I’m proud to have a new essay, titled “Thank You For Your Song,” published in Chapter 16, the venerable literary magazine of Humanities Tennesseeedited by Margaret Renkl. The essay asks the question, “What do we owe the writers who get us through our darkest days?” It’s about gratitude, and my own efforts, somewhat flawed, to thank those artists and musicians whose music has served me and provided solace during tough times. As an appendix of sorts to the essay, I’ve pulled together here a Spotify playlistof some of the songs and artists I mention in the article, a collection of links to their sites, and a video from a few years ago that explains the whole silly Springsteen/eggplant thing. My hope is that you’ll click over to read the essay, and then return here to do some listening and further exploring. Perhaps you have your own list of songs and artists, and it will inspire you create your own playlists and write your own essays of thanks.
Spotify Playlist: I’ve chosen two songs each from the artists I mention, along with a track each from Bob Dylan and Patti Smith for good measure.
‘Plants Like Us: The Night I Met Bruce Springsteen: A bit of digital storytelling that my friend Will Pedigo helped me with a few years ago, shot entirely on a Flip Camera (remember those?). The date of the show is wrong. It was actually 2002. But the ridiculousness remains.
In a second floor apartment in a non-descript building on a street in the Heights section of Jersey City, on a wall likely hidden under coats of paint, is “The Only Poem” by Leonard Cohen. That is its title. “The Only Poem.” I know it’s there—unless, of course, the building has been knocked down or gutted—because I painted it. It was big, maybe three feet wide and five feet tall. I painted it with a small watercolor paintbrush and blue wall paint, starting at about 2 a.m. and finishing about 6 a.m.
It was the mid-nineties, I was in my mid-twenties, and that apartment was the first place I rented on my own. The rent was $450 a month. On the night I painted the poem, I was months into a serious bout of depression, deeper than I had ever experienced before. It was the kind of depression that we know well today. At work, and out socially with friends, I could be jovial and positive. No one would suspect I had depression. But alone, I struggled deeply. Unable to get myself out of bed, I saw no future for myself. I was overwhelmed by hopelessness and fear, and calmed only by the thought that no longer being alive might be the only way to make the pain go away. On the night I painted the poem, the depression had seized me like never before. I started to consider how I might acquire a gun. I wondered what pills might be best. I worried about who might find me and what might happen to my cats.
I don’t know what moved in me, but in the middle of that night, I grabbed my copy of Leonard’s song and poetry collection, Stranger Music. I flipped through looking for something, anything, to tide me over and get me through the night. And there it was. “The Only Poem.”
This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it
I didn’t kill myself
when things went wrong
I didn’t turn
to drugs or teaching
I tried to sleep
but when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me
The poem spoke directly to me. Leonard had maybe been in the same exact place, and this was his letter to those who would follow him to that place. He learned to write, what might be read, on nights like this, by one like him. I needed that poem with me all the time. Every night. So I got up, found a small brush, and opened up one of the cans of paint I had used to paint the apartment doors and trim. It was painstakingly slow with the small brush. It took me all through the night and into the morning. And when it was finished, it was crooked and the lines weren’t exactly written in the way Leonard has intended. But it was there, in the sunlight coming through the blinds. For hours, I was not hopeless. I did not think about ending my life. I thought about the poem, and I thought about writing.
Of course, you cannot write yourself out of serious clinical depression. That requires professional help and often medication. And with a reprieve, I soon took steps to find a doctor who diagnosed me and got me the help I needed. The depression would return, in cycles in the years ahead, and fortunately, I always knew when I could no longer keep it at bay and needed to seek help.
But that poem certainly helped. It’s not hyperbole to say it saved my life. I’m thankful to it to this day. And thankful to Leonard, who’s since never been that far from me. I have a tattoo of the cover of his album, The Future, on my arm—a hummingbird lifting a heart free from its binds. And for a decade I carried in my wallet a copy of a passage from his book, Beautiful Losers, about what it means to be a saint. I only stopped carrying it because it disintegrated from being taken out and put back and read so much.
