There's a Story Behind Every Song

There’s a story behind every song. I’ve always personally enjoyed learning more of what a song was about, how it was created, the musicians that played on it etc. and I wanted to share those stories with my fans. So, I thought it would be a great idea to write about some of those thoughts and ideas that went into the creation of my albums and the songs on them.  

“Call me Ishmael” - I started to make this album sometime back in 2018. Writing songs was a hobby for me since my early teens.  It was something I worked on, daily, but most of the songs I wrote hardly saw the light of day.  I’d take them out and dust them off occasionally to play at local “Open Mic’s” and that was about it. But in 2014, I read an article that Steve Earle was going to host a songwriting camp” in Upstate NY. It was an easy decision to go as I was a huge fan of Steve’s song writing.  I had no idea what to expect, or what I was getting myself into, but it turned out to be quite the awakening for me. There were close to 100 songwriters from all over the world and as I have said many times since, it felt as if I found my lost tribe. This was where I was meant to be, as we were all kindred spirits with a passion for songwriting. In addition, everyone was also actively recording and performing. I left with the goal in mind of making an album and finally bringing some of my songs to life. But unlike many of my fellow songwriters from camp, I wasn’t interested in recording a group of mellow acoustic songs. I wanted to make an electric album. So, I worked on selecting and re-arranging 12 of my songs that would best fit. As luck would have it, my daughter Kelly introduced me to a recording engineer that she had worked with named Brett Grossman. Brett in turn brought in his friend Stephen Haaker as Producer and then everything started to take off from there. The three of us plotted out the album, rehearsed the songs and went into “Perfect Sound Studio” in Frogtown CA in Sept 2019 to record it.  I wound up playing guitar for most of the album (except for the lead guitar which was done by Sarven Manguiat), Rob Hall played bass, Aaron Durr keyboards, and Stephen Haaker  was on Drums. In addition we wound up recruiting some phenomenal musicians to fill out many of the songs: Fabian Chavez on Saxophone, Jon Manness on Trumpet, Ethan Sherman on Mandolin, and Bonnie Brooksbank on violin. Harrison and Phoebe Crenshaw along with Diana Ortiz handled all the wonderful backup vocals and harmonies, and my daughter Kelly made a guest appearance sharing lead vocals with me on the song “Strung Out”. My son Dan, who writes, designs, and does the artwork for Graphic Novels and Video Games, did all the design, layout and artwork for the CD. Brett Grossman recorded and mixed the album, and as fortune would have it, we were able to get Emily Lazar from “the Lodge” in New York to Master the CD. Of the 8 albums up for 2020 Album of the Year she mastered 3 (including Call me Ishmael) “Call Me Ishmael” was released on July 24, 2020.  One quick note, the CD title “Call Me Ishmael” comes from Herman Melville’s book “Moby Dick”. There is a lot that went into that song lyrically and musically which I plan to explain further. Here’s a clue though, the entire song’s story is revealed in the album cover artwork. Up next I plan to discuss Ishmael, plus each song on “Call me Ishmael” and the stories behind them.

Christmas Time in Hollywood 

I got it in my mind to write and record a Christmas song in 2021.  A friend of mine, Doug Suman, had recently written one, and it convinced me that I should have one in my song repertoire as well.  However, I wanted to stay away from the more traditional types of Christmas Songs, so I came up with a bit of a satirical idea on Hollywood’s commercialization of Christmas. With my day job I had spent a lot of time on the Paramount Studio back-lots, so it was easy to come up with the imagery of filming a snowy Christmas scene on a sunny day in Southern California. I wanted to poke a little fun at how the “Hollywood Production Factory” uses famous movie personalities to pitch the “must have” products and  presents, that everyone needs to buy for the holidays. I decided to write it as an up-tempo rock song. (I just didn’t think the world needed another Silent Night). Brett and Stephen came up with the idea to add Christmas Carolers to the song, and they really made this song work as they gave it a cheesy TV commercial sound throughout. Also, I usually like to have a subplot and I do think Christmas songs should have something positive to say, and I was able to mesh a love song into it as well. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t come up with a really cool guitar part (to me its all about the “hooks” both musically and lyrically). I came up with a very catchy outro in the style of Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” which I really love and I think fit perfectly. Sarven Manguiat was on electric guitar; I played acoustic, Travis Carlton was on bass, Bonnie Brooksbank was on Piano, Stephen Haaker was on drums. Harrison Crenshaw sang all the background vocals and Harmonies. Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker.  My Christmas Caroler's were: Diana Ortiz, Jayme Palmer, and Bonnie Brooksbank. Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker Produced and Engineered it. We recorded again at “Perfect Sound Studio’s” in Frogtown CA and “The Vanguard” in North Hollywood. The song was mastered by Jennifer Munson at Taloowa Corp.

