The Healing Kind of ‘An Evening at Macri Park’

Seán Barna stands with his back to the unfurling vista of downtown Austin puffing on a thin cigar, smoke billowing around his head. His friend, collaborator, and producer, Dave Drago (who is playing bass on this run), sits behind him, leaning his feet up on the railing of the hotel balcony sipping on tequila from a small cup. Surrounded by the other three members of their five-piece touring band, they look comfortable in their idiom. It is a day off on their first ever major U.S. tour supporting Counting Crows. Its lead singer, Adam Duritz, a longtime fan and friend of Barna’s, affectionally named the band, the British Cigarettes (get it?) the first time he announced them. A dream has come true for these two men. They have worked hard to achieve it, and all the pitchers of margaritas and Lone Star beers they’ve consumed on this afternoon attest to it. It is a rock and roll scene – and they are indeed on the rock and roll ride.

“We’re serious about this,” Barna tells me the next evening after the kind of blistering set that will have created a stir across America. He had graciously emerged from backstage to offer me a beer. Counting Crows having already begun to kick hard into their spectacular show, transfixing the audience, but then something interesting happened. Many around us noticed the thin, six-foot figure standing beside me – thick mustache, elaborate eye makeup – as the rocker on stage only moments before. They began to convene around him, tossing out accolades ranging from emotional triggers to musical adoration, but they all centered on the sincerity of Barna’s performance; the way he dives into his songs, makes sure to enunciate the lyrics he painstakingly authored – an openly gay man reflecting his culture and those of the marginalized and oppressed. He appeared taken aback by all this, having always hoped his music would connect. “I get emotional when I think about it,” he tells me on that balcony. “All these people who are inspired by the songs, how they relate, how it makes them feel less alone,” but from his reaction to this much attention, I can tell it is all still a bit weird for him. It happened again later as the arena filed out and we loitered by the band’s van close to the backstage area; people shared stories with him while he glibly responded with veiled jokes, his biting humor and self-effacing comments acting as both a defense and a comfort.

For his part, Barna’s musical and philosophical partner Drago, the proprietor of 1809 Studios outside Rochester, New York, is also a man finding his way. He is taking all of it in as if it may never happen again. He mixes this trepidation with a quiet confidence that this may be the beginning of something special. “This was always the plan for Seán and this music we made by ourselves over the weeks and months,” he says after a sip of tequila. “I could always picture him roaming a larger stage, singing to as many people as we had tonight. We both knew this was the plan. It doesn’t always come your way, but when it does… you take it and don’t waste it.”

Drago and Barna are an interesting pair. They share a love of the music they create together and a deeper personal connection – it is clear if you spend five minutes with them or listen to one of their songs, it reflects the incessant brain-battering strive for excellence in what they do. They are also quite different in many important ways. Drago is a family man – a wife and two children – living out in the woods. Barna is the perpetual rover and seeker, embracing the urban underground. Steeped in his culture’s history and battles, he is an activist as much as an artist, and sometimes it is hard to tell the two passions apart. His adoration of “the scene” and what he can do to protect, advance, and illuminate its agenda is no pose. Drago, however, reveals a more pragmatic side. He owns a business and has a mortgage. Barna, who nearly died of a stomach ailment just two years ago, openly discusses drugs and sexual abandon in his songs and interviews. Drago will talk about the experience of being a parent with equal measures of dread and pride – his family is his center. Barna, it seems, is still searching for a center beyond the music and the dream to express it.

Earlier in the day that ended up on that sun-splashed balcony, I joined them and the band in bar-hopping around Austin. The band is made up as the seemingly always-smiling vocalist (Margot McDonald), the quiet but funny guitarist (Jake Rodenhouse), the energy-addled keyboardist (Alex Northrup), and Spencer Inch, a wonderful conversationalist on drums. They are comfortable needling each other, spurred on by Dave and Seán’s seemingly impenetrable bond – a barbed ping-pong match of insults and one-liners that eventually has everyone doubled over in laughter. “It is a sunny day and I’m drinking with my best friend, what is better than this?” Drago shared on our walk to ever more spirits. “This man had faith in my music,” Barna tells me later of his producer. “He demanded I write songs and make them as good as they can be. I followed his lead.”

What we do not talk about today but had been the subject of a longer prior conversation we had over this past winter are three crucial elements of their kinship and professional tontine that has hovered over them like a storm cloud: depression and anxiety, imposter syndrome, and self-loathing. A consistent undercurrent to their lives long before they began working together, these afflictions came roaring to the fore in the confines of the studio, eyeball-to-eyeball and shoulder-to-shoulder, while the two men realized the kind of music that would cause two separate crowds to form around the singer-songwriter on the tour of their lives. Two collaborators forming a burgeoning alliance in art and ambition were tearing down its emotional fabric day after day – negatively affecting the music and wearing on their friendship. They both realized right then that this magical partnership was imploding from within, and they decided to save it by seeking help and medication. It was either that or watch it die.

This revelatory road began during the intense sessions for Barna’s breakout 2018 EPCissy, a record I once described in print as “a wholly provocative, mesmerizingly intense and unerringly brave collection of five songs that turned me sideways.” This was the music that poured from Barna at the unwavering behest of his friend. “He told me to ‘Shut the fuck up and get up here [to] make a record!’’ He admitted this after the EP was released. Indeed, Drago understood he had started this fire, and for a while he was not sure he could contain it. “The brand of self-hatred that Seán brought to the table during the making of that record was a little much for me,” he said. “All of a sudden there were two people in the room and one of them was talking shit to the guy that I loved. And so, I went and attacked the other guy, because that’s who I was.” Drago manifested how he handled Barna’s outbursts. “It all kind of came out in the room when Seán was feeling under pressure, under stress, or in a position of vulnerability,” he recalled. “The studio is a totally normal place to feel weird and anxious and shitty – but I’d never seen anyone attack themselves in that way. Then that put me in attack mode, which is also – maybe not always, especially at that point – the best way to handle the situation.”

The brilliance of Cissy had the two artists believing that although the volatility, self-flagellation, lashing out, and flashes of fury that nearly fractured their creative providence were also an effective cocktail for greatness, so while working on Barna’s latest album, An Evening at Macri Park in the winter of 2020 (mere weeks before a worldwide pandemic descended), the two were forced to face their demons. Ironically, it was while working on a new song called “Easy on Me.”

“There was some fight about something – the same old shit, my losing it and him pushing me,” recalled Barna a few months before he landed on that Texas balcony. “I had a cold or something. We did a couple of shitty vocal takes. He kept urging me on to get one down and I was getting angrier and angrier, just beating myself up. ‘I suck! What the fuck am I doing singing? I’m no singer! This is a joke!’ All Dave wanted to do is nitpick what I did with the melody, which is his job – literally. It is why I’m paying him, and yet it infuriates me! It’s like being mad at the guy in New Jersey that’s filling your gas tank, ‘What the fuck, man, why are you filling my car?’ I swear to God, that’s what it is.”

Drago smiled at the memory, nodding his head; “I seem to remember asking myself, ‘Do I have another one of these [records] in me?’”

“I’m 35 years old, I have given up everything for music,” Barna adds. “I have a graduate degree in Public Policy and I’m not pursuing anything there because I’m still worried about music. I’m still doing music and it’s never gotten me anywhere, and then, artistically, with Dave, it’s got me somewhere, but it’s still like, ‘Dude. Oh, you made a great album, but what’s up? You’re bartending!’ Even now, I’m about to sell my car to go on tour with Counting Crows so I can pay my mortgage while I’m on tour! It’s not what people think it is, right? And I’m happy to do it. I’m happy. I’m not depressed about that, but this all comes up in that moment.”

