As a youngster not yet in kindergarten, my heroes were Rembrandt, Charles Schulz, Neil Armstrong, and Paul McCartney. Rembrandt died about three hundred years before I was born, but I have walked the world for most of my life along with the other three. Schulz passed away in 2000 and Armstrong took that giant leap in 2012, leaving Sir James Paul McCartney the last man standing.

My life roughly coincides with McCartney’s time in the spotlight. About six months after The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was born in Sacramento, California. On the same day, across the country in New York City, The Beatles and Bob Dylan met for the first time.1 Maybe I sensed something exciting was going on in the outside world and decided it was time to make my entrance.

My mother enjoys telling about how one day when I was three or four, she was in the kitchen and heard me in the next room singing to myself. When she stopped what she was doing and listened, she heard the words “It’s a dirty story of a dirty man/And his clinging wife doesn’t understand….” She was surprised and amused, but simply went back to the task of washing the dishes. “Paperback Writer” is still one of my favorite songs. A few years later, just four months after its release, I received McCartney’s self-titled solo debut for my sixth birthday.2 I remember being at my grandparents’ house when it was given to me by, I believe, an aunt or my grandmother. Since the mid-1970s, I’ve been buying his records myself as they have come out, and each of those albums has the ability to take me back to where I was in my life upon its release.

Paul McCartney’s Got Back tour at Oakland Arena; May 6, 2022.

A few weeks ago, I attended the first of two McCartney shows at Oakland Arena on his Got Back US Tour. It was my sixth McCartney concert; the first was in Berkeley at Memorial Stadium in 1990, which was something I’d waited my whole life to experience. The seconds before he walked onto the stage were really quite overwhelming. That feeling hasn’t subsided over the thirty-two intervening years and five subsequent shows – I’ve never been disappointed. Of course I have favorite songs, ones I would prefer to hear over others; some of them were hits (e.g. “Get Back,” “Jet,” “Junior’s Farm”), some were not (e.g. “The Back Seat of My Car,” “Old Siam, Sir,” “House of Wax”). Some I’ve seen him perform, others I haven’t. However, I’m not one to quibble over setlists, I’m just happy to see him and his band do their thing. McCartney’s catalogue is so vast3 it would be impossible for him to do all the hits, let alone everyone’s favorite album cuts, but in his nearly three-hour sets, he covers a lot of ground, and always plays at least a few songs I haven’t seen him do on previous tours.

McCartney has given countless interviews in which he’s spoken about the inspirations for various songs. His method of abstracting, masking, and combining his experiences and concepts, molding them into songs, has informed my own process. When I first started painting in the mid-’80s, The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single was a touchstone for taking specific personal memories and altering them into evocative images to which audience members could ascribe their own meanings. Although many of the ideas for my work stem from events in my life, I don’t have, nor have I ever had, an interest in making narrative autobiographical paintings. I’m very thoughtful about my work, and strive for a multiplicity of ideas in each piece, but prefer the finished pieces be open-ended. I am uncomfortable discussing what the work is “about” and am hesitant about revealing the specifics of its origins. Fortunately for me, McCartney has been open about the development of his work, as many of the songs I appreciate the most are ones for which I know the initial ideas and can see how they were transformed into something much different. He continues to be a hero.

Paul McCartney will turn eighty years old in a few weeks, on the 18th of June. I’ll raise a glass and drink to him, drink to his health.


1 Dylan introduced The Beatles to marijuana that day. Although the Fabs wouldn’t try hallucinogens for a couple more years, they were already familiar with amphetamines, in the form of the diet pills they took to keep their energy up while playing long nights in the clubs of Hamburg. Speed was never McCartney’s cuppa tea. Pot, however….

2 I still have that record. Up until relatively recently, it was my only vinyl copy. Several years ago, I purchased a Taiwanese version, issued in a paper sleeve instead of a cardboard jacket. Linda McCartney’s compelling “spilt bowl of cherries” cover photo is badly reproduced in black and white, sadly depriving the viewer of the striking color of the fruit. I bought it because it was cheap and it’s peculiar.

3 Thirteen Beatles studio albums, twenty-six solo and Wings studio albums, plus all the live albums, classical recordings, and odd (some of them really odd) releases.

Rosanne Cash collection, including signed copy of The River & the Thread LP.

