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John Gorka is totally awesome.
John Gorka is a folk singer dude from New Jersey who has been folk singing since like the late 70s/early 80s and has been having albums put out since like the late 80s/early 90s. He’s getting on in years now but he’s still fucking awesome. He’s had a beard for all of his album covers and his voice is just fucking gorgeous.
I first heard him because of the internet, back in late 2006/early 2007.
I read a LiveJournal community where people post their song videos or fan videos where they take footage from TV shows or movies and put it to songs. Someone posted a song video with footage from the TV miniseries done by the BBC of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and they put it to the song ‘Raven in the Storm’ by John Gorka. I’d never heard of that song or John Gorka but I had read Neverwhere and I had seen (and enjoyed) the miniseries, and was happy to support watching and commenting on a video that wasn’t the same old shit anyway (the videos tend to be from the same couple of TV shows usually, it’s unusual to have something like this video posted) and so I watched the video.
AND IT WAS FUCKING AWESOME. It was the perfect song, well edited with footage of the series. I watched it and immediately thought ‘This song is fucking awesome’ and looked it up on iTunes. I listened to the iTunes clips of all the songs on that album and immediately purchased and downloaded it. Over the next couple of weeks I would listen to that album CONSTANTLY (I vividly remember driving down to Dana and Sean’s place in South San Francisco, listening to that album… possibly on the famous New Years ringing in 2007). The album is called Land Of The Bottom Line and the title track from that album is, as of today, my absolute favorite John Gorka song.
Over the next year I wound up with used copies of most of John’s albums that I picked up from Amoeba, including a few out of print ones. There are a few that I don’t have and one album that is available on iTunes that I don’t have because it’s just too country for me (there’s a fine line with some folk singers that they tread where their music goes from folksy to country and on that album he crossed the line a little too much for me). I got really into his other albums and started to get antsy because it appeared from his official website that he mostly did shows around New England and didn’t seem to ever get out to California.
I sent a message to his website recommending that he come out to California and play at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley and the Kuumba Jazz Center in Santa Cruz because I felt like those venues would be perfect for him. Lo and behold, in March of 2008 he was scheduled to appear at BOTH locations!
Sadly for me, the Berkeley show was happening one of the nights I would be in Texas for FearFest 2, a horror movie convention that I had won a free pass to at the Full Moon Horror Convention in Little Rock, Arkansas the previous October. But the Santa Cruz show was Sunday night and so I booked a SUPER early flight back to California for Sunday, estimated CA arrival at 11am which would give me plenty of time to nap and drive down to SC for the show.
But Continental Airlines fucked me and canceled my first connecting flight, causing me to miss my flight into Oakland and even on standby I only ended up flying into Oakland at 8pm which was when the show started, an hour plus away in Santa Cruz, after I had spent all day sitting around the Houston airport, fuming with rage. (or maybe I was in Dallas, my anger blinds my memory)
Anyway, I missed the show (and I had a ticket and everything) and I was devastated. I immediately sent another message to John Gorka’s website begging him to come back because I had missed the show. A year and a half later, I got my request. Late in the spring on this year I saw on John’s site a show listed for Berkeley in September and I got super excited. I requested an early shift and the MINUTE tickets were on sale, I got tickets. I was also super excited because my wonderful friend and coworker Lisa wanted to go with me and I love having people to go to shows with (I will go by myself, especially for someone I really really want to see but I prefer to have company and Lisa is good company).
And now I come to tonight’s show…
First of all, one month ago the Freight and Salvage moved a billion blocks down Addison street from the San Pablo intersection to the heart of downtown Berkeley and it is a GORGEOUS building and performance space with nice bathrooms and comfy chairs (the old venue, where I saw the Austin Lounge Lizards once, was kind of beat-down with super uncomfy chairs and kind of yuck bathrooms). The only thing is, being in downtown Berkeley on a Saturday night there is no god damn parking and I had to park in a garage. It’s like trying to park around Union Square in San Francisco — you don’t fucking do it. If you must take a car, you park in a garage and you pay for it. So I paid for a garage for the first or second time ever in downtown Berkeley. Because I had to.
However, the venue is just fucking gorgeous – it’s a giant room with wood panels all along the walls. And we were in the front row to the side so we had a great view of the performers through the whole show. It was wonderful.
