Nelson Mandela wasn’t the only public figure to pass away into the great unknown this week. Legendary singer songwriter activist and artiste extraordinaire John Lennon also made the journey just yesterday in fact when a crazy schizophrenic shot him down right outside his apt on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Only it was 33 years ago. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
All weekend I thought about it. It kept bubbling up in the back of my mind. John died this weekend didn’t he… so the thoughts went. I sure do miss him. I’ll never forget that day. We were just kids that day. Little kids. Too young to even really get it. We had already been into the Beatles. That’s how we all came together actually. Me and Toad and StuGuru an Juliet and the rest of the crew. We were all in the so-called “gifted” program at school, which meant that we never for to see the rest of the student body at except at PE and during lunch. We were basically what would be considered the nerds of the school. Major geeks who enjoyed things like Academic Games, Debate Club and Chorus. (Our chorus went to all state that year. My very first television appearance. Was standing on the top row of the bleachers and in the middle of “the sun will come our tomorrow” my foot started to itch. I went to scratch it with my other foot and my shoe fell off and made a huge thud when it dropped to the floor. On live TV. The first of many awkward moments).
One of the things we all seemed to have in common was our love of the Beatles. They were an old band. Classic rock. Totally not hip or cool when we were growing up. Which only added to the allure of our obsession with being so different than everyone around us. Outliers. We had this quasi-Beatles fan club which consisted of no more than the lot of us spending all of our free time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the Beatles. That and stamp collecting. Like I said, we were nerds. I didn’t actually become “cool” till high school. And frankly the jury is still out on that. But the Beatles and our love for their music and culture and history bonded us in a special way. To the point where we are still friends today.
Of course back then we were just into the early and middle stuff. Hadn’t progressed into the later years. Sounds funny now, but back then, at our age, the music of the later Beatles era felt and sounded “scary” to us. Especially the White Album. On especially courageous evenings during sleepovers we’d turn off all the lights and turn the white album on — only vinyl back then. Cassettes existed but you knew better to not go there. We’d sit in the dark with flashlights and listen to all these epic dark and languishing songs with their stream of consciousness drug-inspired lyrics. It seemed a frightening world to us at such young ages. But an equally appealing one as well.
Less than ten years later three of us would be acting the parts out in real life when me and Toad and The Grey Wolf started the band Shattered (Broken Spectacles) and StuGuru started Lobsters and Walruses. As in all bands we subconsciously sparred for who was Paul and who was John. Both of us wanted to be John. Though I was the more obvious candidate, being slightly more of bad boy than Toad ever could be, coming from a broken home, being in constant trouble at school and with the law, and just never having the beautiful voice that Toad had, just like Paul. It’s funny now. Because Id give anything now to be Paul. Now that I’m older. But the Lennon comparisons still are heard now and then from fans and critics. Have never heard or read a McCartney comparison. And for whatever reason the older I became the more obsessed and in love I became with Paul and his music.
With that said though, it is still John who tends to influence me more as an artist and as a man in the world. As I’m sure he does to lots of other artists around the world. This is an aspect of being an artist that draws a very clear line in the sand between the real and the pretenders. Entertainers have hits. They have gold records. They may even win Grammys. Hell they do every year. Artists may never reach any of those achievements. But they influence. Like Lou Reed. His is an influence which has spanned five decades and spread to every country in the world. For other artists. But most people only know one of his songs — “walk on the wild side” — out of a forty year career. That’s classic. That’s an artist.
John Lennon was the same way. He never did things by the book — at least once he finished with the whole mop top selling out phase of his career. Which no one can blame him for because without that phase he may never have “made it” and we’d never have known his music. He wasn’t around during the indie revolution when everyone and their brother could record an album and pretend they were a receding artist no matter how bad they were, as things are today. You had to sell out if you wanted to actually reach the point of making a record and getting radio airplay.
But after that phase — by Rubber Soul I’d say — john was just off on a tangent doing whatever the hell he wanted to. Not only as an artist but as a person. For a lot of us john’s personal life and his non-musical antics inspired us as much as his music did. The activism, the drug busts, the candid truth telling to a fault, the living in a glass house allowing all of his faults foibles and idiosyncrasies hang out for all the world to see. It would be hard for me to ever try to pretend that John didn’t have a huge influence on me. Deeper more profits and more transparent than even Bowie or Lou or Bolan because I got into him at such a young age that the influence was never conscious. It just became a part of who I was and evolved into. I’m saying this now as it’s occurring to me. Have never thought about it before. But it seems true. I never tried to be like or do anything like John Lennon. It was and perhaps still is more like he was a father figure who just rubbed off on me the same way a father does to a son. Never having a father of my own John and Paul played that role vicariously, simultaneously trading places at warp speed depending on what mood I happened to be in at any given moment. Then BAM! 20 years later and I’m a man myself. People say “you remind me of John Lennon” and it never even occurs to me that it could be true because I never deliberately copped John the way I did admittedly with say Bowie or Lou or Marc.
