The Way It Is

Back before I was married, back in ’86, when I was living together with my ex-wife, we house sat for a couple who lived on Bristol, in Brentwood.

If you live in L.A., you know the street of which I’m speaking. Between San Vicente and Sunset. The one with the CIRCLES!

I discovered it by accident, riding my bike in the seventies. You’re just cruising through the neighborhood and you come across a paradise, filled with circles of palm trees in the middle of the street. When we used to debate where we wanted to live, when we made it, when we got rich, which has still yet to happen, I’d say either Rustic Canyon, or Bristol.

These people were paranoid. As many with money are. That if they left town for a month, when they reappeared, their entire domain would be GONE! They had a housekeeper looking in, but they needed someone THERE! Which ended up being us. Not that I wanted to do it at first. For it required schlepping all my newly purchased computer equipment across town and…I guess I was protesting, since my girlfriend seemed to be in love with these people, she didn’t rant and rave quite as much about me. But once she said she was going to go with or without me, I caved. I squeezed my new LaserWriter in the front seat of my BMW and decamped to Brentwood, to a truly walled garden.

There was a front yard behind this curving eight foot tall barrier large enough for EVERYBODY to play badminton. And a pool bigger than any I’ve seen south of San Simeon. And I contemplated all this as I sat at the kitchen table in front of my Mac Plus, listening to the Proton radio in the kitchen.

This was before not only iPods, but iTunes. Sure, there were Walkmans, and I had two, but you could only listen to what you already had, I needed something new, I’d listen to the radio, for inspiration. And one day on KNX FM, 93.1, the soft rock station, I heard this piano figure. With a majesty reminiscent of all those classical concerts my parents had taken me to in my youth. That track was Bruce Hornsby’s "The Way It Is". I used to leave the radio on that station just to hear it again. And again. And when I returned to my own house, a month later, I immediately purchased the album. I became a fan.

What is a fan? Someone who believes in an artist. Who plays their music for friends. Who goes and sees the act. Who buys the follow-up album without hearing it first.

I did all of the above. And even though "Scenes From The Southside" was not as good as the debut, the production not being as warm, I made sure to drive cross-state to Saratoga Springs in the summer of ’88 to see Bruce headline.

And just after my then wife moved out, Bruce released a new album, "A Night On The Town". Which delivered on all the promise of the debut. Which was a definitive rock album. When no one was interested in rock any longer. The record made a bit of an impression, than sank.

And Bruce Hornsby never emerged big time on the hit parade thereafter. I’m sure to the great chagrin of the brass at RCA Records. Back then you expected your cash cows to deliver. Once you’d broken them, you expected them to generate profits, to pay for your new projects. But this was not the case with Bruce. Fewer and fewer people paid attention. And Bruce seemed to flip out. His concerts were no longer choreographed affairs. He spoke to the audience like a friend. He took requests. He went off and played with the Grateful Dead. It appeared he was destroying his career. He was not playing by the book, not focusing entirely on himself. We now know Bruce Hornsby was following his muse. Something most are afraid to do in this music business of ours. People don’t want to lose their fame, their attraction, their ability to get good tables at restaurants, to have doors opened. They play it safe to insure they don’t fall back, into obscurity.

But so many of these people are not musicians. Now more so than ever. Oh, they’re singers. Famous for being famous. The concept of studying, learning one’s craft, using it as a springboard for innovation…that’s for pussies. Music is about marketing. Finding something one can SELL! And if you’re not selling, you’re irrelevant.

And Bruce Hornsby is irrelevant.

But he’s still here.

In 1998 Hornsby tried to come back with "Spirit Trail". A double CD package that one would think was the definition of excess until one listened to it. There were defined songs. And improvisation. It was a mini concert. A look into Bruce’s soul. But in excess of ten years past his hit, only fans cared. It was over.

But maybe it had just begun. Without the pressure of having to create something that would reside in the hit parade, Bruce practiced, he played with Branford Marsalis. He went on tour with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Shawn Colvin. There no longer was a plan, he only did what felt good, what was interesting. Bruce Hornsby survived, he became a cult hero, he’s got a career. And you can sample his talents, you can immerse yourself in his oeuvre, by listening to his new boxed set, "Intersections (1985-2005)".

"Intersections" is not your typical career retrospective. You won’t find the hits in their classic form. Seemingly all the radio songs, both those that made it and those that wanted to, are represented by live takes. There are piano improvs. And reworked album tracks. And "Fortunate Son"/"Comfortably Numb".

You know how the boxed set booklet is filled with testimonials, attesting to the act’s triumph? Well, Bruce’s ain’t that way, it’s CHEEKY! He includes negative reviews. He’s got a sense of humor. He intentionally demystifies both himself and the music. Because ultimately it’s about what you hear, coming out of the speakers, not the attendant hysteria/myth-making.

And for each of the fifty-odd tracks Bruce gives background. And, for the defining moment, he says this:

"I was asked by Roger Waters to sing a duet with him on Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ at the Legends of the Guitar Festival in Seville, Spain in 1991. It was such a transcendent experience I wanted to write my own song that gave me a similar feeling. That song is ‘Fortunate Son’…"

"There is no pain, you are receding
A distant ship’s smoke on the horizon"

She was fading away, but there was still pain. I’d made a commitment that SHE wanted. I couldn’t fathom how she was reneging. And, if that was the case, why didn’t she want a divorce?

The nineties were a confusing, painful time for me. I had plenty of questions, and almost no answers. The way I got through was listening to my music. Reaching in, finding meaning in songs I’d thought I’d worn out, searching for new favorites.

One of those new favorites is "Fortunate Son". I had no idea of its inspiration. But now it all makes sense. And in this version on "Intersections", when "Comfortably Numb" drifts in and then out in the middle, I feel, like Bruce Hornsby, I’ve survived.

It’s not easy. Everybody’s up your butt when you’re in school. Then you’re on your own. What if you lose your way?

I lost my way.

I love the songs in my iTunes library. Some one hit wonders. But the tracks I like best are those by the artists who represent reach, achievement, who are not content with the trappings, but are truly interested in the essence.

I’m not going to tell you to go out and buy "Intersections". It’s not for you. It’s for fans.

Fans are where it’s at. They’re the only thing that counts. That will be there when the record company executive is blown out in a power struggle and you’ve got no champion at the company left. When you’re dropped. Your fans get you through. With their devotion.

It’s these people you have to play to. The ones you must satiate. They’ll pay you back. With love. And ultimately money. Because you play a central part in their lives.

I don’t know Bruce Hornsby well, but his music is a best friend. One who’s been there for me through thick and thin. I could live without this boxed set as well as I could live without water, or air.

That’s how devoted I am.

That’s how devoted your fans should be.

Whenever I’m troubled, he’s got a sound for me. His records don’t slide off of me, they penetrate. To the point where I feel like I’m a fortunate son. One who’s comfortably numb.

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