always thankful to return to Manhattan after a trek into New Jersey. I guess there are reasons people live there, but I can't for the life of me think of any. Of course, I moved 3,000 miles to not be in the suburbs, so that probably infects my point of view.
I've thought of moving there to save on rent and taxes, but it would be too expensive to commute, unless I was on a PATH line. When the city grind gets to be too much, I could see myself settling down in some small, all-American town, like Westfield with its central square and grand, white steeple. There's an NJ Transit station and a Trader Joe's, I don't need a whole lot more. (Except it's a wee bit too close to the home town of that paranoid has been who fantasized that I was stalking him.)
Nevertheless I'm not yet done with the city; only being able to come in for 9-5 isn't nearly enough for me. I'm still not over rolling out of my bed and being in the heart of this city I so long dreamed of. I wake up in the morning and see the purplepink sky highlighting the Empire State and Chrysler buildings like some sort of dream and I say aloud, "You are so beautiful...I love you!"
One of the reasons I came to allow myself this dream was a group of boys I met when I was 15. (I can never fully relate the story, though I'll try sometime soon.) Ironic though it seems now, New Jersey spawned some of the people I love most in this world. Saturday I braved the wilds of the Garden State to see a couple of my boys.
I've mentioned John a few times. He's been married and stayed put in California, so he's been the easiest to keep in touch with. After Dramarama broke up in the early '90s, half of the boys went back home to New Jersey. Mark still plays with John in California and Chris has been producing and managing other bands and landed his dream job last year, hosting Breakfast With the Beatles on K-eaRTH.
By 3 p.m. on Saturday, I got sick of playing phone tag with John, so I finally decided to just head to Newark, the closest PATH station to where they were recording. Worst case scenario, I wasted $1.50 and an hour. The original plan was for him to pick me up, but we couldn't seem to connect by phone, so I hopped in a cab. Jersey cabs are friggin' expensive. The fares are flat, not metered and probably twice what they would be in the city. It was only a 10 minute ride and the cabbie found the studio quite easily.
I walked in, not sure what I'd find and there was Al, the guy who gave me the directions on the phone and patiently passed my messages along to John. He pointed me to the lounge, where John was on the phone with his wife, who had just called me while I was on the train. "Hey, Erica Jackson just walked in," he said into the receiver. The boys have always called and referred to me by my full name, even though I'm the only Erica around. I left so he could finish his conversation.
How out of context to see this promo photo, from 10 or 12 years ago, on the bulletin board at the recording studio.
In the hallway, I found Pete Wood, the guitarist, taking a big bite out of his newly-arrived burger. He greeted me with an entusiastic "Erica Jackson!" and a big hug. Pete's probably never said more than 5 words to me at once (with 2 being my name), but somehow I've always known he's just a good guy. He hasn't changed a bit in 16 years. His hair is just the same, if a bit shorter in the back -- still styled with an egg beater up top and black as midnight.
I kept marvelling at how great he looked, not so much because I expected him to turn into Keith Richards, but because I hadn't seen him in 4 years and that was in a dark club, so I didn't expect him to look the same as the first time I'd laid eyes on him (when I thought he was Mark for 6 months and vice versa). There was something reassuring about Pete, always was. Salt of the earth, that guy.
Pete asked if I'd like to hear some of the new songs. Of course I did. I've never had a great ear for music, oddly enough, so I think I can't pick out the individual instruments, that I just take in the whole. I'm not so out of it. The guitars were as soaring as ever, the drums as urgent as when I first heard the opening strains of "Anything, Anything" on Rodney Bingenheimer's radio show on KROQ in 1986.
Pete and I talked a bit and I told him again how great he looked -- just so healthy and alive. "Father time's been good to me," he said.
"Hey Pete, you want to feel really old?"
"No!" he laughed.
"I'm 31 now," I said. They've known me more than half my life. John always says it's been an honor to watch me grow up so strong and independant.
John was off the phone by then and we talked for a while. We talk a few times a month, so there isn't much to catch up on, although our conversations are never finished. One of the reasons John invited me to the studio is that we can't talk at shows. Even if I finally get to him in the crowd, fans interrupt.
Part of me understands, because that is their one chance to talk to this man who's provided the soundtrack of their life for nearly two decades. But it's frustrating not to have more than a few moments with one of your oldest friends. He's got a crazy-busy job and 4 kids, so his time isn't exactly abundant to begin with.
