Gerald Dowd: Collaboration is Scary

Gerald Dowd.  I had seen him on stage.  I had been on stage with him.  But I had never really “seen” him, until a Christmas show hosted by Rachel Drew at Sylvie’s. 

He took the stage.  “Oh good,” I thought, as the crowd cheered him on. “This will be fun.” He is a thrilling drummer, and he played a song accompanying himself on percussion, which lit up the room.  Of course it did! 

Then, he moved on to his second song.  He’s laughing, smiling in the intro.  Turns out though, it’s a genuine serious singer-songwriter song.  “Ok,” I think.  “Let’s see what we have here.”  The song goes on.  It’s offbeat, funny, astute.  Actually, it’s a great song, and it’s moving. 

But mostly…it’s him. I finally see HIM, the artist.  

And it got me.  Out of nowhere, I started tearing up. In the darkness of Sylvie’s, perched on one of their stools with its perennially forward pitch, sniffling into my bitters and soda and about to go on myself, I tearfully asked Robin to go to the bar to get more cocktail napkins to hide the evidence. 

I went up to him later, like “What the wha???” and he was like, “Oh that old song?  I only play it when I don’t care WHAT I sound like.” 

Because that’s HIM.  Hysterical.  Also deep, and moving.  But you might have to look beyond his musical bad*ssery to see that, because most of his time, he’s making everyone else look good and sound great. 

Have you seen him with Robbie Fulks?  How about Sons of the Never Wrong? Dowd and Drew?  Or maybe with me and my band Jenny & Friends?  Or how about at his signature event, Day of the Dowd, which raises money for incredible causes? 

Well, if you have or if you haven’t, you gotta get to know HIM on his terms.  Let’s start with his two songs written for Haiku Milieu. He’s going to talk about them in the blog below: Surrender and In the End.

Then you’ll be ready to binge the Dowd Family Players series. 

I am delighted to share the writing of Gerald Dowd, who, it seems, can do nothing poorly.  Be forewarned, he says a lot of nice things about me in this blog, for which he has been paid handsomely. Just kidding.  He paid me for the privilege of writing this blog.  With no further ado…your friend and mine, Gerald.

"Collaboration is scary. 

There’s a lot of pressure there, man! Certainly not everyone feels it, of course. Or some feel it and the feelings it stirs up more deeply than others: the pressure of not wanting to disappoint your collaborator; not wanting to disappoint yourself; not wanting to disappoint your parents who probably always secretly wondered if there “might be a safer, more stable profession than music for him, maybe?” 

Twice now, Jenny Bienemann (or “Beans-man”, in the parlance of my 11-year-old) has made the wildly irresponsible marketing decision of asking me to be involved in what I have come to refer as one of her “Haiku Ceremony” (so dubbed because, let’s face it: we all of us — regardless of creed, color, nationality, Red Sox-Yankees fan allegiance — worship at the altar of St. Biebs.) My lofty title for the proceedings may give it more complexity than is demanded. It’s a pretty simple concept on its face, really: Jenny has all these haiku, you pick one of them, and then you write a song inspired by it. 

But hold on, soldier! It ain’t that easy! First of all, have you ever tried to write a haiku that works on every level? Lyrically, visually, emotionally, AND mathematically? I can’t do it. (And we all know what Jenny would say to that: “Have you tried? Because I bet you could.” Infuriatingly positive!) Now extrapolate her skill over multiple tomes, each jam-packed with entries all of which light a spark in one way or another. How does one choose?? 

Want to write a touching song? She has a haiku for that. 

Want to write an hilarious song? She has a haiku for that, although her husband Robin has written the most hilarious song in the history of man about haiku, so don’t waste your time trying to out-funny him. 

Want to write an angry, deteriorating-relationship song? She has a haiku for 

SONGWRITING IS WEIRD, ISN’T IT?? Personally speaking, it can sometimes be very easy, with things flowing in a shockingly organic manner. More often than not, it’s akin to a marriage: takes forever, requires occasional therapy and a membership to the Rye Whiskey Of The Month Club, all the while keeping you coming back for more.

So when Jenny asked me to be involved in her first Ceremony, which meant having a song written by a deadline, it terrified me. “Which experience will it be for me THIS time?” I cried. “The fun way, or the first way?” (Turns out it was a little of both, so this part of the story is fairly unremarkable; that part of a movie where you’re fairly certain you won’t miss anything by running to the bathroom.) It also went a wholly different way than I had originally predicted: I took a perfectly lovely and seemingly innocent haiku...and crrrrrucified it. The final product was angry and pointed, loud and distorted. And, to my amazement, more or less worked. And it’s really fun to play a song like that, especially since it’s not normally what I “do”. But the haiku, for whatever reason, shoved me in that direction. And now, I had a new 2-1/2 minute aggro-rocker in my slowly- swelling songbag. Thanks, haiku! 

Cut to summer 2020, when Jenny once again asked me to create something for a new but now virtual Ceremony. (This time, a song AND accompanying video.) I quickly accepted, because A) it’s her, duhhhhh, B) it’s a fun challenge and I’d gotten a song out of it before, and C) at the time, I had, um...y’know, not much going on work-wise, shall we say? Not long after, though, I received word that my mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer. As the days passed, I started to realize that Jenny’s due dates were right around the time of my mom’s surgery. My wife and I had arranged for me to be able to drive home to the Boston area for a couple of days to at least be there in spirit, and at a VERY distanced dinner the night before surgery — mom and I separated by 20 feet and a raised porch. 

