WHAT’LL I DO WITH THE BABY-O? And Other Detours With Dancers…

GRAYSON AT DEKE & ARLEEN'S, NEWTON CENTRE, MASS. 1997 copy

(Me, 1997, in my friend Deke’s study in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. We gathered here often to talk, and to listen to one of his many cherished vinyl records.)

In 1996 I had just moved from North Carolina to the Boston suburb of Newton Centre, living in the third floor apartment at the house of a great friend I’ve know since kindergarten, Deke James. He had invited me, in an act of generosity I will never forget, to live with him, his wife Arleen and six year old daughter Olivia.

Who invites you to move in with them, to become a part of their family for as long as you need to, no worries about rent, pay what you can, when you can? Who invites you to become uncle to their daughter, brother-in-law to their wife? Who offers to give you, free of charge, their legal advice as an attorney and, upon reading your publishing contract, discovers that they, my publisher at the time, still owe you ten thousand dollars? Who does this? Your best friend in the world, that’s who.

ARLEEN & OLIVIA, ME, CHUCK & DEKE

(Left: Arleen & Olivia, across the street from Rick Walker’s Rock ‘n Roll Cowboy Clothes Store, at their old location across from the Boston Common. Right: Deke, lower step, on higher step, Deke’s Harvard roommate and good friend Chuck Gentry and me. For this photo, I lent Deke my old rock ‘n roll vest, and Chuck my “Road To Freedom” hat.)

DEKE & ME, LOOKING OUT AT OCEAN, HULL, MASS. 1996

(Deke and I, surveying the surf, Hull, Massachusetts, 1996.)

I was, a year and a half later, to begin teaching songwriting at Berklee College Of Music. I would also connect, through friends at various universities, with several modern dance choreographers who had their own Companies. Soon I was receiving commissions to compose scores for them. These choreographers included Rebecca Rice, of The Boston Ballet, Diane Arvanites and Tommy Neblett of Prometheus Dance, Christine Bennett of Christine Bennett Dance and Julie Larsen of Milton Academy.

SHARPENED BERKLEE PHOTO, 2000

(Me at my desk in the Songwriting Department of Berklee College Of Music in Boston, October, 2000. There was a Starbucks just across the street, thank the Good Lord.)

In the time before my Berklee teaching began, I also made some extra money, which came in very handy at that time especially, by accompanying for modern dance classes at Boston University, The Boston Conservatory, Walnut Hill School For The Arts and at Milton Academy (where singer-songwriter James Taylor, in the time-honored tradition employed by creative souls everywhere, left the premises before his scheduled graduation).

Speaking of leaving high school early, I should explain how I discovered modern dance accompanying as a means of income. When I told my parents in my junior year that high school had nothing of value for me, they agreed that I could “drop out”, as long as I got my G.E.D. and a job. If I did these two things, I could stay at home for one year. After that I would have to get my own place.

I complied with their conditions. I took the G.E.D. test immediately and quickly. In fact when they returned home from driving me to the neighboring town for the test, I was already back, having hitchhiked home. Thus began a year of not one, but many jobs. I was a landscaper, fence painter, piano tuner, dishwasher, stockboy, and a clerk at a bookstore. I even got hired by the Hartford Courant on the strength of my typing skills. When it was explained to me, however, that I would not in fact be an ace reporter, chasing down stories in exotic locations, but sitting at a desk in a window-less room typing copy all day, the job somehow seemed less Hemingway-esque. So I kept searching, working job after meaningless job. The only consistency in my life from the age of seventeen to eighteen was the shows I was playing with my band Portrait Blues, mainly at the local YMCA, at churches, coffeehouses, community centers and private parties. Still too young to play in bars, that income was not enough to pay for an apartment.

TRUDA KASCHMANN AT HARTFORD SEMINARY

(Truda Kaschmann, circa 1974.)

Then one day my father told me about Truda Kaschmann. She was a modern dancer, a student of Mary Wigman’s. Born Jewish in 1906 in Munich, Germany, she came to America in 1934 at the age of 28 with her husband, Dr. Joseph Kaschmann, a physician, to escape the rising tide of Hitler’s anti-semitism. My dad was well-known in the artistic community of Hartford through his classical radio shows and narration for The Young People’s Concerts of The Hartford Symphony.  He and Truda became friends and he provided the narration for her educational program “Dance Is Another Language”. He suggested I ask her if she needed a pianist for any of her modern dances classes at The Hartford Conservatory.  She did. In fact she needed an accompanist for most of her classes, and eventually I was playing not only all of her Conservatory schedule, but for her classes at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington and The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury.

Truda was a 5 foot 2 inch dynamo. Though she was already in her late sixties when I met her, she was in astonishingly good condition. To show her students one of the benefits of a lifetime of dance classes, she would invite them to walk across her stomach as she lay supine on the floor with her legs extended and crossed. I’m talking about adult students walking across her abdomen! She was tough as nails, but with a heart of gold. She loved my playing and would tolerate with a laugh the occasional times I’d be so involved in my music I’d forget to stop when the exercise was over. I can still hear her shrill, bird-like call, with that strong German accent “Stop Grayson! Stop!”

Sometimes, after playing for her all day, at a dinner break around 7 pm, she’d give me a sandwich of pumpernickel bread with cream cheese. I think she made them especially for me, knowing I was a starving young musician.

She was, as they say, a mensch. The list of her former students include Alwin Nikolais, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. I loved her and will always be grateful for not only that first full time job she gave me, but for the freedom she allowed me in it and for her friendship.

Dance accompanying was a perfect fit. I was paid to improvise, which I loved to do, and for pretty girls, besides! I played for other dance teachers at The Conservatory, adding percussion, vocals, saxophone and my own version of “prepared piano”, when I’d stick wedges of cardboard in upright pianos or lay coat hangers and other objects across the strings of grands. A couple years later, I got jobs with the School Of The Hartford Ballet and with Judith Dworin at Trinity College. I became adept at playing for various techniques: Graham, Limon, Cunningham, Nikolais. Soon I was playing master classes for Bill T. Jones, Gus Solomons Jr., Moses Pendelton of Pilobolus and The Paul Taylor Dance Company. This day job income, along with the money I earned from my various band gigs, carried me through my move to New York in 1986 (and subsequent signing with RCA Records in 1987). For the first year in New York I also accompanied at Princeton University, The Ailey School, Julliard and Sarah Lawrence College.

DANCERS seamless copy

(Dance students at Sarah Lawrence College, 1987.)

Viola_Farber_1958

(Viola Farber, 1958.)

One of the more interesting collaborations with a choreographer happened in 1982 when I decided to go to Viola Farber’s studio in Manhattan without an introductory phone call. I simply looked up where her company’s studio was, buzzed the bell, introduced myself and, upon meeting her, asked if she might be interested in some original music or an accompanist. She invited me to play for her company class, which, as it happened, was about to begin. I sat at the piano and, when it seemed obvious a tempo would help, provided it. When the exercise was more abstract, I added my voice, singing occasionally into the clusters of piano notes, playing the strings with my fingers, muting them and playing the piano like a drum. I remember feeling a kinship with the movement of her dancers, yet also a complete detachment, as if it didn’t matter at all what I did.

