Press Release, March 31st, 2016.
Michael Menager’s sophomore release, Not The Express arrives this May 9th, and it’s been a long time coming - how many artists can you think of that began their recording career in their late 60s? Menager’s 2014 debut, Clean Exit, arrived just after the California born, Candelo, New South Wales based singer-writer’s 67th birthday, and was quietly self released to a handful of friends and family. That very same week, he lost his life partner Judith to a long and valiant battle with cancer.
Menager decided, in the months that followed, to throw all of his cards to the wind and return for the first time in 30 years to Los Angeles, the town where he was born and raised, to write and record the songs that would become his second album Not The Express.
Recorded in just two days with acclaimed Australian songwriter / producer Heath Cullen at the wheel, and an unbeatable team on board: the great Jim Keltner (Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Lucinda Williams, Traveling Wilburys et al) on drums & percussion, Aaron Embry (Elliot Smith, Willie Nelson, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros) on keys, Cullen on guitars and banjo, and Matt Nightingale on upright bass, the album was engineered by Ben Tolliday and mastered by multi-Grammy award winner Gavin Lurssen.
Not The Express has a warm, timeless, sepia quality to its analogue-steeped sounds. The production is spare and spacious, the song craft watertight. The songs are love songs, life songs: they are mischievous and playful, but also heartbreaking, honest, poignant. Menager has lived many lives (scholar, labourer, truck driver, teacher), he has lived them in many places (California, Oregon, Georgia, Algeria, Mexico, France, Australia), and he sings with the wisdom and authority of one who is so well traveled, bringing to mind the work of John Prine, Guy Clarke and latter-day Leonard Cohen. “This machine just lopes along, it’s always doing its best / It’s a good old train, but it’s not the express", he sings earnestly. But wait - this is no apology - it's a celebration.
On Not The Express, Michael Menager is inviting us to meet him at the station, lay a nickel on the track, and press an ear to the rail... to poke a little fun at our own mortality, and all the while shine a brilliant light on all of the silent beauty that lies around us. He's asking us to lean into the billowing smoke and acknowledge that the dark tunnel up ahead is an important part of our journey. He's asking us to squint into the sun, and smile.
See you down there at the station.
Artist Bio In Short...
California-born singer/songwriter Michael Menager has an ear for the common threads in our human experience: pitfalls and disappointments, insights and epiphanies. After singing and playing his way through coffee houses and bars around the world, Michael is now based in Candelo in the Bega Valley, where his debut album, Clean Exit, was recorded in 2014. With a folk ethos and a blues gospel feel, Michael delivers Clean Exit with the authority of an early John Prine, his guitar style reminiscent of the late Reverend Gary Davis. Michael’s upcoming second album, Not the Express, has been produced by Candelo’s Heath Cullen and recorded in LA with an all-star cast.
More from Michael:
It would not be lawful, correct or in any way appropriate to fail to honour my father and my mother – the people who were my foundation – as a part of the more complete narrative of my life and music that I am offering here. They met and married during World War II, and remained together for eighteen years, time enough to create a legacy of five children. I came along in 1947, second eldest, the only son amid four daughters.
I will speak about each of my parents now, at the beginning, lest my own story carry me away and I forget.
Emmanuel Pierre Menager, my father. His fine baritone featured in our local Roman Catholic Church choir, and as he wandered around the house during the week practicing the vocal riffs he would need on Sunday, I listened and learned. And on one indelible day, in an act of acknowledgement of the seed of music within me, he presented me with what is still my “bedrock” guitar: a Gibson J-50, minted circa 1960. Thanks, Dad!
Doris (Dorilla) Porrini, my mother. Her Northern Italian village roots imbued her with a refined appreciation of simple, wholesome food. Watching and helping her around the kitchen launched me into a lifetime of appreciation of that most elevated of art forms: cooking. Not to mention the instruction she gave me in many other practical art forms as well, all of which have served me solidly and reliably throughout my life. Thanks, Mom!
And now for the rest.
I began life as a Southern Californian, but the world soon beckoned. A very early musical memory is listening to a trio of street mariachis in Ensenada (Baja California, México) in the late 1950s. The song was “El Rancho Grande” performed on guitar, bajo sesto and trumpet. Unforgettable, even across all of these years. My very first exposure to unrecorded music. Live, wild, smiling men with dark mustachios, wearing rainbow coloured serapes and cowboy-style sombreros.
More memories of those 50s years. The seismic shift in the radio emanations when Elvis Presley began to popularise the musical forms that the black bluesmen of the south and the industrial northeasthad been perfecting invisibly for years. The cool, black, saxophone-driven “Doo-Wop” groups that followed, such as The Coasters and their classic “Yakkity Yak” – which along with Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” has to rank as one of the ultimate statements of teenaged angst. Richie Valens and “La Bamba”– a trailblazer for many crossover tunes to come. And of course Chuck Berry with “Maybelline,” and Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”. All of these were the tip of a great wave that is still breaking, even today.
