Deep Red Joy
Legends and Angels
Tell Me Again
Fable of the Wings
You Better Duck
Somewhere in Time
The Bucket List - Liner Notes
I bought my first 45 single in the mid-1960s. I believe it was The Rolling Stones, "Satisfaction",
but it might have been the Four Tops or The Loving Spoonful - memory is tricky that way. When I
began buying LPs a year or so later, I became addicted to liner notes. Then came the advent of smaller
packaging as a trade-off for longer playing time, and one of the casualties of that was the ability to
read the history of the players, who guested, in-depth things about the songs. Poof, gone.
Something bright and beautiful went out of buying music when liner notes went. Now, with the advent of the website open to all, I decided to take a long deep breath and just go for it.
Before I get started on what will be an epic set of liner notes, some background on The Sound Field.
Nic Grabien and I have been playing together for over forty years. We met at SIR in San Francisco, in December of 1976; he was running the door and I walked in with my electric guitar and the desperate need to get a couple of songs I'd written during one of the darkest years of my life out of me and onto tape, before those songs devoured me from the inside out. I plugged in and began playing, and he heard guitar that tasted just like what he had been doing on bass for years.
I finally noticed that he was standing in the studio doorway watching me. I lifted my shoulders at him: what? He asked where my band was, I told him no band, just me. He asked where my bass player was, I told him no bass player, just me. He asked if I wanted a bass player. By this time I was getting cranky and sarcastic and I said why, have you got one?
Well - yes. It turned out he did.
He plugged in. About five hours later, with my fingers throbbing, we stopped playing. I stared at him and he stared back. At that point, we exchanged names, discovered we had the same birthday one year apart, and a musical partnership was born. Nor was that the only partnership. We got married in 1983.
The Sound Field was born because, after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and years when I wrote books instead of music, I began writing songs again. I'd emerged from a self-imposed exile and invisibility from the local music scene that had been my life through the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, and begun tentatively playing again; the first song I wrote after that long hiatus was a thing called "Cry For Memory". It's not on our first CD, but it will be on the next one.
In 2013 or thereabouts, a drummer named Larry Luthi sat down and jammed with us at our place in San Francisco. He must have liked what he heard, because he began leaning on Nic and me to form a band. We did.
The Bucket List, appropriately named for a lot of reasons, is The Sound Field's first try at getting a double handful of these songs, these stories, these moments both broken and whole, this music, out to peoples' ears and, hopefully, their hearts.
So. That's the backstory. Here come those epic liner notes I warned you about.
Fearless"Fearless" is a waltz and a declaration and a reminder that everyone can, and at some point will, shatter and break.
The song, with its ironic title, is recent, written in 2013 or thereabouts. A lot of women I love were going through some very bad times that year. My sister was dealing with the impending death of my brother in law from inoperable cancer and Parkinsons, and my friend Tracy was dealing with increasing disability because the Lyme disease that the medical industry refuses to acknowledge was taking her down.
Strong women, all of us, are expected to be strong all the time. Well - we're not. We are all of us human. We are all afraid at some point. That perception of invincibility, that burden of expectation, needs to be called out. The refrain of the song - I'm not fearless, I'm just human - does just that.
In the studio, with Mark Karan and Vadim Canby producing and engineering, I said I heard the song as a carousel tune, the build as the painted ponies speed up, a crescendo, and then the end, the slowdown, and everyone off the ride now. Keyboard wizard Mookie Siegel, who plays on five songs on The Bucket List, played something that, somehow, turned the song into something redolent of a 17th century morris dance. He looked over at Nic and me to see if that had worked, and saw that we'd both misted up. We had a winner.
"Fearless" has become Tracy's song, our friend Shannon's song, a song for all the strong women out there who are somehow expected to be strong all the time. Sorry, universe. It doesn't work that way. We're all fragile, all human, and none of us are completely fearless.
