The Sybarite


I’m as guilty as I seem.

Don’t look now, but today is Election Day. Yes it is. I’m assuming you live in New Jersey, now. And if you don’t, why don’t you? You could make your stand in the shifting sands of New York City, giving ground, receding farther out into Long Island as the rest of the city is turned into a black-helicopter-supervised hellscape. You could flee to California and put yourself right in the crosshairs of climate change and a potential megadrought (counterpoint: they may be getting single-payer out there). The correct answer is probably Baltimore, or Richmond, or Providence, Rhode Island. But I’m sticking it out here in the Jerz, as I always do, and that means today I get to do something that most of the rest of the country only dreams of doing. I can go into the ballot box and take electoral action against a regime and an executive I don’t like one bit.

Indirectly, I mean. This is a primary election, which means I’ll be deciding between a guy who has been endorsed by national Democratic Party figures, has a ludicrous amount of money, and who gives me a not-insubstantial case of the heebie-jeebies, or three challengers who position themselves as underdogs but who actually represent various flavors of Jersey institutional politics. Those challengers aren’t going to win, so in a real sense it’s not an election at all. But there’s nothing new about that around here, and a good lever-pulling can cheer up even the most inveterate sourpuss. I’m probably going to vote for Jim Johnson because Amy Jacob from Prosolar Mechanics wants me to, and I like Amy a lot more than I like Raymond Lesniak or the Wiz. No matter who wins, though (ha ha, like  there’s any chance it’s not going to be Phil Murphy), that’ll be my guy in the fall. Yours too, unless you’re completely insane.

See, here in Jersey, there’s no place to go but up. Even if Joe Piscopo had run and won, that still would have been a massive improvement over what we’ve been saddled with here. The Christie Administration was a dry run for what’s been happening on the national level — I mean autocratic governance by the biggest, loudest, most irrationally petty jerkface imaginable — so we’ve gotten a sneak preview of the movie that has transfixed the nation. We know how it ends: in eight nasty years, with government departments broke and public services run into the ground, a huge slime trail of bully-boy corruption, and everybody angry at everybody else. It’s not pretty, America, what you’ve got in store for you. I hope you’re not counting on former chiefs of the FBI, of all people, to get you free from this bind. No, the only way out is to get organized and vote for people who will stand up for our regional autonomy. Which in practice means electing leaders who’ll tell the White House that their absurd policies don’t play here.

Murphy gets a lot of grief because he’s from Goldman Sachs; Wisniewski, in particular, has been laying pretty hard on that buzzer. Honestly, I think he’s been right to. That’s not because I think the banksters, as Springsteen likes to call them in his weaker moments, are any more evil than any other corporate decisionmakers, because they really aren’t. It’s because I believe that as a quintessential Wall Street gazillionare, Murphy is wide open to the same populist line of attack that hobbled Hillary Clinton in the general election. The counterargument is that Hillary Clinton was and is pretty popular in the Garden State: she crushed Bernie in the primary and won the general by something like fifteen percentage points. I don’t think affiliation with the financial services industry is the same kiss of death here that it is in Wisconsin, I guess.

I further believe that Chris Christie has discredited himself so thoroughly that Kim Guadagno, attached to the governor’s slimy self like Kuato in Total Recall as she is, won’t be able to exploit the opening provided by Murphy’s problematic resume. But wait a sec, there’s no guarantee that Guadagno will get the Republican nomination, and again I’ll be frank — the other guy worries me. Ciattarelli has, in case you haven’t noticed, made Hudson County his personal punching bag. It is his position, and I believe it’ll be a popular one out in the sticks, that the Abbott money for our school districts is an unfair allocation of state tax dollars. In other words, now that we’re all wealthy motherfuckers over here and we’ve got our own Barcade, it is, according to Mr. Ciattarelli, time for dad to cut off our allowance.

