He’s Dusty Pas’cal, dammit!

PascalDammitDec. 10, 2011 * Skaneateles Talk

“Listen here….let me show you this new one.”

His right hand starts picking a jaunty, introspective melody, his eyes piercing you from behind his glasses and his face in a twisted grin as if to say, “Right? Right!?” He builds on the chord progression while he tells you he wrote most of the song at four that morning.

“When there’s no time as empty hellos, lookin’ hard for your heart / You been holdin’ on to what you thought you wanted from the start…..” he sings. And suddenly, the light in the room seems to fade, your life becomes simple and honest, and the only thing that exists is Dusty and his guitar.

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I’ve sat in Dusty’s kitchen and listened to him pick and sing oh, I’d say 70 times over the past several years. He’s even let me suggest lyrics now and again when he’s working out a new tune—though 95 percent of the time he tells me my suggestions are “bullshit.” (Which is fine with me.)

And the first time I listened to the dozen tracks on “Human Heart,” Dusty’s third studio album that is set to be released in the coming weeks, I felt as if I were transported right back to a chair in his kitchen, listening to him create his magic.

As the record grows on me, I’m realizing it’s an interesting amalgamation of his first two. Dusty’s debut album, “Home,” consisted mainly of Dusty and his guitar; the Loren Barrigar guitar solos, and the spare drum and bass accompaniments on some of the tunes, were secondary to the God-given honesty of Dusty’s songwriting, and to the true meaning of the songs themselves.

“More,” meanwhile, had some additional production, especially because it included several live tracks from Dusty’s definitive performance at the Redhouse Arts Center in 2007, when he played with a whole band. (Dusty later released a live album, “Brother John,” of that entire Redhouse show.)

“Human Heart” combines that integrity and complexity—but it’s Dusty’s songwriting, which has matured into an almost inexplicable entity, that has replaced the frills of studio production.

Nothing else on the album quite exemplifies that maturity like “In,” one of the first songs he wrote for it about two years ago. It’s three verses of introspection, no real chorus, with lyrics like, “In these parking lots I’ve found bitter people, with pretty music but no sound…”

I’ve watched that song grow, from the first time Dusty played the demo for me in his truck a couple of summers ago when it brought me to tears, to the studio version with oh-so-subtle cello, drum and backing vocal tracks added to it–and the tune itself, and the journey it has taken, somehow mirror the way Dusty has grown as a man.

Even so, using the word “maturity” in a story about Dusty Pas’cal might cause a rip in the space/time continuum. From him telling a Boston TV reporter that he wrote the lyrics to the Hot Pocket jingle, to his 3-year-old daughter explaining to one of Dusty’s roofing customers that they were on the way to buy cocaine, everybody who knows him has their favorite pee-your-pants funny Dusty story.

And the song “Girl from Kansas City,” with its singalong “dee dee” chorus, is a musical version of that hilarity. I’ve watched this song grow too, but this time during live performance; it started as “Chuck Berry,” a double-time walking blues with Danny Welch on harp.

I remember riding with Dusty to a gig last winter when he told me he’d come up with a perfect last verse. “Something like this: ‘She’s like the eye inside a hurricane, she’s ooooh, mama, calm and collected,’” he sang.
“And then—wait for it!—‘She’ll tap ya ‘til she hits your money vein, she’ll throw a pamper on ya….’ Get it?? He’s walking around with a diaper on. I love it!”

I think I stopped laughing about the time we got to the gig twenty minutes later. And now, as I listen to the lazier studio version in my Brooklyn apartment, I’m in Dusty’s kitchen again, getting another Labatt’s Blue while I sing along. (Because after all, we all know he’s Dusty Pas’cal, dammit.)

As I familiarize myself with the album, different songs become my favorite when I listen to them. There’s “Lonesome,” a rip-you-up tearjerker based on a poem Dusty’s father wrote about the passing of a friend; “Sun Dried Heart,” a searching, David Gray-esque reflection that Dusty said he just finished last week; even a cover song—a rarity for Dusty Pas’cal, dammit—with Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

When we last talked, Dusty told me he sees his three albums as a progression of his life. “There’s a sort of ‘searching’ theme in the first two,” he said. “With (‘Human Heart’) I’ve really had my feet more on the ground…I think the songs reflect that.”

Somehow, Dusty encapsulates that whole journey in a single lyric, in “Hot Air Balloons”: “Most people won’t climb high upon rooftops, it’s safer to stay on the ground / And most eyes they can’t see that to climb is to freedom, as searching is to being found….”

Along with other Dusty Pas’cal fans—and music fans everywhere, really—I’m glad he’s walking the planet with us.