Mark Cutler: Great Music, Great Courage

Had a few chances to profile Mark Cutler’s work in the Providence Phoenix through the years. This piece below is from 2010, when the RI-based singer’s Red album came out.  He’d been rolling with the Men of Great Courage for awhile, and there were little thrills in the air each time they’d play one of the LaProv watering holes they called home. Sometimes rugged, sometimes gentle, Cutler’s songs are always poignant, even when the music itself tilts toward the ornery side. MC has a knack for illustrating life’s darker hues, but he’s long made a point of sharing a range of emotions – one of the things that keeps listeners on their toes at any given MoGC gig. An array of artists celebrate his work in performances titled Too Many Stars this Saturday and Sunday at the Met Cafe in Pawtucket. The shows are named after one of Cutler’s best songs, and speak to the outpouring of support he’s receiving from his local contemporaries. It would wise to drop by and bask in the spirit of a true rock ‘n’ roll community. 

It’s Saturday night and neon beer signs are illuminating a well-worn pool table. A curvy woman with streaks of gray running through her long brown hair eyes her male opponent, thrusts her cue arm forward, and sinks the eight ball to a round of applause. The six or seven onlookers are glad she beat the guy, who now seems a tad embarrassed. Ten feet away, Mark Cutler sings a Rolling Stones song. “You’re outta touch my baby/my poor old fashioned baby…” It’s tilting toward midnight, and Nick-a-Nees is pulsing. Some patrons are simply out to grab a little pleasure; some are, as writer Peter Watrous once put it, out to “dodge whatever law is on their tail.” Cutler’s music, vivid and potent, provides an apt soundtrack for this kind of scene.

The 52-year old rocker has been around the block a time or two. He spent the early ‘80s leading the Schemers, the acclaimed regional kingpins that bent punk and pop to form a sound both edgy and classic. After that it was the Raindogs, who made a couple fetching discs in the early ‘90s and toured with Bob Dylan, Don Henley, and Warren Zevon. Often, Cutler’s songs are telling snapshots of the unexpected disappointments, unusual achievements, and unassuming acts of kindness that pepper so many of our lives – he’s got a sharp eye when it comes to reflecting on how we all interact. Somehow, in this bar, on this evening, the music wafts through the air in an oddly fitting way. Whether driving his Men of Great Courage on a tune about a spooky midnight stroll, or gently declaring a deep camaraderie with “We Shall Always Remain Friends,” he’s concocting a soundtrack to the feelings in the room.

For the last year or so Cutler’s been in a pointedly active period. Five days a week he leaves his Riverside home for his software job in Boston. The weekends are reserved for gigs with one of his various ensembles. The tiny string band features bassist Jim Berger, accordionist Dick Reed, mandolinist David Richardson, and banjo player Bob Kirkman. The Men of Great Courage step it up a bit, rocking with same personnel plus superb smacker Bob Giusti on drums (these days  it’s Rick Couto – ed). Cutler sometimes plays solo; his cozy breakfast shows at the Liberty Elm Diner enjoy an ever-increasing buzz. Then there’s Forever Young, the Neil Young tribute ensemble he shares with a scad of other local notables – they’re always working. Did I mention the occasional Schemers reunion or the visual art he enjoys making in his spare time? Suffice to say there’s no dust on this dude.

A few weeks ago at Providence’s Penalty Box, Cutler walked up to the mic, greeted the throng, and signaled a downbeat from Giusti. Bam – the Courage boys were off into “Like A Rolling Stone,” and their leader brought a typically nuanced feel to lines like “now you don’t talk so loud/now you don’t seem so proud.” Performers have to be actors to some degree, and when Cutler cruises through a classic, he finds a way to personalize it without forsaking the character at hand. Rolling through songs by Muddy Waters or Television, he splices a wealth of rock and blues nuggets with his own, quite sizable, songbook. A glance back through the years reminds that several of those originals have been on equal footing with the classics. The strongest titles by the Schemers and Raindogs boast a deep emotional clout. Ditto for those on Red (75 or Less), Cutler’s latest and best solo disc.

“Tonight let’s not talk of darkness/while we wait out the storm” he gently sings at the record’s start. Cutler is a “Lead on, MacDuff” optimist, a guy who believes good things come if you help build ‘em yourself.  That song, “Vampires,” is a note to his son, who suffered the usual slings and arrows engendered by divorce. It’s a poignant way to begin an album, and it’s a harbinger of what’s ahead. Red’s music is largely acoustic, and dewy with a bittersweet tone that’s long been a Cutler strong suit. Here, in middle-age, he’s got a way with words and sense of melody that eloquently allows melancholy to bubble up without overwhelming.

