Dean Friedman on Rocking Chairs, Anniversaries, American Idol and The Bottom Line
There are moments during my extended interview with Dean Friedman where I find myself asking, "How did a nice Jewish boy from Jersey end up in this crazy music business?" After all, so much has changed in an ever-changing industry - and as a recording artist who lived through those changes, from his 'rock star days' in the late 70's, to his workmanlike DIY ethic that has earned him considerable singer/songwriter cred on the other side of the pond (Friedman spends a considerable amount of time living/working in the UK, where his tours are met with effusive praise), you have to wonder: in an age of reality shows, viral videos and Indiegogo campaigns, where does a veteran musician and songwriter find his niche?
Friedman has certainly found that niche when you compare him to many of his 70's contemporaries who have long left the business behind; you have to admire both Dean's tenacity, commitment to touring and connection to his loyal (and often vocal) fanbase. Yet, where is his RNRHOF induction, his Hollywood star - what honor should we bestow upon Friedman for continuing to share his musical gifts with us, even as lesser talented artists are contemplating their next custom-appointed Lexus, Grammy award or McMansion? In a few short weeks, Friedman's sophomore Lifesong release, Well, Well Said The Rocking Chair will be celebrating its 40th anniversary (look for my reissue review to run next month). Toward that end Friedman has already embarked on a commemorative tour, performing the album in its entirety, alongside other fan faves in the Friedman catalog.
Coincidentally, while Dean and I have been friends for years, this is the first time I have had a sit-down interview (via Skype) with him since the days of Rocking Chair - I remind Dean that I first spoke with him during that album's initial tour, which made a stop at his stomping ground, The Bottom Line (Friedman's producers at that time were also owners of the legendary music venue in Manhattan's Greenwich Village neighborhood), as the music editor for the fledgling underground zine, The Daily Dope. Though the article/interview never ran, I was nonetheless impressed with Dean's wit, warmth and sincerity then, as I am now. So join me as some musicians reconnect to discuss halcyon days, new times and various 'kinky' subjects.......
DG: To think, it was nearly 40 years ago that I first met/interviewed you at The Bottom Line.
DF: Oh really? Remind me again of our wayward youth...
DG: You were touring in support of Rocking Chair, as well as performing tunes from your self-titled debut. I remember asking you (in reference to Rocking Chair's Calloway-esque "S&M") what your definition of "kinky" was, to which you answered, "You know - like peanut butter (pause)...extra chunky, that sort of thing."
DF: Oh my.....I might've said something like that.
DG: You certainly did, my friend. So tell me, what was it like returning to The Bottom Line and reliving that moment in time? Was Tom Wolfe wrong when he observed, "You can't go home again"?
DF: It was kinda trippy. A real 'flashback' in some ways......seeing the recognizable walls and being in that locale. But Bleeker Street has changed so much - it's become Disney-fied, if you know what I mean. I noticed they still had that same crappy piano in the corner, but it was nice to see some of the same folks who were likely there back in the day come out for the gig: sometimes, it feels like one long Bar Mitzvah....running into people you haven't seen in awhile - the faces are vaguely familiar.
DG: You and I were both denizens of that scene in the Village during the 70's. I think your Disney comparison is spot-on. I know I risk coming across as an old curmudgeon when I say this, but frankly, things have become so commercialized - a lot of the charm has been lost forever.
DF: The scene definitely was different. Just consider the fact that folks like you and me could actually afford to live in New York back then. Nowadays, it would be impossible for us to do that - we would be forced to migrate to the suburbs, across the river to Hoboken, or somewhere similar. Even the word 'gentrified' doesn't do it justice in terms of what Manhattan has morphed into. Even so, it was nice to return and revisit old times there, however nostalgically. It was also a trip to be performing tunes I hadn't done live in nearly 40 years!
DG: I also feel it worth noting that back in the 70's, you had many venues for fledgling artists and singer/songwriters to get their music heard - I understand that even 'street busking' has become verboten now - did you notice any of that when you were there?
DF: Admittedly, I wasn't 'hanging out' as I would have been in those days. But a lot of those venues simply aren't there anymore: you had places like Kenny's Castaways, where you could always find some emerging artist breaking in new songs and trying them out on an audience. The Village Gate is no more. I suspect that the training ground for an emerging artist can be found in venues popping up in the various other boroughs in the City.
