I am happy to announce the release of my new single, “We Love the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals)”, on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and all major streaming services. Video coming soon. Produced in Stockholm with Andreas Bauman, with Torbjörn ”Tobbe” Fall on guitar, Ulric Johansson on bass, and Magnus Fritz on percussion — many thanks, guys! You can always listen to my music for free, but if you purchase the song for download before New Year, I will donate 50% to refugee relief. Happy holidays!!
If you have visited this blog recently, you may have noticed a password-protected page marked with a “Preview” sign, and titled with the phrase “We Love the SDGs”.
That’s the title of my new single. Yes, a song about the SDGs. And to make it even more interesting: it is highly dance-able.
When will this song be launched, you may wonder? As soon as we finish the video. Yes, the video, which has been shot, and is now being edited.
All of this activity is connected to the project I’ve been working on, with friends, on the side of my other professional consulting work (which is, currently, for the UN and several other clients).
That project is 17Goals, of course. Our new multi-stakeholder partnership and social media campaign to promote engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Previously I wrote about why I am so enthusiastic about this project. And in fact, now that we are up and running, I am actually even more enthusiastic.
Initial response has been wonderful. Prominent organizations, and even government officials, have told me that they are using our 17Goals Intro Slides and other materials when they give presentations on the SDGs. That’s exactly what we wanted to happen.
And we continue to fill out our “curated” (that means highly selective) collection of tools and resources. My colleagues Lisa Baumgartel and Michael Blume deserve lots of credit for making the site look good (and function well), and Lisa is also helping a lot on the content side.
When the video is done … well, then things get really interesting. Bente Milton of Transition World in Denmark is working on that now, and I love the high-energy, big-joy concept she proposed. When we launch, we are going to launch big … and that means we will ask everyone we know to help spread this thing. We are doing to work really hard to make it go viral.
Because if we are successful, that will, in turn, draw people to the 17Goals site … and onward to the UN’s SDGs. Which, as you know, I believe to be one of the most important developments in contemporary global history.
So, apologies for not sharing the song with everyone, everywhere, already … but we want to get everything ready. And then …
Recently I reviewed a combination of iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and live-performance-request data, crunched the numbers through a secret algorithm, and came up with a “Top Ten” list. These are the songs that seem to be the “most popular” (at the moment) of those on the six albums I currently have in public release. The exact order may vary, depending on what’s currently happening on social media etc. Album links take you to iTunes website — because I actually earn money there, you can preview all the songs, and from there you can get to the iTunes app. But you can also search and find these songs on any major streaming service.
- Set the World Right Again (from American Troubadour)
A hard-driving, “surprisingly hopeful” (as one listener put it) folk-rock song, with a hint of Japanese influence, that was selected as “Climate Song of the Week” by the UNFCCC in August 2015 as part of the run-up to the Paris climate summit. Torbjörn Fall plays a killer guitar solo in the middle. Got a big boost from multiple Twitter feeds. (For the background story to this song, click here.)
- Exponential Growth (from Believing Cassandra)
The iTunes most-popular song on this album — released in 1999 as a “musical companion” to the book of the same name — is also one that I have used widely in presentations around the world. Anybody who hears it never forgets the chorus (people tell me). It’s better when you see it live.
- Nothin’ At All (from Testing the Rope)
This is the most popular song from my debut album — according to iTunes, at least. It’s a relationship break-up song, and as bleak as they come. (“Take off, and I’ll just stay here / I’ve got more than enough, with nothin’ at all.”) But I still enjoy performing it.
- The Strangely Popular Lichen Song (from Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On)
The highest-selling song from my comedy album is true to its name: even I find it strange that the “Lichen Song” became so (relatively) popular. I guess it’s because it is used as a teaching aid, to explain the symbiotic biology of the lichen, with the chorus built around the old line, “Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae took a LICHEN to each other.”