Now that I’m older it really hits home how much we have missed by John not being around all these years. We can only guess what his musical output would be like now. Or what it would have been like over the last 33 years past. He was just getting started again when he was killed. That first new album in over five years (Double Fantasy) was an amazing in regards to the John songs in it. Even the Yoko songs were good.
As well I often wonder what his social and political ideals would be like. I’m sure he’d be proud of what society has turned into in terms of how popular social and political activism have become. Even with more mainstream types. I wonder if he’d ever turn toward less peaceful more violent means of activism if he knew what we know now about how wicked the powers that be have become. But then again they were pretty bad already In the 60s and 70s. And he resisted those urges back then. Which is one of the reasons why I and probably many people like me still do. No matter how angry or embittered or resentful we feel sometimes. That’s just one of the many many gifts he offered the world simply by being born and being himself and doing his thing. If we’re going to take anything from John and his legacy, it should be that: to remember how utterly profound it can be if we do absolutely nothing other than be ourselves.
It’ll never not be “sad” today. Because we will never not miss him and never not mourn his early passing. But there is plenty there to celebrate as well.
– Posted by The Ambassador using BlogPress on an iPhone
In the recording studio all week this week. Working on the new album(s). We were aiming for one when we started last year, the follow up to Ballad On Third Avenue. But we ended up with 34 songs, with two very different styles… so it’s really two different albums we are creating at the same time. One is more acoustic and organic sounding. The other is still ballad based but more on the pop side. We had a temporary freak out a few weeks back when going to cut the vocals for the song “Oh Sophia” (yeah the one I demoed on YouTube a few years ago in the Song Log series). Couldn’t find a HUGE batch of songs. I was going CRAzy. As always Princess Little Tree stayed calm, kept me from having a nervous breakdown, and eventually we found them. Had them in a big stack next of papers next to a laptop I barely ever use in an office I barely ever use in order to make some edits to them or type them in.
[There is a process. A strict one. Like most artists I’ve slowly huddled into a very strict and detailed highly OCD and methodical routine for songwriting and tracking all the songs. Because after the first few years you start to realize you’re going to be dealing with something really big. A giant project with a mass of paperwork and tapes etc. For some reason whenever I think about this topic my mind immediately jumps to this one distinct memory of being at our summer home in the Cayman Islands and announcing the whole family the moment that I hit 100 songs written. I was 15 or 16 years old at the time. It felt like a big accomplishment. Now it seems kind of meager and embarrassing. But that’s the nature of any art or craft I’m beginning to realize. As we evolve and progress our past achievements tend to seem small compared to our present reality. I wouldn’t know how to even ascertain how many songs I’ve written now.
I remember hitting 1,000 about a decade ago. I remember when I was a kid hearing about how Steve Allen the famous comedian and talk show host had written roughly 1,000 songs and how surprising that was because most people weren’t aware that he was also an accomplished songwriter. I remember feeling angry with myself… for not having achieved that yet. So the 1,000 mark felt like a big deal at the time; maybe… not really now that I think about it. I “remembered” the Steve Allen bit for a day or two and the buzz quickly dissipated.
I remember hitting 3,000. From there I just stopped counting. Perhaps that’s the sign that you’ve finally arrived — when you reach the point where you stop counting. When it becomes so routine to you that the number doesn’t even matter anymore. I’m sure painters, career painters, have no idea how many paintings they’ve created.
Regardless of how they start — a tune pops up in your head, or in a dream, or while you’re strumming a guitar or tripping out on the piano — that song gets into a recording device (now most of the time my iPhone) as quickly as possible.
[From there I start putting it to paper. One of many legal pads kept in one of many leather binders with one of many thin silver Cross pens sitting in an inner connected loop. The song may stay that way for a few weeks to a few years or decades. When I feel like it I go back to it and work a little more on it. I never force a song to flesh out. I’m always working on so many that I don’t have to. More importantly I don’t think forced songs ever come out well. If I’m not feeling it, that song will just sit there. And I keep plenty of legal pads in leather binders around filled with plenty of songs. So there’s never any rush. Usually I can just pound through them though. A good song writes itself. Once it comes, all I have to do is just ride it like a wave. It’s all in my head already. I hear it. I hear it’s potential is more like it. So all i have to do is just keep playing it over and over again, massaging it along the way each run through, listening for different things, subtle changes and additions…
[I take breaks, a few hours, a few days or weeks, and I listen to the song play in my head over and over again. It’s like a repeating record. It never stops. Usually a few of them at a time. And as I listen to them up there, they start to take shape and form themselves, as if they already exist — (which if one subscribes to the whole “time isn’t linear but circular” paradigm, then they do already exist… just in the future which is really in the here-now only we don’t usually recognize that) — so by the time I pick up an instrument to work on it more I have a much better idea of what it’s meant to sound like as a finished product.
