The Story Behind the Song (4 of 9): Naked Bourbon

Everyone lives for Friday in America.

Most of the time, the ideas for my songs come from free writes in my journal. It could be a recap of my day, descriptions of a feeling, or a memory. I free write until I eventually write what Hemingway called a “true sentence.” In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, he reflects on his periods of writers bloc and he would reassure himself with the idea that all a writer needs to start writing is a true sentence: a sentence that’s honest and original. “Naked Bourbon” started accidentally in a free write while I was trying to think of other ways to describe bourbon poured neat. That image stuck with me for a few weeks until I eventually wrote the first lines of the song “It’s been a long Monday/On East Main street/Of Pushing Paper/standing on seats.” A concept of escapism began to take shape and the rest of the song grew from there. 

The title and chorus of this song can be misleading out of context. I admit that a fresh pour of bourbon on the rocks or neat is a love affair worth having, but as the song took shape, “naked bourbon” became more of a symbol for escaping from your day to day.

We’ve all been there. You’re at work, perhaps sitting at your desk or in an idle truck, and suddenly it’s the absolute last place you want to be in that moment. You click from tab to tab, reread the same paragraph again and again, or mindlessly scroll through facebook or instagram, day dreaming about literally anything else. The more time that I’ve spent writing, playing, and listening to music, the more it’s on my mind throughout the rest of my day. And when I find myself asking questions about the nature of some of the more mundane aspects of my day job, I want to be elsewhere. 

 Deadcreek Flow, near Wanakena, NY at sunset. Sights like these are often the focus of my day dreams. 

Deadcreek Flow, near Wanakena, NY at sunset. Sights like these are often the focus of my day dreams. 

The heart of this song is a deep questioning about the ways we spend our time earning a living and the thought of other pursuits we would rather be doing.

Just before I wrote this song, I read Travels with Charley, Steinbeck’s famous controversial travelogue about his cross country road trip with his dog, Charley. Intent on reconnecting with his own country and seeking a cure for a period of depression, he chronicles his experiences and observations on his months long journey. For me, this book evoked my wanderlust and the hours I spent working under florescent lights after dark became stifling. Some of what I experienced in my day to day at the time did not exactly mesh with my own romantic imagination. 

Weekends and the summer are when I get to tend to my true sources for happiness, whether its traveling, playing or writing music, wandering around in the woods, spending time with family, or staying up late with a glass of bourbon and my favorite records. 

 

Lyrics:

It’s been Long Monday on East Main Street

Of Pushing Paper standing on seats

The sun that shines through these broken blinds

Shines right on my day-dreaming eyes

 

I used to want the world like Steinbeck in his wheeled shack

Now I never read books that ain’t stapled stacks

Oh how I’d kill right now to move past this disaster

And get to my naked bourbon a little faster

 

Pour it slow, pour it true 

Look me in the eye

You know the way I like to drink

Keep the lights low and the music on

Keep the lights low and the music on 

 

Everyone lives for Friday in America

We complain we’re tired the moment we wake up

So I don’t spend my time sippin’ any old flight

I wait for my naked bourbon on Friday nights

 

Pour it slow, pour it true 

Look me in the eye

You know the way I like to drink

Keep the lights low and the music on

Keep the lights low and the music on

 

Baby I love how you stare at me through the glass

The sparkle on the ice glows

Tomorrow we don’t have anywhere else to go 

So I’m gonna hold you till sunrise in front of this fire light

 

Pour it slow, pour it true 

Look me in the eye

You know the way I like to drink

Keep the lights low and the music on

Keep the lights low and the music on

 

 

The Story Behind the Song (3 of 9): Blankets

I’m not ready to face the cold out there.
 These were the windowpanes that were frosted over one cold night I couldn't sleep. 

These were the windowpanes that were frosted over one cold night I couldn't sleep. 

Disclaimer: the process of writing this song was not a happy one, however cathartic. That's the the thing about songwriting: sometimes you're confronted with some hard emotions that you're not sharing with anyone else. You push them into the characters that you create and come out on the other side. This song captures some particular feelings I had at a very particular time in my life. 