- The Parachuting Cats (from Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On)
An oft-requested ditty in live situations, and also the second most popular song on this comedy album (says iTunes). The Parachuting Cats tells the supposedly (and mostly) true story of the WHO’s attempt to eradicate malaria on Borneo in the 1950’s, using DDT, with systemically disastrous results. It also closes my TEDx talk. (For the real scientific story, revealed in glorious academic detail, click here.)
- God Speaks (from Falcon, Storm, or Song)
This song has sold more the most copies on iTunes of any other song from this exceedingly simple guitar-and-voice demo-album, which sets 12 poems from Rilke’s “Book of Hours” – as translated into English by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows – to music. The album is also the musical score to a one-man musical play about Rilke’s life and letters. While Rilke’s poetry is written in a religious voice, I think he is writing about life in general. The song could easily be called “Life Speaks.”
- What Kind of World (from Believing Cassandra)
An upbeat, inspirational pop song, which got some airplay on the American TV show “Good Morning America” (in 2011 and 2012) and was also used by friends in Indonesia as the soundtrack to their slideshow on visioning. Surprisingly (to me) it was also the second most-sold song on the “Believing Cassandra” album. Thanks to the TV airplay, I even made a little money on it.
- Dead Planet Blues (from Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On)
My first envirosong, written way back in 1990, and still a frequent request at live performances … even though its core message is over 25 years old. The problem that the song mostly addresses — through the imagined voice of a deity, drinking in some cosmic bar for deities, complaining sarcastically about those “little life-forms that became self-aware” — is now mostly solved: we rescued the planet from the ozone hole. But hey, with a few lyrical tweaks, it’s a new song, focused on global warming … and it’s current once again.
- Balaton (from Testing the Rope)
“The ancient engines turn their gears / The sound of fire swiftly nears …” This song of lament, memory, and hope does not show up in any of my sales data. But it makes the list, because among the people for whom it was written — the members of the Balaton Group, a network of sustainability researchers and practitioners — it has become a traditional “must-sing” at every annual meeting. I also translated this song into French for a similar meeting of sustainability thinkers and doers; it worked en français, too.
- System Zoo (from Believing Cassandra)
While this song is not so popular in digital sales, an old live performance from 2001 (filmed in Australia) is far and away my most-watched-video on YouTube. Over 10,000 people have viewed it. I think people who are trying to explain systems thinking to other people like this song.
Also 10 (This was a tie). The GDP Song (from Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On)
This one makes the list because of the frequency with which it has been requested at live performances: people seem to enjoy singing along, in “Latvian”, to an upbeat folk tune about terrible happenings that perversely drive up our primary measure of economic growth. I stole the melody from a Latvian drinking song. Thanks, Latvia! I’ll send you some money someday.
Maxie (the Manatee) (from American Troubadour)
Based on the true story of the wild manatee that befriended my family when I was a child. This song sits on the top of the “Bestsellers” ranking for the American Troubadour album — at least, when iTunes sorts it that way. I can’t say I’ve seen that popularity reflected in the actual sales figures, but some people love that song. I certainly loved that manatee. In fact, I love manatees generally, and they truly are in trouble. Ergo, the “honourable mention.”
Since this week the UNFCCC is featuring “Set the World Right Again” as its “Climate Song of the Week,” here is the story behind the song. This is the second excerpt from my book-in-progress, “50 Songs, 50 Stories.” – Alan
Some songs start as a vague idea, some as a line of specific words. Some songs grow out of an experience you want to capture. And some just emerge out of your guitar. You start fooling around on your instrument, and you discover something you like. One musical phrase suggests another, which leads to something else, and all those “somethings” link up together (with a little work) to become the skeleton of a song. Then the skeleton needs some flesh, in the form of a melody, which usually “sings itself” out of the chords when you start experimenting with a little free humming. Last but not least (in this version of how things can go, the process always varies) comes the text, the script that this new song — with its specific energy and feeling, its special atmosphere and intention — is meant to deliver to listeners, every time they hear it.