[Once I am done with writing it all out on pages in the legal pad, I make a copy of that original stack of pages in the legal pad. When a legal pad is finished and all the pages are filled I send it off to my mom who has been saving them for all these years since I was 17. She has boxes of them. Tons of them. Now we’re in the process of moving them to a bank vault. Can’t take the risk anymore. I keep the copies of those pages in boxes and take them with me wherever I live. Just to have access to the original (copy of the original) handwritten notes. I then sit down and type the song up and save it on my laptop in a giant database of all the songs… a folder filled with thousands of songs. There are two sub-folders: songs that have been recorded and songs that haven’t yet been recorded. Obviously the latter folder is still much larger than the former. The goal is the exact opposite of that.
[Once I save the song as a file, I print it out and it goes into a clear protector sheet and into one of many black binders where all the printed out songs are alphabetized. The black song binders are also grouped into two different groups, one for songs that have already been recorded — for when we are planning set lists for live shows, and one group of binders for songs that have not yet been recorded — so we can flip through all the songs when choosing songs to record a new album. Pretty anal huh? It works though. Smooth. No guess work. I can do it all in my sleep. All the kinks have been worked out. That’s the process in a nutshell. Why I’m telling you this I have no idea. But hey, at least we finally have this down for posterity. This is how I do it.]
I fell behind. Once Princee Little Tree and I fell head over heels in love for the millionth time back in ’08 I pretty much fell behind in everything… And taking care of the songs was definitely one of those areas. So there are songs and song notebooks in various stages of processing all over the freaking place. We travel so much that I’m lucky if I remember to bring at least just one binder with me for songwriting. Always one at least. Problem is that there are tens of other binders at home with songs in various stages of being half-written that I always seem to want when I don’t have them.
But it’s never a huge deal. I can always record ideas into my phone and scribble them down on a new notebook. That’s the thing. They’re going to eventually get typed into the main database, I know this. So it gives me a real sense of security.
So that’s what I did for the last few months. Typed up a truck load of songs that needed to be typed and put into the database and then printed out. Now I am organizing and alphabetizing them. There are hundreds. Way too many. But I need access to at least the 34 for these new albums and the 25 that are on the other new album(s), what we’ve been affectionately referring to as “the Girls Album” for the last few years. Hopefully we will finish that one this year along with these other two.
So yeah. I’ve been sitting here while the engineers are in the studio working on stuff, I’ve been organizing and alphabetizing all the song lyric-sheets from the last 25 years. (I ran out of space in this master binder I was using and decided I need to break some of the binders into broader sets.. Maybe something like Songs A to B, C to D, etc. Like that. Because the binders get so big and heavy and then songs start falling out. I’m just doing it to the typed-up ones that haven’t already been classified so far. Gotta be 1000 songs here. Big project.
Every time I come across one from our college years, the Broken Spectacles years when we were smoking out and tripping on acid everyday, there’s something very special about THOSE songs… A really deep vibey heaviosity to them. They weren’t necessarily “hit songs” — in fact they’re downright un-hit songs — long and wild and free-form and complex, with infinitely long chord progressions that go on forever — similar to “Bored” or “Rise and Shine” but even more so; but you know, that’s not what we were about back then, that’s not what we were going for.
I cannot help but feel as we are working on recording these new albums now that something has gotten lost along the way. Songs just seem to be way better when you write them when you’re tripping on something. I know that is so NOT the thing to ever say, especially if you’re a public figure… But sometimes I cannot help but think that… Some of these songs I am revisiting and seeing for the first time in years… Wow… They are just soo sooo good. So groovy and vibey….
There is so much pressure now. As a professional singer/songwriter, to make a living from it, to make enough money to live and support a family from it, especially now after we’ve had a few hits under our belt… It’s not like it was back then when we were in our late teens and early twenties. When we just did whatever we wanted. When we were going for a heavy serious vibe. I mean, now, it’s just so different…
I have to go. Have to finish this project because the guys are waiting for me. Just need to remember from looking at all these songs what it was like back then.. what THOSE songs were like… how much emotion and passion and EVERYTHING we put into them. I honestly don’t feel that commercial radio, that the commercial music market has a place for that kind of music. Really, that’s the thing. When we were young and only had dreams, we didn’t think about these things. We thought we could force the industry and the people to listen to and like whatever it is that we did. We learned the hard way. I mean I struggled for years as a starving artist. Decades. So I learned… But I loved every day of it. Homeless? More than once. No problem. I actually enjoyed the experience. It was an adventure.