If you've ever had the feeling that cacophony is hitting you from all sides, pounding your ears until the your ear drums bleed, so much so that you can't  focus on anything except for the smallest task in front of you, that was what drove this song. I'm not an anxious person by any means. Those who have known me remember me as kind of a wallflower as a teenager because I found more comfort in my guitar or Jimi Hendrix riffs than I did in most social situations. College moved me through that slowly but surely, and now I look back at laugh about how much of an awkward kid I was. This song is about anxiety, but it's an anxiety caused by near debilitating stress.

I wrote this song during a particularly difficult time at school. My school is experiencing a transition that no other school in the country has experienced before. It's a demanding work environment. The kids require all of your attention all of the time. There are endless meetings and paperwork to be filled out, events after school, pressure to prove to others that you're worth keeping employed, lesson plans that go completely awry. You watch yourself and others fail despite tiresome work. It's not the place for anyone who expects instant or even occasional gratification. To quote a very wise friend, every day you're given a set of matches and you're expected to light fire, but it's raining. You're matches get wet. The wood's wet.  But every day you get a new set of matches." I like what I do because it makes me feel like I'm doing some good for the world, but some days, well, they're some days. 

Unlike my last two songs that I've written about here, there's no great story behind it or a hopeful social justice message. It's a straight up protest song about this particular feeling of walls closing in on me from all sides. 

It was late November when I wrote it. The days are dark and starting to get cold and windy. My weeks were so over scheduled that I hated every blue event on my google calendar with a passion. The view of the ceiling from the couch invited my stare and when I couldn't sleep I sat up and looked out our front windows. I was growing bitter about some of the non-teaching aspects of my job, some decisions I had to make. Through all of that I wished from time to time that my job didn't require as much active thinking. I couldn't sleep even though I was exhausted, taking melatonin, feeling sleepy then feeling the sleepiness dissipate, passing the hours in the blue light of my phone on facebook, instagram, or browsing camping and hiking gear.  

My only respite was the five minutes or so I spent with my girlfriend after our alarms go off (sometimes mine for the third time) at 5:30 in the morning where we just lay in bed next to each other. That's it. Lay there, eyes open or not, legs or feet touching ever so slightly, before begrudgingly getting up to start the coffee and get on with my day.

Lyrics: 

The window panes frost over like the windshield of a corvette

But this old house can keep out the cold as long as the insulation holds

Your hand reaches for me under the sheets

My melatonin didn’t work last night so I watch my feed repeat

 

The wind blows stronger every day there’s waves out on the lake

I’m getting tired of making plans and feeling like I need to escape

This storm won’t last forever and they’ll be plenty more for us to weather

Don’t get up baby, we ain’t leaving today

 

Keep the blankets on I’m not ready to face the cold out there

Help me tell the road to wait

Leave that trail of clothes on the floor

They’ll still be there when the sun

Chases shadows off our dusty ceiling fan

Keep the blankets on me

Oh keep’em on me

Cause I ain’t going anywhere

 

All these expectations pile up like snow on the sidewalk

Sometimes I think that I’d prefer to trade my tie for a shovel

I move my hand down your back pretending there’s no information to track

Throw out my phone baby they can miss me for a day

 

Keep the blankets on I’m not ready to face the cold out there

Help me tell the road to wait

Leave that trail of clothes on the floor

They’ll still be there when the sun

Chases shadows off our dusty ceiling fan

Keep the blankets on me

Oh keep’em on me

Cause I ain’t going anywhere

 

The Story Behind the Song (2 of 9): Picture of an Indian

How long did it take you to finally feel like a man?

When you wake up one morning, reach for your guitar and a pencil, and six verses and a chord progression flow out of you, you might be on to something. It's what every writer hopes for: an uninterrupted pouring of emotion that shapes itself into a song without much toil. No song worth singing goes unrevised, but having a strong first draft certainly helps the process. 

 

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When I wrote the first draft of Picture of an Indian last January, it had been a very long time since I actually looked at this picture--and I mean actually looked at it. But that winter morning, it's what I woke up thinking about. Maybe I had a dream about it or about my grandfather, maybe not. The reasons why you write songs at particular times is part of the mystery of writing that I don't think I'll ever fully understand. 

I slumped off to my desk, still a little groggy and spilling my coffee and wrote the line "there's a picture of an indian wearing a suit and tie". I took another sip and went on describing the picture. That messy free write unlocked conversations I had with my grandfather I hadn't thought about in years. 