That’s how the process went with “Set the World Right Again.” I went through three different sets of lyrics before I finally understood what this song wanted to be about.
The first version was a love song — frankly, a pathetic lyric that did not stand up to the power of the music, so I tore it up and started from scratch. My second attempt was no better, and I began to despair of ever finding the song’s true voice. But I loved the way this music made my body swing, so I kept trying.
Or rather, I stopped trying. I relaxed, and listened.
I asked myself: what do I hear? This song is obviously about urgency. What is most urgent thing in my life? That’s easy: my work. What is my work about? What is sustainable development about?
That year, 2009, was the year of the great climate change summit in Copenhagen, “CoP-15.” (“CoP” stands for “Conference of the Parties,” and refers to those nations who had signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change back in 1992. It was their 15th meeting.) I would be attending that conference in my role as a consultant to the United Nations, and presenting a paper on an ambitious new plan for scaling up renewable energy, around the world. Climate change, the “fire that you can’t put out,” was very much on my mind — and in my heart.
In professional situations like UN conferences, one does not talk much about emotions. One might express a feeling of “irritation” that negotiations are going so slowly, or even admit that the lack of progress is “disappointing” — but one does not have much room to express depression, grief, or fury at those who are trying to sow confusion and discord (as some try actively to do). There is precious little room for despair at the thought of the bleak future that a failure to reach agreement might seriously entail.
Nor, it turns out, is there much room to express serious hope, either. Expressing one’s longing for success, one’s faith in the future, in deeply emotional terms is almost as taboo as weeping at the prospect that future generations may never see a polar bear, may become refugees when their land is drowned, may struggle to grow enough food in a globally warmed world.
Taboo or not, emotion is always in the room — even a room the size of Copenhagen’s Bella Centre, where CoP-15 gathered so many thousands of officials, experts, and activists. Indeed, if one was really paying attention, one could read a certain over-arching emotional tone in that giant conference center, a feeling that seemed to color everything that was said and nearly every interaction, even in such a huge and diverse coming-together of people from so many different countries and cultures. At CoP-15, I would have called that feeling “desperate hope”: choosing optimism, and making great effort, despite seemingly impossible odds.
And that, I finally realized, was what this song is about.
Set the World Right Again
Words and Music © 2009 by Alan AtKisson
Like a fire that you can’t put out
A bad dream that you can’t stop thinking about
An experiment you shouldn’t have run
This world is a child with a gun
You want to put the train on some new track
End the tragedy before they start the last act
Get the help of every woman and man
Stop the madness any way you can
And set the world right again
As if none of this had ever been
Let the story have a happy ending
Set the world right again
Your objective is to turn the tide
In a game of risk and danger – and you have to choose sides
It’s a game you have no choice but to play
And you wonder if there’s any way
To set the world right again
As if none of this had ever been
Let the story have a happy ending
Set the world right again
There are voices that say that it’s already too late
There are voices that drown out each other in debate
There are voices that claim that there’s no place to start
But the only voice to listen to
Is the voice in your heart
In the end it all comes down to love
What you care enough about to be the champion of
And believe no matter how hard it seems
That it’s possible to live this dream
And set the world right again
As if none of this had ever been
Let the story have a happy ending
Set the world right again
Set the world right again …
You can find “Set the World Right Again” on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, and most streaming services.
This entry tells the story of “Goin’ to the Top” — originally written for Aaron Neville, at the request of a New Orleans’ business leader. But the road to that song went via Sydney, Australia, with many twists and turns along the way … – Alan
I became a musician in no small part because I was awarded a scholarship to attend Tulane University in New Orleans. The scholarship was not in music — I was a science and math nerd — but I had sung in a couple of bands in high school and performed in the school talent show with an Elton John medley on piano. I grew up singing in my mother’s church choir. I loved music. So one of the first things I did on arrival at Tulane University was to audition for the university’s jazz and pop music ensemble, the “Tulanians.”
