Connect with us
July 2024
Vol. 23, No. 10

Featured Stories

Josh Weinstein: Crawling Out from Ground Zero

by Drew DouglasJuly 2024

Josh Weinstein. Photo by Cass.

On that infamous day in September when the planes hit the towers, Josh Weinstein’s entire life changed irrevocably as the World Trade Center fell around him. Josh’s apartment stood under the shadows of the Twin Towers, just two buildings down from the front doors that symbolized the triumph of commerce in the heart of New York’s financial district. Most of us watched it all unfold on our televisions as the world we knew transformed before our eyes. But Josh was fighting for an escape at ground zero. First from his roof where he witnessed the initial atrocity unfold, then realizing his own life was at stake too, through a desperate escape down stairwells filled with black smoke and gray ash and then outside, through the falling debris and bodies.

These are the moments that either end us or bring us a new clarity and purpose. Thankfully, Josh was fortunate to escape and find the latter.

The truth is, very few of us will ever face the level of tragedy and extremes of humanity that were forced upon Josh during the fall of 2001. Men flew airplanes into those towers, taking thousands of lives and set the stage for taking hundreds of thousands more. But men and women also put on their firefighter’s gear that day and flew into the hallways and up the stairwells, giving their own lives to save others. This same humanity led a paramedic to hike Josh and several others out of his building to relative safety. To then hijack a bus and load up as many as possible and drive them farther from harm’s way, only to drop them off and turn around again to go straight back into the hell, in hopes of pulling even more out.

I’m not a paramedic. And neither is Josh. But through various traumas we’ve both learned how music saves lives as well, not the least of which is our own. And how ignoring our muse is no way to live. Running down a smoke-filled stairwell, the thoughts Josh was sure were his last weren’t about the ad copy he wrote for a living or how much savings were in his bank account. They were about his mother. They were about his photo ID, so people would know who he was when they found his body. They were about his cats. And they were about the meaningful gifts he held in multitude that he’d ignored and failed to share with the world. His ability to write was not meant for advertising. His ability to play was not meant to take a back seat to commerce. It was meant for music. For art. When faced with what he was sure were his last moments on earth, he searched for the legacy of his own life and found it lacking. When he survived, he vowed to never find himself in that position again. The next time he stared death down, he would face it knowing he’d lived a life with purpose.

“A culture has never in history been measured by its commercial output or GDP. We are only remembered by our intellectual and creative legacies,” he tells me in a recent interview.

Photo by Martin Mann.

Of course, no singular event, even one as traumatic as surviving 9/11 at ground zero, wholly defines us or sets our life course. Josh’s musical journey began with his parents. “My mother was a full-time musician and piano teacher—a folk singer and songwriter who was active in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Her mother was a classical cellist who played with the symphony and had her own radio show each Sunday on the CBC. My dad was also a jazz fanatic who ran in “showbiz” circles. So, music was everywhere when I was growing up. I don’t remember a time before I thought of music as a thing I did. I played songs on the piano by ear as a little kid and begged for piano lessons. I started writing songs essentially as soon as I started playing music. I always figured I’d grow up to play music and write songs full time.”

Josh continues, “When I listened to records as a kid, I was completely aware that records were made by people who played instruments, and that that was a job, and that that was the job I wanted. I would literally listen to how the piano player played to have a sense of what piano players do in sessions.

“The grown-ups would sometimes bring us to Broadway musicals, and I would spend the whole time watching the musicians below the stage. They would sit there reading books and somehow always knew when it was time to play. They’d make these great explosive sounds and then go back to calmly reading a book like nothing had happened. The whole thing just seemed badass to me. I’ve really tried to do other things, but they never take; all my side trips away from it always end up back at music.”

So how did he lose his way from that childhood clarity to find himself scrambling for his life in a clouded stairwell, to escape the financial district of New York?

“That’s the exact question I asked myself and hated myself for in that run down the stairs during 9/11. I didn’t have the confidence to imagine I could experience the same level of success doing music full time. I just enjoyed the paycheck and the familial/social acceptance.”

That all changed in that stairwell, and for the last 23 years Josh has been working hard to make up for lost time.

This intense dedication to making art is all very apparent when listening to Josh’s latest release, an expansive 24-song album, Mind the Gap.

