March 12, 1999
P.O. Box 12078
Cincinnati, OH 45212
Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark. – Agnes De Mille
I remember the first stroke: cobalt blue, a diagonal stroke on a rectangular three-by-four-foot canvas. I burst into tears when I made it. – Pia Stern
Now if you asked me where I’d rather be, I’d say nowhere. – Karin Bergquist
It’s obvious I don’t know where to begin or you would have heard from me long before now.
I lived for a long time on the top floor of an old brick building on Main Street downtown, and now in this old house I do most of my work here in the attic. I’m assuming all of these words would be different if I was hunkered down in the corner of the basement. But up here I look out and see the tops of the houses and chimneys and parts of trees high up, bare branches interlaced like bloodvessels, veins very still against the face of the sky as if the world was holding its breath, waiting for something to make the first move. For some reason there are a lot of cardinals in this neighborhood and they sit there like the tip of God’s paintbrush, smug in their uselessness. What are we supposed to do with all this red?
How have you all been? When I think of you I remember that I know you and that I don’t. Many of us will never meet but somehow I miss you anyway. Somehow I know that when you brush up against some obscure joy, I feel it a little bit too. And when you come to grips with the phantom pangs that are part of this free ride – this free ride that ends up giving us more than we can ever repay, more than we know how to handle – this free ride for which we bought no ticket – I mean we sloshed around in our Mothers’ womb and laid there in our cribs and we didn’t even know we were riding yet – well, somehow when you ache in that inside place for which we have no name, I feel it a little bit too. I guess I took the long way to say, Fine I hope. (Why do I hope you’re fine? Because when you do something good, that makes it easier for me.)
I’m assuming that some of you are still regularly talking to each other. I don’t know if it’s a relief to you to know that I haven’t checked in on your conversations for a long, long time. But I have a dilemma that I would like you to discuss and then after y’all express yourselves, I think I’m going to get somebody to print out your words to see if you can shed any new light on the subject at hand.
The dilemma is this. I have come to a place in my life where writing and recording music is the most tangible or physical way that I give a little something to the world and I learn a little something in the meanwhile. For years I have thought of what I do as running a vegetable stand. It’s sort of a family-run business (we’re not a chain or a franchise) and people have to go a bit out of their way to come and get what we offer. Because we’re a vegetable stand and not a hypermarket, we try to put a little extra care into what we give people, keep things fresh, organic, and the scenery is arguably a little richer out here.
From time to time people have come in and assured us that they can take this vegetable stand and turn it into a multi-national success story. Running the vegetable stand is a lot of work, and some years get a little lean – you know, maybe there’s an early frost or whatever and the roof of the barn needs repaired. So it’s always interesting to hear what these people have to say, and we try to listen. But inevitably, while people sit around conference tables brainstorming about how Over the Rhine’s next record could sell three million copies, weeks and months go by, and we begin to think, gee, we could have put out a couple of records of our own just in the time it took for this famous label to decide O.K. we are now officially interested in talking about the possibility of definitely working together as soon as we get through this merger that frankly might mean we’re all out of a job in a few months so that’s great news lets go spend $800 on dinner and have a good time.
The short version is this. If you were me and you were at a point that you knew you could make a record with a big budget and a producer that would get released in the next 18 months or so, and then you would promote that record for a few years and if you were successful, do it all over again and maybe make a lot of money and have a couple songs on the radio et cetera, et cetera, or you could take care of the vegetable stand, put out two or three records a year that sounded unmistakably like your own records and could make a comfortable but modest living, what would you do? I’m curious. Remember, the vegetable stand means no significant media exposure, no grammy, no “Florida girls with fluorescent tits” listening to your song on the modern rock station coming out of the boom box by the sand volleyball net. (Sorry, I’m quoting Karin again.)
I’ll be eavesdropping.
Oh those crazy Canadians are trying to lure Karin and I out for another seven weeks this summer. I don’t know. Touring with Cowboy Junkies was a great experience for us. So many firsts. Life on a tour bus, poking around Letterman’s cold studio, touring from Whistler, British Columbia to Perth, Australia. From London, England to Montreal, Quebec to Santa Fe, New Mexico and all over North America really. We’re definitely still adjusting to civilian life. But will we take that tunnel to Canada one more time?
Rhinelanders, I promised myself I would hold off on sending out the final Northern Spy etcetera, until we had finalized plans for the next few years. Perhaps it was another gloriously ill-fated decision which contributes yet again to the thorny path you all have traveled hoping for your twenty bucks worth. But within the next few months we’ll be deciding whether to go with a Capitol-Records-type-deal or whether to continue with our own imprint with distribution, or? I’ll inform you all of rumours of movie soundtracks and other sizzling industry tidbits in that Northern Spy.
Meanwhile, in the next few weeks we’ll be performing three different times as a trio (Karin, Linford and Jack Henderson). We opened for the Junkies with this line-up at a sold-out show at Royal Festival Hall in London and enjoyed ourselves. And we got to meet Elvis Costello in New Zealand who was touring as a duo with Steve Nieve. We were inspired to try something a little more naked musically. It wasn’t possible for all the musicians we’ve been playing with as a six-piece to join us for these three shows, so we’re going to let you peer in this different window with us. The full band should be playing later this year and we’ll let you know more details soon.
P.S. We’ve had a problem keeping up with orders for Good Dog Bad Dog. We ran out of stock at the end of December and we’re expecting a large shipment in the next few weeks. Just thought you might like to know.