gordon withers

rock cellist and maker of internets

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This is the story of the making of a benefit album.

Like many indie musicians coming of age in the 90's, I fell in love with the DC band Jawbox. Their unique combination of intricate, sometimes haunting and often dissonant guitar melodies, poignant lyrics, and sheer visceral power spoke directly to my developing artistic sensibilities like few other bands.  Their four albums (and amazing live shows) shaped my musical perspective permanently.

When faced with the task of an independent cello-related project for an Artist's Diploma at Brandeis University in 2000, I decided to arrange 11 Jawbox songs for cello quartet.  I recorded the demos hastily in my Somerville bedroom, on a 4-track tape recorder, and the results delighted a small number of friends, the members of Jawbox, and the occasional random mp3-pirate who happened upon them via a file-sharing program.

Two months ago, I learned that Jawbox's former lead singer, J. Robbins, was dealing with some devastating news.  It turns out that his and his wife Janet's 1-year-old son Callum was diagnosed with Type I Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a genetic disorder with no cure that is often fatal in infants.  J. makes a modest living as a recording engineer, and it is unclear how much his single-payer insurance will cover for the substantial costs his young family is already starting to incur.  Jawbox bandmates Kim Coletta and Bill Barbot have set up a donation page at the Desoto Records web site, and J and Janet have started a blog for Callum as well.  So far there has been an outpouring of support from across the country -- several benefit shows have been held in various cities (including a recent well-publicized Ted Leo & The Pharmacists show in NYC), and many people have donated out of the goodness of their hearts, and out of a need to give back to musicians who have given so much.

I was planning on adding to the pool of donations myself, but something didn't sit quite right, so I held off.  Then one day in early January as I was about to do something, I turned on iPod's shuffle function, and the first thing that came on was a Burning Airlines song (Burning Airlines was J's band after Jawbox).  It was one of those rare but wonderful moments when everything crystallizes and you're able to see exactly what you have to do... I knew right then that the next few months would see me re-recording those Jawbox cello arrangements, but in a real studio this time, to ultimately release as a benefit album. 

Logistics were an issue, but I knew in my gut that things would come together.  I would put as much of my own money into recording as I could, but keeping in mind that any money I spent is money I could have donated directly to the Robbinses.  I called up Alex Nelson, a musician, engineer, and partner at the Laboratory Recording Studio in Ft. Lauderdale.  I had never met him or even seen the studio, but I had gotten a good vibe from our brief correspondence and from the fact that the Lab was a cooperative -- by musicians, for musicians.

It turned out to be a good hunch.  Now it is the end of January, and I have two songs recorded, with another session booked for tomorrow night.  Alex has been a godsend, and we are even talking about setting up a benefit show for Cal in South Florida for sometime in the near future.  Meanwhile, Cal has just celebrated his first birthday, and the support from family, friends, and the music community has allowed him access to therapies and medical equipment he would not have known otherwise.

I have seen some criticism of the outpouring of support for Cal and his family -- it generally takes form of the typical philosophical question, "Why is this kid any more deserving than the countless others afflicted with this or any other disease?"  The answer is, of course, that every child with SMA is just as deserving of help.  But a recent post in the Space City Rock blog put it better than I could: "You can't help everybody, no, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to help at all."  In my case, I could never put a monetary value on the influence Jawbox and Burning Airlines have had on my life and my approach to music.  These songs are so hard-wired into my brain, with innumerable associations and memories forever linked in -- images of growing up in Central Pennsylvania, listening to music with lifelong friends, road trips, staying up late at night playing guitar, connecting with other music fans in college and beyond -- they are part of me.  Of course I can't physically help everyone who has SMA or give all my money away to those who need it more than me, but I can do what I can for those to whom I feel connected.  I'm not the world's greatest cellist, but I am probably the most qualified to arrange and record Jawbox songs -- and I think each of us has a similarly unique qualification or specialty that we can use to make the world a slightly better place.  This project has a small focus, to be sure, but my hope is that beyond any beneficial impact it may have for Cal and his family, it could perhaps inspire similar gestures within the community of musicians or beyond.  It may sound cliched, but we are all part of a larger family, and we should look after one another.

I will post regular updates here, and keep my eyes open for other mediums and channels to spread the word about Cal and SMA.  Please feel free to leave a comment or send a message via the links on the right.  I have created a public Google Calendar for tracking the progress of recording (see link below).  There is a link on the right to subscribe to a feed of this blog.  And if you have any ideas or know anyone who would be interested in helping with this project in any way, please do not hesitate to send a message.

Follow the album's progress via Google Calendar:



Originally posted on trisloth.vox.com


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You're doing a wonderful thing! I'm looking forward to updates.


Thanks! I'm trying out my never-before-used Vox blog to chronicle this project, but I'll cross-post every update here.

I'll post some rough mixes soon, perhaps!

wow, i hadn't heard about this . . thank you for posting it!

you truly are amazing,.. i look forward to hearing more of your studio results, and helping any way that i can!!

i hope tomorrow goes well :D


thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


you will be the first to hear the results, of course :)


ps. some dude in ottawa just im'd me on soulseek after finding the two tracks i've done already! :D

I think that's an awesome thing to do - you can probably generate more money for the cause by using your talent to produce something like that whose proceeds will go toward the cause than by donating that money directly. I am stoked to hear the result and eager to give my money for it.

Ted Leo + the Pharmacists are coming here soon, I wonder if that's part of the benefit - I'll have to check my Showbox email lists from the last couple weeks to see.

Keep us updated!


what burning airlines song was it?

have you ever heard j's version of fear is a man's best friend on the vietnam veterans benefits comp? i have spent more than a few nights listening to that on repeat. and 3 sisters by burning airlines.

when i heard about callum, i was floored. here was someone i hold as a hero, who wrote songs that were a huge part of my life. good luck with the cd.

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