“Hovering,” which he uses as a soundtrack to a YouTube clip of his first skydiving leap, is a love song with a blue, dreamy essence. “You Can’t Give It Away” describes the punch in the gut when trouble unites with isolation. Even when he swaggers – and he’s always had a sting when it comes to muscular rock tunes – there’s something wistful about the groove. “There’s a lot of frustration in the neighborhood,” goes the clenched-fist growl in “Doc Pomus’ Ghost.” In the middle of the tune he unleashes a vicious slide guitar solo that reminds how much kick he’s still got in him, and just how articulate he’s become. Some kinds of reflection aren’t afraid to throw a few punches.

I caught up with Cutler after the dust of the work day subsided, and we chatted away about a number of things. I didn’t tell him that there are pieces of Red that remind me of both Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and John Prine’s Diamonds In The Rough – he gets a bit embarrassed by stuff like that. But there are. Seems like he’s found a way of waxing plaintive while still flexing a few muscles. Neat trick.

You jumped out of a plane a couple years ago. How was it to be a first time skydiver?

Someone gave me a jump session for a birthday present. We get in the airplane, and it’s just me and my instructor and another person and their instructor. We start to move, and it strikes me: the door is open. I started freaking out. It takes about 15-20 minutes to get up to jumping height, and they closed it on the way up. About halfway up I realized I was breathing hard. Finally we’re there and the door opens. What hits you is the violence of the wind up there, the sound of it. You put your feet on a platform and you fall forward. I wasn’t afraid; it was exciting. I trusted the equipment and the instructor. The free falling for a minute was fantastic. One of the best things I’ve ever done – that and white water rafting when I was younger. I want to do it with my son. I knew we’d be okay.

Does that experience go to the heart of who you are? If everything takes care of itself, you don’t feel a need to worry?

Well, for a few weeks right after that, I definitely felt that way. There’s a euphoria. After doing that, I knew I could jump off a cliff into water.  If anyone is suffering from low self esteem, they should go skydiving. It would improve their outlook immensely.

How is it being a commuter?

Good points and bad points. The good is that I’m just riding, not driving; I don’t deal with the traffic. The bad point is that it takes four hours out of my day, out of my life.

Is there room for creativity on the train?

I read a lot of books, I’ve written lyrics on the train, I listen to a lot of music, I bring my laptop and have made some loops, some electronica stuff. I took my camera on the train, snapping pictures outside the door. But I stopped because people might have found it creepy.

What do you mean electronica?

I’ve got Pro Tools, and program called Reason. Sampling and loops. I think I might create an alter ego and make an electronica album. I listen to WRIU at night, and some of that stuff is pretty cool. I do some ambient stuff, and I’d like to use some weird sampling stuff, Sinatra or something. I might use the name Rev Mok.

There’s a mania in your work process lately. You have four bands and you often play out two nights a week. What drives it?

I want to stay in shape. I want to be good. We don’t rehearse, so this is the way I keep my voice happening and keep my chops up. And I’ve gotta tell you: I love to play.

That’s part of the unspoken emotion coming from the stage the last couple times I’ve seen you. The people’s reaction is palpable. Seems like after all these years you’re this house band for a close-knit community.

There is a communal kind of thing going on, for sure. If we play something like Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working,” you see it in the crowd: there’s a tribal thing taking place. I feel like I’m the drummer of the tribe, and we’re creating a vibe. I like the hypnotic effect of the repeated riff on that song and “Shake Your Hip,” by Slim Harpo. It takes me somewhere. I hardly drink anymore, and I don’t do drugs or anything like that. But I’ll tell you, I really do get high off of it. Sounds corny, but the other guys feel the same. They get into some kind of trance, and we feel lucky we’re able to get to that special kind of place.

Is it different from the days of larger clubs, more youthful audiences, and louder music?

Sure it is. I think I’m having more fun now, though. Back then it was 1000 people at the Living Room – there was something crazy about that. Those were fun days, though. Local bands were taken as seriously as the national acts. Press, radio, clubs – there was a professional aura about the scene. Record companies would come and see bands playing to several hundred people, and these were several hundred people who knew the words to the songs. Now it’s good if you get 50 people in a place. Seems like time is of the essence now. These gigs I’ve been doing the past few years, they feel very special to me, and I think it’s because I’m doing it for the reasons we should have been doing ‘em all the long. You gotta do it for love, not for some payoff.

