This interview took place online in early November. Gordon had just released “Disappearing Man’ as a single and was working in the studio on his January ’22 single release of “Back in the Day.” He discusses how he got into songwriting, his influences, a brief musical bio, and a brief song-by-song discussion of his album Jack of Hearts.
Tom: Gordon, how are you? …such a pleasure to be talking to a veteran contemporary artist. Thank you for your time. I was wondering if we could start back in the beginning. Music was always around when you were growing up, you even witnessed that iconic Beatles moment on the Ed Sullivan Show. What are some of your earliest musical memories and what initially pushed you towards pursuing this passion of yours?
Gordon: I’m good Tom, thanks……I think I was always pretty much surrounded by music…a very rich musical environment as a kid—Methodist hymns in Sunday school…singing American folk songs in elementary school…junior high choir…Dad’s Dad played oldies on the spinet in their parlor–uncle Mike played Broadway and Great American Songbook tunes…Mom’s parents had the knotty pine basement with a bar and a hi-fi mahogany console…they played big band music from the 40’s at family gatherings…Ink Spots, Mills Brothers…I remember Saxy Jazz from Bill Black’s Combo…they all loved to dance!…top 40 radio was always on in the kitchen and my the bedroom…my sister Linda and I would jump on our beds and sing “Hang down your head Tom Dooley”…Nat King Cole-Judy Garland-Ed Sullivan-Andy Williams on TV…piano lessons in the 3rd grade…even back then I would hum original melodies or they would bubble up in dreams or odd moments of the day…sometime around 9th grade my Dad bought me a triple pickup Kent guitar and as soon as I learned four or five chords from the Mel Bay chord book I was writing these restless yearning romantic tunes in a kind of wistful folk music style… and then that bombastic moment many of us Boomers experienced–the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan, February 1964…wow…It’s difficult to explain now what a culture shock that was….this was not just another “singing group” …this was something different…something else…a new way to be male…a new way to connect…a new way to BE…everything changed after that—the way we looked, the way we talked, our sense of humor, a renewed sense of positive rebellion…a new way to listen to music—a new way to make music…I followed them all throughout the 60’s—musical experimentation, weed, LSD, TM, Eastern religion, a new political consciousness…they were like our cultural scouts exploring new frontiers
T: I love your song writing…I think it has a great pop rock sensibility. How does this side of the creative process work for you, and how has it developed over time?
G: Well…At first I was very impressed with Bob Dylan and Lennon-McCartney…of course I wanted to be like them–who didn’t?…eventually I developed a writing style and routine where I would sit on the edge of my bed with an acoustic guitar, strum absent-mindedly until a melody or melody fragment bubbled up…sometimes accompanied by words–sometimes I just scatted pseudo-words to get the syllables and consonants right…I would also get song ideas in the car, in the shower, or other odd moments and work it out later on guitar or piano…sometimes a chorus will come first and then I need to develop a story line in the verses that set up the chorus…sometimes just a first line and then see where it goes…free association and milking a theme…I began to look at the singer or narrator of the song as a character I could invent so I could be whatever I wanted to be…star-struck lover, spiritual seeker, a social critic, or just a happy-go-lucky minstrel…whatever worked with the feeling of the melody and chords…my first influences were Dylan, Lennon-McCartney, top 40 radio…eventually started to really appreciate Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor….more recently Sting, Stevie Wonder, Donald Fagen, Tom Petty although it may not sound like that at all–they’re all in there somewhere…sometimes I write as if one of my favorite singers might sing it—I hear their voice and it helps with the writing decisions
T: You say you were initially inspired to pen some lyrics by Bob Dylan and also the chart toppers of the 60s. Are there any particular themes that you are often drawn to in your writing?
G: Sure…I think my favorite theme is probably self-transcendence–what I mean by that is the process of self-actualization where we get rid of as much conditioning as possible that we get from our genes, our family, our experience, all that conditioning that makes us do and say what we do and say to the point where we start to act like robots—”Disappearing Man” is a good example… “Give It All Away” is another…I’ve got a fancier name for it—the deconstruction of the psycho-social self…but as far as what theme bubbles up depends on whether music or lyrics or melody comes first and what they point to– sex, jumpiness, intellectual explorations, restlessness, romance, social commentary, or just fantasy—it all depends what the music is alluding to…it’s always a little different…for example I just finished writing and recording a tune called “Back in the Day” about growing up in the 60’s but I arranged it in a 1920’s vaudeville style—campy, sentimental, quirky—unlike anything I’ve written…I’ve gotten criticism from some who say my songs are all over the place and I lack a signature sound—a direction, so to speak…there’s a current critique from business-minded so-called savants that says singer-songwriters need a “brand” to be successful…I’ve always thought that was too limiting…when a song bubbles up from your subconscious you’ve got to go with it—no matter what style or image in order to bring that thing alive…most of my favorite singer-writers are multi-genre, multi-style writers–McCartney, Paul Simon, Sting, Billy Joel.
