I had just literally walked in the door of my house after a long tour in support of my Retriever album when the phone rang.
I don't know why, but the sound of the phone ringing for some reason filled me with dread... so I decided not to answer it. I was afraid to even check the message, so instead I took myself out for some dinner and drinks and tried to decompress.
When I got in later on, I summoned the nerve to listen to the message finally and sure enough, it was some real bad news. My son was calling to tell me that my high school friend Rob Purdie had died just the day before. Like most people, my teen years were spent hanging out in a gang of friends. It was loosely centered around my band at the time "The Midnite Scribes" but it branched off into sub groups too, and on the weekends we got together to do all the crazy things that teenagers did back then and I imagine still do.
Rob was like the unofficial leader of the gang, at least to me he was. He was the first to get married and many of the parties we had would take place at his house with his wife Cathy, who was I think, the only female of the gang. (None of us even had girlfriends back then.)
He had a car too, which made it handy for going to concerts and just getting around in general. Basically, we all looked up to him so his rather sudden death came as a huge shock and a reality check to everyone involved.
I had lost another friend Daren Tucker, not long before Rob died. Daren and I went back to grade 6 together and he even played in some of my first bands. Tragically in the mid-'80s he had suffered a bad accident at work which left him a quadriplegic - and it was only a month or so after he had gotten married! I had just attended his 40th birthday, and a few months later, he was gone.
It was with all this on my mind, that the songs for Time Being started to emerge. I thought it strange to have lost two friends in such a relatively short time span and so the topic of death was weighing heavy on my mind.
Around this time, my friend Don Kerr had surprised me with the gift of an upright piano and most of these songs were written on that. It's pretty much the best gift anyone has ever given me and so I'll always be forever grateful to Mr. Kerr.
The opening song "Hands Of Time" was the first one I wrote for the record and so it seemed an appropriate way to start the album. I had been thinking about all the expressions and clich√É¬©s having to do with time, such as "Time is on my side," "Time will tell," "Time waits for no-one" etc.
And come to think of it, I had read a quote from Bob Dylan where he said something like "as soon as we're born we're old enough to die" which really resonated with me even though it's something I guess we all know deep inside.
My one pet peeve with this song, is that I think I made a grammatical error in the first verse (but maybe I'm wrong??). I sing "If all we have is here and now, honey I won't change a thing" when maybe I should've sung "I wouldn't change a thing." As I write this I still don't if it's wrong or right! I'm proud of the 2nd verse though. Mainly, it was just wonderful to be back in the studio with Mitchell Froom and Pete Thomas again. Everybody played so frigging great on this track.
I always loved the Edgar Allen Poe story The Tell Tale Heart and this is basically my version of that. As I mentioned in an earlier "Sleeve Note," I LOVE scary stories in general, and just like the old song "From A Few Streets Over," I was excited to have another go at writing one.
It was also loosely inspired by the Tom Waits album Alice, I'm a big Waits fan and at one point whilst touring Germany with Bruce Cockburn, his name came up and Bruce asked me if I'd had heard his relatively new one called Alice. I hadn't yet, so I borrowed it off of Bruce and it quickly became my soundtrack for the entire tour. The album is filled with all these beautiful nightmarish songs and it got me thinking about trying to write a batch of my own.
In the end, I only wrote three story songs for the record, "Snow Angel," "The Grim Trucker" and "Jazz At The Bookstore" - but it was the thought that counts.
My home life was quite content at the time, and it's always easier to write these sort of observational songs when there's less turmoil going on in my head. Back in the '90s, I knew someone who told me a horrific story of going to check on a friend's wife who hadn't been answering her phone for days and when they got there she had hung herself in the living room, apparently over an affair that had occurred. With that image still in my mind, I started writing this song about a man racked with guilt over his wife's suicide and who is haunted by the form of a snow angel that keeps reappearing every year at a certain time. Chilling stuff, I thought.
I'm reasonably happy with the words and the melody. I think we got a nice recording of it as well... love when that happens.