Deep Red Joy"Deep Red Joy" is a fantasy. It's a nice dirty song, written about something that should have happened, and didn't because I didn't realise until a little too late that I'd just been hit on by one of the sexiest men on earth. The song is my idea of what would have happened had my brain, and libido, been in gear.
I really like writing a good dirty raunchy song; I wish more women out there would just go for and let it rip. "Hand to hand and hand to mouth, eye to eye and belly to belly." Yep. Sex rocks.
This particular incident happened in 1976, one of the few things I actually remember from my lost year. I'm glad I got a good song out of it. It's helped hugely by Mark Karan's chunky funky guitar work and a blistering barrelhouse piano from Pete Sears.
(And yes, I really was wearing pajamas, custom made baby blanket flannel in red with black bats, as the lyric says, and he really did comment on them. Just thought I'd mention it.)
You Better Duck"You Better Duck" came out of an incident at a live show. Mark Karan's band at the time, Jemimah Puddleduck, was playing a sold-out show at what was then Masonic Hall in Mill Valley, California, and what is now the Sweetwater Music Hall. They were doing a cover of "Death Don't Have No Mercy" and Mark, a stage 4 cancer survivor, was obviously feeling the song on a personal level. Near the end, he suddenly yelled "DUCK, MOTHERFUCKER!".
That planted itself in my head like a seed and sat there for a couple of years, waiting for me to water it. When I did, what emerged was a song that sounded like classic punk rock humping rockabilly's leg.
Life's comin' at you, doesn't care who you are
And Death is locked and loaded in the back of the car.
Yep. If I said I don't have massive fun with this one, I'd be lying.
The night before David Lindley was due to climb into a car full of priceless acoustic instruments and drive up to San Francisco to record three songs with us, he and I were talking in email. I said, you know, there's a song that wasn't on the CD I sent down. I just think you might like the lyrics.
I hit send. Five minutes later, David wanted to know what key it was in, because he wanted to play on it. He hadn't heard a note of the music.
Larry's insane drum intro sets the tone. Mookie Siegel provides the very Johnnie Johnson-esque piano, Mark Karan is balls to the wall on lead guitar, and David Lindley's wailing screaming plugged-in electric lap steel punches this one through the roof.
This Road"This Road" is chilly, sharp-edged and distant. It came from the deepest part of the core of where my stories come from. It was a lyric in search of its subject; I'd written it, I was playing it, but something was missing, undefined. I loved the song fiercely, but it wasn't complete.
It wasn't until beloved friend Jerilyn Brandelius' daughter Christina Hart died at age 50 from an asthma attack that it came clear: the song had been written for something that hadn't happened yet. It's become Jerilyn's song, the song dedicated for Christina's memory. The harmony vocals you hear are not autotuned, it's me singing a high part against my own main part. For some reason, I articulated a "t" at the end of the word "course", and it's still there. Mistakes happen, and some become emblematic.
I can't say where I have been
I can't share what I don't know
I keep moving anyway
Swimming in the overflow
There is only one thing I do know:
This road takes me where I need to go.
There's only one guest player on "This Road". When I first began seriously discussing his participation with David Lindley, he asked me which, of everything I'd sent him, I primarily heard him on, and what did I hear for tone. The answer was immediate: "This Road" had been purposely left with pauses and held breaths and pockets of empty echoing space, meant for an instrument I don't own and can't play. I told him, something edged and almost glassy, a jangle that nearly makes my back teeth lock up. Was I making sense? David said, I hear you loud and clear.
Boy howdy, did he ever.
When he drove up to Northern California to record with us, he brought along a bouzouki - a Greek bouzouki, make in Pakistan - with an edge to it that was almost a baglama saz tone. It's completely perfect for this song, just what I was hearing. And no one on earth could have heard it and felt it and played it the way David does and did.
This House"This House" is the album's second waltz and it, too, came from life. The storyteller here, the first person narrator, is my sister from another mister, Lauren Murphy: songwriter, singer, frontwoman for Landsdale Station and, with her late husband Judge Murphy, singer for legendary jam band Zero. This song is her story.