*********************

I don’t think I’ve listened to a record through headphones all the way through since I was in high school. But I’m testing out a new set as I reach an ode to Josh’s children. As “Slow Down” begins in the isolated stereo of my headphones, a marble rolls and rattles around in my head from ear to ear the way a piano tinkers, until I figure out it’s one of those maze games where you guide the marble to the end. During an interlude, we hear the voices of Josh’s children and amid them, a simple declaration, “I love what I’m doing right now!”

I press the headphones tighter to my ears and think, “You and me both, kid. I love what I’m doing right now, too!” and I turn the volume up a bit.

“In my fondest hopes,” Josh tells me, “that’s how someone would listen. Straight through, eyes closed, willing to let it be a movie or a novel.”

The marble rolls, then stops abruptly, secure in the home that signifies the maze is complete. A boy’s voice says proudly and confidently, “Done.”

With the release of his San Diego Music Award-nominated album for Best Local Recording, Weinstein finds himself standing on the foundation of a major achievement, and he’s planning a party commensurate to the occasion. “I’m finally officially releasing Mind the Gap, [released digitally last December]. That album also came out 20 years after my first album, which was called Petty Alchemy. So, I will be doing a whole bunch of songs in celebration. I’m sort of informally calling it ‘20 years of songs you’ve never heard.’ I’ve got a lot of music friends taking part and singing some of my songs—Gregory Page, Jeff Berkley, Johnny Vernazza, Earl Thomas, Ariel Levine, Choe Lou, Brothers Burns, and others. It’s going to be a blast to get to do it at my favorite venue in town, Music Box.”

If you can judge a person by the company they keep, you can do no finer than to name-check the list above as your musical compatriots. When they’re coming out to play in support of your album release, you’re clearly at the height of your craft. Producer and local music staple Jeff Berkley is quick to turn that talent by association around. “Josh Weinstein is a genius. We all use that term loosely. Josh really is that though. His brain works quickly and efficiently. His ideas are interesting, creative, and musical [with] an amazingly vast and profoundly deep understanding of harmonic structure. All that and a damn great songwriter.”

As accomplished a musician as Josh is, Berkley has hit on something important here. Josh is a writer. And you won’t easily find a more adept and insightful one. His lyrics and characters are rich with literary depth.

As a lyrical storyteller with a gravelly voice, there are easy comparisons to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, both musically and thematically. And Josh isn’t shying away from that influence with songs about strippers at Christmas, carnival romps, the moon, San Diego in the rain, and train songs (or are they train songs? We’ll cover that later.)

But on songs like “Numbers,” I hear a musical kinship with ’90s artists like Beck and Eels’ tunes like “Susan’s House.” I even hear a little Everlast and hip-hop adjacent vocal phrasings on songs where he pauses mid-line and holds, before punching the last word. “Unmaking Love” has a spoken-word section, rattling off lines like “the break-up, …texts, and make-up, …sex.”

Lizzo and other hip-hop artists love doing things like that.

Josh elaborates, “They are all artists I like, and I truly feel that hip-hop is responsible for some of the best American literature of the last half century. But I think it’s more a matter of sharing common appreciations.”

He continues, “I think there is a whole slice of musical practice that has had the melody and rhythm of spoken language as an inherent component, and lots of us spark to one or more branches on that family tree—Gil Scott-Heron or old talking blues or ‘Low Rider’ or Barry White or ‘Convoy’ or ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia’ or ‘Shaft’ or ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’…those are all songs featuring spoken word as the solo instrument. One way or another we’re all in that lineage.”

This approach is also indicative of a lyricist familiar with poetic structures where line breaks create these same stilted and catching rhythms.

“I do some of that in my lyrics when I type them,” he says while mentioning that Mind the Gap has a companion booklet where he lays out the lyrics as poetry with accompanying artwork. Typed out, sometimes the lines are structured like his vocal melody; other times, they are laid out to fit the written page, bringing new ways of looking at a line.

His lyrics are often written and sung like speech: colloquial, imperfect grammar, and all. His characters have the voice of the Brooklyn working class, belied by references to Bukowski, Joseph Conrad, and Jean Rhys, which reveal Josh’s degree in literature that has clearly trained him well as a writer. Still, none of this is posturing. Josh is quick to point out these are characters he’s writing, and the truth is found by creating these fictions that search for the essence of the truth, while discarding the strict factuality of it. Which is what art does at its best.

Amid literary and non-traditional musical connections in Josh Weinstein’s music, I also hear artistic connections that have nothing to do with music.