DG: Back to your anniversary show at The Bottom Line, I'm curious: what did you perform as an
DF: Well mind you, many of the songs I had planned for the show I hadn't done live in decades - which meant I needed to reacquaint myself, rehearsing them beforehand. Luckily, I got through the gig without messing up the words on any of those early songs..........except for the encore, which was "Ariel" (at this point, both Dean and I are laughing hysterically). I ended up skipping the second verse, while folks were singing along, not forgetting my words, looking at me as if to say, "What? Are you crazy?"
DG: Ah yes. "Ariel"... the tune that started it all for you. How ironic. I remember local FM station WNEW was largely responsible for that song's exposure (placing it as they did on their Top Ten playlist). One of the coolest things about "Ariel" is how unabashedly 'regional' it was lyrically - name-checking as it did such things as Paramus Park, Dairy Queen, and public radio's WBAI.....
DF: I would have to agree that WNEW played an instrumental role in making "Ariel" my "breakout single" across the country, as they were a major market station in New York. Funny thing: after the album and subsequent single was released, I got called in by Lifesong/CBS - essentially the radio station complained to the label, saying "Tell Dean to stop having his friends call our 'request line' asking us to play "Ariel." In retrospect, it has become both a historical and geographic document - a lot of places mentioned don't exist anymore. Same thing with "The Letter": that song references going down to Tice's Farms for cider and doughnuts.....well, you wont find Tice's Farms there anymore, it's now a strip-mall. I like to conjure up a lot of concrete details in the songs I write, as it helps me to depict a particular time and place.
DG: I've always found your debut, Dean Friedman to be a particularly autobiographical album. Would you agree?
DF: I think that's true of all the stuff I write. Yes, there's always 'facts' you make up lyrically-speaking - which one can chalk up to poetic license. But generally, I'm one of those songwriters that likes to write about what I know...
DG: Does that mean I can assume you actually dated a Jewish girl who worked for the Friends of BAI?
DF: (laughs). "Ariel" was sort of a composite of all the cute, teenage girls I had a crush on, growing up in New Jersey. As far as the WBAI reference goes, my younger brother Aram was an ardent listener of BAI, and was one of its supporters - which meant that whenever a fundraising drive was going on, he would dispatch himself as a volunteer to the Paramus Park mall and collect change for the station. I just thought that was a cool reference point to include in the song. By the way, the indoor waterfall that I reference in the song doesn't exist anymore - yet another historical lyrical document. As a sidebar, I should point out that a lot of people (incorrectly) surmised that the "Friends of BAI" was some sort of religious cult - they probably confused it with the Baha'i Faith, as it does sound like maybe I was spelling it out.
A rare concert performance from 1977
DF: Well, if you listen to "Kate" you will find some striking similarities to things I referenced in "Ariel"...no doubt: she plays drums, she smokes pot, and Ben has his heroine handing out copies of the Bhagavad Gita - which would correlate with the misheard lyric referencing the Baha'i Faith. I'd say it's a retelling of my tune, a homage if you will.
DG: Did you ever reach out to Ben Folds about the similarities in "Ariel" and "Kate"?
DF: I did send a friendly email to Ben about that, but he never responded.....probably out of fear he'd be risking a lawsuit if he acknowledged it!
DG: By the way, I always dug that album cover shot of you, with your Michael Stivic mustache and the bottle of wine on the table...
DF: (laughs). That was not my choice for the album cover - I liked what ended up being the interior sleeve shot, which was me on a park bench in the Bronx, reading Howard The Duck - with those two older gentlemen looking over my shoulder. But the record company was like, "Oh no, that's not appropriate. You gotta look like the dreamy singer/songwriter." So they woke me up early in the morning (during a press jaunt in Chicago), and sent me to this photographer's studio. He set me up sitting at the table, complete with wine and roses. I think they were trying to make me look like Billy Joel!
DG: You may be right - certainly makes me think of "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant"...
DF: Still not a big fan of that cover, though I've gotten used to it over the years.
DG: The first time a tune ever brought me to tears was "Song For My Mother." It was a tough song for me to get through, because so much of it resonated with me as a teenager whose mom was an alcoholic. Especially the part where the singer talks about finding his mother on the floor dead, while the adults around him are saying, "Mommy's resting." I found my mom in her room, although she died from pneumonia, not from an overdose or suicide, which your tune implied.