Our biggest hits have come from sincerely sitting down and crafting hit songs. Being very careful in every step of the process to do things in a way that structures the song and the sound and the feel of the song to resonate with the commercial music market. And it’s paid off. Big time. You aren’t going to hear me complaining. Because lets’ face it, as these Diaries and everyone who knows me can testify, I spent YEARS doing it my way, doing whatever I wanted to do for ME. So I got a lot of that out of my system.
It was only later that I started thinking it would be fun just to “try” creating “commercially viable” music. And luckily it actually worked. I mean it’s really not rocket science. Writing hit songs is just doing the exact opposite of what you would normally do as an authentic and sincere artist who loves to innovate. Funny but true. You just write the song the way that all the other songs that people listen to sound like. Rather than try to get creative and innovate. It’s like yes you innovate during the production and sound creation process. But not during the songwriting process. People don’t want to hear innovation. At least not in the commercial world. They just want to hear what they’re used to hearing plus something a little special and different. But they don’t want to hear a twenty minute song that traverses thirty different chords and changes keys ten times… Sucks, for us, the artists. But that’s how it is now. Didn’t used to be that way. Inventiveness in music used to be highly valued. But not right now. Not in this climate. The top three songs of the last three years have been “The Harlem Shake”, “Gangam Style” and “Thrift Shop”. Fuck me. Fuck us all. We’re screwed, as artists, we’re screwed.
But frankly I like those songs too. I dig the commercial ones that we do, and that other people do. I like the “sound” of them. Not the songwriting… But the sound of them. But honestly not even one-tenth as much as i like the crazy wild non-commercial ones. THOSE are the ones that I really love. That really get me off. But then what? Get a day job. I mean that’s really the quandary. People don’t realize it. But those are our choices. We become a slave to the tastes of populace OR we settle with not making a ton of money from making music… We can always make money from doing other things… And I have NO problem with that, EXCEPT that it greatly limits our ability to spend all our time making music — which is THE thing I enjoy most in this life hands down — because we have to spend the majority of our day to day life working at something else… So it is definitely preferable to create music that, commercial or not, is popular with enough people that it generates a ton of money. Most of the time that means it’s COMMERCIAL, i.e popular, i.e. liked by many people, current, trendy, a valuable commodity to the masses. Commercial, let’s face it.
Maybe one day this will all change. My hope is that one day I will feel as though I “have enough money” from this that I can “stop working” for a living, i.e. stop creating music to make money — and have enough money saved up that I don’t need to generate revenue anymore…. Then I can just make the kind of music that I want to. And then if people like it, great. If they don’t and we only sell a few hundred copies, that’s great too. Either way, I’ll be following the inner muse. (Is it inner?? Not sure about that… save it for another blog post.) Gotta run. Peace.
I just listened to the last but unreleased Broken Spectacles album, the one called Aftermath. The one that took us two years to make, a year and half of which was building the recording studio. Recording the album probably only took us a few months at the most. I hadn’t heard it in 15 years. The Grey Wolf just sent it to me. All I could do was cry cry cry… I had totally forgotten how quirky weird and special we were. Broken Spectacles is the real name of the band that I have been referring to as Shattered for the last fifteen years in these Transcendence Diaries and other places.
What a sad beautiful trip that just was. Grey Wolf aka Donnie J Groovemaster Jam, has just recently unearthed a treasure trove of master tapes from those six years and had them digitally remastered. He sent me one CD of the “old stuff” and one CD of the never released last album we recorded called Aftermath. We may need to change that title since it’s a Stones album already. I don’t believe we knew that at the time. Grey Wolf burned the CDs all wrong so it’s just ONE big hour long song per CD, which is classic Groover. He’s going to do it over again he tells me. That I assume will take another fifteen years. I have a lot of the old songs already mastered and ready to go, but only the ones that I wrote, for the Spectacularly Broken compilation album… But now I am rethinking the idea and wanting to do a WHOLE Spectacles compilation instead of just Ed Hale songs… Would take all four guys agreeing to that… That’s the problem. Bands are tricky.
Today I only listened to Aftermath… The first song that came on was called “LOVE”. Fans won’t even know the song because Aftermath was never released and unlike most of the songs on the album, we never played the song “Love” live, not even once. That one was a Toad song. We all contributed to each others songs, adding various instruments as we saw fit and vocal harmonies along with background vox. By the time we got to Aftermath we had been together for five years. So Toad and I were still working together very closely, but not writing together as much as did in the beginning. More like coming in with completed songs and then just assisting each other with suggestions and musical additions. There are some horn and string parts I added to this one along with my usual backgrounds and harmonies, but for the most part it was all Toad. And it was utterly transcendent. I couldn’t believe it. What i was hearing. Now. Fifteen years later. It felt like a different life. A lifetime ago. Truly.
