You’re with Stupid – kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music – Bruce Adams (2022)

In the early 1990s, during the final years of rock and roll’s dominance on the cutting edge of music after over four decades of growth, expansion, breakdowns, and reinventions, the Indie music scene sprang up in small towns and big cities all around the USA. It was a time of DIY garage rock, electronic experimentation, ambient machinations, pseudo poetry, and a final, genuine return to roots. In the midst of this underground movement that would produce pop acts and perennials, the quick has-been to the never-was, there was kranky records. An independent label from Chicago, birthplace of genre breakthroughs, Smashing Pumpkins and its godmother, Liz Phair, it would join the fray to become part of a template that would reverberate down generations for those who wish to make it without corporate interference picking the pockets of talented dreamers.

The label’s co-founder, Bruce Adams (with fellow music geek Joel Leoschke), has a story to tell from the bleeding fringe of failure and triumph. You’re with Stupid is filled with weird and wonderful tales of a time when how to record, produce, market, and tour music had dramatically shifted away from giant arenas and bloated studios. It was a romantic period of youthful exuberance and carefree passion that Smith captures beautifully. Writing with wit and wisdom, the author brings us into the sights and sounds of promise – something that makes rock and roll still matter.

You’re with Stupid is a primer on how to and how not to go for the brass ring with one thing in mind – find and make music you love and that you wish to share with the world.

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Chuck Berry: An American Life – RJ Smith (2022)

Author RJ Smith has done a great service to the history of rock and roll by penning the most comprehensive and unflinching biography of its most celebrated founder, Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Capturing his import and influence, his experimental brilliance and relentless pursuit of bridging America’s generational and racial divides in his incredible canon, tells only half of Berry’s story. Smith uncovers the origins of the man, his upbringing in the racial and cultural hotbed of St. Louis, replete with mythical musical charms. We come to know the boy who became the man that made the music, built the social walls, and delved into the darkness of his obsessions of money, power-politics, and sexual deviance.

Aptly titled, Chuck Berry: An American Life is a study in American pop culture, it’s heroes and villains, zeitgeist, and fallout. Berry moves through its pages as he did through history as an avatar to our most ardent dreams and horrid nightmares. A deeply flawed and emotionally damaged man emerges from his triumphs and tragedies as a true victim and victor of our country’s agonizing duality. For it is in Berry’s songs, his amiable wit and twinkled eye mixed with his rough and sometimes predatory exterior that we find our national identity. As an artist in the spotlight of a movement, the book argues there may have been no one better or more ill-suited at the same time than Chuck Berry.

After finishing this book, I went and read my eulogy for Berry for this paper back in 2017. I was curious, after learning so much more than I ever did about him – some of it disturbing, some revelatory – if it shifted my final image of him. While it is hard to ignore his crimes, misogyny, or the truths laid bare by his behavior and defiance, it is also rewarding to continue to delve into the genius of Berry’s music, which has outlasted so much of his times and his flaws.

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Rock on Film: The Movies that Rocked the Big Screen – Fred Goodman (2022)

Curated by Turner Classic Movies, Rock on Film: The Movies that Rocked the Big Screen is a comprehensive overview of the entire music/film catalog from documentary to biopic to teen exploitation, concert film, and some of the more outstanding celluloid pieces of ephemera from the rock and roll era. Although handsomely compiled with tons of great photos, movie posters and behind-the-scenes shots, it is so much more. Adorned with essays from music writer Fred Goodman, Rock on Film provides unique perspectives to the most famous and the not-so well-known films featuring the most celebrated artists of the period.

An excellent perk of the book is Goodman’s “Make It a Double Feature” segment for each film, allowing similar titles to consider and provides further analyses of the styles and subjects that can be enjoyed by audiences. The key to Rock on Film is its function as a guide to digest the films while also offering fair but strong critiques of the work. Moreover, the chapter breakdowns of certain genres allow readers to discover their most striking attributes.

Also included are candid discussions with filmmakers, Cameron Crow, Jim Jarmusch, Penelope Spheeris, and Taylor Hackford – and a fine foreword by my friend, the inimitable director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

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This is What it Sounds Like: What The Music You Love Says About You – Sudan Rogers and Ogi Ogas (2022)

This is What it Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You is one of the most important books written for the layman on the intellectual and emotional effects of music. In a fun and digestible read, the research and experimentation of two learned minds bring us closer to the way we process rhythm, melody, timbre, and lyrics and what those processes say about our personalities, our history, and our humanity.

Author Dr. Susan Rogers, who owns a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and is currently a professor at the Berklee College of Music, and most famously, Prince’s longtime engineer during his most prolific period of the 1980s, and co-author Dr. Ogi Oga, writer and PhD in computational neuroscience, pool their experiences and resources to help us understand the most ethereal of art forms. Broken into different chapters using music from all genres and wonderfully crafted anecdotes and charts, This is What it Sounds Like, makes the work lively and accessible. Cleverly titled from Prince’s 1984 mega-hit, “When Doves Cry,” it never reads too heady or bogged down with professorial jargon.

For this reviewer, I discovered new aspects of my personality in the music that speaks to me the loudest. Rogers, who is mostly the narrator here, also adds crucial insight into how she as both listener and professional producer/engineer breaks music down and provides trades secrets on how our most admired musical artists use tried-and-true elements to create songs that get under our skin to last forever.

Having just had a book published on the effects of one song on society at large, as well as on personal levels, Take a Sad Song – The Emotional Currency of ‘Hey Jude’, I found This is What it Sounds Like a true revelation that reached beyond my research and is a riveting companion piece if you enjoy this exceptional level of analysis.

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Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History – Bill Janovitz (2023)

The tale of Leon Russell is an epic one. It is as exhaustive as it is an impassioned telling in Bill Janovitz’s Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History.