I’d find his attitude revoltingly condescending even if it wasn’t true that the city belt has been carrying the burbs for at least as long as I’ve been alive, and it’s my humble opinion that they might express a little g-d gratitude for this. But it is true, and even though I really don’t like to bring it up, he started it, so I’m going to finish it. We’re not the ones who chucked so much sprawl at the map that the state is presently choking on it. We’re not the ones sticking strip malls and condo subdivisions atop some of the best farmland in the world. We didn’t design our communities so they fall apart every time there’s a gasoline shortage. We’re not the ones who treat art and culture like a bizarre indulgence, rather than the human necessity that it is, and then wonder why our lives feel empty and directionless. Sure, we’ve come up, and it’s nicer here than it used to be, and some people have more money and opportunity than they used to (there’s also plenty of hardship, and many of our people still need assistance). But every inch we’ve gained has been in the teeth of constant opposition from resentful suburbanites who are leading some of the most irresponsible, unhelpful, unsustainable lives imaginable. It’s been exhausting, and we’re sick of it. We won’t be lectured to by you people. Go on, clean up your own Hillsborough.

Okay, go vote, and then enjoy today’s song. The lyrics are a bit elliptical, but the attached story (Mario) ought to make it clear what’s going on: it’s the daydream of a corrupt politician. You can always count on me to have sympathy for the Devil, as long as the Devil in question is a nice fellow and not, as certain Devils are, a roaring ass.

A Girl With A Bicycle

I speak to be overheard.

A special Memorial Day message from your friends at Tris McCall (namely, Tris McCall).

To our great dismay, we have learned that you have been paying attention to the President. We don’t understand this. The President is a tremendously uninteresting person. His psychology is shallow enough to be fully legible to a fifth grader. The President is deeply unworthy of your attention. Please transfer it elsewhere.

One possible target: me.  I am more interesting than the President.   Admittedly this is a low bar to clear. But I have been preparing songs and stories for you at, and these are designed to reward close engagement.
I will be performing songs from this Almanac tonight at the Sidewalk Cafe (94 Avenue A) at 8 pm.  I’ll be opening the set with an acoustic rendition of the song most recently added to the site: A Girl With A Bicycle. I swear this will be more interesting than the news programs, most of which, I have noticed, proceed as if only thing noteworthy in the entire world is the American President.
Performing right before me at 7: Ben Krieger.  Ben is a complex character with songs and stories of his own.  He is much, much more interesting than the President and the gang of wealthy dullards that surrounds him.  Or the social networks, which are presently suffocated by president-related content.
Or you could do any number of other things. For selfish reasons I’d like you to come out to the Sidewalk.  That’d be great. But as long as what you’re doing has nothing to do with the President, I’m happy.  It was undeserved attention that got him there, and it’ll be undeserved attention that keeps him there if we’re not careful.
Change the channel with me,

All The Money In The World

Golden nugget in the shaft.

From north to south, sea to measured sea, Bangor to mighty Maine, I really do love all of these American cities. I hope my affection has come through in the stories and songs. As an East Coast loyalist (and a Giants fan) I’m supposed to be suspicious of Southern California, but in my opinion, Los Angeles is very much like Jersey, and therefore lovably dysfunctional. I’m also supposed to cultivate some Yankee disregard for the Deep South, but forget it; I dig it down there. Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, New Orleans — these are some of my favorite spots to visit, and I might even consider moving there, for a little while at least, if it wasn’t for the stifling heat.

But there’s always an exception, and I fear we’ve arrived at it. I’ll just come out and admit it: I don’t like Las Vegas. I find it to be an ugly, misleading caricature of America — a place where the things about the country that bug me all find their fullest expression. Worship of money and success, casino capitalism, gaudiness, grotesque consumption, rootlessness and ahistoricity, rampant overbuilding in an area that’s not exactly suited for human habitation, let alone widespread development, all of this stuff hits me over the head the minute I land at McCarran. None of this is America as I understand it, but I know it’s the image of the country that haunts the nightmares of anti-Americans abroad. It bothers me that there’s an American city I don’t really care for, because as a dumb patriotic fucker I want to believe that the American project can flourish in all circumstances and ennoble all who fly with the eagle, so I’d love to be proven wrong or just shortsighted about Las Vegas. Because in May 2017, Vegas is in my doghouse. And I’m pretty confident that comes through in the song and the story.