The shows were out pretty far in Jersey and, though, I could get to them, there's a certain Cinderella quality about getting back across the Hudson after midnight. James had planned to drive out to see John play, but the shows fell on the eve and day of Sukkot. I think the last time John was here, James was in Korea, so again, the timing was off.
On top of everything, the NJ shows are filled with old friends and family, so the line to John is an especially long one. I'm glad I went to one when I moved to NY the first time (1998), as I got to see several of the old band members and friends who I hadn't seen in the decade since they'd left California. It was like coming home.
So John started telling me how great I looked, an inevitable part of our brief visits that I find embarassing and yet endearing. "But you always look great. You've lost weight, though...I hope you were trying to, you aren't sick, are you? Hey, if it makes you feel better, great! But it never affected your self-esteem, did it? You were always you. And you're a redhead -- hey!"
He went on like that, a mile a minute. He was concerned about last weekend, but I assured him I was fine, after the initial shock(s) wore off. I nearly forgot to give him his birthday presents -- a Jesus action figure, an Elvis catalog and Liberace newsletter for the shrine in his office and one of my tiles.
This last is sky blue, with fluffy, white clouds, yellow and white stripes around the edge and the word "Esperanza" in yellow across the top. It means hope. I painted it when I was about at my lowest, probably late July. John said he liked it. He wandered off after a while and I watched King of the Hill in the lounge.
"Erica...come hear Johnny sing," Pete called from down the hall.
I walked into the studio and Pete introduced me to Rich, the recording engineer, as he set up a chair for me. Just a thoughtful Jersey boy, I tell ya.
John came in, bearing Jesus.
"Oh, everyone needs one of those," Rich said.
"Hey! It's your action figure, Rich!" John exclaimed.
"Indeed," I said, and I realized that's my type -- Jesus. It's the long hair, radical philosophy and flowing robes. Jesus is hot.
"Yeah, I've been working on that look," Rich said, stroking his burgeoning beard with a grin. He looked sort of like Jason Lee in Almost Famous.
John went into the booth and warmed up his voice by telling some really bad jokes. I sat there, mostly watching Rich, because I couldn't see John well from where I was sitting and also because I was taking in the zillions of buttons, knobs, lights and gadgets. In all these years, I'd never been in a recording studio, not even when I worked at the record company (I worked in Legal and New Media).
John records the vocal track. My apologies for the horrible photo. It was terribly dark in the studio, and I couldn't use the flash because of the window.
I like watching people work. Often, I find myself watching construction workers, cooks, dishwashers. There is something reassuring and fascinating about hands that are sure of their work. I liked how comfortable Rich looked doing his job, even with the cat on his lap.
Kitty cat ponders the mix board.
I picked up my journal and wrote feverishly for a few minutes, inspired by that moment.
John recorded vocals and acoustic guitar tracks for the songs I'd heard intrumentals of earlier. It didn't take nearly as long as I expected. He sang a couple of the songs in the first take and only a few takes for the others. The man's a pro.
Things seemed to speed by at that point. The boys started to pack up their equipment and load it into their cars. John, who'd been sick all weekend, debated about whether he should take me back to Newark Penn or if he would have the energy to drive me back there or into the city after the show. He figured the most he could handle in the wee hours that night was to be a passenger.
John drove me back to Newark Penn and the drive was all-too brief. He shared some bad news about work and a friend. "It's been a year of bad news," I said. He took this to be about me and told me all the things that usually reassure me...that the world is hard when you see and feel as much as we do, but that he believed there was a better place. I thought, "There better be -- we're in downtown Newark."
But I meant that everyone I know has had some sort of setback this year -- at least 5 of my friends were also unemployed, 2 still are, 2 found only short term jobs, one got divorced, another broke up with his girlfriend and moved several times.
John got out of the car and so did I. He gave me a big hug and told me everything was going to be OK, like he always does. I used to pray for a big brother when I was growing up, which is absurd, because if you were going to have a big brother, you already would, right?
After this difficult year, I needed a reminder that prayers, wishes and dreams can come true.
. . .
Despite my remarks about Jersey, Newark Penn is still a grand, old train station, similar to LA's Union Station. NY Penn is a disgrace in comparison.
Lovely floors at Newark Penn Station.
Ceiling and lights at Newark Penn.
Newark Penn walls
[Next entry: "Erica Jackson!"]
Train information. This is just like the board at New York Penn. I used to love watching the people scramble like mad once the track numbers were finally posted, about 10 minutes before departure.
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