Since I’m continuing to receive more questions and comments about the intro music on the TPC podcast, I’d like to tell you a story about the background and tragic inspiration of the song.
Fifteen years ago, I was becoming aware of an incredible singer-songwriter from Southern Pines, NC. Because of mutual relationships in the regional music scene, we also began crossing paths on occasion. Even at only 29-years old, Nathan Davis, (http://www.nathan-davis.com), was already “aging out” of the typical record company expectations for what they’re looking for in a new artist — even though the virtuoso musicianship, songs, attitude, look, desire, and work ethic were all there. I was mildly curious as to the reason why he was still a struggling artist traveling around the country in a crappy old van, playing mostly dive bars for gas money.
As it happened, in 2005, I had an opening for a drummer in my own band, (Bull City Syndicate), and ultimately hired Nathan’s close friend and frequent drummer in his own band. As a result of that connection, I found myself much more often in and around Nathan’s artistic vortex.
I say “vortex,” because Nathan was an indomitable force of nature. He had both a charismatic aura and a volatile temperament — swinging back and forth between the most likable guy ever, to hair-trigger hothead. I also soon observed that he seemingly possessed an immortal tolerance for vast quantities of alcohol and the very hardest drugs he could get his hands on.
Ahh. So, now I knew why no legitimate record label had ever picked him up, and why he couldn’t keep a decent manager or booking agent, despite his undeniably marketable talent. Still, he and I eventually found our way into an unexpectedly close relationship.
In those days, here in Raleigh, NC, there was a wildly popular Thursday night ‘open mic’ in which most of the best musicians in town would come out to jam together. When you think of the typical open mic . . . this was not that. Once the musical bar got raised by a couple of the more famed local players, it snowballed into “the place” to be on a Thursday night. Nathan would show up on occasion, and always asked me to sit in with him, playing muted trumpet behind his original material. (He had named his daughter “Miles,” after his love for the music of Miles Davis.) On the rare occasion that he had a full night at a local club — and I was not out with my own band — he’d ask me to sit him with him for a full show. It was an odd musical juxtaposition, but it worked, and he loved that I could add that Miles-type, Harmon-muted color to his songs.
Nathan had that ultra-rare gift of being able to occasionally take an audience to “another place” on those nights when he was himself totally in “the zone.” He could put the entire room, large or small, into what seemed a paralyzed trance — completely, spiritually mesmerized as they were drawn into his own maniacal on-stage persona. But, he knew exactly what was happening in those moments. More than once he turned to me during the middle of a set, and whispered, “Do you see it? Do you feel it?”
Uh . . . yes. It was an undeniable, and palpably transcendent experience.
In the summer of 2006, on the eve of his 30th birthday, the same venue that hosted the aforementioned open mic was turned into a huge jam session and party for Nathan, with myself, his own band members, and many other local musicians playing . . . and partying hard. Really hard.
Nathan was again on fire that night. Everyone was buying him shots, for hours on end. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone consume that much hard liquor and yet remain totally in control. His well-known legend of chemical invincibility was on full display. Once we’d closed down the bar, at 2am, he was busily inviting his band members, closest friends, and a few younger ladies back to his place for the after party. By “after party,” I knew what that entailed — a significant escalation in the types of chemicals that would be consumed — so I politely gave my regrets.
Nathan took my decline in stride, “Cool, man. Oh . . . we’ve got a show tomorrow night at Hi-5. Wanna join us? We play from 9p to midnight, and we’ll be there at 7p to set up.”
“Sure. I’d love to.”
The next evening, on Nathan’s 30th birthday, I walked into the now long defunct downtown venue, (Hi-5), at exactly 7pm. Nathan was already sitting at the bar with a draft beer, head down, looking at his phone. I sat on the stool next to him, said hello, shook hands, and listened to him as he frantically tried to call each of his band members. None of them were responding, (including our mutually shared drummer), so incapacitated they were by the previous evening’s “after party.” True to his own legend, no one could keep up with Nathan’s appetites or his inexplicable tolerance for any amount of . . . anything. Not one of his band members ever responded.
He kept his cool that night, as there was no AWOL band member upon which to unleash his equally legendary temper. Nathan quietly nursed his beer for awhile, then asked me, “Would you consider being my manager?”
I’d long suspected he might eventually want to take our relationship there, so — to be frank — I was already prepared to turn him down. I’d even pre-rehearsed my response fo this inevitable moment. I turned my own bar stool in his direction and said, “Nate, you know I love you, and you know I believe in your music. But, you’re too damn dangerous. Too volatile for me to hitch my wagon to your journey. That said . . . I want to help you in any way I can. Feel free to call me anytime, with any business questions, for any advice needed, contracts read . . . anything. No charge. No commissions. Let’s just do that, as friends, and see where it leads over time.”
