Making ROOTS AND BRANCHES: “Lucky’s Cafe”

“Lucky’s Café” is a barroom lament about looking for love in all the wrong places. It was really more a bar than a café. The name just sounded right.

On Roots and Branches  it falls into the category of songs I wrote that I always wanted to sing. I wrote it in 1977 or ’78 for Streetlife, our band in San Diego. We recorded it as a single on our Big Rock Records label with the vocal by keyboardist David Davenport. It was a lovely recording, strong piano, beautiful lead guitar by John Kargacos and a stunning outro sax solo by an AFM musician recording under the name Phil Desenex. 

It was all good, I just always wanted to record a writer’s take with female backup vocals. And my version became just that: as I see it David’s take was a much more a singer’s take. Mine is less adorned, maybe a little more plaintive. And Lenne and Eliza’s vocals highlighted specific phrases in ways the original did not. You can hear that for sure on the beginning of the second verse with “…she’s got two kids and her latest ex…”

The song is driven by the lyric and to me the heart of it lies in the line that begins, “There’s no friend like a stranger…” the fulfillment of which isn’t revealed until the middle of the third verse, where hopefully the song “lands.” The right couplet, I think, always merits a song.

My version reverses the relationship between the guitar and piano, with piano assuming a more supporting role. That makes sense in a writer’s take where the song was written on guitar. Mark Christine, (who made his debut on Broadway in Waitresslast week, way to go, Mark!), makes his first appearance on Roots and Brancheson piano, and it’s the only piano on the album. “Lucky’s” will always need piano.

The chorus, “Turn the page, shut the door, dim the lights behind ya…” was something I always enjoyed, but I was never happy with my supporting part to David on the vocal, kind of a raspy whisper. It’s better, I think, with the lead vocal and two-part harmony on this version, where all three voices share the moment.

“That Sweet Violin”

Some lines just arrive and demand to be there in a song. And while some songs can tolerate endless revisions, others tolerate none at all. This song, like “The Illustrated Man,” falls into the latter category.

The lines related to the violin in this song were for sure in that category. “Danny is playing his violin cuz the band went away…” sets the mood and the conceit of being solo (so low) but I have no idea what the solo violin is playing. Is it something Celtic, Irish, folky, Scottish fiddle, Stephane Grapelli’s “Minor Swing?” Is he sitting on the stage, mics off? I have no idea.  Maybe it just requires a suspension of disbelief to get the story going.

Maybe it was Joel Zifkin’s violin, who I played with those years in Montreal, in Harlequin, and never got the sound of his violin out of my head. Our mutual bandmate Howard Engel said that that was true for him. He said that the last time I ever saw him, in Vancouver, close to the end of his life.

Maybe it’s a bit of a throwback, like those set-up lines in Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man,” “It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday / The regular crowd shuffles in…”

Some songs just seem to have their lyrics chiseled in stone. I love that about music, how language can work that way in a lyric, like Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street,” or Joni Michell’s “River.”

Of course nobody is lucky at this Lucky’s Café; it’s probably just the nickname of some guy from a long time ago. And yes, it only exists in the imagination. But it was fun to play, and sing. It demanded a lot from Lenne and Eliza, taking them way up in their ranges, on “dim the lights behind ya” and “never gonna find ya,” and me, too. Those harmonies take the song where it needs to be.

So Streetlife 40 years ago did a band version of “Lucky’s Café” and I couldn’t let it go until I did a singer-songwriter’s version. My version dropped the extended (and phenomenal) guitar break by John Kargacos and the glitzy alto saxophone outro and instead put the singer’s story right in your ears. So it’s a cover of my own song, like you used to see with Fred Neil’s version of  “Everybody’s Talking” or Jimmy Webb’s take on “Wichita Lineman.” I’m glad I had a crack at this one.

What is left when things are gone? In this case, a violin.

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