In that moment it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Reminded me of George Harrison. I didn’t remember it at first. Couldn’t place it. I didn’t understand why it was there. It wasn’t part of the album was it? Wouldn’t I remember that? Turns out that it was. I had just suppressed the memory I assume. And for good reason. There was always a tense and bitter but beneficial competitiveness between Toad and I by the time we got to the recording of this album. Who was the better writer? Who was the better singer? Who got more girls? Who got more press? Who got more positive reviews? Who knew more? Who played their instrument the best? Who played the most instruments? Who wrote more songs? Who was deeper? Who sang more like John Lennon? Who was as multi-talented as Paul? On and on. (Funny right? I know… But bands are like that when they first start out… It’s cute when you think about it…)
I cannot help but think that one of the reasons why Broken Spectacles was so good was due to this very intense but loving competitiveness between the two of us. Always pushing ourselves more, to be the best we could be in order to outdo the other. But we were also best friends, beyond brothers. With an infinite love between us, one that I have still not to this day experienced with any other man, perhaps not even any other human being. A lot of water has passed under that bridge.
Listening to it this time, anew, I was flabbergasted by its beauty. Astounded. Couldn’t stop crying. And then in comes Coon’s “KALEIDOSCOPE” with the most amazing triple lead guitar harmonies “Freebird” style ending. And on and on it went… “AINT IT HARD”!!! Another masterpiece. “Nature Boy”, “Wrong Again”, “I Want Blood”, “Going Nowhere”, “Aftermath”, “Your Face Ain’t That Pretty”… Every guy was doing such a good job at what they were trying to do. I was so impressed with the musicality of it all. Couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps I had somehow sold my soul over the last fifteen years since those days… Just to get more success and make more money. We now don’t make anything like this kind of music I was hearing from this strange glorious mess of an album.
Princess Little Tree couldn’t believe that it was us she was hearing. She had never heard the band before. Only knew the Transcendence and the Ed Hale solo stuff. Had only heard me talk about Broken Spectacles. All the stories… She was impressed by the variety of vocals. Had never heard Toad or Coon sing. Never heard all three of us sing together before, one of the things that really stood out about that band, three lead singers, oftentimes singing at the same time in all the songs. It was special. But here’s the coup de grace… the last song Grey Wolf put on the album for some reason was “AND I GO”. A mega monstrous masterpiece, an epic anthemic musical gift from God the likes of which I’d never heard before or since. Like a thunder bolt straight out of heaven into your ears and your soul. I could not believe what I was hearing. What a freaking masterpiece. Of course it’s a Toad song too. I always hated being in a band with him. As much as I loved it. (to be fair he claims the same thing and for the same reasons… just goes to show…) I was such a shite singer back then compared to now (which isn’t saying much I know). But holy crap what a monstrously gorgeous song that is. Toad could die tomorrow and his legacy will forever remain top tier due to the four songs he contributed to this album. Same with Coon. His are equally epic and brilliant.
I could not stop crying. First just sobs like with the other songs… Little baby tears. And then by the time we get to the “I want you to go deep…” breakdown of this song, I was full on sobbing like a baby, like a mental patient, face all scrunched up. Tears shooting out of my eyes. I seriously don’t think I can ever listen to that song again. It’s just too good. It’s frightening how good it is. I have no idea what happened to me, but it was one of the most cathartic events of my life. Cathartic in how emotional I felt, how completely moved in so many ways… Up, down, sad, happy, amazed, traumatized, relieved, proud, regretful… over the top emotion anguish and expression. I couldn’t help but feel this deep sadness and fear that over the last few years I had just completely sold out as an artist. Compared to what I was hearing on this album, recorded when we were just kids, but so unique and special.
I so wish I could post this song for everyone to hear… the whole album. But it’s all up to Grey Wolf at this point. And getting an agreement from all the members of the band. I don’t actually have a real copy of this album. Haven’t had one in over 15 years. If ANY of YOU have a copy of THAT album in any form let me know. Perhaps we can speed this process up. Also — if ANY of YOU have high quality PHOTOS to use as artwork for the release, let someone know. Once we schedule this, we can commission someone to do the artwork. We will need REAL PHOTOS to scan. I have no idea if I have any pro-grade or high quality ones really. Just scanned in low quality ones. But that’s what we need here to take it to the next phase.