Leave it to the Universe 

I believe one of the key elements in writing good lyrics is to have a good metaphor. I’ve heard this said by many great song writers. So, when I heard the phrase “I’m going to leave it to the Universe” I knew it would be perfect theme to write a song around. It’s a song about life on the run, escape and ultimately a love story. Musically it borrows a lot from both the Who and Bruce Springsteen. I love the contrast between the use of “Power Chords” and “Acoustic Guitar flat picking”, something that both Pete Townshend and Springsteen are really both great at. Springsteen often likes to change keys whenever he would have Clarence Clemons do a sax solo, so I used the same idea for the outro and Fabian Chavez just killed it!  I recorded this song at the same time we recorded “Christmas Time in Hollywood” and then released it as a single in 2022.  It did quite well on European Radio and on Spotify.  Sarven Manguiat did another fantastic job on electric guitar; I played acoustic, Travis Carlton on bass, Aaron Durr was on piano, Stephen Haaker was on drums and Fabian Chavez was on Sax. Harrison Crenshaw sang all the background vocals and Harmonies. Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker Produced and Engineered it. We recorded again at “Perfect Sound Studio’s” in Frogtown CA and “The Vanguard” in North Hollywood. The song was mastered by Jennifer Munson at Taloowa Corp.

Guys Like Me 

I was purposely trying to come up with a rhyming scheme like Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light.”  But it didn’t come out quite the same, as he would use triple word rhyme schemes in the verse, but the the best I could do was doubles. Guitar wise, I used a similar major and suspended chord picking style that Springsteen likes to often use. Put together they gave this song a very strong semblance to a1970’s style Bruce Springsteen song. I did choose a dark subject matter and then applied my sense of humor to the lyrics to soften it up. The song is about a stalker (with a huge ego) that winds up stalking the wrong woman. I always imagined “Pepe Le Pew” (the Looney Tunes character) as my model for stalker in this song. Pepe just could never understand Penelope Cat and why she wasn’t interested in him. But like Pepe, my character felt that no matter what the problem was he could find a way to work it out. Nothing was a deal breaker in his mind. In the song the woman he’s following turns out to be a bank robber. He winds up interrupting her during the middle of a robbery. Just like Pepe when he does figure this out, it was not going to stop him. I played all the guitar parts for this song; Stephen Haaker was on Drums, Rob Hall on Bass and Aaron Durr was on the B3 organ. Diana Ortiz, Harrison and Phoebe Crenshaw were all on backing vocals. Engineering and Production was done by Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker. This song was recorded at Perfect Sound Studio’s in Frogtown CA and Cosmic Voyager Studio in Encino. It was Mastered at the Lodge in NYC by Emily Lazar.

Roll The Dice 

As I had written earlier, I realized I had a lot of Character driven songs, but I didn’t have any love songs.  So, I sat down to specifically write a couple for the album.  Just before deciding on the songs for the album, I wrote and handed in three songs: “Roll the Dice”, “Strung Out” and “Top of the World” for the album and all made the final CD.  The song is basically a written around a string of gambling metaphors.  It's about taking chances on love.  I had written the chorus first, which is unusual for me as I normally start with the verse.  But I wanted to concentrate on coming up with a catchy chorus, which I wound up really liking. For the verse I had been listening to Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream”, I really loved the guitar part in this song, so I came up with a variation on the theme and then overlaid a sax and later slide guitar to come up with a completely different sounding result.  This was the first single we released and it has done very well with over 100,000 Spotify streams. Fabian Chavez just killed it on Saxophone for this song (as he did throughout the entire album). On this song  Sarven Manguiat handled all the slide and lead guitar work;I played all the rhythm guitars,  Rob Hall played bass; Stephen Haaker was on Drums and Aaron Durr was on all Keyboards. Diana Ortiz, Harrison Crenshaw and Phoebe Crenshaw are all on backing vocals.  The song was engineered and produced by Stephen Haaker and Brett Grossman. We recorded it at “Perfect Sound Studios” in Frogtown CA and Cosmic Voyager Studio in Encino.  Emily Lazar from the Lodge in NYC Mastered this song.