“Our working together actually let us know that this is what some success looks like,” Drago said.

“Yeah, I’ll sell a car a 100 times. I’ll cut off my fucking arm. I don’t care,” Barna continued. “I want to go play these shows, but, you know… I’ll just get so scared that all the sacrifices I made aren’t working out. And, to me, if I can’t sing a full take than I shouldn’t be doing this and I’m not good enough. You give up all this stuff for music and then you have panic attacks. I mean, Dave has sunk thousands and thousands, probably a hundreds of thousands of dollars, into his studio instead of being an accountant or something. It’s terrifying. I never thought I wouldn’t make it, but you get older, and you think, ‘Well… maybe not.’”

Exhausted and frustrated, despite the self-doubt and knowing he had another great album in him, Barna went home to Brooklyn and immediately faced his demons. “I knew that I needed to confront my depression and anxieties for years, but I wanted to not do it,” he remembered with a snide chuckle. “So, I’d exercise, and if I went for a run, I’d feel ok that day, but at some point, it gets to be so dark that you get in your own way, which is interesting because the myth of being a depressed person and writing beautiful art is not like that when I’m depressed. I can’t do anything. I can barely get out of bed. Waking up is a chore. Everything I do is a chore. And everything I do that is good? I don’t feel much pleasure from it. So, for me, it was less an epiphany and more accepting that I am this way on a chemical level and I should maybe take some steps to give myself a fucking break.” 

Fed up with skirting the issues that caused him so much pain, he discussed it with his partner of seven years, Sam Droney. “I flat-out asked him: ‘We’ve been together for seven years now, have you noticed my feeling this way?’ And without hesitating, he’s said, ‘Yeah.’ It was one thing he had noticed that I didn’t think about: Back before I had the AirPods, I had the wire on my iPhone. I was in the kitchen and I walked by a drawer and they got caught and it ripped them out of my ears – it happens to everybody, you know, stupid shit like that. I would say, ‘Motherfucker!’ like anybody would, and he said, ‘But you start thinking about how your life is bad and it takes you 40 minutes to get over that.’”

“Yeah,” Drago later added. “Everything is like a tailspin. Anything could conjure a full on…”

Barna finished his sentence; “…meltdown.”

After his discussion with his partner, Barna started seeing a psychiatrist to air his darkness and fears and find the right medicine. That was when Seán called his pal, Dave.

“Whether we’re working on a record or not, Seán and I speak every two or three days anyway, but when we’re on a project it is every day because we just become such a part of each other’s constant thought,” said Drago. “He called me and told me he was seeing a psychiatrist, so I was really excited that he was even going. Then it just seemed like a pretty no fuss, no muss diagnosis. After that, it was, for him, ‘We got to get you on some fucking drugs, and then you should begin talk-therapy.’”

It was a game-changing moment for Drago. “To see Seán do that, I finally said to myself, ‘What excuse do you have anymore?’”

But being a pragmatist and helped by the fact that as a producer and studio owner he interacts with several and varied people, he conducted what he calls “a private poll” of musicians who had gone on anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications. “I essentially polled about a half dozen of my closest friends and clients. ‘So, what happened? What did they put you on? Tell me the pluses and minuses? Did you have any weird withdrawal symptoms?’ Stuff like that.” 

Three weeks later, inspired by his friend’s courage to face his issues head-on, Drago discussed medication with his doctor who had already been helping him “along the road of smoking cessation.” Doctors who treat smoking addiction have noted that depression is generally a root cause of a person’s continuing to smoke – even when they don’t want to. Many popular anti-smoking drugs are indeed also antidepressant or dopamine inhibitors. 

Seeking out and taking medication for their mental health was a first for both men, which came with similar concerns about how these drugs would affect their creativity. “I think before you decide to take the medication, musicians and creative people in general, we all tell ourselves that we’re going to go on these drugs and we’re going to be comatose for two or three weeks or a month,” noted Drago. “We’re gonna lose all our creativity. Like all this darkness is the reason that we are what we are, but the actuality is, before the drugs, as Seán said, waking up was even more difficult and going to sleep was more difficult. Everything’s more difficult. Being sad is exhausting. Not knowing how you’re going to feel at any given moment is exhausting.”

“Look, man, I didn’t want to be alive,” Barna blurted out, bringing our conversation to a halt. His friend, sitting beside him, raised his eyebrows. “I wasn’t suicidal, ever,” Barna went on to explain. “But I woke up in the morning thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this again.’ That has been almost every single day for 15 years. It’s hard and it’s exhausting, and this all comes out as, ‘If I could have an excellent vocal take, I’m all right, I’m high, I feel great,’ and if I don’t, it makes it even harder to face those dark feelings. It’s hard to admit that now, and for my family to read it in an article, but it’s true. I had at some point owed it to my musical and personal partners to confront this. It wasn’t fair to Sam that I felt this way all the time or to drag it into the studio for Dave to deal with.” He goes on to remember that he “finally got insurance and told a psychiatrist how [he] felt.”

“She immediately put me on an anti-anxiety medication and then a month or so later an anti-depressant, and immediately I felt like I took a deep breath for the first time in years and years. I could just objectively go through my life instead of subjectively – just objectively do things, objectively be mad if I fuck something up like any human would be, but not have end up as an internal character assassination.” 

It was at this point in our initial discussion when I could see how deeply connected these two young artists were to each other and how the music that had moved me could have come from such a partnership. There were no barriers here. They were there for each other and the promise to seek help to salvage this rare jewel, maybe even take it to a greater level through healing, was a genuine experience, and they didn’t mind confronting the bad stuff – together.

“I just became a master at synthesizing failing and being terrible and thinking like, ‘Well, if I do this perfectly, then I won’t have to deal with that,’ but even coming to grips with that as the motivation for my behavior… it was still not fair to Dave or my partner or to any of the people around me who have really stuck in there to have to deal with these intense feelings I have.”

The Barna family lost Seán’s 13-year-old brother after he was struck and killed by an automobile in November of 2003. The reverberations of the incident, which Barna so brilliantly frames in his 2018 track, “Routines,” off of Cissy, tore pieces from the family. “When he was in the casket, I whispered, ‘You know, whatever I do now is for you.’ I remember saying it, but I never felt when I didn’t achieve something that I was letting him down. I never felt that, but the intensity of which you feel things when you’re feeling that kind of pain, everything is intensified because every feeling – negative or positive – you’re so manic and it’s really tough. Then I’m crying at random times and I can’t talk. I can’t watch certain movies. I remember I watched the movie Big Fish and I had to sit in the car for three hours. I watched The Notebook, a movie I don’t even like, and at the end, I’m just bawling.”

“I cried during both those movies,” Dave added.

“But for three hours?” Seán said.

Then, in a notable lull in our conversation, both men sat for a moment before Barna finally said, “I didn’t really grieve for my brother for about two-and-a-half years. It wasn’t something where I grieved immediately – it was much later for me.” The intensity of realizing the music he had inside him, and the close-knit creative hub eventually provided by Drago, brought much of it to the surface. “The funny thing about my depression is it’s a cocktail,” Barna added in his darkly rich humor. “I felt depressed long before my brother died.”