I believe that more than anything what affected me most about hearing this album from start to finish like this for the first time in so many years was that number one, what I was listening to was old. I hadn’t heard it in a long time, so like seeing someone you love, like a family member, for the first time in over a decade, that’s just going to get to you regardless. Number two though, as a work of art it’s absolutely BRILLIANT. It’s big brash experimental avant garde. Epic and all over the place stylistically… And yet it has a very distinct sound all its own due to the fact that the same four guys recorded it in the same six month period using all the same gear and in the same two rooms. It has a mythic quality to it. We were peaking artistically as individuals and as a group when we recorded it (but then again when are we NOT peaking. I have yet to experience “writer’s block” or any “down time” as an artist… I guess that’s lucky. Or maybe that’s just how it is for all artists…) What it’s not is commercial. It’s entirely NOT commercial.
Moving as all hell. But just not commercial in any way. And see that’s the thing… We used to not give a shit about being commercial. That was never our aim. Never the goal. I mean, I honestly don’t think we even thought about it. And the music shows that. It’s extraordinarily amateurish in many ways. But you can’t help but be blown away by how mammoth and ambitious it sounds as well. Walls of noise really in some parts… On the one hand Broken Spectacles had some of the most exciting and advanced musicianship you could hear anywhere. On the other hand it had a very weak sort of chock full of mistakes sound to it as well… go figure. But that was us.
A few years after The Specs broke up I reverted to my real name, Ed Hale, laid Eddie Darling down for good and formed the band Transcendence with Infinito; first time I played with anyone besides the other three guys in the Specs in seven or eight years. We’ve recorded and released nine albums since then. Right out of the gate we experienced a ton more press, airplay, sales and critical acclaim than we ever did back in The Specs. For many reasons. Older, wiser, more experience, more money. But more than anything else I think it was because I understood that making music for me at least couldn’t just be about doing whatever the hell I wanted anymore. It had to include a measure of financial return to it or I was going to be forced to stop doing it full time. Besides, I wanted to make money with it. I wanted to experience what we call success, in the traditional sense. And we did. Thank God. I haven’t sat down and counted, but off the top of my head we’ve charted about ten songs on one chart or another over the last ten years. Sold a hell of lot of albums. That number would be triple that if I weren’t always trying to reach so much artistically… I know that. But still, we do make music that is commercially viable for the most part, at least compared to what we were doing in Broken Spectacles.
What I notice from a lot of my peers from that original music scene down in Miami when we all started out as teenagers and others I connect with all over the world still is that they’re all still making the same kind of music that they made way back when. They do what they do and they don’t change. And that’s a big problem. They expect that the industry is going to come to them. That the listeners are going to come to them. But it doesn’t work that way. Not even a little. Sure you can innovate here and there. But it has to be within the confines of what is happening within the music business and what is happening in pop culture now. There is a flow to it all. A flow of what’s hip cool popular modern happening. That’s popular culture.
Every now and then we get lucky and we may happen to be at the front end of that curve when the music is about to take a hard right or left… The way Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins were when hair metal was at it’s peak and everyone was desperate for it to die. Or the way that Radiohead and Muse and Travis and Ours and Mercury Rev were when we were all looking for grunge to die off. But hell, who can really say that Nirvana innovated that sound when we all know they really didn’t? They became the poster child for it for a while. (which sucked for some of the better bands, no need to name names…) But it wasn’t just ONE band or artist that did it. It was a wave of them.
And what I find today amongst many of my peers in rock is that they aren’t on the cusp of any wave at all. They aren’t even riding a wave. They’re just making the same old music that they’ve always made. Expecting people to like it. That’s music making as a hobby. Not music making to be a professional. You try to explain to them that they need to focus on using sounds that are modern or current or contemporary, their drum sounds, their guitar sounds, the way their voice is recorded… even the arrangement of the song itself… and they either argue the merits of what they’re doing or they just go blank and don’t understand. And yet we can’t argue with reality. With results. If you’re not experiencing the kind of success and popularity that you desire, then SOMETHING is wrong, or at least “not right” about what you’re currently doing.
I can’t sit here and say that I completely changed spots and switched to totally making commercial music all of a sudden once we formed Transcendence. I didn’t. Especially considering that the original idea for the group was to create a world music meets modern rock sound that no one had ever heard before and have me sing in four or five different languages sometimes within the same song. That first album, Rise and Shine, was phenomenally eccentric. I know that. And hell, most of the guys in Transcendence are still pissed at me for how much I’ve switched genres over the years with the release of every new album, and how much I’ve focused on “creating art” or making artistic statements over the years. In fact, The ex Norwegian sent me a Fb post TODAY admonishing me to “PLEASE not worry about creating art” and just this once try to make all these songs commercially viable so we can make some money. He’s referring to real money. Big money. Not $1 or 200,000 a year money. But $1 to 10,000,000 a year money. I want the same thing. We all do.