The Last Gunfighter 

I always liked Westerns and decided to write a song with a Western theme.  I was watching “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” at the time I was writing the lyrics and it influenced my writing of this song and its story line.  There are lots of fun guitar parts and rhythms throughout this song.  I have always been a big fan of twin guitar harmony style of “Allman Brothers”, “Wishbone Ash”, “Thin Lizzy” etc., so I came up with a cool guitar riff and harmony to it, as an homage to them. I laid this over an interesting acoustic guitar part that I flat picked for the intro and verse. But for the chorus and bridge I changed up and used some "Ramone’s style" power chords. Great guitar solo work on this song by Sarven Manguiat once again! On this song I played rhythm and Sarven Manguiat handled all the lead guitar work; Rob Hall was on bass; Stephen Haaker was on Drums; Aaron Durr was on Keyboards and Diana Ortiz, Harrison Crenshaw and Phoebe Crenshaw are all on backing vocals.  The song was engineered and produced by Stephen Haaker and Brett Grossman. We recorded it at “Perfect Sound Studios” in Frogtown CA. The song was Mastered by Emily Lazar from the Lodge in NYC.

Mine Torne Road 

Mine Torne Road” is a long winding road just north of the “Bear Mountain Bridge” that connects Rte. 9W in “Fort Montgomery, NY” to the West Point reservation on Rte. 293. I used it along with many other local places from the Highland Falls/Fort Montgomery area as a backdrop setting for a story about a “triple cross” The song is about a double cross on a “drug buy.  The deal was set to take place at a remote General Store on the road called “Dickies”. However, even though everyone had rehearsed their part, the plan goes sideways. Chaos ensues, gunfire is exchanged, and a fire breaks out burning Dickies to the ground. The narrator assumes all is lost in the fire and is distraught over it. Twenty years later he’s still suffering from PTSD and is now living in a downtrodden area of New York City, when one day by chance, while at JFK airport, he thinks he sees his old girlfriend and accomplice there. So, he follows her back to her apartment to see if it’s really her. He shockingly discovers she was alive all this time and instantly realizes she had set him up. This is another song that has a strong Bruce Springsteen influence to it. We open the song with a beautiful piano intro by Aaron Durr.  I wanted to create something like the intro’s to “New York City Serenade” or “Backstreets” and even though its quite a bit different, I think we executed on it perfectly. The rhythm and rhymes of the lyrics are also pure 1970’s Springsteen. (I did my best to channel my inner Bruce on this one).  On this song I played rhythm and Sarven Manguiat handled all the lead guitar work; Rob Hall was on bass; Stephen Haaker was on Drums; Aaron Durr was on Keyboards and Diana Ortiz, Harrison Crenshaw and Phoebe Crenshaw are all on backing vocals.  The song was engineered and produced by Stephen Haaker and Brett Grossman. We recorded it at “Perfect Sound Studios” in Frogtown CA and Cosmic Voyager Studio in Encino CA.

Strung Out 

As I said previously, I realized I didn’t have any love songs for the “Call Me Ishmael” album. So, just before we decided on the songs we would use for the album, I sat down to focus on writing a couple specifically for it.  I liked the “Love is the Drug” metaphor with that “Strung Out” conveys and concentrated on writing the song around it.  This song came together relatively quickly. I used a lot of major seventh chords throughout, to give the song a smooth jazz feel to it. Stephen Haaker came up with the idea to use the male-female vocal exchange, and so we got my daughter Kelly to sing the female lead and harmonies with me. Additionally, I had written the instrumental melody for guitar, but we came up with the idea of replacing the guitar with a muted trumpet in a back and forth exchange with a violin instead. This gave the song some real uniqueness and it really helped it take on the feel of a smokey jazz lounge. I played all the guitar parts, Rob Hall was on bass, Fabian Chavez was on conga’s and Stephen Haaker was on additional percussion. John Manness  and Bonnie Brooksbank had amazing contributions on Trumpet and Violin respectively, and my daughter Kelly Ciurczak shared lead vocals with me. Engineering and Production was done by Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker. We recorded everything at Perfect Sound Studio’s in Frogtown and Cosmic Voyager Studio in Encino.

