Sunday, December 09, 2007

Great Songs and Great Songwriting #3 - Jon Dee Graham ESCAPE FROM MONSTER ISLAND

I got to know Jon Dee Graham after I moved to Austin in 1997. At the time, he was in the process of transforming himself from a respected guitarist who had toured and recorded with people like Kelly Willis, John Doe and Simon Bonney, to a singer of his own songs. It was not an easy transformation. Austin, for all its musical greatness, has a tendency to pigeonhole people and then fight like hell to keep them there.
Consequently, there were a lot of nights when Jon Dee and his buddy and musical compere, Mik Hardwick, played to a crowd of five or ten. That crowd often included me. I don't think you have to be a genius to recognize Graham's talent, but for some reason many people in Austin didn't seem to get him at first.
That started to change after he did a Sunday night broadcast on one of the local Austin radio stations. Matt Eskey, the owner of Freedom Records, heard a tape of the show and asked him to make a record. Gave him a bunch of money (Not!) and said, go make a record and bring me the master and I'll put it out. So Jon Dee took a notebook full of songs and a couple of guitars, went into a local studio with Hardwick, a group of musicians he had met over the years, and Austin's producer du jour. That producer left after a week for greener pastures (or what he perceived to be a better offer) and Jon Dee, Hardwick and engineer Andy Taub ended up producing the album themselves. I hung around a little during the recording sessions, and watched as Jon Dee, Mike and Andy slowly built the album (sometimes, it seemed, with glue and rusty nails and wood they found out behind the studio.)
By the time the album came out, in June or July, 1997, I had moved to Los Angeles, so I experienced Austin's "discovery" of Jon Dee and his talent second hand, through the pages of the Austin Chronicle.
After Jon Dee finished recording, he mixed and mastered the album. He and Matt Eskey started taking it around to radio stations. I remember very clearly speaking to Jon Dee one night after he had met with the program director of the most influential radio stations in Austin. This was a good guy, a guy with taste, a guy who had been a friend of Jon Dee's for years. He listened to the record and pronounced it "not radio-ready."
It may not have been radio-ready, but sometime after that Andy Langer wrote a cover story about Jon Dee for the Austin Chronicle, and, Austin being Austin, that was enough to create a tidal wave of interest in "Escape."
Not that it was undeserved. Escape from Monster Island is a brilliant album.
Many of the songs - the ones most moving to me - dealt with his touring- and divorce-enforced separations from his then-five year old son, Roy. But there were also songs that explored spirituality, and songs about relationships and friendships and breakups and tragedies. Not too many happy songs . (There were a couple later on - a great song called "Big Sweet Life," a song called "October," which I posted last year.) Throughout all of Jon Dee's songs, on Escape from Monster Island and on his later albums, there is a sense of sadness and regret but mostly, a willingness to explore the dark places most of us are just as happy to stay away from.
Ten years of listening, and the album still moves me, and makes me uncomfortable and makes me nod my head in recognition.
Jon Dee Graham - $100 Bill
Jon Dee Graham - Faithless
Jon Dee Graham - Kings

My current favorite lyric (from "Kings"):
Havin' a child
Takes the paint right off a man
Man, man oh man.
Out in the wild
The beasts do the best they can
To stand, stand, stand stand

You can purchase Escape From Monster Island, as well as the new documentary about Graham, called Swept Away, at the Texas Music Roundup.
Get more info about Jon Dee at his website.

1 comment:

RPM said...

Hey Robin,

Thanks for the stories re the start of Jon Dee Graham's solo career. While it is sobering to hear how hard a musician of Graham's stature had to work in order to get his own songs heard, his determination makes me respect him all the more: he seems to have the grit - and integrity - that I associate with Johnny Cash. Thanks again.