When class was over, she walked over to me and said “You’re very good.” She asked me if I’d like to perform with her company for two dance concerts she was giving in a few weeks. She mentioned that she’d also love it if I could record what I was doing for her use later. When I asked her about the type and length of music she would like me to record, she said “Just do what you were doing for 21 minutes.”

It was a most interesting experience. For the two live performances, I played piano, alto saxophone, hand drum, mbira and sang. For the recording, I played piano, sang, read various pieces of text I had written, played mbira, and enlisted my brother Robert on African drums. I called the piece “21 Minutes for Viola Farber”. I learned from Ms. Farber that music and dance can exist simultaneously and be completely independent from each other. It was an attitude of nonchalance that was very freeing. It really didn’t matter what sounds I created to accompany her movements, and yet it did. The success, if you will, of such a performance, based largely upon instant improvisation, depended upon what I have decided to call the “trueness of the trance you are in together”.

I suppose you could also say if the dancers are dull, boring and unoriginal amateurs, and the musician(s) are as well, such a collaboration will be pretentious, stupid, dull, bad. But if everyone is excellent at their instruments, and very imaginative, then beautiful and interesting things will happen.

To hear an excerpt of “21 Minutes for Viola Farber” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

In Boston, I walked. Having gone through a few years of harrowing financial difficulties, I had given up my leased car. I could have renewed my drivers license, but the expiration date, my birthday, came and went. Never underestimate the power of sheer laziness. Looking back now, I think this act of non-action was one of the first steps I took, quite unconsciously, toward disappearing. I didn’t fully vanish, for about four years, from the world until 2003. But that’s a whole other story.

So it was through my accompanying work that I became intimately acquainted with that vast, sprawling subway system in the greater Boston area known as “The T”.  To get to Milton Academy, for instance, I had to walk fifteen blocks to the Newton Centre T stop, take the Green Line to Park Street, take the Red Line to Ashmont, take the Mattapan Line to Milton, then take a city bus to a certain bus stop, where the head of the Milton Academy Dance Department, Julie Larsen, would pick me up and bring me to campus. This process was multiplied and repeated, with various, color-coded permutations, depending on which school I was working at that day. When I moved to an apartment in Weymouth in 2001, the commute to Berklee took about an hour and a half.

THE BOSTON T SYSTEM

(The Greater Boston T system, a labyrinthian tangle of underground, street level and elevated subway rides. I always thought it was one of the great things that gave Boston its identity. I did, after all, write a song about it – “Zoe On The T Train”.)

KT NIEHOFF

(KT Niehoff.)

It was at Milton Academy that I met Seattle-based dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and musician KT Neihoff. For a two week period she was a Guest Choreographer there. KT had come up with a vocal version of an old Appalachian folk song, a lullaby called “What’ll We Do With The Baby-O”. She asked me if I could make a recording of it for her and add some vocals and percussion. So I raided the Milton Academy Band Room, found a marching band bass drum which sounded good hand-played, sang some harmonies with her and later added a mountain dulcimer. I recorded it all on my 4 track cassette recorder. Unfortunately the only recording of this venture that survived is one extremely sibilant cassette track. I still like it, with its Southern mountain roots and garlands of time-worn images strung on the beat like faded old hex signs on kudzu-covered barns.

There’s a funny story about this song. In 2007, after reconnecting with my old friend and former backup singer Polly Messer, as we were preparing to record her harmony vocals for “An American Record”, I made her a compilation cassette of some of my recordings she hadn’t heard in the 13 years we had lost touch with each other. As a humorous whim, I added this song, knowing it would stand out as something very odd along with all the other songs.

She told me later when she first heard it, after enjoying all the other songs I had sent her, she shook her head and thought “Hmmm, this does not compute!”

To hear “What’ll We Do With The Baby-O” (tape hiss and all) click HERE.

•                    •                    •

Inside:Out, Before The Performance

(The stage at the Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Outside Summer Dance Concert Series.)

For choreographer Rebecca Rice (who taught modern dance at The Boston Ballet) I composed a solo piano piece that she set for solo dancer. The world premiere of “Crosscurrents” was performed on May 3, 1999 at The Robsham Theatre at Boston College. It was danced by Isadora Wolfe. In 2014 it was performed again, this time danced by Julie Fiorenza at the Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Outside Summer Series.

It just so happens that my cousin J.R. Glover has been Director Of Education at The School at Jacob’s Pillow for some years now, so it was great to see her again when my wife Polly and I attended the June 20th performance three years ago.

JR & Polly in a golden light

(Cousin JR showing Polly and I around Jacob’s Pillow.)

JR in the studio

(JR showing us the Ruth St. Denis Studio.)

To hear “Crosscurrents” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

PROMETHEUS DANCE ON STAGE DURING HELL BENT

In 1999, through a Meet The Composer Grant from New England foundation For The Arts, as well as a Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, I was commissioned to compose a score for choreographer and Prometheus Dance co-director Diane Arvanites. The world premiere was performed on April 21, 1999 at The Emerson Majestic Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. Christine Temin, of The Boston Globe wrote “set to a powerful score by Grayson Hugh Hell Bent is one of the most compelling rhythmic dances this side of Twyla Tharpe’s The Fugue.”

I had worked with Diane at The Boston Conservatory and Walnut Hill School For The Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. She loved the music I provided for her modern classes. And I loved inspiring her and her students. I played piano, sometimes sang, played African rhythms on various drums, played pennywhistle, kalimba and even accordion. Once, when I was furiously pumping a small Chinese accordion during a particularly fast and energetic exercise across the floor, she stopped the class, and, laughing, asked me “Is that a TOY?”

We always had fun, and I was very happy to hear recently that she and her co-director Tommy Neblett got married. I wish them all the very best and perhaps we will collaborate again one day.

To hear “Hell Bent” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

CHRISTINE BENNETT

I had been playing for Christine Bennett’s modern classes at Boston University in 1998, When I accepted the job teaching Songwriting at Berklee College Of Music, I gave my notice to the Dance Department Chair, as my schedule wouldn’t accommodate doing both.

One day in ’99, Christine called me at Berklee and asked if I might like to get together to discuss a possible collaboration. We met at the Starbucks across the street from Berklee and talked about her idea for a new dance work. When she described the theme, that of grandmothers, time, memories and a sort of inner house where sacred memories live, I was immediately inspired. We worked very closely together in the process of building a score for her choreography. She loved the evocative sounds of some of my folk instruments that I wanted to use, and so I began to compose for a collection of these instruments from different parts of the world. We agreed that using these primal voices of different musical cultures would be augment the emotions conjured up in the dance.