Happily, you were part of a few bands that did have a payoff. You’re saying there’s a different metric for success at work these days?

Yeah, if it’s a good gig, and people are having a great time, and I’m sweating, and I’m hovering six inches over the floor – that levitation thing when it’s all going right – that’s all I need.

The ‘80s rock scene in Providence seemed unusually fruitful. Was it really, or do we romanticize it? Are there lots of talents around these days?

I’d say yes. I’m not familiar with all of ‘em, but that’s the feeling I get. There’s an Olneyville scene, some good bands in the East Bay. Six Star General, Von Doom, others. I don’t know if they want to become rock stars…maybe they do. But they create guerrilla gigs, like we do. The Penalty Box and Nick-a-Nees – we’re setting up on the floor, we don’t care. I look at pictures of Howlin’ Wolf playing in the corner of a grocery store, and I feel part of that tradition. Proud to be part of it, too.

Then there’s the Greenwich Hotel and you recently played at Dan’s in West Greenwich – it’s almost like an intra-RI Rolling Thunder Revue.

Ha! Plus, there’s no pressure. No one’s saying “how much money are we going to make on you guys.” We’ll all make money and we’ll all have a good time. I love the Greenwich Hotel, playing in that window, and that horseshoe bar. It’s like The Shining meets Ironweed.

Some writers peter out as they get older. You’re still rather prolific. Are you writing more than ever?

I think I care more these days. I’m trying harder for something that means something. I heard that Neil Young sometimes starts a song and doesn’t leave til it’s done. I’ve been trying a couple songs like that. I’ve got things percolating in my head. I’ve got a drum kit in the living room, and I’ve got some rock ‘n’ roll songs, and Jerry Jeff Walker type songs – things I could release myself. I’m not writing more, I’m just writing smarter. I’ve got a ton more tunes that didn’t make the record. Some songs on Red are old, actually. “Vampires” I wrote for my son when I got divorced. He was 9 or 10 when he found out I was getting an apartment and he was bummed. I wanted to make sure it only hurt him once – I didn’t want to go back and forth. So the song says “don’t let them bite you again.” I know exactly how I felt when I wrote that line, and I had the tears in my eyes. If I was ever a method actor, I’d just think of that line and I could cry for you.

You made Red with Emerson Torrey; your Schemers partner is now your producer.  

We’re brothers. He literally lived in my mother’s house when I didn’t. He had no place to stay and I was living with my girlfriend. He’s my biggest supporter and the guy who give me my biggest kick in the ass. He’s always told me the truth. We’ve had our fights, but they’ve always been worthwhile.

The lyrics are strong here. “Remain Friends” speaks of “making a choice to ignore each other’s evil twin.”

I was thinking of a scenario like Treasure of Sierra Madre, of two old robbers making one last caper. “You know if I get caught, I’m going to tell ‘em everything. And if you get caught, do the same thing. Don’t worry about it, you’ll get a lesser sentence. We’ll still be pals.”

Seems like the ultimate forgiveness. The other line that’s impressive is “I’m wondering about the land mines I set up in the past.” Guess none of us ever really get away from that.

There’s tons of [those land mines] out there. Personal ones, professional ones – all sorts of things. It’s like “I wonder what little secret is going to come back and bite me in the ass?”

You’re an easy laugher, but artistically you’ve always struck me as being a somber type of guy, or at least way skilled at articulating bluer moods. Is it part of you?

I agree, I think it is. I love laughing, but I like melancholy a lot. Wistfulness, longing, I like autumn; I think there’s particular energy there.

I’m thinking as far back as the Raindogs’ “Phantom Flame” and “This Is the Place” – they’re bittersweet.

They tug at my heart. But bittersweet is still sweet, right? I think there’s more to mine [when you’re working with] sadness. I wish I could be clever and funny like some people I know, but I just don’t think that’s where my strengths lie.

Ever tried to write something against type? The song that sounds like nothing else on the disc is “Ain’t Been Born.”

That’s my tribute to Lowell George. I originally wrote it on electric piano; I was thinking of Aretha’s “I Never Loved a Man…” and I recalled a line in a Laura Nyro song: “He ain’t been born yet,” so that went in there. And I was thinking of the L.A. scene of the ‘70s – Bonnie Raitt and those guys. Some people say that track sounds like the Band, but especially during the slide solo I was thinking of Lowell. The simple and beautiful way he played.

