Featured Photo: © Janet M. Takayama
A couple weeks ago, a slightly inebriated fan asked me, “Yo Chris, what’s up with the Cuba cruise?” Although he may not have been a poet laureate, his words impacted me just the same. It suddenly occurred to me that my hosting a cruise might seem slightly out of left field, so please allow me to explain how it came to be.
In or around 2000, I watched a movie called “Before Night Falls”, which is based on the life of a persecuted Cuban poet named Reinaldo Arenas. It is a beautiful movie, and one scene in particular caused an unexpected emotional response from me that I will never forget. To this day, I still think it’s one of the most beautiful combinations of visuals and music ever. My description of the scene won’t do it justice so you should watch it, but in the scene, the central character, Reinaldo, is a day away from fleeing Cuba for the U.S. via a smuggled hot air balloon, and his friends throw him a going away party that is a drunken, loving, colorful, and chaotic affair. At the peak of the party’s drunken, nostalgic romance, a beautiful song comes on that literally made life stop momentarily for me, and for some reason, I started crying. Not sad tears, just the tears that come when you realize how beautiful life can be, and how art, poetry, music (or in this case), film, can be so stirring.
The song was called “Por Que Me La Dejaste Querer” by an old Cuban torch singer named Bola De Nieve. So I bought the soundtrack, got obsessed with the song, then fell in love with other Cuban songs and watched the movie again and again. I went down a rabbit hole and became infatuated with many classic Cuban artists like Beny More, Los Zafiros, Perez Prado, La Lupe and many others. I only wish this obsession had struck during the Spotify/Apple Music era because my life would have been much easier. In the early 2000’s, I would have to wait until I happened to be in Hollywood, so I could hit Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard for what was the best Cuban music selection at the time. Or, I would just cherry pick the occasional Cuban cd in the international section of any record store I’d come across on tour. I would play my Cuban mixes all the time on tour with the Push Stars, to the point that it would drive my bandmates nuts.
I understood that mid-century Cuban music wasn’t for everybody, but I certainly loved it, mostly because it seamlessly blends romance with joyful melodies.
You see, I’ve always tried to indulge my more eclectic tastes, in the hope that I might become a more diverse songwriter if the river of my musical influences ran a little deeper. I started to like how listening to so much Cuban music was affecting my songwriting. Occasionally, it’s unique melodic structure would seep into a small part of one of my songs, especially around the time of my “Gone Again” record.....not enough that anyone would notice, but enough to add just a little freshness.
And thus began my obsession with all things Cuba. The music, the food, the art, the architecture. Every time I would tour through Canada I would sneak back a pack of 20 Cuban Cigarillos across the U.S. border. I romanticized what it might be like to go there. All the beautiful old cars, beaches, sunshine....
I tried to get there twice. Once was with a cultural exchange company that said if I teach multiple music classes, I could be fortunate enough to pay six thousand dollars to spend a weekend in Cuba with no personal free time. The next was for a big birthday of mine, and I was working with travel agents and Cuban friends... but it all started to seem too complicated logistically, so I went to Memphis instead.
Fast forward to a few months ago when I was chatting with a friend of mine, Dan Navarro. Dan is a great songwriter and a great guy, and he asked if I’d ever played cruises, and I told him I hadn’t. He said I would be a perfect fit for a company he works with, and that my audience would love it. When he told me one of the options was to host a cruise to Cuba, I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning with a sugar high who just opened a present he didn’t ask for but wanted more than he knew. So Dan recommended me for the gig and I got it.
W/ Dan Navarro
I’ve also been wanting to work at building a little community around my music, so this seemed like a perfectly authentic way to do that. I’m also always curious to hear about the lives of the people who are drawn to my music, because I believe that we humans are more connected than we know.
Most excitingly, the people who have told me that they’ve already signed up for the cruise are the folks I like to hang with most when I’m on the road. So I think the vibe will be loving, relaxed and musical. And the ocean’s not a bad backdrop.