MY FOLK INSTRUMENTS, WEYMOUTH, MA. 20001

(Some of my folk instruments used in “Inner House”: Two Shanais, Berimbau, Shurti Box, Didgeridoo, Cuica, Gopichand, Navaho Thunder Stick, Cane Quills, Mbira, Ukulele, Metal String Drum, Hand Drum.)

Part 2 of “Inner House” features spoken text as well as music. The text was written by members of the Bennett Dance Company. They were asked to write something about their grandmothers. Christine Bennett sent them to me and I constructed a narrative, using only the words of the written pieces. This was especially poignant for me as I asked my mother Jean R. Schafer to read the part of the grandmother. She had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but she was still living at home, with her husband, my stepfather, and functioning fairly well. Her sense of humour was still very much sharp, and the emotion she put into her reading gave me chills.

The three of us, she, my stepdad and myself, attended the world premiere of “Inner House” on March 2, 2001, and when I heard her voice as the dance evolved onstage, tears ran down my cheeks. I will forever be glad and grateful that my mother agreed to record this part. It will always remind me of her determination and her strong spirit. That spirit is with me always.

INNER HOUSE TEXT AND CREDITS FROM PROGRAM

To hear “Inner House (Part 2)” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

Of all the different directions I’ve taken musically, from playing in a Texas Swing band, performing with a free jazz trio, playing in an African drumming ensemble and composing music for stage and television, my “detours” with dancers have been some of the most enjoyable. There is something about the human body in motion, moving through space, that really speaks to me.

Not that I’m much good at it myself. My brothers and I still laugh about the times our father would put on “The Rite Of Spring”, and the two of us (me age 4 and David age 2) would dance around the living room for our grandparents, causing them to laugh so hard they’d be coughing and choking and spitting up their coffee. Even though I had no real concept of what I was doing, I remember taking it very seriously, and thinking I must be really good, they’re clapping so loudly! There was alot of leaping, and rushing off behind the hall wall as if it were a curtain, then leaping back out again.

•                    •                    •

It’s good to get off your main path in life now and then, and follow the dusty back roads. If you always play it safe and stick to the “planned route”, you miss out on learning new things about the world and yourself.

Explore.

You never know what treasures might await you down there.

DUSTY ROAD

 

 

 

 

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A ROMANTIC HEART

ME & MARY SMELLIE AT DANCE 1964

(It’s 1964. And my young romantic heart is already out of control. Here I am, on the left, dancing with my girlfriend Mary at a junior high school dance, probably to “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin”. Poor girl. I know I drove her crazy with my intensity.)

A romantic heart. There just ain’t no stopping it.

If you’re born with one, chances are you will do things like fall in love extra-super-crazy deep, write poems, songs and long love letters, defend your chosen causes with the stubbornness of a lion, identify with heroic guys like Odysseus, writers like James Joyce, William Faulkner and Dylan Thomas, activists like John Muir, Russell Means, Martin Luther King and actors like James Dean, Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando. In other words, you usually go over the top with things.

GRAYSON EASY RIDER MOPED DUDE ON BLOCK ISLAND 1978 copy 3

(And here I am, in 1978, channeling Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones”.)

I remember, at the tender age of 14, when I was in pain after my girlfriend broke up with me, my mom telling me “Grayson, you need to develop a lighter touch.”

“Huh? A lighter touch? What the heck is that, and how do you do it?”

It was always all or nothing with me. Full steam ahead or don’t even go there. The down side of this is, of course, a tendency to either suffocate or ignore people, to be so stubborn as to be oblivious to those around you.  I like to think that, with age, I have tempered this tendency somewhat. My wife would be able give a more honest opinion about whether or not I have succeeded.

One good thing about an intense, romantic heart is, if you’re an artist, it gives you a tremendous amount of inspiration, imagination and concentration to work on whatever is obsessing you at any one given time.

And I was really very fortunate, blessed really, to have parents that encouraged my musical aspirations from an early age. I think that was because both of them were involved in the arts themselves. When I chose to leave high school early and get my G.E.D. they only insisted I get a day job to support myself, which I did, in addition to making money in my various bands at night.

In 1986, before I was signed to RCA, living part time in Manhattan and Hartford, Connecticut, I was writing songs in earnest, determined to get a record deal. One night I had an interesting and very vivid dream. I dreamt I was playing what looked like an African mallet instrument called a balafon, but the sound coming out of it was the “plucked organ” sound I had created on my Korg Poly 61 synthesizer. The notes exploded in the air like seed pods, releasing percussive bombs of chords. And the chords were just rolling out, already composed.

There was also a background harmony part being sung by some woman, unseen but heard distinctly. When I woke I knew that music was a middle-of-the-verse section.

Excited, I got out of bed and rushed over to my Korg synth that was set up with a small amp in the hallway. On my primitive little boombox, with no microphone, I recorded what I had dreamt onto a cassette tape. The first line “Father said to the son, boy, what is your intention?” appeared in my mind immediately and the rest of the song wrote itself very quickly, probably in about an hour.

Little did I know that song would lead off my RCA album “Blind To Reason” that would be released over a year later.

GRAYSON HUGH AND THE WILDTONES (with Polly) 1983 copy 2

(1982, Grayson Hugh & The Wild Tones, in front of the building in Hartford CT where I had that “Romantic Heart” dream. Coincidentally – or was it? – standing next to me is my future wife Polly Messer, who now loves to sing those harmonies of “Romantic Heart” when we perform it!)

In place of that dream African instrument I used my Korg Poly 61 plucked organ sound. I also played piano. The backup harmony part from the dream was sung not by a woman, but by a guy with a great falsetto, Joe Adams of The Flames (who later went out on tour with me). We beefed up those backgrounds with the other members of the Flames: Donald Richardson, John Sykes and Nate Burgess. On bass we used the incomparable Fernando Saunders, whose tuned-down nimble fingers and muted-thumping runs were such a wonderful effect for the choruses. On guitar we had the equally masterful Ira Siegel. I asked my good friend Joey Cardello to add some timbales. With Axel Kroell (who co-produced with Michael Baker) programming the drums and some other sounds, we had a record!

GRAYSON HUGH RCA PRESS PHOTO bigger copy

(RCA 1988, Promo shot for “Blind To Reason”. Doing my best Elvis impression.)

One of the reasons I managed to get signed to RCA Records in the first place, was because I would not “settle for nothing less than the dream”. I followed my soul’s trail stubbornly and tenaciously, camping out on army cots in basements and on people’s couches, with barely enough money for a subway ride and a cup of coffee, for a good two years before the right set of ears was put in my path.

So I’m here to tell you, it’s true, and it’s a good thing. There just ain’t no stopping a romantic heart.

And if they try to make you stop it, don’t listen.

Follow your dream.

To hear “Romantic Heart” click HERE.

