Marchesano Musings - A Heartfelt, Humorous and Irreverent Essay by Tim Quirk
Michael James is not like you or I. He’s far, far nicer than any human being, particularly one in the music business, has any right to be.
We first met way back in 1988, when my band spent two days in the middle of a long national tour banging out some demos at a little studio in Venice Beach called Radio Tokyo. Michael was assigned as our engineer. Radio Tokyo was a bit of a punk Mecca, in that heroes of ours such as the Minutemen had recorded there. So Michael wasn’t really what we were expecting.
Most people you’d encounter in a situation like that would look a certain way. Tattoos up and down your arms weren’t yet de rigueur, but they weren’t uncommon. Complexions were pale, clothing was unkempt and re-used multiple days in a row, smiles were things you deployed after saying something cutting.
Michael was something else entirely: an incredibly fit, healthily tanned, bike-riding vegetarian, who introduced himself as a born again virgin and eagerly expounded on his Baha’i faith when asked. He didn’t curse (and in fact called our label to make sure it was OK with them that I swore repeatedly in many of our songs). If you read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, he was a LOT like Captain Carrot. If you have no idea who that is, Kenneth from 30 Rock or Ned Flanders from The Simpsons are close approximations – characters who at first seem like easy jokes because they’re impossibly guileless, but who ultimately reveal themselves as admirably unflappable heroes, because no matter how terrible the provocation, they never drop to everyone else’s level. Each of them, like Michael, is far tougher than you realize, and they prevail in most situations because they believe the things they do so completely and honestly.
We had no idea what to make of him. But dang (since this is Michael’s album, I am spelling that word with an “ng” instead of an “mn,” as I normally would), was he an excellent engineer and musician. He worked incredibly fast, got brilliant sounds, and politely made numerous smart arrangement and harmony suggestions. We were so impressed, we asked him to produce our next LP.
Being Michael, he wound up spending his entire fee buying more studio time for us when we ran over the initial allotment our recording budget had funded. When we objected that we couldn’t ask him for a favor like that, he dismissed our objections by explaining he considered what we were working on to be his record, too.
When we came back to Radio Tokyo a third time to record yet again, Michael said he didn’t want any money, but he did think we needed a Mesa Boogie amp to get the right guitar sound, and if the label would fund that and let him keep it afterward, he’d consider everything square.
So, I count Michael as a generous friend, and I was suitably honored when he asked me if I’d be willing to write some liner notes for this record. I was also worried – I’m a gleefully profane, punk-inspired, meat-loving atheist, so it wasn’t clear how helpful my musings might be on an instrumental work chock full of intricate guitar leads that Michael described as “my love letter to God."
I do not believe in the God to whom Michael James has written this love letter, but I do believe good music and better friends to share it with can be a powerful source of transcendent experiences. So let’s see what happens. I’m going to play the record, and write down how it makes me feel and what it makes me think. Wheeee!
(Ed. note: The final playing order of the album changed after this piece was written.)
Track 1: “Love is the Spirit of Life”
Now, see, right at the beginning we have a perfect example of how Michael and I differ. Not only can he actually play his instrument, but the sounds he chooses to make with it are so darn nice. The chorus lick here sounds like a great Sheryl Crow melody, the notes she sings in a lyric about just chilling happily with friends, in a song that plays from radios everywhere all summer long and instantly transports you back to that time whenever you hear it for years afterward. I enjoy tunes like that as much as the next guy, but I'm also suspicious of them, because in real life those friends die unexpectedly, and that never seems to happen in Sheryl Crow songs – at least not the ones they play on the radio.
Track 2: “Make Firm Our Steps”
Hmm. Some pleasingly ominous hints of darkness in the opening notes, so maybe someone will die after all, just like in real life. And maybe someone has, or will, but if so that just seems to give Michael something to overcome with chunky power chords played with that Rockman effect the guy in Boston supposedly invented – I do not know if it’s true, but I heard the Rockman began life as a way for the guitar player in Boston to work late at night in his apartment without bugging his neighbors. Now that I think about it, that is sooooo Michael James – he loves to rock, but would hate to disturb anyone while doing so. Which leaves me picturing Michael riding his bicycle all around and through the ominous darkness that began the song, shouting, “Hey! Guys! Check this out! It’s neat!” Good for him.