Beginning as a youngster in clubs backing local Oklahoma talent before becoming a master studio cat by playing piano with the famed Wrecking Crew, Russell developed his rollicking soulful style in the employ of Jerry Lee Lewis and Phil Spector. Eventually he became an inspired songwriter through working with 1960s pop sensation, Gary Lewis & the Playboys. He transitioned seamlessly into a kinetic solo performer and then into one of the most idiosyncratic and brilliant bandleaders and technology innovators of the golden age of rock.

Having reviewed Janovitz’s book on the Stones in this space a few years back, I was excited to read his take on this oft noted but barely remembered pioneer of popular music, and his work delivers a frankly overdue synopsis of an artist that spanned the early history of rock and roll and conquered so much of its original genres, like R&B, gospel, and country. It delves deeply into Russell’s psychological and physiological challenges since childhood, his penchant for sometimes life-altering communal living/working environments, and his dogged pursuit of perfection in live performance.

Janovitz goes beyond Russell’s halcyon days of leading Joe Cocker’s infamous Mad Dogs and Englishman Tour, his work with George Harrison on the Concert for Bangladesh, and his unusually close relationship with Bob Dylan to reveal family turmoil, broken marriages, and complicated professional partnerships that paint the most detailed picture of the man and his music.

Russell played, met, or befriended a bevy of influencers as he himself influenced such luminaries as Elton John, who swooped in at the end of this mercurial life to rescue Russell from obscurity and provide his productive life in music the proper landing it deserved before his death in 2016. A fitting end to a complicated but extraordinary career and life.

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Two Men. A Room. Reliving the Making of ‘Nebraska’

Warren Zanes has written the best book about Bruce Springsteen. His art. His fears. His redemption. Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’  takes the reader from inspiration to execution during a seminal period for one of rock’s icons, while also stripping all the ‘icon’ bullshit out of it. Instead, Zanes concentrates on a man and his guitar in a rented New Jersey ranch chasing a vision of America.

A former member of the early eighties indie rock band the Del Fuegos, an honored professor, and an author of a fine biography on Tom Petty, Zanes once even played with Springsteen as the Boss hopped on stage with his band at some small joint. Interestingly, seeing Springsteen do the same thing in 1981 when he was working on Nebraska, I remember him telling a bunch of us kids in the back of The Stone Pony in Asbury Park that he was cutting songs by himself with a home recorder. What the hell is that? Turns out Springsteen knew as much as we did. He was still learning, experimenting, and making demos, never considering a record, or for anyone beyond management or the E Street Band to even hear it. Zanes reminds us that this is the key to unlocking the raw expression of Nebraska, what I (and Springsteen, too) believe is his finest work.

No one was ever supposed to hear it. That raw honesty is its secret ingredient.

Deliver Me from Nowhere is as uncompromising and introspective as the album it covers, recounting the author’s visit to Springsteen’s current Colt’s Neck, New Jersey residence to comb through the corridors of his psyche, his memory, and method. The two men also visit the humble ranch-style house where it all went down, as Springsteen shares with Zanes the acoustic guitar he used and the infamous painting of his deceased aunt that haunted his childhood and is reflected in the album’s themes.

An engaging conversationalist and true fan of his subjects, it is easy to see why first the late, great Tom Petty and now Bruce Springsteen put their trust in Zanes to tell their stories in such an intimate and revealing way. I had the pleasure to sit down with Warren late last month to discuss Deliver Me from Nowhere, as well as his passion and excitement for the album (and its creator) that still resonates.

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Photo by Piero Zanes

Why Nebraska for you? Why did you feel you needed to write about this record, sit down with Bruce, and get this story out?

I felt some connection, attraction, deep interest in Nebraska, but I wasn’t entirely sure why I felt all of that. I came into this project with a long-term relationship already in place, but I didn’t know what my psychological attachment was to it, and I felt like a book process was going to help me understand that. For one, I didn’t have a complete answer for “Why would an artist at the top of their game, who was poised to go big, go this strange?” You know, The River was Bruce’s first number one record, he had his first top ten single, “Hungry Heart,” and then he makes Nebraska. I just looked at the landscape of artists operating at the level he was operating at and I didn’t see another artist making decisions like that.

The biggest clues came with his memoir, and though Nebraska passes quickly in Born to Run, that road trip that he takes West doesn’t pass quickly. That was where I went, “Wait a second, this happened right after he finished Nebraska?” And it made me think: “Things happen to people… and they make records.” Sometimes they’re lighter experiences, sometimes they’re heavier experiences, but I was sure that Nebraska, on the spectrum of light to heavy, was all the way at theheavy end – and that he described having this breakdown after the fact. I didn’t want to make it a direct causal relationship, but it was hard not to do that. That’s why I wanted to sit in a room with him, and as I expose in the book, I felt likehe got as close as possible to say, “I think that’s true.”

The biggest revelation for me was your positing that he never goes back to his former “self” after this – the whole early Springsteen from the first record all the way up to The River has this arc of a character growing up, escaping his parents, his eventual adult disappointments, divorce, lost loves, and then – Bam! – Nebraska is where Springsteen finds this Midwestern, every-man voice that he uses for the rest of his career to explore stories about hidden demons and economic woe. It’s all there, and you point out in the book a very difficult journey to get there. Nebraska is a story of the ways in which an artist moves. I thought you depicted that beautifully in the book.

I don’t want to overstate the value of my background as a writer and record maker in relation to these projects, but I know it’s in there. And I certainly know that I love the psychological ups-and-downs of record makers and songwriters; it’s such an uncomfortable, euphoric, insightful, lost process. It’s all these things. The more obsessive the artist, the more interesting the psychological journey of making records. I think this is where Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are part of the same fabric; they really go after records and go after songs. I think they’re two very different men, but I was drawn to the obsessive nature in which they work. The stakes are high for these guys, whether it’s Damn the Torpedoes or Wildflowers or Born to Run or Nebraska

The secret sauce of this project is you and Springsteen just talking. It’s mesmerizing stuff. Not only were you able to sit with him and have him bring out the guitar that he played on the recordings and discuss the painting of his late aunt that affected him as a boy, but to walk into the room where he recorded Nebraska with him for the first time in four decades. 

