Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Art of Narrative Songwriting: Chuck Brodsky at the Good Coffeehouse

The Friday before last--delayed blog posting here, it's true--I found myself out in Brooklyn on a snowy/rainy night at the Good Coffeehouse at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. The Good Coffeehouse has been an operation there for 33 years! And for a good number of years now, local bluegrass star James Reams and his partner Tina Aridas have been in charge of the booking. They always put together a nice season with a few special and surprising treats over the course of the year. I have not gotten out there nearly as often as I might have liked.

On the day in question, I was there to see Chuck Brodsky. My memories of past Chuck Brodksy performances are pretty hazy. If I have seen him before--and I think that I have--it most likely was at a festival, and he sort of flickered before my eyes. Certainly, I know some of his songs, and I definitely know some of the stories behind the songs. So whether that is from having seen him before, having heard him interviewed on the radio, having listened to his CDs or just pure cultural osmosis, I cannot tell you. But there was a fair amount of familiarity in seeing him live.

The crowd was small. When I got there, it was essentially non-existent--New Yorkers dislike rain and snow; we're like cats. By the time that Chuck started his set, however, there was a quorum, and based on the number of people who came up to him after the concert and wanted to know more about particular songs or to figure out which CD to buy or to talk politics with him, it was an enthusiastic audience even if a small one.

What struck me most during the show was how great a narrative songwriter Chuck Brodsky is. My favorite songs tend to be narrative in form: I like a song that tells a story. Whether that is a Cowboy Western like Tom Russsll's "The Sky Above, The Mud Below" or a gypsy love song like Richard Thompson's "Beeswing," I like following the arc of the story from verse to verse. (Being narrative is not my end-all, be-all requirement for a song, of course. To use the same two examples, Tom Russell's "Box of Visions" is a charming little collection of simple images without a story behind them, and Richard Thompson's "Turning of the Tide" is a powerful character portrait without an extended story.) During the first set, in particular, Chuck just hit us with one song after another, where you hung on to each verse, each word, looking to see how the story was going to develop.

The first of these songs was "Bill & Annie," which recounts a story that Chuck heard from a man selling peaches out of the back of his truck in which that man finds his true love on the day of his wedding--and she's not his wife--and makes the hard decision to stay with the woman that he has married rather than run away with the woman he knows that he truly loves.

Then we got the Chuck Brodsky classic "Dock Ellis's No-No" about the time that Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while tripping on acid. Another sports-related song from later in the evening was Chuck's tale of being at a famous Philadelphia Eagles game in 1968 where the fans pelted Santa Claus with snowballs.

We heard the tale of a woman--now Chuck's wife--who gave a flute to a poor little girl so that she could continue her flute lessons and a song called "Lily's Braids" about a family cutting off and hiding a girl's braids before the family was taken away to a concentration camp. (Chuck said that he was working on a CD full of songs about the holocaust.)

From the category of songs about music, we heard a song about Chuck's great-grandfather imagined from a photograph in which the old man holds a fiddle in small-town Russia and also a song about the man who blows kisses at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia.

From the growing-up genre, we got a song about Chuck playing ping-pong with his father after dinner, learning how that game evolved over time with their relationship, and a song about what it is like to be Jewish at Christmas time.

And that was all in the first half of the concert!

In the second set, Chuck sang a song called "Keep the Backyard Lookin' Good" about throwing people who throw all of their garbage into their backyard. (He lives near Asheville, North Carolina, where this is apparently not an unknown practice.) This was followed by the song that he wrote for the movie Radio about a developmentally disabled man adopted by a high school football coach. "The 9:30 Pint" was about an Irish publican who opens up his establishment at 9:30 every morning because there are people looking for a drink even then, while "The Boys in the Backroom" was about political corruption in North Carolina. (Chuck says that he likes it in North Carolina! What would he write if he didn't like it?)

As you can tell by the descriptions, these are not simple songs about unrequited love or drinking lots of beer. These are complex and compelling songs, and my hats off to Chuck Brodsky for his skill and artistry.

I concluded the night by confirming with Chuck a story that I tell about his photograph up on the wall above the bar at the Postcrypt. And yes, it's true: he drew in the beard on the photo with a marker. Maybe someday he'll write the song about that!

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