It would make sense that Dave Drago, watching his friend come apart before him, might try and help him find the origins of his unhappiness, but confronting his own fatherhood as well as outside familial sources of his own dismay may have led to it. There has been, for him, an unhealthy balance between the person in the studio, “keeping it together for the project,” and his time at home as a dad. While he could, as he told me, “keep my shit together” in his professional life (because the work was always rewarding), it was his home life that revealed his most erratic mood swings. “My wife and children have always seen the worst part of me,” he said, remembering how his son, too, had saved his most irritable personality for the family unit. “My son is a peach in the world; smart, charming, and funny, and also weird and kind. He can be extremely difficult at the house, though… because why? Because kids are so comfortable in their relationship with their parents – you’re not going anywhere, and they know that inherently. And so, any complicated, weird feelings that they’ve never had before, or knew, they can experience those authentically in the household, only in the household, because that’s the place where people aren’t going to stand up and leave. I eventually saw that in myself, so my wife and my son especially only ever got the worst side of me. I felt comfortable enough to torture them, which was never fair to them, but it allowed me to see how damaged I was.”

It is interesting to parse Barna’s and Drago’s expression of fairness when considering what their anxiety and depression may have done to their loved ones. For Barna, it is his partner Sam, whom he relies on for strength and stability, and for Drago it is his wife, Caitlin, and his children, (six-year-old son and one year-old daughter), and the home life he built, but that also introduced stresses he had not counted on. “Having a child before I felt like I had ever achieved any sort of success in my career, and in my life in general, was basically watching my ego, my entire sense of self, unravel in front of me,” he said. Drinking daily and sneaking outside to smoke for the first two years of his son’s life did not help. Then, one day during an innocuous phone conversation with his mother, Drago broke down. “For whatever reason, where I was at that day, the sound of her voice made me… explode,” he recalled. “I just started bawling, and I just felt so out of control in my own life, so out of control in my emotions. I had a child with colic, too, you know, sleep deprivation was involved in this entire unraveling – first-time parents, all this kind of stuff, and just all the pressure was a lot to bear. This is why most people have kids and stop doing shit like this [making music]. It’s pretty hard to do both of those things.”

This is much of the baggage Barna and Drago brought to the sessions that were to be the follow-up to the monumental, knock-down-drag-out emotions to realize Cissy; baggage that they made sure to unpack with therapy and medication, letting go of its crushing weight. They pondered if any of this could be enough, if it could save the friendship, expand the artistic parameters, and lead to the music they knew they now could make.

Courtesy of 1809 Studios

“There were six weeks between our sessions,” Drago recalls of their first professional meeting after their healing sojourn. “Seán was on drugs within two weeks after the first session, so he had a month under his belt.”

“The darkest parts of my psyche were given the night off,” Barna remembered about those first set of recordings in the studio, the one place to take their new lease on life for its most crucial test. “But I also felt exhausted. There is an adjustment – the adjustment to me is physical, though, like I was just exhausted, tired all the time. So, I went on a SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), it’s different than what Dave’s on, but then I went on an NDRI (norepinephrine–dopamine reuptake inhibitor) in addition later, which brought me more energy. It’s not an upper, but I guess kind of. I’m on less NDRI than Dave, but the winner for me is the SSRI. That’s the one that stops the anxiety and the horror in my brain. The NDRI one came later, but I would have just been a little more tired, which is fine up here [points to his head], because my productivity is defined by whatever I can do that day. Not necessarily as somebody in an office would be measured by, but yeah, I felt, immediately, almost within a week, like… [exhales].”

“I felt it after the first dose,” Drago added, excitedly. “It was immediate.”

All the anxiety, stress, and fears about family, professional concerns, and what Dave describes as “higher profile positions” faded. “It used to be that my first reaction to any new thing getting added to the pile or just about any externality is ‘Fuck you!’ But the day after I took my drugs the first time, I remember getting one of these externalities and not responding to it for like four seconds. All I needed was four fucking seconds to remember who I am at my core and respond as who I am – not an asshole – and ever since then I would say the only negative side effects of these drugs is that I will purposely keep my mouth shut sometimes, which I have never done in my entire life. I haven’t had an ability to do that to that point until a few weeks ago. Even my wife said to me, ‘I actually need you to respond to this.’ I said, ‘Oh, ok, because I understand my first reaction to what you said was to rip your head off.’ So, I waited and kept my mouth shut, because I knew that the real answer would come to me later. I was like, ‘I’m happy to respond to you now, but I was gonna wait for a while or revel in my ability to not take everything so personally.’ Not everything is a stab wound anymore.”

And so, two friends, creative brothers, met as changed men. They made their music together, healed, and are glad that none of that healing curtailed their creative output. If anything, they thrived, and this time, enjoyed it. “I just had a good time,” Barna remembered.  “Such a good time,” Drago agreed.

“The relief for me was to be able to emotionally respond to some of these songs, the new songs are really emotional for me,” Barna continued. “And having David… you know, usually producers are not in the emotional space with you. That’s not their job to be – their job is to keep the trains on the tracks, but now Dave will exist in this emotional place with me for some of these songs and that’s really special. My voice sounded better, too. It was clearer, more relaxed. My drumming sounded better…”

“Oh yeah, more relaxed,” Drago said. “We were also allowed to stop and go, ‘We hit a bit of a roadblock, so it’s probably not the time to try that right now.’”

Barna added with a smile: “I would still get pissed if I fuck something up in the studio.”

“But it wouldn’t derail an entire day,” noted Drago.

“I’m not like way medicated,” said Barna. “I don’t even know what the measurements are, but I’m on a fairly standard dose. It’s not particularly overwhelming, but it just lets you be objective about things.” 

“Yeah,” added Drago. “That’s what was so remarkable about it to me. Because even before I took it, I was like, ‘What is this gonna do? Is it gonna make me a different person?’ Because that’s scary to me, but what it actually did was just gave me a few seconds to think about how I wanted to respond to things, as opposed to just immediately responding to everything.” 

Just as the stresses during the recording of the song, “Easy on Me” before their new balanced psyches seemed to strike an ironical note in both men, when they returned to the project, having faced their mental health head-on, “Sparkle When You Speak” was the song they chose to record.

“The vibe was like, ‘Oh, you want to start something now? Ok!’” recalled Drago. “And for the first time there was no hyper-organized spreadsheet on the console. It was, ‘Let’s effervesce into creation. Let’s sparkle. Let’s manifest this.”

“I’m not trying to make pretty songs, I’m trying to say something,” Barna said. “And I am fucking dead serious about it. I think that us in a room together, like, you know… his job is different. I’m the artist and his job is to record things he’s maybe not as excited about… I don’t know. We get in a room and we’re just excited to create something and I think we’re both in this terrifying place of creating something and wanting to do it right and knowing that we might hit something great if we’re careful, which, of course, means not being careful. But it always feels like a little bit of an elevated space when we’re in the studio.”

“That’s a really great way to put it,” Drago added. “I think that’s the difference between weekend one (before medication) and weekend two (after medication). ‘Cause weekend one we were still trying to control it into fruition, hold on to whatever our weird gut was telling us about it. The second weekend there were no rules anymore because our egos wouldn’t be shattered if we didn’t do something the way we thought we were supposed to do it. It was just… so… free. What came out the other end of that was we punched up and reworked and added to the songs that we have recorded.”

“Then we re-recorded ‘Easy on Me’,” Seán noted with pride. “And this time it was way better.”

