Here: The Verses of Lazarus
An area songwriter sets the
poetry of a recovering stroke victim to music
Dan Mountain’s doctors had given up hope for him. The 59-year-old ad writer and father of one had lain comatose from a stroke for the last 21 days in a Los Angeles hospital, and now his life support was being withdrawn so that his family could take him home to die. Dorothy Mountain, his wife of 13 years, was at her husband’s bedside on the afternoon of June 24, 2003, as the equipment was shut off. But amazingly, Mountain opened his eyes, saw his spouse, and started talking. He eventually went home to begin an ongoing recovery.
When his friend
Marc Black, a 58-year-old singer-songwriter and adept acoustic guitarist
based in Katonah, N.Y., came to see him California, he urged Mountain to
write as means of rekindling the creative powers that had earned him
success in the business world. Black later wound up setting 14 of
Mountain’s poems to music, resulting in both a CD with some supporting
musical luminaries and a documentary film titled Stroke of Genius.
(Tomorrow night, Friday, Black will share his compelling story and his
songs onstage at Caffe Lena.)
Mountain had been a creative advertising director with various firms for 34 years, previously working for Perrier and Apple among other companies. Earlier that June, he was exercising in his Venice, Calif., home when he was stricken by a massive hemorrhage in his brain stem and lost consciousness. He was admitted to the UCLA Hospital, where doctors gave him, as Mountain wrote in a recent e-mail interview, a “zero-percent chance of survival and meaningful recovery.” Following an unsuccessful surgery, the head surgeon, Dr. John G. Frazee, recommended Mountain be allowed to expire.
But when his ventilator was disconnected, Mountain came to. “I awoke on the afternoon of June 24th. I didn’t even know what century I was in. I did tell my wife I loved her very much. I couldn’t remember anything else,” he wrote in an e-mail interview.
Recoveries such as Mountain’s aren’t unprecedented, but they are rare.
Marc Black thought—prophetically, it turned out—that his friend would be OK when he got word of Mountain’s stroke. He is a musician with an impressively long and versatile resume: his first band, Blades of Grass, toured with the Doors and Van Morrison. In the late 1960s he lived in folk-rock singer Tim Hardin’s house in Woodstock, and took over Hardin’s band following the singer’s death in 1980. In addition to the former Hardin band, whom Black has retained in varying configurations over the years, he has since recorded with, among others, Richie Havens, Jack DeJohnette, Taj Mahal, and Rick Danko. His previous CDs range from acoustic blues to ambient/experimental sounds to compositions for tuba and chorus.
Black explained via e-mail that he had gotten to know Mountain in the early 1990s when he was in the Los Angeles area composing jingles for television ads. “We had met in the course of our work in advertising. . . . We had common interests in that we both loved jazz, sports, and shooting the breeze at some of the local drinking establishments. So when I was in town, that’s what we would do.”
After Mountain had left the hospital for a rehabilitation center, Black flew out to visit him, and found the stroke had profoundly affected Mountain. ”Although he was hardly back in this realm, he was saying some fascinating things,” Black says. ”We got a notebook and wrote some of them down. And then, when he was better, I kept encouraging him to write about his experience. And I told him that maybe I could put [Mountain’s words] to music. I thought it would be therapeutic for him . . . and really interesting for all of us.”
At Black’s behest, Mountain said, he wrote verse as a means of refocusing his mind. “I’d done some poetry through the years, in my line of work and sometimes for fun,” he says. “And even my prose has been pretty poetic. At least the best of it has been. And it was the perfect way to get back to writing again, since it dealt with the rhythm of words as much as the meaning. . . . In my case, that was the first thing that came back.”
Given his condition, though, he says it wasn’t always easy. “But it was always worth it.”
After eight months, Black says, “He phoned me and told me he was ready. So I flew out to California with my recording software on my laptop and some instruments. We just jumped into the great unknown. We had no idea if we’d get anything in terms of songs. And we never dreamed we were beginning what would grow into a CD and a documentary film.”
When they began working, Black says, “Dan sat across from me at a large table. I asked him to hand me a copy of the poem and read it into a microphone. Keep in mind I had never heard any of the poems before.”
Mountain’s verses were outwardly simple, yet often paradoxical (“When you get back, you never get back to where you been”) or even mystical (“I have no message, nothing to teach you, no destination, just let it be”). Elsewhere, he writes, “Voices call from both sides of the veil, some of them whisper, some of them wail. And the secrets that they sing I cannot tell. But I will.”
Psyched by these lines and others, Black became the ultimate short-order tunesmith. “It felt as if we were in our own spaceship,” he says, “our own world. We did three to four poems a day. And we had a rough recording of each song within an hour of first hearing it. After a while we got sort of giddy. He was operating at a level that was way beyond where he was in his recovery at the time. And I felt like I was getting instructions from a previously unknown intelligence. After four days, I came back to New York with a recording of the outline of the CD.”
Black booked time in the Clubhouse recording studio in Rhinebeck, and in addition to his bandmates—Michael Esposito on bass and Theremin, Eric Parker on drums and samplers, Betty MacDonald on electric violin, and Warren Bernhardt on keyboards—he enlisted Art Garfunkel, rock drum god Steve Gadd, gospel quartet the Dixie Hummingbirds, and John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful for the project. Sebastian proved particularly helpful. “As soon as I told John Sebastian about the project,” says Black, “he was eager to be involved. He came to the basic-track session and gave a spark to everything he touched.
“With Art Garfunkel and the Dixie Hummingbirds, it was different. I had specific songs where I heard what they might do. I sent them copies of the completed basic tracks and they both signed on at that point. The bottom line is that everyone, from Warren Bernhardt to Steve Gadd, and Howard Johnson . . . everyone was extremely generous. There was a tender vibe around the whole recording project.”
The result is a scintillating 14-song CD that showcases Black’s versatility as a composer and musician. The first track, “These Days,” is reminiscent of a late-period Beatles song with its well-crafted chord line and Garfunkel’s tenor harmonies. The next, “You Were the Reason,” is a rock tango—can you recall any others since the ’60s hits “Under the Boardwalk” and “Save the Last Dance for Me”? Track three, “When You Get Back,” is a straight-ahead acoustic-blues that Black fingerpicks on guitar, backed by Sebastian’s meowing harmonica, as the band lays down a taut backbeat. Then there’s track six, “Wired,” a surreal, Zappa-esque techno piece that seems to depict the confusion Mountain must have experienced when he opened his eyes. And so on.
The companion 51-minute documentary film by Brahman Soltani, also titled Stroke of Genius, has been shown at several film festivals, including Sundance, where Black was also invited to perform. It won the silver medal at the Park City Film Festival in Utah.
Four years after his stroke, Mountain says he is in the process of “totally rewiring” his brain. “Mentally, I’m almost all the way back. Still a little aphasia every so often. But I’m writing once more, mainly about life since the stroke. And I’m beginning to get good at it again.” He adds that he is “forever grateful for this second chance.”
For his part, Black looks back on his nights of bar-hopping and conversation with Mountain, saying, “We often spoke about doing a project together outside of advertising. That’s one of the ironic blessings in Dan’s suffering—we’ve finally done it!”
Marc Black and Mike Esposito will perform songs from Stroke of Genius at Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs) tomorrow (Friday, June 8). Tickets for the 8 PM show are $15. Reserve seats by calling 583-0022.
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