Nathan hung his head and nodded several times, saying, “I know. I know. Thanks, man. I really appreciate that.”
Then, popping to upright attention on his stool he said, “Looks like it’s just you and me tonight. Let’s do it!”
So there we were, once again, that oddball duet of a Springsteen-on-steroids lyricist with rock god guitar skills, and an ad-libbed muted trumpet dropping color in-between his passionate phrases. Nate was once again en fuego, with no evidence of the ‘party’ that had only concluded a few hours prior and had totally taken out his entire band. (Our shared drummer was out of commission for three days, following.) Nathan once again took the small audience to that “other place.”
“Do you see it? Do you feel it?”
(Yeah, man. Of course I do.)
That was the last time I ever played a show with Nathan. Over the next couple of months he did phone me several times. Usually from the road. Usually squabbling with a bar owner or agent over money, and looking for advice. Questions and circumstances he should have long ago learned how to deal with on his own. But, he was a true right-brained artistic genius. Dealing with, and handling even the most basic aspects of normal business interactions were not his strong suit. The last call I got from him — and the last time I ever heard his voice — he was on the side of the road somewhere in South Carolina. On the way to another nowhere gig his old van suddenly became engulfed in flames. He barely got himself and his guitars out alive, so fast the fire consumed the van. He was giving me the play-by-play as emergency vehicles arrived and the van became nothing more than a charred metallic husk.
Only a couple of weeks later I got the call from our mutual drummer that Nathan had apparently died of an overdose while staying at his grandmother’s house in Southern Pines. It took awhile to get the full story — after autopsy results — but there was a local Southern Pines dealer who was selling a jacked-up, poisoned type of “speed ball.” Two other locals died from that same batch, on the same weekend.
I won’t bother with the reaction here in the local music community. It was a blow to all of us. There were tribute concerts, and fundraisers for his daughter’s education fund. At the time of his death, Nate’s longtime producer, the Grammy-nominated John Custer, was also working with me on the planning for an album for my own band, Bull City Syndicate. Intended to be made up of both original songs and other tracks paying tribute to North Carolina’s most notable songwriters, I floated the idea to Custer that we include one of Nathan’s songs. We mulled it over, listening to several of Nathan’s tracks for the best selection. We never found anything in his catalog that we felt hit the right slot for a 9-piece funk/rock horn band.
Still, Nate’s passing was fresh, and weighing heavy on our hearts. My band’s drummer was one of his best friends, our producer was also Nate’s producer, and myself, I’d recently been sucked into Nate’s musical vortex. The three of us all felt we needed something related to Nathan on this album. Custer finally told me he was going to personally write a tribute song to our mutual friend, and we’d see if it would work for our already in-production album. Within one day, Custer had it churned out. We first recorded the basic rhythm tracks, then added this big horn introduction to the song. (An intro Custer claims is the best song intro he’s ever written, and which reprises two more times on the track.) Then came time for the lead vocals.
Our drummer — Nathan’s close friend — was also a pretty decent vocalist, and he really wanted to be the one to sing the lead on this track. Custer worked with him for awhile, but it never felt right. Next up to bat was our primary lead vocalist, Dan Lantier, (who is still with the band, today). Dan had no personal connection to Nathan, whatsoever, and while he has an insanely powerful voice, neither his vocal style or the spiritual connection was there. If we couldn’t get the right vocal performance, it would have been disappointing to not use the song, but Custer could always pass it along to one of any number of other artists and bands he works with. After working with Dan for quite awhile, and failing to find that “thing” he was looking for, Custer turned to me.
The possibility of taking the lead vocal on this particular track had never even entered my mind. I had no time to even think about it. Custer quickly taught me the basic melody, herded me into the vocal booth with his scribbled-out lyrics, and hit “record.” In a very short period of time, and with only a few re-takes, he had something he wanted me to listen to. After he added a couple of quick ProTool effects to my voice, he pulled up the entire track and played it back. I was standing directly behind him as he was seated at the mixing console. When the final big horn salvo ended, he spun his chair around in my direction, let out a quick, self-satisfied chuckle, and said, “That’s the one. We got it.”
Wow. The funny thing was, I’d been so focused on the vocal performance itself, I never even “heard” the lyrics I was singing during the actual recording. It wasn’t until the next day, when I listened to a rough mix at home, that what John Custer had written hit me like a ton of bricks. You may have had to actually known Nathan Davis to get the full impact, but “Brother Man” became powerfully cathartic for those of us who knew that “indestructible force of nature.” Those who could never accept he wouldn’t again come striding in the back door of some club or dive bar . . . some time, some place.
Days go on, but you never fade
You were a true believer, non-believing
In the club lights, in the Southern Pine
I swear that I can see you standing there
And the front door it ain’t locked
In case you want to show up
Ooo, and you’ll find us all inside
You are alive in me
And the world revolves to miss you
My brother, brother, brother, brother man