T: You dropped out of college in the 70s. Where did this decision come from for you? You went on to try your hand at being a full-time musician. Can you tell me about this period of your journey and your memoires from then? It must have been an exciting time to be pursuing that musical life.
G: …had to drop out of college…couldn’t make those 8:00 AM calculus classes after gigging late the night before…felt strongly I had to do one or the other—music or college–music won—the 70’s were exploding with new groups, new sounds, new possibilities…moved into a 5 bedroom row home in an economically depressed area in Baltimore City with four other guys in the our band, Please, devoted ourselves to progressive rock but ironically after the guitar player and drummer left the remaining three of us formed a top 40 trio—worked in much nicer venues—actually made some money at least enough to switch from Rolling Rock to Lowenbrau…the keyboardist left so my drummer friend Gary and I formed a duo—Bits n’ Pieces…we did quite well—especially in hotel lounges—Top 40, standards, oldies…all the while I was writing and thinking of what the next step might be…broke up with Gary and did solo work on acoustic guitar and piano…sent out 50 demo 71/2 inch reel-to-reels with three songs on each…got one serious interest with Harold Kleiner at Columbia—Columbia passed but Harold arranged for me to do an album with Tommy LiPuma at A&M Horizon…assigned Hugh McCracken who played on McCartney’s RAM album to produce…Hughie brought in top session players of 1979—Tony Levin, Richard Tee, Rick Marotta, David Sanborn…it was like playing with Paul Simon’s back-up group…that was the Stargazer album released in 1979…got a New York manager who said, “Go back to Baltimore and, put a band together, and write some hits” …returned to Baltimore, started writing every day, did the est training, took a break and hung out in LA/Hollywood for a while, got a band together in Baltimore in the Fall of ‘79—this was the first of what would be many versions of The Gordon Michaels Band…started on guitar but then performed mainly as a front man doing originals and carefully selected cover tunes…married in ’81…my first son, Derek, was born…personnel changes…band brake-ups…sang and played bass with other groups until 1989…started to fizzle out energy-wise, motivation-wise…first marriage on the rocks…ready for this chapter to end…I was looking for the next chapter to start.
T: Life then got a bit busy! You ‘flirted’ with Christianity, met your wife and started a family. This led life in a different direction. How did you find time for your musical endeavours during this time and what drew you back to your solo albums in the 2010s?
G: I feel kind of like a modern-day Rip van Winkle– dropped out of the music scene completely in 1989 and then woke up in 2015. I knew I could never really be a good husband or father as long I was playing gigs several times a week, coming home at 3:00 AM, drugs, drinking, easy available sex…it’s so easy to slide into that kind of life style so I decided to give it up and become a different person altogether…meanwhile I was having a kind of religious awakening–watching late night evangelists, introduced to a powerful new idea called “The New Testament Church” did some Bible study…eventually said “Ok!—Let’s do it!” …jumped head-long into the contemporary evangelical Christian movement…that lasted about six years before fading away mainly from a Critical-Historical approach to New Testament Study and a close look at Christian history…still a big fan of Jesus but not all the stuff that’s accumulated around him for the last 2000 years…switched to being a day-time person and teaching elementary school…married my current wife, Mary Ann…over the next 20 years earned a Masters and Ph.D. in Education…taught graduate education at Loyola University…during this time I would periodically sit in with my brother Rob’s bands wherever he was playing and sing a song or two…did a little home recording on a multitrack cassette recorder in my basement and at Rob’s…but pretty much stayed away from what Joni Mitchell calls the “star-making machinery”…it was a time of healing and family and balance…just happened that that’s what I needed at that particular time…two great kids—John now 31—Casey now 26…but when the kids were grown and gone and I retired from teaching I suddenly had the pace and time and itch to write and record and perform again…this was about 2015…Rip van Winkle awakes!! And wow the music scene sure looked different…started working with Ron Turner on my first Indie album, Tune Rider…the ideas just started to explode maybe because I had stored up the energy for so long…a drummer and old friend of mine, Mike Kanter who played on the album basically put a band together for me to front—and the Gordon Michaels Band rises again like the Phoenix from the ashes…performed in the GMB until Covid hit strong in early 2020…been focused on writing and recording ever since
T: I discovered your music through the Jack of Hearts album. I think this is a brilliant set of songs that blend the lines between pop and rock. What are your memories from writing and releasing the record? How do you go about producing a studio album during a global pandemic and how do you reflect on it now?