This band of a dozen singers and a dozen instrumentalists was (fortunately) far more than a glee club. Under the direction of the late Leland Bennett, who also directed one of New Orleans’ best professional show bands (“Jubilation”), it was an excellent training ground in both musicianship and showmanship. We learned a challenging, ultra-modern repertoire. We learned to sing and dance and hold a large crowd. The Tulanians were serious business, and experience gained there nurtured the careers of numerous future professionals who went on to careers in New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
I spent less than two years with the Tulanians, but it was a formative time. I sang a few of the big solo numbers in our shows (if you want to hear a funny story about “Serpentine Fire” sometime, just ask me). Leland invited me to sub for his lead male singer in Jubilation as well, and that first paycheck turned me into a “professional”. The Tulanians went on tour, and sang in Washington, DC and at Disney World, Florida. It was at a Tulanians show that I first debuted as a guitarist and singer-songwriter, with my friend and roommate Mark Beatty. (Mark had composed a lovely little guitar lick, and needed lyrics, so I wrote some words. Our joint composition became my, and our, first publicly performed song, “Dancer.”)
Thanks to Leland Bennet and the Tulanians, and the wonderful culture of New Orleans, I gained the confidence to call myself a musician.
Twenty years and several careers later, I was invited back to Tulane to give a lecture at a conference on environmental law. My former philosophy professor, Michael Zimmerman, was now a good friend. He in turn had an old friend named Pres Kabacoff, a business leader in New Orleans. Pres, who was a bit left-leaning in his politics, had recruited his old friend (and competitor in the real estate sector) Quentin Dastugue to co-chair a new economic development initiative under the aegis of a regional business group. And that group invited me to give them a presentation.
So I found myself talking to a group of 30 business leaders about what a regional program of sustainability indicators could do for them: how it could help them knit that fractious region together and contribute to a common vision for the ten counties (or “parishes”) around New Orleans. I finished and sat down. Then the chairman said, “That was a very good presentation, Mr. AtKisson, but I am a little disappointed, because we heard that you also sing.”
This remark came as a shock. I had assumed that the last thing that a group of button-down New Orleans business leaders would want from me was a song — but here it was, a put-you-on-the-spot request that could not be refused. So I duly stood back up and delivered an á capella version of my song “The Parachuting Cats.” (You can see a version of this at the end of my TEDx talk on YouTube.) The song brought smiles and warm applause — and it helped me win a large contract for my consulting firm.
About a year into our regional project, Quentin Dastugue — a somewhat larger-than-life business figure also known for his very conservative politics — took me to lunch. This lunch was of the two-martini variety. The second martini made it hard to say no when Quentin presented me with another musical request: he believed that our regional initiative, which was called “Top 10 by 2010,” was in need of a theme song. You, he said, are just the man to write it.
I was hesitant, but Quentin upped the ante. He could probably get Aaron Neville — the undisputed king of New Orleans’ jazz-rock — to sing the song.
How could I not say yes?
A few months later, with the final celebration of our initiative just weeks away, I was still struggling to compose an appropriate theme song. “Top 10 by 2010” was an enormously ambitious initiative. The regional goal was to move up into the top 10 of the Forbes Magazine list of “Best Places to Live and Work in the United States” within ten years. At the time, New Orleans was down around number 200.
On a jet-laggy morning in Sydney, Australia, I woke before sunrise and walked to the Sydney Opera House, seeking inspiration. I thought about my friends and clients back in New Orleans. In our interviews and surveys, we had learned that one of the missing ingredients in the region was not just a clear future vision, but even the capacity to imagine a better future. Many people seemed to lack the willingness to imagine positive change. “Life in our region has always been this way,” they would say. “Why should we believe things will ever change?”
The New Orleans region, in those years before Hurricane Katrina came and destroyed so much of that great city, was already in need of serious encouragement.