After an immediate recognition of kind calling to kind, Lauren invited me to spend the weekend hanging out and songwriting together at the house up in El Dorado County she'd bought with Judge and their young daughter Lyba, before it became clear that Judge's liver transplant was rejecting. She was agonising over whether to sell the house: there was acreage she had to cope with maintaining on her own since Judge's death, and the sorrow of having come to El Dorado in hopes of a second chance that never came was omnipresent and unrelenting. She referred to the house on Murphy Mountain as her "house of pain."
This was supposed to offer us refuge
This was supposed to be our second chance
This was a lie, it was just an illusion
You faded away like a summer romance
I wrote this lyric in under ten minutes and not one word has been changed since. The music came damned near as quickly. Mark Karan is playing acoustic rhythm guitar to match my finger-picking, Mookie Siegel plays the pump organ, and Jason Crosby provides the wailing, poignant fiddle. The high harmony on this one comes from Lauren herself: her voice on her song, telling her story.
We've done the song live together a few times, and will do so again. I love Lauren almost beyond language.
NickyThe first five songs are individual pieces, written about five different situations and people. The next five are something else entirely: all were written for, or about, the same man.
Going backwards in time from the present day ("Somewhere In Time", "Little Umbrellas") to the bleak shadowed unremembered places of 1976 ("Ghost"), they run the gamut from the old woman's way of coping with this fragile beautiful heartbreaking infuriating musical genius, back to the cry of anguish written by the girl who had not yet turned 22 at the time, who had just cracked under the weight and fled, to save her sanity. Not fearless.
Nicky Hopkins has a sign permanently hanging over a door somewhere in my psyche or my soul or however you choose to label it. The door says "muse". You don't argue with your muse, no matter where it comes from. You just accept the benisons the muse brings, even when they hurt like hell. At least, that's how I do it. Your creative mileage may vary.
* * *
Somewhere In TimeAt some point, every songwriter gets asked which, of their own output, is really their favourite, the one that resonates the deepest, the one of which every breath, every nuance, is a moment of certainty. For me, that song is "Somewhere In Time".
Out late, out too long, medicating in your corner
Funeral for your own life
Looks like you're the only mourner
This is one of those songs that just lifts its head and stares me in the eye every time I play or sing it. There is not a syllable, a line, a verse, a rhyme, or a breath in the dynamics that doesn't just bring it home to me. It was written in the spring of 2014, and again, the lyric was a one-shot, fifteen-minutes-maximum thing that was apparently waiting just under the surface of my creative skin. I first found myself singing it, before I'd written a word of it or picked up a guitar to try a melody, in what Larry Luthi, our drummer, calls our Magic Shower. A lot of my stuff happens first in the shower.
New moon, old story, walk away, no guts no glory
Broken bells still ringing like a chime:
I hope you make it home somewhere in time.
Wait, what, where did that come from?
It doesn't matter where it comes from. Just take the offering from the muse, and run with it. The song is the acceptance of a woman in her sixties that the man she remembers and loved is dead and gone.
Wake up, it's the witching hour
Was that your voice, calling my name?
Light fails, the shadows fall
Just me left to carry the blame.
I'm an atheist and don't believe in an afterlife, as comforting as I'm sure that belief would be. But if atoms and dust and the remnants of our sensory selves can mingle out there in the universe somehow, then maybe some fragment of who we are and were can cross paths again.
Musically, there's a lot going on here. Mark Karan adds the beautiful slide touches and the shimmery wahwah moments that evoke John Cipollina. David Phillips, one of the best pedal steel players I've ever heard and one of my favourite people as well, plays the exquisite steel. And Mookie Siegel plays straight piano, a style and a feel that somehow puts Nicky into the song and into the room.
