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Casey Neill’s Pacific trail

 Street Roots (USA) 13 May 2019

(Originally published: 05/2010) Musician Casey Neill talks to Israel Bayer for Street Roots. (2813 words) - By Israel Bayer

Street Roots

Photo courtesy of David Belisle

Portland musician's lyrics liberate the poet inside the working man

Casey Neill's music and song writing, like so many great storytellers before him, tells the tale the haunted working poet in search of something that lay both far and away and within each of us, both beautiful and tragic.

Neill, a humble and detailed man, along with an all-star group of musicians called the Norway Rats, is set to release "Goodbye to the Rank and File" with the local label and online music magazine In Music We Trust.

"Goodbye to the Rank and File" is Neill's second album with the Norway Rats, a band currently made up of some of Portland's best-known musicians, including Jenny Conlee with the Decemberists, and Little Sue, a singer and songwriter and country music icon. It will be Neill's fifth full-length album.

The music that accompanies Neill's stories blends many genres, including traditional Irish, punk, folk, and rock-n-roll. On "Goodbye to the Rank and File", Neill says the sound is more nostalgic, harnessing an old industrial rock-n-roll feel, which is fitting for the stories the album has to tell.

"This album in many ways is about the people that you lose along the way, or the people that disappear in one direction or another in all of our lives," Neill says. "It really has this sense of we're all still here, years on. We've all done and continue to do our best."

Anchoring the album, says Neill, is the song "Guttered."

"It's about being engaged and working to make the world a better place for a long period of time," Neill says. "He or she finds themselves in 2010, and the world has changed dramatically in a short time period, in lots of good ways and lots of bad ways. And how one internalized adapting to the world around them. At different times in our lives we have legs underneath us and are doing great things, and other times you're struggling to just get through and lost. I think this album touches on all of those things. It's really about perseverance."

smoking lucky strikes in a snow covered graveyard
you watch your breath spill into the air
the night gives no shelter & the wind it cuts through
you and you look up at the sky & swear
at the winter stars and their indifference to you
dizzy from the drink and that shaky homegrown
you pull your wool hat over your eyes and lean against a headstone
ain't it like that when you're guttered & there is no where to go
ain't it like that when you're guttered you walk the graveyard in the snow

Raised off the banks of the deep New Haven harbour in Connecticut, awash in the maritime cultures of New York City. the singer and songwriter grew up on the edge of an American culture delivered by the sea.

At age 13, three years after he picked up his first guitar, Neill found himself like so many others in America, a latchkey kid with an unknown future laid out before him.

Raised between his mother, an art historian in New Haven, and his father, who worked at South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, Neill's anthropologic song writing was influenced by both the historical and the working class cultures that surrounded him.

"I would hang out in the middle of the night at a fish market," he says. "All the fishermen would come in from all up and down the Atlantic seaboard, and as a teenager I would watch all these guys work all night long."

His younger years shaped Neill's love for working people, maritime culture and travel, all of which would later spill out of his being in the form of music and song.

Untold Stories

Neill's artistry is in capturing the often untold, yet remarkable stories of ordinary human beings. That was the case with George, a 74-year old Greek immigrant who in 2004 was the last man left inhabiting a flophouse in the Bowery in New York City. After reading about George's battle in an article by New York Times writer Dan Barry, Neill wrote "Stevenson Hotel," named for the building George called home.

cubicle number 40
chicken wire on the ceiling
the stevenson hotel
106 Bowery
and George is the last man standing
he's been here 30 years
in this flophouse up the stairs
he is not leaving, oh no
he is not leaving

cubicle number 40
all the others are empty
4 feet by 8 feet
the walls all vomit green
and George says "they're all gone.
The Professor and Jullian
who used to beat me".
he's been here so long
damned if he's leaving, oh no
he is not leaving

and the Bowery boys today are just the elite on parade
and the landlords and the lawyers know there's money to be made
from an old hotel where the rooms used to go for 5 bucks a day
a cool 1.2 Million is the price that would be paid ...

"I wrote the original story in 2004 about George," says Dan Barry, speaking from New York. "Six or seven months ago, Casey sent me a note along with the song. I didn't know Casey, and I was flattered. He used some language from the column, and created this very haunted song. It got me thinking. I've been a reporter for 25 years, and you're always moving on. This time, I wanted to go back and see what had happened to George.