Track 3: “Awakening”
Now we’re getting somewhere. To me, this sounds like some Smooth Jazz dudes playing for themselves in a bar on a Sunday afternoon, cuz neither of the two sad drunks who are their putative audience are paying them any attention. All over the country – all over the world – there are people who are fantastic at what they do, doing it for little reward and less recognition. This is not necessarily a good thing, but sometimes just doing the thing you’re good at is enough.
Track 4: “Light on the Horizon”
A long, overnight drive. You want it to be morning, cuz then you’ll be there. At first you think you see a hint of dawn, but it turns out it’s just the security lights on some industrial building in the middle of nowhere. So, hours later, you don’t believe the real morning light at first. But it gets brighter and brighter, and wakes you up enough to finish the drive.
Track 5: “The Gate”
This one’s a bit prog rock-y for my tastes, so I see a bunch of dancing dwarves in front of this gate. That’s OK, they’re small, you can kick ‘em aside. But then you have to deal with an inscrutable-looking druid. He’s probably going to ask you a bunch of riddles, and hurl you into some pit if you guess wrong. But, because you are a courageous and noble young elf on a quest, you foil his schemes by engaging him in a conversation about distortion pedals. Turns out he’s a fan of the Big Muff fuzz pedal, too, and lets you pass.
Track 6: “Redemption”
I think you have to do something terrible in order to be redeemed, and since, unlike the god he believes in, Michael James doesn’t know how to be mean or cruel, I’m not sure what’s in need of redeeming here. Maybe the fact that he asked me to write these liner notes, and now here I am kicking petty dirt all over his beautiful creations? Then again, he asked me, so maybe he recognizes his spiritual yang needs a little earthly yin to hold it in check, maybe?
Track 7: “Let’s Keep it Real”
OK, I’m getting weirded out, now, because I wrote that last sentence just as track 6 was ending and having no idea what track 7 was called, but suddenly it’s like the record is talking back to me. Pretty sure some folks are having sex, here. Or maybe they’re just dancing super suggestively. Both can be transcendent, when done right – which usually means unthinkingly.
Track 8: “Illumine My Inner Being”
You know what can be just as good (sometimes even better) than sex and dancing? Just spending a lazy afternoon walking around with someone you love who loves you back the precise same amount, saying nothing, just smiling at each other. Perhaps that is how Michael feels about God. Which one of us loves him enough to tell him “illumine” is not a verb anyone really uses?
Track 9: “That I May See Thy Light”
Judging by that riffing, the light is pretty much everywhere. Really, it takes more effort NOT to see it. Sure, people die, including you. But do you know how insanely the odds were stacked against anyone you know ever existing in the first place? This does not mean you have to feel guilty for just wanting to watch TV some nights. There’s light there, too.
Track 10: “Joy Gives Us Wings”
Again, because I am profane and literal minded, I am picturing a waitress. Her nametag says Joy. And she comps us our chicken wings, cuz the cook screwed up the rest of the order. But sometimes it’s those little acts of kindness that shift an otherwise miserable day into something sublime. And now that you’re noticing, you realize Joy’s got an amazing ability to just be nice to everyone she’s serving, even though this truck stop attracts a rough and unseemly looking crowd. You get the feeling everyone else in the joint recognizes this ability, too, even if only subconsciously. Nobody messes with Joy. Everyone she serves gets back on the road a little bit happier than when they stopped. And the joy spreads, in tiny little increments.
So, that’s what I got after my first listen, and multiple further listens found me inserting little more than commas here and there. My reactions feel smaller than Michael’s ambitions, but I am small-minded.
Michael wrote a love letter to God; I’ve contented myself with writing my own to Michael.
I think they’re kind of the same thing.
, front guy in Too Much Joy turned Google exec, January 2014