Name a Lowell George song that kills you.

A slide solo that knocks my socks of is the one on “Skin It Back” from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. God damn, how does he do that? It’s some scale that’s out of this world and he just tosses it off.

Do you feel more eloquent as a writer these days? Do age, maturity, or experience make it easier?

It doesn’t make it easier. But you definitely know when you’re bullshitting. You try to avoid the clichés. Unless you grab a cliché and twist it your way. Sometimes you get a hot three day stretch, writing two songs. “Wow, it’s happening.” Then you go for a month or two without anything. Working the day job doesn’t help the process. I was reading an interview with Richard Thompson. When he gets in a songwriting mode, the first day he’s just messing around, plucking guitar, and the second day it starts to come a bit. Third day, it arrives. So it’s like setting the table for your muse. And I don’t get those three days in a row. Real life interferes. Raymond Carver wrote short stories because his family life was in the way all the time. That’s why he didn’t write the long book – he took what he could get. I look at it that way, too. “Alright this is what I’m getting, this is what I can do. And I’m going to seize the moment.”

Several of these songs avoid the bold statement. The lyrics are more slanted toward poetry than they are narrative.

There are secrets in there. There are no lies in there, meaning they’re all honest. They’re all meant to be up for interpretation. Fun to figure out.

Age old question: what’s more important, lyrics or music?

I don’t mean to cop out, but they’re intertwined – though it’s the music that usually hits me first, then the sound of the words and then the meaning of the words. It’s the overall sound, you know?

Let’s unlock some songs. “Cousin Mary’s New Car.”

The title is from John Coltrane, and then I wanted to write a song for Rickie Lee Jones, like in the Pirates mode. If I had the right arrangement – the Van Morrison vamping with the horns – I think you’d hear [the Rickie Lee thing]. But all I had was a guitar and little box I was tapping on when I wrote it. Johnny Tornado – what a great name – was friend of mine. I threw him in there. It’s about loss of innocence. “Reaching the state of grace sure would be fine/but we’re miles away from that sweet borderline.” I remember [Rich] Lupo telling me about Jaco Pastorious standing outside Lupo’s in a puddle, rubbing Vaseline all over him in a frenzy. That’s where I got “I was shining the street in my off Broadway show.” A bunch of collected images, and when you put ‘em together they create a painting.

What about “You Know What To Do.”

Actually that’s about blackmail, even though it sounds like a love song. That song was an assignment from the Rhode Island Songwriters Association, a “songwriters in the round” thing. The subject was “Innocent Eyes.” I wasn’t going to write a song exactly called that, so I started thinking: “what about fake innocent eyes?” There are all these little kernels of life in there.

You’re a film buff. Have movies ever prompted a song?

Absolutely. Literature, TV shows. I wrote “You Can’t Give It Away” after reading Huckleberry Finn and watching the fifth season of The Wire. They both have to do with children. There’s a line where Huck says “I felt like someone broke my breath in half like a twig, and they took the bigger half.” At the same time I wrote a song I haven’t used yet called “Just One Breath.” “If I had one breath I’d break it in two/I’d take the smaller and give the big one to you.” I felt like I was trying to rescue little Huck. It was also written for a friend who was really lonely at the time, so alone that he’s even happy to let trouble in – it’s his only visitor. “Cousin Mary’s New Car” has a scene from Look Back in Anger. The part where she irons her hair and the trumpet player abuses his girlfriend. But John Ford westerns, and Marty Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, they’ve been inspiring me for a long time.

Ever write short stories?

Yes, but they’re nothing memorable. I’d like to take a graphic novel course, though. I have an idea called The Hovering Man, that has to do with my father. He died in a car crash 20 days before I was born. An oil tanker crashed into my father’s car. Bad winter storm, very cinematic. The guy got out of the truck all dazed, and dragged my father from the car, and wires were sparking. I was thinking, “Wow, what a great start to a story. I wonder: when my father’s soul was leaving, mine was coming in, and maybe we passed and he touched me, and that made him not be able to make the full transition, so now he’s hovering above the place he died. He sees everything that’s going on. I’m trying to think of ways to flesh that out. Wonder what super powers he would have?


A wealth of bands celebrate Mark Cutler and his music this weekend. More info here. 

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