The project turned into a night at the hotel for Barry, and a report that delved into the building's storied past, all the way to its last resident.

"Casey rang my bell, and piqued my interest to go back for that story with the song," says Barry. "It's beautiful and haunting."

What Barry found was a building in the Bowery that over the past 150 years had been a hotel that catered to Asian tourists, a music hall, a restaurant, and eventually a flophouse - each incarnation with a story to tell.

In March, the New York Times published the article by Barry titled "On the Bow'ry," which explored the many faces of the building and its inhabitants. (Stevenson Hotel and a slide-show with Barry's reporting is featured on the New York Times Web site.) George had been forced by the State Supreme Court to vacate the building. In the ruling, George was granted $80,000 and was sent back to Greece. Within a few months, in a simple twist of fate, George was dead.
A similar tragic tale is told in Neill's song "Sisters Of The Road" on the 2005 recording, "Memory Against Forgetting." Here in the second verse Neill sings:

Trina fell for a punk named Silver from Southern Illinois
who'd been living on the streets of the West Coast since he was a 13-year-old boy
he knew every free meal in Stumptown, every dry place to keep warm
and he'd take her to 'em when the darkness fell and they'd lie in each others arms
Silver hustled now and again in the backs of drunk men's cars
scars ran up and down his arms like the tracks in the rail yards
when he'd offer it to her, you know she never once took it
beneath the I-5 viaduct his teeth clenched to a tourniquet
one day the cops found his body by the train tracks where he'd hop the line to Frisco
But for the last year of his life, he loved a sister of the road ...

The song is a sober and timeless reminder of generations of young people at the edge of an urban culture that is both misunderstood and taboo. Neill's songs, like his parents' love of history, have been inspired by those that came before, including Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Pete Seeger.

Neill tells of an experience he had with the legendary songwriter after recording some medleys about the Hudson River for the compilation album, "Where have all the flowers gone: A tribute to Pete Seeger."

"We met up in New York City, and he invited me up to his place," says Neill. "We were waiting for a train in Grand Central Station together on a Saturday night, and we had a half an hour or so before the train arrived. So we played music together in the middle of Grand Central Station. It was amazing," says Neill.

"I went up to his house and stayed the night, and the guestroom where I stayed is filled with all these old 2-inch tapes, and all this material. I stayed up all night reading everything in the room and overslept until like 10 in the morning. Pete and his wife had been waiting for me to have breakfast, and I'm sure they were up at 6 a.m. He was chopping a cord of wood as I rolled out of bed. They fed me breakfast and then asked me to sing some songs for them in their living room. I can't describe what that experience did for me."

But Neill's more than just a singer and songwriter who writes about the misadventures of sailors, workmen and those tramping on the outer rings of society. "I love to write love songs. Ones that look at love from different perspectives," says Neill.

One song off the record, "When I came to you," sung in duet with Little Sue, captures this:

When I came to you, I came with dust and deserted alleys
I came with a train ride across the North in the snow
I came with well-worn clothes that didn't fit my frame so well
When I came to you I had a lifetime of farewells…

When you came to me you came with women's names I could not hear
ashes and excess and a thousand yard stare
so like a child and then so steadfast and so strong
when you came to me you didn't know where you belonged

When you came to me you brought the streets of London in the rain
Boston in the winter, Charlotte in the Spring
Came with a storm to sting my eyes, made me feel alive and free
I walked proud into the daylight when you came to me

Finding a voice

By the mid-to-late '90s, many of the Americana and indie bands from the Midwest and South, such as Son Volt, Wilco and Whiskeytown, were beginning to be recognized nationwide. Neill, with a long-list of what he calls "magical" musicians, was lingering at the edge of a new indie scene that was exploding from basements and dingy bars onto the covers of major music magazines.

Neill's first tour was in 1994-95, where his says "the Pacific Northwest crept into my music. In Olympia (where Neill was living), you had this whole D.C. connection with punk rock and obscure folk music being created. The anti-globalization movement was happening. There was something different in the air. An entire group of artists, musicians, and writers just latched onto that. I've scurried along the edges of all these different scenes, and worked hard to develop my voice.