Yeah, it all started with John Landau (Springsteen’s longtime manager and confidant), who was my first interview. John has his own amazing background, going from working at Rolling Stone to turning the corner into production, which is a pretty rare thing, and then to go from production into managing one of the biggest acts in the history of popular music. When we were done talking, he just said, “Look, I think you might have a book here, so I’m gonna tell Bruce that you’re writing it, and I’m gonna say I had a good time with you, and I think he might also have a good time.” I think that’s exactly what John did. You know, he’s not working with an artist that he can go to and say, “You have to talk to this guy.” That’s just not the relationship, obviously, and then I heard back from John saying, “Bruce is in.” 

The cool thing I have to say about John Landau is when he was calling me to say Bruce is in, I felt like he was as excited as I was. He’s got no reason to be excited for Warren Zanes’ book. He’s got a much bigger fish to fry. Those little injections of energy from another person really matter. And for Bruce, he’s an artist who, if he makes the decision to do the interview, believes, “I’m only going to do it if I can be present.” So, when I asked a question, if he had an answer, he gave it to me. If my question led to a question on his part, he pursued it with me. I think you can feel this in the text. I really tried to get it in there.

I liked how you stopped the narrative for a moment and concentrated on your conversations with Bruce – when he brings the guitar out and begins to reminisce. It’s an authentic connection with the artist wherein you begin to understand the guy who made Nebraska.

Yeah, I wanted to have those moments where the reader is me. They can see the picture of his Aunt Virginia, as you mentioned. They see the guitar come out. I wanted them to feel some of what I’m feeling because it’s true, it was mesmerizing to see those objects. They are the story embodied, but they also tell us something about who I’m interviewing. Bruce wanted me to have the tactile experience. He wants the history we’re talking about to vibrate for me as much as he can. Not everybody operates at that level. This book wouldn’t be near the book it is without his involvement.

Now, take me to when you go to the house where he recorded Nebraska. I think I have it right, this was the first time that he was in there since those recordings?

The way it happened was I write the book, I send it to John Landau, John and I talked for 90 minutes, and then he said at the end, “I’m going to send the book to Bruce, but I’m not going to tell him anything about my feelings. I want a cold response out of him, and let’s see if he feels like I did, and I think he will.”

Ok, so you receive approbation from Landau, and he digs it enough to send to Bruce cold. Now, you’re sitting there waiting…

Yeah, the thing that people don’t know about these guys, when I sent the book to John Landau, he called me the next day. He did not take weeks. When he sent it to Bruce, it was a day.

Photo by David Michael Kennedy via Penguin Random House

Springsteen got back to you, like, two days later?

When there’s a task at hand, if they choose to do it, it’s fast. It’s really impressive. So, yeah, he got back me and, again, it was really affirming, really validating. Bruce just said, “How can I help you?” And without thinking, I said, “I want to see that house. I can’t find it.” The next day I get a call, and it’s, you know, an unknown number, whatever you see on your phone, and it’s Bruce. He says, “Warren, for the first time in 40 years, I’m standing in the room where I made Nebraska. I spoke with the owner, and he said, I can bring you out here.” 

A week later, I go to his house and he takes me out. My first time going into the room was with him. And you know, at the end of the day, I’m a music fan and I know he’s a music fan. I just don’t think you have a career like that without staying close to that part of your identity. That holds for Elton John, Stevie Wonder – I think these people have nurtured the fan within. In that moment, I feel like he’s this hybrid – he’s the artist and he’s a fan in a strange way. I’m 100% fan, of course. I’m walking into this room with the guy who made Nebraska in that room. We’re on the orange shag carpet and it feels like… I think I use the word “pilgrimage” because there’s something spiritual, something mystical about it. I remember visiting High Records in Memphis and knowing that this is where they cut those Al Green records. And it’s like, they weren’t cutting Al Green records when I was there, but it happened there, and that something-happened-there effect is awesome.

I’ve had similar feelings visiting the Hemingway house in Key West or the Mark Twain house in Hartford, and where Dickens wrote and Hunter Thompson wrote, but I didn’t walk in the room with those guys. And it’s not even visiting The Stone Pony, where Springsteen made his bones. This is a room that only Springsteen had been in with an engineer and a four-track recorder to create this masterpiece.

Yeah, I couldn’t even find the house. I couldn’t find an address! You can find most of the houses that Springsteen lived in, rented, and I hope the book doesn’t ruin it for the person renting it now. But, yeah, you’re right. I’d been spending a couple of years writing about something that happened in that room and then I walk into it with the guy who made something happen in that room. Then, after a minute, he handed me his phone and said, “Take my picture.” That was wild.

This was clearly a big deal for him to go back to that place, because, as you discuss in the book, he was not in the best emotional state when he wrote and recorded those songs.

I felt like I was walking into that room with a guy that hadn’t been in it since he was having a very hard time in his life. And he came through that very hard time. I feel like sometimes, for all of us, when we return to the scene where we struggled in life, and we return having done some kind of healing, having experienced some kind of growth, we get to measure then-to-now, and it’s really moving. And being in the room with him was stirring

Then we get back in his El Camino and go back to his studio where we did the interviews and I could feel Bruce has gone through something with emotional density. I know I felt it at a bodily level. We were both kind of tired. We had tea and talked for an hour, and it was really beautiful closure for me. 

I don’t think he would have shown up in the way that he showed up for this book if he didn’t love Nebraska. I think the whole experience of making that record was really special to him.

Does he feel that perhaps the album has been misinterpreted or that it should have had a bigger audience? 

I don’t think he’s responding because he feels it’s neglected; I think he’s responding because he feels proud of the record. And he also sees it as a major turning point in his career. Like he said, from that point forward, he was writing songs with almost the mindset of a short story writer, and I think that really mattered with Nebraska. This is why it was important to unpack the influences that he speaks so explicitly about, you know, the Terrence Malick movie (Badlands), Flannery O’Connor, even Robert Frank’s photographs – you need that stuff to understand Nebraska. Most of what he talks about is not musical, and that told me this was like a growth spurt for him. I think for Springsteen, as an artist thinking of himself in relation to fine art, photography, or in relation to film or literature, it expanded his possibilities as a songwriter and performer.