G: The songs for Jack of Hearts were written and recorded during the 2020-early 2021 period with the exception of “Marjorie” which has been a work in progress since 1979…a brief rundown of the songs on the album…”All The Way” written on acoustic guitar with the feeling of “Message in A Bottle” in mind—became much more Spanish and romantic during production—great fretless bass from Bobby Peters… “Tell Me Why” written totally in my head with just melody and lyrics later juxtaposed onto syn bass and syn drums…I like the mix of Stevie Wonder funkiness and hard grainy guitars—my social commentary mood resonating with the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movement…”No Sun Today”– a negative love song—when you don’t want to feel that feeling because you’ve been unlucky and in pain…the narrator of “Jack of Hearts” is an underdog, hopelessly romantic, needing to bow down to the powers that be dreaming of having his own castle someday but finding a kind of solace in solitude…”The Other Girl” is a flirty, mischievous thing where the narrator expresses his constant male fascination with the “other women” he can’t have—… “Gonna Love You Tonight” is a straight ahead love/romance/intimacy tune influenced by “10 Million Hours”… “Can’t Put A Reason” addresses the way human relationships can work without logical reasoning involved—a juxtaposition of country swing and ELO … “Marjorie” as I mentioned was written in my head on the plane on the way back from visiting the A&M Horizon people in Hollywood in ’79…about a woman I saw at the Chateau Marmont sitting by the pool and crying …I changed it to a Christian song in the 90’s and back to a portrait of a sad lady again in 2020—probably inspired by Donovan’s “Lalena”…”Never Had a Love” is again the underdog who has been unlucky in love and rejoices over finally falling in love and it’s the best thing that has ever happened—kind of country—kind of James Taylor…”The Sound Goin’ Down” was an experiment in a kind of Steely Dan chord structure—an episode told from the viewpoint of a fan watching a big band jazz ensemble at a concert—crazy good guitar solo from Ron…you asked about Covid…Ron’s studio had a control room and a performance room separated from it so we were protected from each other by a wall and communicated through microphones through headphones during the worst of the pandemic—socially distanced but musically connected
T: “Disappearing Man” is the latest chapter. How did this single come about? What is the story behind the song and what does it mean to you?
G: The melody came first as it does quite a lot—in the car—walking—in the bathtub—then I wrapped chords around it and explored the possibilities of where it might go in the key of G…I think the melody is probably influenced by Sting’s “Fortress Around Your Heart’…the theme may have been influenced by a recent re-reading of Catcher in The Rye and my ongoing fascination with self-actualization…the character in the song—who represents the seeker in all of us.. is disillusioned with his life…goes though the usual adventure/quest/accumulation of wealth/spiritual rebirth attempts…like Buddha, Baba Ram Dass, Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, the Neo-Advaita Vedanta people…and finally realizes everything he was seeking—liberation, enlightenment was right there all the time in the everyday-every moment experience of life…now that I think about it–sounds a little like The Wizard of Oz…”Oh Toto…There’s no place like home”… anyway, the personal identity he was escaping from disappears when he realizes it was just a phantom–an autobiographical self that he himself had created…hence the title, “Disappearing Man”…with the double meaning of leaving home-family and also leaving the illusory self—he has, so to speak, disappeared
T: Favourite artist?
G: Beatles, Sting, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Donald Fagen, Dylan, Diana Krall
T: Favourite album? …so difficult to nail down just one: Court &Spark, Hissing of Summer Lawns, Revolver (British version), The Nightfly, Diana Krall Live in Paris, Innervisions, Highway 61, Take 5
T: First gig as audience member?
G: The first concert I attended was the 1966 Rolling Stones concert at the Baltimore Civic Center…only 2/3 filled…16th row…Jagger wore a sport jacket with patches of what looked like tree bark…Charlie Watts fell back from the drums into the curtain behind him and Keith Richard grabbed him by the scruff of his collar and pulled him back onto the drums…Aftermath had just come out…they did several songs from that album…girls screaming-carrying big signs…so exciting-so much energy…I thought, “If there’s any way I can be at least a little part of this movement–this energy–this excitement–I’ve gotta do it!”
T: Style icon?
G: David Bowie–middle aged, Beck, Martin Short, Johnny Depp, Larry David
T: Favourite film?
G: Let me name a few: Stardust Memories, The Crucible, On the Waterfront, Godfather III, The Wonder Boys, The Family Man, What about Bob?
T: Favourite up and coming artist?
G: Billy Eilish, H.E.R., Esmeralda Spalding, Gordon Michaels
T: Thank you!
G: Any time!