The story is the single most depraved thing I’ve ever written, including the filthy stuff I ad-lib in the shower. (Ask my poor neighbors.) I began with the vile image that closed the story and the pair of newcomers who are in over their heads in Vegas and worked backward from there. Should I ever be indicted, which could happen any day, I fully expect the prosecution to use this piece of writing against me. Goes to character. I’m like 50 Cent on “Heat”; the D.A. can play this motherfucking tape in court. Remember that song? No? It was a good one. Given the grotesque elements of this story and the Miami Beach one, I feel it necessary to reassure readers that I do not have an eating disorder of any kind. Last week I learned that my mommy reads this site. Seriously, mommy, I am fine. Mentally sound and all. Mama I’m so sorry I’m so obnoxious/my only accomplice my conscience/Yecch.

As for the song, it’s possible to hear it as a straightforward narrative about a man who wakes up to find he has all the money in the world in his bank account. To me at least, it’s more complicated than that, but I’ll leave it to you to puzzle out the deeper meaning if you care to. Aw, shucks, I’ll just go ahead and say it: “All The Money In The World” is about the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. I was attempting to personalize the global predicament and draw a character who is somewhat bewildered by his stroke of good fortune and who is blind to its implications. Sort of a clumsy guy, blundering around, having trouble conceptualizing his relationships to others and growing increasingly paranoid. I don’t know how much of that comes through; probably not a lot. As long as you get the Brandon Belt joke in the last stanza, we can be friends.

I wasn’t present for the mix. That was my own fault. I cut it very close this week. Mike Flannery now lives in Atlantic Highlands in Monmouth County, which is best accessed by ferry: you can pick it up on East 35th Street and motorboat south for an hour, under the Verrazano Bridge and out into New York Bay to Sandy Hook and beyond. But getting from the 33rd St. PATH station to the ferry slip in the rain isn’t a fun thing to do, and even in the best weather I’m scared of sinking. It’s not my hide I’m worried about, it’s this laptop. It’s been such a good pal, and I’d hate to get it waterlogged. Anyway, I chose not to go to Atlantic Highlands today, and Mike was kind enough to do the mix for me anyway. There were practical consequences to my decision — a piano part that I really liked got excised, or maybe just de-emphasized. But Mike’s real care here is evident, and I am pleased to say that he Flannerized the entire track and made it sound as good as the songs on Try Your Hardest, his soon-to-be-released solo album. Without me whispering in his ear and making jokes, he was free to shoot the works. Which he did. If the final product is a little baroque, a little flashy, well, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to represent my Vegas experience in any other manner.

You’re No Good To Anyone


Even clocks one day wind down.

Last week I was way too specific. So this week, I’m overcompensating. Not intentionally, though — the calendar just happened to fall that way. “You’re No Good To Anyone” is the most open-ended song in the Almanac, and I hope it will mollify those who’ve said in the past that a listener needs a search engine to appreciate my music. I hope my  performance lends these threadbare lyrics some resonance. The story of my life basically goes like this: I wanted to sing like Bob Seger, but I couldn’t do it, so I tried to sing like Green Gartside instead. The rest is just supplementary detail.

When I wrote this number, I was thinking about Brett Whitmoyer specifically; he’s a U2 fan, and I wanted to give him something that he could rattle and hum with. The original demo featured a drum part that sounded like what Larry Mullen, Jr. might play if he was hopped up on Cap’n Crunch and 24 straight hours of C-SPAN. To his credit, Brett ignored all of that and just played it as if it was a proper rock song. We did it at Pianos last weekend with Ronni Reich on backing vocals, and I don’t think it was half bad.

But what does any of this have to do with Nashville?, I hear you cry. After last week, when I was hitting us over the head with street names and particular places in metro Phoenix, the elliptical quality of “You’re No Good To Anyone” probably does seem un-Tris McCall-ish. I don’t even make up for it in the story, which is about the intersection of politics and prophecy and could really be set anywhere in the South. But Nashville, as Tim McGraw reminded us on the Two Lanes Of Freedom album that you almost certainly didn’t listen to, owes much of its identity to country music, and this is my attempt to reproduce that peculiar shiver I get from country songs. Did I do it? You’ll have to tell me.