Quiet ghosts and noisy dreams
Nothing left but these extremes
The stairs were steep, we never made that climb
I hope you made it home, somewhere in time
Meet me at the house somewhere in time.
Tell Me Again"Tell Me Again", written around 2008, is a spurt of remembered rage by the old woman, on behalf of the girl who was stuck being the sanctuary for a married man. It's the remembered anger of a girl, still in her teens, who had no power of her own in that relationship. The song is a sharp bitchy 3/2 Bo Diddley progression (think "Mona", the Quicksilver Messenger Service version), and the lyric lets it all just rip:
Tell me again how I'm strong and I'm tough
It made me just perfect to quietly keep on the side
What a shame I was never enough
You wouldn't leave her, you dragged me along for the ride
Broke something inside
Just tell me again.
I dug my heels in for this, and demanded piano. I wanted Pete Sears, because he gets it. I just knew he would do something extraordinary, and he did: the piano, while definitively Pete, manages to evoke Nicky's touch on ballads like The Who's "The Song Is Over" or Harry Nilsson's "Remember Christmas". When Pete sent us the rough, my reaction was an emailed "Oh HOLY SHIT!" and no one disagreed.
Mark later had the brilliant notion to add fiddle to the song, and as Jason Crosby was picking up his bow, Mark told him "The mood on this one is gutted and pissed off." Jason nodded: "I can relate." That would be yes; Jason gets his old-school Papa John Creach on for this one. Wonderful stuff.
Little UmbrellasAs a rule, I write lyrics quickly. I'm a writer, the author of eighteen published novels, the editor of two anthologies, and more. The lyrics to "Little Umbrellas" were written in an afternoon, back around 2011. No big deal. The music, though - that fought back for close to two years. I could hear it, but I couldn't find what was needed to play it. Mostly, it was the bridge that fought back.
I love this damned song. When we play it live, I introduce it as "a song about getting old and dulling pain because shit still hurts".
I want a drink with umbrellas on top
And suds that smell like coconut
I'll drink it down and drink it up
And work it all September.
In the decades between the girl who lost it all and the old woman who survived in spite of it all, I learned something: sometimes, not letting yourself feel what you spend your whole life feeling is not only just fine, it's necessary. Sometimes, not feeling anything, even for just a few minutes, is not only sanity-saving, it's potentially life-saving.
I'm a woman of extremes: feel everything or feel nothing, no options in between. It's the way I'm made. So training myself to occasionally let go and forgive, stop blaming myself or him or anyone else, took some real doing.
Your taste still lingers on my tongue
You're in the air down in my lungs
They told me when I was young
That it feels good to remember.
But they lied. It feels like hell inside.
It hurts like burning coals.
And now I need a drink of something cold
with little umbrellas.
There's only one guest player on this: that perfect exquisite piano, so evocative, so completely right for the song, comes from Pete Sears.
Legends And Angels"Legends And Angels" was written around 1980, when I was living in London. The lyric is the story of a real event.
After everything fell apart in 1976, the one thing of his in my possession was a sterling silver man's ring. The top was the yin-yang symbol, made from ebony and ivory keys, taken from a long-gone piano.
It was a beautiful example of craftsmanship, and it was meant to be his birthday present in 1976. I never gave it to him, and I decided that handing that to him would be my closure. (In case you're curious, no. It wasn't.)
In December 1976, he came through San Francisco, playing as part of the supporting band for Leo Sayer on his Endless Flight tour. The gig was at one of the great venues of the era, the Boarding House, on Bush Street. I summoned up the rags of my courage, put the ring in my pocket, and went.
There were tears on my table
there was smoke in my eyes
Feedback and fury, a note in my pocket
a sense of surprise
It was a night to remember
one I'd love to forget
It was goodbye, angel
while I drowned in a sea of my own regret
It's all there in the lyric, the story of that final encounter. The song hides nothing.
You made me smash my porcelain angels
Broken their wings, shattered their handles
You blew out the last of the holiday candles
Legends and angels die.