••• words & music by Grayson Hugh •••

Father said to the son
boy what is your intention
boy says I don’t know
but it’s my invention
all these years hanging around here
now it’s high time
and I wish you’d make it clear
what you’re going to do with your life
and I know you want to make it right
father, it’s not the usual road
that I’ve taken

Man said to a woman
I want to share my life with you
that’s the way that I feel
ain’t nothing else left to do
it’s so real, it’s so true
words of old, when you say them you make them new
and be there for each other
always love one another
baby, that’s the way true love should be

Don’t you know it’s black or white
there ain’t no in between
I don’t want to settle for
nothing less than the dream
no such thing as halfway baby
you knew it from the start
there just ain’t no stopping a romantic heart

Might take a while
might take a lifetime too
to figure out what it was
you were put here to do
some people never know
if you only let the seed inside of you grow
what you were dreaming of
I know you’ll get there soon enough
baby that’s the way true love should be

Don’t you know it’s black or white
there ain’t no in between
I don’t want to settle for
nothing less than the dream
no such thing as halfway baby
you knew it from the start
there just ain’t no stopping a romantic heart

© 1988, 2009 Swamp Yankee Music/ASCAP

CITY DAWN – A SONG OF SPRING

UNDER THE BRIDGE IN THE CITY DAWN

(“Under the bridge in the city dawn, I don’t even need my Spring jacket on..”)

TO HEAR “CITY DAWN” CLICK  HERE.

In early April, the nights in Connecticut can still be still quite cold, in those hill towns, especially. The crocuses and grape hyacinths and daffodils are just starting to burst through the recently unfrozen ground. The explosions of cherry blossoms and dogwoods are still a good four weeks away.

Down in the largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Hartford’s Frog Hollow, in front of the dirt yards and old apartment buildings and funky little grocery and package stores, the warming days inspire people to set up chairs and card tables. There they hang out, play cards and blast Spanish music from boomboxes.

STREET GROUP
(Guys hanging out on Park Terrace near Trinity College, Hartford CT.)

From my apartment in the Hartford’s West End I used to walk through this area in the mid 1970s on my way  to see a movie at Trinity College’s Cinestudio.  On early Spring days, from high noon to about 5pm, the streets around Park Terrace and Pope Park were a cacophonous jumble of conga drums, timbales, expertly stumbling bass guitar, piano montunos, stinging clave rhythms, Spanish syllables sung and shouted and the horn section-like car horns and car engines.

FROG HOLLOW.png

(The intersection of Park Road and Park Terrace, Frog Hollow, Hartford, CT.)

Something about the change of the weather in late March and early April always opens up my heart with hope. Suddenly anything is possible again and life looks limitless. And without fail my mind flood with images and memories.

Be it in the rural old mill towns, the crowded cities, the back roads along the rivers that snake through the old farmlands, or the highways reaching onto into the wide open North, South and West, April is not the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot wrote. It is the season of all hope, beauty and desire. In the Springtimes of the mid to late 70s, I would get on my Schwinn 10 speed and ride onto into the countryside, filling up my head and heart with the nature that would always inspire me.

I wrote the first verse section of “City Dawn” while playing a modern dance class at The School Of The Hartford Ballet. The students were doing an “across the floor” exercise that happened to be in a medium fast 3/4. It wasn’t a waltz, and it wasn’t a jig. It was more of a march. So I thought up something funky in 3. It became beginning of this song.

The rest of the song grew in sections, kind of like like kudzu. Over the course of 13 minutes, I went through the hills and highways of Connecticut and followed the trail of a relationship that was going on at the time. It took us to many places, some very good, some dark and miserable. But the ultimate lesson was one of forgiveness and hope.

road-soccer-at-dawn-1977
(Playing soccer at dawn in the middle of the road with one of my old band mates. May 1979.)

I wrote some of it in the practice rooms at UConn, others at a second floor Sunday School room at my old Center Church in Hartford, and fine-tuned it sitting at my kitchen table at my apartment.

CENETR CHURCH HOUSE SUNDAY ASCHOOL ROOM WHERE I USED TO WRITE MUSIC

(The second floor Sunday School room at Center Church in Hartford, CT where I wrote music alot of music in the 1970s. It had a great piano and looked out onto the back of the church and the old graveyard where Thomas Hooker is buried.)

GRAYSON WRITINGSONG AT WHITNEY STREET TABLE
(Writing music at my kitchen table in my apartment on Whitney Street in Hartford.)

It’s a journey. And, like so many others, I find it more and more interesting to revisit, as more time passes. As the funnel of one’s life gets longer to look back at, things like the forgiveness of one’s foibles, character defects and excesses come a bit easier.

Maybe today I wouldn’t write a song that is 13 minutes long. But then again, maybe I will!

It’s pointless to try and predict the destination. It’s the road along the way that keeps us interested,

*            *            *

For those of you who like words, here are the lyrics.

CITY DAWN
words & music by Grayson Hugh

Under the bridge in the city dawn
I don’t even need my Spring jacket on
smell the gasoline in the breeze
there’s a mist still sleeping down by the river trees

Couldn’t go on the way we were
things couldn’t have gotten much crazier
that life wasn’t what we deserve
’cause the air by the sea is too real
for our eyes to be unsure

Standing out on the hot highway
I’m waiting for a ride to go my way
thinking of you in those country hills
where the April nights still give you chills

Like tumbleweed the cars roll by
driving past me to the edge of the sky
in the grass by the road some flowers sigh
all the miles of this road they are nothing
when I think of you and I

In the new city dawn
Summer days coming on
daylight fog in the air like a tear
sidewalk yards, pigeon feet
Spanish sound in the heat
life begins with each new day
now it’s here

Fast
we drove along the backroads
by the yards so green
the sunlight in the lateness of the afternoon
was hanging in the trees
the beauty of the Summer was inside us
and our breath was in the breeze

Glad
we were to jump off Friday
and to see the sea
as we sipped our beer and talked and laughed
the moments in us turned to haze
as we watched each other
all our thrills and wishes grew within our gaze
both of us were happy
just to know this happiness would last two days

You and only you
could move me and amaze me like you do
I’ve been a fool for you
oh now baby I wanted to

That part of us is through
oh baby let’s begin again anew
I can’t stay away from you
oh now baby you know it’s true

Let’s go find some time, you’ll have yours and I’ll mine
we’ll walk up to the thin tree line where the sun makes the little rocks shine

It’s where your eyes have been
that thrills me so
and the way the wind is in them
and what they know
my eyes fly forever with them
to my soul

Under the bridge in the city dawn
I don’t even need my Spring jacket on
smell the gasoline in the breeze
there’s a mist still sleeping down by the river trees

Couldn’t go on the way we were
things couldn’t have gotten much crazier
that life wasn’t what we deserve
’cause the air by the sea is too real
for our eyes to be unsure

In the new city dawn
Summer days coming on
daylight fog in the air like a tear
sidewalk yards, pigeon feet
Spanish sound in the heat
life begins with each new day
now it’s here

©  1980, 2009 by Grayson Hugh/Swamp Yankee Music/ASCAP

THANK YOU LORD

NOBSKA LIGHTHOUSE (Woods Hole, Massachusetts)

(A beacon of hope on Cape Cod. Nobska Lighthouse, Woods Hole, Massachusetts.)