“We circled back to weekend-one work and said ‘Oh, well, that structure’s cool, but you need to chill on the drum kit’ or something like that. We were off and running.”

“One of the big ones for me was when I recorded a vocal for a song called ‘The Lonely’, a quiet one where I just play piano and sing,” Barna shared. “I did a vocal for that the first weekend and I was a little bit stuffy, but it was ok because it is a quiet song. It would have worked, but then I said I wanted to do it again. This is after the medication, because as an artist you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be able to get as deep and as sad,’ and then I’m doing that vocal take in there after some beers and Dave’s in there having an emotional reaction, saying, ‘Man, I forgot this song is so good.’ That’s where I like to be.”

That vocal for “The Lonely,” the track that Barna describes as “a performance I did in a state of contentment in my life” made it on An Evening at Macri Park. “My job is not to be sad,” he said. “It’s to be able to reach truth within the human condition and express that – whether it’s mine or somebody else’s.” 

“We knew that we could never make another Cissy again,” Drago surmised with a smile. “And that’s ok! You can’t recreate the moments, the mental or emotional state of the two of us in that place and time. The reason that Cissy worked is because it’s volatile, it’s dynamite, and we were both so surprised by it. We had never worked together, so we could get through that situation, because everything – every response we had to each other – was new.”

“It was also the respect of not knowing someone that well,” Barna added, with his friend agreeing explicitly. “Dave wanted to say, ‘Go fuck yourself, you piece of shit’.” They both laughed heartily at this. “But he didn’t, because we didn’t know each other that well.”

“Whereas this new record was like, ‘Well… we know we can’t do that again, because the reason that that happened is because we were both confusing the living fuck out of each other and with that it was just this beautiful tornado,” Drago said. “An Evening at Macri Park was just us finally and completely knowing what we were capable of, what that level of intensity that existed within both of us was while making the record, but to deliberately channel that into every little thing that we did was different.” 

Drago then concluded: “One of the bigger takeaways I would hope that we can gather in this is that myself and Seán, and many musicians that we talk to and have relationships with, have been in this situation where they know there’s something fucked up and they know that they could be better, but they’re afraid to do it because we have this weird, stupid belief that our muse is to feel bad about ourselves. Our muse is that life is extra difficult. Our muse is that we fucking hate ourselves or we have these internal voices that make us feel like garbage people. It’s not true. Everyone I know, and Seán and I are a testament to this, have been able to exercise this in an interesting little vacuum of a two-or three-year career together. Everyone I know who takes the plunge, despite the fear that they’ll be ruined before it comes out the other end says, ‘I’ve never been able to be more emotionally open, and to be more vulnerable, and to be more emotionally creative than I am now, because this isn’t an accident anymore. I can be in touch with myself. I can find those emotions, and not stumble on them.’”

Barna, still worried how these revelations will be taken by his loved ones, has more obstacles to traverse to get to where he wants to be. “This article you’re writing scares me to be perfectly honest,” he admitted. “My family doesn’t know I’m on antidepressants, and that’s ok – they probably should know at some point, but it’s a similar feeling I felt before I came out – I’m scared what people don’t know about me. The thing is, it’s just clearing out the bullshit so I can be who I am a little more. I think that’s the key: The pills aren’t taking away from who I am, they’re just removing this crud, so I can be me.” 

Courtesy of 1809 Studios

The sun is beginning to set in the distance. There is no more tequila. The beers have run dry. Our cigars, nearly gone. Members of the band have dispersed to their rooms, strumming guitars, checking in on loved ones on FaceTime. Barna turns to face the city. Tomorrow he will play a remarkable show. Afterwards he will be confronted with the people who are so moved they are inspired to tell him. This is what he endured those years of bartending and all the rest for, and on this balmy Austin evening, he knows it.

“To be this queer voice that I didn’t even realize when we made Cissy, is a power I cannot ignore,” Barna told me. “I know it sounds egotistical, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I know I have the power to speak to these issues and these stories and these places that I didn’t know I had, and now it’s so fucking exciting to bring it across America, to some places that might not be ready for me – ready for us.”

Dave Drago flicks the ashes of his cigar and smiles at his friend. 

Barna concludes, “It’d be a fucking shame if my inability to get out of bed got in the way of this much fun.”

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Matt Sucich – A Passage From Many to One

Every new record for Matt Sucich offers a new beginning, for himself and his listeners. Each track provides sonic and lyrical evidence of his evolution and is an expansion on his artistic reach. Since our last discussion in 2019 for his brilliant breakthrough album, Thousand Dollar Dinners, the now 42-year-old singer-songwriter found himself in what he describes as a “cliché moment in an artist’s life that comes and goes regularly.” Heartache, loneliness, and a bittersweet reckoning with emotional recovery dominate. Enduring the pandemic, he started streaming a weekly woodshedding of songs on Thursdays at 9:01p.m. via Instagram Live, which at once started the ‘9:01 Fan Club’ and introduced the music that would make up his last record, the aptly named Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself from 2021.

This time around Sucich decided to use his craft to look beyond himself, which brings us to his latest effort: Holy Smokes, out Friday. The singer, who tends to parse the most complicated of concepts to one killer line in a song describes Holy Smokes as music “about life and death and love and nostalgia, and, you know, robots and religion… all that shit.”

‘All that shit’ puts an amusing perspective on where Holy Smokes lives and breathes. Even its title, taken from the album’s second track and its third single, “Give Love,” reflects the biting but lovable humor his audiences adore. He sings, “I was unhappy when I finally spoke / My brand new spirit didn’t get my jokes / I said ‘What do you call a church on fire?’ / He said ‘What?’ / I said ‘Holy smokes.’

Yes, Sucich is a card, but to shuffle (pun intended) that metaphor a little further, he’s a straight dealer. There is no artifice in his storytelling. His relatable, sad, and funny three-act song-plays help me learn as much about myself as I do about him while he questions his motives, his surroundings, and observes the weird dance of humanity. An example of this can be found in the lyrics of one of Holy Smokes‘ standout tracks, “All the Same,” which reads as a screed from my own skewed sense of the world. “So I’m trying to pass my time just a little more anodyne / Like a picture, in a frame, on a wall, as crooked as the day is long.” While I may forever be partial to Thousand Dollar Dinners, I have come to adore these new songs for their honesty, wit, and emotion.

Full disclosure: Matt has become a good friend over these past years. He did me the greatest honor by playing an opening set for a book event I had for my latest release, Take a Sad Song – The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude,” last year, a project for which he’d previously lent his thoughts. That evening at Rockwood Music Hall – a room in NYC the he’s called home for some time – saw him regale the audience with song and story before I hit the stage with Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (a band that Matt supported on their 2021 American tour), and his fellow songwriter friend, Stephen Kellogg. It was the first time I heard “Give Love” and the album’s opener, “After Life” – both of which strategically pull you into the record’s intimate ambiance and set the mood for its geographical, social, and observational sojourn.  

The trek began when Sucich decided to travel down to Nashville to record with an old friend and master musician/producer, Paul Loren, who was then living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Matt journeyed over the bridge for a drink one night when Loren revealed his plans to rent a house in the fabled Music City and send his considerable amount of technical gear down there to set up a studio and launch a record label (Five and Dime Records). As the musicians retreated to Loren’s Brooklyn apartment – where Paul whipped up Matt some homemade amaro – Sucich figured this was as good a time as any to play him some of his newest songs. “I just busted out a guitar and played him pretty much every song that we ended up recording,” Sucich recalled with a smile when we spoke this past March. “There were a couple that weren’t ready and some I hadn’t written yet, but for the most part, I think I played him like 10 or 11 songs in his living room… whether he wanted me to or not.” Now laughing at the memory, he said, “I just kept going!” 