Early in 1980, when I was fifteen years old, I was reading an issue of Rolling Stone magazine and came across a “tandem” record review, one of the subjects of which was Rosanne Cash’s first Columbia album, Right or Wrong.1 Although she had made some appearances on her father Johnny’s albums, I was not familiar with her at all. The piece, while not quite a rave, was very positive, calling her a “firebrand,” and it succeeded in piquing my interest.2 The first time I actually heard her was about a year later, when the title track to her next album, Seven Year Ache, became a hit3 and made me a fan.

Cash’s singing affected me, then as now, in all those cliché ways: the hair on the back of the neck standing up, the goosebumps, the breath taken away. She has stated that she’s never thought of herself as a singer in the same way that, say, Emmylou Harris is a singer, but the sultry, emotive quality of her voice makes her one of my favorite vocalists ever.

In the mid-1980s, Cash was riding high on the success of her number one album Rhythm and Romance and her Grammy win for the single “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,”4 which she wrote with her then-husband Rodney Crowell. Her exquisite vocals notwithstanding, it is Cash’s songwriting which definitively places her in my group of musical icons. However, while finishing work on King’s Record Shop,5 for which she wrote only three songs, she had a growing lack of in faith in herself. This feeling manifested itself in a dream in which she was at a party sitting on a sofa with Linda Ronstadt, who was deep in conversation with an elderly man called Art, who sat between them. When Cash attempted to join in, he turned to her in disdain and spat out, “We don’t respect dilettantes” before returning his attention to Ronstadt.

Cash was badly shaken by the dream, and, feeling her success was hollow, vowed to change her approach to songwriting, her work ethic, her life.

In 1990, on Interiors, her follow-up to King’s Record Shop, as per her vow, the subject matter of the songs was broader, the emotional content more complex, and it was her first album for which she wrote or co-wrote all the songs. Upon hearing it, I wondered why she hadn’t been writing the bulk of her material all along. It’s a spare, largely acoustic record about disappointment in oneself and others, about disillusionment in personal relationships, about the disparity between image and reality. It was not a hit. It also soured her relationship with Columbia’s Nashville division, but it was a gauntlet thrown down, marking a turning point in the musical path on which she has not made an artistic misstep in her seven subsequent albums.

Although Cash was born in Memphis and lived in Nashville from her mid-twenties to her mid-thirties, she doesn’t consider herself a Southerner; she grew up in California and has lived in New York City for over thirty years. Cash and her husband/collaborator John Leventhal started making regular road trips through the South in 2011, when Arkansas State University began raising money to restore the childhood home of her father. Those visits inspired the songs that would become the 2014 album The River & the Thread, a travelogue through the geographic, musical, spiritual, and emotional aspects of the American South. Cash presents, via narratives from the lives of other people, real and fictional, a cinematic picture of not only the region, but of her own family history. “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” the opening track, sets the stage for the rest of the album with a tour through Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas in which the Mississippi River becomes a metaphoric thoroughfare to the past, a connection to the people whose stories she tells.

I found The River & the Thread to be shockingly good, even for an artist whose work I’d admired for over thirty years. In April 2014 I saw Cash at the Miner Auditorium in San Francisco; the first half of the show was made up of the eleven songs from this album. I’ve seen her perform many times, but seeing Cash sing these songs, this album in its entirety while it was still so startling and new, made for a truly transcendent evening. The record had been out just three months, but I had already come to think of it as a profound piece of work, one so evocative and beautiful I knew I would be able to draw inspiration from it for years to come.

Cash’s latest single, “Crawl Into the Promised Land,” was released over forty years into her recording career, just prior to the 2020 US Presidential election. It is an indictment of those who wield power indiscriminately and without consequence, a call to action to the disenfranchised and those who share their outrage, an ode to those who aspire to make the world a better place.

The night is long, but no one sleeps
The grifters make us pay
Torches burn and mothers weep
Deliver us from judgment day

And don't it feel like home
Don't it feel like we belong
You gotta lift your head and raise your hand
And crawl into the promised land6

Rosanne Cash: singer, songwriter, firebrand.


1 The other record was Two Sides to Every Woman by Carlene Carter, whose work I also greatly admire. Coincidentally, I believe Johnny Cash’s Silver was also reviewed in the same issue.

2 Admittedly, the fetching photo on the album cover was partially responsible for my reaction. Ditto for Two Sides to Every Woman.

3 In 1981, the “Seven Year Ache” single peaked at number 22 on the Billboard Top 40 chart and became Cash’s first number one on the Billboard Country chart.

4 Best Country Vocal Performance, Female (1985).

5 The 1987 album which is still her most commercially successful, spawning four number one hits and reaching number 6 on the Billboard Country Album chart.