It’s been a very good year already for country music — real country music, I mean — though not all of the great stuff has been made widely available. Natalie Hemby, who has collaborated a bunch with Miranda Lambert, put out a nine-song album called Puxico that is impeccably written in an understated manner; maybe not what you’d expect from the co-author of “Brews And Boobs On The Pontoon” or whatever it was called, but these hitmakers sometimes save their most reflective stuff for their own sets. I just wish it would get a proper release. Right now it’s only downloadable, and c’mon, there are no digital cows on the farm (yet.)  Angaleena Presley, who proved to be the nation’s most reliable futurist on American Middle Class, has a new one out, too, and so does John Moreland, who sings like Springsteen circa Nebraska, and Chris Stapleton, who sings like the state of Kentucky on Derby Day. Also, the only protest song I need at the moment is Brad Paisley’s “The Devil Is Alive And Well.” Brad, I got the cleverly encoded message.

And on the subject of people with acoustic guitars and something to say: you make have picked this up from my writing, but I might like Laura Marling a tiny bit. There may be some good music on her latest.  Seriously, when I see something like this Mahogany session, I do wonder why I, or anybody else for that matter, even bothers. Lately I feel like the entire corpus of British folk-rock — from Fairport and the Pentangle and ISB and North Star Grassman through Annie Haslam and Nick Drake to Beth Orton and Kate St. John — was all just there to set up 2:59 through 3:10 of “Nothing, Not Nearly.” Knocks me cold, every time.

On Indian School

Down in the dirt with the snakes and the heat.

I’ve tried my best never to be too too hokey about any of this stuff.  Just as I’d hate to have an out-of-stater come here and write a bunch of junk about the Jersey Devil and Taylor ham, I don’t want anybody to think that the only thing I’ve taken away from the cities I’ve visited is the schticky superficials. These songs and stories are inspired by places I’ve gone and narrated by characters I’ve imagined there.  I don’t think they necessarily have to namecheck specific landmarks.  The exception that demonstrates my scruples (hopefully) is “That’s What I Like About Baltimore”, which is a song about the way in which a fixation on kitsch culture associated with a city can make engagement with that impossible: the actual culture of a place as rich as Baltimore occluded by Berger cookies and pink flamingos.  Which, come to think of it, is the sort of thing that happens in New Jersey a bunch.  Even Jersey people do it.

But I goofed with Phoenix, and I know it — but I don’t want to take it back or scrap the song.  Here’s what happened: I found the names of the East-West streets that run straight through the Valley of the Sun so evocative that I felt the need to build a song around them.  Once I started, I couldn’t stop, and it became a kind of game.  If we crossed a major road, I had to find someplace in the lyric of “On Indian School” (Indian School is an East-West road) to tuck it in. Thunderbird, Baseline, Bethany Home, Greenway, Bell, Camelback; Phoenix knows how to name its streets. 

If that sounds to you like the recipe for an incoherent lyric, one full of annoying wordplay, well, you can decide for yourself. I acknowledge that this one isn’t as tightly written as the last few were. The scenario is too complicated for a three minute indiepop song: there are a couple of different characters in dialogue, although that’s hard to pick out unless you’re listening closely.  The main character might be a recovering junkie, or a justifiably resentful Native American, or a musician without a band.  His interlocutor is definitely a social worker.  Mentioning Kokopelli in a song about Arizona is sort of like putting a reference to orange juice in a South Florida number or wind in a verse about Chicago.  Yet I did find that the cult of Kokopelli in the shops of Phoenix and Scottsdale was so weirdly compelling that the old trickster had to wriggle his way into the song.  We almost bought an insanely expensive seed pot in a store in Scottsdale that was covered with hundreds of marching Kokopelli figures in a spiral.  It was mesmerizing.  I couldn’t stop looking at it.  After that I started noticing Kokopelli everywhere, which in Arizona isn’t exactly like riddling out the locations of the Tristero Post Horn.  There’s a big Kokopelli waiting to greet you on the way to the airport.  They drew him right on the ground.  He’s everywhere.

