Fresh, young Greene: handling the life
August 29, 2007
Three years ago, in an interview with The Aspen Times, singer-songwriter Jackie Greene, then 23, expressed his sufferings on the road, born of loneliness, pressure, stage fright, inexperience and the wear on his thin, young body. Those sentiments came through on his current album at the time, “Sweet Somewhere Bound,” with songs like “Don’t Mind Me, I’m Only Dying” and “About Cell Block #9.”And then, as if to prove he actually was living the emotions behind those songs, Greene passed out, mid-concert, on the stage on Snowmass Village’s Fanny Hill. When he opened his eyes, he was in Aspen Valley Hospital, a victim of high altitude, not enough water – and his own youth.”And ever since, I’ve been freaked out about coming there,” said Greene, who has, in fact, played the Fanny Hill stage since, and without incident.Greene returns to Snowmass, as today’s opening act in Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival. And it is a somewhat different person who appears on stage. Greene’s songs often still express despair and world-weariness; his wonderful 2006 album, “American Myth,” opened with “Hollywood,” an acid-tongued rip at contemporary culture. But at 26, Greene also has learned some things – for one, to drink plenty of water when performing a mile and a half above sea level.”I wouldn’t say I’m totally past it,” Greene said, sounding far less stressed than the last time we spoke. “Anyone who’s away from friends and family gets that. But I’m probably a little more used to it. A little numb, maybe. I care about it less.
“And I’m a different human being. I used to be a glass half empty kind of guy. I’m trying to be more positive.”That new perspective is in the process of being captured musically. Greene was speaking from Los Angeles, where he is in the early stages of recording his next album, and determined to give them an upbeat tilt.Of the new batch of songs, Greene says “they’re probably a little less sad. A little more playful. The stories aren’t any less sad; there’s still that element. But I’m trying to end a sad story with a more uplifting ending. Trying to add one more twist, consciously trying to do this on the new record. “And some of the songs I consciously tried to make – not political, but with a conscience vibe, little line you might pick up. Just sort of snipping at things a little.”Helping Greene in his maturation process have been a handful of older musicians who either guided him, made music with him, or just set a good example and offered some kindness in what can be a difficult environment. In this last category, Greene puts Mark Knopfler. A few years ago, Greene was touring as the opening act for the singer and guitarist who had made his name as the frontman for Dire Straits. At one date, Greene was running late. The older rock star rushed up to the cab carrying Greene to the venue, asked after his condition, and offered to carry his guitar.
“He’s one of the nicest guys – and he doesn’t have to be,” said Greene. “He’s a superstar.”Even more integral to Greene’s well-being has been Steve Berlin, the saxophonist for Los Lobos who produced and played on Greene’s “American Myth” and is doing the same for the new album. “He’s always been sort of a mentor,” said Greene. “He’s produced a lot of records, dealt with a lot of B.S. from all ends of the table. He’s a guy to go to for advice.”Greene didn’t have to go to his latest role model; he arrived unbidden. A year ago, Greene read some favorable comments made by Phil Lesh, former bassist of the Grateful Dead, about “American Myth.” Greene sent a word of thanks through Lesh’s manager, and figured that was the end of that correspondence. But a few months ago, Greene received a call from Lesh himself, with an invitation to join his shifting ensemble, Phil & Friends. Much of the shock came from the fact that no one puts Greene, who plays guitar, keyboards and harmonica but is as much of a songwriter as an instrumentalist, in the sprawling jam-band community that Lesh helped spawn.”I didn’t either, at first. I’ve never been a Deadhead,” said Greene. “But I’ve been hanging with Phil, and he gave me a stack of Dead stuff.”Greene was surprised to discover that his own vocal range happened to match that of the late Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia’s. Greene took on Garcia’s vocal role at several small shows with Phil & Friends in July, and will join the band’s national tour which runs much of the fall. The plan is for Greene to do most of the singing, and for the band to work up a handful or two of Greene’s songs. Greene says he’s learning a lot musically, especially from guitarist Larry Campbell, a former member of Dylan’s touring band.
“Every one of those guys is world class,” said Greene, a Sacramento native who now lives in San Francisco, not far from Lesh’s home. “When I play with them, I have to bring my ‘A’ game. Larry Campbell can close his eyes and whip my ass around the block. He does most of the big guitar moments, and I just try to squeeze in where I can.” Perhaps just as important, Greene is being taught how to handle the musician’s life. “Phil was in arguably the greatest touring band that ever existed,” he said. “You want to learn something about being on the road, you talk to him. My [b.s.] is just [b.s.] compared to him.” In the end, the most important aspect of Greene’s growth is just growing up – getting older, experiencing life, learning from past mistakes. Chances are good he’ll show up for today’s set properly hydrated and rested. “I still look like I’m 15,” he said. “But I don’t feel that young anymore. I need my eight hours of sleep, my cup of coffee in the morning. I’m not doing any partying after the show. It’s back to my hotel with my tail between my legs.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com