I’ve always had a fascination with memory. Not just the ones that stick with us but the ones that are so murky you know they’re there but not really. They come in and out of your consciousness over the years and you wonder, “how far have I traveled since then”?
I’ve been playing guitar since the age of 5 and, as I’ve often related to friends, I can’t actually remember what originally inspired me to play. Was it a musician on the TV? Was it a guitar case I saw somewhere? I remember really wanting to play. I remember my Dad taking me to the music shop on Walnut Street to get my first guitar. I remember my first lesson with Bill Tobin at the JCC in Squirrel Hill Pittsburgh.
One of the things that has defined my musical life has been the joy of street performing. There’s something uninhibited and direct about it. It was there when I was playing in the halls of my high school and it was there when I was a performing at Renaissance Fairs with the group Mince Pye, and it’s in the fabric of the songs that I write.
I remember sitting outside the orchestra room in high school with my friend Ben, wailing on the songs of Violent Femmes, U2 and The Police on nylon string guitar and upright bass. It wasn’t for the attention. I think we just had this need to celebrate music and channel that creative energy.
A couple years later I began playing on the streets in downtown Pittsburgh. I was about 18 at the time. I would find a good spot and then the nerves would start. I would pace back and forth, circling the spot where I wanted to set up while people hurried by. It was the dread of that first moment when I would open my case and every eye would turn towards me.
I learned to use little mantras to help get up the courage to dive in. One mantra was a line from a Jackson Browne song “We may lose and we may win, though we will never be here again”. I would recite it under my breath, and the fear would melt away and confidence would rise. Another mantra was from a Beastie Boys song “Be true to yourself and you will never fall”.
I met some amazing people while playing on the streets. One night a man came by and wanted to hear “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell, or anything by Joni. He told me that his family had abandoned him and that he had some kind of terminal illness. I had a distant memory of Both Sides Now from hearing it on the radio, so I apologized and fumbled my way through a “fake” version of the chorus. The next day I went to the library and took out the albums Clouds and Court and Sparks and maybe Ladies of the Canyon. Over the next couple years I became an obsessive fan of Joni Mitchell, discovering more and more of her albums. She would just say things that other people didn’t say. Her voice and lyrics and guitar were so vulnerable, and yet confident at the same time. There was nobody like Joni.
Over the years I’ve busked in the streets of Philadelphia, Chapel Hill NC, New York, Amsterdam, Paris, Florence, Rome, Boston, Los Angeles and of course good old Pittsburgh.
One night I was playing on the N&R platform in the New York subway and somebody dropped an angel in my case; made of cardboard, silver paper and colored pens. I don’t know who left it. It was there among the dollars and coins. Over the years I’ve performed on stages before thousands of people but the little cardboard angel has traveled with me in my case as a reminder of where I’ve been and of the relationship that I have with the people who listen.
I’m constantly inspired by the unexpected connections and the amazing people to whom music is the connector. I look forward to many more unpredictable, always worthwhile experiences along this musical journey. Here’s to hopping that you are part of that journey.
If you’d like to hear the most recent milestone of that journey, click hear to listen to my most recent album, “This Box Makes Noise”.
Thank you for being a listener and for making it all matter.
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