So yes, in a thirty plus song project, some of the numbers are going to be a little more scrambled than others, and I was resigned to relegating this one to digital b-side status.  Imagine my surprise, then, when “On Indian School” came together like a popcorn caramel ball during the mix.  I now sort of love it, and I have to think that the same listeners who enjoyed “Route 52” will also dig this song, too.  I believe it went from off-putting to magnetically confusing in a single afternoon of hard work by Mike Flannery, and I thank him for that.  It also features the only triangle part I’ve ever put in any of my songs, played here by the mysterious Mr. Irving Sosceles.  He rocks in a geometry outfit with Joe Scalene.  No two of his sides are equal.

You Can Meet Me There


Tulip petal bright, taffy wrapper tight.

I was first introduced to Sara Hallie Richardson‘s music in 2009.  She was based in Portland, Maine, which is a pretty cute city; you oughta visit. Michael Flannery had opened a studio in downtown Bangor. He produced an album called A Curious Paradox for Sarah and sent me a copy when they were done with it. Mike figured that I’d like it, and he was right.

Most of the time, when I get an album in the mail, the sender wants me to write about it. That wasn’t Mike’s intention. Although he’s essentially a pop-funk guy who looks at Prince as his primary role model, Mike is good at matching up people who are, if you’ll pardon my loaded and dated term, a little bit twee. (For instance, Mike introduced me to Ula Bloom, who did the first nine illustrations on this site; this week’s picture comes courtesy of Kyle McRuer.) Now, this is probably not fair to say about Sara, who has, as I’ve learned, many musical modes. But when I heard her sing, all I wanted to do was start a tweepop band and plunk her down right in the middle of it.

We were making Let The Night Fall at the time. Most of my lead vocals were already done, and we’d already added two of my favorite singers — Amy Jacob from Prosolar Mechanics and Angela Lane Hamilton — to the tracks. But I knew, immediately, that I needed to make room for Sara. She’d moved to New York City to support A Curious Paradox, so we brought her into Melody Lanes to sing on some of our songs. To say that she sprinkled a little sugar on the album would be an understatement. Suddenly it wasn’t just my voice coming at the listener like a rusted bicycle with a creaky chain — there was also this very warm and smart and empathetic character underscoring the words I’d written. Sara bestowed legitimacy and depth on my storytelling. Her performances are part of the reason I’m proud of Let The Night Fall.

If it had been 1999 and I’d been thinking of nothing but music, I would have insisted that we start that band. Archie Moore and Sarah Shannon, Robert Wratten and Beth Arzy, Sarah Martin and Stuart Murdoch — every great cupcake-pop act I’ve ever wanted to emulate had that boy-girl dynamic upfront with the girl doing her best to redeem the boy for the unforgivable sin of being a boy. But as you probably know, we never did right by Let The Night Fall, and that was entirely my fault. I got preoccupied with other things, and I do hope you enjoyed those other things at least half as much as I did. Sara made a couple more excellent records and relocated to Los Angeles; Phoenix, her most recent album, is much too sophisticated to be twee. She’s definitely outgrown the role I would have cast her in, so good on her for escaping my clutches.

But just like a tractor beam that can’t be disabled by Obi Kenobi, I have a funny way of drawing unwary space travelers back to the Death Star. Or Jay Braun does, anyway — it was Jay who tracked down Sara in Los Angeles via a strange modern miracle called social networking. Don’t ask me; I know nothing about it. Jay, who has been listening to 2112 and Appetite For Destruction lately, has no appetite for cupcake pop and tends to give me the side-eye when I bring up Belle & Sebastian in the studio, which happens every five minutes or so. But he knows what I want, and more to the point, he loves Sara’s music as much as I do. When Jay decided that my attempts to sing “You Can Meet Me There” weren’t cutting it by my own twee standards, he prevailed on Sara Hallie Richardson to give it a try.

