Get Real with Carla Stockton
“Come On Come On Come On” is More Than the Title of a Song
New York in the seventies was the place to be for those who wanted to be creative or just wanted to soak up the creative energy that abounded. Art seemed to explode from the cracks in the sidewalks, infusing the established norms with innovative new styles and genres. “Anyone could live in New York in the seventies because it was really cheap,” musician Joe Walsh tells David Grohl on HBO’s Sonic Highways New York episode. New York attracted the very best of writers and poets, songwriters and musicians, artists and filmmakers because, as Paul Visconti also tells Grohl, “There’s no mediocrity in New York.”
New York’s got a work ethic, a driving rhythm that demands movement. Artists who made it here and left often come back to re-invent themselves because it’s impossible to be idle here; dreams are hard to let go of in a city that spews forth invincibility 24/7. New York keeps artists young.
Take actor/filmmaker Dawn Young and her musician/songwriter husband Jon Pousette-Dart for example. At an age when elsewhere in the world they might be settling into their barcaloungers, remote controls in hand, Dawn and Jon are renewing their arts’ pursuit, striving to grow, reaching for ever better versions of themselves. They came of age in New York, and now, instead of retiring, they keep taking their art to new levels of success. Each has been around the proverbial blocks of this city a few times, and both have a resiliency and an ability to improve that is a testament both to their staying power and their innate artistic curiosity.
Dawn grew up in Pennsylvania, was educated there and earned a Master’s in French on her way to becoming fluent in the language. She went to France, where she lived for a year and earned a Certificat de la langue Française, which she brought back to Pennsylvania and her marriage to Bruce Wigo. She and Bruce had two children Lauren and Wolf, gifted, luminous children. So, for Dawn, the 1970’s were all about parenting, being a mother. During this time, the family moved to the city, the children became a bit more self-sufficient, and Dawn began to explore her options.
She found acting and modeling, signed on to the Ford Modeling Agency, to Abrams Talent Artists, did soaps and commercials, and bought her spacious apartment in a prewar brownstone on the upper west side. Her children attended the local public school, when Lauren entered IS 44, Dawn took a job teaching French there. She was a popular teacher and remains in touch with many of her students – including the likes of Adrian Grenier and other of her daughter’s friends. When Wolf went on to Bronx Science High School and Lauren to Stuyvesant, Dawn once again stretched her talents and began anew. A new project seemed to have found her, and she was savy enough to grab it.
Both Dawn’s children were swimmers at Gotham AquaKings. When Wolf switched over to water polo, it became more difficult, but Dawn was indefatigable. He advanced to the top of the sport and eventually led the US team in three Olympic Games; Dawn captured all his teams’ every game.
“To distract myself from the roughness of the sport, I began following the team with a video camera,” Dawn reflects. “And I became the designated videographer of our teams’ progress. Then one day I realized I had two hundred hours of footage, so I thought I should make a film, and next thing I knew, I had Beneath the Surface and was chasing around the country with it to film festivals and screenings.”
With Beneath the Surface in the can and the kids now cultivating families of their own, Dawn’s attention was increasingly absorbed by her grandmother’s and then her mother’s Altzheimers Disease. Again, Dawn’s next project discovered her. Videotaping as much footage as she could of her mother’s decline, she began what became the long journey toward her next feature documentary.
“Isle of Capri, the new film, began organically too,” Young explains. “Both my mother and grandmother had Altzheimer’s, and I became a caregiver. I became interested in the lives of caregivers, their stories. I wanted to know what works for them, how to enhance their lives.
“We would visit the group homes and take the music to the patients. The places came alive! People who would normally sit and stare were singing, clapping, stamping their feet. Sure, sometimes they’d want to sing the same song over and over because they’d forget we just sang it. But they knew every word or even the oldest songs. It’s all about long-term memory!”
It was in the filmmaking that Jon and Dawn began to meld their personal and professional lives, though Jon Pousette-Dart, like his wife, had already had a long and satisfying career by that time.
They met in 1985, at the Lone Star Café on Fifth Avenue in the Village, and they were married in 1990. It took them a little longer to begin working together in earnest.
