In early March, winter still ruled the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec. The snow was often at its deepest in that month, piling up through the blizzards of January and February until it covered the ground up to your waist. The plowed snow made ten-foot walls along the little country roads, and around my house, making it feel cozy and protected.
The day I picked up Alex and Geddy at the local airport was sunny, but near freezing, and the three of us hugged each other through masses of coats, scarves, and gloves. All bundled-up like . . . Canadians in winter.
We loaded their overnight bags in the back of my new winter “hot rod” — an Audi S-4 Avant, with a 4.2-liter V8 crammed into a tight little all-wheel-drive sports wagon — and I drove us to my house on the lake, sometimes playing Finnish rally driver on the snow-covered roads. Along the way, we passed near the village of Morin Heights, where we had shared so many good times, recording at Le Studio — now closed and abandoned. The number of albums we had made there stretched from Permanent Waves in 1979 to Counterparts in 1994. Those long stays at Le Studio’s comfortable guest house had been for the purpose of recording, yes — but also playing volleyball, pedal-boating, cross-country skiing, watching movies, dining on fabulous French-Canadian food, and having some of those kinds of nights you’re glad you only half-remember.
Earlier this winter, when the three of us were making plans for our meeting in Quebec, I had been jokingly calling it our “corporate retreat.” And indeed, we do have some “business” to discuss, but first — we eat and drink.
Traditionally, Alex had been the chef among us, going right back to the early years. We would be away songwriting in a cottage or farmhouse, with no catering or nearby restaurants, and Alex would cook for us. Over the years, I have had so many amazing meals from the kitchen of “Papa Paisano” (pounding his chest with one fist and declaring, “I will cook for you!)”), and it was Alex who taught me why a person might spend all day cooking food for other people — it was an act of love.
So I was a little intimidated cooking for “Papa Paisano,” as well as for Geddy, an internationally schooled and sophisticated connoisseur of food and drink — an experienced winer-and-diner.
Geddy brought a bad cold with him, unfortunately, and was feeling poorly, and Alex was just getting over the same winter malaise. I always notice that when I’m in Quebec for a month or so in winter, I never get sick unless someone visits from the city — bringing all the “latest germs.” That was the case this time, for the next day, I started to get the cough and aching, too.
However, Geddy also brought some choice wines from his well-stocked cellar, and we started by uncorking a fine burgundy to accompany a lunch of mushroom ravioli (from a batch prepared by my friend Brutus, on his visit the previous week, when we noticed that we seemed to spend most of our days in the kitchen cooking together — how evolved we men are these days!). I sautéed the ravioli with olive oil, garlic, orange zest, and plum tomatoes.
The three of us stayed gathered around the kitchen island, music playing while I rolled out the pastry for a blueberry pie, and got it put together and in the oven. (It was only my second attempt at a pastry-type pie, and it wasn’t very pretty — the crust uneven and patched up a little crudely — but I was hopeful it would taste good.)
As recounted in my previous news report, back in January I had sent Alex and Geddy some lyrics. I knew they had been working with some of them, but I hadn’t heard anything yet. That day in my kitchen, we had a momentary panic when Alex went searching through his bags and couldn’t find the CD — frantically calling his son Adrian in Toronto to try to have it sent up, or to be uploaded somehow to the Internet so we could download it there (the extremities of modern technology). Adrian reported that he couldn’t find the CD in Alex’s studio either. Alex had another look in the part of his bag where “he would never put it,” and walked back into the kitchen holding the clear plastic case, shaking his head.
“That was close.”
We gathered before the fire in the living room and started listening. As the songs played out, the response we all shared was a sense of clarity — for Alex and Geddy, playing the songs for me that first time threw their strengths and weaknesses into sharp contrast, and they kept saying things like, “I know what we have to do here.” Same for me, lyrically — I was very gratified to hear parts that worked, saying “Yeah” when I heard Geddy sing a line just perfectly, while also knowing right away what I could improve upon.
There were five song sketches — guitar, vocals, and drum machine — and I liked them all. I also noticed those songs already seemed to have a sort of unity, a stylistic approach of chord structures, rhythms, and vocal delivery that I could only describe as “spiritual.” I’ll say no more about that aspect until we get farther into it, but it was wonderful that after thirty years of working together, we could still find different paths to explore together.