Here’s how it works: We’re going to occupy a corner of a large cruise ship (you know, the type with casinos and restaurants and swimming pools). I’m going to play a couple concerts, do some Q and A sessions about songwriting and my hair products or why I fall in public all the time, etc, and we will all have a vacation together. We’ll drink, soak up the sun and dance beneath the moonlight. And yes, I’m going to get paid to go to Cuba, which is nice juxtaposition from a couple years ago :)
Incidentally, we worked hard to keep the cost down so it would be as affordable as possible, and the cruise goes from Miami to Nassau, Freeport and Havana. We depart on February 15, 2020 (click on the image below for more info or to book your spot on the cruise).
So I often feel some varying combination of proud and lucky to have the career I have. Proud in that, although I am a small fish in the relative sea of the music business, I have made a nice living off of my songs, guitar and voice for many years. You can ask anyone who’s ever tried to do it, and they might tell you the odds of it working out are similar to winning the lottery. I have worked really hard, travelled even harder, left loved ones behind, but fuck, I did it…and still do. Even if I never played another show, I have felt thrills that are hard to put into words. It reminds me of something my mom used to say to describe falling in love, “It’s like a ticklish feeling around the heart that you can’t scratch.” So yeah, occasionally, I feel proud.
But I feel lucky on almost a daily basis.
Typically on my birthday, I get ultra nostalgic, and hole myself up in a hotel with a bottle of wine and reflect. A depressing party for one, as they say. But this year, fortunately, I was playing one of my favorite gigs at a club called 20 Front Street outside of Detroit. On a whim, I invited Sam Cooke’s daughter Carla to the show (we became digital friends a few years ago but had yet to meet in person). Some of you might already know this, but my love for Sam Cooke runs deep. It started when my bandmate’s Dad played Sam Cooke’s greatest hits in the background while we were chatting, maybe around 1998, and I realized I loved every song. When The Push Stars recorded in Los Angeles the following year, after the sessions I found every place Sam Cooke had ever been and I would go there, park my car and play his songs…including the place he got shot. His life ended in a tragic way but he left behind so much wonderful music. He used to say that he tried to write songs that could appeal to every generation, young and old, which I think is a great thing to strive for. Imagine that, music that unites us. And my love has never wavered.
So, I wrote a song for the new Push Stars record called “I Wrote A Song For You”, which was inspired by Sam Cooke, and especially his song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I sent it to Carla after I’d recorded it and she seemed to really like it, and she wrote me and said she was coming to my show with her daughter Brittany. To say I was thrilled is an understatement. One of the main reasons I was thrilled is that Carla is a superb singer herself and frequently on the road too, so to catch her in town was a lucky break. When she came backstage I was struck by how kind, charming and lovely she is. She looks like her dad if her dad had been a fashion model. Anyhow, it felt like we were old friends immediately. I knew that she embraces her dad’s legacy, so I asked if she would come up and sing “A Change is Gonna Come” after I played the song I wrote for him, and she said she would love to.
So there I was accompanying her on guitar, watching her emote with grace and soul and power, and I had one of those out of body experiences, where you float above your own being and look down and realize how fortunate that guy down on the stage is, and how he must be having the time of his life.
When I came back to ground level, I’d forgotten the audience was even there, but they cheered loudly for what seemed like ten minutes. I could have walked off stage then and there, hung up the gloves and felt satisfied.
But I can’t. I have a gig to get to.
W/ Carla Cooke
Speaking of soul, I am currently wrapping up a tour with my long time friend Martin Sexton. We’ve done so many shows together over the years, yet he still always amazes me. He is a musical freak of nature, with the ability to jump genres, eras and styles before you even notice he’s doing it. He is a one man band that can rock a beer soaked rock club, or reach the last row of the balcony of the most beautiful theatre sans microphone. He has been a huge help to me on many fronts, including just the sheer navigation of the forever shape-shifting music business. We are like brothers from similar mothers, both coming from big diverse upstate NY families, moving to Boston, and forging our paths. So I just wanted to say thanks to him for all the great shows.
W/ Martin Sexton
See you on the road, or maybe on the sea, or maybe on the streets of Havana...
Click here for more info or to reserve your spot on the Cuba cruise!