Something Else Broken: 2002 ; Drums: Dylan Callahan ; Recorded/Mixed by: Steven Friedman, Melville Park Studio ; Venue: Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
Orbit of You: 2002 ; Drums: Dylan Callahan ; Recorded/Mixed by: Steven Friedman, Melville Park Studio ; Venue: Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
Andale: 2002 ; Recorded/Mixed by: Steven Friedman, Melville Park Studio ; Venue: Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
Mrs. Potter: 2002 ; Recorded/Mixed by: Steven Friedman, Melville Park Studio ; Venue: Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
In My Head: 2000 ; Recorded/Mixed by: Matt Smith ; Venue: Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
Sometimes / Chelsea Hotel (D. Bern) / End Transmission: 2000 ; Recorded/Mixed by: Matt Smith ; Venue: Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
The end begins where the beginning began: we are at Club Passim — now just Passim — in Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is that same snowy, sloppy night mentioned in my introduction to “Last American.” We are somewhere deep into the set, and the song is “Something Else Broken.”
It’s worth noting that this was a somewhat narcotic evening. I’d awakened with some vague illness, watched a movie, waited for the daylight to leave the room that I was renting. I’d medicated with the cold medicines we all use. Add whiskey. Add wine. Add Vivarin. The mind becomes supple if the taker strikes the right ratios. The throat opens. In that way, “Something Else Broken” takes full advantage of the scenario.
The first two tracks here flow, one into the other. The strum intensifies. The open tunings veer dangerously into the soft shoulder of being out, but the song holds together. As an audience, now, listening back, I am on the edge of my mental seat, willing with my ears that the song should stay whole. It mostly does.
Willpower is very much what “Orbit of You” explores — a song of terrible moments, explosions of known worlds, the hurtling of the heart into whatever worlds await. Resistance. Denial of the flesh. You can hear Dylan come in with harmonies at about 2:20, and, as always, he lifts things to better places. This was the first song I wrote in an open tuning. There was a songwriter I used to gig with, Chaz was what he went by, who taught me these tunings. He wrote this tuning down on a Stick-It note in a lime-green kitchen in Allston, Massachusetts, where I lived with the person I was leaving right about the time I started these lyrics. I didn’t know I was leaving, at the time, but the songs could be confessions in advance. Sometimes.
Living in Clip, the live album that Ani DiFranco released in 1997, had a powerful effect on my thinking about how to strum. I worked on strumming fast for long hours in the Boston subways, trying to capture bursts of rhythm like the ones she recorded. Listening to this Passim recording of “Andale,” you can hear what I mean about the influence. You can also hear the degrees of separation that influences can follow. Listen to the guitar, here, on “Andale,” keeping Ani DiFranco in mind, and then listen to the way Dan Bern starts “Tiger Woods” on his post-Ani recording of the track on Smartie Mine (coming after Fifty Eggs, which she produced). I’m not saying that I was listening to these records and lifting directly from them. It’s that they were in the air around me, all the time, back in those days.
“Andale” was about something specific, I think, but I can’t remember what exactly. Its concerns smack of music-industry woes, I’m sure, but I never had anything to do with the industry. I watched others have something to do with it, I suppose. Any specific approach to the lyric and the song is too constrictive, in any case, for “Andale” traveled with me for years and it could be about many things over time. I’ve added the “like a leopard” line, which comes at the very end of this take, to the published lyrics on the Bothersome Injuries website. A real addition, real enough, stemming from the improvised spoken-word bit about the movie Gallipoli that precedes it. In the moment, it belongs.
Specificity and transformation. “Mrs. Potter” has its roots in a real person, a real suicide, but I was fictionalizing right from the beginning, blurring and expanding the details of a life so that it felt safe to tell the story on a stage. And then, the meaning changes over time, too. The ghost of that old friend still lives in the house that “Mrs. Potter” represents, but a lot of other ghosts got in. One ghost drifting to another. You can’t separate them anymore. They overlap.
A bit of feedback and the dream turns blue. It fades from the moment. “Mrs. Potter” is the last track I’ve selected from the concert at Club Passim that composes a good deal of these volumes. The lights of the night get distant. It is time to slip back to an even earlier moment.
The year is 2000. This is the end of the late-night impromptu session at the empty Club Passim that captured “Colorado” in Volume 6. There might be three or four people in the darkened room. I played three or four songs. It wasn’t a concert. Just musicians and friends on the off ramp from a night at a bar.
If my assessment of “Orbit of You” is that it’s a snapshot of relationships exploding, people colliding into each other, then “In My Head” is the bewildered tumble through months that follow when the pieces are still drifting out of the cloud that the end of everything created. Similar to “Something Else Broken,” this one illustrates the use of space in these earlier works. The guitar is a textural thing, not a locomotive but a wind chime or a humming bird, a honey bee on a flower.
There are different roles the guitar plays, across this volume, but in the end it comes down to what happens on the sixth track: the strings rumble and pop in service of a story. What I cannot remember, in 2018, is whether this was the first and entirely improvisatory recitation of “Sometimes.” I might have had it with me in the subways. The framework established, this could be a relatively practiced version. I know that I was flirting with a kind of “Sometimes” in the coffeehouses. The Chelsea Hotel bit, in particular, emerged during hours and hours of sets at all-night bookings in Connecticut — coffee shops in New Milford and Danbury and other places over the course of months in 1999 and 2000. It was down there that I started working Dan’s “Chelsea Hotel” into a form that I could sing and play — all this by ear and in the moment during those gigs. It was a way to own a song, to shape it to your own voice and hands.
In some ways, this last track is a summation of all that has gone before. And it is also a photograph, in sound, of a time that existed for all too short a span. In this early, early recording I am alive and I am in strong form, playing and playing with the material for the only people who knew about it. One night, out in the dark, young and able. It turns out I was making a goodbye note to myself, and to you. Not a forever goodbye, perhaps, but it is an ending for this series and a final thank you for making this effort real.
Thank you, every one of you. You have listened and I have felt it. I have listened as well. And I am listening, in return.
All these tracks were mastered in 2017 by Matt Girard.
The artwork is by Joe Kowan.
— James O’Brien (1 March 2018)