6 Written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal. Published by Chelcait Music (SESAC) and Lev-A-Tunes (ASCAP).

I was not yet in kindergarten in 1968 when Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released and failed to reach the Billboard 200 album chart. It was over a decade later that I, browsing in a Tower Records store, decided to purchase my first LP by him. Of course I knew “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Domino,” “Wild Night,” “Wavelength,” and others, but it was Astral Weeks, an album with which I was completely unfamiliar, that I bought – I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the cover, with its attractive leaded-glass-window-like design and double exposure photograph of sunlit trees and a now-impossibly-young-looking Morrison. Maybe it was the evocative title or the “In The Beginning” and “Afterwards” designations for the sides. Maybe it was the poetry – the lines of jazz and blues, of flowing streams of consciousness, of snow, of a ballerina – on the back cover. Whatever prompted my choice,1 the decision has served me well; although I wouldn’t necessarily cite Astral Weeks as my favorite album, it is up there on the list and could very well be the one I’ve listened to the most in my life.

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks; Warner Bros. Records (1968).

Jay Berliner, Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Warren Smith Jr.: these names didn’t mean anything to me back then – jazz, even now, is a genre I don’t know much about; at that time, I knew next to nothing – but it was obvious that what these cats played was so germane and so inspired that it seems the whole ensemble had gone, as Morrison would soon put it, “into the mystic.”2 I’ve read that Morrison would record his guitar/vocal take and the musicians would improvise their parts minutes later, after which Morrison would move on to the next number.3 The songs themselves are stunning – half of them clock in at well over six minutes, allowing a gradual unfolding of emotion, of compassion, of vision. Morrison’s performance is, of course, breathtaking; his idiosyncratic phrasing, so much a part of his style, transforms the words into sounds that are by turns exultant and heartbreaking.

These days, the music to which I paint is almost always either classically-based “new music” or in an ambient vein, but until relatively recently, much of my work time had been spent in the company of Astral Weeks. It made an indelible impression on me during the years just prior to my beginning to paint and has provided untold inspiration since then. Although I don’t believe I’ve ever used imagery taken directly from any of the songs, Astral Weeks informed my burgeoning aesthetic by revealing that grace and redemption could be found in life’s often overwhelming moments of darkness and despair. Dry your eye.


1 It was not Lester Bangs’ insightful essay on the album, “the rock record with the most significance in [his] life….” I wouldn’t read those thoughts until years later, when Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Alfred A. Knopf (1987) was published.

2 Compare the Astral Weeks recordings of “Beside You” and “Madame George” to the earlier Bang Records versions, first released in 1973 on the T.B. Sheets album, for an illustration of what they contributed.

3 John Payne, on flute and soprano sax, played in Morrison’s contemporaneous live band and was the only musician present who had heard the songs prior to the sessions.  

“I never considered the Stones drug music. They were the drug itself.” – Patti Smith

All the art that has affected me in any meaningful way has been a psychedelic experience. I don’t mean that it was all drug-induced; I don’t even mean it’s all “hallucinatory.” What I mean is, it has all taken me to unexpected and unfamiliar places, expanded my consciousness, allowed me to view things in a broader or more concentrated fashion. Growing up in the suburbs of Sacramento, I was obsessed with finding new sounds and visions which would bend my mind. Citizen Kane; Bob Dylan’s 1965-66 three-album run of Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde; Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” paintings; Animal Farm; the “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” single; Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces; David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” – they have all been milestones in my life.

John Tenniel's drawing of Alice the Red Queen
John Tenniel: “Faster! Faster!” said the Red Queen, from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872).

Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books certainly belong in this company. I’ve read each probably thirty-five or forty times, and keep coming back to them for any number of reasons, not the least of which is their quotability. It seems one can find an applicable Alice line for almost any situation, an indication of on how many levels the books can work. Alice has been viewed as a socio-political satire, a Freudian study, a hallucinogenic binge, a philosophical treatise. That Carroll himself certainly saw it as simply a children’s story is beside the point. I consider them to be tales of the heroine negotiating her way through anarchic, alarming, ridiculous, lonely, confusing, beautiful environments – in short, as metaphors for life. Contrariwise, they also serve as escapes from the same – they are two of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It was Carroll’s intent not that Alice educate, but that it entertain – this was unheard of in Victorian England, when children’s books were meant only to teach and/or moralize. Carroll succeeded brilliantly in much more than making the books entertaining; what he created 150 years ago was magical, something that even he would manage to equal only once more – when he wrote The Hunting of the Snark.

