the next album, I co-wrote a song called "Molly Somebody" with Sid Griffin for the Long Ryders album "Psychedelic Country Soul". I sang the song with the band when they played the Aladdin Theater in Portland OR. Really cool night!
My 7th solo album, “Love & Destruction”, was written pretty quickly. The songs just came pouring out. I think that it is fantastic. In getting ready for the release, I found myself thinking about what this record means to me - what is the center, the truth behind it. I never really know what my songs mean until much later. Plus, lyrics tend to change their meaning as time goes by. I do know that I love singing this batch of songs! One of the numbers, “Never Gonna Last”, mentions the Queen Of Hearts a few times - that does not refer to any particular person, but I tend to think that it is something to do with the fleeting grab for the fog that is inspiration. Lyrics tend to wake me up around 3 am - I’ll be in bed thinking about where the bridge should take a song, or realizing that what I thought was the chorus is really the verse, or should it be “The” or “A” to start a line. These songs were no exception. They haunted me to get written. I relate really strongly to the last scene in the great French film “Children Of Paradise” - where Baptiste is watching Garance as she is swallowed up by the huge crowd in the street. He’s crying out her name as she disappears. That’s what songwriting is like sometimes. Catching smoke with a net.
Album #8 is Time Hard Won. Dave on drums, I’m playing everything else. 10 new songs, 40 minutes. So good! Three of the songs were produced by Ron Fair at his fab Nashville studio. The record will be out in 2023. I like all my albums to sound different than the ones that came before. All my songs are love songs. I believe that. It might be hidden, but there you have it. I try to focus in on the words as I’m singing - to focus in on the story they are telling. I might come at it all sideways, but I usually get there…