Simone’s Survival – An interview with Simone Felice
First published on Unpaved
Words and music are the keys to survival for singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Simone Felice. After going through two near death experiences, it’s a subject he knows more about than most. Les Thomas spoke to him before his July Australian tour about growing up immersed in the rich musical heritage of Woodstock, New York, turning adversity into creativity and sharing the stage with the late great Levon Helm.
You’ve lived in the Catskill Mountains of New York all of your life because your father came for Woodstock and never left. What was it like growing up in that part of the world?
It’s a very simple life up here in the mountains. We had a wood stove that we chopped wood for and that’s how we kept warm in the winter. At the same time you’re only two hours north of New York City. So there are a lot of incredible artists from New York who’ve come and lived up here. And the first music I heard was the stuff my father loved listening to from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I grew up riding my bicycle past Big Pink [where members of The Band lived in the late ‘60s], so it was all Dylan and The Band and Jimi Hendrix. Music was something more than what you’d just hear on the radio. It was a way of life, just part of the wind and the weather here. The long winters and the hot summers, the music was just a part of all that.
I was lucky enough to get to play with Levon Helm a couple of times over the last few years before he passed away and the history that he had, being Dylan’s drummer for a long time and The Band and his voice, that’s part of the mountains up here and if you ever get the chance, come check it out. It’s a pretty special place. It’s like Huckleberry Finn on acid.
It’s wonderful you had the opportunity to share some time with Levon Helm. How was that for you?
I had the honour and fortune of being asked to sing The Weight one night with him, so I had to remember all those lyrics for the first and third verse and I remember just looking over at him thinking ‘This man is very old, in the twilight of his life but he’s still laying down that groove and that beat like he was 25 years-old.’ With his understanding of rhythm and soul and groove and spirit . . . it was the spirit that he put into the music. That real spirit that makes music special. I could feel that energy that music lasts forever. Our bodies get old and frail, but the music lasts forever. We were very sad when he died, but it took us a few weeks to realise that a spirit like that can never die. He’ll live forever, so that’s a comforting feeling.
Being only two hours from New York City, would you say there’s something special about the Catskills that’s lent itself, historically, towards creative experimentation?
Woodstock and the little village called Palenville where I grew up was the first artists’ colony in all of America, founded in the 1850s and the great transcendental thinkers and writers would come up here, like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, one of our greatest poets. And that tradition just kept on and in the ‘60s, Dylan was living in New York City and he had a manager called Albert Grossman, who you’ve probably heard of, a somewhat infamous character, but he moved up from the city and bought a bunch of land up in Woodstock and Bearsville and he started a studio there so that his artists wouldn’t have to deal with the hassle of New York City.
So he brought up Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary and The Band, so Grossman built the studio where a lot of great records were made. Todd Rundgren made his records here and Jeff Buckley made Grace here. There have just been a tremendous number of albums over the last 40 years. The studio’s closed now, but it was that original artists’ colony from the 19thCentury that just continued on. Van Morrison wrote Moondance here. I was born in the early ‘70s when that was still happening and that was my first introduction to music and life, just sittin’ in the grass listening to somebody sing with a guitar. That’s my roots; that’s my home.
I guess the richness of that culture is a fairly direct contrast to what seems like a fairly endemic level of poverty and disadvantage today.
There’s been a history of that, too. You’ve got your mansions right down the street from your trailer parks and your meth lab and all that stuff. We had a great flood of 2011 were 40 people died here in Green County, people got washed away down the creek, so it’s been a year of rebuilding and the people that didn’t have much to begin with have had a really hard time this year. They’re starting the fix the bridges now and people are just getting back on their feet. But that’s human nature; it’s the human struggle and great music and art wouldn’t happen if people didn’t have to want and hunger and struggle. And that’s been my experience in my life. Nothing was handed to us. We had to work for everything and we grew up just living hand to mouth.
I haven’t had a chance to read your novel Black Jesus, but I gather much of it’s focussed on the effects of war and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), things that disproportionately affect poor people. With the people you’ve grown up with, these things aren’t remote to you, are they?
No, not at all. If you get a chance I think you should read the book because I think it’ll resonate with you, but it’s about survival and I grew up in a town where a lot of people are struggling to get by. I have a friend who went to Iraq to fight and he came back wounded with the kind of wounds you can’t see, the kind that are inside, the spiritual and emotional wounds. So I wrote a book about survival and in my book, the boy comes home blinded, so it’s an exploration of the concept of blindness and the many different types of blindness that we might have in our lives. It’s a story about love being the really big medicine on earth. There are different kinds of blindness, but maybe there’s other ways to see as well, you know?
A lot of your songs are about these kinds of struggles and losses. Where would you put the level of understanding of something like PTSD in the US? It seems very prevalent with so many soldiers seem to return with this problem.
War is the same way it’s always been in our history. We sweep the wounded soldiers under the carpet and we don’t like to see them in our shopping malls. We want everything clean and ordered and we want to get our ice cream and our piece of pizza and we don’t want to have to see somebody with half their face missing, or in a wheelchair. It’s too unpleasant for us. And I don’t think that’s unique to America. You hear the same kind of stories after World War II and even after World War I all through Europe. People cheer the soldiers when they’re young and all their buttons are shiny when they’re going off to war but when they come back we like to do our best to hide them away and ignore them.
In your own life, Simone, you’ve had a couple of experiences that have reframed your entire perspective on life. You’re near-fatal brain aneurysm in 1988 at age 12 and your emergency open-heart surgery in 2010. Did those experiences make you more empathetic with other people?
I hope so. Sometimes when I start feeling sorry for myself, asking ‘Why did this happen to me?’ or ‘Why did I have to go through this pain’. Then I remember that I’m just one in a grand tapestry of pain and suffering that people have endured and what I’ve gone through is a walk in the park compared to some people. So I always have to remind myself of that, and that I’m blessed. I’m lucky to be alive. When I was twelve I died for seven minutes on the operating table and it was the summer after that that I started writing poetry, so it opened a door in my brain and in my mind and I’ve been following that path ever since. I wouldn’t be the poet that I am if I hadn’t gone through this trouble, and any of the trouble I’ve been through. I feel like it’s the poet’s job to help people understand the fear, or pain or uncertainty they might go through. Hopefully my poetry can resonate with people in that way.
There are a lot of people that wouldn’t be able to make it through like you have but clearly this is a survival response for you.
Yes! Music and poetry has been a big healer for me and they give me a feeling that there’s a reason why I’m here on planet earth, there’s a reason they didn’t put me six feet underground. I’m supposed to be walking on top of the grass, at least for a little while longer. You talked about struggle and loss before and there’s a wonderful quote from Cormac McCarthy, my favourite author for 15 or 20 years, where he says, “Beauty and loss are one.”
Finally, what are you most looking forward to about coming to Australia?
I’m coming down with my trio from New York, some amazing musicians and friends and then I’m linking up with my friend Matty Green down there who’s gonna play some slide guitar with me. He’s a great player that lives in Melbourne. And I’m looking forward to singing these songs, man. I’m trying to sing them like it’s my last night on earth, or maybe my first morning on earth. I’ve only been there once, but the reception and the people were great and I’m looking forward to seeing everybody again.
Simone Felice. Photograph by John Huba.