Long story short: you’re never going to get to hear the version with my voice on it, because Sara transformed the song, liberated it really, and made it into what I always wanted it to be. If you don’t like it, it’s still my fault and not hers, because I was the arrested adolescent who encouraged her to take it over to the cupcake bakery. But if you don’t like it, you probably don’t like Trembling Blue Stars, either, so you’ve got a different idea of romance from mine: more grown-up, less frosting. In keeping with the perversity that runs through the TBS catalog like a black ribbon, I’ve paired this coy valentine of a song with the most brutal story on the site so far. They just go together, like Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan.


Unbeliever, Respect The Veil


Bombs in the desert — that’s the world we’ve made.

Like everything else in this Almanac, “Unbeliever, Respect The Veil” is a character song. The narrator is a professor of religious studies — and freelance monotheist, to use Karen Armstrong’s neat term — at a university in metropolitan Detroit. He has come to see fundamentalists as profoundly irreligious people, and he’s also lost his patience with secular critics who dismiss the faithful outright. Every time he hears a denunciation of Islam by a man (and it’s always a man) on the news who has neither read the Quran nor studied Muslim philosophy, he loses a little more hair.

So, yeah, maybe he’s a bit more like me than some of the prior characters. His protest is not exactly mine. This isn’t the way I’d put it. But I’m happy to sing his lament.

The Detroit page was originally slated for late May. Events in Syria, and in Washington, prompted me to move it up. Depending on who you read, the Shayrat airbase struck by American Tomahawk missiles was either a provisional military success or an empty symbolic gesture. The one thing that isn’t in dispute: the twenty or so civilians killed in the raid — including at least four children — are still very much dead. Their stories weren’t widely told, and that’s because they were weighed in the click balance and found wanting, and the editors decided to run more United Airlines brawl footage instead. I’d wager the dead placed some value on their scalps, though. I’d bet their reaction to Tomahawk missiles in their living rooms was less than enthusiastic. That my tax money was used to kill those people — in my name, and in the name of American interest — makes me want to become insolvent. I don’t fancy being an accomplice to murder.

The Shayrat attack was the latest refrain of an ugly American anthem that we’ve been singing for twenty-five years at least. Every administration in my memory has authorized airstrikes in the Middle East. Some of the more harebrained supporters of the current President believed that the nasty “America First” rhetoric he used while campaigning meant that he’d govern as a non-interventionist. I don’t want to make excuses for these people, but I’ll say this: they couldn’t have been from Jersey. If you grew up anywhere near Atlantic City, you recognized, thirty years ago at least, that the lowlife who is now President is one of the most bellicose guys around. If you gave him a bomb — which is what we’ve done, many times over — he was never going to refrain from dropping it on somebody. That’s not who he is.

But this isn’t about this particular President, who is extending a policy (perhaps more sadistically, given his disposition) that has been around, with lethal consequences for folks in the way of the eagle, for decades. Even the justifications used for the bombing — chemical weapons, crossing red lines, a dictator who is worse than Hitler, etc. — all felt like 2002 warmed over. That intelligence turned out to be a sham, and the ensuing intervention dispensed pain all over the world. We can’t possibly be getting ready to do it again, can we? Say it isn’t so.

Note: today’s drawing was done by Kyle McRuer. This is the first time anybody other than Ula Bloom has contributed a cartoon. There’ll be more from Ula soon, but next week’s trip to Cambridge will also be illustrated by Kyle. Gosh, I am appreciative of all the artists who’ve contributed to this project. I hope they’ll post me some nice pictures when I’m in Guantanamo.

You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby


Would they even recognize you if they saw you in the shop?

Because you’re a J. D. Salinger fanatic like me, a completist and obsessor who photocopies stories out of eighty-year-old issues of the New Yorker, you recognize the title: “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby” is the song that Les and Bessie Glass made semi-famous in their vaudeville act. Neither Franny nor Zooey nor anybody else gives the reader a really good description of the song, but from context clues, it’s a safe bet that it’s witty, and urbane, and light-handed, and something of a lark. All of which is pretty much the opposite of this, its namesake, one of the spazziest and most desperate/restless songs in the Tris McCall catalog. Now why would I do that to Salinger, the artist to whom I owe more than any other artist? Beats me. I’m a jerk, really.