In 1994, I vanished. I didn’t reappear until sixteen years later, in 2o1o. As far as the fans of my music were concerned (and I was fortunate enough to have quite a few around the world) Grayson Hugh had evaporated. He had stopped releasing records and doing concerts. People shook their heads, clicked their tongues and wondered “Whatever happened to Grayson Hugh?”

In that decade and a half, I went from the top of the music world, having two gold records, songs on the radio, videos on tv, world tours with a band, tour buses and stage crews, playing big venues and actually making some money for a change – to living in a single room above a barroom, playing the piano for my rent, spending my unemployment cheques on booze, and hiding from life. My brother put it perfectly, during a concerned phone call back in those dark days. He said “Grayson, it’s as if your life is getting smaller and smaller”.

How can one descend into such bleak insanity, settling for so little? The answer, I know now, is: denial and fear and the unwillingness to face my demons. In my case, the demons were alcohol and xanax.

I had quit drinking in 1980, after getting steadily worse from age 14, in 1964. After getting arrested and put in jail, fired from jobs, I got scared when I pushed my girlfriend down and gave her serious bruises. I had never been violent towards women, and this frightened me. I went to one AA meeting in 1980 and did not pick up a drink for twenty years.

However I did start taking xanax in 1990, prescribed by a psychiatrist for panic attacks and anxiety disorder. It cured the anxiety, but at a terrible price I would only discover fourteen years later.

During that twenty year dry period, many things happened, some of them very good. In 1986 I moved to New York from Hartford, Connecticut and was signed to a multi-record deal with RCA Records. With their support, I formed a new band, went on several U.S. and world tours, made videos that were on MTV, VH1 and BET, did national television network appearances, and had hits on the radio around the world. My first album “Blind To Reason” and the single from it “Talk It Over” both went gold. I was grateful, and prayed often, thanking God for His blessings.

BLIND TO REASON album cover

(“Blind To Reason”, RCA Records 1988.)

ROAD TO FREEDOM

(“Road To Freedom”, MCA Records 1992.)

But in 1994, after two critically acclaimed albums and songs in Oscar-winning films, “Thelma and Louise” and “Fried Green Tomatoes”, the person who signed me to my second record label was fired, and I was dropped from the label along with the rest of his acts. I couldn’t find another label, and didn’t really try. I also found out my business managers had not given me good advice about my taxes, while taking their cut from my earnings each month. As a result I eventually had to go bankrupt.

Fed up, I moved to the south, and did what I did best: hide. Living with my girlfriend in a rented house just over the North Carolina border from South Carolina, I was increasingly unhappy and unfulfilled creatively. I eventually moved back north, alone, and got a job teaching songwriting at a prestigious music school – Berklee College Of Music in Boston. A couple years later I moved in with my stepdad and mother at their house in Newton, to help take care of mom who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. For a couple years I did well at Berklee, but the resentment against the music business derailing my career (and my fear of doing anything about it) started to eat away at me.

I started to think about drinking, more and more. I knew I shouldn’t but the attraction seemed irresistible. As my first sponsor told me later “the most natural thing for an alcoholic to do is drink”. Who cared if twenty years of not drinking was about to go by the wayside? And so drink I did.

Well, you know what happened. My drinking at first didn’t work, so I drank more. I started going right from being sober to a blackout. I got fired from Berklee, for drinking on the job, refusing help when it was offered. Then I got kicked out of my stepdad’s house for doing things like jumping over the balcony stairs in the middle of the night, causing him to wake up to bandage my wounds.

NIMROD RESTAURANT

(The Nimrod Restaurant and Jazz Lounge, Falmouth, Massachusetts.)

In 2002 I was without direction, had no money, and was wondering where I’d go. I remembered a restaurant/bar where I had played in Falmouth for the Woods Hole Film Festival. The owner had told me he had “rooms for musicians” on the second floor. I called him and moved up there. I was literally living above a barroom, playing the piano for my rent, and drinking and still abusing xanax.

It was an old colonial building with alot of history that I dubbed “that house behind the hedge”. I had three other housemates. We were all lost souls, gypsies that were stopping temporarily at this place. Jam sessions in the bar downstairs occurred on most weekends and the music and booze flowed freely and copiously.

HAND WAVING UP IN ATTIC OF NIMROD RESTAURANT

(Hand of one of my housemates waving from his attic apartment at The Nimrod.)

HEDGES OUTSIDE RUNDOWN NIMROD RESTAURANT BUILDING

(The Nimrod and its overgrown hedges, shortly before it was closed down in 2013.)

Finally the doctor who had been prescribing my xanax refused to refill my prescription, since it was obvious I was taking too much of it. So, terrified of the seizure that would most likely come, I started drinking 24/7. I rarely left my room. My anxiety increased to intolerable levels and only blind drunkenness eased it. I was too naive (and too lazy and anxious) to try and get the drug on the street, but not smart enough to check myself into a hospital. That was taken care of for me.

That seizure I had been fearing did indeed come one night in an alcoholic blackout in late October, 2004. The only thing I remember about it was the fire department breaking down my door, and me being unable to move, lying in the darkness in front of my door where I had fallen. I had knocked out a front tooth, hit my head hard on something and fractured my nose. Carried out of there on a stretcher, I wound up in the hospital where, after treating me for a few hours, refused to discharge me since I was still drunk. I was not welcome back at the restaurant, and, after some phone calls to my bothers in Connecticut, they and the doctors decided it would be best for me to go to a detox facility in Falmouth called Gosnold. I agreed, sensing a finality of things.

To his credit, the proprietor of the restaurant offered to bring me some clothes and drive me to the facility. Having no money, the State of Massachusetts paid for my eleven day stay there. For the first three days, I was too sick to do anything but lie in my bed. I hallucinated, watching a “movie” about Duke Ellington on the wall. It was then that a moment of clarity happened. As I lay there listening to the nurses’ conversations, I knew without a doubt that I was going to not only give up drinking, but also stay off of xanax for the rest of my life. After all, I told myself, I’d gone through the fire of the withdrawal; let’s leave that awful addiction behind once and for all. They put me through not one but two phenobarbital withdrawal protocols, and still I was shaking and generally in very bad shape.

When it came time for me to leave, I found out my brothers and father would not take me in. I’m glad now they practiced “tough love”. I know it was hard for them to refuse me. My after-care counselor gave me the address of a men’s shelter in Boston, and I was not too happy about that prospect. Then, at the last hour, she interrupted a class to tell me a bed had opened up at a sober house in Wareham called Evergreen House.

