One evening‚ when I was living in Austin‚ TX‚ I got a call from my dad. He was excited. "You gotta hear this guy‚" he said‚ "I recorded him off the radio." Then he held the phone up to his stereo and suddenly this deep wonderful voice began singing in my ear. "Me‚ I'm happy-go-lucky/ always ready to grin/ I ain't afraid of loving ya/ ain't fascinated by sin/ so who's this fella in my shoes/ making you cry/ I don't know that guy." He let the whole song finish out and that was the first time I heard Greg Brown.
If you've never heard his voice‚ it's a bottomless bucket of honey. I went right out and bought the album with that song on it‚ "Dream Café." One listen and I was hooked. It had been quite a few years since I'd had a new hero and then‚ voila‚ I wanted to be Greg Brown. He was saying everything I wished I was cool enough to say‚ together enough‚ wise enough. As I listened I knew that if I was that good‚ I would be like him. God‚ I loved these songs! "Love never made a fool of me/ I always was one as you can see/ I can't be good‚ so I'll be free/ and I'll be happy‚ just by myself‚ hey….."
Many songwriters may think of themselves as poets‚ but very few of them really love Poetry. (Perhaps‚ they should call themselves painters.) I'm not saying I can tell who's a poet and who's not‚ but I do tie a thread to the songs that hit me like great poetry. Great poetry takes me someplace quick‚ in three words‚ to the heart‚ to outer space. Great poetry tells a story‚ engages me‚ lifts me up. Greg Brown is a great poet and when you combine that with his supreme taste for melody‚ phrasing and real good sounds‚ well‚ that's why I love songs.
When I quit college‚ my William Blake professor had quit at the same time. I took my first cross country trip with him helping him drive his car to Seattle from Virginia. William Blake had been a huge revelation for me‚ a transformative study. I was several albums into Greg Brown when I discovered he had made an album of William Blake poems put to music. Aha! Songs of Innocence and Experience. I admit I was a little nervous because‚ if you ask me‚ that would be hard to truly pull off. But Greg didn't miss a step and‚ even today‚ I can't think of those poems without hearing his voice and melody singing them.
Well‚ after hounding several promoters for several years‚ I finally got the chance to open for him in Santa Fe. I went up to him during sound check‚ completely starstruck‚ and told him it would mean everything to me if he listened to me sing. He looked me gently in the eye and said‚ "Well‚ that's too bad." My heart dropped and he started laughing‚ "No‚ no‚ I'll be right at the bottom of these stairs‚" he said. I'd never really had a night like that one‚ what a gig!
Here's where it enters a whole other dimension to Greg Brown that's as vast as any of his other talents. He is incredible with a crowd. Funny‚ funny‚ funny. His songs come spinning out of his talking‚ the audience swings on every word‚ and he improvises the feel of the moment into his songs like a master.
A thing that amazes me is how most of my favorite songwriters use the simplest musical formulas. The fresh breath they bring usually isn't revolutionary chord configurations or surprising harmonic complexities‚ but a new voice and slight variations of the classic three or four chord structures. The same way poets revolutionized the sonnet not by changing the rules but by using them to suit their own naked body. In music‚ fates seems to bless new talents with a unique voice. Bob Dylan‚ Tom Waits‚ Leonard Cohen‚ John Prine -- master wordsmiths and each with a singing voice like none other. Greg Brown has all that. A great songwriter once said‚ "Dylan wasn't that great a songwriter‚ he just knew how to make everything sound so important!" Ha! If so‚ Greg benefits from a similar gift. His voice just plain keeps you‚ his sound is easy to relate to and his words are just plain brilliant.