Who’s On Your Shoulder Now?: c. 2004 ; Recorded/Mixed by: onstage recording to laptop ; Venue: The Underpass, Elmwood Park, New Jersey ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
The Last Time: c. 2004 ; Recorded/Mixed by: unknown (possibly onstage recording to laptop) ; Venue: The Point, Bryn Mawr, Penn. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
Amber Wave: c. 2007 ; Drums: Richard Adkins ; Electric Guitar: Travis Richter ; Bass: Matt Girard ; Recorded/Mixed by: rehearsal recording ; Studio: Jamspot, Somerville, Mass. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
Speak Clearly: 2002 ; Recorded/Mixed by: Steven Friedman, Melville Park Studio ; Venue: Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
Touch You: 2002 ; Recorded/Mixed by: Steven Friedman, Melville Park Studio ; Venue: Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass. ; Mastered by: Matt Girard, Transference Audio, 2017 ; Artwork: Joe Kowan
I’m not sure what kind of voters drank at The Underpass in Elmwood, New Jersey, back in 2004, but they seemed keen to hear a singer play songs about the national general. I had this new song, “Who’s On Your Shoulder Now?” We were right on the cusp of it. I was back on the road alone, playing a full tour — what would turn out to be my last tour — and I was without The Church of the Kitchen Sink. It was a glorious little bar with a good stage and a shit-hot little sound system. Shout out to Brian Fitzpatrick, who is a true son of New Jersey, and he helped me find little rooms like this one.
Second track on this collection takes us back to The Point, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Bruce Springsteen played some kind of long, glorious, endless set in the same spot, back when he played little rooms in the early 1970s, back when it was called The Main Point, about thirty years before this recording. “We did alright with him, but not as well as we’d hoped,” the booker told The Sun Bulletin, in 1973. As for me, “The Last Time” wasn’t the last time, but we’re getting close to it. I don’t think these lyrics are quite, quite finished … but I was onto something. I like the structure of it. I like the horror-scape of corporate entrapment and escape. If I’d kept going, I think songs like this were likely to be the core of a record that would have followed The Church of the Kitchen Sink.
“Amber Wave” was a song that strove to take its place. Looking back on it, I think I wrote one or two that proved just a tiny bit beyond my powers. If you listen to this track, which is a fine example of what the band — this is Bikini Radio in 2007, I’m eighty-five percent certain, but it might also be The Church of the Kitchen Sink in 2004 … this is the danger of storing these things on hard drives and putting them in boxes for thirteen years — could do when it was on the right track. I might’ve tuned my guitar a little more carefully, however. I might’ve cleared my throat.
“Speak Clearly” is a snapshot from the anthrax scare — those years. There are a few recordings in this whole, giant collection that freeze a moment in place for me. This is one of them. All of what you need to know about how it felt and what it sounded like is in this recording. Some others, too, but this one is an example. Thanks again to Steve Friedman for being an amazing live-recording engineer. He’s so crucial to this collection. You’ll hear more of his work in the volumes to come.
“Touch You.” Sitting on a footstool in a hallway in my apartment in Boston on September 11, 2001, listening to the news on an antique radio from the bedroom. Something opened up. I wrote the words and the music in one take. Not everyone loved that I wrote it, or that I performed it, or that I went on tour starting September 12 and that I told people that I would be on the tour in the wake of the events that had just transpired.
This is how it went down. On the night of September 11, I called the booking agent of the Sidewalk Cafe, where I was scheduled to play in Manhattan. I asked him what I should do. He told me that his club would be presenting music, and to get down to his stage if I could. I drove to Cos Cob, Connecticut, and then took the commuter train into the city. The club was packed, in fact. Not for me, specifically; people were out and looking for something, anything maybe. They were a little more quiet. They were highly focused. Their attention was a gravity and you could feel it. But it still felt just like New York. I told them that I felt that way.
I walked south, after the show. There were still a lot of people out. A lot of us seemed to be walking south. National Guard on corners. I took one paper mask after another from boxes outside fire stations and drug stores. You needed the masks to filter the poison, to keep breathing; the air smelled unreal, I’ll never forget it. The masks ran out somewhere below Union Square. You couldn’t keep going after a certain point. You turned back.
Up north, the stars really were coming out, and you could see them for a while. I ended up at a gathering in a high-rise apartment. I don’t remember where. A girl called people on a landline, trying to find a way to get to the Hamptons. She kept saying that her city was under attack. A man in a chair in the corner of another room told me about coming up the stairs from his subway station; a body shattered on the ground as he surfaced.
It rained steadily, the next morning. I drove west to Philadelphia, and I could see two towers of smoke in the grayness out one window of my Jeep.
This take of the song was recorded several months after all that. The words come from before my trip into New York. It all sounds true to me, still.
All these tracks were mastered in 2017 by Matt Girard.
The artwork is by Joe Kowan.
— James O’Brien (1 December 2017)