2875 Cranberry Highway, Wareham, Massachusetts

(Evergreen House, in Wareham, Massachusetts.)

You’ve heard that saying “God puts people in your path”? Well, the first angel he put in my path on my road to recovery was the director of that sober house, a short, heavy-set man with a heart of gold and the loud, bellowing voice of a drill sergeant named Bob Marshall. He put me on a rental grant for the first three months until I could get a job. That job was at McDonald’s, where I showed up from 7am to 3pm Monday through Friday for two and a half years, working mostly with teenagers. That job was one of the most honest stretches of work I ever did up til then. I showed up and worked hard, swallowing my pride and collected my paycheque which was just enough to cover my meager rent and leave some money left for groceries. I also faithfully attended twelve step meetings every night (that was mandatory at the sober house), got a sponsor, did chores with the other guys, had house meetings and group therapy sessions there. My brothers and father came up to visit and were thrilled to have me back in their lives. They were thrilled I was simply alive, and sober.

But the xanax withdrawl was not entirely done with me. During the first three weeks at Evergreen, I suffered a (mercifully short-lived) psychotic break  where I thought dreams I had were real, until I would realize to my horror I had only dreamed things like getting a job as a detective at the Wareham Police Department. I also had bad hand tremors and even suffered one more seizure, during which I bumped my head on the bed post and developed a subdural hematoma. I was to later learn, from a neurosurgeon friend, that such alarming symptoms are common in what is called “abrupt benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome”.

After spending a few days in the hospital until my brain bleed resolved, my journey in sobriety began in earnest in late November of 2004. While I was in detox, I had missed the Red Sox winning the World Series for the first time since 1918. But more importantly I was back in the game, raw and still weak from the ravages of alcohol and drug withdrawal, but clean and sober and about to begin the best journey of my life.

The second angel God sent me was a counselor from the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission named Dean Gilmore. He came to Evergreen and interviewed me, to see if I might qualify for some funding to help me get back into society. When I told him I was thinking about going to college to get certified as a substance abuse counselor, he suggested another idea. It turned out he was a fan of my music and said “I know who you are, in fact I’d like you to sign these CDs of yours I have in my briefcase!” He told me that, while it was laudable that I wanted to help others, he would like to see if he could get his agency to obtain some seed money for me to do what I do best: make another album. He said that alot of people like himself were wondering what happened to Grayson Hugh.

His faith in me woke me from a sleep that had begun way back in 1994. I will always credit him with reawakening my desire to make records. We went on to become very good friends, and would get together on a regular basis for breakfast, talk about music, life and trade books. Sadly, he passed away in 2008, much too young. I will never forget him.

Dean was able to arrange this funding and, in the Summer of 2006, I recorded the first rhythm tracks of my comeback album at a recording studio in Acton, Massachussets called Wellspring Sound. I took a careful, slow route with this project, wanting my first album in over fifteen years to be a selection of songs that were really important to me. It would be released in 2010 as “An American Record”.

AN AMERICAN RECORD

(“An American Record”, Swamp Yankee Records 2010.)

BACK TO THE SOUL Album Cover Final 1400 by 1400 pixels

(“Back To The Soul”, Swamp Yankee Records 2015.)

In the process of making this record, an old friend of mine named Polly Messer, who had sung backup with me in the early 80s, got in touch with me and offered to sing (for free, even!) on this record. After a few recording sessions with her in 2007, we fell in love and were married in 2008. We also began performing my music together and even did a two week tour in Poland in 2012.

I have since released another record “Back To The Soul”, which was even up for a Grammy in 2015, and, though it didn’t get one, I now have a renewed career. And I have a new band, Grayson Hugh & The Moon Hawks,  and have been doing sold-out concerts with them.

A few of the miracles of sobriety.

PAY PHONE GOODBYE NOTE FROM GUYS AT EVERGREEN HOUSE

(Message on the Evergeen House pay phone, wishing me well on my departure.)

So, from the top of the world, to the dark, lonely bottom, back to – where I am today.

Real. Sober. Alive. And always, always grateful.

My song “Thank You Lord” says it best. To hear it click HERE
– Grayson H., March 25, 2017 Danbury CT

BLUEWHITE AND THE BLIZZARD OF ’78

heart-shaped-trees-on-buewhite-hill

(“My heart starts to bloom cold bluewhite”)

When the Blizzard of 1978 hit the Northeast I was living in the small country village of Coventry, Connecticut. I shared a second floor apartment in an old house with my girlfriend who was studying painting at The University of Connecticut. My cat, who would go on to live 25 years, resided there with us.

Playing nights with a Texas swing band in the seedy bars of Rhode Island and Connecticut, I spent my days visiting film schools and writing songs. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a filmmaker or a musician. The fact that I was, in fact, already a musician, with a growing pile of songs waiting for the right band eventually tilted the scale toward music. But the love of movies, of cinematography and stories, has never stopped being a big part of what inspires me.

One of the songs I wrote during that time was “Bluewhite”. It began as a poem that I wrote the day after the Blizzard of 1978, and wasn’t completely finished until I added a last musical section and edited the third verse lyrics some fifteen years later.

SHED WINDOW AT CAPRILANDS

(One of the barns at Caprilands, when I visited in January 2011. Sadly the farm stopped operating as a store, herbal center and all-herbal restaurant shortly after founder Adelma Grenier Simmons’ death in 1997 at the age of 93.)

When the sun came out, surprisingly, two days after the epic February Blizzard of 1978, we were still without power, and would remain so for several days. It looked so beautiful outside, I decided to cure my cabin fever with a long walk. Normally a very outdoorsy type, my girlfriend covered herself in two overcoats, a scarf and a hat and worked on a painting to the light of candles. I took my trusty Miranda camera, covered my feet with two thick wool socks and my old army boots and proceeded to walk from Coventry village up to Caprilands, an herbal farm owned and operated by Adelma Grenier Simmons, known as “the firs lady of herbs”, and the author of over forty books about the subject. The bright winter sun was shining on the huge snowdrifts, creating those bluewhite shadows on the fields and in the woods. When I passed Caprilands, I realized I still had some of the little anise pastilles in a tin that I had purchased a week earlier on a visit there. I popped a couple of them in my mouth, and as the licorice flavor exploded in my head, the sights of the sun-filled snowy day and the subtle yet powerful taste of the anise pastille imprinted themselves in my brain. Proustian.

Flavigny Abbey ANISE-SEED PASTILLES

These pastilles have been created since the 1500’s in the Flavigny Abbey, originally a Benedictine monastery, now owned by the Dominicans. It took, and still takes, fifteen days for the monks at the Abbey to create these candies. Each tiny anise seed, is slowly covered with layers of sugar water until, half a month later, the pastille is ready.

Now whenever I taste one of these – or even think of that taste – my mind is flooded with wonderful memories of Caprilands, of my life back in 1978, of writing a ten minute song called “Bluewhite” about the snow in Connecticut hills.

