January 1, 2021
As Joni Mitchell sang in “Big Yellow Taxi,” “You don’t know what you’ve lost ‘till it’s gone …” and as I walked the rainy streets of Paris today and passed sad shuttered cafés and deserted restaurants I couldn’t help but think how cozy it would be to stop in and have an Earl Grey tea, pull out my T-Ball Jotter pen and sit down to write … anything at all. Paris cafés have served as office spaces for struggling writers for centuries. Why is that? Well, I guess because Paris apartments are small and a writer often feels a need to travel beyond the emotionally stifling walls of home if he or she wants to move into the creative 4th dimension. What I call the zone. Me, I find I can write better in a noisy café, with waiters moving all around me, then I can in the solitude of my own office. Maybe that’s why I’ve never had a desire to live in the country – it’s too damn quiet for me. But should a rock ‘n roll singer-songwriter long for quiet? Is that in our nature? Not sure. I know that for me, at least, there is no worse place to eat, no matter how good the food is, then a restaurant that is blaring music through its sound system, music that is so loud I’m forced to shout across the table to be heard by my dinner companion. Will someone explain to me why loud music has become part of the dining experience? Or am I getting old … don’t answer that!
I was thinking today about when the first Walkman was introduced by Sony in 1979 and the incredible listening experience it opened our ears and minds to. What I liked about my first Walkman was the sense of protective isolation it provided; the way I could be walking around NYC with taxis beeping their horns, buildings under construction, jackhammers pounding and still feel totally secure and unmolested within my own musical universe, located in the ever-expanding metaphysical space that those little blue headphones connected me to. In fact, nothing has ever sounded so good, so radical, so hip since, and remember we were listening to cassettes whose sound quality was negligible to begin with. But still it was the beginning of a mutually shared aural revolution, global in scope, concerning how we experience sound that has continued to this very day. My son Gaspard gave my wife Françoise Apple Airpods for Christmas and she’s loving them. Now when she gets her nails done she can tap on her pods and fly away to exotic locales as she listen to podcasts about … anything at all. Me, I’m not ready for Airpods yet as any in-ear listening devices tends to make my damn tinnitus go wild and soon the ringing in my ears is louder then whatever it is I’m supposed to be listening to. I bet it started with turning up my Walkman too loud back in 1979 …
I’ve heard it said that when we get out from under the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic the world will enter into “Roaring Twenties Part II” which is what happened when the 1918 flu pandemic mysteriously disappeared in the early 1920’s after killing 50 million poor folks world-wide. And this just after peace was finally at hand after the absolutely horrendous first World War. Like someone said, history is just one damn thing after another. Personally, the Roaring 20’s has always been my favorite decade because it seems to me that’s when the world became “modern” in a sense, with literature, painting, music and cinema moving forward in leaps and bounds, inhabiting a new dimension of reality: Picasso, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin and James Joyce all dancing around the bonfires of the past! Will the same thing happen again? And what will that mean for traditional singer-songwriters like myself? In the course of interviews about my memoir, I’ve been thinking so much about where my particular genre of music falls into the universe of commercial sound that surrounds us almost everywhere and have yet to come up with a name that suits my own vision of what I do. I’ve been called folk/rock but I always thought I was more rock/folk then the other way around. My roots are more Dion and the Belmonts then The Weavers. So where to go from here?
The Middle Kingdom project that Olivier Durand and I released during the pandemic was truly an ear-opening experience. Kind of like my version of hip-hop or slam poetry. I’d like to do more of the same and a follow-up spoken word with music album (featuring my great violinist Melissa Cox) will be released in March in conjunction with my New Morning birthday shows which, with the exception of 2020, I have been doing every year for a quarter of a century. Music gives written words wings, that’s what differentiates songs from poetry, and often a spoken voice can have more personality than a great singer. Isn’t that what Lou Reed was about? Or Leonard Cohen? Or me?
The reaction to the publication of the French version of my memoir Just A Story From America has been nearly explosive with articles in Le Monde, Figaro and almost every other version of Francophone media you can imagine. It’s almost as if the French (among whom I’ve lived for over 30 years) finally got to know who I really am. My dream would be to provide instantaneous translations to the lyrics to my songs as I sing them in concert in the language of whoever is in the audience. Kind of like what they do in Operas today where the German of Mozart or the Italian of Verde is simultaneously translated into English, French, Spanish, Japanese or Chinese. In my case, it could be accomplished by way of sub-titles scrolling across a high-tech light board over the stage translating my lyrics right as I sang them in various languages. I’m sure that would cost more than I could afford but maybe when I win my MacArthur Fellowship1 that’s how I’ll use the money. Or maybe I’ll get a house in St. Tropez …
If you would like to read Just A Story From America in written form, it is available as both a paperback and Kindle version on Amazon and the Spanish and French versions are there as well or you can order it from my website store.
Photo by François Richard