Recording in Miami, 2012

In November, 2012, David and I went to Miami Beach to record a new Mecca Normal album with KRAMER at Rat Bastard’s studio, the Laundry Room. We had three days to record.

In October, Mecca Normal was on tour on the west coast, after which we’d planned to rehearse songs we’d set aside but intended to record. When we were in LA, I found out my father had had a heart attack back in Vancouver. Over the years of touring, as my parents got older (now 87 and 92), I’ve asked my brother not to pass along news of death or major health problems. To be fair, the report was a week after the heart attack and my father was doing fine. To those at home, things were going well enough to let me know — plus, they’d had time to process what had happened.

I’m the only driver in Mecca Normal; we were already overloaded with events and associated stress. Luckily the news came on a rare day off. I was on the computer at the Motel 6 in Hollywood when I read the email.

“Don’t worry,” they’d said. “He’s doing much better now.”

I’m pretty sure that’s where I lost the thumb drive with the H4n audio to go with the video of several shows, including Portland. A show that would have been great to have a good recording to put on the video. I must have left the thumb drive in the computer after reading the email.

Basically, I was in some sort of shock and the weird thing about it was, that through out the day, nothing really bugged me in the way the being on tour can be sort of irritating. This slightly different way of responding to things let me know that something had happened internally.

We only had one more show before the long drive home. I’d instructed my brother not to contact me with any more bad news, but, as we drove I-5, I wondered if it meant anything that he didn’t contact me at all.

The day after I got home, my father had another heart attack and from there I can’t really say how many times I drove out to the valley to be with my mother, to visit my father in the hospital. I stayed over night a few times, took my mother to see my father twice, I think.

He was discharged, but within some number of days, he had another heart attack and went back into the hospital.

I had hoped to see him back home by the time I needed to go to Miami for five days, but the day my brother and I went to take him home, he was not doing well enough to be discharged. By that point it was the delirium and not his heart.

All of this is to say that we intended to rehearse the songs that we hadn’t been doing on tour; older songs, like Naked and Ticklish, which we’ve rehearsed and performed many times since writing them some years ago. We were going to rehearse in those two weeks between the tour ending and going to Miami Beach, play them before recording them at the Laundry Room.

I set up the video camera from time to time and recorded with the H4n, but we so were focused on getting these songs recorded that I sometimes forgot to turn it off and obviously it’s just a stationary angle, usually of me singing. David was wedged into the short hallway between the main room and the iso booth. There was a window behind him and really no place to put the video camera to get a good angle. I guess I could have got a lot of the back of Rat at the board or of KRAMER tweeting in the kitchen between making cups of fancy teas into which he stirred a mind-bending amount of white sugar.

The first day at Rat’s, the Tuesday, we were waiting for KRAMER to arrive. We’d never met the guy. He and I emailed a bit over the past six years, wondering how logistically we could collaborate, but it always seems so extreme. He was in Miami. We were in Vancouver. Actually, we had a plan in place to record in NYC the week of sandy, but, in the final stages of making it happen, KRAMER came up with the Miami Beach plan. He’d never worked at Rat’s studio; I don’t think he’d ever worked with Rat.

He and I had one phone conversation that gave me a solid impression that we could work together. No problem.

So KRAMER comes into Rat’s. He and I hug and he says something about it being a long time coming. I was feeling fairly shattered and apprehensive. Not once did I consider cancelling because my father was in the hospital, but it was tough leaving town, even though everyone in my family was understanding and supportive. I wasn’t going to tell anyone about what had been going on back home, but KRAMER had some information and he let me know he knew and I blurted out a version of heart attacks and hospitals and it was probably good that he knew. It didn’t come up again while we were there, but his reaction was superb when I emailed him once I got home, telling him my father was home and doing OK.

In the emotional landscape the singer cannot escape, should not want to escape, everything is fuel. The first thing we recorded was about the situation at home. I only have a rough mix, but it’s basically the one song from Miami that I play over and over. “Between Livermore and Tracy” for which I “wrote” the lyrics while I sang them; the first thing I sang there. KRAMER and David were behind me in the kitchen. I was trembling, shaking, as I sang it. As it arrived. David and I played guitar and piano together first and then I sang. “White coat, no stethoscope… on rotation… uneventful, one uneventful night. Just one uneventful night.” Maybe by doing this first, I cleared the way for what needed to be done.

My father’s nights in the hospital were filled with intensely vividly scenarios he told me about when I arrived, typically while he was having his breakfast. He’d slept in a plastic bag outside a Safeway, spent the night in an empty swimming pool, been taken across the border into the USA. He was in China or Japan, on an aircraft carrier, in the navy, at a university, at my birthday party (I was born in August, not November) where his shoes were glued to the floor. The IV apparatus beside his bed were fishing poles, he was in a movie, the whole thing was a play. Patients in the room weren’t having conversations, it was dialogue in the movie and he was wondering who’d be playing him in the final version, when he saw it on the big screen. One morning he was sure he was not who he was supposed to be, that his clothes were not his. He picked up his shirt and showed me the label, saying, “This did not come from the Hudson’s Bay.”

This is a man whose rants I’ve been subjected to my whole life. And now the information, delivered with his usual forthright eloquence, was spilling out unattached to anything real other than an amalgamation of fears and residual imagery compiled over the lifetime of a man who claims never to have had either a mind’s eye or a childhood.

On the final morning, after calming him down, he sat in a chair to have his breakfast. We met with a social worker and a woman in a position to deploy in-home care. The meeting went well. I straightened his bed before leaving, hoping that maybe he’d get some sleep, but he didn’t want to get in. He believed he was in a hallway, that no one knew where he was. He thought his bed was suitcase. I assured him that the nurses knew where he was, that he’d been in the same place the entire time, all five days and nights. I told him it was his bed and not a suitcase.

“How do I get in it?” he asked. A tiny little old man with disheveled blonde hair in a pale green hospital robe, bent slightly forward, eyes wide. Breaking my heart.

“It’s your bed, Dad,” I said. “It’s not a suitcase. The nurses know where you are.”

He got in, got settled and waved, saying, “Bye-bye.’” He said it again. He said it twice. “Bye-bye.” Me wondering if this was the last time I’d see him, wondering if saying bye-bye twice was his way of saying good-bye forever, wondering if it was his way of saying I’m frightened Jeannie, please don’t leave me here alone, please don’t go to Miami, please don’t let me die.

I waved bye-bye. I left my old man in a suitcase at the bottom of an empty swimming pool outside Safeway; nobody but me knew where he was.

At some point along the way I said to my parents, “I am going to Miami. I am going to live my life. You have lived your life. I am going to live mine. If something happens while I’m gone, I don’t want to know about it.”

They understood.

If I look a little shell shocked in this video, not remembering where I was supposed to come in, not to make excuses, but we didn’t rehearse as intended and we hadn’t played that song for months. Having said that, by the time it had been recorded — and it was likely either this version that gets started or one soon there after – it far exceeded our expectations. I re-sang the second half to the recorded guitar and we ended up with the definitive version, something we were never sure we’d ever get in all the years we’ve been playing it.

Of course there was apprehension and pressure, even before life at home was added to the equation. Recording with KRAMER, for god’s sake and someone named Rat Bastard? What’s that all about? To spend all that time with people we’d never met, flying all that way, being in a city we’d never been to, adding two shows, leaving it open to record songs as they were written.

There is no clever way to say this. Thank-you David, KRAMER and Rat.

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