ALL IN GOOD TIME
This was the last song I wrote for Time Being and it was just what the doctor ordered so to speak. After having some radio play on Retriever, I felt I needed to have at least one song that we could take to radio as a potential single and this was the only thing I had that sounded even remotely like a hit. As far as catchy pop songs go, it's really quite a spiritual and meaningful song if I do say so myself... and that's not easy to do.
It was written about hindsight and experience basically. I was just thinking about how as people, we're able to look back on life and see that even when things seemed bleak, there were some good things that came out of it, and that perhaps there's a lesson to be learned and a purpose to all our trials. I believe this... well, most of the time.
I always loved that song "Big River" by Johnny Cash too, especially the line "A freighter says she's been here, but she's gone, boy, she's gone." I love that it's an inanimate object which passes on this information! I thought that was pretty clever of our Man In Black so I attempted to do that myself as in the lines "Hold Your horses a willow tree cried" and "As the sun called to me 'Where's the fire?'" (Though I guess the sun really isn't an inanimate object, but you catch my drift.)
Even though it wasn't much of a hit at radio, it HAS become a kind of minor hit for me in my own little world. Recently a lovely and talented singer from Australia named Alanna Cherote recorded a cool version of it too.
Aside from my Kermit the Frog voice returning, I think we did a fairly decent job of getting it across. Val McCallum plays some funky electric guitar and I thought Mitchell's melodica idea gave it a nice piece of ear candy.
NEVER GIVE UP
A few years ago, Colleen and I decided to take a vacation in Mexico. This may come as a surprise, but I had never really taken a vacation before... at least not one of those "tropical, lying around on the beach vacations."
We were waiting for the cab to arrive when I came up with the melodic idea on my piano for what would become "Never Give Up." As soon as I stumbled upon it, the taxi showed up and so I had to keep singing it to myself so as not to forget it while sun bathing. When we got to the airport, we found out that our flight to Cancun was delayed for over 7 hours! The thought of waiting it out at the airport was depressing so Colleen and I decided to turn around and go home for a few hours and come back later.
Although we were both bummed out that our trip was delayed, secretly I was excited to get to work a little more at home on the new song idea. By the time we got back to the airport, I had written the first two verses and it was shaping up nicely I thought.
Our trip was a bit of a disaster initially. Our flight was so late getting in that the resort had given our room to somebody else so we spent the first night sleeping in the lobby! Very upsetting as you can imagine - these trips aren't cheap. The next morning though, the extremely apologetic staff upgraded us to a lovely suite and so our Mexican vacation had officially begun.
The whole time I was down there, when I wasn't drinking daiquiris or being the "Wave King" (as Colleen called me), I was working on this song. I couldn't get it out of my head and I even thought for awhile at least, that it had some serious hit potential. Lyrically it was just about trying to grow up and take care of what I felt was a really beautiful relationship... it's another love song I guess.
Pete Thomas plays an interesting and unexpected groove on this one. It seems to me that it stands apart from all the other songs in my catalogue but I can't explain why.
I THINK WE'RE LOST
Every now and then I'll come up with a title for a song that is compelling to me even though I have no idea what I'm going to write about or what sort of song it'll be. "I Think We're Lost" was one of those.
It was just something I had uttered to Colleen as we were driving around trying to get somewhere, and so the proverbial light bulb came on over my head yet again. Around this time, I was hearing a lot about Global Warming and it seemed like whenever I switched on the TV, the news was all bad. (Seems even worse now.) The idea of the song fit in nicely with the dark thread of the record in general. I could see an album taking shape with each song, and I was getting pretty excited about it.
In the booklet, I drew a sort of Hansel and Gretel type drawing on the page next to this song because I was starting to feel a bit like the Brothers Grimm - or at least one of them - as I wrote these songs.
One of the things I forgot about Mitchell (as it had been a few years since we had last collaborated) was that he's a pretty hands on kind of guy. He's very much like an old school song arranger and they don't really make them like that anymore. Anyway, I had written a bridge for the song that he wasn't so sure about. (I probably wasn't sold on it either.) He liked the last two lines of it, but felt that the rest of the bridge took away from the overall thrust of the song. He called me one afternoon at home and suggested that we raise the key on those last two lines and stick them on at the end.