We came damn close on the last solo album. But then I flipped it all around with the next two releases that we did with the group, All Your Heroes Become Villains and The Great Mistake. Both evidently were on the extreme and eccentric side compared to the solo album. At least that’s what we were told. But to everyone’s defense, I have to admit if backed into a corner that I did have major concepts and agendas when making the All Your Heroes album. Super focused. Hyper-focused. I mean, it was meant to be a giant concept… high art… an amalgam of statements all tied together to create one bigger statement. Something final and permanent. A mark. A sculpture. Solid and lasting like a castle or a mansion. ONE big piece. NOT merely a collection of songs. There’s a difference.
Contrast that with what constitutes hit songs in today’s market, or in any age’s market… What happens in those cases? The hit songs end up eventually losing their original home, whatever album they happened to be released on, people forget, and that album goes out of print. The song may last forever, eventually gaining the moniker of “classic”. But the album that it came from is lost forever to most people. THAT is exactly the opposite of what we’ve set out to do in Transcendence. Every album (except perhaps for The Great Mistake, which really is just a collection of songs…) was created as one cohesive work of art, to stay together and last forever. Pink Floyd is a great example of this. Animals, Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall… albums. Permanent cohesive entities in their own right over and above the hit singles they may or may not have had. Zeppelin, same thing. People say the album is dead ALL the time. They’re wrong. (To a certain degree anyway. Save for another post…)
I can’t complain that All Your Heroes wasn’t accepted as a huge commercial success compared to our previous one. It is dark and moody and insanely complex, wildy emotive and overly noisy in some areas, and more than anything it’s entirely dependent on being an ALBUM. It’s not really singles based at all. Hell, all the songs ram into each other and then flow into another song. I don’t think there’s ANY empty space on the whole album. I know. I think we all know. It wasn’t created to be a commercial thing… But the important thing is that I can die happy with it as an artist. Over the last two years since the release of that album I have felt very very good about it. I will die with a smile on my face when remembering it, when contemplating what we intended versus the final result.
And therein lies the eternal struggle. There’s a balance there that we constantly have to be considering when creating. Do we sell out with a song or two? And still try to preserve a great album in the process? Do we sell out entirely, just create the whole album as one sixty minute collection of unrelated mainstream pleasing current sounding tasty pieces of ear candy? How far can we swim out into the popular music sea once we jump overboard before we get lost and are unable to ever return to the comfort and safety of the artists’ artist boat?
And vice versa, how far off into left field can we ride that beast of innovation and experimentation and doing whatever the hell we want to before we are lost forever to the popular music loving masses? Some say it’s ALL selling out as soon as you begin to contemplate such matters. I say bullshit. If you don’t ever think about your art, about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, the possibilities, the various different styles and arrangements and directions you’ve got before you, then you’re just winging it. I’ve been there before, when you’re young you think you’re just going to wing it. I know that terrain well. Did it for years in the Specs. Refused to think about what we were doing. It ALL had to come spontaneously, like magic. No thought about the expression. It had to flow out naturally. It’s an artistic mindset. But it’s only ONE mindset. In a world where there are infinite mindsets one can occupy. One day I just decided to deliberately occupy a different mindset and see what would come of it.
Ballad On Third Avenue was not the most successful album we ever released contrary to what most people believe. Sleep With You was a much bigger seller (so too in fact was Nothing Is Cohesive — which also still to date is by far the most critically acclaimed album any of us have ever been associated with) and had several big hits at Alternative Rock radio. But Ballad did have one thing that none of the other albums had up to that point: a verifiable Billboard Top30 hit song. Two of them. All the other hits were on different charts or specialty charts or college radio charts or made it to the Top 100 but just never got into Billboard’s Top40, let alone the Top25 like “Scene in San Francisco” and “New Orleans Dreams” did. That was something different. And it made a HUGE difference. Worlds of difference. In many different areas of our lives. For one thing we made a lot of money. And that was a very good thing. The songs still bring in a lot of money.
But it also had its challenges. The cons. Creating those songs was not just “hey let’s just create whatever we want to and see how people like it” as in times past. The songs were run by a seemingly endless string of consultants and then remixed and remixed again until every last one of them at every level of the industry was satisfied with how each song sounded. See, this is something that I NEVER would have done fifteen years ago when we were in Broken Spectacles. We were offered it sooooo many times. And every time we fought it and instead just created total chaos and confusion. I’ll never forget Toad telling the head of A&R at Island Records to “fuck off! We don’t need your advice about OUR music!” That’s how we did things…. We thought we held the whole world in our hands. And to a certain degree we did. Creatively we were an amazing unit. But we were young and green and stupid. We’d make sure we were always tripping on something whenever we had a meeting or a showcase with any major record label executives. Just to show them how little we cared. We weren’t going to change anything for anyone regardless how “big” or wealthy they were.
