Life Lessons From Bob Dylan’s Brilliant Jewish Singer-Songwriter Son-in-Law
To Peter Himmelman, fame was no match for observance, and the music just got better
Peter Himmelman is an observant man, in all senses of the word. After lunch at a kosher fish restaurant in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles one recent afternoon, we walked to a nearby apartment that he keeps as a place to wind up or wind down, write songs or to sip tea, paint, write, relax, and to enjoy Shabbat. He took off the pork pie hat that is one of his sartorial trademarks, and placed a kippah on his head. He observed that his guest was tired and suggested we meditate.
We moved to facing chairs. He showed me some breathing exercises, and gave me a mantra on which to concentrate. The words were: “My purple shirt.” I was more tired than I thought, since I was wondering why he chose that phrase, until I noticed I was wearing a purple shirt. “It can be anything,” he said. The phrase he often uses when he begins to meditate consists of the Hebrew words ribbonah shel olam: Master of the universe.
“Meditation is one area where assessment thinking has no place,” he said. “No one does meditation well, no one does it poorly. We’ve put such a premium on success and failure.”
Peter Himmelman is a man of many talents and accomplishments who is known to those who have heard of him, but haven’t heard him, as Bob Dylan’s son-in-law. He has been playing in and with bands since sixth grade in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. (Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, Sen. Al Franken, and New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman are also SLP natives.) He has released a dozen rock albums since 1986—the first half dozen on major corporate record labels, others on smaller indies, others self-released—all of which have received love from critics and none of which have sold well. The only Billboard chart on which he has ever appeared is the Heatseekers chart, limited to artists who have never had an album in the top 200. But the quality of his work has never flagged, and lately he has released some of his finest work, including Imperfect World (2005) and The Mystery and the Hum (2010). There is also an intentional oddity called Flimsy (2011), a collection of spoken-word songs ranging from the absurd to the heartbreaking. His new album, The Boat That Carries Us, now available on his own Himmelsongs label, is about motion, or being in motion, by air (“33K Feet”), by car (“Green Mexican Dreams”), or in spirit (“Angels Die”).
Himmelman still attracts some of the best musicians in the world to play with him. The rhythm section on the new album features Leland Sklar (who played with Carole King, James Taylor, and dozens of others) on bass, and Jim Keltner, the go-to drummer for John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr on their solo albums and tours, not to mention frequent percussionist for Dylan, Eric Clapton, Randy Newman, Steely Dan, and a hundred others. “I find I learn something new and valuable every time we talk,” the 72-year-old Keltner said in an email. “Playing music with him is very much the same, with the added bonus of his strong and versatile guitar playing, very memorable melodies, and provocative lyrics for all kinds of subject matter. The challenge is to be better than his demo, which can take awhile.”
Rock stardom for Himmelman was a real possibility in the mid-1980s. Critics loved him for his unpredictable but riveting stage shows. And those of us who love to linger over well-crafted lyrics enjoyed Himmelman’s language of the heart, images of struggle and joy that are by turns imaginative, erotic, and transcendent without ever degenerating into pseudo-poetry or pretentious imagery. He came of age when the introduction of the compact disc had made the record companies flush, independent labels were scoring with new wave and rap, and megastars including Bruce Springsteen, U2, Prince, Def Leppard, Michael Jackson, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, and Billy Joel made it an industry of not just million-sellers but 10-million sellers. But something happened to Peter Himmelman along the road to major label stardom: The gift of his talent and ambition was overshadowed by another, deeper gift: a Jewish spiritual awakening that coincided with the release of his first major album, This Father’s Day. The blues singer Robert Johnson, according to the myth, sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi Delta crossroads. Himmelman made another choice at a crossroads in his young life, when he was 25.
Growing up in a nonobservant home—the very idea of devout Judaism, in 1960s Minneapolis, he said, seemed to him like something out of a Sholem Aleichem story—Himmelman was barely beyond bar mitzvah age when he began playing in bands with R&B singer Alexander O’Neal and in an influential Minneapolis-based calypso-reggae band Shangoya. His account of about getting into this band offers a microcosmic look at the adolescent blend of talent and chutzpah that quickly propelled him to the perch of major label rock success just a few years later. “After the show I went up to the bass player and said, you guys are good, but you’d be a lot better with me. He laughed, but he took my number.” Seven months later, Himmelman was invited to a competitive audition. He was 16, at least a decade younger than most of his rivals. Using a small amp he had bought with his bar mitzvah money, he crushed the audition by playing “Guiltiness,” an obscure Bob Marley song from an album called Exodus. “It was a perfect little longueur to throw on these blues licks I had been playing forever.” Then came the interview: What, asked the leader, Aldric Peter Nelson, can you bring to the group?
“I said, ‘You see that amplifier? When I’m up there with you guys, this thing’s gonna shoot fucking flames. I’m going to take you over the edge. You’re not gonna be this novelty calypso band, you’re going to be headliners in clubs.’ ” They laughed and hired Himmelman. In a 2004 Minneapolis Star-Tribune obituary for Aldric Nelson, Himmelman was named as among a “who’s who” of Twin Cities musicians “reared” by Shangoya. But in the late 1970s, before Himmelman’s 21st birthday, his music was off in another direction. He was the singer and songwriter for the Sussman Lawrence Band, a new wave group whose music was described in a pithy question from the All Music Guide: “Has anyone wanted to be Elvis Costello as much as Peter Himmelman back in his days as a callow youth fronting the band Sussman Lawrence?” The band recorded its first album in 1979. During the early 1980s, its buzz spread, relocation in the New York area seemed like the right move. Sussman Lawrence’s double album Pop City was released in 1984. A third album, released in 1985, was also a Sussman Lawrence project. But the leader’s songs had grown so personal that it was released as a Peter Himmelman album, on the band’s own Orange label imprint. It was called This Father’s Day. The title song was recorded in the basement of the family home in 1983, a final Father’s Day gift for his dying father.
Himmelman’s father David looms large in his story. He was a “Jewish Marine,” as Himmelman often describes him, who more than once dispatched local anti-Semites with his fists. With his dad around Peter felt secure, encouraged to pursue his ambitions. “It gave me a different perspective from people my age,” Himmelman said of his father’s death. “It increased my awareness of life being short. How well we grasp that is reflected in how well we act on that. I wanted to get married and have kids. I had a hunger to rebuild my family, shattered by the death of my dad.”
When I first met Peter in 1985, he was living in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, not far from Times Square. Despite the low-fi, deeply personal title song of This Father’s Day, the video for another song, “Eleventh Confession,” was breaking out at MTV. Island Records, home to Bob Marley, U2, Robert Palmer, and a host of other hit-makers, signed Himmelman, and eventually released This Father’s Day in 1986 as his debut album. Peter came to my office at what was then Newsday’s New York bureau at 1500 Broadway. We schmoozed for a while, and he invited me to join him and singer Kenny Vance, who had been a key part of Jay and the Americans, for a class a very sharp rabbi was giving in Brooklyn. I decided to pass. Himmelman went, and stayed.
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