In fairness to us, we’re calling this the Starlite version of “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby,” which means it’s not at all what you’ll be getting when the album is ready. When we listened back to the basic tracks, we discovered that I’d pushed like crazy on the piano, and tipped the whole thing into a frantic, higgledy-piggledy mess. But I like that kind of thing, and I wanted to work on it anyway. Our compromise: we’re going to cut a groovier, more restrained version — one that Les and Bessie wouldn’t want to disown us over — that’ll eventually replace, or supplement, this one on the site. In the meantime, we put together a mix of this to accommodate the Los Angeles page, and we’re sharing it right now.

Since this is the Starlite version, we felt authorized to glitz it up as much as possible: synth solos, guitar solos, a clavinet, horn samples, backing vocals, a Moog part that somehow reminds me of a machine injecting jelly into doughnuts, whatever else we could fit. The L.A. song, I felt, required a maximalist approach anyway, so if it sounds overstuffed to you, well, that’s not entirely an accident. It’s not entirely by design, either, since in my mind at least, all the instruments are as meticulously arranged as a Bacharach production, or at least Prefab Sprout. I’ll try again sometime, probably on the Nashville song. But I promise: this is about as overwhelming as it’s ever going to get. Thank you for hanging with me.

All disclaimers aside, I’ve been wanting to name a song, or an album, or something, after “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby” for many years. There aren’t too many loose ends in Salinger’s stories — even when he’s racing around at greyhound speed, he’s usually careful to satisfy whatever emotional curiosity his narratives engender. The Glass family parents are an exception to that. They’re mysterious figures hovering above the stories, and their motivations are left for the reader to supply. How do they feel about It’s A Wise Child after the fact, for instance, once they’ve seen that their children haven’t exactly survived their encounter with the world with all their  f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s  intact?

Every Day Is Children’s Day

Are you gonna snap right back?

Much as I love early-’80s Genesis and Phil Collins in general, I can’t really defend “Illegal Alien.” I’ve tried. Genesis was then a tight little art-rock machine with its eyes on the mainstream, and Collins and Tony Banks were in the right midst of their deep fascination with criminal activity (“Robbery, Assault & Battery,” “Who Dunnit,” “Home By The Sea,” etc.) “Illegal Alien” was just the one where Collins could really indulge his penchant for offensive caricature and grandstanding theatrical stereotype; in this case, a drunk Mexican willing to pimp his sister to get him to America. I still think that now is the time for somebody to do a cover version, and sure, I’d like that somebody to be me, but I’ve never found musicians crazy enough to accompany me. Something about their public reputations, I think.

So, yes, I acknowledge it’s a nasty song, an unconscionable song — even if it isn’t exactly a bad song; it’s got Collins, Banks, and Mike Rutherford on it, applying their considerable musical talents to problematic material. (The video is even worse, or, if you the kind of person who likes to collect racist artifacts for kitsch value, way better.) Randy Newman used to do this kind of thing all the time, although his touch was much lighter and he’s never exactly been a corporate rocker, so we let him get away with it. If you take the long view, you can see “Illegal Alien” as the most extreme version of a practice popular with many of our Seventies heroes: phony Latin numbers, often sung in crummy South Of The Border accents. All the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers did it — Jackson Browne with “Linda Paloma”, Billy Joel on “Rosalita’s Eyes” and “All You Wanna Do Is Dance”, Carole King on “Corazon” and the Fantasy album, many, many others. Hell, Paul Simon was down by the schoolyard with Julio and ripping off “El Condor Pasa” long before he pirated anything from Africa. Lou Reed, Donald Fagen, Dylan, all the legendary Jewish-American urban storytellers; none of them could resist a little pinch of Latin appropriation.