Feeling a little annoyed, but not wanting to have a knee jerk reaction, I said I'd go downstairs to the piano and try it out and as usual, he was right!
At the end of the day, aside from the down beat lyrics, I think it's good recording. I love the slide guitar by Val. It gives it that '70s Todd Rundgren vibe and I've always been a '70s kinda guy.
REASON FOR OUR LOVE
Another love song written for Colleen, and well, considering the subject matter on most of these tunes it was a welcome addition to the sequence. Once again, I got to try out some Crosby crooning, and I think he would've liked this one. Lyrically, it follows the same theme as some previous love songs such as "How On Earth" and "You've Been Waiting" but it's more jazzy and elegant than those ones. I was expecting Mitchell to go all out with strings and keyboards but he chose to keep it real stripped down which I think was the right approach.
My good friend and jazz singer, Curtis Stiger covered this one a few years ago and did a lovely job with it. Like most of the songs on Time Being, it was written on my upright piano (my pride and joy). You can probably tell by the opening notes. It was something I stumbled upon while tinkling the ivories one day and I probably never would've found it on the guitar to be honest.
Anyway, I think it's a nice song and it's even been played at a few weddings recently. Maybe someday, somebody will hear it and say, "Hey, they're playing our song."
COLD HEARTED WIND
This was written as well, for my recently departed friend Rob. It's not really about him so much as it is about this feeling I get whenever darkness seems to be hovering in the air and filling our heads with doubt.
Without getting into the details, I had imagined that Rob must have been going through a bit of a dark period himself prior to his death. I started thinking of it like a storm front that has been moving in since the beginning of time, creating havoc in people's lives at random, testing people's faith and resistance. When you see whole cities being torn apart and lives destroyed by tornadoes, tsunamis and earthquakes, it really makes you pause and count your blessings. This song was more about a tornado of bad luck and misery destroying our peace of mind.
Musically, it ended up sounding much more folksy after I moved it over from piano to guitar. Even though I wrote the bulk of these songs on piano, I couldn't summon the nerve to play it in front of Mitchell... that'd be insulting. (I once had to play piano before Oscar Peterson which was just plain wrong on so many levels.)
The only other thing I'd like to say about "Cold Hearted Wind" is that I always thought Johnny Cash would've sung this song beautifully on one of those final records he made but it wasn't in the cards.
JAZZ AT THE BOOKSTORE
Here's a little Laundromat creation.
I had just thrown my wet clothes into the dryer and walked up the street to my local Starbucks to get a cup of joe. As I strolled in I could hear Leadbelly singing faintly in the background. Unlike my song, he was actually singing "Goodnight Irene" and not "Rock Island Line" but "Goodnight Irene" just didn't fit with the rhyming scheme I had going.
As I waited for my tall bold, I looked around and saw the usual array of people on their laptops, seemingly oblivious to the incredible music being played in the background. It got me thinking about this whole coffee culture world we live in.
So many times, I'd walk into a Starbucks (or some other coffee shop) and hear Ella Fitzgerald or Nat King Cole as if to say "you've just entered a swinging and sophisticated place." Would anybody even notice or care if they played Van Halen or Lady Gaga for that matter? Then I thought about all these giant bookstores with coffee shops in them. I've always felt that as soon as bookstores and record shops started having escalators in them, it was all over.
When I got back to the Laundromat, I started jotting down the words to "Jazz At The Bookstore" and by the time the clothes were dry, the lyrics were pretty much done.
I must say, I don't know if it's a good song or not but I'm proud of the words. I felt that with Time Being in general I was getting much stronger as a lyricist. There was a little more word play going on and I felt more confident and comfortable in my own skin if that makes any sense. Chalk it up to experience I guess.
Musically, it's probably not as interesting as the lyrics. When I wrote it, in my mind it felt to me like a Steely Dan song. I had been really getting into their two most recent albums at the time. (I think I may have been the only person I knew who owned them!) Anyway, in the end it turned into more of a bluesy thing reminiscent of The Band almost, but that's OK. I love The Band, who doesn't??
