Music Monday: Wassup, Wasserman!, by Brendan O’Malley

My talented brother Brendan O’Malley is an amazing writer and actor. He’s wonderful in the recent You & Me, directed by Alexander Baack. (I interviewed Baack about the film here.) His most recent gig was story editor/writer on the hit series Survivor’s Remorse. Brendan hasn’t blogged in years, but the “content” (dreaded word) is so good I asked if I could import some of it to my blog. I just wrapped up posting his 50 Best Albums. But I figured I’d keep “Music Monday” going with more of the stuff Bren wrote about music.

Bren’s writing is part music-critique, part memoir, part cultural snapshot. Many of these pieces were written a decade ago, so I am happy to share it with you!

Wassup, Wasserman!

Rob Wasserman is one of those musicians you’ve probably heard on someone else’s record. He is a bass wizard. He has transcended the anonymity of the side man to the point where he has established himself as a true collaborator and creator in his own right.

He put out an album called Duets back in the 1990’s that featured him paired with a variety of different artists. They performed old standards, original pieces, anything they had a mind to. This is one of those perfect albums that seems like a soundtrack to a forgotten classic film. It seems to have a visual quality to it, so perfectly etched are the sounds.

One song in particular became important to me. Jennifer Warnes, yes, the “Up Where We Belong” with Joe Cocker Jennifer Warnes, sings an old Leonard Cohen song called “The Ballad of the Runaway Horse”.

Before I even talk about the performances, I have to address the song itself. When Cohen recorded it, he titled it “Ballad of the Absent Mare”. I’ve never heard his version of the song.

Jennifer Warnes and Rob Wasserman’s version is stark and sparse. Only the bass and the voice. The bombast of “Up Where We Belong” is nowhere to be found. Subtle and epic, she virtually coos the entire song.

A cowgirl waits for a wild horse. They’ve ridden before. Every time they do she feels whole. Then his wildness reasserts itself and their union is torn apart.

Somehow this song wound up being the song that my ex and I danced to as our first dance. Think of this if you are attempting to get married without a wedding planner. They just might step in and say, “Yes, beautiful song, make another choice.”

But in listening to the song, I’m once again struck by how unbelievably romantic and beautiful it is. In spite of the central metaphor of loss. And whether we’d stayed together or not, it was an apt choice.

Really long, though. The crowd got a bit antsy while we danced and we joked as we danced that we could have faded it out at a certain point. I am still transported to that day whenever I hear the song. When it comes up on random play I often skip it because I simply can’t go there.

Long story short, the marriage ended. The metaphor carried over and our love couldn’t survive our most basic nature. I swam upstream in Brooklyn trying to get to a still pond. I wore my nerves to the thinnest edge.

Then one night I found myself out with Quasi Uncle Andy and Buzz. Andy is one of my oldest friends, dating back to college. We shared an apartment on the Upper West Side when I first moved to the city. He met Buzz working at a Mexican restaurant in the Village. Buzz is Iranian and moved here when he was 10. His father was a general and fled the country when the Shah was overthrown. Imagine coming to America in 1979 from Iran.

Buzz said he fought every kid in his school. Buzz wound up rapping with my cousin and I in a group called New Mischief, but that’s a story for another day.

I don’t remember how but I convinced Andy and Buzz to go with me to The Wetlands to see Rob Wasserman in concert. They knew nothing about him. There were maybe 30 people there, a shameful display of public taste.

By the end of the concert, Andy, Buzz and I stood at the lip of the stage and screamed at the top of our lungs that we wanted more, play more, play something else, play anything. During the show we kept marveling at the fact that we were witnessing obviously historic music and NO ONE was there. We vowed that our response would not be muted in spite of the space around us.

I let the cares of my increasingly stressful life fall away and Rob Wasserman made me forget that he’d been at my wedding.

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