Loren loved what he heard, and so, barely a month after his friend settled in, Sucich was down in Nashville becoming the first to try out the new digs. Matt describes the scene with a chuckle: “It was just insanity because the studio wasn’t fully ready. He’s got boxes everywhere, there was still stuff that wasn’t plugged in. The board needed to be set up by a tech and that was not scheduled for another month, so we were going directly to the tape machine.” Then, for good measure, after one of those brutal Tennessee rainstorms, the studio flooded.

Adding to the ad hoc atmosphere, the two men instituted a self-inflicted three-week deadline to record the entire album. “Paul hired all the players,” Sucich adds. “They were all local guys. I only knew one of them by chance: the guitarist, Anthony da Costa from New York, but the rhythm section I did not know. He didn’t even tell me who they were until the day before I arrived.”

When you listen to the final product of Matt and Paul’s efforts none of this frenzied, seat-of-the-pants creativity detracts from its sonic impression… but it does makes sense, because if there is one thing that can be said about Holy Smokes is it sounds immediate, unadorned by too much forethought or studio machinations. In fact, that is its enduring charm. What you hear is what was played. A recording, as Ani DiFranco once told me should be “a record of an event, the event of people in a room playing music,” or, as Sucich says, “Mic on my vocal, mic on my guitar. I think there were maybe four mics on the drums, da Costa playing guitar, which would have been amped so that mic was going into the amp, and then bass DI (direct input), and Paul on keys.” 

The album’s seventh track, “Real Time” is Sucich and da Costa laying it down live. Even when the rhythm section would come in, there was minimal overdubbing. “We did, at most, five takes of a song because the band learned it on the first take, and it was almost always take-two or three that made the record,” says Sucich, who eschewed playing to a click track, describing the album’s drummer, Dom Billett, as “our human click.”

Remarkably, in two-and-a-half weeks the album was complete. Sucich even had the photos for its cover and promotion done before he left town. The tracks that traveled back to Queens with him were the culmination of developing his craft; the results of which make up the rapid, creative, and intimate album the two of us would discuss a few months later.

Photo by Laura Partain

As stated already, “After Life” is a perfect opener for Holy Smokes as it introduces the album’s spatial quality. Its wispy country flavor with da Costa’s reverb-drenched guitar creeping in the background recalls Roy Orbison’s early Nashville days. The haunting echo of the “oohs” do little to dispel this notion as they settle you in for the ride. “That was done on purpose for sure,” shares Sucich. “I just loved that clopping along, because when I wrote it, that’s what I heard – those ‘oohs’ backed by a ghostly, distant guitar.” He also needed it to sound like the old Eddie Arnold country records like “Cattle Call,” which Matt told me he reveres. “The thought of singing about the afterlife, you know… it needed to sound like that… and Anthony fucking nailed it.”

The album’s next track, “Give Love” delivers on the impact of “After Life” and continues on with the same atmospheric ramble, the music traveling aimlessly across infinite vistas with the same urgency that lifted Thousand Dollar Dinners onto a higher creative plane than Sucich’s previous work. He lends a breezy island flavor to his phrasing with another helping of well-placed “ooh-oohs” that bring his pop-song-bona-fides to the fore. Laughing at my observing of the song as anything resembling pop music, Sucich reluctantly nodded his head. “It’s only way I know how to do that kind of thing. Yeah, it’s got some hooks, but I can’t take credit for the final product, because that should definitely go to the band.” 

If it sounds like Sucich is sharing plaudits, he is, for it was meeting the musicians for the first time that informed the songwriter on how to shape many of the songs on Holy Smokes. “You know, I’d never played ‘Give Love’ with a band before, and for a while, it was lost,” he explains. “When I finished it, I remember not being happy with something about it, and it just lived in my voice memos, disregarded. Then I went back to it by chance, which is something I don’t normally do, but I still couldn’t figure out what I thought was wrong with it. When I played it with the band, I was thrilled because it was the first time it just felt right.” Sucich describes the track as “all hands on deck,” as they brought in Arron Lee Tasjan on guitar to join da Costa. “It’s double guitars,” notes Sucich. “Paul’s playing keys, Dom [drums] and Will [bass] and other people doing what they wanted to do, making it happen.” The session turned the little lost song into one that may come the closest to defining him. When I look at my records, ‘Give Love’ has become almost my signature song. I have this way of telling these six, eight verse stories, and this one might fit the best into that category.”

There was no such push-and-pull with the album’s fourth track, “Upper West Side,” though; the oldest of the bunch, which Sucich penned on New Year’s Eve 2020, the culmination, as we know, of a very weird and bad year. He recounts, “I will never forget: I was sitting in this exact seat that I’m talking to you in right now, and as I finished ‘Upper West Side,’ it knocked me out of my fucking seat. I couldn’t stop playing it. I loved it so much. I was like, ‘Man, ok, this is definitely the beginning of my ‘next thing,’ even though I was nowhere near starting the next thing yet. That song was always in my head, like, ‘I can’t wait to record this.’”

“Upper West Side” returns Sucich to his Thousand Dollar Dinners days, describing a bittersweet memory of a lost love affair, but this time the sweetness lingers. “It reminds me of ‘Back at Zero’,” admits Sucich, noting the darkly tender track from Dinners. “Except it’s a little healthier. And I’m so happy that people are reaching out to me and saying, ‘Man, that song reminds me of a certain time in my life,’ which for me means I struck gold.”

The track’s music and vocals offer a languid, cinematic trip into the past – all the sights and smells that bring us back to when we were in that rarest of emotional places. Perhaps we might not want to revisit those memories, unless, of course, coerced by the power of song as we then realize the trip was worth it. The line, “Ain’t it funny how one life can lead you down so many lives / We all get a little lost sometimes” sums up what Sucich calls “healthy nostalgia.” He explains further that “sometimes it can be unhealthy to live in a nostalgic space, like you can’t move forward if you’re constantly living in the past, but with this song I explore how you’re not living in that past, because we’ve all lived so many lives, you get a little lost and then you come out of it. It’s basically sense-memory in song.”

One wonders if something this close to the songwriter’s heart could ever be realized on record. “Yeah, I was a little nervous because it’s the one that I held closest,” the singer admits. “I worried that it wouldn’t translate or never be as good as it was in my head – and it did!”

Not to skip over the album’s third track, “Carrying It” has the telling line, “You sing songs about the seasons and the patterns of the heart.” This lends another atmospheric, spatial quality to this collection, while also focusing on the changing seasons of our emotions. “It’s a wink at the cliche of singer-songwriters,” says Sucich. “We wear all our weaknesses like shackles on our arms in songs about the seasons and the patterns of the heart. We’re carrying it. I also love that bridge, ‘I don’t need to know that you don’t look back / You’d have to be a fool for punishment / It’s like looking at a photograph / You’ll never be that young again.’”