When I got home from that show, that encounter, I smashed every breakable thing in the apartment. That included a beautiful, valuable pair of 19th century porcelain angels. I was 22 years old.
Musically, this one is urgent and in your face. Mookie Siegel, on a Mark Karan brainwave, offered up a Deep Purple-style John Lord organ run. Mark himself added some screaming, take-no-prisoners guitar. And Jason Crosby kicked out the jams on a fiddle that just howls.
I never saw Nicky again. But this song is about that night. Legends and angels die.
GhostMight want to settle in. This is the last of the originals, and it's going to be on the long side.
"Ghost" is the one song for which I can't share the story of how it came to be. The memory of writing it is gone, imprisoned in what Shakespeare called the "viewless winds". I don't remember.
It was written somewhere in the bleak fugue state that was most of 1976 for me, between the end of February and the beginning of December. It has to have been written in that time period: it references what followed in the wake of the end of February, and Nic tells me it was the first song he heard me play, in December.
"Ghost" is a cry of pain. It's a visceral wail of anguish, of loss, of bewilderment and rage and a need to know that, as it happened, would never be satisfied, because the only person who could possibly have answered that need to know died in 1994. I never summoned up the courage, the physical and emotional movement, to find him, go there, bang on his door, look him in the eye and say talk to me, what happened, why did it happen this way, why wasn't I enough, I need closure and I deserve it.
That road closed forever on 6 September 1994. But somewhere in the bleak interstices of eighteen years earlier, I did what I've always done: I wrote the story.
At the edge of a couple of vodka and limes
I am spinning out reasons, and offering rhymes...
Most people familiar with my music call this the most powerful, my song of songs. I don't know. I do know that I wrote it with no armor, no protection, nothing to shelter me from myself and what I saw (and, on bad days, sometimes still see) as some failure of self, of something lacking. I was 21, and turned 22 in June of 1976.
It's said we're each our own harshest critic. All I could see, then, was that I was somehow found wanting. Not enough of what was needed.
Brown-eyes, oh brown-eyes, where the hell did you go?
Where the hell have you gone? Why the hell don't I know?
And I would like the answer to a question or two:
How the hell can I possibly go on without you?
All that year, I stayed hidden. I picked up and moved. I turned my back on most of what had made me the happiest.
In the back room, the boys crack a bottle and sing
And the Everclear flows down while the telephone rings
And it isn't my problem and it isn't my cue
But the whole conversation is centered on you.
"Ghost" is one of two songs on The Bucket List that was done, with the three band members, live in the studio. There's no timer, no click track, no tweaking of what came out. We recorded it at Tal Morris's excellent San Rafael studio, The Ice House, in one take, the morning of the second day of recording. When the instruments had died away, Mark Karan took his headphones off and said "Your vocal just killed me." So the guitar and the vocal and the drums, those were what we laid down that day. There are added players (see below), and Nic decided to recut the bass track, but the original vocal is what you're hearing.
And the gallery's haunted, appeasing your shade
The rafters still shaking with the games that got played
We both tried to secure it, we both tried to please
But the dust is still falling on the black and white keys.
Oh yes, about that piano.
The instrument referenced in that story I wrote in 1976 was Nicky's grand. The story of how it came up for public sale twelve or so years after he died is a whole other thing. What matters, in terms of the song, is that I tried to buy it from John McFee, only to learn that Benmont Tench III, Tom Petty's legendary piano player, beat me to it by about six days. Story of us, redux: never could catch a break on the timing of things.
Another long story which I won't go into here, but fast forward to September 2015. Ben and I have become friends; we don't always agree, but he is one of the realest, kindest, most authentic people I've ever known. Mark nudged me and said hey, why not ask Ben if he's willing to play Nicky's piano on "Ghost"?
I did, and Mark will never know how hard I had to push myself to ask for that. Ben said yes.
