What becomes a rock icon most? Continuing to turn out great work, of course. Growing artistically. Challenging expectations. And how about acting your age: embracing experience rather than trying to airbrush it?
Among rock musicians who matter, no one has check-listed those items more winningly than Peter Himmelman. During his multi-pronged career as a singer, songwriter and all-around performer, as a children’s entertainer, TV and film composer and pioneering webcast star, he has maintained remarkably high standards: Can you point to a song in his vast body of work that feels tossed off, or remember a concert or club date that didn’t delight and amuse? Is there a pop star of his generation more committed to exploring new modes of expression and new methods of connecting with his diehard followers?
Recorded on a dare – his own – to work faster and more under the gun, and closer to the quick of the creative process, Himmelman’s new Himmasongs album, “The Mystery and the Hum,” tumbled out of him with no planning or preparation. Holed up in a Minneapolis studio, far from the comforts of his home in Santa Monica, Calif., this native of St. Louis Park, MN, wrote the tunes over a two-week period and cut them in three days. Though he co-produced them with his friend Rob Genedek, who operates the studio, he raised the stakes of his experiment by hooking up with “house” musicians with whom he had never played, taking it on trust that if bassist Jim Anton and drummer Billy Thommes were good enough to run with Jonny Lang, they were good enough to ride the sonic rapids with him.
As the songs emerged, ranging from the irresistibly catchy love song “Change My Channel” to the earthy blues narrative “Georgia Clay” to the wryly observant “Medicine,” Himmelman knew they were winners. What he didn’t know, having knocked them out so unselfconsciously, is what they meant. Like DNA samples, they needed to be analyzed. To paraphrase a line from one of his tunes, they knew him better than he did.
Ultimately, great artists are more than the sum of their recordings. More than the sum of their performances. More than the sum of their press clippings (speaking of which: “Himmelman writes songs with the same emphatic edge and aesthetic urgency that impelled the Lost Generation to write novels” – Time Magazine; “One of rock’s most wildly imaginative performers” – USA Today). What becomes an artist of Himmelman’s stature most is continuing to reach deep inside for answers to life’s mysteries, while continuing to reach out to listeners. Himmelman may not have the mystique of his father-in-law Bob Dylan or the swagger or hipitude of some of his contemporaries. But his honesty and soul-searching intensity make him one of the most treasured rock musicians of his era.
As convenient as it is to categorize him as a singer-songwriter, it is as a singersongwriter-husband-father-son-supplicant that Himmelman has left his mark. His devotion to his wife and four children is its own work of art. At critical junctures in his career, he has resisted pressure to stay on the road flogging an album and returned home to raise his kids instead. To make it easier to navigate between touring and homebodying, he has performed more frequently as a solo act. The first highly recognized (and highly applauded) Observant Jew since Sandy Koufax, he has refused to perform on Friday nights, when the Jewish Sabbath begins. What pop artist would turn down a guest shot on “The Tonight Show” (which he did more than once) for religious reasons?
Himmelman makes no bones about being torn over the career sacrifices he has made in the name of family. Even knowing he made the morally appropriate decision in putting his wife and children first didn’t ease his sense of regret over the chances at greater fame and commercial success he had missed. But if some artists can resist the pull of their little boy or girl crying on the phone from thousands of miles away, begging “Daddy, come home,” he was – is – constitutionally unwilling.
In the post-9/11 world, his songs have gotten darker, losing some of the idealism of earlier efforts including his much-loved “Woman with the Strength of 10,000 Men” (based on an encounter with an ALS survivor who could communicate only with her eyebrows). A few years ago, Himmelman was in a serious funk. Between albums, dulled by the strain and monotony of TV work, and unsure as to where to go next, he found himself reading and thinking about Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter executed by Arab extremists for no other reason than being Jewish. He regretted that he had never met Pearl, or become friends with him, or performed for him. Then a friend sent him an article in which it was revealed that Pearl had been a fan of his – that, in fact, Himmelman was his favorite artist. Himmelman also was stunned to learn from the author of the article, a longtime friend of Pearl, that he and Danny had bonded over Himmelman’s songs and had come backstage to meet him following a 1995 show in at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Himmelman, he said, gave each of them a broken string as a souvenir.
The revelations proved life-changing. “The knowledge that my songs have had reach beyond what I could ever begin to imagine has made me less concerned about the difficult choices I’ve made and focused me with a greater sense of mission,” said Himmelman, who has become close with Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl. “Sometimes when I write, I feel like I’m connecting with my Dad, who died many years ago, or my sister, who died six years ago in a car crash in Wisconsin, or Danny Pearl, with whom I’m strangely forging some kind of Earthly/heavenly relationship.”
