Mark McDermott

The road-going of Joe Firstman

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Joe Firstman plays Saint Rocke Sunday night.

The late great Townes Van Zandt meditated greatly, drunkenly, and profoundly on the philosophical state of the wandering songwriter.

His great opus, “Pancho and Lefty,” is only ostensibly talking about gunfighters with this weary observation that was borne out of Van Zandt’s meandering sad poem of a life:

“Living on the road my friend

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Was gonna keep you free and clean

Now you wear your skin like iron

Your breath is hard as kerosene…”

It’s no great stretch to see that Van Zandt was talking about his own kind, what his friend Steve Earle called “the highway kind.” They are a rare breed of shambling creatures, these road-going men and women who abandon all else for – as Van Zandt put it in the title of another work – the sake of the song. Only a handful of musicians live the tour bus, fancy hotel high life; the vast and passionate majority forsakes most comforts for a series of beat-up vans, Motel 6’s and messy but hopeful little gigs.

Joe Firstman has lived both lives. He came to California from his native North Carolina at age 19 on an $18 Greyhound bus ticket and within two years had a big record deal with Atlantic and an opening slot on tours with Jewel, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson. He left behind those frantic rock star years and settled pacifically into El Porto for four years after taking a standing gig as the musical director for the Carson Daly show.

And now that the TV gig has ended, he has entered the Van Zandt period of his career: he has abandoned any sense of home or rock star intent and is living quite squarely for the sake of the song. Firstman has a big truck – dubbed “the Silver Bullet” – and a never-ending tour ahead of him that aims for 200 gigs a year for the foreseeable future.

“I have no other choice but to start writing better songs,” Firstman said last year, at the outset of this stage of his career. “It’s the only game. Nothing works in my proverbial plan unless the songs continue to get better.”

It’s working. Firstman, who returns to Hermosa Beach Sunday for a show at Saint Rocke, has stripped back his music from the “professional badass ninja” full band ensembles of his early years to just his voice, guitar, and songs alone on the stage. Along the way, something fundamental has happened. Firstman’s early music was wildly exuberant, frenetic, sometimes frantic – “one fluid flow of mania,” as he has described it. Now he’s slowed it down. Every note counts. His music has grown more ragged, simple, and truthful.

“A lot of the songs have gotten slower and moodier because you are not doing the same thing,” he said. “But on this last tour I started stretching a little bit and banging the guitar a little harder and digging in and it worked great. It all goes into the big bowl of dynamics and how I decide to use them, and I wouldn’t know how to use them unless I had played with the band…You take five guys going on a musical adventure, especially the bands I was in, we improvised, so you’ve got five guys sifting through the music looking for those moments to merge and come together instead of one man and six strings. You see how everything can become so much more scrutinized and detail oriented and how one stroke of the guitar is so crucial.”

His forthcoming record documents this transformation. Firstman has recently signed with a small, artist-friendly label called Rock Ridge Music, and he also recently regained control of all his old Atlantic output. The new release, “Live at the Treehouse,” includes re-workings of several old songs, such as “At the Phoenix Hotel,” “Fight Song” and “Pretty Things.” They are songs written by a young man sung by a slightly older and by god somewhat wiser man.

“It’s always an amazing feeling to see that that the songs take on a different life,” Firstman said. “They mean something different all the time. And often you are amazed by it. ‘Wow, how did I know that? How did I plant this little time capsule for me to open and possibly reenter later?’ Good, dense lyrics – some, even if they are clumsy, when you are taking chances you get a chance to say something. And if you say it, it’s said.”

If there is one thing that has marked Firstman’s growth as an artist and performer, it is an appreciation of the power of a single moment. He’s paying closer attention, serving his songs unobtrusively and sometimes with an unusual degree of unselfishness. “Live at the Treehouse” includes one of the most powerful moments captured in all his recorded input, and significantly, it shows Firstman stepping back to sing harmony on a song he co-wrote with the ethereally gifted singer Jay Buchanan. It’s called “Middle Ground.”

“I let the angel sing,” Firstman said. “I feel like I’ve always been blessed with good guys around me and great musicians around me my whole life. My parents are great musicians. I’ve always been the least of them, I’ve felt like. I loved the TV gig and I loved my bands because I always had better guys than me around. I hail musicians. And Jay sung pretty, and that should be on there because of that.”

Living on the road, Firstman said, has by necessity changed his approach. A philosopher not named Van Zandt – Spinoza, I think – once said that philosophy is man’s attempt to be at home everywhere. The same may be true for a road-going songwriter.

“Your head does spin, and you have to try to acclimate,” Firstman said. “An artist has to find his little homes wherever he is – he doesn’t have anything else. It’s his art. It’s not his mortgage, it is not his other stuff…An artist has to say, here is my little home tonight, and I better sleep well and rest my brains and rest my brow so I can go and create art tomorrow. You can see how two or three days of that in a row would not bode well if you let your head spin around. You’ve got to make every place home. You don’t have a choice.”

And as he rides from town to town, Firstman hears the whispering ghost of Townes Van Zandt in his ear.

“That very line is like a theory I have long pondered and spent many a weary mile on the road thinking about, and it’s certainly something I identify with more every day,” Firstman said. “‘Living on road is supposed to keep you free and clean’ is a hell of way of looking at the meanings of free and clean, but it certainly means what it means… ‘Now you got skin like iron and your breath is hard is kerosene.’ That is the old guys, you know, so you just kind of imagine yourself growing into that person, and I’m not sure if that is good or bad.

“You know, when you are out there, to be able to come back to play Philadelphia again, that would be enough. But this lifestyle, you need to go back to Philadelphia a hundred times before you’ve done diddly squat, before you’ve done anything.”

Joe Firstman plays Saint Rocke Sunday night on a bill that also features Jay Nash and Rachael Sage. See www.joefirstman.com for more info. ER

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