And you have a unique perspective to offer in this book as a songwriter.

As a songwriter, what I get from Bruce is he that he is extremely good at telling stories where each verse can be almost like a contained story with a thematic binding to it. So, he can get a lot done with remarkable economy. That is striking to me. I’m stuck in relationship songs. You know, it’s all ‘me-and-her,’ and the ‘her’ shifts categories. There’s no romance in Nebraska. It’s not love songs, it’s life songs… and it’s not the good life songs, it’s the pain. It is a complete emotional experience without hope, without romance. That’s an interesting achievement to me. But to be fair, the truth is a song like “Highway Patrolman” that goes deep about sibling connection, and we don’t have songs about that, you know?

Two men. Two brothers. 

I think part of it is the ridiculousness of how the heterosexual norm is policed. I think homophobia is so prevalent in our culture that even something like the subject of a bond between brothers, you don’t see too much of that, and Bruce does it in such a way that is remarkable. It’s so funny to recall that note he wrote when he sent the demo of the songs to John Landau and how dismissive he is of “Highway Patrolman.”  I’m like, “Man, give me one ‘Highway Patrolman’ and I would retire.” It’s so good. So, there’s something about the scope of narrative, and the way in which he compresses it, without it feeling compressed. It reminds me of how much you can do in three minutes. Like how much he delivers in “My Father’s House” about a relationship between a father and a son without the father entering as a character. That’s amazing. There’s a high level of craft that I know he felt once he finished that record and he admitted, “This is my best collection of songs.”

Was there any shift in the author or songwriter in you that started in one place, and then ended up in another with Nebraska?

I think, yes. I mean, I haven’t really been involved in a long-term creative project that hasn’t changed me. And I hope that’s not just because I’ve been lucky with the quality of the projects I’ve been involved with. I hope it’s also because I have an openness and I let the stuff get in deep enough that it can change me. What moved me, to the greatest degree, was that thing about Springsteen and invisibility, the thing we talked about in relation to Homer’s Odyssey, and this idea that sometimes in life you need to be completely anonymous. You can’t have the trappings of ego and success. You go through periods in life where you’re nobody. Let them happen, because it’s almost like the whole of life is the in-breath and the out-breath. It expands. It goes up. It goes down. It builds. It breaks down. Springsteen’s Nebraska, as we’ve talked about, is this period of artistic growth. But he also hit a kind of bottom, and then he reemerges from it. In watching him the way he went through that, and the way he emerged from it, mattered to me. This is a record without any hope in the songs. To me, there’s a lot of hope in the act. He went to a really dark place, he had a breakdown, and with a kind of consciousness, he rebuilt. 

Now me, personally, I can’t get too many of those stories. I don’t know why that is, but I really need them, like when I brought Homer’s Odyssey to him and talked about it with him, I was bringing something that mattered deeply to me. I remember finding a book on tape for young adults and playing it for my sons because I think there’s a tremendous amount of human truth in the Odyssey and there are remarkable lessons to learn from it. I feel the same way about what Springsteen did with Nebraska; he hit this kind of bottom, where all the accolades and all the success weren’t fixing him, and he made a record in the middle of that, which is incredible. He didn’t look to career success to make the fix, he went inward, he got some help. He started a rebuilding process before Born in the USA is released, and seeing someone who could easily distract themselves with success choose not to go into the hard part of growing up, that’s powerful to me.

You know, I’m a guy whose father died a couple of years ago and didn’t know him. He lived close to me a few times, but he didn’t reach out. I finally got an address for him and brought my two sons to meet him. They met him once and we never heard from him again. Then he died. And so, in the absence of that kind of parental figure teaching me lessons, the people who have come into my life like Tom Petty did – and I’m doing an extended project with Garth Brooks – but Bruce, the Bruce of Nebraska, I learned something from him in terms of how do you really grow up? It’s not pretty and it’s not a party, and to see these guys do it, and to have a pretty good seat to watch it, or to hear about it after the fact, matters deeply to me.

Maybe I’m open when I go into a project because I’ve got more things to learn, and what I learned most from the book is that even a guy with that kind of success has to get down to the gritty work of finding out what’s wrong inside so that he can do a little work on it and become a better band leader, become a better husband, become a better dad. I think all those stories of hopelessness on Nebraska, he had to go through all those, he had to walk through each of those forests. He ultimately got himself to a place where some internal rebuilding had been done – a higher level of self-understanding had been achieved. And then he comes out with Born in the USA and it’s this massive worldwide hit, and it’s not like his troubles are over, but he’s gone through this human passage that is really deep. 

The great thing about your book is you learn that what Springsteen did with Nebraska was not like Roger Waters working through his father’s death in WWII or his growing paranoia about fame on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. As you say, with these short stories, these character-driven vignettes, his sharing of pain is not a blatant single artistic statement, but it’s there. One of my favorite passages in Deliver Me to Nowhere is when Landau gets the demo tape and it’s a revelation, “Holy shit, there’s something deeply wrong with this guy right now.” It’s all there on the vinyl, but it’s not obvious. Someone close to him, like John, can see it. Where an introspective album like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band is a public acknowledgement of pain, this one is insular, personal, uniquely courageous in its own unique way.

Totally. I think that’s another thing that has made Nebraska last. A couple of messages are, one, you don’t need the commercial recording studio. You don’t need to spend six figures. You don’t need a band. It doesn’t have to sound perfect. It doesn’t have to have perfect tempo, all this stuff. Also, you don’t need to explain it to your listeners… if you trust them. Springsteen had cultivated a deep relationship with his listeners and he trusted them, so he didn’t do interviews. He didn’t write songs that wrapped it all up. He gave us a tremendous amount of work to do and that feels good on our end.