IMG_5004

(Bluewhite shadows, deep in the woods by a brook, the day after a snowstorm.)

IMG_1708(“The town is melting, pull our windows down, hear the tires whisper black wet smooth..”)

That thing I call “bluewhite” is more than just the shadows on snow.  It is a feeling in the air that travels into your brain. On bright February days, driving around the snow-filled hills, when it’s just cold enough to keep the snow on the ground, but just warm enough also for the tires of cars to make that long swshhhhhhhhhhh sound, this feeling in the air contains not only the cold beauty of snowy woods, but also the hint of the coming melt and the hopeful rebirth of Spring. You can feel it in your sleeves.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Hunters_in_the_Snow_(Winter)_-_Google_Art_Project

(“To the distant fields our eyes travel over the valley to those Bruegel woods..”

Bluewhite light has a look that is unique to the Nutmeg State.  It is partly because of the shapes of hills and valleys here that gather and distill it. And it it because of the way the many stone walls of this state go slinking across the fields toward the edges of the woods. The cliffs and curves, trees and bushes, meadows, rivers and brooks are of a scale that is like nowhere else. It is a landscape size bigger than the quays and inlets and rocky yards of Rhode Island. But it’s not real, real big like the Green Mountains of Vermont, or seriously steep and craggy like the notches of New Hampshire or as ferociously vast as the pine forests of Maine. No, bluewhite is a very Connecticut thing.

"Where the worn light's blurring the candle glow of a fox's fur nby the stone wall spine"

(“Where the worn light’s blurring the candle glow of a foxes’ fur by the stone wall spine”)

I would walk the five miles from my house in Coventry Village to the campus of UConn where I’d find an empty practice room with a piano. There, with two or three coffees to go, I’d inch my way forward in this film in my mind. The scenes unfolded with images and words about snow, the way it looked on distant hills and in cornfields, by brooks and stone walls, in the brief bright daylight of Winter and in the quickly fading dusk.

It wrote itself, really. Instrumental sections appeared and vanished, then demanded to be heard. Tones of instruments and shades of vocals became clear. Above all, the feeling of it all just felt exactly right.

All ten minutes of it. Long by the standards of radio, even college radio, but I wasn’t thinking about that.

long-bluewhite-hill

When it was what I considered not “done” but waiting to be performed, I set it aside until a year later when I formed The Grayson Hugh Quartet. I taught it to the musicians and recorded it. I performed it twice with this band, once in 1980 at a concert at The Children’s Museum Planetarium in West Hartford and again in the same year at a club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called Trax.

It was one of my favorite songs and always knew I wanted to do more with it, but it wasn’t until I was assembling the songs for  “An American Record” in 2007 – 2010 that it finally found a home. This was my first release in fifteen years, and I wanted this album to be stretch the limits of my musical styles.

Much like those aniseed pastilles, the creation of “Bluewhite” took as long as it took to be finished. There was no rushing it.

Here, then (on, as I write this, a cold February day in New England) is “Bluewhite”. It seems only appropriate that it should be presented as a kind of movie, a slide show, if you will, photos by yours truly.

I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I did creating it.

TO WATCH THE VIDEO FOR “BLUEWHITE” CLICK HERE.

driving-up-through-towns-and-countryside

THE STORE AT THE END OF THE STREET

vanderbilt-drug-store-farmington-ave-west-hartford-ct-between-walkley-road-and-vanderbilt-road-circa-1940-copy-4

(A photo of Vanderbilt Drug Company, aka Vanderbilt’s, taken before my time, probably in the 1940’s.)

Vanderbilt Drug Store was at the end of our street and was the halfway point on our short walk to and from both Whiting Lane Elementary and Plant Junior High Schools. It was a reliable meeting place, a frequent destination and almost like another room in our house.

It’s where we got the Sunday paper and where I got all my comic books. It’s where I gathered with my friends for candy, before and after school. There were packets of mouth-puckering, sour/sweet Lik-M-Aid, handfuls of red licorice, molar-destroying rock candy, those bizarre, chewable wax lips that melted into thick, congealed puddles on the sidewalk, boxes of spearmint leaves, packets of sunflower seeds so salty your eyes got thirsty, red-hot jawbreaker balls that rearranged your teeth, not to mention those wax six packs of brightly colored, sugary syrup called Nickel Nips and, of course, the ubiquitous and endless packs of baseball cards with the flat, powdery sheets of bubble gum. We traded those cards like inveterate gamblers. I’ll give you Roberto Clemente for  Harmon Killebrew. Well how about Sandy Koufax for Hank Aaron? No, I’m hangin’ on to Willie Mays. Mickey Mantle? You got The Mick? You lucky dog! Lemme see…

Vanderbilt’s is where I had my first job in the seventh grade (a few dollars paid under the counter) cleaning the store. It was a thankless chore, scrubbing the counters and ice cream containers, mopping the tile floor, that nevertheless made me feel proud and manly.

It’s where I bought my first girlfriend an ice cream soda at age thirteen, feeling incredibly grown up as I handed over the coins.

Marie was the lady who worked the soda fountain for all the years of my childhood and adolescence. She wore the standard white soda jerk uniform with jaunty cap and sported glasses with pointy corners as big as Cadillac fins. I remember that she was dating a helicopter pilot, which made her very very cool.

I must have walked through the door of that establishment five million times. One Sunday morning, when I was fourteen, I walked up our street to get our Sunday paper. I had, just an hour prior, answered the door and listened to a rather boring lecture by two Jehovah’s Witnesses. I told them, probably with a bit of the attitude I could have at that age, that I disagreed with them and that I did not feel their religion was the only true way to live.

Shortly afterward, as I walked through Vanderbilt Drug’s front door, I heard a loud crash and the breaking of glass. A woman had accidentally stepped on the gas instead of braking and had just driven through Vanderbilt’s plate glass window. I had been a mere couple of seconds away from getting severely injured, if not killed.

When I told my parents what happened, my mom said rather dryly, “Well I guess that’ll teach you to mouth off to Jehovah’s Witnesses!” She was a missionary’s daughter with a sense of humour.

You know what? Ever since then, I have courteously listened, at length, whenever door-to-door proselytizers have come knocking. Even if I disagree with their claims of having “the only true way”, I don’t give them anything but my respectful attention. I figure it’s just good karma, shattering glass window reprisals or not.

One of our neighbors, John Hyberg, a Swedish American bachelor who lived with his elderly mother way down at the end of Dorset Road, used to walk to Vanderbilt’s most evenings around dusk for a coke. On those heavy, humid Summer nights, my brothers and I (and often one or two cousins and friends) would be sitting with our parents on lawn chairs in the cool dark of our front porch on Walkley Road, drinking mint iced tea.

