About Peter Karp ★ ★ ★
One of my earliest recollections of knowing who I was is when I was 5 years old out on my father's leaky old pound boat 50 miles out in the icy Atlantic bobbing and cascading through 20 foot swells in an angry and treacherous storm. I loved standing out on the bow where the railing meets at the tip, holding on tightly while the boat would dive headfirst down into an oncoming crush of seawater, momentarily submerged then suddenly exploding up through the backside of the wave.My father came up behind me, put his arms around me and whispered in my ear:"Isn't this great Peter? Isn't this life great...?" On the ride back in and on subsequent voyages, I would lie on the engine cover under a blanket and listen to the sound of the overworked motor moaning and groaning as it pushed the old wood dragger through the sea. Snug under the cover and warm from the heat radiating through the wood, I would close my eyes and in my mind start rhyming words and lyrics to the atonal melody vibrating through me from the engine below.
That's when I knew what I was born to do.
I was born the youngest of 3 children in New Jersey, but just 60 seconds from NYC. My mother was gentle and smart. A writer and a puzzle solver. My father was tough and smart. A bomber pilot and an unapologetic adventurer. They were married 58 years. Probably spent 10 of them together. My mom was a music fanatic. As a teen she would go into NYC to see all the jazz greats. From Benny to Frank to Ella and Miles. Big band was her flame. She saw them all. No surprise then that at the age of 6 she would take me with my 12 year old sister to see the great music of the 60's. From the British invasion of The Beatles (twice), The Stones, The Animals, to the funk of James Brown and The Isley Bros to all the great Motown artists that came through town. By the time I was 10 I'd thought I'd seen and heard it all. But in '66 my dad was stationed in Fort Rucker Alabama. It was there in the little southern town of Enterprise, in the San Shade trailer park, I listened carefully to a little AM radio and heard the music that all those other acts in NYC had grown up on. Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and on and on. R&B, Country and Blues was in the air and I was breathing real deep. It was there I also learned about storytelling. Everybody had a story to tell and if you sat still long enough they'd tell it to you. The tempo and sounds of the south in the 60's has stayed with me my whole life. That's probably why I now live in Tennessee.
I first discovered I was a writer when I was 8. Got my first Dylan record "Highway 61 Revisited". I was hooked. I started writing songs - mostly in my head. Started making up lyrics to the sounds of the car engine or the washing machine. Picked up my friends accordion at 9 and played it as if I'd been playing for years. Something was happening here. But it was when I saw Springsteen at The Bottom Line in NYC in 75' - that's when I broke loose. He put me in a delirious fever for 3 days. When I woke up I knew who I was and what I was supposed to do. So I started to play with serious intent. I played guitar and piano - mostly self taught but took a few lessons from the great big band writer and arranger Marty Gold. Marty was a real cat. A down to earth hipster. He taught me ragtime piano and boogie woogie. He also taught me about chords and melody. Most of all he taught me to be myself.
In '81 in my early 20's after a succession of bands and recording dates I started a most unusual band. We called ourselves "They Came From Houses". A deafening psycho surf blues art band made up of electric guitar, electric banjo, Farfisa organ, bass anddrums. We became very popular in the NYC lower east side punk movement, regularly headlining the clubs down there. Our front person was an eccentric performer who bordered on conceptual artist. Her name was Mary Lou Bonney. Later we would marry. I'd walk away from a recording contract to do so. While the music we were making was trendy - it wasn't what I really wanted to do.
For the next 10 years, I embarked on a great adventure. I had 2 kids James and Courtney. I got involved in film making first as an editor then as a director. I directed commercials and short films. I composed soundtracks. I worked with and learned from some great people. I edited a film for Emile De Antonio the controversial and Marxist leaning filmmaker. Worked with Jackson Brown and Martin Sheen on that one. Emile taught me that there is no such thing as the truth but that lies will kill you. In the end that's what did him in. I miss him.