Then it was time for dinner. Back in the kitchen, we nibbled on pâté de foie gras with a bottle of Sauterne that had been aging in my wine closet for many years — waiting for such an occasion — and a couple of fine Quebec cheeses. I prepared the appetizer: scallops sautéed in garlic and butter with avocado vinaigrette (my California influence brought north), then I dished out the main course: fillets of fresh pickerel baked with cherry tomatoes, asparagus tips, dill, and chopped onion; jasmine rice; grilled red, green, yellow, and orange peppers in olive oil; snow peas, baby carrots, and yellow beans.
It was all very colorful, that’s for sure, and the secret for me is all in the timing. A few years ago, when I was first starting to learn how to cook, I said to Geddy that I couldn’t believe I could actually do it, after years of thinking cooking was “magic” or something.
Geddy replied, “Of course you can cook — you can play drums!”
That was funny, and incisive, for there were indeed some relations there — counting down the rhythmic intervals of the different ingredients until everything arrives at the perfect “doneness,” at the perfect time.
Geddy contributed a delicate Meursault to accompany that main course, and finally, we dived into that warm blueberry pie (I called it “ugly pie” when I brought it out of the oven, all lopsided and bubbling over with purple goo, but I had to admit it tasted amazingly good) with ice cream and coffee.
Earlier, Geddy had decanted a bottle of vintage Bordeaux, but we decided the perfect coda for that symphony was Calvados. (Sadly, when the guys flew back to Toronto the following day, I had to drink that Bordeaux all by myself.)
It had been a good meal, a great day, and I was exhausted. Geddy went off to the guest house to get some rest and nurse his cold, while I lay on the sofa in front of the fire, and Alex cleaned up the entire kitchen.
If you ask me, that’s an act of love!
So now I’m going to spend the month of May in Toronto, where we have rented a small studio. It will be great to have the opportunity to work together on those songs, and hopefully some new ones, too. For me, after spending more than a year working on my book, Roadshow, it will be nice to take off the “author” hat (BMW Motorcycles baseball cap) and put on my “lyricist” hat (the old cowboy special, given to me by a fan in Dallas, that I always think helps keep my versifying down-to-earth) and my “drummer” hat (African prayer cap).
I like all of those hats, and all of those jobs, but it’s especially the drumming I’m looking forward to right now. Lately I’ve been getting all inspired about “hitting things with sticks,” driving around listening to Steve Smith’s recorded work (to keep me humble) and enjoying a couple of sessions of “drum duets” with my friends Chris Stankee and Gregg Bissonette (another humbling, but inspiring experience).
One night in early April, I went to a Hollywood jazz club, Catalina’s, with my drum teacher, Freddie Gruber (now seventy-nine-years-young), and a couple of his other “students” — though all of us were in our fifties. I’ve compared Freddie before to a tennis coach, and with him, once you’re a student, you’re always a student. One evening that same week, he and I were sitting around his living room, listening to great old songs on the radio and talking about everything in the world. Out of nowhere, Freddie picked up a pair of drumsticks from the coffee table and started demonstrating something on a handy practice pad. Our companions at Catalina’s were Jim Keltner and Ian Wallace, both master drummers with long resumés, and we were there to see and hear one of the all-time great drummers, Roy Haynes.
Roy was eighty-one, yet played with a mastery, artistry, and musicality that made the four of us turn to each other and smile, and lit another fire of inspiration for me. Between shows, we went back to say hello to Roy, meeting another great drummer, Ndugu Chancler, and we all sat in the little dressing room and listened to Freddie and Roy tell stories about the 1940s jazz scene on 52nd Street in New York.
“This drummer used to play with that band, and sit in after hours at this club that was just down from that club, across the street from that other club, you know, where those two young actors shared the apartment upstairs.” Their stories revealed those two actors to be Marlon Brando and Wally Cox, and name after name spilled out in Freddie and Roy’s conversation — sax players, drummers, actors, poets, painters, hustlers, and hookers, a whole magical time and place brought to life through the memories of those two forever-young characters.
For Roy’s second show, our table was joined by another drummer, Joey Heredia. Freddie and I had gone to see Joey play the previous year, when Freddie had assured me, in his dry manner, “It will be . . . of interest.”
Indeed it was — Joey was a stunning young Latin drummer, with that angular, syncopated time sense that seemed so powerful, so exotic, so impossible to me. Again, I felt inspired — by a style of drumming that I hadn’t heard before, and couldn’t play myself (but I’m working on it).
That evening at Catalina’s was quite a “drum summit” for me to be part of, and perfectly timed, as I began to feel myself swept up into the world of rhythm once again.
I wrote earlier that when I first heard the new songs from Alex and Geddy, the word that occurred to me was “spiritual.” I wonder if there’s such a thing as “spiritual drumming?”
I’m working on it.