Where do we go from here? That’s what I was thinking as I was passing grey days sitting with my guitar and laptop at my kitchen table. The table, a sturdy oak, was bought from a neighbor who passed away some years ago. His name was Dominique and once I gave him a Harley Davidsonmotorcycle jacket that was too big for me even though he rode a Triumph. Dominique worked for Publicis, the largest French advertising agency, located above Le Drugstore (which is actually more like a restaurant and shopping mall than a pharmacy) on Champs Elysees, and which I mentioned in the Aquashow song “Hangin’ Out”: “You can be in Paris in a burning Drugstore …” The reason being that when I first came to Paris in 1971 Le Drugstore was quite a hip spot and it did, in fact, catch on fire and it was big news. My friend Dominique’s funeral was held just next to Pere Lachaise cemetery where Jim Morrison rests, hardly in peace, judging by the crowds of Doors faithful who make daily pilgrimages to his gravesite.
I saw Jim Morrison very much alive one time, around 1969, standing by the bar of The Scene, a NYC rock club owned by a flamboyant impresario Steve Paul, also now deceased, who wore velvet suits, introduced Tiny Tim to the world and got Johnny Winter a six figure deal from Columbia Records. I don’t remember Jim Morrison being particularly drunk or outrageous that night, just standing there, drinking a beer, chatting up some girl, as we all stared at him, an actual rock god in our presence! At this time, there was no security, in fact, the concept had hardly been invented and most fans kept a respectful distance from their idols. John Lennon’s murder changed all of that, of course. Around this same time, I also saw the first New York City show of The Stooges in a similarly pocket-sized rock club called Ungano’s. There were maybe one-hundred of us there to see this infamous band from Detroit and Iggy truly terrorized the audience, jumping off the stage, corralling us all in a corner of the room like a flock of sheep. That time it was us who needed security!
My dog Tara and cat Salem are both asleep on this short and overcast winter day, somewhere nearby the warm radiator, which no longer hisses, like those of my youth. I was brought up in the US suburbs, where homes had enormous oil burners down in the basement and hot water was pumped into heavy, coiled radiators on every floor. Now, heat is mostly electric where I live in Paris and people keep their homes colder then what I was use to in America because of the high cost of electricity. Men and women wear scarves in Paris, almost all year long. It’s almost part of what makes them Parisian. De Rigueur! They also like to think, reflect, analyze and daydream, sometimes way too much, which is my own downfall I suppose, and probably why the French and I have lives in the pumping epicenter of all this history, while a modern city churns its way around monuments and twisting medieval streets. Just the other day I learned that Napoleon lost his virginity in a bordello that catered to the cadets of Saint Cyr, the French equivalent of West Point, five minutes from my house in the lovely Palais Royal. Now, they sell shoes with a blatantly sexual appeal in that same spot that cost a thousand euros. I doubt if Napoleon paid anywhere near that much for his own kicks …
Like many of my generation, I search for my past, my misspent youth on YouTube, and late at night I’ve been looking at black and white videos of the 1960’s American rock ‘n roll TV show Shindig. My first thought is always that everybody looks so young but you knew that already. Eric Burdon and the Animals, Peter and Gordon, The Shangra La’s and even Howling Wolf; basically every band or singer you wanted to see and hear back then made their way to Shindig eventually, even the Beatles. And they had this incredible troop of sexy teen dream Shindig dancers, along with an in-house band that included Glenn Campbell on guitar. I was in love with one of the dancers, a energetic blond with long braids and black-rimmed glasses who could do the pony like nobody else. Never knew her name. Wonder where she is now? I’m sure Google will tell me if I look hard enough. We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of … Google. Oz grew up and the yellow brick road is now a broadband pipe.
And also I’ve been listening to Marvin Gaye, who exiled himself to Belgium where he recorded Sexual Healing almost by himself or The (mostly Canadian) Band, another group of exiles or Bowie’s still fabulous Diamond Dogs, an exiled Englishman who calls New York his home today. And then there’s me, another exile of sorts, still in France. And, of course as always, a lot of early blues finds it way onto my Hi-Fi (love that term!) – Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, even Leadbelly, and for some reason I find all that suffering oddly soothing. And then, some months ago, I remembered someone telling me (was it Nick Lowe?) that Johnny Cash said you should try and write a song a day, that’s your job if you’re a songwriter. So I took out this Gibson Chet Atkinselectric nylon string guitar that didn’t make much noise and opened my MacBook and got to work, tried to write a song a day for a few weeks.
