“You made it to autumn”
The first line on my album is one of the last things I said to her.
Marcella loved the fall.
I was thirty-one; she was only twenty-eight.
That day, I performed for her twice, with two different performer friends. There was no way to know it was her last full day, but somehow they knew. We performed about two hours of music for her in hospice.
I tuned my old Japanese guitar down real low and we sang sweet, gentle harmonies. I remember being surprised how reverberant the room was despite being full of people and medical equipment. Songs like “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream.” R.E.M.’s “You Are The Everything.” “Harvest Moon.”
I chose “Across The Universe” for the funeral. I found myself playing “Distant Camera” at the burial.
“When I’m riding down the road in my car, traveling without you, I can still see you sitting there right by my side.”
When Marcella was sick, I would work a few jobs a week, taking photos at festivals. It was on these long drives that I would find myself processing the changes in my life and in my life with Marcella.
As usual, it was the power of music that broke through my defenses, stripping away the many strategically placed distractions and allowing me to just feel my heart and all the pain radiating through it. The big howling cries. I remember one night in particular when the rain on I-95 North was so heavy that I had to pull the car over for a while.
Robyn Hitchcock’s album The Man Upstairs would bring me to that place.
Later in the year, Neil Young’s new album Storytone would do the same. Two of my favorite songwriters, both chronicling massive transitions in their personal lives.
“Tough love can leave you almost alone...”
“Glimmer” made a huge impact. A few years later, I played it at an intimate concert at which I debuted the ten songs of my album Count The Colors followed by ten songs that inspired them.
“...that day I couldn’t find you...”
For me, that day was the day that she was set to find out if she had cancer and if it was treatable. She wasn’t ready to tell me. She did it the following day, in person.
“...new love brings back everything to you.”
Yeah. That one, too. Marcella had left a letter behind for me. In this letter, she told me how much she loved me, and also expressed her selfless wish that I find new love one day.
My new album has a song about this, written from her perspective. Every single time I perform “No Grays And Blues,” it feels like I’m channeling it. It doesn’t feel like it’s coming from me. It’s an eerie, transcendent experience. That only shows up at special gigs.
From a distance, I liked the idea of Neil and Pegi. I was unnerved by the idea of them not being a couple any longer.
But when I saw Neil perform at Philadelphia’s Academy Of Music and heard some of the songs from Storytone, it was very obvious that this guy is madly in love.
Here’s my favorite artist starting fresh. Just like I was about to do.
Somehow, I found it on the very first date, the following year. Almost like the universe had queued her up for me. We’ve been together for almost six years. She’s sitting on the couch right now, about three feet from me.
I went to a cafe right after our first date and they were playing “I’m Glad I Found You.” I didn’t want to analyze the date; just experience it. All I really noticed was the big smile on my face. A smile that told me that life really WILL go on, just like that song on the cafe sound system suggested.
Writing and recording my album of songs for Marcella was hard, not just because of the subject matter and not just because I kept running out of studio money, but because my parents both became ill and ultimately passed away before the album’s release.
Still, Mom heard me sing these songs at an old church in Ewing, New Jersey, and Dad was always proud to see that I was constantly writing and performing with his - and his father’s - old guitars.
The morning of Mom’s passage, I was filming the music video for “Something So Beautiful,” which meant I had my guitar with me when I visited her for the last time that afternoon.
My sister Pam was holding her hand and I was playing Neil’s song “Silver And Gold.” No singing, just fingerpicking. Somewhere between “Silver And Gold” and “Distant Camera,” she finally let go.
Only because she had to. She would’ve kept kicking for a hundred more years easily. The day her health took a turn, she’d been working as a private-duty nurse for a disabled child and his family. Her body wasn’t equipped for the job any longer and, somehow, for a little while, she did it anyway.
I learned about the tenacity of special needs families through my mom, and also through the Bridge School benefit concerts.
I’ve heard Neil say he’s inspired by the strength of his son Ben’s spirit, even as he lives with cerebral palsy. “You can never give up.”
Dad and I got to meet Ben in Nashville once. We figured Neil’s gig at the Ryman was as good an excuse as any to take a trip down south. I’m glad we did, too, as it turned out to be our last chance.
Dad’s old guitar took me all the way from childhood to Marcella’s burial. After that, I treated myself to the guitar that I used to ogle at the mall with Marcella - a mahogany Martin 000-15m. That guitar has taken me from Count The Colors, to my mom’s bedside, and everywhere else I’ve been for six years.
I found Neil’s work in my dad’s CD collection when I was about twelve, astonished by the firepower of Weld, the gentle beauty of Harvest Moon, the eclectic grab bag of Sleeps With Angels. In finding and studying Neil’s work, I ultimately found my own path as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter.
Each concert has been a spiritual event, a pilgrimage. I’ve seen the Madison Square Garden crowd spontaneously cheer the choruses of “Bandit,” a song they’d never heard before.
I’ve seen Crazy Horse play a slow, raunchy “Danger Bird.”
I’ve seen Ben Keith play “Winterlong.”
I saw “No Hidden Path” in an old movie theater.
I heard Neil make the display cabinets in the back of the Ryman rattle.
I heard a version of “Like A Hurricane” with a brutal noise coda that went on for eight minutes.
I saw Promise Of The Real grab hold of “Down By The River” and not let go for twenty minutes.
For all of this and more - so much gratitude.
The movie of my life is so much better for having a score that so heavily features the music of Neil Young and his friends. I feel fortunate to be living at the same time as the guy.
Neil, Happy birthday!