High school, 1961-65. My first lonely guitar, a pawn shop job, $25. In my room at home on my own, pouring out my heart. No dreams of performing, stardom or anything of the sort: I had found a means to express a longing inside me that I did not understand, and that was enough.
But all around me things were changing. The girls I liked at school started to grow their hair long and to dress like Joan Baez. Live music of a new genre – folk as it was known then, traditional or roots as it came to be called later – was cropping up at places like The Prison of Socrates in Newport Beach and The Cat’s Pajamas in Pasadena. It was live and happening – like the mariachis I had heard on that Mexican street all those years before.
The blues and rock n’ roll that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones translated and pitched back across the Atlantic had captured my ear for a certain moment of time, but the genuine “epiphany moment” of this era came to me in the form of a set of lyrics and a feel that travelled into completely new territory:
Down the foggy ruins of Time
Far Past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach
Of crazy sorrow
The song was Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”. The year was 1965, and the Los Angeles DJs were already playing an abbreviated cover of it by The Byrds. But one day (maybe it was on KFWB Los Angeles, my station of preference at that time) I heard Dylan singing the original. I was in my ’51 Chevrolet Deluxe Coupe, going east on the San Bernardino Freeway. I couldn’t stand it: I pulled over into the right-hand emergency lane and just sat there in disbelief. But soon enough I started believing. One man and one guitar – with the Muse of Poetry whispering (or howling) in his ear – could achieve the unimaginable!
Events in my world and in the world at large accelerated from the mid-60s. For me personally, the sunny Los Angeles basin morphed into the morning mists of the San Francisco Bay area and my university years – full of storm and fury and signifying something, so we all thought at the time. On the streets of the university town of Berkeley I witnessed open confrontation between the established order (headed at this time by California Governor Ronald Reagan) and those who felt that the established order had got it all wrong with the armed conflict in Southeast Asia. Some of my contemporaries on the scene were overtly political, activist to the point of advocating actual counter-attack. But not me. I couldn’t help but see a continuum between shooting at or napalming the Viet Cong and throwing rocks at the Oakland cops. So I remained on the philosophical, poetic side of things, while at the same time deciding definitely not to participate in the war.
All the while the music kept on coming. Big Brother & The Holding Company with Janis Joplin, The Jefferson Airplane with Grace Slick, Country Joe & The Fish, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The 1970 CSN&Y ballad “Ohio” told the story of the killing of four students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University – an event that did a lot to swell the growing counter-tide of public opinion about what the USA was doing in Asia. And in that same year – having been classified by my home Draft Board as a Conscientious Objector – I departed for The Democratic & Popular Republic of Algeria to fulfil my required two years of alternative military service. I was by then a Bachelor of British and American Literature, and I was going to be part of a volunteer English teaching team in a newly independent Arab country.
By the time I left the Bay Area I had played in a number of open-mike gigs (mostly Donovan and Dylan covers as I recall) and nothing much more than that. But I had made my first stab at relating to audiences. A good friend, a student of classical guitar, had shown me some “beyond basics” techniques. I had picked up a couple of harmonicas and a rack. And all of these things (including my J-50 in its original funky brown leather case) were travelling with me as my Air Algérie jetliner winged its way toward the Mediterranean.
The ancient eastern city of Constantine, with its bridges spanning the gorges of the Rhumel River around which it is built, was my first posting once I landed. I was contracted to teach in a government boarding school there (a lycée or secondary school) under the title of Professeur Licencié d’Anglais. Since then, numerous people have taken me to be a professor, and to be honest I have not discouraged them in these thoughts. But truly, that was the one and only time I have been legitimately entitled to that moniker. At all of 22 years old.
What to say about the four years that I eventually spent in Algeria? I saw a lot of things, both good and bad, much as I have seen everywhere else I’ve been. I saw some men being horribly abusive and cruel towards their women: wives, daughters, sisters. I saw others being true to their God and their Prophet and to the practices of the Holy Qur’an (which I am told, though I have never read it, lays down precepts for the honouring of women – and of strangers too.) I picked up the languages – French, Dialectal Arabic, that were in the air like notes of music. I travelled as far south as the border of Niger, I visited cities in the Sahara that could have been scenes out of The Ten Commandments, I fought off flies from my soup bowl at camel stops. I was often lonely. The Gibson J-50 kept me company, it went everywhere with me. I learned a few French tunes that were current at that time, and got more convincing with some of the stuff I was singing in my own language. I remember the family elder in his white turban and dark brown robe, sitting cross-legged in his honoured place against the wall of the humble home to which I’d been invited, grinning through his gold teeth at my rendition of Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou.” But when it came to the local music (Musique Andalouse as it was called in Constantine, with its choruses of oud, darbouka and violin) I just sat (or stood) and listened – with more and more interest and wonderment as time went on.