Me neither. We’re supposed to be in a more sensitive era where we’re all far beyond finding something like “Illegal Alien” permissible, but seriously, have you looked at the news lately? Most musicians only appropriate stuff they respect, and want to be like, and that goes double for Phil Collins, who, in 1982, was a guy in a prog rock band desperately searching for some cool. I’ve been doing Latin fakes even since I started writing music: there’s “Go Back To West New York”, and “WFMU”, and “Robert Menendez Basta Ya”, and many others that haven’t ever been a regular part of the repertoire. Are these my best songs? Well, no, but they’re sure fun to play live. Latin rhythms don’t come naturally to me, but neither do any others. If I’m going to play music at all, I’ve got to swipe from somewhere, so it may as well be a tradition that excites me.

“Every Day Is Children’s Day” is 100% Latin fake. The programmed drums  are copied into the track from a MIDI folder called, I kid you not, “Cuba”; there are great conga sounds in there. That’s me on bass, too, attempting the sort of line I remember from the Gloria Estefan records I used to dance wildly to at people’s Bar Mitzvahs before getting escorted off the floor by concerned adults. The “Oh, Miami” chant — much like the TripStar concept in the accompanying story — is a tip of the cap to Fagen, who isn’t Latin-American, but he sure is from Jersey. Somehow it all works for me: I really do love this one, just like (and probably because) I really do love Latin music. If Dierks Bentley can invent an entire Southern outlaw mythology for his listeners based on vague recollections of The Dukes Of Hazzard, I feel I’m allowed to conjure Miami Beach via Ricky Ricardo. Once or twice, only, I promise. If by chance you’re not offended by this, trust me, there’s worse to come. Wait until we get to the San Juan song — that’s about as far down the road toward “Illegal Alien” as any North American ever ought to go.

The Unmapped Man

There are still places an American can hide.

Several years ago, I wrote a book called The Trespassers. I like it a bunch; if you haven’t read it, I wish you would. It’s what I have to say to you. It’s not really an adventure story — what action there is mostly involves a bunch of kids breaking into abandoned buildings and photographing them. The narrator is a sixteen-year-old aspiring troublemaker from North Carolina at large in Jersey during the summer of 2004. Recent historical fiction, in other words. Just like most fiction is, I guess.

I was compelled to write the story because of certain sad conclusions I’d drawn about America, and Americans, and how we view the landscape. I don’t necessarily want to give anything away about the story in case you do decide to read it sometime, but I did feel like I was writing against techno-conformity, and I hope that people who did read The Trespassers understood my intent. Since I put everything I care about in that book, I can’t help but return to those themes in the short stories I’ve been writing for the Almanac. Maybe obsessively. I can’t tell yet. I’ve been trying to vary the style and tone as a safeguard against redundancy.

The latest is the longest at eight thousand words, which is too many words for the Internet, but there it is. I like it best of the stories, and that’s probably because it’s the one that reminds me the most of The Trespassers: there’s a gently anti-social and wholly unreliable protagonist who is looking desperately for connections with others without compromising a skewed set of personal ethics. I’ve paired the story with my favorite song in the entire Almanac, at least for now — and when I ask myself why it’s my favorite song, I’m forced to conclude that’s because it, too, reminds me of The Trespassers. There’s something I’m trying to get at; I’ve been trying for twenty-five years, at least. I may never get there, but when I feel like I’ve been able to render some of it in a book or on an album, that’s the stuff I’ve done that’s meaningful to me.

“The Unmapped Man” was directly inspired by a different book — The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. If you haven’t read it, it’s sort of a Louisianan version of The Catcher In The Rye: Binx Bolling, the main character, has come unmoored from the society he keeps and maybe even from himself. He wanders around a spectral version of New Orleans, periodically attempting to jump free from his quotidian existence but mostly just going with the flow. If you’ve read the book, some of the references in the song might make sense, and this was initially subtitled Binx Bolling’s Blues, but the narrator isn’t Binx, it’s Bo, who is an entirely different can of worms, or drawer of knives. So yeah, Walker Percy can’t be held responsible for any of this. A small tip of the cap goes to my wise friend Sarah, who, just a few days ago, told me, with all sincerity, that Utopia begins with U. I popped it right in the story. It needed to go someplace.