I pulled out my notebook, sitting there by the Opera House, looking out over waters half a planet away from New Orleans, and the lyrics to “Goin’ to the Top” — built around the image of flying swiftly up a mountain — flowed easily out of my pen. Later, so did the music: all I had to do was imagine Aaron Neville’s beautiful tenor-falsetto, and all the wonderful nuances he would bring to those words.
But as the time approached for the Big Event — a one-day forum, followed by an evening dance party, celebrating the success of the first stages of Top 10 by 2010 — it became clear that Aaron Neville was not going to be available to sing “Goin’ to the Top.” It became equally clear, from both Pres and Quention, that I was expected to step into that gap, and perform the song myself. So I quickly wrote a chord sheet, and worked quickly with the band that had been hired for the event to teach them the song. Their lead guitarist was watching my fingers like a hawk as I played it on my acoustic guitar; the rhythm section quickly figured out the simple pop-song structure. The performance itself was rough … but it worked.
Then a dozen years passed.
Prior to being recorded in 2013 for my album American Troubadour, “Goin’ to the Top” was only performed that one time, and it was not sung by Aaron Neville, but by me, the “singing sustainability consultant,” stepping back on stage in the Crescent City of New Orleans for the first time since I had left that extraordinary musical training ground, twenty years earlier.
These days, I dedicate “Goin’ to the Top” to the people who have been working, for many years now, to rebuild New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina disaster … and also to the people working for sustainability everywhere who need to hold on to the vision that we will, in fact, “be there.”
Listen to this song on iTunes:
(Also available on Spotify, YouTube and other streaming sites.)
Goin’ to the Top
Words and music © 2001 by Alan AtKisson
The sky is bright
Streaks of light
And we know this isn’t any ordinary night
You know it’s true
‘Cause me and you
And everybody here can see
Goin’ to the top
We’ve got know that we’re goin’
Nothing can stand in your way
When you make your own road
Goin’ to the top
We’ve got to feel that it’s comin’
I believe it’s our time to stand
In the promised land
Don’t look down
We’re off the ground
And we’re never ever going to stop or turn around
Guess we’ll need
To get ready for a very fast climb
Goin’ to the top
We’ve got know that we’re going
Nothing can stand in your way
When you make your own road
Goin’ to the top
We’ve got to know that we’ll be there
I believe it’s our time to stand
In the promised land
We used to think we’d never be here
We used to think we’d couldn’t fly
But now we know that we belong here
And all we had to do was try
Can you see
What I see
We’re coming closer to a new reality
So take my hand
‘Cause when we land
We’ll be standin’ on the top of the world
Goin’ to the top …
Here you go, world.
With the recent public announcement about Ancient History, and the release of American Troubadour, all my songs (or most of them anyway) are finally “out there,” available, part of the digital universe. Six albums, sixty-five tracks.
I’ve been making music and writing songs professionally for a long time, over 35 years. Songwriting has never been my main source of income. But it has always been a major source of satisfaction.
And I’m at one of those moments in life where I am feeling enormously grateful, for many things, including the chance to make music and share it with friends, family … and the world.
I’ve been writing letters to friends and contacts who helped me along at various times, some from 30 years ago … sending out CDs and digital download links … and receiving wonderful letters in return, too.
So much gratitude.
There is no way I can write to everybody. So please consider this a letter to you, personally: thanks for reading this. For being interested. For giving my music a chance to send you somewhere, help you feel something, visit some new mental landscape.
Thanks for listening.
PRESS RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
15 July 2014
Contact: Cassandra [ at ] AtKisson [dot] com
Tel: +1 917 226 2057
AtKisson releases a second “surprise” album just two months after American Troubadour
Alan AtKisson surprised his fans and the music world by releasing a second, “surprise” album just two months after the release of American Troubadour.
Ancient History: Demos and Studio Recordings 1982-1996 is a collection of his earliest work, much of it recorded at home and never before released publicly.