In the mid-70s, after Algeria and other various wanderings (including an interlude in the magical city of Paris, making my living playing guitar and blowing harp in its windy Métro corridors and crowded streetside cafés), I found myself back in Northern California along the Bay, looking for what to do next. Funny how often I’ve found myself in this position, in California and elsewhere. But by then those innocent, hippie times I remembered from my university years were over. Things were getting tougher. A fellow needed a job, and eventually I tried quite a number of them – academic ones when I could find them, and labouring ones when I couldn’t. I still am fairly adept with a pick and shovel, as this fairly recent piece of mine will illustrate:
“How old are you anyway?”
asks the younger man.
pin me down: I can’t lie.
“Sixty-three” I answer.
doing alright” he responds.
We have been at work
chipping out a
in clay soil,
“Yeah, well I have spent lots
of years earning degrees and stuff but,
I’ve always – you know – done
work, labour of some kind.”
in my truthfulness.
My years in the
guise of a student, of an
aspirant to the artistic,
Path of Spirit: all the same,
with a shovel in the hand,
with a loaded wheel
to push up some hill
It has kept me
than I should be,
like a lonely geek
at a high school formal
for the Universe (in some
disguise or other) to
come bursting in,
to bowl me over,
to finally set me
There were interludes of playing, of course, whenever the opportunity presented. I can recall the John Barleycorn Pub on Larkin Street in San Francisco, The Owl and The Monkey Cafe somewhere out on the Avenues, and the gigs I did with my friend Michael Goldberg for Joan Baez’s sister Mimi Fariña and her group Comity. They booked musicians to play in closed psychiatric wards and drug and alcohol rehab facilities around the Bay Area. I hold the images of some of the people we played for in mind even now. Never have I been listened to before or since with such a degree of attention and engagement.
In my mid-30s(now looking not so much for something to do as for something to be) I moved from my flat atop San Francisco’s Potrero Hill to an ashram in Central Oregon, where I ended up living for two and a half years and where – as I recall – I didn’t do much playing . But I was always listening, and the Gibson J-50 in its ageing leather case was always under my bed. One of my ashram jobs was driving trucks out over the roads in central and coastal Oregon, where you couldn’t get much apart from country music on the radio. What a discovery! George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Crystal Gayle and so many more. The highway and the tunes kept moving me onward.
I also recollect meeting a fellow ashramite, a girl who told me about having gone on tour to Egypt as a groupie with The Grateful Dead. Wow! I think I may have played her my version of the Dead’s “Ripple” just in honour of this:
If my words did glow
With the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played
On the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice
Come through the music
Would you hold it near
As it were your own?
I left Oregon and the ashram sometime in the early 1980s. I had the idea that the best place to try out my meditation (and by that I mean the quality of my attention) was out in the world, in the middle of the marketplace and the hustle and bustle of ordinary life. I still have that idea, but only time will tell how far I’ll actually go with it. I would call it my one constant work in progress.
At this time of my life, mostly in the company of an equally itinerantgirlfriend who I’d gotten together with on the ashram, I found myself migrating from Mount Washington in Los Angeles to Denver, Colorado, then across to Atlanta, Georgia, then to Michoacán in south-central México, and then back again to Central LA. Along the way I held down my by-now usual assortment of jobs whenever I needed to. My J-50 was still travelling with me (I think there may have been a fair bit of gaffer’s tape holding that leather case together by now) and I was definitely still listening. The American South was a revelation for ears that had so far only heard traces of the traditions that were very much alive and kicking down there. One could tune in to an assortment of local radio stations playing all sorts of localised music. I remember being especially taken by the stations out of Louisiana and the (to me) unheard-of Cajun tunes (and accents!) that they regularly put out over the airwaves.
Yet despite my wandering ways, I felt my life-circle narrowing in on me. I have never liked repetition, you see, and even in more or less constant movement one can get stuck. Four decades of life had gone by, and I was ready for something new: completely new. I just didn’t know exactly what.
It was finally the shock of my girlfriend leaving me and deciding to settle in with a new lover in México (a fine musician, by the way) that caused the roof of my world to crack open wide enough so that I could see just what that next thing was. About two years previously, a couple that I had house-shared with in Denver had relocated to the southeast coast of Australia. Before they left they had deposited an open invitation in my lap to come down there and check things out. It gradually became apparent that hanging around in Central LA and just waiting wasn’t going to do it for me. And so the day came when I cashed in everything (including my freeway cruiser, a 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle) and got on board that Qantas flight, not looking back.