I slowly grew concerned that I wouldn’t be able to even physically finish the song in time, let alone find the inspiration to write the damn thing. Saddened by the notion of letting Jenny down (*ed. note: please refer back to the section on disappointment in the first paragraph which you read, like, 45 minutes ago), it took me a while to finally gather the courage to reach out, telling her that I might have to recuse myself from the proceedings due to “lack of a Quality On-Time Product Guarantee TM.” When I finally did send the email, her response? Pure Jenny: “GD. Please. Family first always. Driving is great for songwriting.” She then told me to skip the first draft date and just get a song in by the final due date, if possible. If this was pressure, it was the least pressuring pressure I’d ever experienced. In fact, there is only one job in the world at which Jenny might underwhelm: mob enforcer. 

It’s safe to say that most songwriters know how important a long drive can be to the writing process. Hell, *I* knew that! Most of my songs are written at least partly in my car. In the confusion and concern over my mom, I guess I just forgot what lay ahead for me in a typical drive out East. So I did what Dr. B prescribed: sat in a car for 30 hours, thinking, tapping, humming, singing snippets into my phone, all while recklessly filming the passing highways as I drove. All the things that infuriate my wife and kids, I was given license (pun fully intended and proudly embraced) to do as much and as loudly as possible! I then began the process of putting it all together in my nauseatingly quaint, Harvard Square, meticulously-researched-for- COVID-safety B&B. And what do you know? I was able to submit something of which I wasn’t horribly ashamed by the deadline. And once again, it was something slightly out of my typical oeuvre. And all it took was the nudge of one sentence: driving is great for songwriting. 

As I sat down to write about collaboration in regards to Haiku Milieu, my first thought was, “Should I even be here??” After all, I hadn’t really collaborated on either of my two songs for Jenny, at least not in the old-fashioned way — one or more people throwing ideas back and forth, either face-to-face or digitally. Of course, that’s ludicrous. If not for Jenny’s haiku, these 2 songs are likely never written. Or if they are — if songs are indeed gifted to a writer from the spirit world, as some crackpots believe — at the very least, they’d be wildly different in lyric and tone. No, sometimes a collaboration can be as simple as someone saying, “Here, take this thing I did and see what it makes YOU do.” And then, you do. 

So, in conclusion: it’s been an absolute delight collaborating with this incredible artist! That said, I’m not going to turn this into a love-in for Jenny, because lord knows we’ve all done that way too many times now, and frankly, I think it’s starting to go to her head. Have you seen her most recent long-form haiku, in which she shamelessly compares herself to both Golda Meier AND Hulk Hogan?? Embarrassing. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to find out that she started this whole blog-contributor idea because she knows people will invariably have to compliment her! I mean, if there’s one thing we all know about Jenny, it’s that she’s a reckless glory-seeker and a shrewd manipulator of people’s emotions. In fact, could this be the longest long game in history? Has she spent her entire life acting nice, talented, funny and generous to a fault, taking extremely close-up and occasionally unflattering pictures of me I mean us as she goes, and all for, in the words of the great philosopher George Costanza, “the glorification of (her) own massive ego”??? 

Of course, trying to prove that would be like gathering together a group of hack lawyers to prove election fraud. “A Collaboration Of Dunces,” if you will: it just ain’t true. What is truth is that once she asks you to be involved and you accept, the collaboration has already begun. And I’m willing to bet that Jenny knows collaboration is scary to some, but that a pressure of that kind can be good, and often yield a positive result. I don’t want to use the coal-to-diamond metaphor, because it’s just soooo late ‘90s. There’s gotta be a better one than... 
... 
Actually...nope. No, there isn’t. Damn it, it’s the perfect metaphor, whether I like it or not. Maybe sometimes, the obvious thing is sitting right in front of you, waiting on a long car ride for you to notice. And maybe — just maybe — being asked by Jenny to write this piece helped remind me of that. 
Wait a minute... 

BIENEMANN, YOU GLORIOUS BASTARD, YOU’VE DONE IT AGAIN!" - Gerald Dowd

4 comments

  • Gerard Downs
    Gerard Downs Undisclosed
    As a longtime fan, I disagree that Jenny would make a poor mob enforcer. She might not be the traditional type, in which she shatters your kneecaps for not making a monthly "tribute" to the "Local Men's Society". That sort of savagery is far beneath her. No, she would likely use calming reason and deep empathy to make you understand why you should shatter your OWN kneecaps.

    As a longtime fan, I disagree that Jenny would make a poor mob enforcer. She might not be the traditional type, in which she shatters your kneecaps for not making a monthly "tribute" to the "Local Men's Society". That sort of savagery is far beneath her. No, she would likely use calming reason and deep empathy to make you understand why you should shatter your OWN kneecaps.

  • Jenny Bienemann
    Jenny Bienemann
    Gerard Downs knows me so well...

    Gerard Downs knows me so well...

  • Kevin Trim
    Kevin Trim
    This was simply an outstanding read. Thank you both.

    This was simply an outstanding read. Thank you both.

  • Mother in law
    Mother in law Kalamazoo
    I love you, Gerald Dowd!

    I love you, Gerald Dowd!

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