Jon served as the music supervisor on Beneath the Surface, and he wrote both a single and some incidental music for the film as well. It was his first film experience, but he had by then made his name as the lead singer and guitarist in the Pousette-Dart Band, a favorite on the college concert circuit, working with such luminaries as the Byrds, Little Feat, Manfred Mann, Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, Emmilou Harris and others. He had collaborated with songwriters the likes of Sally Barris, John Bohlinger, et al., and his original writing partner John Troy. His band had separated, gone on to solo careers, and Pousette-Dart had not performed for a while; on tour with Dawn and her film, he began to receive invitations to come perform around the country, and he revived his performance career. He had never stopped writing songs.
Jon Pousette-Dart grew up in New York, the son, brother, and later father of visual artists. He likes to joke, “I’m the black sheep in this family.” Which is not quite true. His mother is poet Evelyn Gracey, but Jon’s father Richard, sister Joanna and son Chris are well known in the world of painting and drawing, and Jon went to California to study music and forge his path through education. Then Jimi Hendrix died, and it seemed more important to study music by doing it, by working with the masters; a few months after Hendrix’s death, he was back in New York.
These days, Jon is enjoying a return to the road . . . up to a point. He is intrigued by the process of producing the music videos he and Dawn have made together, one that is a short encapsulation of the themes of Isle of Capri called Who I Am?, and another that will be ready to release next month. He looks forward to working with Dawn on the narrative films she plans to write in the future, but it’s songwriting that captivates him the most.
Talk, the newest album, was released July 24, and it features new songs he’s written alone and others he’s written with co-writers as well as a few he’s covering by songwriters he admires. The first track “Let’s Talk About It,” is co-written by Kostas and features bass and harmonica artist Steve Roues, who has been accompanying Poussette-Dart since they attended high school together. The song is one Pousette-Dart is particularly proud of. “It’s about people’s inability to share ideas without rancor, without hearing both sides.” Says Young, “It’s a song that encourages discussion and resolving conflict by really listening.”
Both Young and Pousette-Dart speculate that the writing, along with the touring, will undoubtedly take them out of New York both individually and together. Tours are already booked: Jon will be at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, in Rockport, MA, on August 8, on a sold-out music cruise off Martha’s Vineyard on August 9, and two separate concerts at the Sweetwater Music Hall, in Mill Valley, CA, August 19 and 21.
“Dawn’s really the one who loves NY,” says Jon. “No, that’s not accurate. I love New York. It’s a crossroads for every kind of music. But here it’s more about the business of selling the music, than making it.” Which is why Jon and Dawn got themselves a “little place” in Nashville.
“Nashville is conducive to the way I like to do things. They care about the things I care about, which means they care about the craft of song writing. They’ve got real respect, real reverence for the song. And I’m a songwriter at heart.”
It’s easier, Jon says, to find people to write with, and songwriting benefits from partnerships. “In Nashville, musicians make a conscious effort to work together. There’s more willingness to collaborate there.”
Moreover, Nashville comprises a world that welcomes people who seek to reinvent themselves. “In LA and NY it’s all about the trends. The youth culture. In Nashville, there’s a real respect and a real reverence for age and experience. I love to go there to do what I do because it is in the air, I feel no constraints to be anything other than who I am. Theoretically that could be anywhere, but there is a receptive atmosphere built into the history of the town. With that said, I don’t go looking for money, I am looking for creativity.”
And creativity manages to find both Jon and Dawn. The projects they share are all about being creative, and being with their seven grandchildren – each of Dawn’s children has three children, and Jon’s son Chris recently added his own daughter; they now have Athena, Devereaux, Channing, Marisol, Manuela, Matias, and Madeleine – is an act of creativity. Further, their extended family and wide circles of friends provide another font of inspiration. And there’s still more to be found beyond their here and now. “Maybe we’ll travel some,” Jon speculates. “I’d like to experience more of what European audiences might be like.”
And beyond that, he and Dawn will just keep on keepin’ on. There’s no predicting what might come next, but both agree that it is sure to be innovative, and it will most certainly be challenging.
Carla Stockton, Nonfiction Editor of Issue #53, is a lifelong on-and-off New Yorker, who, after living for 13 years in exile in the southwest desert, brings a returnee’s perspective to the city. As a fully licensed sightseeing guide, she has a particular intimacy with the area and is never reluctant to share it with others. Carla’s semi-weekly column will discuss people, places and events in and around Manhattan. Follow her here.