That was in 1987, twenty six years ago as I write. I live in Australia now. I knew that this was home (though the exact meaning of that term still somewhat eludes me) in a very short time. I remember getting up one morning – I began my life here living in a tent on my friends’ beautiful, raw piece of land – and just tuning in to the grey-green eucalypts, to the deafening trill of the thousands of cicadas living and dying on their leaves, to the backdrop of the wind, to the calls of a myriad of birds, to ... the silence. This is a land that can grab you, can soak up into you through the soles of your feet. It is an old place, an Aboriginal place. It has wisdom.
Since being here I’ve held a number of jobs (as usual!), the latest one (for the last eight years) being a position as generalist counsellor with a local mental health service. In my work I have had many talks with many different sorts of people, and through these I have sensed the commonality of our experience, our human experience. I have been moved to tears with images and stories that tell of our highest attribute: our immense, truly staggering, resilience. We rise and rise again, so many times, with remarkable nobility. I am reminded of this within myself as well as within my relationship. I thank you, Judith Shelley Horton, for having travelled with me all these nineteen years or more, and for weathering so nobly the storms that have come.
In Australia, playing and performing music have been more of a constant for me than ever before. There have been a couple of bands, many solo gigs at regional music festivals and elsewhere, even some solo guitar work as one-half of a jazz-influenced duo. I have of course acquired a few more guitars, and amplifiers and equipment. By the way, some years ago I had a custom case made for the J-50: one solid enough to do a tap dance on, and buff-coloured to ward off the fierce summer sun. She lives on!
So, musically speaking, things have been good, in fact better than they’ve ever been. Especially now that I’m writing my own songs and putting out my first recording, helped and supported by the truest and most constant of musical friends, Mr Heath Cullen. His Tantawangalo 5x9 studio is only 1.6 kilometres down the forested dirt road leading from our front gate. Handy!
Now to close.
I began this account with an acknowledgement of my mother and father. I want to end it with an acknowledgement of another sort of guide or foundation figure, in this case a spiritual one. In my experience we can learn to recognise such people and to find them when we need them. They are further ahead of us on the path. They have seen, and they can help.
I first met Lee Lozowick (1943-2010) at his home community in Arizona in 1998, and shortly thereafter I became his student. Amongst many other things, Lee was a poet, lyricist and performing musician. He toured for many years through the American Southwest and Europe with his bands, Liars, Gods & Beggars and Shri. I travelled to India with Lee and Shri in 2008, where we linked up with a group of Lee’s spiritual counterparts, the Bauls of Bengal. The idea was to play a series of mutual gigs around the Kolkata (Calcutta) area – “The Bauls & The Blues”, so the posters read. The tour was sensational. The venues ranged from a suburban shopping mall to a hospital grounds to a glitzy urban nightclub, but in each place the audiences really got it. Across cultural and language barriers they tuned in to the message of the Blues and the Black American spirituals that Lee and his band were laying down.
For some background: the Bauls are traditionally itinerant beggar-musicians who transmit their spiritual wisdom through their musical craft. When a true Baul performs, the performance is not about him, or her. Not about personality, or success, or looking good. The human form we see before us, dancing and drumming and whirling, is only a vessel, only a vehicle, for an eternal Teaching.
Purna Das Baul, a revered Bengali Baul singer, worked with Bob Dylan and The Band in the late 1960s and is pictured (along with his brother, Lakhsman Das) on the cover of Dylan’s mystical LP John Wesley Harding (Columbia Records, 1967.) Purna Das and his family honoured us (Lee and those travelling with him) with a formal greeting on our arrival at Kolkata airport – an acknowledgement of a true connection – and on one occasion Purna Das honoured us again with one of his now rare performances of song, percussion and dance from deep within his tradition.
Lee himself was a blues man and a rock n’ roller. Yet he also called himself a Western Baul, and my feeling is that the way Lee performed music was the way a Baul performs music. Through this he gave me both a teaching and a possibility – the passing of a sort of legacy to one of his students who was also a musician.
And so ... the story will continue from here, for as long as it does. Within the part of it that I have written down, however, I want to take full responsibility for all deletions, substitutions and inaccuracies. Any such fault is in all cases my own. And I beg pardon especially of all of those human souls with whom I have walked (or danced, or wrestled) along my various pathways, who could not be given mention within these brief pages.
For I have needed to move fairly quickly. Father Time is at my back, and – along with the booming tides that continue to roll through my times – I sense that he is not going to wait.
Tantawangalo, 23rd – 25th January 2014