Yes, he goes from spending a year on Born to Run, doing 55 takes of a song, driving Steven Van Zandt to drink, this manic drive for perfection, to Nebraska. The charm of the whole project is that he never meant for it to be heard. He is completely unselfconscious – and you hear that on the vinyl.

Yeah, that’s the crucial point in the book: This is the only official release he made not knowing he was recording an official release. Nebraska is a secret he shared with himself and us.

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Jack Curry Interview Transcript – 5/16/2023

jc: So, the first thing – I’ll ask a couple of baseball questions, and then I want to do
some music, all right?
Jack: Okay, Perfect. I just feel like… I don’t know. I have this Johnny Cash shirt
here, but I feel like it’s not fitting right. I don’t know what happened. I haven’t worn
it in a while and it feels like it’s all over… I, let me see something here…
jc: I like it! It looks good. This is going to be audio-only anyway.
Jack: Oh, okay, Then we’re good.
jc: I wore my Morrison Hotel shirt for the occasion, so I think we’re set here.
Jack: I love it. I love it. There we go. We’re matching. All right.
jc: All right. So, first things first, I remember one thing that I was able to get out of
your book were the recent interviews you did with (Derek) Jeter, and (David)
Cone, and how much they gave you. They seem to be so unbelievably open about
how really good that team was and how even back then they knew they were good.
I tried to tell people for years when I met Jeter in the clubhouse at Shea Stadium, it
was his birthday. It was the second season of the Subway Series, (Paul) O’Neill hit
that home run, I think off (Mel) Rojas. And Derek had all these stuffed animals
around and I waited for everybody to leave, and I said, “Derek, you got to tell me
how good is this team?” and he waxed poetic for about three or four sentences
about, “Everybody’s good. We’re on a mission.” And I didn’t realize until years
later when he became a closed book with the press how incredibly rare that is. I
wonder when you were covering the team in ‘98, did you get the same vibe as you
got from doing these newer interviews for this book about how confident this team
was then?
Jack: No. I’ve told people that twenty-five years later, I think the pride, and if you
want to call it, the swagger was oozing a lot more, and I’m glad you brought up
Jeter because I wrote a book with Jeter twenty-plus years ago. And in that book, he
didn’t want to touch certain topics. He was still playing; his career was still
ongoing. And Jeter was never the type to criticize anyone anyway. Well, when I
spoke to him about the ‘98 Yankees, his pride was bursting through the telephone.
So, I think that twenty-five years later, these guys were very happy and content

with where they stood in baseball history. And James, I do think it’s easier for all of
us to reflect on our work, if you or I wrote a great article or a great book, and
someone complimented it a week or a month later, I would hope we would both
show some humility, maybe ten years down the line, when you saw where that
book or that article stood in your history, you’d say I’m pretty proud of that. And I
think that’s what happened with these players.
jc: Good point, a little space makes us think we’re commenting on someone else’s
achievements.
Jack: It’s a great point, and I think what I needed to do as a journalist, and I tried to
do in this book, was to have these guys take me behind the scenes and tell me some
of the things that we hadn’t previously heard. And I have a couple of friends of
mine who covered that ‘98 team and before the book was published, they said to
me, “There were things in this book I did not know about” I mean, I should just
name them. One is Michael Kay, who’s now the play-by-play guy for Yes, one of
my colleagues, and one is Joel Sherman of the New York Post. They were around
that team almost every day. So, when they told me that there were things in there
that they didn’t know, I knew we had ventured down the right path.
jc: Yeah, that’s the beauty of this. It’s the retrospection of it. And I think it’s very
important that you did write this book, because a lot of young people are unaware
of this incredible season, so you did a great service by bringing this back twenty-
five years later.
Jack: Right. And by calling them “the greatest team ever,” this is just not me
opining on a top of a mountain top. I have evidence to support that, I interviewed
other people. Now, of course, the people on the Yankee team may think they’re the
greatest. But one of the most important interviews I did for this book was with
John Thorne. He is Major League Baseball’s official historian – you can talk to this
guy about baseball from the 1870s and he’d be on-point. He thinks the Yankees of
’98 are the best team ever, so that was a very powerful voice. And I think when
you talk about best of all time, James, you got to talk about dominance. And I
could reel off the statistics and how that team dominated. You talked about one
already 125-50. No one’s come close to 125 wins. They had the fourth highest
winning percentage. And then this is an important point that I think people forget,
they had to win three rounds of playoffs, and that’s where baseball has changed for
me, the ‘27 Yankees and the ‘39 Yankees, if you want to say they’re the greatest
ever, I’m going to say that that’s fine, make your argument, but they had to win one

round of playoffs and where do we see teams stumble? In the playoffs. The
Dodgers have been the best team in Major League Baseball across the last decade,
won World Series, and it happened in the shortened 2020 year, because it’s hard to
win in October.
jc: It sure is. And, you know, I’m glad you brought up Thorne, because that was my
next question. In the early 90s I interviewed John when his Total Baseball first
came out. And we all grew up with the Baseball Encyclopedia and we were like,
“What’s this new thing?” So, I had just gotten introduced to him, and, of course, I
had to ask him, “What’s the greatest baseball team ever?” This was in 1990-91.
And he said, without hesitation, which lit a lightbulb over my head, “the 1939
Yankees.” And I’m thinking, you know, the ‘27, ’61 teams. And then, of course,
you know, that team lost (Lou Gehrig), one of the greatest baseball players ever
before the season really starts. But he said, “It’s simple as this, James, you give up
runs or you don’t give up runs, you score runs, or you don’t, and the greatest run
differential was that ’39 team. So, for Thorne to say now, twenty-five years later
that the 1998 Yankees usurp that is a major statement in my book.
Jack: Well, the ’39 Yankees had the highest run differential in Major League
history, but, as you said, the ‘98 Yankees had the highest since the ‘39 Yankees. So,
I think if you’re picking the best four or five teams of all time – it’s the ‘98
Yankees, it’s the ‘27 Yankees, it’s the ‘39 Yankees, it’s the 1976 Cincinnati Reds.
And I’ll leave a wild card out there for number five, because there’s a lot of teams
that could vie for that. The one place where I think John and I disagreed a little bit
is he thinks that you could be considered amongst the greatest of all time if you
didn’t win a World Series.
jc: Right, like the 2001 Mariners.
Jack: I totally disagree. The 1906 Chicago Cubs were 116-36 but didn’t win a
World Series. To me, you’re out if you can’t complete the deal, like the 2001 Seattle
Mariners that you mentioned, you’re not amongst the greatest of all time.
jc: Yeah, I always hear the ‘06 Cubs, right? And they didn’t win either.
Jack: Yeah, exactly.
jc: All right. So last one, I adored some of the personal stories in here. In the early
90’s I was a research assistant for the late, great, Roger Kahn. I am sure you know
Roger’s work, his greatest work being The Boys of Summer, where you really learn
about the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. I learned a great deal from Roger about the