I have a photograph of the painting of the poem, and last night, after hearing of Leonard’s death, I sent it my dear friend of 30 years, Kevin, who moved into that apartment after I moved out. He decided to keep the poem up for awhile, even if it was a little weird to his guests. It was certainly a conversation piece. It was he who mentioned that it might still be there, under many coats of paint. His exact words were that, “The Poem still lives under coats of paint.” Lives. I liked that and suggested it was poetic all on its own.
There’s an oft quoted lyric from Leonard’s song, “Anthem,” from the album, The Future: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” He might be right. Maybe there’s a poem behind everything, too.
I’ll miss knowing Leonard walks among us. But I know he’s still here.
It was — at the time — the most important gig of my life. Early-to-mid 90s. The Bitter End on Bleecker Street in New York City. The place where the legends played. I earned it in a roundabout way. A friend who studied with the same vocal teacher as I couldn’t play his show, so he convinced Kenny Gorka, the Bitter End’s booking agent, that I could fill his slot. It wasn’t the best night, a Sunday, and not the best time, around 11 p.m., but the Bitter End was always good for a tourist crowd and walk-in traffic. I was 21, and after some years of playing as part of a band, was striking out on my own as a singer-songwriter with my own band. My bass player couldn’t make it for some reason, and my drummer, who was 16, couldn’t get the go-ahead from his parents to make the trek from New Jersey into New York on a school night. I’d have to go it solo.
I was terrible.
I forgot lyrics. Flubbed guitar parts. And in a particularly emotive moment, guitar slung low, head down and creeping back toward the front of the stage like a true artist, slammed my head into the microphone, creating a loud thump and almost knocking the mic and stand off the stage. The most important gig of my life turned into the worst gig of my life.
My friend called me the next day.
“Joe, what the hell happened last night? Kenny’s pissed at me for recommending you. He said you were terrible and couldn’t touch you for a few months.”
I tried to explain, but knew the only solution was to redeem myself. I called and begged Kenny to give me another shot. He reluctantly offered me another gig. A couple of months later, on a random weekday night, with the full Joe Pagetta Band in tow, I returned to the Bitter End and kicked ass.
Kenny loved us and called me the next day to ask us back in a few weeks. We continued to do this, working our way toward a coveted weekend slot. At the Bitter End, though, redemption was never guaranteed. At least two more times, Kenny threatened to never book us again.
There was one time when we invited a keyboard player and soon-to-be-band-member to sit in with us on the house piano. The result was a mess. Paul, who was Kenny’s right-hand man and eyes and ears, was furious when we got off the stage.
“Joe, what the hell was that? You sounded terrible. This is the Bitter End. We have a reputation to uphold. You wanna pull that shit, go around the corner to (lower east side club) the Orange Bear. Now go back to fuckin’ New Jersey and practice.”
I called Kenny the next day to book our next gig. “Joe, I can’t touch you. I heard you brought up a piano player and it sounded like shit.”
We rehearsed with our new keyboard player, and returned, triumphantly, once again.
It went on this like. Getting it right, getting it wrong. But always redemption.
Except for maybe that one time Kenny found out we played at another club on Bleecker, a block or so away. It lacked the history and respect of the Bitter End, but we were desperate to play anywhere and anytime.
“Joe, did you play down the street?” Kenny asked the next time I called him. “I can’t touch you for three months if you play there. It makes us look band. That place is for amateurs.”
I begged for forgiveness, but I was also nearing the end of my need for redemption and plotting my move to Nashville. I don’t recall if we ever played the Bitter End after that. I called Kenny once years later. I was now living in Nashville and putting together a Northeast tour. I wanted to include a stop at the Bitter End. We couldn’t find the right date, but he remembered me and was kind.
The best thing about those years, and the on-again off-again relationship with Kenny and the Bitter End, was that he never once talked to me about draw. Return engagements had nothing to do with how many people we brought out to see us, or what the bar take was. It was always about how good we were and how well we played. Anyone who’s ever played in a band that worked bars and clubs knows how rare that is, and important it can be in your development. In his own cantankerous, but always caring, way, Kenny made me a better musician and performer. For that, I and the thousands of other musicians he gave gigs to, will always be thankful.