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You Can Call Him Himmy

This article is different from every other article ever written
about Peter Himmelman. Why? Because every other article ever written about Peter Himmelman goes on for no more than a sentence or two before mentioning that Himmelman is the son-in-law of rock legend Bob Dylan within the first sentence or two. Just waiting until the third sentence takes tremendous restraint. "Yeah," Himmelman says by telephone from his California home. "Every article mentions the Dylan connection. Just once I wish they'd come up with some other tag. Heroin addiction, bank robbery, or sales of millions of records."

Good luck.
Not only is Himmelman not the junkie or bank-job type (he's a devoted family man, still married to Dylan's daughter Maria and the proud father of four little grandDylans), but he's about as likely to sell a million records as his father-in-law is to re-record "Girl from the North Country" as a duet with Busta Rhymes.

But album sales are only numbers. Singing and songwriting -- the day's miserably bland chart-topping pop confections to the contrary -- is an art. And Himmelman, who brings his electrifying live show to West Palm Beach's Gruber Hall Saturday, February 6, is one of the best pop artists around. An edgy, literate songwriter and a galvanic live performer, Himmelman is one of the best-kept secrets in folk-rock. His past records Synesthesia (1989) and From Strength to Strength (1991) earned him a loyal following; his new record, Love Thinketh No Evil, should satisfy that following and bring him new fans as well.

From the opening song, "Eyeball" (an edgy piece of work with programming by nine inch nails drummer Chris Vrenna) the album is ambitious without being pretentious, moody without being melodramatic. Sometimes fierce (the let-me-count-the-ways love litany "Seven Circles," which plays like an updated version of Dylan's "Wedding Song"), sometimes forlorn (the elegant "Checkmate"), and always surprising, the album is a testament to Himmelman's continued growth as an artist. And to his versatility.

On the moody "Coming Apart," his vocals bear a striking similarity to Elvis Costello's. On "Made for Me," he recalls Cat Stevens. And if that's not enough, there's the surging piano ballad "Gravity Can't Keep My Spirit Down," and even a hidden bonus track, the morbidly mordant "Sherman." Fifteen songs in all, and not a runt in the litter.

An album as rich as Love Thinketh No Evil deserves to be heard. In fact it deserved to be heard almost a year ago. Originally scheduled for release in March 1998, the record was shelved when Himmelman's label, Six Degrees, parted ways with distributor Island Records in the wake of Island founder Chris Blackwell's departure. (Less than a year later, Island was nearly dissolved in the Universal Music bloodletting.)

Himmelman says the break with Island didn't come as a tremendous shock. "I didn't have a premonition or anything," he remarks. "It was more a matter of having had a gut feeling about this kind of thing. Blackwell had already left, and left with some acrimony." The record sat in limbo for a year while Six Degrees cut a new distribution deal.

Such an ordeal couldn't be anything but disastrous from a creative standpoint, especially considering that Himmelman hadn't released a studio album since Skin in 1994. Right?

"Well, not really," Himmelman says with a laugh. "I've been so busy with other work. I wrote a film score for an independent film. And I made two children's records [including 1997's My Best Friend Is a Salamander]."

And on the business side? "I was willing to wait, and wait comfortably, for the entire year," he explains, "because I liked the things that Six Degrees has done. I have a lot of confidence in those guys. They have a vision and a sense of aesthetic. I haven't had to lie to them about what it is that I'm willing and unwilling to do."

Willing and unwilling to do, of course, is a code phrase, a not-so-veiled reference to Himmelman's Judaism, specifically to the fact that his religious beliefs prevent him from playing on Friday nights. The no-Friday-nights policy, which has led to Himmelman being dubbed "the Sandy Koufax of folk-rock" (after the legendary Dodger pitcher, who passed on a World Series start because it conflicted with the Jewish high holy days), only hints at the way he has integrated his faith into his art.

Like Christian songwriters Bruce Cockburn, Tonio K., and T-Bone Burnett, Himmelman has treated his faith obliquely; songs such as "Untitled," a track from the 1992 album Flown This Acid World that chronicles a ride with an anti-Semitic cab driver, are the exception. In part, Himmelman says, this results from a desire to avoid reductive analysis and misunderstanding.

"The thing that bothers me about the Judaism thing is that it's so difficult to describe and explain in a paragraph or in the context of a rock journalistic article," Himmelman maintains. "That's kind of how it's treated, and the problem with that is that I don't think it's a favorable way to sell records, let alone a good treatment of my understanding of spirituality. If you're into Buddhism or Hinduism, it would be more effective. Judaism is not even as hip as Native American mysticism."

In addition to being reductive, he says, the press coverage of his religion tends to treat him as a kind of poster boy for a fixed set of beliefs. "But you can't look at my situation as being static. Faith is never comfortable. It's never that you've found it. It's like a marriage: Just because you took the vow to be married, it doesn't mean that everything's going to be wonderful. If it's a real thing, it ebbs and flows, and sometimes it's out of your grasp."

In this sense Himmelman's faith is like his talent. "On this record I have noticed some changes," he explains. "For one, I can see my voice getting darker. As it gets older, it sounds more worldwise and huskier. Maybe there's a little more authority behind it. On the negative side, it lacks some of the grace it once had."

The vocal ripening has conspired with an ongoing musical evolution. "When I was about eighteen or nineteen years old I used to be into stranger chord progressions, more experimental things. I used to sit at the piano for nine hours at a stretch and work them all out. As a result when it came time for my first record, and I had to learn to understand the traditional harmonies that comprise country songs, it was really exciting for me. Now I've gotten to the point where I'm taking those standard things and combining them with weird departures." As an example of this new method, Himmelman points to Love's "Time Just Flew," which he says, "represents a new kind of song for me. I've heard it done as a jazz ballad, and I thought, Wow, this is one of my tunes, and I like it. Having done a lot of film scoring, I've learned about branching out to hit on these emotions that aren't germane to my particular feelings at the time."

As Himmelman gets older (he's 39 years old now), he says he feels less connected to the pop scene. "I don't really consider myself an authority," he laughs. "I don't think I'm even a good participant." As a result he doesn't believe he's qualified to weigh in on the state of modern music. Still he's not entirely ignorant. Pressed to list his favorite recent albums, he names Beck's Mutations ("I'm really moved by the second single ["Nobody's Fault but My Own"], by the way he moves through the melody"), Grant Lee Buffalo's Jubilee, and Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, a record that took even longer to see the light of day than Himmelman's.

Fans who braved the long delay between Skin and the new record won't have to wait nearly as long for the next one. In fact they won't have to wait at all. Himmelman has already completed an album of outtakes and live tracks, titled From the HimmelVaults, Vol. 1. The record is only on sale on the Six Degrees Website (www.sixdegreesrecords.com); it will be released later this spring.

And there are more wired projects forthcoming. "In the case of this vault album," he says, "I brought it to the label and they liked the idea. I have the capability, really, to put these out two or three times a year forever. In my shows there are always improvised moments, places where songs develop. The Internet seems like a good place to get some of that to fans. There's even been some discussion of another project. It would be a monthly musical magazine featuring some of my artwork, that might include two or three new songs with each issue. Right now, it seems too ambitious, but it appeals to me because I do a lot of different things, and making a record every two years -- well, that doesn't quite do it."

Peter Himmelman performs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, February 6, at the Jewish Community Center's Gruber Hall, 3151 N Military Tr, West Palm Beach; 561-689-7700. Tickets cost $12 for members, $18 for nonmembers.

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