Adding to the pathos is the dulcet tones of Kathleen Edwards, a singer-songwriter Sucich has gotten to know, respect, and share stages with for the past four years. “We ended up having to track Kathleen’s stuff in a hotel room in Stamford, Connecticut,” he recalls. “So, I brought my gear out while she was on this Last Waltz anniversary tour that she was doing with Don Was and Warren Haynes. She was great on the song. I always heard her voice on it, and I thought it would be nice to have some of that signature ‘Kathleen Edwards music’ that you know the minute she opens her mouth.”

Sucich’s lovable dark humor rears its head again in “Let Me Die (Before They Find Me Like This),” a song inspired by a video of a robot that Matt thought looked a little too real for comfort. He says with a smile, “’I hope I die before they find me alive, because I don’t like where the robots are going.’ That was the joke of it. At the same time, I could hear how it would sound with the band, but they achieved this sloping feel to it that changed it immediately. It’s no longer a stupid ‘joke’ song. Anthony went off at the end with the trippy guitar stuff and then it just… ends. Kind of like life.”

The unexpected “ending” (it fools me every time, convinced I lost connection on my streaming device) is followed by “All the Same,” a mild Cajun bop reminiscent of New Orleans’ favorite son, Alan Toussaint, mixed with the bayou swamp crawl of the late, great, Dr. John. As noted above, I am preternaturally drawn to Matt’s observations of viewing friends and lovers as they float across the media stream. This time the narrator sees an ex-lover’s name in print, recalling the uneasiness of being made aware of someone’s nervous breakdown on the internet, a reoccurring theme of surviving a fixed world construct that reminds me of what permeated much of Thousand Dollar Dinners. I offered my analysis of this being his “laundry list of complaints” to the songwriter and he didn’t disagree. 

“’All the Same’ came out of my pure frustration with the state of the world,” Sucich explains. “It seems that almost everyone depicted on the internet is on the brink of collapse. It’s this constant battle between us. And I admit I’m not immune to this, when I sing, ‘But I’m not perfect, nobody is / But if I think you’ve got it coming, I can be a real son-of-a-bitch,’ it’s this idea that ‘America the beautiful, she’ll break your heart’ comes from our freedom to believe what we want to believe, but when you give people with dangerous views a pedestal, they become mainstream. That’s not healthy. There’s plenty of middle ground out there, we all know it, but it’s the extremes that flourish, and no matter how many times people fight back, history repeats itself.”

Photo by Laura Partain

The following track, the one in which Matt played along with Anthony da Costa, is “Real Time” – some of the most compelling and beautiful acoustic guitar ever recorded on a Matt Sucich record, which Matt, being Matt, credits to da Costa, but it is their intertwining styles that make it a sublime listen. The song also features some of the record’s most striking lyrical imagery, again an observational character study of belief, tradition, and superstition as a survival technique in an ever-changing and, in some ways, threatening world. 

Sucich frames the song’s storytelling as stream-of-consciousness conflating of several characters that initially have no direct connection but make up a narrative, something he previously failed to embrace, but wishes to explore more in his songwriting: “I can let the writing show me where I’m going, as opposed to starting the song with a whole idea in mind. It jumps around. The opening line, ‘They’re wheeling out the nativity from the basement to the boulevard’ is literal. I saw that with my own eyes in my neighborhood and I was like, ‘That seems silly, so I’m gonna write that down,’ but then I expanded on that scene to turn it into a story. Then it switches to ‘She’s struggling at art, attending bars,’ which tells the story of a woman at a bar with a bartender, and I built that out. At first, these people weren’t supposed to be in the same song. Neither of these experiences were about the same thing when I started out, but they became about the same thing after the fact.”

Sucich believes the next track, “Swing On” may be the one song in this collection that encapsulates another theme of Holy Smokes: you’re allowed to make mistakes. He sings in its second verse, “And living is just editing / You shave your head and / You shave your face / You shave your legs and you lose some weight / You run your mouth / You feel ashamed / You learn what and what not / To say.” When I pressed him on this, Sucich was adamant; “These days people are so quick to judge you on one error that you’re not allowed to make up for, that you’re not allowed to be forgiven for. What the fuck is that about? People are just so quick to ruin lives and cast judgment. I decided to start it with the perspective of a newborn baby that hasn’t made any mistakes yet, but then bridge it to maturity, to growing up, to becoming human – when you’re finally proven wrong. You’ll grow a little older, a little wiser, and that’s life. It takes being proved wrong to learn lessons.”

It is with those “lessons” that Holy Smokes wraps up with two of its most beautiful and profound songs: “Waste It” and “Oh! To Make Her Smile.”

In the former, the lyrics, “The roads are forever changing / And no certain path can be taken / But if you won’t leave and there’s nothing worth staying / You waste it” threw me at first. Matt offered context. “If there’s nothing worth staying for and you truly wanna go, but you won’t… then why? Are you in a relationship that’s stuck? Are you in a job that’s stuck? Are you in an apartment lease you can’t get out of? If you don’t embrace the chance at change, then it is a waste.”

The song’s theme of stasis versus the much more difficult act of accepting change and bracing for the dangers of the unknown seemed to bring the songwriter to contemplation. “I’m always battling with my inner child, telling him to grow up,” Sucich mulled when we discussed the song. “I say to myself all the time, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’re not even making a lot of money doing this. So, what are you doing with your life? In this way the song haunts me. I was so glad Kathleen sang on it – she added beautifully to it and she even plays a violin on it, too.”

This new album concludes with “Oh! To Make Her Smile” – yet another distant electric guitar that underscores the songwriter’s final positive message of enjoying the simpler things: just making her smile. I asked him if there was a specific her, but he prefers to leave it open-ended for the listener. Putting your own person in there would be just fine for him: “Whatever that thing is that simply brings you joy, you know what I mean?” And I think I do. Matt concluded; “This whole record is just taking you on this journey of religion, of life, of all these things that weigh on us. I wonder… Does it get better? If so, when and how do we get there? My whole life has been about that, and, boy, I’m just connecting this right now – I didn’t even do this on purpose – but the opening line of the album’s first song, ‘All my life I’ve lived 10 years behind’ might be my most confessional. I’ve always felt that I’m late to the party, but to end the record with the urgency of ‘Oh to make her smile / is to feel so goddamn high’ set against the impatience that I’ve always had in my life is a telling and kind of funny bookend.”

And so, even in an album filled with general observations on the events, insecurities, and occasional joys of lives all around him, a world in turmoil filled with the lonely and broken, Matt Sucich finds his inner voice and aims his most alluring observation on himself. Ultimately, Holy Smokes is a record that forces us to move beyond ourselves by reflecting what we see in our surroundings as personal evolution and to discover empathy through our collective journey. In that, the music succeeds, the message works, and it continues to adhere to that thorny aspiration of the songwriter – to bridge the distance between us.

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Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll  by Peter Guralnick (2015)

This is the finest biography I have ever read on anyone, and Sam Phillips, its subject, may be the most interesting figure that could fill a volume of this magnitude. This includes such luminaries as founding father, John Adams, the madman Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, the man who saved America’s pastime, Babe Ruth, and most of the things I’ve read about Jim Morrison. The layers and tragedies and triumphs and immense legacy of Sam Phillips on the evolution and eventual global dominance and influence of American music (and its ensuing latter 20th century culture boom) are all covered in page-turning ecstasy in Peter Guralnick’s The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll.