Lucy Kaplansky opened and performed with John Gorka — Lucy did a short set, John did a short set, and they took a break and then did a longer set together (meaning that they would alternate between one of John’s songs with Lucy singing harmonies and then one of Lucy’s songs with John singing harmonies). They said they’ve been singing together since 1984 and they clearly know each others songs and sing harmony beautifully together. John Gorka… if you didn’t know he had been doing this professionally for decades, you’d think he was a befuddled and confused old man who had no idea what was going on, he was HILARIOUS. And he performed some of my favorite songs (like ‘Blue Chalk’) and I knew his song ‘I’m From New Jersey’ is meant to be funny but I had no idea just HOW funny it really is until I saw him perform it. And that’s part of the beauty of his songs – he can do very very serious songs and super super silly ones (‘Prom Night in Pigtown’ comes to mind…).
It occured to me, watching him perform, that of my top five favorite bands/artists of all time, John Gorka is the only one where there is no element of him/his performance/music/persona that I find sexy — that is, unlike Public Image Limited (John Lydon), They Might Be Giants (John Linnell), Oingo Boingo (Danny Elfman), or Rush (GEDDY LEE!!!). John Gorka I love absolutely for his songs, his music, his voice, his performance. And this has a lot to do I know now, seeing him live, with him reminding me of my parents.
If my parents ran into each other hard enough to meld into a single person and that person was a bearded folk singer from New Jersey, that would be John Gorka. He’s short like my mom, he’s shaped like my dad, he plays guitar and sings folks songs like my mom, and he’s got the poetic gift that my dad has. So, really, it’s good that I don’t find him sexually attractive. My interest is totally and completely just in his awesome music and now in one of the best live music shows I’ve ever been to.
Another huge element of the performance tonight was the emotional atmosphere — every song was really moving, even the silly ones. I was moved to a point that I hadn’t been probably since I was a kid, sitting around the campfire at camp with my best friend Jenni. You know, when the world just seems so big and awesome and the night sky is so fucking gorgeous and you can see all the stars and you’re there with your best friend and the world is so full of possibilities and you think you know who you are and who you’re going to be and where you belong. It’s the kind of atmosphere in which you make blood oathes to always be friends forever, no matter what, that Stand By Me kind of shit that feels so far away most of the time otherwise.
I remember the last time I really remember my mom singing to us – we had our Japanese exchange students one of the summers I was in high school and one night, on a whim, mom drove us up into the San Bernardino mountains to a camp and we took a short hike to an amphitheater and turned off the flashlights so we could all look up at the stars and mom sang us lullabys and Girl Scout songs with no guitar or anything. I don’t know if my mom can sing or carry a tune cuz I’m completely tone deaf, but for me, my parents have perfect voices because those are the voices that sang me to sleep when I was growing up.
That night came close to moving me like tonight’s show did.
Also, I got a copy of John Gorka’s new CD that isn’t officially released until October 13th. They sold out later too. I feel awesome. He played a few tracks off of the new album during the show and each one was good. I mean, I wouldn’t count it as his best work to date or anything, but it was good, solid stuff.
My favorite Gorka album is still that first album, Land of the Bottom Line. It’s got a lot of heartbreakers — several songs that appear to be about breaking up (‘Armed With a Broken Heart’, ‘I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair’), inability to find love (‘The One Who Got Away’, ‘Full of Life’), and of course the title song, my favorite, ‘Land of the Bottom Line’ is about having to give up freedom in order to work… in order to have freedom. All of the songs on the album are wonderful, and it does have very funny and upbeat songs as well (‘Mean Streak’, ‘Dream Street’, and I would say that ‘Love Is our Cross To Bear’ is a more upbeat/optimistic heartbreaker).
Of course, Land of the Bottom Line was an early album. Some of his later work I also really like. My second favorite album of his is Jacks Crows which contains some of my favorite songs: ‘Silence’ is beautifully crafted; ‘Houses in the Fields’ is a great piano ballad; ‘Good’ and ‘Treasure Islands’ are upbeat and two of my absolute favorites of his; ‘I’m From New Jersey’ I already mentioned, it’s awesome; ‘Semper Fi’ was one that a lot of people at the show were requesting but he didn’t around to, it’s a moving piece about his dad I think; ‘Mercy of the Wheels’ reminds me of my own father and so it’s a good song as well.
His other albums I highly recommend are After Yesterday, Between Five and Seven, Old Futures Gone, and The Company You Keep. His more recent album, Writing in the Margins, is also good but I feel like song for song the earlier albums are better. I’ll have to give several dozen listens through the new album before I know how well it really holds up.
All told, John Gorka comes highly, HIGHLY recommended.