Nineteen months passed, nineteen months of frustration and holding my breath and exhaling and locking myself in the bathroom and just crying. We came to April 2017, and for a long list of reasons that are no one's fault except the mean heartless joker called Fate, the session hadn't happened. And I'd run out of time.
And the ghost in my room is the ghost in my eyes
And they say that a rose without water eventually dies.
That loop is not going to close. One small link in that chain is going to stay open.
But there is piano on "Ghost", some of the most exquisite playing imaginable: delicacy and intuition and just getting it. Pete Sears, who knew Nicky like a brother, stepped in to provide liquid beautiful pure piano, music like a gently-moving stream pouring over stones, meeting with the sea. I'll owe him forever for that, because the song would not have been complete without it.
There are two other guest players on this one: the rich, beautiful slide you're hearing is David Lindley, playing a custom John McGrath instrument that sounded like - sounded - oh hell, listen to it. I don't have any language for what the sound of that does to the pit of my stomach. Isn't that where the soul supposedly lives?
And David Phillips' pedal steel, the last thing recorded, gives what some people call my song of songs a sweet, mournful road home. It would not be the same without the lovely plangent curve of what he plays here.
Fable Of The WingsThat's the story behind the ten original songs. But there's one more song on here, and it has a story of its own.
I've loved Keith Christmas's song "Fable Of The Wings" since it came out in 1970. The song just killed me: breathless, urgent, and with a fantastic message to it.
Years later, Martin Carthy and his band Brass Monkey covered it. I yield to none in my love for Carthy's work, and I loved what he did with the song, but he'd turned it into something completely different: he'd taken an old fiddle tune and set the lyric to that. It's a beautiful, beautiful rendition, with a haunting trumpet by Howard Evans that just chills the blood. Gorgeous stuff, but truth to tell, I actually preferred the original. That urgency felt just right for the story the lyric tells.
Back in the present day, David Lindley and I were deep in discussions about music, what we loved, influences. I mentioned Martin Carthy as being one of my original inspirations (Davy Graham, Martin, Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn), and David emailed me to ask if I'd ever covered, or would consider covering, "Fable".
Um yes. Oh hells yes.
The version you hear on The Bucket List is my arrangement. It has the urgency of Keith's original version, but it's slower, more ominous in feel. This is the only song on which I play acoustic (my JC Morell resonator). Nic is plugged in for the bass. Larry plays the djembe. The result is a pounding steady heartbeat, dark and mysterious. Vadim Canby added the finishing percussion touches, adding texture and dynamic.
And the two bouzoukis, oh man. David brought two up with him: the acoustic he christened Clearasil (because of the colour used around the sound hole) and the electric black Irish bouzouki. He uses both on "Fable Of The Wings". And I love the result so much, I can't even find words.
Over And OutThank you, David Lindley, for suggesting "Fable" in the first place, for trusting me to arrange it, for playing it with us. Thanks for driving up in a howling rainstorm in the Audi of Doom (or the Audi of Destiny) and spending eight hours in the studio with us and making it feel so easy and so nourishing and just so damned right. Just - so much love, and so many thanks.
Thank you to everyone who graced us and honoured us by respecting the music we make by wanting to help us tick off this one huge item on our bucket list: Mookie Siegel, Pete Sears, David Phillips, Jason Crosby, Lauren Murphy, and of course Mark Karan.
Thank you to Tal Morris and Evan Galante at the Ice House in San Rafael. That's one hell of a cool studio you have there. Thanks, too, to Amber Morris, for helping me regain my upper register singing voice and showing me how to retain it. A fantastic vocal coach.
Thank you, Vadim Canby, for so much work, for having such great ears, so much patience, so much commitment. Nothing we recorded at Joseph Court would be anywhere near this good without you handling the engineering, the mixing, the mastering.
And thank you, again, and again, and then some more again, to Mark Karan. He claims he didn't produce it. I say phbtphbtphbt. Of course he did. It would be nothing like this without him.
– Deborah Grabien