Sergeant Keith Marshall John Reitz served two tours in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. He was a mechanic. 1 of 10 children, he grew up dirt poor in the city of Rochester on Genesee Street. After receiving a letter stating that the draft would reopen, and his number was next on the list, he decided to enlist so he would have his choice of assignment. He died in 2003. I was twelve years old. 

At his funeral, I remember a newspaper clipping from Stars and Stripes, the US Army paper. The title of the article was A Musical GI. It described how my grandfather, a troubadour ever since he could play the guitar, was a popular entertainer and morale booster. He taught me many of my first guitar chords. By the time he was 24, he had done two tours in Vietnam and had two young children at home. As I grew older in the years since his death, I learned that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; the ghosts from the war haunted him his whole life. He was spit on by protesters when he got off the plane, and the things he had seen and done weighed heavy on him. It was an unpopular war, even for the soldiers who fought it. He ceremoniously burned his uniform out of anger towards the actions of those he fought for at home and the shame he felt that so many had died for an unfinished questionable cause.

My grandma tells a story about a motor cycle gang called "The Rebels" that used to hang around a bar called the Blue and White my grandfather used to sing in regularly. They were a group of hard sons-of-bitches that were traveling tree surgeons. They worked, drank, drank some more, and carried their debauchery on to the next place.  The story goes that one day, the Rebels decided he was so good that he should be a famous country singer. And if it was the last thing they did, they were going to get him a record deal in Nashville. After feeding him many drinks, they convinced him to get in the car and took off for the south. They made it as far as Kentucky before getting arrested and my grandfather had to hitch-hike home to my bewildered grandmother who was still waiting for him to take her to a movie. When she told me this story, it was too good not to write into a song.

Since college I've often compared myself to my grandfather. Compared to him, I haven't had that much to worry about. My job in life has been "do well in school", "get a good job", "be a kind, compassionate person", and "do what makes you happy." His was "stay alive", "get home", "provide for your wife and kids", and "figure out how to live a normal life again." To me it seems like he had to grow up a hell of a lot faster than me. I don't understand sacrifice like he did or my grandmother does. Their youth was full of trial and tribulation, horror, worry, and hard work. It took him a long time to recover from what he experienced and no one in my family is sure that he every completely did.

Before I became a teacher, my life consisted of reading books, playing the guitar, and drinking too much beer largely on my parents' dime. Even in my fourth year of teaching, I don't know if I feel like a man yet. At times I feel like I'm a grad student with a bigger budget and dog. Will it all change after I'm married with kids? Is that the mark of manliness? 

Perspective is a funny thing. I'll never know the true answer, but he may have been wondering the same thing about himself, whether its if he'll ever reconcile with Vietnam or if he he'd ever be as much of a man as his father or grandfather. It's part of coming of age I guess.

So that's the song: a tribute to an admired grandparent and a young man's meditation on becoming a man himself. 

Lyrics: 

There’s a picture of an Indian wearing a suit and tie

He had a high and tight like an army man and a sparkle in his eye

He got tired of kicking beer cans on the streets of the 585

Traded eight years to Uncle Sam to fix trucks in Vietnam

 

There’s a picture of an Indian with a guitar on his back

He serenaded soldiers when they were taking flak

He was featured in Stars and Stripes and awarded some medals

But the only prize that he brought home was a suitcase full of devils

 

What do I know about sacrifice? About Hard times?

You were twenty years old and didn’t know if you’d get home

How long did it take you to finally feel like a man?

 

There’s a story about an Indian getting drunk on whiskey

One day a gang of hardened men carried him off to Dixie

Nashville was where they would make him a star

But the only stages they put him on were the spinning stools of bars

 

What do I know about sacrifice? About Hard times?

You were twenty six years old when your wife said don't come home

How long did it take you to finally feel like a man?

 

All the stories they told me

At the kitchen table or fireside seat

I’m as old as you were then

And what have I done? Oh what have I done?

 

There’s a picture of an Indian wearing a suit and tie

He’s leaning on a pool table in the legion hall

A gentle smile brings you to the sparkle in his eye

Despite everything that he’d seen he never let it die

 

What do I know about sacrifice? About Hard times?