** AVAILABLE NOW ON ITUNES, SPOTIFY, AND ALL MAJOR DIGITAL MUSIC SERVICES ** OR BUY THE MP3-FILES DIRECTLY FOR $9.95, CLICK THIS LINK FOR INSTANT PURCHASE & DOWNLOAD (PAYPAL)
The eleven tracks include AtKisson’s best songs from 1982 to 1995, such as his debut folk-club hit “Whitewing” — a retelling of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus — and the haunting “Gallipoli,” with lyrics drawn on the diaries of soldiers killed in the doomed World War I battle (made famous by the Mel Gibson movie).
“We actually released this album digitally on iTunes before we released American Troubadour,” says Alan. “It’s been out there a while. We just didn’t tell anybody.”
Alan’s record label, Rain City Records, was forced to release Ancient History early according to the terms of a licensing agreement with Smithsonian Folkways, which owns the rights to a beautiful ensemble recording of “Epiphany Dream,” originally featured on the “Fast Folk Musical Magazine” in 1985.
Some of the tracks on Ancient History are plain acoustic guitar and vocals with little or nor effects. Others — such as the power-rock ballad “Invisible Man” — are polished 24-track studio recordings made as demos during Alan’s New York music career. Many were recorded on a Tascam PortaOne, a four-track cassette recorder that popularized home recording long before Apple’s Garage Band.
“Some people tell me that of all the songs I’ve written, these songs are their favorites,” says Alan. “And these tapes were just sitting around in my studio gathering dust. It’s really nice to give them a new, digital life.”
“There’s a story behind every song” (see AmericanTroubadour.com) … but there’s also a story behind the album.
And it’s a good story.
In June of 2001, in Stockholm, on Midsummer Day, I got married. Nine months later, Kristina gave birth to our first child. To say that everything changed in my life, in and around that Midsummer of 2001, would be quite an understatement.
With marriage came not only partnership and fatherhood, but also a new country, a new language, a new culture. From that day on, I started to feel more and more Swedish. (I didn’t stop being American; I just added a new, second national identity, one that felt eerily familiar, since it echoed the Icelandic — they say — cultural patterns of my father’s family.)
One of the new traditions I had to learn about was the “svensexa”, the Swedish bachelor party. The bachelor in question is put through numerous tests and trials. One of the kinder ones involved being required to improvise a song to my beloved, at midnight, in the middle of downtown Stockholm, after numerous beverages had already been imbibed. (Where my friends found a guitar, I’ll never know.)
Amazingly, a song to my beloved actually emerged. Not all at once, but over the next couple of days. Obviously, I had to play this song at our wedding. Just as obviously, there was no way I could manage that. Solution: record it.
So I looked in the yellow pages (we still had those back then), or maybe I web-searched too, but in any case, I found a little studio, run by Andreas “Bauer” Bauman. We whipped up a decent recording of that song, which is about my wife’s numerous names (“Anna-Kristina-Kicki-Du,” a song that has not been released publicly). And the DJ at the wedding party surprised her with it, during our first dance.
Oh, the look on her face … that’s a beautiful memory.
Fast-forward more than ten years, to November 2011.
I’ve accumulated a bunch of new songs by then. I’m also a busy consultant, running a couple of international organizations, globetrotting, the usual. But I feel this unquenchable urge to go into the studio and record.
I’ll just document these new songs, I say to myself. Guitar, vocals, maybe a little bass — like my first CD album, Testing the Rope (1997).
Where to do the recording? A quick web search: Andreas is still there. What’s more, his studio is just five minutes from my house. He remembers me. We’re both a bit more grizzled, we’ve both had a couple of kids … we connect.
A few songs into this little documentation project, Andreas starts saying things like, “riktigt bra” and “klockrent” (which means he thought the songs were really good). He says they are too good to leave on the shelf. He starts gently suggesting some additional musicians. It’s clear he’s not fishing for extra work; he’s offering to do this without pay, because he likes the music.