stories of the people behind the season, the accomplishment, the turmoil, and
triumph. You did that so well in this book, and I’m reminded of the Wells’ chapter
most of all. Just magnificent insight into his personality, and what a personality!
And I get the feeling from the book that he and Joe (Torre) never really got over
their battles. There is also the wonderful story of Orlando Hernandez, and you said
at the beginning of the book, “I’m going to tell you right now, I’m going to be
really into Orlando Hernandez in this book.” And even the story of (Daryl)
Strawberry talking to that guy who got cut from that team, Dale Svuem..
Jack: Mike Buddie.
jc: Buddie, right! He was cut from the team the day the team photo wassd being
taken and Strawberry makes him get in the photo, even though he was bummed
from being cut and just wanted to get out of there. And he’s in the photo today. I
love those stories. You’re smiling. So, tell me what your favorite story in the book
is?
Jack: Well, I’m glad you brought up the Straw/Mike Buddie story, because I have a
soft spot for Straw, I loved covering him. I am proud of him as someone who
covered him to see that he has conquered a lot of his demons. But Mike Buddie
was a little used reliever on that team who was sent up and down to AAA five or
six times that season.
jc: I forgot he was even on the team, yeah.
Jack: We’re getting to the time where the roster is going to be set for the
postseason. I think it’s a day away and Buddie thinks he’s finally made the cut. He
gets called into Joe Torre’s office and gets sent down. He doesn’t want to talk to
anybody, and you read it, so you know the story, but he just wants to get out of
Yankee Stadium. His flight isn’t leaving for four or five hours, but he says I gotta
get out of here. He had taken every other demotion gracefully, but this one
bothered him. And as he’s leaving the stadium, he bumps into Darryl Strawberry.
And Strawberry says to him, “Where are you going?” So, he tells him the story,
and Strawberry, showing an incredible amount of empathy says, “You know,
they’re taking the team picture today. You might want to hang around and be in
that, I have a feeling you’re gonna want to let people know you were a member of
this team. If you want me, I’ll go ask Joe if that’s okay. Buddie, recognizing how
right Strawberry is, says “No, I’ll go ask Joe.” Torre sanctions it, and Buddie is in
the picture. And James, he is now the athletic director at West Point, has had a
great career in college athletic administration. And he told me at home that that

picture, the 1998 picture sits in his basement and he said “I could walk in any mall
in the United States that has a sports store and see my picture with that team, and
that’s all because of Darryl Strawberry.” So, I know you do this, you’re a journalist
hunting down stories, so you well know that when Buddie told me that story, you
just start to smile, because, my gosh. I even think I got off the phone because I
interviewed Mike early. I tried to, no offense to him, but I tried to start with some
of the reserves and work my way up to the starters, and I remember getting off the
phone and saying to my wife, “If I get twenty-five or thirty more of those, my
books done.”
jc: Right, because everybody really knows the stories of O’Neill and all these other
guys and Jeter. When I was working with Roger, I was working on a book on the
‘78 Yankees, which was my team. And I remember when the baseball documentary
came out, what was it 1990? – the Ken Burns one? And the next day in USA
Today, they had all these retractions of mistakes in it, and that scared the hell out of
me as a writer. But I remember thinking about Brian Doyle, the kid called up
because starting second baseman, Willie Randolf gets hurt and plays the entire post
season having the time of his life, hitting over .400 in the World Series, that’s the
story everyone wants to know. Where did this guy come from? And you have at
least a half-dozen of those in this book that even if you lived through that season,
like me, you just forget. Shane Spencer is a great example. We all remember
Shane’s crazy home-run September, but what an amazing story that guy had! He
couldn’t even get on a plane because he didn’t have his ID? Amazing. The stories
of the people, that’s what makes this book great.
Jack: Right, Spencer gets called up to the big leagues, had lost his driver’s license.
His girlfriend, who later became his wife, whips out a baseball card – it’s pre 9/11,
so, they let him on the plane. Homer Bush. I thought gave me some insight into his
story. He’s a little used player, a pinch runner. One game he doesn’t really hustle on
a ball, late in September, because he thought it was gonna be a homerun and it
ended up being a double. He still scores and everybody’s high fiving him in the
dugout. And Torre just threw a glare at him and basically said, “You got to hustle.”
And so Bush is down after the game, his shoulders are slumped, and Torre walks
over to him, puts his arm around him and says, “Kid, this is the time where I need
you.” So, it just showed you who Joe Torre was, smacks him down and tells him
you didn’t do the right thing. And then lifts him up and says you can’t let this
happen in the postseason; you’ve got to be there for me. So, just stories like that.
I’m glad you enjoyed the Wells and the El Duque chapters. Those were probably

two of my favorites to write about; two characters that we think we know all about
them. But I’m fortunate that both of them, and many of their teammates gave me
more information than had previously been recorded.
jc: They did. Congrats again. And I love the humor in your book too. I think there
was… I forget the pitcher, but I think there was one line, you surmised that this is a
guy who’s definitely not going be buying this book, because he got pounded by the
1998 Yankees. (laughs)
Jack: Oh gosh, it was um… he gave up fourteen runs… Oquist! Mike Oquist.
Oakland’s bullpen was shot, so Art Howe left him in to get tattooed, I think, for
fourteen runs in five innings. And James, and you’ll appreciate this too, as a
journalist, I tried to hunt down Mike Oquist. I left messages in a couple of places.
And he either got the message and didn’t want to talk about it, or he didn’t get the
message. (laughs)
jc: That speaks volumes. (laughs) “I’m not talking about that!” Because those guys
carry with you carry these wounds for a long time.
Jack: I also tried to reach out to… so the Yankees start 1-4. It’s well-known Torre
has this big meeting before game six. And they go on a run after that. They go 64-