My tinnitus has really been driving me nuts lately, my ears ringing louder then a refrigerator’s humming, so I kept it very soft, kind of whisper singing the words that emerged from my minstrel mind, not even using a pick on the guitar. I passed many days alone staring out my window to the boarded up window across the street on Rue Beauregard and my thoughts stopped there and melodies bounced back at me. I think (hope) I came up with a good dozen songs that I felt were on to something, my zeitgeist at the moment, which is hard for even me to decipher most days. While I tapped on my MacBook Pro and strummed my Chet Atkins, Françoise would sometimes take photos around me and one of them, a photo of that window that I was staring at, became the cover for my next album, or demi-album, an EP of five songs now called Intime, the French word for Intimate. Or you can separate the word and hopefully this record arrives to your own zeitgeist in time…
My son Gaspard tells me that his relation with a computer is the same as what a guitar was to a singer-songwriter of my generation. And I guess if you compare someone like Trent Reznor to Bob Dylan he’s right. But I do know that plenty of other songwriters of all ages are sitting at kitchen tables as well, right now, trying to get just the right word to rhyme with just the right chord change to move the song somewhere meaningful or useful. I’m still old school in that respect and I doubt I’ll change; I find my songs vibrating out of the strings of the guitar, or hiding under the keys of a piano. The older I get the problem becomes less that of inspiration and more that of organization. I swear to you that I can write a full song, three verses or more, and record it on my iPhone and then I forget about it until months later when I’m looking for something totally different and there it is and in a panic I realize I almost lost it. Painters don’t lose paintings and directors don’t lose films but songwriters are creating dream things with no gravity, like a floating flock of helium filled balloons that always slip your grasp. In fact, if melodies land too heavily on the ground you know you’ve failed. And the music gives the words wings and they fly away together to never-never land. Many have already, I suppose.
So that’s my job most of the time: a gatekeeper of melodies and lyrics. Trying to keep track of these escaped melodies, exiled lyrics, forgotten inspirations, deciding what’s worth remembering. But this time I just kept writing and not judging and I knew some of it was special and some not and my harshest judge (next to myself) is my son/producer Gaspard. But he started listening to my demos with eventual enthusiasm and we had limited time and an even more limited budget and he figured out the proper business model for my next move: “Dad, we should make an EP!” And I said, hell yes! There’s a great studio Question de Son, located just a few blocks away from my home and I booked four days and the only golden rule was that these recordings had to be different. My band, The Normandy All Stars, arrived from Le Havre on day one and we put down five basic tracks in about 10 hours. Taking a break for dinner at the Café Napoleon on rue de St. Denis. Hey, didn’t I mention that guy already? The next day, I did most of my vocals and Olivier did some lead guitar and Gaspard played some vintage keyboards including an ARP String Ensemble, the same instrument that is all over Night Lights. Then Gaspard took some days to clean everything up in his own home studio and sprinkle production magic all over the recordings, making sure everything sounded pristine and adding wonderful arrangement ideas. Olivier stopped by on our way to Spain for some duo shows and added more guitar and … banjo! The only hang-up for me was one song, “Land of Nod,” which I thought we didn’t quite get in the studio, so we used my original demo where a simple drum machine beats a rhythm. Musicians talk about the demo syndrome, where nothing ever sounds as good as the original demo and sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and move on and other times you go with the demo no matter what it sounds like sonically. That’s what Keith Richards did for the acoustic rhythm guitars on “Street Fighting Man,” that were, I believe recorded on a cassette.
Day three we went back into the studio and mixed. And day four, well, we mixed some more. But I kept most of the words as originally written, even the titles to the songs, some of which you don’t hear in the chorus, remained the same. I might have changed a word here and there but for the most part what was written in the kitchen went into the studio with no extra chorus or bridge or verse added later. But I kept telling Gaspard and Olivier that we had to do something really different. I mean, this will be album number … who knows? Trying not to repeat yourself, especially when it comes to mistakes, is the biggest challenge of life. And honestly, when you hear Intime, I hope you’ll be thinking, “Well, it sounds like Elliott but … different.”
Here’s the Intime EP preview: “Benedict’s Blues,” “Sweet Honky Tonk,” “The Land of Nod,” “The Land That Time Forgot” and “Every Little Star.” I was going to describe the songs to you but that’s a waste of time. Writing about music is more difficult then writing about sex. Anyway, Intime is not my first EP; there’s been the original Affairs and If Poets Were King or even Soul Surfing – The Next Wave. Maybe an EP is like a short story and an album is a novel and I can’t see that far ahead these days, like Tolstoy or Dylan or Pete Townsend. And if anyone’s attention span is increasing, well, I haven’t met them yet. Here’s the thing: there is a sub-title as well, Songs From the Kitchen Vol. 1, so perhaps this is the beginning of some new path. Who knows? An EP every six months sounds doable. We’ll see. All I know is that it was time to put some new music out.
Intime. Hope you like it.
Paris, January 14, 2014
Photo: Françoise Viallon-Murphy