A song like “This Song Has No Train” immediately brings to mind Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe. I ask if this is a post-modern reference to impressionism.

“Magritte crossed my mind, actually,” Josh says, “but I meant something sadder/deeper about that song having no train (metaphorically), and I liked the idea of the album calling me a liar. Like, it getting away from me and having its own mind or point of view. I meant it in the ‘this dog don’t hunt’ way—like, this relationship isn’t made of magic. Then at the end of the song I liked the album sort of flipping me off.”

This idea of deception in his storytelling weaves through this record as a minor theme. Likewise, you have to be careful with Josh’s art. He’s so good at writing these characters, that when he writes in first person, it’s easy to see these people as him and not the amalgamation of pieces of himself mixed in with people he’s known and characters he’s made up as metaphors. I count at least 15 songs on this record that mention alcohol, enough that I’m a little worried about him. But he eases my mind on that account. “I always joke that I’m in the only profession where I’d be afraid to have my colleagues find out that I’ve never done coke.” Then Josh gets more serious. “Feeling existentially at the whim of alcohol is a good inroad to talking about any existential struggles I might want to explore. Kind of how the woman in my songs is named Candy… I can talk about different women/relationships without it being specific to one. Same with alcohol. Drinkers can struggle in ways that let me also talk about other struggles…all those existential questions are at the root of art, and so I dive deeper into that dysfunctional relationship in song than I tend to in real life.”

When pressed, Josh is never evasive, but he tends to downplay his personal struggles. He saves the emotional outpouring for his songs.

Josh with Jeff Berkley & the Banned: Cathryn Beeks, Jason Cox, Josh Weinstin, Jeff Berkley, Ted Stern, Rick Nash, Josh Hermsmeier.

Josh makes a living entirely from music. If he’s not making it through gigging his own project, he’s a sideman for other artists and is Jeff Berkley’s first call as a session keyboardist. He’s also, literally, a professor of music. “I teach music history classes at National University; I also teach in the Advanced Diploma program at Studio West’s Recording Arts Center. I call it my ‘triple hustle’: playing gigs/sessions, teaching private lessons, and teaching college.”

I mention a recent conversation in which someone dismissed the idea of making a living entirely from music or art as a fool’s errand. Josh responds eagerly, “It’s not for everyone. But for those it’s for, every other potential option feels like a death.”

This metaphor takes on more intensity when we remember his moment in that stairwell.

“I do struggle with this. I have reflected that in a way I’m the only one I know [with] a single income, raising kids, and having every cent I make come from music-related endeavors. But every time I’ve tried the experiment of making music part-time or no-time, the experiment has failed and the cost has been dire. This is the only path I know how to commit to and still care about after committing.”

He continues, “But I’ll give you the flipside. Artistic people are the most qualified to improvise solutions to that situation—who are specifically unmoved by how others say things are supposed to be. Having the ‘safety’ of other income sources has proven too seductive for me. I’ve found it nearly or completely impossible to create—to spend ‘unproductive’ time, when there is that big incentive not to. So, the only option, if you trust yourself and your art, is to remove the safety net and trust that you will contrive ways not to fail. And if you’re not completely willing to take that risk…if not doing it is an option, you should not do it. You should have a real job and make real money and be unfulfilled doing that, instead of unfulfilled being broke and sitting around waiting for your art to save you. It’s the toughest path. You have to be doing it because you can’t not. You don’t make art because it’s practical as a vocational strategy. Those who think it’s a bad career path are completely right (for them).”

Screenshot

But for Josh, the path is clear. And sacrificing spiritual and artistic fulfillment for financial security is no way to live. It was made clear in the depths of the largest national tragedy of our lives. And it is still clear today, 23 years later. On July 14th at the Music Box, Josh intends to celebrate that journey to fulfillment, along with the totality of his musical career to date with one helluva party.

No matter how much we look back, none of this is merely a retrospective. Josh clearly lives in the moment. I think it’s clear that as expansive as his artistic career has been, this is an artist in his prime, with plenty more to say. And I personally can’t wait to hear it all. Until then, I’ll keep digging into his records, and I’ll see you at the Music Box to watch all this dedication and joy of artistic pursuits unfold live.

Josh Weinstein CD Release Anniversary with Gregory Page, Jeff Berkley, Johnny Vernazza, Earl Thomas, and more at the Music Box, 1337 India St., 8pm.

Continue Reading
css.php