We had the opportunity to work with two of the biggest producers in the business. No need to name them here because it’s common knowledge. But in both cases, looking back, these were men who absolutely dwarfed us in terms of their experience and achievements in the music business. And in their abilities as musicians. And in both cases we played the fool every day we showed up. We KNEW what we wanted to do, knew what we wanted to sound like; we knew what was best. Or so we thought. So… why bother to have producers then? Well that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? We’d get excited to be working with a big name… And then when push came to shove and we got in the studio we always thought we knew best and fought with them. We were real shits.
Those were big mistakes. Looking back I can see WHY we did what we did. Why we acted the way we did. Our biggest fear –though at the time it was probably unconscious to any of us — was to ever consider that we were sell outs or selling out in any way. Pandering to the mainstream masses for money or fame or popularity. It just wasn’t who we were> in fact it was the exact opposite of who we were. We knew that. Being in that band, at that time in music history, at that point in our lives, at that age, the mentality and the sentiment and the statement was as important as the music.
The reason you made music and the kind of music you created or DIDN”T create was as important as the music… It was an elitist purist idealist state of mindfulness. Beyond arrogant. With pride in that arrogance. Very similar to what Vancouver is expressing now. Poor bastard. His “I’ll only play with acoustic drums and never drum loops or samples or synth beats” when everyone in the industry does it for very specific reasons — they sound badass — is precisely what makes his music sound so dated and local. And he SO wants to be liked and wonders why he isn’t. It’s curious, intriguing, perplexing really.
But I can relate. Because I suffered the same mental illness back in the days of The Specs. Granted, in our defense, we were 18 years old at the time. Vancouver is like thirty-something so he really has no excuse. But still, I can relate. The key for me, what changed, was that eventually I realized that I really did want to make popular music. And money. And if it was “I” who was making it, in the end, I would still probably like it in the end. Or so I hoped. On top of that, when you make popular music, you can generate enough money that you can then afford to make more avant garde or eccentric music in addition to the more popular music that you’re also making.
If I was to be honest with myself I think that underneath it all, at least for me personally, was just a fear that perhaps I really couldn’t create popular music… I was so focused on innovating all the time… But innovating is easy. you’re not going up against anyone when you’re always innovating. You’re only competing with yourself. Against whatever YOU consider your last great work of art. And that’s a really groovy place to be. Honestly that’s the world I’d like to live in as an artist ALL the time… But I also recognize the benefits of competing for commercial viability too. They both have their merits. It’s fun to popular and famous and successful and have money. And the competitive nature of it compels us to higher levels of greatness.
In any case, after all I’ve been through as an artist over the last ten years, all the hard work to create great works of art that were also somehow commercial and popular, listening back to this simple yet profoundly complex and beautiful Broken Spectacles album Aftermath really got me. I haven’t cried like that in years. Decades. That was a different world back then. We hadn’t a care. We were happy to be one of the “most popular local bands in our town”. That seemed like a big deal at the time. Our eyes and our dreams were bigger than our potential perhaps, or bigger than our willingness to stretch and grow…. I was happy to hear what we had created back then. To hear how incredibly good and ambitious it was. Nope, it would never yield the kind of commercial success we’ve experienced over the last ten years as Ed Hale and the Transcendence. It would never be played on commercial radio stations. But we were very very proud. We walked around like roosters on ‘roids, heads cocked high. And for good reason. We were fucking great and we knew it. Just not commercially successful great. But there’s something to be said about that kind of attitude.
Unlike a lot of artists in popular music, I personally have no big dream to dominate in the realm of most chart toppers or most #1 records or hit albums, nor that nagging fear that I am losing my grip as a key player in the pop world who is always on the Hot 100 with a Top 40 song. I see that kind of success and the money from it as a tool that can be used to allow me to do both: create popular hit music AND more eccentric and innovative works of art. THAT is where my dreams and fantasies of domination lay. How deep, how relevant, how innovative, how prolific, how intelligent, how thought provoking, how moving, how much new ground can I break… That’s what keeps me up at night and gets me up in the morning. Not the stats or the numbers. But the hearts and souls and minds that are deeply moved, called to act. Like that. So it’s a balancing act. These next six to twelve months, recording these new albums… It’s going to be fun. Tricky, but in a fun way.
Alright, I’m out. 4800 words with no break. My fingers are killing me. More on this topic later for sure.