  1. Well, when they won game six, Knoblauch lead off with a homerun and they
    beat the Mariners, I think it was 12-7 or 13-7. The guy who started that game for
    Seattle was the last game you ever pitched in the major leagues. So, his lasting
    memory of the end of his career is that the ‘98 Yankees took off on his back. Jim
    Ballinger. Left messages in a couple of places for him too, but I didn’t end up
    getting a call back.
    jc: Not surprising. All right, I was supposed to let you go at 11:30, so we got about
    fourteen minutes. So, let’s start talking some music.
    Jack: All right!
    jc: I want to know more about your musical tastes and such because I love when
    you Tweet, “I’ve got four minutes before I go on Yes, I have just enough time to
    listen to this song.” You have song-times down. You’re my kind of guy. Alright, so
    here’s a few music questions. What was your favorite band growing up? And what
    is it now?
    Jack Curry: It’s a great question. I’m pretty transparent about this on Twitter. I will
    preface this by saying I grew up in Jersey with a brother that is a couple years older

than me and who’s a music savant. So, the first band/musician that I fell in love
with was (Bruce) Springsteen. But the band that I grew to adore, and I always tell
people is my favorite band of all time, is the Clash. And I was fortunate enough
when I was sixteen, seventeen to see them at Bonds in Manhattan.
jc: You went to that show? Holy shit.
Jack: I went twice! They played twenty shows or something in ten days and I was
mesmerized James, and my brother and I actually got on stage at the end of one of
the shows, but we got pushed off very quickly. (laughs) Yeah, Joe Strummer and
the Clash became my guidepost. I thought that Joe Strummer had a message in all
of his music. I also loved his solo stuff after the Clash broke up. So, the Clash will
always be my favorite band. If you ask me who my favorite band is, today, I’m
probably gonna throw you a curveball; there’s a reggae artist named Chronixx. My
wife and I go to the Caribbean a lot. And several years ago, one of my buddies
over there, a guy named Van Roy, bartender, great dude, said, “You got to listen to
this guy Chronixx, he’s the next Bob Marley.” And I loved him. I’ve seen him
perform about half a dozen times. He’s got very socially conscious music. I’ve
actually interviewed him, because I did a little web series for a while at Yes, where
I would try and incorporate some of my music love. I also love the National. I
would put them high up as another band that I listen to a lot these days. But I’m a
new wave/punk kid from the late seventies, early eighties. So, the Smiths, Talking
Heads, Ramones, and really anybody who sort of sounds like that in the current
genre – Arcade Fire, the 1975 – I want to take a listen.
jc: Where in Jersey did you grow up?
Jack: I was born in Jersey City, which we always called “the sixth borough.” My
buddies and I would head over to Manhattan on the PATH train when we were
thirteen, fourteen years old, heading down to the village to explore record stores,
go to sporting goods stores because we thought they sold better baseball gloves or
hockey sticks than the ones in Jersey City – they probably didn’t (smiles). Yeah, I
lived there for the first twenty-seven years of my life. I got married, I moved out a
little more to suburbia, but Jersey City molded me, it’s a tough place, but I learned
a lot there.
jc: What was the first song that really sparked you? And how old were you?
Jack: We’re probably gonna have to go back to Springsteen. It’s probably
“Jungleland,” something off Born to Run that was so mammoth that it stuck with

me. I mean, obviously, when you’re eight, nine, ten years old, and your parents are
playing music that sticks with you, too. I’m wearing a Johnny Cash t-shirt right
now. My father adored Johnny Cash, and my brother and I grew up listening to
that. So, I’m sure when I was ten, I would have told you it was “I Walk the Line” or
“Ring of Fire,” but Springsteen definitely hit me hard as a kid growing up in New
Jersey. And then later on London Calling from the Clash. Because I cover baseball,
people will say, “If you were a baseball player, and were headed to the plate to bat,
what would your walk-up song be?” And I never hesitate, I just say “London
Calling.” I’ve talked to Paul O’Neill (former Yankee great and member of the 1998
team) about this. You need something, especially now with the pitch clock, that it’s
going to hit you in ten or fifteen seconds and “London Calling” has that at the
beginning. That would get me fired up, as I went up there and struck out on three
pitches. (laughs)
jc: You said your parents played music; did they play professionally?
Jack: No, but my father probably should have. My brother and I to this day still
have cassette tapes of my father playing guitar and singing. He had a lot of skills
and a lot of talent but I don’t know that he was as aggressive as he should have
been and getting people to hear his music, because, I can get misty talking about
this, my mom died in ‘94, my dad died in ‘95, so it’s been a long time, but I cherish
the fact that we have these cassettes where my dad is just going off playing music,
just riffing, and doing whatever he felt like. Unfortunately, it didn’t pass on to my
brother or I, but it passed on to the next generation. My brother’s son, one of my
nephews, is in a couple of bands and he can really play the guitar. He’s got some
serious skills.
jc: Yeah, I lost my dad in 2019, and he would have adored this book, Jack, he
really would have.
Jack: I appreciate that.
jc: So, you don’t play an instrument then?
Jack: I don’t. I’ve always loved music. In college, I was not only the sports editor,
but I also did music reviews. I interviewed Billy Idol when I was in college
because he came to Fordham and played on campus, but I’ve never had the skill.
My wife plays the guitar, too, so she’s another one that’s nearby, and I love
listening to her. I took about four lessons playing the guitar, but I was a pretty
honest kid with myself, and I didn’t see it being a skill that I was going to adapt to.