And he starts pulling in some amazing people. I’m clueless about what’s happening. “I’ll see if Ronander can play on this,” he says (about “Entebbe Blues”). “Uh, who’s that?” I say. Mats Ronander is, of course, a household name in Sweden; he once toured with Abba.
As the project grows, I start pulling in folks too. Turns out some of my neighbors are excellent musicians — a female vocal trio, an old-time fiddle-player, an opera singer.
Everyone makes wonderful contributions.
Andreas and I meet every month or so, in between my travels. Ideas zip around faster and faster. The musicians work magic. Andreas orchestrates us all gently, beautifully. Encouraged by Andreas, I started dreaming bigger. For the title song, “American Troubadour,” I start recording voices on my iPhone, gathering them from both the US and from Sweden, people reading the text of the Declaration of Independence. (In the spoken-word middle section, which Andreas mixed so well, you can hear the voices of sustainability pioneer Hunter Lovins, the American-Swedish artist Vincent Williams, and many others, including my own daughters, Saga and Aila AtKisson, in the lead role.)
The process takes two and half years, because we’re both doing lots of other things, Andreas and I. At the end, the whole thing seems to be built on a combination of love for music, creativity, and professionalism. The other musicians have gone the extra mile to make something wonderful out of their sessions, which (I learned) were “old school” pleasures for them: real live recording sessions, creative dialogues, that even involved talking about the ideas and feelings in the songs. Not just responding to someone’s email request with a track recorded at home in front of a computer, and “mailed in.”
Even the graphics are a labor of love. Andreas’s wife introduces us to one of Stockholm’s hottest PR and graphics bureaus. They take time from their busy corporate practice to work on “American Troubadour,” at rates far less than they would normally charge … because they think the project is cool. They (Christian Hammar and Björn Lundevall of FLB Europa) like the whole American-Swedish thing, and they work far harder on it than I have any right to expect. They even come up with a great new symbol for … well, for me.
My music. My travel-influenced perspective on the world. My dual-citizen life, which has been so deeply enriched by the marriage that starts this story (listen to “Midsummer Island”). Which has helped to sustain me … in my work to sustain others … who are working on sustainability (listen to “Set the World Right Again,” and “Going to the Top”).
What a journey “American Troubadour” has been. So unexpected. So fun, and musically satisfying. It’s so wonderful that it’s finally out there, finally finished.
And yet, I have the feeling it’s just another beginning.
You might expect that I should love the film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” about the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, seen through the eyes of a young folk singer, who is a reinterpreted version of the young Dave van Ronk. Van Ronk was a legend by the time I hit that scene, as a young singer-songwriter, in the early 1980s. I barely knew him, but I did work the soundboard for one of his performances at the Speakeasy — a folk music club and artists’ cooperative, which put on nightly shows behind a falafel stand on Macdougal Street. I thought Van Ronk was an awesome performer, with a dominating stage presence. I found him intimidating at the time.
Folk music was serious business to the artists who were keeping it alive in those clubs. As a newcomer, you had a steep hill to climb, to prove yourself worthy to be in their company. Van Ronk’s memoir, on which the movie was partly based, is called “The Mayor of Macdougal Street.” I haven’t even read it yet, but I thought of him more as the Pope. I didn’t dare approach Van Ronk, partly because I was not even a true “folky” — though I did get one song, “Epiphany Dream,” onto a “Fast Folk” record album, a periodic collection that was published as a “musical magazine” by the Speakeasy cooperative, and which you can still find online. (I thought of Jack Hardy, editor of Fast Folk, as the mayor.)
I spent several fun, formative musical years in that colorful Speakeasy / Folk City / Macdougal Street music scene, which is painted in brownish-grayish tones in the Coen Brothers film. I have some beautiful memories, too: the legendary Odetta watching my show, complimenting me, hugging me, the memory of which gladdens me still. At the same time, however, I was also fronting a rock band, playing at clubs in the rougher parts of the East Village and Soho, clubs with names like CBGB, 8BC, Kamikaze. (This double life probably made me suspect in the folk world, but that’s another story.)