How Alice has affected my work is difficult to pin down. I’ve done a few pieces which explicitly reference the texts, but the real influence has been much more indirect. Oblique communication is a major theme in Alice; in my work, quotation, reference, and transformation – the subjects of which are generally well-cloaked – play important roles. Many years ago, these books irrevocably altered my thought process – they have contributed to not only the painter I am, but also the person.

When I was maybe ten or twelve years old, an uncle gave me the book The Art Treasures of Europe by Charles Wentinck,1 which was my introduction to a lot of artists, some of whom would become favorites of mine. At the time, Rembrandt was my art hero2 – there are two of his pieces in Wentinck’s book: The Night Watch and Portrait of Jan Six, but as I was familiar with both, I turned my attention to the rest of the tome, which covers prehistory all the way up to the 1960s.

Although I liked many of the paintings illustrated,3 I had very visceral reactions, which I can still feel today, to five of them. These pieces played a large part in the development of my personal aesthetic.

Parmigianino: The Madonna with the Long Neck (1534-40).                                                                                                      I know next to nothing about Parmigianino, only what I read in this book and that he also painted the lovely Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but this piece continues to captivate me. I was fascinated by the Mannerist proportions – I loved the Madonna’s neck and hands. I loved her gesture and the whole attitude of her posture. I loved the infant Jesus, who appears to be about six years old. I loved everything about this painting except the small figure in the background at the bottom right of the piece. He bothers me now as he did then. I’m not very knowledgeable about religious iconography, but I’m sure he’s a specific person, probably a saint, with a reason for being there – nonetheless, I find he distracts from the breathtaking delicacy and beauty of the Madonna, child, and attendant angels.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Ecce Ancilla Domini: The Annunciation (1850).                                                                                This is an early painting of Rossetti’s, and although I prefer his later work, it was a fine introduction. I had seen enough Renaissance “Annunciations” to know this was different; I’ve forgotten all the others, but this one has stayed with me. I found the color scheme striking – the painting is predominately white with splashes of the three primaries, which was very unusual for the time. The tight composition and vivid palette are indicative of Rossetti’s sensibility – much more modern, I think, than that of the Impressionists, who worked more-or-less contemporaneously.

Gustav Klimt: Salomé (1909).                                                                                                                                                          When I received the book, I had no idea who Salomé was, but I loved the tall thin undulating composition Klimt utilized, which I later learned was related to the “Dance of the Seven Veils” – studies for the painting indicate he arrived at the dynamic pose via sketching a dancing figure. Klimt’s use of ornamentation was also very attractive to me; the integration of the figurative and the decorative in this piece is particularly arresting. In the book, the Klimt segment appears in a chapter titled “Art as Experiment,” and by this time I was ready for the more modern work which would eventually inform my own. Klimt’s evocative imagery did so perhaps as much as anyone’s.

Otto Dix: Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden  (1926).                                                                                              This painting intrigued me to no end. Had it not been for the title, I wouldn’t have known if it were of a man or a woman. Her whole appearance – the mode of dress, the Bryan Ferry hair, the monocle, the positioning of her hands – drew me in. I don’t know that any other portrait, before or since, has made me so curious about its subject. Who was she? What was her life like? Although she sits in a bar or club, she is the only visible figure, alone in a corner with no window. There’s a feeling of liberation in the face of bleakness and desperation, which I would later learn was part of the bohemian culture of Weimar-era Germany, that I found very compelling. 

Francis Bacon: Two Figures (1953).                                                                                                                                                      What made Two Figures so captivating were its dualities. It looked like a photograph, and yet, with its bravura expressionist brushwork, was obviously not one; the bodies were convincingly fleshy, despite the grisaille palette; the private act seemed to take place in an artificial space, as if it were a performance. I loved the blurriness of the faces and how it was offset by the bold strokes demarcating the bed. I was also fascinated by the “space frame,” which I initially thought delineated the edges of the room; upon closer inspection, I found that to be only partially true, while at points it is superimposed on top of the image. 

I don’t know what it was about me that I was so powerfully drawn to these five particular paintings – I do remember I found them all slightly disturbing and strangely alluring, which in retrospect seems like a pretty good combination. I don’t think I analyzed the formal qualities of the work until a little later, but by the time I started painting, I had studied Rossetti, Klimt, and Bacon, and they had become profoundly important to me. All three continue to be among my favorite painters. Had I never been given Wentinck’s book, I’m sure I would have discovered all this work eventually, but seeing it when I did was pivotal in my growth in viewing art, and eventually making it. Thanks, Tom.

