I first met Carl Newman in 2007, both of us slightly delirious at some festival somewhere. We went out on tour with his band The New Pornographers a year later. We had a fantastic time – I’m not sure any other band we ever toured with fit in quite so well with our own personalities, although maybe that’s just them being Canadian and (so the cliche goes) unerringly nice whether they like it or not.
I will tell you the truth about bands touring with each other, though: it’s a very common phenomenon, when you’re on tour with another band, for you to make friends with everybody except the lead singer. The drummer works hardest onstage for the least glory – guys who do that are usually incredibly sweet. The bassist has a similar position, vital but often underappreciated. Those guys are usually bros. You can talk for hours about rare mid-70s records with the guitarist. The keyboardist is chill. The lead singer, though, he’s usually standoffish and aloofly silent and weird. I’m not 100% sure why this is; I’ve ultimately decided lead singers act this way for a mix of reasons. Sometimes they’re genuinely shy (although “he’s just shy” is the boilerplate excuse that friends of lead singers proffer when they can’t come out and say “he’s an asocial prick”). Or they’re psychologically scarred in some way, which is what led them into songwriting in the first place and which is what makes them socially awkward (this sounds like a self-justifying cliché but I’ve found it to hold true occasionally somewhat). Sometimes their vocal chords are just totally screwed up from screaming every night and they’re trying not to talk (although, again, this is often an excuse). More commonly though, the lead singer is just an asshole. I fall into that category. No matter the reason, the social rules of bands and touring life generally allow lead singers to be asocial and weird without any repercussions, so if their tendency is to be silent and keep to themselves, they often fall into that pattern and everybody else in the band just puts up with it.
What I’m trying to say is that Carl Newman is one of the very few lead singers I’ve met who is in no way like that. Zero weirdness, not even a hint. And for that my hat is off to him (the hat I lower over my face so nobody can make eye contact with me). We became better friends after the tour was over and hung out a bunch of times, went out to dinner and drinks, etc… When he and his wife Christy moved to Woodstock, NY, we would go up to visit.
I’m kind of jealous of Carl’s life in Woodstock. I’m from a very small and very rural town in New Hampshire, and I often really miss being in nature and the ambiance of a small and close-knit community. The more time I spend in New York, where there’s no room to move, where life crowds in around you and breathes down your neck and screams in your ear even when you’re sleeping, the more often I feel this need to get out, to leave the city now and never come back. And Woodstock is like this liberal artsy urban sophisticate’s wet-dream idea of what small-town life is supposed to be like, minus the close-mindedness and poverty and militant, armed libertarianism that were problems in parts of where I grew up. So in a way that’s very alluring, even though it sometimes feels like a lie.
So Beth and I would go up to Woodstock, Carl would play me records, I’d play him mixes of new stuff I was working on, we’d talk about music and navigating the music business, and he’d tell me stories about the artist community in upstate New York, about his next-door neighbor Happy Traum, a wonderful guitarist who has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Brownie McGhee and who authored a very rare and out-of-print Incredible String Band songbook that was my most prized possession when I was in high school (when I met Happy in person, I had to muster all of my inner strength to keep myself from spending several hours trying to extract every last Incredible String Band reminiscence from his brain). Every time we went into a restaurant we were always on the lookout for Donald Fagen, who Carl finally ran into at a summer barbeque. David Bowie owns half a mountain in the area, but I told myself from the start to abandon hope I’d see him around town.
My favorite odd Woodstock musician story, though, involves the soft rock musician Robbie Dupree, who scored a #6 hit in 1980 with the song “Steal Away,” a notable entry into a pretty consistently ridiculous genre of mega-hits from that era in which a soulful man would croon a romantic lyric over an inane plinky alternating-6ths pattern, usually played on a keyboard (see also: “What a Fool Believes,” which a less charitable listener would say “Steal Away” is a direct copy of; additional reading includes “Love Will Keep Us Together,” Kenny Loggins’ “Heart to Heart,” the theme from the TV Program “The Greatest American Hero,” and, tangentially, Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” and Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From” – even Jackson Browne, soft-rock royalty and usually above such musical shenanigans, gave it a try in 1982 with “Somebody’s Baby.”) Anyway, apparently Carl had spent some time talking with Dupree at another Woodstock barbeque and Dupree had spent the lion’s share of the conversation singing the praises of above-ground pools, how affordable they are and how it’s basically just like having a real pool only for a lot cheaper. Carl told me this story and somehow over the weekend it warped into the concept of us writing and performing a soft-rock song called “Above Ground Pool,” with an alternating-6th pattern and basically making Dupree’s reasoned and thought-out argument for purchasing an above-ground pool, only in musical form. We wanted to make a song as cool and relaxing as a dip in an actual above-ground pool.
I actually wasn’t familiar with Dupree’s hit “Steal Away,” but for the purposes of continuing the “Above-Ground Pool” running joke I pretended I was. When I got home to Brooklyn, I immediately bought “Steal Away” and realized I’d already known it my whole life (and you probably do it – it’s a catchy song). I enjoyed the hell out of that song for the next couple of weeks. My whole experience of listening and re-listening to “Steal Away” – my affection for it somewhat falling short of actual musical appreciation on the level of, say, a Dylan song – has always highlighted for me this weird thing about music, which is that something doesn’t have to be “great” (i.e. eternal, a milestone in art, etc…) for you to love it, for it to provide you with a great amount of joy. For example, I like “Steal Away” more than I like the entire collected works of Vivaldi. I know Vivaldi is better – will be remembered longer, is more musically significant – I’m just saying that I like “Steal Away” more. People who aren’t overly-analytical music snobs already know all about this effect, of course, and they always say to me basically what I’m saying here: “Geez, relax! Why can’t you just admit you like something dumb?? Something doesn’t have to be great eternal art for you to like it!” As usual, they’re right.
Number 10: Bill & Will – “Goin’ to the River” (March 2011)
Number 9: Ted Hawkins – “Sorry You’re Sick” (November (2011)
Number 8: Blake Mills – “History of My Life (January 2011)
Number 7: Ray Price – “Release Me” (February 2012)
Number 6: Roy Harper – “One Man Rock and Roll Band” (February 2012)
Number 5: Joe and Donnie Emerson – “Baby” (March 2012)