Photo: David Bartolomi
Bonnie Friedman interviews The Dream Brothers!
Bonnie Friedman is the author of Surrendering Oz (Etruscan Press), Writing Past Dark, (Harper Collins), and The Thief of Happiness (Beacon).
The Dream Brothers new album--- Full of Life Now -- “a kind of Joni/Elton/Puccini fusion,” as Hewitt calls it --- sets lyrics from some of Whitman’s most notorious poems taken mostly from the “Calamus” volume—just in time for a 150th anniversary celebration-tour. All his life, Whitman was asked to please just take out the smutty parts from his otherwise uplifting collection. And of course he always said, “I don’t know which parts you’re talking about!” Now, the Dream Brothers— L.A. songwriters and counselors Stephan David Hewitt and Gary Glickman (Glickman’s also an MFT)—have made those very poems the main thrust of their music. I interviewed them in their Santa Monica studio, an adult playground of recording equipment, paintings, African violets, and good books.
Bonnie Friedman: Your new album, Full of Life Now, is almost all Whitman songs. What's that process been like?
SDH: It’s been two years-, alternately exhilarating and exhausting. The spirit of Whitman was definitely coming through. I felt that I was making some kind of contact with him, through time- 150 years, just about. That certainly required an adjustment on my part. But also, the songs are very demanding vocally, they’ve pushed my singing to a new level of performance. It’s been terrific for my technique, also allowed me to contain even more of the spirit of Whitman’s songs.
BF: How has it changed you to live with Whitman and do this work?
SDH: Oh my God, great question. Well, I’d have to say in more ways than we even know. First of all, singing in the way that these songs must be sung is a great exercise for the heart and the soul. And I feel so much more invigorated by having this repertoire in my life. There’s a great energy that the messages of his poems carry, of a robust love, of a hearty and strong life force that I’m sure was Whitman. After all, he had a debilitating stroke and lived after that for another 20 years or so. And to embody that energy has really been just great, fantastic, really.
GG: An amazing energy and consciousness comes from having all these poems in our heads for years! We’ve really been awakened and transformed by them. It’s exactly as Whitman describes: they’re spells from the past, waiting to read by those of us currently alive, so that Whitman can come back to life, again and again. It’s made me believe in magic, actually.
BF: Are there any lines in particular of these songs that linger with you, Stephan? Gary? If so, what are they?
SDH: Usually I wake up with one or another if his songs in my head. This morning it was “We Two Boys,” his poem about being a young, bratty, lusty, adventurous boy, out on the town with his best friend. That spirit of freedom and joy in the delighting of living life is often a theme of his.
GG: The lyrics and rhythms are going through my head all day long. Whenever there’s a pause, his words come back to me. Maybe especially those lyrics that address us, his readers “a hundred years hence” after he’d be dead. “Whoever you are,” he says more than once. “Take this kiss. I give it especially to you. Do not forget me.” I think that’s what comes through me most often, the thrum of his voice, whispering that. “Camerado. Lover. Remember me.”
BF: Does having these poems set to music allow the listener/reader to engage with them more deeply, do you think?
SDH: I really think that hearing these poems as songs is how Whitman would have loved to hear them. If you catch the words as they’re sung, you can feel how the music we’ve written supports Whitman’s thematic material, and you can easily move into the mood of his songs. I really think if Whitman had been more of a musician, or more of a composer, he would have sung his poetry for others. This is where I think we’re taking him up where he left off.
BF: If you take Whitman as your spiritual teacher, what sorts of lessons might he be teaching?
SDH: Wow, another good question. His message is one of the universality of the human experience first and foremost. Man or woman, any race or age, we all deal with discovering and uncovering our connection to soul, which is quickened and thrives on joy and happiness. Forgetting this, we have all the troubles of the world. But remembering it, we truly begin to live our lives, even if they’re full of suffering----- as his was toward the end of his life. There’s still joy in each new dawn, that kind of thing. Also I think one of Whitman’s great themes is that we can discover soul through the low as well as the high, through dirt and mud as well as air and spirit. Soul can be found in every place we cast our eyes---- humble people, humble activities are all as sacred as anyone or thing else. He’s a breaker of barriers, and also a connector of so many things our society separates.
GG: Man and woman, powerful and humble, sacred and debased.
SDH: Like Jung said, when we connect the opposites, there lies our true power.
BF: What's it like to compose and perform with your boyfriend/love/partner? Do you drive each other nuts? Does it deepen the bond?
SDH and GG: Yes, and yes!
SDH: If you’re in a relationship, you’re going to be pushed into intensity. So yes, that deepens the bond. And of course that makes the music even better.
BF: So what did you do until the Whitman project came along?
GG&SDH: Love songs, of course.
BF: What are your ambitions for Full of Life Now?
SDH: I want people to know Whitman’s words. I want people to know not only his words but the spirit behind his words, which our songs try to convey – the freshness, the lustiness, the openness, the strength, the power, the sweetness, the dearness, the gorgeous worldview that Whitman had—that life was sacred, life was beautiful, life was meant to be lived as fully and richly as possible. And love was the currency for that life. So our ambition really is to spread that word around—to show people that there really is such a possibility of living your life this way, even with all of the enormous responsibility that the world has been ignoring—to stewarding our resources. To caring for our earth and caring for one another. And I think listening to these songs helps us become stirred once again to know what that feels like. To care again for ourselves, one another, and the earth beneath us.
BF: How do you guys decide how to write? Who writes what?
SDH: Well, that’s a bit like asking someone, ‘When you make love, who’s on top?’
BF: And? So?
GG: You mean, Who’s on top?
SDH: None of your f*king business! [Laugh].