Do you know my name 

 I started writing a collection of themed songs for a “Rock Opera” back in high school.  We were studying “Jesus Christ Superstar” in religion class at the time. “Tommy” by the Who and “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull had also recently come out and I was thoroughly fascinated by the idea of the concept album/ rock opera. I really studied and dissected them all.  At the same time, I was also a huge fan of Marvel Comics, especially the “Fantastic Four” and their adventures in the “Negative Zone”, “the Watchers” and “Gallacticus”. So, I decided I would have some fun and write my own rock opera by meshing all of these ideas together. The basic theme of my project was that “God is an Alien”. I wound up writing 35 songs for this project. A number of them I thought were pretty good, but the whole narrative needed way too much pruning and re-writes to make anything out of it, so I put it on the shelf. “Do you know my Name” is one of the songs I rescued from this project and cleaned up so it could be a stand-alone piece.  Pete Townshend had done something similar with his “Lifehouse” project.  He never officially released it, but many of his best songs showed up on “Who’s Next”.  For my album, I felt I needed a bit of a different song and really had always like this one.  It focuses on the anti-hero, hero character who was the narrator through-out the entire project. I had based the character on Lee Marvin’s character “Kid Shelleen" from “Cat Ballou”. Who was always one of my all-time favorite Movie Stars. (that’s where the pass me the hooch line comes from) Because we were studying JC Superstar at the time, the song also has a lot of religious type of metaphors and visuals throughout such as Christ’s 40days in the desert etc. Plus, there is a relationship on the rocks, sublot that winds though it. Like many of my songs this is another rocker.  Additionally, I was also a big fan of the James Gang (early Joe Walsh).  I always try to pay homage to my rock hero’s, and either musically or lyrically and I try to put something in to salute them. In this song I tried to emulate a James Gang chord pattern in the song’s outro.  I played most of the guitar throughout, Sarven Manguiat contributed additional guitar during the outro , Rob Hall was on bass, Fabian Chavez was on Sax and Stephen Haaker was on drums.  Diana Ortiz, Harrison Crenshaw, and Phoebe Crenshaw were on backing vocals. Engineering and Production was done by Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker. We recorded everything at Perfect Sound Studio’s in Frogtown and Cosmic Voyager Studio in Encino. Emily Lazar from the Lodge in NYC again Mastered this song.

Down and Out in LA 

I always was intrigued by the homeless situation in Los Angeles. I never experienced anything like it growing up in upstate New York. In Southern California though we have tent cities and encampments under highway overpasses. It’s nearly impossible to come off a highway freeway ramp and not have someone at the bottom of it with a sign looking for some spare change, food, a job. It’s a very sad situation. It got me thinking about how someone winds up in such a situation. So, I decided to write a song from that person’s perspective. I came up with a backstory on a normal guy whose whole world fell apart once his marriage broke up and now finds himself being homeless, begging for money, raiding trash bins for recyclables, and going down to the local mission where he could sometimes be able to sleep inside. He has nightmares of his ex-wife haunting him but still has with hopes and dreams of a happy future someday down in Mexico “dancing with the senoritas”.  But he is alone, has no friends, and often his dinner is half eaten hamburgers and cold french fries sleeping where he can. Bruce Springsteen often likes to set very stories of depressed characters against very uplifting music. Dancing in the Dark immediately comes to mind as an example.  I tried to do something similar.  I utilized the major and suspended chord structure (that is a Springsteen signature sound, think Rosalita) together with a TexMex Rock feel to the song, which adding a trumpet brought to life. This was originally a much longer song, this was my “Jungleland”, but we cut it down in size for the recording. However, we kept many of the key elements from the extended version with tempo and later dynamic changes. I played all the guitar parts for the song, Rob Hall was on bass and Stephen Haaker drums. John Manness played Trumpet and Fabian Chavez was on Sax.  Harrison Crenshaw sang all the backup and harmony vocals.  Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker both engineered and produced the song. We recorded it at Perfect Sound Studios in Frogtown CA and Cosmic Voyager Studio in Encino. It was mastered at the Lodge in NYC by Emily Lazar.