DF: It was autobiographical, although somewhat vague in terms of details which related to my actual experience: my mom didn't kill herself at that time, but she had tried previously......I did come home one day to find her all laid out on the floor and bleeding. But she survived all that, and her crazy self lived to a rather ripe old age, considering everything. She passed away last year. It's logical to assume by the lyrics that she died, but the truth is "she left me in the early Spring" because they had her institutionalized for a time. What I wanted to convey with that tune was an 'awakening' to the idea that your reality is separate from your parent's reality. As a child, your view of the world is formed by what your parents tell you, and how they behave. Then you get older, and you begin to realize, "Well, maybe the world is different from what she's been telling me all these years." It's about learning to forgive your parents for all that bullshit, which I think is a common experience, regardless of how extreme or severe that upbringing may have been. Sounds like we both had some extreme circumstances to cope with, though I think "Song For My Mother" is universally relatable nonetheless.
DG: Relatable, yes...but it still speaks to a specific, horrific situation. And it certainly impacted me in a very cathartic way, so thank you for that.
DF: I appreciate you sharing that. Before the album came out, I wanted my mom to hear the tune, so I played it for her. Her response was diplomatic: "Well, it's a lovely song. I can understand how in the lyrics it was easier to use the word "crazy" than "manic depressive." She felt it was important for her to point out her clinical diagnosis, and that she suffered from this condition.
DG: Is there ever a point when you're writing a song that you say, "Hey - maybe this is a little too personal a reveal"? Do you ever wrestle with the idea that you're sharing secrets that should best be kept private?
DF: Yeah, all the time. Sometimes I just 'go with it', and other times, I exercise a little restraint. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding a way to be authentic without revealing something that might be considered hurtful in terms of intruding on their privacy. If I can allude to it without mentioning specifics that could cause trouble, I'll do that. But sometimes it's a matter of censorship being imposed upon me by others. For example: on my Squirrels In The Attic album, there's a song called "I Never Really Liked You All That Much." I wrote it as a spoof on Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." It's a great song, but one day I was listening to it and thought, wait a minute. Here he is, making believe he's really a good guy: "I aint sayin' you treated me unkind/You could've done better, but I don't mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time" - like he wouldn't follow that line with "bitch!"? It occurred to me, this guy's full of shit! He's dissing her, and calling her out, doesn't even say goodbye, just leaves her a fucking song and heads out the door before she wakes up, but he's not bitter? Seems to me Dylan was being a little, er....what's the word?
DF: Exactly. So I approached that subject with a tad more 'emotional honesty.'
DG: I've seen the video of you performing it live, and the reaction from the audience to your "poison pen letter" is priceless!
DF: It gets more laughs than any other song I've ever written. I mean, he's saying all these nasty things about her, but they're done comically. But there's one couplet in the song that, when I played it for my wife and daughter, they both scowled at me! The line was, "I'm not saying we didn't have a lot of fun/Like the time you got your tits stuck in my accordion/You should've seen the look on your face/They could hear you scream from outer space!" Now I thought that line was really hilarious, but they looked at me and said, "You can't put that lyric in the song! It's horrible!" I wasn't convinced they had a point until I performed it in concert, and got some interesting reactions. Not surprisingly, the reactions were drawn across gender lines - the male half of the audience howled, the female half of the audience scowled - many were visibly offended by it. So when it came time to commit that tune to record, I left those lines out. But I do mention it in songwriting classes as a teachable moment in terms of telling students, that is your call to make. Do you censor yourself as a songwriter? When, and why? At the same time, I look to someone like Randy Newman (who has been a large influence on me), who wrote songs that offended tons of people, but if you bother to pay attention to what he was actually saying lyrically, you realize his viewpoint is the opposite of what the protagonist is saying. I admire his bravery for not bowing to political correctness.
DG: It still amazes/amuses me that folks still think Randy Newman actually hates short people because of the lyrics he sings in "Short People": "Short people got no reason to live/They got grubby little fingers and dirty little minds...", instead of understanding that his song is against prejudice. I wonder, are we at a point in society where we're just too easily offended, and taking things way too seriously that aren't meant to be taken that way?
DF: Wow....that's a tough question. In some ways, that might have been true, except for the current occupant of the Oval Office, who obliterated the idea of what is appropriate or correct to say. And by obliterating that line, he caused a backlash in that regard - to where we may be experiencing some hypersensitivity. As a guy, let me say that the #MeToo movement, although its arguments valid and its mission valuable, has led us to a place where the validity of any claim is not subject to an honest assessment - is every claim of harassment and exploitation verifiable or true? Is it even okay to ask that question nowadays? I'm not sure.
Look for Part Two of my conversation with Dean Friedman to run in the Weekend Edition.