Phillips’ story is that of the American maverick who overcomes childhood trauma, mental illness, financial hardships, and personal foibles to conquer an industry filled with kooks and vipers. We know about his discovering and recording of Elvis Presley’s incredible early catalog (replete with his inventing the reverb-soaked slap-back sound that changed the sonic landscape of early rock and roll), but there is also Phillips’ enduring love and discovery of inimitable blues masters Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, the parade of country/rock stalwarts, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and pop icon Roy Orbison. But what about his championing for the Black, poor, mostly ignored titans that provided the framework for rock and roll and recording what is arguably the world’s first rock and roll record, “Rocket 88,” or his founding of the world’s first women’s radio station (WHER), and a union of America’s independent studio owners, all of it in the Jim Crow American South?

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll is a masterful biography worthy of its immense subject and his enduring legacy.

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The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music by Tom Breihan (2022)

Tom Breihan is a nut. This is precisely why I love him. Fellow music journalist and columnist for Stereogum began penning a daily – and eventually, due to agonizing combination of madness and exhaustion, bi-daily – review of every No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts since its inception in 1958 to the present. By the time of this writing Breihan is in the early aughts, and in the interim had a fantastic idea to turn this passion into a book by adding more in-depth historical perspectives on the most seminal of popular songs to our musical culture at large. The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music is a tour de force of Breihan at his most nerdy, intricate, and enjoyable.

With these things, there will always be complaints and counterarguments… which makes it all the more fun. And as I was ready pounce on what may be a song added or missed in his 20 hits, I was pleasantly surprised that I agreed with them all. These include the primacy of the dance craze spark of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” the female teenage coming out party of songwriting team Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s masterpiece, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” the genre obliterating “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “Billie Jean” by the two dominate chart figures of the 20th century, the Beatles and Michael Jackson, and a grand nod to Mariah Carey, duly covered here as her spate of chart toppers (19) which only bows to the Beatles (20) thus far.

No one parses the stories or puts the popular songs that have defined generations into perspective better than Breihan, who has delivered on the promise of his crazy column idea.  

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Top of the Mountain: The Beatles at Shea Stadium 1965 by Laurie Jacobson (2022)

Full disclosure: I met the author at the annual Fest for Beatles Fans in Chicago this past summer and found her delightful, funny, and wholly passionate about her subject. Laurie Jacobsen, who boasts a long bibliography of writing about her time in and around Hollywood over many years, has laser-focused her unique comprehension of the entertainment business with a genuine love and fascination with the Beatles. All of this comes through on every page of her wonderful new book, Top of the Mountain: The Beatles at Shea Stadium 1965.

We had a running joke between us – I wrote a book about one Beatles song, Take a Sad Song – The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude,” and she wrote one about one concert. What Jacobsen has done is provide the reader with a scrapbook of Beatlemania at its absolute height (hence, the title taken from John Lennon’s observation of the event) and a blow-by-blow history of its origins, planning, execution, and legacy. 

Those who were there will appreciate her attention to the details of the times – memorabilia, ads, ticket stubs, contracts – and those who were not can be taken back in time to a magical first foray into the massive business of rock and roll, including tours, sponsors, management, marketing, and hyperbole, also providing a glimpse of the singular phenomenon that was the Beatles. 

However, there is more to Top of the Mountain than mere visual memories. Jacobsen fills the pages with anecdotes from those who packed its capacity audience, like Meryl Streep, promising to wash dishes for four years to procure tickets from her parents, Whoopi Goldberg, who was surprised with tickets from her mom on the way to show, the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, as well as E Street’s Steven Van Zandt and more.

Mostly, Jacobson delivers a proper tribute to longtime promoter, Sid Bernstein, the man who brought the Beatles to America on instinct, grit, determination, and lots of finagling. Before anyone cared about them, Bernstein had the foresight to envision the Beatles as America’s sweethearts while also portending a world in which the rock event superseded the mere one-off shows prevalent in 1965 to another one that would launch a period of massive youth events (Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Live Aid, etc) and stadium sellouts for the rest of the genre’s long history. 

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The Band Has No Past – How Cheap Trick Became Cheap Trick by Brian J. Kramp (2022)

In May of 2017, I met Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick at a Rock Nation event in NYC. In a crowded hallway awaiting the press, they bitched to me about no one having attempted to capture the incredible origins of their band. And although neither of them contributed directly to this incredibly comprehensive oral biography, I hope they see it as I do: an endearing capsule of a beloved American rock band.

Brian Kamp has compiled a nearly day-to-day, gig-to-gig overview of Cheap Trick’s rise to rock legend that all fans of any band would want to consume. From the mid-to-late 1960s up through the third-generation rock and roll era, and smack through punk, funk, and power-pop, Cheap Trick remained true to its mission to create off-kilter songs that unleash a bombastic, live, and visual assault from Sheboygan to a noisy hamlet near you. The Rockford, Illinois quartet overcame every music biz cliché in the book, and in this book in particular, more than any in recent memory. 

This Band Has No Past – a clever title based on the smarmy quasi-bio Cheap Trick included in its initial album release – lets the voices behind the scenes and beyond the band tell the tale, from artists who passed through their many lineups over the years to bands that shared bills with them, and, of course, managers, booking agents, groupies, roadies, toadies, and fans galore. This is a true coming of ‘stage’ story, one filled with incredible anecdotes and the type of rock music lore that keeps the pages turning. 

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Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan‘s Donald Fagan by Peter Jones (2022)

Obsessive perfectionist, anti-social curmudgeon, musical pioneer – Donald Fagan, and to a great extent his musical partner, Walter Becker, co-founders of the inscrutable jazz/rock/pop combo Steely Dan, are all of those and more. Peter Jones’ Nighfly lifts the veil on the mysteries of the band that hid in plain sight while they challenged music industry norms and managed to simultaneously boast huge hits during the 1970s. The method, the madness, and the fallout of their partnership/kinship are duly covered and brought to light in what Jones describes as a “critical biography,” but reads as sonic psychoanalysis.

A painfully private subject is both a blessing and curse for biographers. Readers want to know it all, since so little has been offered by the subject – I am reminded of the recent ESPN series on legendary New York Yankees player Derek Jeter – but perhaps it is their public output that speaks volumes; hence “hiding in plain sight.” Fagan revealed so much of his psyche in his songs, anguish, lust, sarcasm, and a general hopelessness for humanity. The humor of his lyrics, the adoration of trad jazz and early rhythm and blues, comes through loud and clear. To that end, Jones succeeds in letting us into that world, providing more than a sneak-peak into Fagan’s past, his dreams, his fears, and his seemingly unwavering worldview, along with the incredible dedication to making music the way he and Becker heard it in their heads. Their silent, mystical bond is what intrigued me the most, and Nightfly gets to its core as well as any account I have read thus far.

Nightfly is indeed a “critical biography” in that hits all elements of an underrated commentator of his times that oddly never saw past the keys on his piano.   

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Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation by Stephen Hyden (2022)

There are love letters to a band and to a musical movement and then there is Steven Hyden’s Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation, one of the most entertaining summations of what a rock band can do to one’s soul whether we like to admit it or not. Hyden is a music journalist and author I have gotten to know from a distance since he kindly referenced my Accidentally Like a Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon a few years back. Previously commenting poignantly with some humor in compendiums on the music of his times, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me (2016) and Twilight of the Gods (2018), and an in-depth analysis of Radio Head’s Kid A in This Isn’t Happening (2020), this time Hyden is fully immersed in his subject. 

