The Five Fifths Sundown, USA is dedicated to Cecilia Wren, Westley Francis and Emmons Meyer, the three babies born during its production. That album is also dedicated to my treasured friend Niko Harlan who passed away in the final weeks of Sundown’s mixing after courageously battling a brain tumor for the better part of ten years. Niko was a huge fan of many of the bands in the local scene. A few years ago I was asked to partner with other local musicians to reinterpret Springsteen’s Nebraska. That event became a benefit show for him, a turning point in my life that has more than a little to do with where I am now with regards to my Art. I will beg your pardon for not bringing that event nor even that album up in these writings until now. I acknowledge that they are both important to this story but I need to sort them out and think about my relationship to them a little more. Here’s something interesting I haven’t thought about till right this moment, thinking about Niko. That first story I told you? The one from about a year ago, right after I talked with those Border Guards about my spurs? Immediately after they graciously let me and The Five Fifths go forth into Canada to play our tunes I threw on Nebraska for the long dark drive to Montreal.
Anyways, I would like to thank Niko for being in my life, however only seemingly briefly.
In April, Chris Tamplin, a local show promoter, had a benefit show in memoriam. A few weeks after the show, Chris called me up:
‘Jay, would you mind if you were the one to give the family the donation? I only knew of Niko through friends and don’t really know the family but I know what an impact he had on local band’s lives and I wanted to do something for him’
‘When can you make it out?’
‘Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday’
‘I can do Wednesday. I work Tuesday and Thursday. You can come by the bar’
‘Sounds good. Probably Thursday’
‘That’ll work. Dylan will be playing right behind me for a concert’
By this time, both The Five Fifths and The Jason Kutchma versions were finished and sent off to the various production plants. My schedule was a hell of a lot freer and my wallet a little less thin. I met Chris, had a drink, chatted and I thanked him for his thoughtfulness. I left, bought a ticket and went inside to the show. Before the show started, I found myself in a small group of local musicians talking shop around the imaginary water cooler: George Hage and Danny Johnson of Jack the Radio, Chas McKeown of Gray Young and Brad Cook of Megafaun. The last time Chas and Brad and I were together was to recreate the music for a Live Score of my wife’s documentary Without a Fight. It was good to get caught up with them…and then to complain about the price of concessions at these things. What we normally charge for admittance to see three of our bands play on a bill together is what these Amphitheaters charge for a 16 oz. soft drink. That’s not hyperbole and certainly not a joke, folks. Think about that and then think about where our (musician and audience member alike) Industry is going.
As we were talking, we heard a few strums of a guitar and the lights went down, a scenario that still sends chills down my spine, regardless of the notoriety of the player. This was Bob frickin’ Dylan (or at least someone in his band). Chas went to his seat and Brad asked me where I was sitting.
‘Right where we stand. Everyone on stage appears to be about as tall as my thumbnail’
‘Jay, follow me. I have an extra ticket’
We kept on walking towards the front. Forward, forward, forward. To the third row. Brad led me into the crowded row, excusing us from the left aisle the whole way…
…to two empty seats…
Dylan was about as close as a guy standing on the opposite corner of me in a large living room. Any closer and I might’ve been able to guess the size of his white patent leather shoes.
There he was, all seventy-two years of him.
I wondered how many seventy-two year olds were even in the audience. That guy’s had fifty years in this business. Now he’s leading a five or six piece band. Hell if I was that age, I’d be content if I can sleep longer than two hours without having to get up to pee. There were no big LCD screens nor any intricate lighting arrangements. He was adorned with just a few vintage Hollywood stage theater type lights, a couple of small mirrors directed back at the audience…and a kick ass band. There were no ‘moves’, no dance numbers, no clapping hands or the encouragement to get us to do so. There were no attempts at singing or sounding or looking any age other age than the one he was. No ‘playing to the crowd’ asking if they were all having a good time or telling them to join hands and sing. The songs that I knew, I recognized either immediately or after a few bars.
I thought it was a great show, a guy who fifty years on is still good at his job. Was it him at his best? Nah. But look, The Man in his twilight is better than most jokers half or hell a third his age are at the height of their high noon. Yeah, okay, he stumbled and mumbled sometimes. At least he’s mumbling words that mean something. I’ll take that any day over those who sing nothing, literally sing words with no meaning, with clarity. Anyways, I got a kick out of seeing him up there at age seventy-two still calling the shots. Mumbling along the highway, hitching a ride, letting the boys in the band pick him up and take him for a ride! Ha! Zooooom!
Some friends who have had a few good but mostly bad experiences at Dylan’s shows gave me some advice: don’t see him again. Keep that experience crystallized in amber. Consider that I saw one of the good shows and leave it at that. Sometimes he’s on, sometimes he’s off…and when he’s off, you won’t be saying he’s a guy who’s still really good at his job.
A few months ago around the time of both Sundown USA’s completion, I received a call from my Father: they were officially closing down his plant. He has worked in a steel mill for almost forty years and he knew from the first day on: this is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He has told me in the past that if he was able bodied, he’d probably continue working till whenever he wouldn’t be able. I wonder if there was a time early in his career when it was all real good, the money was good, the benefits were good, when everything was on the up and up, and then on a strange half second perhaps the darkest thought crept in: this goodness will end one day. Or did that seem as ridiculous as wondering if the sun would never set? It’s a bit odd but as I write this I wonder if at some point in my life I’ll say ‘I’m not going to make music anymore, they’re closing the plant’.
Seems ridiculous, yeah?
Yep, sure does.
My Father’s last day at his job was a few days ago, the very last day of May. I wanted to be there with him but I was on the road chasing suns with my Five Fifths: Evan, Steve, Tommy and our guitar player Matt Oliverio. Real good crew, those guys. That’s also the day I congratulated Travis on the birth of his son, the fourth child born during the album’s production. It’s also the day I finally held my Sundown vinyl record. Though I had the CD’s for weeks, though I know I completed production months before, and though I also know that it has existed in a digital realm for a few months, it didn’t hit me until I held the vinyl in my hands, ‘That’s right, I made one of these this year’. You get so caught up in the bullshit that you forget what you made, this one very important thing.
You can’t put your arms around a memory, Johnny Thunders said that.
You can’t put your arms around an mp3, I said that.