The unfathomable loss of Daniel Pearl resonates in the strange cry that rises from “Raining Down from Satellite,” a new song that muses on the sad global divisions technology seems to only widen. “The Mystery and the Hum” is frequently about distance and detachment, opening twangily with a guy holed up in a “Motel Room in Davenport,” “waiting on a resurrection,” and ending movingly with a lonely soul in an empty house yearning for lost connections, feeling the “Trembling in the Beams.” As moody as it is, “The Mystery and the Hum” may be the most radio-friendly of all Himmelman’s albums, for which he gives credit to the friend who mixed it, veteran producer Don Smith (Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, U2), whose recent death was a major blow. As always, Himmelman’s belief in the power of love, and the power of music, to lift us above and beyond our circumstances shines its special, uplifting light.
If anyone can call the performance stage home away from home, it is Himmelman. Many fans prefer his solo shows because there’s no band to get in the way of his improvised verbal riffs and hilarious back and forth banter with the audience. Unlike such celebrated rock wits as Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, he keeps humor out of his songs, preferring to use it as a “counterbalance” to the serious themes in them. There’s Himmelman the singer and Himmelman the comic. “Sometimes they duke it out with one another on stage,” he says approvingly.
For fans of Himmelman the comic, his groundbreaking webcast, “Peter Himmelman’s Furious World,” is manna from heaven. Originating from his Santa Monica studio (and accessible at peterhimmelman.com), the newfangled variety program features live music and spoken bits by the host (joined by his cast of regulars), off-the-wall videos, and guest performers. “Furious World” has featured acclaimed veterans such as Joe Henry and Michael McDermott, up-and-comers such as Joe Firstman and Raining Jane and compelling non-musicians such as Judea Pearl, a scientist/philosopher, humorist, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Jeff “the Dude” Dowd – inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ film, “The Big Lebowski.” A second webcast, “Peter Himmelman’s Curious World,” is aimed at kids, for whom Himmelman has recorded five albums – among them, “My Green Kite,” which was nominated for a Grammy. “I’m as proud of those albums as anything I’ve done,” he says.
Himmelman started his first band in sixth grade, and, armed with the red Fender Duo-Sonic his father bought for him from his cousin, led several others in junior high. A Jewish kid among gentiles, a boy with curly brown hair in the land of uncurled Scandinavian blonds, an introspective soul among jocks, he found escape in black culture: in funk and R&B, reggae and blues. During 11th grade, he auditioned for R&B star Alexander O’Neill, an original member of The Time. Before his senior year was out, he was playing lead guitar and writing songs for Shangoya, a legendary local band with Caribbean origins. “Maybe because I write songs and talk too much, it’s easy for people to forget that at the root of it all, I’m a guitarist,” said Himmelman, a cutting soloist inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Taj Mahal, John Lee Hooker and Luther Allison.
He first made a serious noise with his power-pop unit Sussman Lawrence, which released a pair of well-received albums in 1980 and 1984, respectively. But it was his 1985 solo debut, “This Father’s Day,” the moving title song of which was written following his dad’s death, that announced him as a special kind of artist. It led to his first major-label effort, “Gematria,” the title of which comes from a system used by rabbis to interpret scripture by assigning numerical values to words and letters. He has soared ever-higher in that special place where romantic and spiritual expression meet – and where it’s sometimes difficult to separate one from the other – on a succession of acclaimed albums including “Synesthesia,” “From Strength to Strength,” “Flown This Acid World,” the bold conceptual effort “Skin,” “Love Thinketh No Evil,” “Unstoppable Forces,” “Imperfect World” and “The Pigeons Couldn’t Sleep.”
(Ever generous, he also has made available, in some cases as free bonuses, 11 volumes of previously unreleased songs from the “Himmelvaults” and other rarities including “Blackout In the Book of Light,” an album he recorded years back with a name producer but didn’t like enough to put out then.)
There has been plenty else to keep him busy. In addition to his soundtrack composing (his TV shows have included “Judging Amy,” for which he received a Grammy nomination for the song, “The Best Kind of Answer,” and the Fox hit, “Bones”), he has written music for commercials, fashion shows and a Teddy Bear used with rape victims and autistic kids and penned songs, “like Cyrano, for lonely, speechless men to woo unwilling lovers.” Himmelman also is an increasingly prolific visual artist whose work has been purchased by art collectors the world over.
He’s never in danger of not working on something. “My Mother tells me,” he says, “that when she gave birth to me in 1959 without any anesthesia whatsoever – a completely natural childbirth – there was a group of medical students watching the delivery and that they actually applauded when I emerged. You could say I was born to be onstage.”