As we sipped our drinks and smelled that strong aroma of lilacs from the bushes by the porch, we would peer into the dark to see the slump-shouldered shape of John Hyberg approaching like a talking shadow under the streetlights. When his barely visible self reached our house, he would say, without fail, the exact same thing, directed to my mother, in that distinct, adenoidal voice of his: “Hot enough for ya, Jean?” That phrase came without variation out of his mouth automatically as he passed, as if our front porch triggered it from deep within his chest.

We would laugh and imitate his voice, and I would feel privately a bit guilty for making fun of him. I doubt he could have known how comforting the ritual of his nocturnal walks past our house were to me.

His nightly walks, in fact, were a sign that all was right in our neighborhood, in our sleepy little town, in the whole state of Connecticut and quite possibly in the whole wide world.

When I remember those nights and those long childhood days, I realize how incredibly lucky we all were. Lucky to have one another, to laugh and love and be loved, to be safe in the embrace of our family in that town of long, shady streets and corner stores like Vanderbilt’s.

ROOMING HOUSE NIGHTS

55-highland-street-west-hartford-ct-my-old-rooming-house-and-my-first-apartment-in-1968-copy-3

(The rooming house at 55 Highland Street, West Hartford, Connecticut.)

Not in vain did I stay up all those nights, listening to the dreaming murmuring of birds.

In that rooming house on Highland Street in West Hartford, Connecticut, where I lived when I was eighteen years old, I wrote many a song and poem in the quiet of those nights. The only sounds would be the clanging of the radiators, or the dripping of snow from the eaves in Winter. Or the occasional footsteps in the hall of one of the eccentric occupants.

We were a motley collection of souls. There was me, second floor back right, with the gable windows, the young musician in his first foray out of his family home.  On the first floor front room left, there was Wayne, the Frank Sinatra-obsessed postal worker from Torrington, who, though in his early twenties, sported a carefully combed and coiffed pompadour from the 1950s. He wore cardigan sweaters and Italian loafers and would invite me in to hear Sinatra records, enthusiastically gushing all the while, his voice steadily rising to an alarmingly loud volume. He was in a constant state of exasperation that the world didn’t seem to recognize the fact that Frank Sinatra was a genius and very possibly a saint.

Across from Wayne, first floor front room right, was Guy, the long-haired Swedish-American dude who spoke and moved at the pace of an rain-forest sloth. He worked in the kitchen of one of the clubs my band played in. He spoke so slowly, with heavy lidded eyes peeking out of his medieval-looking bangs, that you had to resist the urge to strike him squarely on the top of his head to get him to complete his sentences. He was always home.

Then there was Susan, the pretty older woman (thirty was practically ancient to me at the time) who played flute in a chamber ensemble and studied at Hartt College of Music. She was attractive in that Lindsay Crouse kind of way, in her wire rimmed glasses, intelligent and with the body of a cyclist. Knowing I was a pianist and sax player, she gave me a rosewood bagpipe practice chanter.

My nearest neighbor, in the second floor front right apartment, was a middle aged woman named Gladys. She was quite overweight and rarely left her room. I’m sure she was on assistance of some sort. Though it was against house rules to cook in your room, she would often fire up her hotplate and fry up large meals containing lots of onions, usually at midnight. At her request, I’d help her turn over her mattress every few weeks. I thought we were friends, until one night, while I was on the  hallway payphone with my girlfriend, she came storming out of her cave screaming at me “You’re the devil! I’ll piss on your head!”. Obviously she was mentally ill, and I gave her a wide berth after that.

side-view-of-my-old-room-at-55-highland-street-rooming-house

(That’s my room in the middle on the second floor, with the two circular windows.)

I was working full time as accompanist for modern dance classes at The Hartford Conservatory during the day, and playing with my band Portrait Blues at night. I found it most efficient to compose music in the night hours, writing out the parts on music paper to give to my band members at rehearsal. I always loved writing music parts, and would give each musician a nickname, along with a drawing at the top of his part. Bassist David Stoltz was “Drake Cottony”. Drummer/blues harp player Ralph Rosen was “Smilin’ Corn”. Tenor sax/flute player Mark Kaplan was  “Triangle Reed Beard” and guitarist John Webber was “Little Johnny Stringshanks”.

The nicknames changed with each new part, but some, I hear, are carried forward to this today, with pride and affection, by the musicians themselves.

portrait-blues-band-photo-1970

(Portrait Blues, 1970: left ro right, John Webber – guitar; Mark Kaplan – tenor sax, flute; Grayson Hugh – vocal, piano, organ, soprano saxophone; Ralph Rosen – drums, blues harp.)

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TO HEAR “BREEZY FARM”, ONE OF THE SONGS I WROTE BACK THEN, CLICK HERE.

TO HEAR “GRAY DAY CLICK HERE.

Here are three poems I wrote while living there.

••• MUTE SNOW •••

we’re half here and half there
and all inbetween like the light

the moon is a half fish dune
like a lark in a black creek
and all i want to eat
is the white of the shadow
of the blooming pear moon

ah the night goes about to be
down dark where you can’t see
just like your dumb dark hair

then the pine trees clap
on all the hills
and the woods are white
with all those quiet spills

••• SOLO •••

the moon needs no name for its light
which wanders from itself
onto the new world earth at night

through the sky it falls also
into the sea and seen by fish
and onto all tree branches

outside above the streetlight
slow moths wake
and hover against no wind

 

••• ROOMING HOUSE WHALES •••

In the rooming house where ten humans lived
I was lying awake several hours past midnight
listening to the college radio station playing undiscovered folk soul songs
and I turned it off to think

I thought about the shadows of moonlight
sliding slowly off the big leaves of trees
and dropping onto the summer grass outside
where lawn chairs
and birdless lilac bushes
stand silent in the scene

I thought about all the people who were inside now
curled up sleeping in their second floor burrows
dreaming their ornately unfolding big blossoms of dreams
their brains working unapologetic
and electric
all through the night
flashes and spasms of fear and desire
and long involved wanderings
and stumblings through childhoods

and I could hear the occasional car
softly slowly come and rip the quiet of the night
creeping like a shark
as it passed under the streetlight in front of the rooming house
a sad metal spirit dragging itself by

and there by myself in the vanishing summer night
I imagined how beautifully terrifying it would be
to suddenly
just for one second
be transported next to the gigantic breathing body
of a huge whale
in some deep dim sea

with his huge half asleep eye
he would look at my odd speck of a body
perhaps thinking I was a sudden large seahorse
or a dream vision

and I would be immediately transported back to my bed
with the glistening remains of a miracle
wetly draping my arms like seaweed hair

but I would remember
and have forever imbued in the water of my blood
the feeling of that giant whale body next to me

hearing his big warm heart slowly beating
floating in the hush and pulse of his thoughts
blessed with the brotherhood of living
by this lord of all oceans

and lying there in the rooming house night
i shivered with terror and joy
knowing for a fact that right then
and at any moment

a whale is breathing
he is there
with his dreams descending
all around him like a sea snow falling
down there in the dark water
without me

© 1969, 2016 by Grayson Hugh