Stuart Sessions


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I finished only one book while on the road this summer, Harriet The Spy, but Harriet proved to be a most enlightening traveling companion — the perfect book at the perfect time. And, as it turns out, arguably the best book I have ever read about writing and living and what it really means to grow up.

11-year-old Harriet is a spy and a writer. Her meticulously honest observations fill notebooks. But Harriet’s cozy and well-ordered world falls to pieces when first, her nanny moves out, and then, her very private notebook is discovered by her classmates. These events effectively mark the beginning of the end of Harriet’s childhood.

As things spin wildly out of control, Harriet falls to pieces — she has to start learning quickly how to reconcile the demands of her muse with the demands of everyday life. This is a letter Harriet receives near the end of the book from her former nanny, Ole Golly — the kind of wisdom we should all be so lucky to have someone impart to us at any age:

Dear Harriet,

I have been thinking about you and I have decided that if you are ever going to be a writer it is time you got cracking. You are eleven years old and you haven’t written a thing but notes. Make a story out of some of those notes and send it to me.

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats. And don’t you ever forget it.

Now in case you ever run into the following problem, I want to tell you about it. Naturally, you put down the truth in your notebooks. What would be the point if you didn’t? And naturally those notebooks should not be read by anyone else, but if they are, then, Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them:

1) You have to apologize.
2) You have to lie.

Otherwise you are going to lose a friend. Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. Remember that writing is to put love into the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.

Another thing. If you’re missing me I want you to know that I’m not missing you. Gone is gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. You can even make stories from yours, but remember, they don’t come back. Just think how awful it would be if they did. You don’t need me now. You’re eleven years old which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be.

No more nonsense.
Ole Golly Waldenstein

The song below was recorded at Stuart’s, in San Francisco. At the time I was hanging out a lot with a girl known as The Travel Agent. She only listened to old standards, mostly on this musty AM radio station whose call letters I forget. We would listen as we drove around, and I would always turn it up for the Jo Stafford version of “You Belong To Me.” (The Travel Agent’s favorite was “Swinging on a Star.” When the song goes, “Or would you rather be a fish?” she would always unfailingly answer back, “Um, how long do I have to decide?”)

You Belong To Me (Pee Wee King/Redd Stewart/Chilton Price)

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Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Alice McDermott that appeared in the online literary quarterly, failbetter.com. It’s from last year, around the time her novel, “After This,” was published:

It’s been said that, to some extent, every novelist writes the same book over and over. Many reviewers have noted how much your novels share: middle-class Irish Catholic characters, and that Long Island setting… Do you ever worry that you are indeed writing the same book again and again?

No. I think the question doesn’t apply to fiction… More southerners, Miss Welty? More Russian émigrés, Mr. Nabokov? Have you considered using your imagination, Mr. Garcia Marquez, and maybe setting your next novel in Finland? We’ve forgotten how to read literature (or even what literature is for) if we confuse the meaning of a piece with its subject…

I like that she finds the question so fucking stupid that she can’t even be bothered to tone down her sarcasm. So, which is more important: The lines of the story, or the story between the lines? Of course, this question applies to much more than just how a person reads literature or listens to songs. Where a person falls on this continuum provides a gigantic clue about how they construct their view of the world.

This mostly instrumental, semi-novelty song, “Martian,” was inspired by a smart-ass retort I delivered to a rude and creepy customer (along with his cappuccino) at the Berkeley cafe where I used to work in the early 90s. I guess that’s the “subject.” But the “meaning” of the song comes from something Beth McGroarty once said about me (in my presence) at around the same time.

We were sitting at an initial-carved table in the back of a grad-student bar and as usual I was carrying on about some or other romantic catastrophe. One young man in our party spoke up, making a genuine attempt to be kind. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll get over it.” Kindness being like chalkboard nails to me in those days, I repaid him with a look of almost complete disgust. Thankfully, Beth immediately leapt in to defend my honor. “Philip,” she explained curtly, “has never gotten over anything in his life.”

Recorded by Stuart in San Francisco, with Beth’s brother Mark on the bass. Stuart also played percussion, banging a tambourine and repeatedly slamming a gunmetal file cabinet drawer.