"I started out as an activist before I was a working musician, so a lot of those early songs were about direct events and lore from various campaigns," says Neill. "I was playing at protests, rallies, and blockades right in the heart of it. As I got more involved in the music world, I played at clubs more than punk rock info shops and such. As I got more into the craft of song writing, my standards for what makes a good political song got very high. Now I don't write as many because I need them to reach a certain bar of quality, smart and ferocious, but not too didactic. That is not easy. It's why just telling a story works so well because it leaves the conclusions up to the listener."

Living within the activist world and underground cultures of the Pacific Northwest, exploring a love for a wide-range of music, Neill has never found the commercial success enjoyed by some in the movements. Neill's music, along with his fan-base, remains dedicated and grassroots.

"From a marketing perspective, I've probably not followed any of the rules," says Neill. "I've bounced from the bluegrass and folk scenes to the Celtic thing, and then rock-n-roll."

Neill's first album, "Riffraff," was released in 1996. The activist community on the West Coast, and others around the country experienced Casey Neill for the first time. A small cult following on islands around the U.S. began.

For the next 11 years, Neill, working with dozens of well-respected musicians, pieced together three more full-length albums and two live recordings, touring the country, including stints in Europe, maintaining a simple lifestyle of hard work and hard play. Neill would live in Olympia, Seattle, in the small town of Concrete, Washington, Portland, New York, and back to Portland, where he currently resides in a modest house in North Portland. During that time, both his experiences and a web of different musicians helped shape the many sounds of Casey Neill.

"A lot of people have believed in me along the way," Neill says. "It's very hard to maintain as a working artist without a peer system, or people around you that are supportive. I am lucky to have that."

In 1997, Neill and the Norway Rats, a group of musicians from Portland and New York, put out "Brooklyn Bridge," a critically acclaimed recording that explores the haunts of New York City. In the song "Holy Land," Neill and the Norway Rats capture one aspect of the city's past with an "aggression and toughness."

Brother if you are weary and worn, there's a light in the window for thee
out on the docks where the battery roughs
and Magdelene's daughters roam easy and free
at the Sportsman's Hall 273 Water, Kit Burns is the man with the still and the pit
and he'll take you're hard scratch for the odds on a match in a house full of vice, filth, and spit

On "Goodbye to the Rank and File" the listener is reminded about of the realities that many working artists, freethinkers and activists face, and a journey we can all relate too. From "When the world was young":

what ever happened to those who swore they'd never stray?
there's an undercurrent of dirt and stain no shine can wash away
it's goodbye to the rank and file are those your taillights leaving town?
i know it'd be a lie if I said I'd see you 'round
our soundtrack to the end times has all become white noise
static on the airwaves, the echoes of forgotten joys
for the true believers there are a few who still remain
hunkering down in our kingdom of rain

I still have a ringing in my ears,
I still have a ringing in my ears.

Casey Neill sidebar:

The Norway Rats span a diverse web of Portland and Pacific Northwest Music.

Ezra Holbrook, who produced "Goodbye to the Rank and File" and plays drums. Also fronts the funk band Dr Theopolis, was in the Decemberists on their first two records, plays drums in the Minus 5 (with Scott McCaughey & Peter Buck of R.E.M.), and is a great singer songwriter in his own right.

Chet Lyster, guitar player, touring member of Lucinda Williams' current lineup and is often a member of Eels.

Little Sue, a local country chanteuse. In addition to 10 years of being a core member of Portland's music community and releasing five CDs of original songs, she also plays bass in a new band called From Words to Blows and has sung with countless groups in Portland. Little Sue plays guitar and sings vocals, including duets on the new CD.

Jenny Conlee, accordion player and keyboardist. Conlee is in the Decemberists, From Words to Blows and Black Prairie. Neill says of Conlee, that she is one of the most tasteful and intuitive musicians I have ever known.

Jesse Emerson, bassist. He also fronts From Words to Blows and plays/co-writes songs in the popular band Amelia. He also plays bass with the country act Caleb Klauder.

Hanz Araki, a satellite member of the Norway Rats is a singer, Irish flute player, and comes from six generations of master Japanese shakuhatchi flute masters. He sings and plays Irish music in the bands Tarish and State and Standard as well as playing every Sunday night at Biddy McGraws.

Casey Neill, Jenny Conlee, Ezra Holbrook, and Hanz Araki of the Norway Rats also play in the popular Pogues tribute band K.M.R.I.A.

Goodbye to the Rank and File will be available in Portland music stores on May 18th. You can currently buy the album on-line at

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