Setting the arc and journey of Pearl Jam into seminal eras, which begins for Hyden at a June 1995 Red Rocks concert wherein the band rediscovers and reinvents itself, the book helps fans to understand how the inner workings of this collection of musicians have endured beyond the grunge movement. (The only one that has?) This includes the infamous battle with Ticketmaster that, in Hyden’s estimation, both underlined the integrity of the band while simultaneously derailing its ascent. For this reviewer, who had more or less left Pearl Jam’s evolution somewhere along 1998’s YieldLong Run, made it fun to discover gems from their later works while marveling at the band’s survival instincts to navigate several personal and professional travails most fans never see.

Hyden also uses a similar ‘songs as guideposts’ framework that I used in Accidentally to focus on where the band was in its steady – if not enigmatic – sonic pilgrimage, ending prophetically on “Yellow Leadbetter,” a reliable concert closer that is perhaps its fans most beloved song. In the final chapter, wherein he muses on the emotional connection a band’s run has on our fraying thread of memories, Hyden writes, “You see a band you have loved most of your life, and if they can still move you, then time manages to stand still. But only for a while. And only if they can still do this. Because one day, they won’t.”    

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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check

James Campion
I feel obligated to acknowledge the eightieth birthday of James Paul McCartney the day after I am writing this – June 18, 2022. Beyond the fact that I have noted certain milestones for many of popular music’s giants here over the years and for a while became the de facto eulogist for too many more, there has been a weird connection I’ve had with Sir Paul for the past three years. Not the least of which having conceived a book project around his greatest song (in my humble opinion) “Hey Jude” titled Take a Sad Song – The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude,” which was released just a few weeks ago, mere days before

One of the things I learned hanging in the shadow of Paul McCartney these past years, is the importance of staying alive. For the longest time, especially after the death of his songwriting partner, the iconic and sainted John Lennon in 1980, McCartney’s significance in this little four-piece rock and roll combo he founded, the Beatles (have you heard of this?) was greatly and woefully diminished. Living was a bad career move for Macca. At first. Now it turns out having several lives after you’ve peaked at 26 years-old is a good thing. And an argument can be made that now that Paul has managed to make eighty and has completed his tour triumphantly in front of eighty-thousand or so fans in a massive stadium here in N.J. last evening, it was a tremendous career move. Not to mention a good personal one, because, you know, otherwise…   

Makes sense that Paul McCartney is still with us. I mean, what sixteen year-old boy – music-obsessed, sex fiend, ego loon – takes the time to write “When I’m Sixty-Four?” Then, instead of forgetting he ever did such a thing put it on an album (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – have you heard of this?) that came out eight years later when he was just twenty-four. The man had a plan. And it has gone way past sixty-four. If my math is correct, sixteen years past. The age he was when…

“No one else is remotely in this stratosphere.”

Okay, so Paul has lived and has made a lot of music. And as I write in my book, people seem to like this music. Some stats for these songs that Paul’s come up with – composed with and without some notable collaborators like the aforementioned Lennon (wowza) and Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash and Kanye West to name a few – include thirty-two that have gone to #1 in the United States and/or in the United Kingdom. A staggering 129 of his songs have charted in the United Kingdom, ninety-one reaching the Top 10. He is the Guinness Book of World Records’ Most Successful Songwriter of All Time. “No one else.” I wrote, “is remotely in this stratosphere.”

Paul McCartney might be the most prolific and influential songwriter of popular music ever. He is Gershwin and Porter and Ellington and Berlin and all those other guys and then some. Paul, as I discovered also in my research, is song. He has been song, and he will forever be song. I think it is possible if you look up the word “song” in Webster’s it might have Paul’s smiling face next to it. There is no daylight between a hummable tune and James Paul McCartney.

Oh, I also found out during this book journey that apparently the Campion men over a century-plus were fellow Liverpudlians who married a lot of Irish women from across the water. This is thanx to my Little Brother, PJ, who is now the family archaist. Before this, I was merely another of these Irish/Italian types from the Bronx by way of a large boat of people. Turns out there was a large boat or two or three, there was just a Liverpudlian Campion on it. 

I was already here in 1964 when the Beatles arrived via an airplane and changed the planet forever. There are pop stars and icons and then there is the inexplicable sonic boom of the Beatles, who were four scrums from that British port town that no one gave a flying fart about until they invaded every cover of everything. People coming from nowhere to dominate is the stuff of legend. And for some weird reason Paul, this old soul with his songs about retirement written before he could shave, rode it like he knew it all along. And this is the same boyish charm that pervades today. You see his glee when he performs and gets those cheers. He loves those cheers. His little dance when he stands up from the piano after serenading us with “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “Let It Be” or the next masterpiece is pure unadulterated joy. Saw him for the second time in my nearly sixty years on the planet a few weeks ago in Syracuse, NY, where my wife is from and her amazing family that is my family and where I signed my books that afternoon with his visage on the cover, and all those the years between 1964 and 1968 and 1978 and 1989 (when I first saw him at MSG) and the rest melt away into one big Macca moment.

A musician friend of mine back in the mid-eighties once mused that it is strange that anyone can do an impression of almost any rock star from the 1950s onward, except McCarney. Paul doesn’t have a distinct sound (unless you listen to Badfinger or early Billy Joel or any boy band that has existed after the Beatles) but I kind of know what he meant. He meant that Paul could be a vocalist for any time and any occasion His songs demand that his voice run the gamut. It isn’t an affect he is doing; it is Paul being song, again and again, and, blessedly, again.

So, all those year ago, and the years in between and the ones to come, are right there for Paul, who is a time machine, an indelible mark on our sense memories in sound. He brings us there, time and again, with a melody for the ages. Because he has aged. 

So, fuck dying and leaving a good-looking corpse and all the bullshit about burning out and fading away. 

James Paul McCartney is eighty. 

Long may he be song.

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Paul Simon: The Life– Robert Hilburn (2018)

Robert Hilburn, respected music journalist from the L.A. Times for thirty-five years takes
on the life of the legendary Paul Simon, whose mercurial musical journey spans nearly
six decades in Paul Simon: The Life. Although at times the writing is as dry as a Bob
Woodward political exposé, the author provides new perspective on the life and times of
Simon by including the singer-songwriter’s commentary as late as 2017. And so, this is a
biography with a little memoir thrown in, which makes it unique. However, what makes
it a must read for fans of Simon and music history in general is it includes pages and
pages of how this genius of songcraft plies his trade. I need to point this out again,
because it is a glaring rarity in rock/pop bios; Hilburn writes, using copious Simon
quotes, how one of the great American songwriters of any generation does it. What a
concept! But don’t sleep on it, because this should be a template for every one of these
books going forward.

One of the elements of the book that really struck me is throughout an
uncompromising artistic career from chucking Simon & Garfunkel at the absolute height
of their earning and artistic powers, to working with eclectic musicians from all over the
globe across genres (Graceland – South African and Rhythm of the Saints – Brazilian),
and tackling film scores (One Trick Pony) and an ill-fated Broadway play (The
), Simon, and thus Hilburn, are obsessed with winning awards, as each year’s
Grammy nominations arrive with Simon obsessively, almost to the point of shifting his
moods and future inspirations for a spate, tuning in. The bevy of awards that would come
Simon’s way meant so much to him it borders on the edge of creepy and self-serving, but
it also shows how in-tune the performer was with the shifting tides of music for sixty
years. Unlike many of his contempories, even Bob Dylan, who had a comeback in the
early aughts, Simon would return again and again as a seminal voice in the pop world.

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