Martian

How do you know how I’d look at a martian?
How do you know what I’m going to say?
I raise a glass for the dearly departed
The things in my head won’t go away

Martian Spoken-Word Intro Live on KALX

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From “The Hangover Sessions.” So-called for painfully obvious reasons. This was a live acoustic recording I did at Stuart’s to get down the batch of songs that would lead to the formation of the All-Girl Band. “Ironically” (is there anything more insane than putting those irony-quotes around the word ironically?), the Girls never cottoned to “Big Scorpio,” and we only performed it a couple of times. But the batch also included “Lesbians,” “Holiday,” and other songs that we did build the band around.

Wandering drunk around the marina at night, singing the Berkeley Blues. What is it about Cancers (I am a text-book Cancer) and Scorpios? At the time it seemed like every woman who crossed my romantic radar was a Scorpio. Quite a Devastational streak they comprised, too.

Big Scorpio

As I waltzed along the quay
Just my Jameson’s and me
I was circling the flame
And then suddenly she came
Into my life…

A clear November night
The wind is cold
A row of silver lights
Shining down below
And I feel her tug
Big Scorpio

Watched the ripples in the bay
Calling me to come and play
I was tired of the test
Looking for a place to rest
My weary eyes…

Her power calls me, and I’m helpless to resist
I just can’t fight it any more

Took a hit to make me warm
When she appeared in human form
I had seen all this before
But outside there ain’t no door
No way to leave…

Ur Devastationalism, via dark days in Palo Alto. The title phrase (and the bass playing) courtesy of Mark McGroarty. We were discussing our plans for the evening, just as it’s transcribed in the song, when the phrase popped out of his mouth. Of course, “surmounting” isn’t really the right word. I always pictured the lawyer as his sister, Beth. Also recorded at Stuart’s, who I think was starting to get a little worried at this point.

Our Ever Surmounting Sorrows

Industrial park on a rainy day
Me and my lawyer got nothing to say
Ignoring reporters, she hands me the will
Thinking of endless days that we have to kill

We could go to a movie
Or we could paint the town
Or we could go to a bar and drown
Our ever surmounting sorrows

The search continues in the great decline
Scanning the depositions line by line
It doesn’t matter though, I can tell
‘Cause when we dies she’s going to heaven
And I’m going to hell

This is an odd one. Also done at Stuart’s. He called it my George Michaels song. I don’t (can’t) write this way anymore. In fact, I sat down to try to figure out the chords to this and I haven’t got a clue. But I remember at the time thinking that it worked, and everyone asked me who the hell was playing the guitar. Singer/songwriters are like baseball pitchers in that regard. If a pitcher has pitched a brilliant complete game two-hitter and somehow in the course of it he manages to hit his yearly RBI double, all he’ll want to talk about is how he got the hit. Once a year I manage to play a semi-decent guitar solo and then I can’t shut up about it.

Pretend That I Didn’t Care

I saw you standing in a doorway
You brushed the raindrops from your hair
I thought of crossing but I told my heart
To pretend that I didn’t care

I never even saw it coming
Just like the kid in Chrissie’s song
I went much further than my own back yard
But you know that kid, no matter what he did
It was wrong

Then I was staring at my cocktail
Your entrance took my breath away
I felt much better and it warms my heart
When I hear you say no matter what you came to play, yeah

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I wish there were a fully fleshed-out version of this. Even someone else’s. (Carol Jacobanis sang it beautifully once at a Primrose Hill gig.) The All-Girl Band recorded it, but we never really got it right. This is the original demo made at Stuart’s place in San Francisco.

Saturday Night Live

I watched the taillights as you flew behind the clouds
I wandered aimlessly through the early evening crowds
Listened to the sound of the engine’s roar
And I found my car and slammed the door

If it’s you and me against the world
Then I guess the world has won
And baby, this world’s kind of awful and mean

You can have your months and months of hell
And your momentary thrills
I’ve learned to love the things that come in between

Hot days in the woods behind the Bartow-Pell
Lunch breaks at the Seaport, when I really couldn’t tell
Riding down the Jersey shore on an endless drive
Or just lying around the mansion watching Saturday Night Live

The wind was blowing as we huddled on the pier
The sun was fading and we watched it disappear
Listen to the sound of the harbor bell
And your big, strong hands held mine so well