It’s sort of like golf. I have a bunch of friends that tried to get me to play golf. I
tried about five times I said, “Nope, this is not for me.” I love music, but I have no
ability to play anything.
jc: I think self-awareness is a wildly underrated trait. Speaking of my dad, I’ll
never forget his speech to me when I was around fourteen and was a small kid and
had hopes to play high school football. I had played Pop Warner and the like but
was not built in any possible way to play at any higher league. He said, “Son, to
play football, you need speed, size and strength, and you don’t have any of those.”
Set me straight. Saved me from serious injury. (laughs)
Jack: He’s a wise man, he hooked ya up.
jc: What is your medium of choice to listen to music?
Jack: I’ve migrated back to vinyl. It’s interesting that you asked that question
because you get to the age that I am, and my wife will ask, “What do you want for
your birthday? What do you want for Christmas?’ Everybody’s asking me… and
I’ve recently just begun to say, “Just get me this.” And I pick out a record I want.
And it’s been neat to go back and have that to recapture those moments from when
I was a kid. I mean, for the longest time, I bought CDs, I don’t know the last time I
popped a CD in, so it’s obviously streaming music, listening on my phone,
listening on my laptop. But I do get a real kick out of the vinyl experience. On a
rainy day, I’ll sit in my office and just pull out five or six albums, and I feel as if
I’m fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old again, going back and reliving those
memories.
jc: It’s true, you’re gonna hate me for this, but I’ll introduce you to… if you don’t
know this, there’s a website called Discogs, D-I-S-C-O-G-S. I don’t know if you
know this, but it’s a great community, very trustworthy sellers and buyers. You
have to sign in. So, it’s not like eBay, which I’ve had success on eBay, but Discogs
is another level. Anything you want to find – albums, forty-fives, imports, stuff
that you can’t even get on CD, or could never get on CD. It’s very dangerous. I’m
just warning you now.
Jack: Well, as soon as this interview ends, I’m going to check it out – not only for
myself, but I mentioned my brother previously, and I’m always looking for
something for him when a birthday or Christmas rolls around. So, you just helped
me out in a couple of ways.
jc: Alright, good. You have kids, right?

Jack: No, I do not. We’ve been married thirty-one years, just the two of us, I have
three nephews, kind of tried to be as vital in their lives as we possibly could, so I
think we, I think we’ve done well with that.
jc: All right, so when you pass on your music love o these other generations. Do
you give them the classics, do you find that you need to give them the Beatles?
What do you do to get them going?
Jack: That’s a great question. I’m going to use my brother as an answer here. I
remember when my nephew Shane was starting to get into bands, my brother
texted me excitedly that Shane had asked him to download a couple of Clash songs
for him. So, we we’re excited about that! I think… I always say this, James, there
are your ears and there are my ears, it’s your sensibilities and then it’s my
sensibilities. So, I don’t try to force my music down anyone’s throat. If someone is
curious, and if someone asks me, I’ll say this is why I’m listening to this artist, or
this is what I like about them. I have to tell you, I had an experience a few weeks
ago, late April, I had never been to Red Rocks in Colorado. So, I went to Red
Rocks in Colorado and saw Bob Marley’s five sons playing his music. You talk
about a spiritual experience and an experience that resonates. Now, when I came
back that is a story I want to tell a lot of people, but that doesn’t resonate with
everybody. I’d say eight out of ten people I shared it with said that’s not their kind
of music. I had one friend, who said… probably not the greatest friend because he
should know me, “You flew all the way to Denver for a concert?” I said
“Absolutely!” I would have flown to Europe for a concert because that’s where my
interests lie.
jc: All right, last one. What song or album or band reminds you of the 1998
Yankees or vice versa?
Jack: Wow, that’s a great question. It would have to be, as I’m struggling to come
up with an answer here, it would have to be an album that every track hit you,
every song hit you, every song was perfect, you wanted to listen to every song. On
the ’98 Yankees, you didn’t want to just see (Chuck) Knoblauch and (Derek) Jeter
hit. You wanted to see (Jorge) Posada and (Scott) Brosius hit at the bottom of the
order. You didn’t want to just see (David) Cone and (David) Wells pitch, you want
to see (Andy) Pettitte and El Duque (Orlando Hernandez) pitch. Wow. I would
probably pick, I’m going heavy on the reggae here, I would probably pick
something from Bob Marley or Johnny Cash or Springsteen or Elvis Costello.
jc: There you go, all your favorites.

Jack: Because those are my favorites, right? And I already talked a lot about the
Clash, but it would be in that wheelhouse, because those are the artists that meant
the most to me.
jc: All right, listen, Jack, I want to thank you again for a fine book. Well done, sir.
I also want to send you a copy of my latest book on “Hey Jude” or any music
books, through your publicist?
Jack: Oh, that’d be great, James. I appreciate that.
jc: Send me the address. And also, if you could, if you see Paul soon, Paul O’Neill,
I heard him mention on one of the broadcasts that his father’s favorite song was
“Hey Jude.”
Jack: So, send it send it to me, and I’ll get it to him.
jc: Would ya? Great!
Jack: I have to look at my schedule. I don’t know when I’ll see Paul next. It might
not be until June or early July, because I’m in the studio most of the time, and he’s
at the stadium a lot. But I will get it to him.
jc: Thank so much. Well, listen, Jack, this has been a blast. I hope you had a good
time. And it was a little different…
Jack: James, as soon as I saw this request come up… it’s interesting, because
thankfully, I’ve had a lot of press for this book, and I truly appreciate it. But when I
see the Vermont Sports Radio wants you on between 6am and 7am. That’s an easy
no, because I don’t think we’re selling any books in Vermont anyway. But when
yours came up, and it included music? I said yes instantly. So, I appreciate it. This
was a lot of fun. More of a conversation than an interview.

Read More

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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