Yet despite this semi-personal connection to what was being portrayed on the screen, I did not love “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I found myself skipping and fast-forwarding through big hunks of it, in 10-20 second stuttering hops, trying to find parts I liked.
And I did find a few gem moments, most of them musical performances, including a surprising folk turn by Justin Timberlake. The film certainly captured the look of the New York folk music scene as I remember it, which (I now realize) had not changed that much by 1982. Indeed, my experience of New York itself was pretty much just as that movie portrayed it: a little run-down, funkier, more dangerous than the shiny place it is today.
So, I didn’t hate the film. But several others from that scene and time — most publicly Christine Lavin and Suzanne Vega — did hate it, and they went public with harsh criticisms. I mostly agree with their general complaint: the movie doesn’t reflect what I remember of life in that community. We were all young, aspiring songwriters, by turns cooperative and competitive, enjoying the feeling that we were part of something with a history. The Greenwich Village folk scene was a kind of musical nebula that occasionally gave birth to a star (Suzanne Vega broke out with two worldwide hits, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”, about the time I began turning from aspiring New York musician into an aspiring Seattle sustainability wonk who still did music). But mostly, that community was all about dedication to tradition, craft, songwriting, artistry, mutual support. Being a musician in New York — especially being a songwriter outside the mainstream of pop — was a hard business. We needed each other.
This is really my chief complaint about “Inside Llewyn Davis”: I felt nothing of that. In fact, I felt nothing at all. I really wanted to just get through the film and go back to work. (I was watching it on a long plane flight.) A reviewer who loved the movie noted that it’s just a fiction, maybe a profound one, and even called Lavin and Vega “narcissistic” for criticizing it — that is, for not accepting it as an original, aching, coming-of-age story, that has nothing to do with their reality. The Coen Brothers, in that reading, just borrowed bits of Van Ronk’s memoir, and images of that time and scene, in order to tell a different story about misplaced ambitions and the hard treatment dished by the real world on youthful dreams.
But I have to defend my old Speakeasy colleagues, Lavin and Vega, on this point: if someone takes your youth, full of colorful people and memories that you love, and repaints it as tawdry and sad, and then presents this portrayal to the world as The Truth On Film, you are fully entitled to hate that movie. And to attack it, critically. (Thanks, Christine and Suzanne, for doing that. I called you “colleagues” above, rather than friends, because while I knew you, I never really knew you. I always wished I had — I so admired your work, you were role models — but I doubt you even remember me. I was a junior, marginal player in that league. I was a Wednesday and Thursday night kind of performer; you were Friday and Saturday night. Still, it gives me pleasure to remember that we played on the same stages, sometimes in the same multi-artist shows …)
So the true Greenwich Village Folk Music Movie remains to be made. Or … maybe it would be interesting to make a movie about a folk musician who lives a double life as a rock ‘n’ roll artist, flitting between gigs in different parts of New York, dancing with the ghost of Dylan’s controversial flip to electric guitar, moving furniture to make a living with a fellow songwriter and, improbably enough, future Earth First! activist (my old friend Darryl Cherney, who recorded my first cassette album in his bedroom studio, and who was the spitting image of the guy playing Llewyn Davis), avoiding the muggers and the groupies and the drugs (I was a total nerd in that regard), performing at weddings and funerals and hospitals for the mentally disturbed, until finally getting a big break with the offer of a serious management deal (the guy that offered me that deal is now head of a major Hollywood movie studio), but then realizing he had a different calling in life, this thing we call “sustainability” …
Well, if you are into making movies, I’ve got a story for you.
PS: Hey, my new album — which which owes a debt of gratitude to those old Greenwich Village days, but is sort of “global folk-rock” — is finished, we are just working on the packaging and marketing now … Stay tuned …