I worked on film and music projects with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Motorhead, REM, John Lee Hooker and Junior Wells. Tony Randall, The Spindoctors, Tim Hutton, Ashford and Simpson, Bon Jovi, The Jacksons, Yes, Hall and Oates, Captain Beef Heart, Don Henley and Patty LaBelle. I had conversations about songwriting with Willie Dixon and Sammy Cahn. I got some piano lessons from Van Walls and played guitar with pianist Johnny Johnson. I performed sporadically but during this period I was really focusing on doing what I could do to make money with young family in tow.
In '96 I started playing solo once a week in a little shot and beer joint in North Jersey. I played my own material with a few obscure blues tunes thrown in. Soon musicians from Jersey and NYC were coming to check me out and to sit in. All of a sudden I had a band. In 1998 I made my first solo CD "Live At The American Roadhouse." Sold it out of the trunk of the car. Never liked it much. However, it got me hooked up with my long time friend and producing partner Dae Bennett, Tony Bennett's son the engineer. Together we made "Roadshow." It was released on a small indie label and put me on the map as a singer/songwriter. Didn't get much national exposure but it did get picked up by John Prine's label and sold on their website and catalogue along with my third release "The Turning Point." Mick Taylor the former guitar player of The Rolling Stones heard the rough tracks for that one and flew over to Jersey to record it with me. He was paid $300 for his trouble. We hit it off and when I released it in 2003 Mick came back over and went on a 10 show tour with me and my band. A fourth CD came out of that called "Live At The Bottom Line in NYC." It was never released but what a great record. Maybe someday it will be heard. From there I was signed to Blind Pig Records based out of Chicago and San Francisco. For the first time I received national attention for the critically acclaimed record "Shadows and Cracks." My songwriting was getting attention and I was touring the USA 47 weeks out of the year. Then it all stopped cold. I got a call that my wife of 24 years had Ovarian Cancer. For the next 8 months my family and I huddled around her. She passed in Feb 09.
"HE SAID SHE SAID"
I had met Canadian guitarist singer/songwriter Sue Foley at The Ottawa Blues Festival in 2006. I was there playing with my band and I caught her act. She caught my ear. Nice guitar work sure - but fine songs and interesting voice. A real character voice. I remembered that when I was cutting tracks for "Shadows and Cracks." I had written a duet called "That Smile" and was discussing with my manager at the time which female artists to approach to do the job. "Sue Foley?", he asked. "You sound so different from one another." "Exactly", I replied. I drove with my band up to Ottawa for a gig and a recording date. We met in a run down house/studio. She acted cool. Too cool I reckoned. I'm not sure if it was the filthy surroundings or the fact that the equipment didn't work or that when we tried to sing together we couldn't harmonize that finally broke the ice and turned the whole thing into a laugh. Later she came to our gig and sat in. We said goodbye and went our separate ways. Over the course of the next year and a half while I was arduously touring the US promoting "Shadows and Cracks" we stayed in touch via email. At first the letters were cordial and light fare. But as the rigors of touring, the isolation of the road and my out of control drinking and manic depression took hold, these letters became more revealing. I don't have many friends and I don't trust easily. Sue Foley became a disembodied confidante. Someone I could share everything with which became particularly important to me during my wife's illness. We wrote about everything. No holds barred. And why not? We never saw one another; never even talked on the phone. There were no strings attached - only a safety net. That's how it felt anyway.
Finally in late 2009 when I was ready to go back to work we decided that we would work together. We'd look to the letters for our next CD - and turn them into songs. The result was "He Said - She Said" released on Blind Pig in March 2010. This collaboration has turned into a partnership. As of this writing we are touring and working on a brand new record.
Sometimes late in the night and deep in the dark void of the road, while driving to our next show, I lie in the backseat of the van and close my eyes. The rhythm of the wheels and the relentless hum of the engine bring a flood of random lyrics and melodies into my mind, the same way that boat engine did 45 years ago. It's in these moments that If I listen real hard I can hear my Dad whispering in my ear "Isn't this great Peter? Isn't this life great...?"