SHIP OF FOOLS
This one actually pre-dates Blue Boy but I guess I was never that fond of it so it just sort of got left behind. For some reason I included it on the demos I had sent to Mitchell prior to making the record and to my surprise, he really responded this one. (It's not sort of the song he would normally gravitate towards.)
I'm glad it's there though. It seems to help lift the second half of Time Being in a sort of comic relief way. It's actually a better recording than a song, truth be told. I love Mitchell's Wurlitzer playing on it and the underwater sounding bass by Davey Farragher in the solo section is pretty amazing. I've known Davey for awhile actually... he used to play with John Hiatt back when I toured with him in the '90s and now of course you'll find him in The Imposters along with Pete Thomas backing up Elvis Costello.
It's one more in my ever growing collection of shuffles. You don't hear shuffles very much these days but I like them at least, and so I guess I'm just trying to hold down the fort and keep it alive or whatever. We don't really play this one anymore. I don't think anyone misses it too badly though.
THE GRIM TRUCKER
Not too far from where we currently live, there's a slaughterhouse. Colleen used to pass the truck on her way to work and it really made her sad. One day we were driving home from the airport on the same route that the pigs took every day to their final reward, and she started telling me how the pig truck would go down the hill, past the police station and across the tracks before making that final right turn of no return.
Because I'm a songwriter, as she was telling me all this I started singing it in my head like a demented children's song. When I got home I went to the piano and started playing that very jaunty chorus of The Grim Trucker to which Colleen hollered down from upstairs, "That's terrible!!"
I think to be completely honest, I wrote the song mostly to tease Colleen which has become one of my most favorite things in life to do. I wrote it in a sort of Tom Waits style originally, but it ended up sounding more like something off of the Beatles White album - which is nothing to shake a stick at.
It's a sort of cautionary tale I suppose, about greed and gluttony.
In the first verse, the pigs are going to the slaughterhouse and in the second verse, it's the children who are packed on to school buses, on their way to a different kind of slaughterhouse altogether. I've always thought that the best children stories and songs for that matter, are the scary ones. (Even "Ring Around The Rosie" was about the plague.) I think I would've liked this one if I was a kid, much more at least than I do now. I do like it though.
SOME DUSTY THINGS
I wrote this when I was still living in our apartment on Gainsborough. (We had since moved to the west end of Toronto.) I got an email stating that a movie director from France was in town and was hoping to meet me to discuss writing something for his new film.
For the life of me I can't recall his name or even what the movie was about but he dropped by one afternoon for coffee and we discussed the script and what he was looking for. It seemed like a solid artistic opportunity to me.
After he left I went straight to work on this song but for reasons still unknown, I never heard from him again. I don't even know if the movie ever came out but at least I got a good song from the experience.
I always thought there was something brave or heroic about this one. Like something they might've sung during World War Two as part of The Resistance if that makes any sense. Or perhaps like that Bruce Cockburn song "Lovers In A Dangerous Time" that I love.
Looking back on it, I'd probably say it's one of my favorites on Time Being. It's all about the little souvenirs that we save or treasure. And although they might seem meaningless to others, to us they're the things that tell our story.
AND NOW THE DAY IS DONE
The final song is another tribute to my friend Rob.
His death really was a rude awakening for me and it left so many unanswered questions for all concerned. Rob's father died just a few years later and someone told me recently he had been listening to this record the night before he passed away which meant a great deal to me. I'd like to think that if there is a heaven somewhere, that they've been reunited and are off camping together or something.
Mitchell thought some organ would be fitting on this song but he wasn't sure where to come in. I suggested he enter on the word "hope" in the second verse which is what I always listen for now whenever I hear it.
And speaking of hope, I hope that where ever Rob is now that he knows what he meant to our little gang down here below and that I've sent these songs out into the universe in hopes that he might hear them and be at peace.
The making of Time Being was such a great experience for me. It's funny but people talk about Other Songs being the best record that Mitchell and I ever made, and perhaps that's true. But I would have to say personally, for me, this is the best one of the four we did... even Elton John called to tell me that!