Love and loss both inspire great songs.
The first poem arrived in 2006, three months after I started my music***image1*** column, Ruckus. After that, poems began arriving frequently. At first, I read them as fancy hate mail that required me to decipher exactly how much the writer thought I sucked. But instead, the poems revealed an inner peace. They described various deities and acts of compassion with striking conviction and brevity. I didnï¿½t know what kind of sociopath would e-mail poems to a stranger, but I suppose itï¿½s not unlike singing your guts out on a stage with a guitar to room full of unknown faces. The poems were signed Lone Monk; I later discovered it to be local singer-songwriter David Portolano.
Portolano, 41, a native of Long Island, NY, knows a few things about love, sex and loss. With song titles like ï¿½Repent,ï¿½ ï¿½Destroyedï¿½ and ï¿½Saving Livesï¿½ he doesnï¿½t spin the typical syrupy love-torn web. ï¿½I never had my music associated with love,ï¿½ he tells me over the phone.
This is where I disagree. Most love songs on the radio, for instance, are like product placements for our emotions. Just fill in the blanks with recycled images and the songs will reveal the usual tortured formula of modern love. Rarely do these songs ever touch on the complexities of what it actually means to love.
This former member of the punk band Vicious Beatniks approaches the subject of love in a different way. His songs adopt a redemptive and reflective mood informed by the Buddhism he practices, while harnessing a deep punk rock intensity. So rather than try to define love, Portolano writes about the residue, the aftermath, the chalk outline of loving the hell out of life and getting fucked by it along the way. In April, Portolano will release a full-length album called
thatï¿½s currently being recorded and produced by Jono Manson.
SFR: Youï¿½ve been a punk rocker and a singer-songwriter. How long have you been playing music?
I have been playing since the age of 12. I started playing solo acoustic sets in bars on Long Island when I was 16 and then I formed the Vicious Beatniks in 1990. But you know, Woody Guthrie was the biggest punk ever. The only difference between good folk music and punk is distortion and volume. [Guthrie] went and sang in the fields, risking getting beaten by gangs of thugs. Thatï¿½s punk.
The term ï¿½rock ï¿½nï¿½ rollï¿½ is a euphemism for sex.
It may have had gospel origins, but itï¿½s really about getting laid. Were your early days as a musician all about sex and dope or were they actually centered on playing?
Rock ï¿½nï¿½ roll is still one of the only things I hold sacred. It is all combined in the Holy Trinity: sex, drugs and rock ï¿½nï¿½ roll. I will still be jamming in my wheelchair.
I think that good live music touches on the same emotions as being in love and it also has the ability to arouse us. As a musician, when you play in front of people, youï¿½re essentially in control of those emotions. Do you write to generate certain reactions from your audiences or do you try to create an atmosphere to let them come to their own conclusions?
First of all, I write songs, poems and manifestos to keep the demons at bay. I want to be true like Bukowski, and tell it the way it is and just maybe somewhere along the way I can help others endure the struggle. The line I sing, ï¿½Iï¿½m so glad I didnï¿½t kill myselfï¿½ in my song, ï¿½Saving Lives,ï¿½ seems to touch people the most. Some nights you can only reach one or two people. Cï¿½est la [vie].
You have an interesting approach to writing love songs; they capture a bigger human element, and it seems that you go straight for the spiritual third base. Does your punk background inform that urgency?
It definitely informs it. I try to get in, tell the story and get out. I write about life, love and loss all as one. Iï¿½m not a romantic. Iï¿½m definitely still as influenced by distortion as I was 10 to 15 years ago. Also, a Buddhist understanding of our ephemeral existence informs the songs.
Jimmy Buffettï¿½s ï¿½Letï¿½s Get Drunk and Screwï¿½ is the most honest love song written. It goes: ï¿½I really do appreciate/ The fact youï¿½re sitting here/ Your voice sounds so wonderful/But your face donï¿½t look too clear/ So barmaid bring a pitcher/Another round of brew/ Honey, why donï¿½t we get drunk and screw.ï¿½ Stylistically, are love songs like putting lipstick on a pigï¿½do we need all that metaphor?
I have a song on my new album called ï¿½Popcorn,ï¿½ which is about two people connecting as outsiders overlooking the town, sitting in the back seat of a car, drinking beer. Simple. I sing rock ï¿½nï¿½ roll. I have no delusions of being Pablo Neruda.
Iï¿½ve seen you play live; you get a little crazy. Aroused perhaps?
110 percent. When I am on stage or recording I am under a spell and I purge like The Exorcist. I tell my friends that when theyï¿½re on stage they have to be convinced that they are the baddest mofos this side of the Mississippi. Itï¿½s not about ego but intent. Itï¿½s like, tantric, man.
Are love or sex creative tools for you?
Both love and loss equally. Sex is like breathing.
Buddhism is one of the few religions of the world that seems to recognize sex as a vehicle for higher consciousness. What elements of Buddhist teaching jive with playing love songs?
Being a Bodhisattva is to spread our ï¿½true nature.ï¿½ To express the yin/yang of reality. Kuan Yin is ï¿½she who hears the cries of the worldï¿½both laughter and sorrow.ï¿½ Thatï¿½s where Iï¿½m coming from; love is a loaded gun.
On some days, songwriting can be like having missionary sex; itï¿½s satisfying, but without a lot of spark. On other days, it can be a threesome with the babysitter, know what I mean? So, is writing a song a workaday ï¿½hand job at the parkï¿½ experience for you, or is it a crazy ï¿½Dirty Sanchezï¿½ moment?
In the documentary about Leonard Cohen,
Iï¿½m Your Man
they say it takes him a week to write a line, and a year to complete a song. I write when the spirits strike me. It is not a job. I write poetry effortlessly all the time. Songs are much more demanding. I have always been creative; itï¿½s not something I do against my will. It is self-expression. So you decide. Each has its appeal. My art is my salvation.
Do you remember that ï¿½I gave my love a cherryï¿½ scene in the film Animal House? I say, if youï¿½re gonna sing about love, go big, go loud and go sexy. Love songs have always been commodified, but when Hana Montana sings about heartache, I donï¿½t buy it. Are love songs relevant anymore?
If sung with heart by someone like Jono Manson or Paul Westerberg theyï¿½re relevant. But if you never got screwed over how the hell can you speak of love? â?¤