You were twenty years old and didn’t know if you’d get home

How long did it take you to finally feel like a man?

 

 

 

The Story Behind the Song (1 of 9): Flower City

Nothing’s wrong with the street lights
They all work just fine
But I ain’t always satisfied

I wrote "Flower City" two years after I returned to Rochester from Nashville. I had moved down there to be a full time musician and part time teacher with Teach for America, but it didn't quite work out that way. I resigned and moved back home after 6 months, was unemployed for a while and then started grad school at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. 

Then I taught 9th grade English for two years at East High School.

I have reacquainted myself  with Rochester twice in my 27 years of life. The first time was my freshman year of college. Being from Henrietta, I hadn't spent much time in the city of Rochester. The University showed me a new side of my hometown: a privileged, cosmopolitain, liberal, and educated Rochester. I had friends from all over the country who got to know their new home through me and the of-the-beaten-path places  (to college kids without a car) I took them to like Mendon Ponds Park. I was the local expert. I felt proud of what my little city offered. It wasn't a great city, but it was my city. 

The second time was my first year teaching at East High School. The kids I taught lived a completely different experience from how I grew up. My friends from suburban Texas, Massachusetts, and Minnesota never saw this side of town. Most of my students are from the North side of the city-- the "14621" or the "Fatal Crescent". They're immigrants and refugees who have already seen more hardship at 14 than I have in my entire life. They live near dilapidated, boarded up houses, abandoned factories, walk by used needles on the street, and over soil contaminated by industrial run off. They're far from the glowing aisles of perfect produce at Wegmans and the hipsters drinking their kombucha, single origin coffee, and craft beerThe longer I teach at East and the more I learn about how parts of Rochester got to be that way, the less proud I am of my hometown. I get angry at the inequity and how oblivious many people in Monroe County are to it. Privilege is being able to drive into the city, enjoy it at your leisure, complain about its struggles, and escape back home.

During my first summer as a teacher I walked the Genesee River Trail from Genesee Valley Park to Main Street. The path brings you through the University of Rochester River Campus, past the Dinosaur BBQ and through downtown to the old Sibley Building. On your right is the power and glory of the University: beautiful, manicured green spaces, ivy covered buildings, and brand new dorms. On your left is the skeleton of industry. Old factories and warehouses with caving roofs and neglected 19th ward homes that were long ago split into multifamily apartments. You pass historical signs along the way that describe a once great and bustling boomtown. Rochester has its own history walk, a faded blue line that guides you through the original heart of the city. The signs show blueprints and diagrams of the old grain warehouses and flour mills, and if they still exist, they're idle or being transformed into luxury lofts. The Kodak tower sits largely empty and start ups are moving in and parts of town are being "reclaimed" like the St. Paul Quarter. 

For most of my life I expected to call Rochester home. It's where my family is, the native culture I grew up knowing, the place I wanted to buy a house and raise kids. It's a fine place to live your life comfortably if you're lucky enough to be able to. I In some ways I feel a responsibility to stay and to give a damn. Yet, I feel enticed by what the rest of the country and the world offers. For now, anyway, I choose to live here.

So, that's this song: the narrator is grappling with the decision to stay or go, the privilege and entitlement of others and his own, the effects of a changing economy, and hoping the future is a little more promising.

Lyrics: 

It’s a rust belt town, don’t pretend

It started to slow down, before my momma was 10

I tried moving away but didn’t stay

I could stake a claim, or pack all my bags today

Living here young wasn’t the plan

But I wanted to raise kids next to mom and dad

Now that I’m here I’ve made my choice

Not to sit back and criticize but have a voice

Everyday I get older in Flower City

A little town against the times

Nothing’s wrong with the street lights

They all work just fine

But I ain’t always satisfied

There’s problems here, some you can see

Rusty old buildings rotting next to the Genesee

The rest aren’t hidden, they’re in sight

All the holes created by all of that white flight

It won’t ever be like it was before

Nostalgia won’t find you what you’ve been looking for

If you change your mind, see what shines

Maybe you'll start to see some wilted flowers climb

Everyday I get older in Flower City

A little town against the times

Nothing’s wrong with the street lights

They all work just fine

But I ain’t always satisfied

But I could be satisfied...