Top of the World 

I realized I didn’t have any love songs for the “Call Me Ishmael” album.  I had songs about stalkers, drug dealers, arsonists, smugglers and the homeless, but no love songs. So, I consciously sat down to write a couple for the album.  So just before we were deciding on the songs for the album, I wrote three songs: “Roll the Dice”, “Strung Out” and “Top of the World” all rather quickly (and all very different) “Top of the World” was the last song I wrote.  I had been working on the chorus and really liked the guitar part in it, but I couldn’t come up with a verse that worked for me.  I went back and started reviewing some of my older songs for idea’s I could use and found a song I wrote in 1978 called “Sparrow.” The verses just fit together so well with the Chorus I was working on that I decided to use it. I had a real cool guitar part I was working on that also fit perfectly for the intro and walla! This wound up being more of folk rock song closer in style to a Dan Fogelberg song than anything else on the album. The title was from the iconic line by James Cagney in "White Heat" and also DiCaprio in Titanic. ( although I was thinking Cagney at the time) I played all the guitars, Rob Hall was on bass, Ethan Sherman on Mandolin and Stephen Haaker was on drums.  Diana Ortiz, Harrison Crenshaw, and Phoebe Crenshaw were on backing vocals. Engineering and Production was done by Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker and we recorded at Perfect Sound Studio’s in Frogtown and Cosmic Voyager Studio in Encino.

Sunny Came Back 

This song was inspired by a song by Shawn Colvin called “Sunny Came Home.”  Which won her a Grammy for song and record of the year in 1998. I saw her at a show with Steve Earle and Steve would like to say she specialized in writing “Murder Ballads”. The song is about a woman named Sunny who basically burns down a house with her ex-boyfriend inside. I thought that it would be interesting to write the song from the ex-boyfriend’s point of view. So, I wrote this song about a batshit crazy girlfriend (and who doesn’t have at least one of those in their past) who burns down this guy’s house with him inside. I tried to write it in a folk rock, “Eagles” style, with lots of cool guitar riffs sprinkled throughout. Sarven Manguiat did a great job with the lead guitar on this song. I played acoustic guitar, Rob Hall played bass, and Stephen Haaker Drums. Harrison Crenshaw, Phoebe Crenshaw and Diana Ortiz were on back round vocals and harmonies. Brett Grossman and Stephen Haaker handled the engineering and production work and it was recorded at Perfect Sound Studio’s in Frogtown, CA, and Cosmic Voyager Studio's in Encino CA. Mastering was done at "the Lodge" in NYC by Emily Lazar.

Faces in the Crowd 

This was the last song we recorded for the Ishmael album. We recorded it live in the Studio and video taped the recording of it. It’s an older song and dates back to 1976.  We wanted a more acoustic song that we could use to interspace between some of the more up-tempo rock songs on the album and set up the albums third act. So, I took it out of mothballs and dusted it off. Being that the song was originally written so long ago, I went back and re-wrote most of the lyrics for it.  On the surface, this song is about a guy going back to an old hangout from his past hoping that he’ll run into an old flame (that was responsible for him going to jail) In the end she was only there in his memories. The song is also about getting older, the choices we’ve made in life, what we might have done differently and if it would have mattered in the end anyways. The song was originally inspired by the melody and title of the Beatles “I’ve just seen a face” and I also make sure I pay homage to Bob Dylan by referencing that the answers to it all  were still “Blowing in the Wind”. ‘Faces in the Crowd” was recorded at Perfect Sound Studio’s in Frogtown CA.  The musicians on this song are: Sarven Manguiat on acoustic guitar; Bonnie Brooksbank on violin; Rob Hall on Standup Bass; and Stephen Haaker on percussion. Brett Grossman and Sean Kellett were the engineers; and Stephen Haaker and Brett Grossman Produced the song.This song was recorded at Perfect Sound Studio’s in Frogtown CA and Cosmic Voyager Studio in Encino. It was Mastered at the Lodge in NYC by Emily Lazar. The video of “Faces in the Crowd” was shot and edited by Noel Ross.