1 Simon & Schuster (1974).

2 An aunt had given me the Time-Life Library of Art book of his work. I don’t remember if I was already aware of him, but I loved that book, much more so than the Titian and Van Gogh volumes she also gave me.

3 A list of which includes Velasquez: The Royal Family (c. 1656), Ingres: The Turkish Bath (1863), Degas: The Blue Dancers (1890), Gerhard Richter: Ema, Nude on a Staircase (1966), and Richard Hamilton: Swingeing London 67 (1968).

As the 1970s were coming to a close, David Bowie hosted a radio show on which he played eleven pieces of the decade’s music which he considered important. Among them was “Trial/Prison,” from an opera called Einstein on the Beach. The artist/composer was Philip Glass – I had never heard of him, but was immediately transfixed. Although conceptually, the music wasn’t so alien to me – I’d read Paul McCartney’s thoughts on Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pete Townshend’s on Terry Riley – it really was unlike anything I’d heard before. This was not a rock song, it was something quite outside the realm of my experience, and I wanted more.

I went to Sidewinder, the local used record shop I’d been frequenting since before I was a teenager, and purchased my first Philip Glass record, North Star. I was hooked. It was a few years later when I finally found a copy of Einstein, the whole of which was a revelation to me. The music was mesmerizing, hypnotic, and not “operatic” in any sense that I understood. The idea one could make a “portrait opera” with no plot or character development to speak of, yet that was evocative and compelling, informed my thinking of a figurative art with no use of narrative which was nonetheless emotionally engaging. Of course, this concept was far from new, but as a young painter, one must often come to ideas via one’s own avenues of thought. Glass’ music helped open those avenues for me.

At the close of Einstein’s first run of performances in 1976 – 35 sold-out shows, two in NYC, the rest across Europe – Glass and dramatist Robert Wilson were $100,000 in the red. Staging an opera is not a money-making proposition; what Einstein did make for them both were careers. Two years later – not long before I heard “Trial/Prison” for the first time – Glass was able to quit his cab driver gig and write and perform music full time.

Philip Glass/Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach tickets. Zellerbach Hall; Berkeley CA (2012).

The first time I saw Philip Glass live was in 1986 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco; he and his ensemble played the Songs from Liquid Days song cycle in its entirety and A Descent into the Maelström. Over the years, I’ve seen him many times, including performances of Satyagraha, La Belle et la Bête, and Koyaanisqatsi. Perhaps most notably, in 2012, I saw Einstein on the Beach in its West Coast premiere run, which was one of the most affecting musical experiences of my life. At almost five hours long, Einstein immerses the audience in its aesthetic – not only the music, but Wilson’s imagery and the choreography of Lucinda Childs, plus the contributions of the rest of the creative team. Einstein is not the vision of one person, but Glass’ music is the unifying component which gives it the power which has not diminished with time. Experiencing it was as startling as hearing “Trial/Prison” for the first time, thirty-three years before. I had never seen anything like it, and I don’t imagine I ever will again – I feel fortunate to have been there.

Philip Glass is no longer seen as an avant-garde madman as he was in the 1970s; having composed the music for many mainstream films, he is now firmly in the popular culture. Although he still gets more than his share of abusive press, he is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential composers of the last half century. He turns eighty-four years old today.

A few weeks ago, I saw cellist Jeffrey Zeigler perform a program titled The Sound of Science. For each of the eight pieces, each composer worked with or was inspired by a particular scientist. It was an extraordinary evening, an excursion into the concepts of exploration and discovery in science as well as music.

Science is an abiding interest of mine. Anatomy, of course, is an integral part of dealing with the figure, one of my main artistic concerns. This fascination also accounts for the employment of x-rays and other medical imaging, allowing me a broader figurative palette from which to draw.

Going outward instead of inward, space exploration has captivated me since I was very young. I’ve read literally dozens of books on the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions, plus many astronaut biographies and autobiographies. Although I have referenced the space race in a straightforward manner, as in the mixed media construction Giant, a tribute to Neil Armstrong, its effect on my work is generally more oblique. The photos of the moon taken by the Apollo astronauts are haunting and beautiful, and I have often tried to capture that feeling.

My vocabulary doesn’t come only from art. Ideas from other disciplines contribute to my overall perspective, strengthening, expanding, or transforming those views already in place. The endeavor to see previously overlooked connections is something shared by artists and scientists.

“Feed your head.” – Grace Slick, “White Rabbit”