BIOGRAPHY BY JONATHAN WIDRAN
“You brought beauty to this barren landscape…” It’s just a single poetic romantic line in a lyric on one song of Nick Binkley’s long awaited, provocatively titled fourth full length album Stardust Angels Ghosts. And yet it speaks volumes about the sense of insightful vision and ultimate hope the veteran singer-songwriter brings to an ever-complicated world greatly in need of this uplift. He wrote the tender, heartfelt “Brown Eyed Angel” as one of three affectionate tributes to Sam, his wife of 12 years, on the collection.
Beyond his personal expression of love, Binkley’s words resonate as a call to all of us to find the spirit of empathic engagement in a universe where constant sociopolitical conflicts distract us from the reality that in the end, as he sings on one of the title tracks, we are all indeed stardust, “dewdrops of intelligence” and all intricately connected to a common origin. In a streaming world where artwork is sometimes reduced to a thumbnail and thus undervalued, the eye-popping album cover imagery of a troubadour in the guise of the Invisible Man emerging from a barren desert landscape into a dynamic brightly lit cityscape of wonder and excitement is a revelation.
The album marks the latest release from PSB Records, a San Diego based label featuring independent artists and singer-songwriters active in the SoCal community since 1995.
The thread of ballads, rockers, Americana, and reggae tunes that populate Stardust Angels Ghosts reflects the Pasadena, CA native’s longtime creative aesthetic of incisively (and often humorously, with biting wit) addressing sociopolitical issues, balanced by heartfelt personal reflections of love and loss and ultimate expressions of hope. In the 25+ years since the release of his 1995 debut album Pin Stripe Brain, Binkley has fully embodied these dynamic qualities as a recording artist and, more recently, documentary film producer.
Building off a musical foundation that includes the newly re-released single of “Novi Mir” originally included on Let the Boy Jam (1999), one of Binkley’s most culturally impactful and enduring endeavors was conceiving and co-producing “Free To Rock,” a powerful 60 minute, star studded 2017 documentary film, directed by four time Emmy winning filmmaker Jim Brown. The film explores the previously untold story of how rock and roll contributed to ending the Cold War and to the collapse of Soviet Communism. In the glaring light of current world events, the film and song “Novi Mir” reflect a much more innocent time in world history and Russian-U.S. relations. As many of the songs on Stardust Angels Ghosts illuminate, the singer acknowledges that we (humanity) are far away from home, but intrinsically know how to get back there.
Stemming from Binkley’s decades long involvement with Russian rock musicians, along with his lifelong interest in international affairs, Binkley conceived “Free To Rock” with Valery Saifudinov, Russian rocker and émigré, and long-time international entertainment executive, producer and artist manager Doug Yeager. It was a twelve year-in-the-making marathon project produced in collaboration with the Grammy Museum, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Stas Namin Center, Moscow, and financed and underwritten by PSB Records, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“Free To Rock” (www.freetorockmovie.com) tells the revolutionary story of how the “soft power” of rock and roll penetrated the Iron Curtain and reached the hearts and minds of Soviet and Eastern European youth during the Cold War. Over the last half of the 20th Century, rock and roll spread like wildfire across the Soviet Empire. The Kremlin, KGB and its security satellites throughout Eastern Europe felt threatened by this foreign “virus” which President Putin once referred to as “propaganda from an alien ideology.” The Soviet Ministry of Culture over-reacted and cracked down harshly on rock and roll and the youth who embraced it, resulting in it becoming the forbidden fruit desired by millions of teenagers. Their enthusiasm for the music not only inspired a youth rebellion that openly defied the Communist system, but also fueled many of the liberation movements in the occupied territories of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.
A meeting in 1977 with Russian émigré rocker Valery Saifudinov, who had founded the first rock and roll band in the former Soviet Union, led Binkley to help him set up a rehearsal and recording space in a San Francisco loft where newly arrived rock and roll émigrés from the U.S.S.R. lived and performed. During that period, he befriended and supported the first wave of Soviet rockers allowed to immigrate to America.
These musicians—including Saifudinov, Grisha Dimant, Serge Diujikov and Yuri Valov, who would later become Binkley’s band (Nick Binkley & The Street Dogs) – recorded and toured with him in Russia and appeared with him and Russian pop star, Vyacheslav Malizhik, performing “Novi Mir” on Russian national television and radio. The Street Dogs also provided the musical foundation for the recording and live performances of Pin Stripe Brain and Let The Boy Jam. Saifudinov also recorded Stardust Angels Ghosts at his Flight 19 studio in San Diego.
Vyacheslav Malezhik, one of Russia’s top pop stars for more than four decades, traveled to San Diego in August 1996 hoping to record his next album with American and Russian émigré musicians at Flight 19. While in San Diego, he and his wife, Tatiana, stayed with Binkley. One night, Binkley dusted off and sang a song he had written years before about “friendship between vodka and scotch” and rapprochement between East and West. Malezhik then wrote a couple verses in Russian, and the two co-wrote “Novi Mir,” a powerful post-Cold War anthem with librettos in Russian and English (“Novi Mir” which roughly translates to “New Peace” or “New World”) to celebrate the promising new era in Russian and American relations.
The song appears on Binkley’s album Let The Boy Jam and also on Malezhik’s subsequent album released by Melodiya Records in Russia where it received extensive airplay. Binkley and Malezhik appeared together on radio and television, while also performing in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the late 90s. They later reunited for a concert at the Kremlin Palace Concert Hall in 2007, which was televised nationally. Binkley attributes his original idea for “Free To Rock” to the adrenalin high of working with Malezhik during that exciting and hopeful post-Soviet era. Binkley recently re-released the single and a remastered video of “Novi Mir” on social media and streaming platforms to remind the world of “what could have been.”
Balancing the politically charged and spirit-awakening philosophical songs on Stardust Angels Ghosts, the personal heart and soul of the project are the love songs to his Jamaican born wife Sam. Another sweet line in “Brown Eyed Angel” conveys the sense of emotional and spiritual resurrection from a very dark time Binkley went through after the sudden passing of his late wife in 2003. He sings to Sam: “Offered your hand in pleasure, took the pain away/Beauty and pleasure turned the lights back on.”
The passing of his wife in 2003 prompted many powerful changes in Binkley’s life. He disbanded his Street Dogs band; made the decision to wind down his involvement in outside business interests; and began to spend more time on Orcas Island in Washington’s peaceful and picturesque San Juan Islands, where he built a second home. The island has been a retreat for Binkley for nearly 50 years. He also spent time there with his longtime musical collaborator and onetime band mate Steve Dudas, who plays guitars on the new album. Dudas is known for his songwriting collaboration with Ringo Starr and touring as a young guitar player with Chuck Berry. Another key longtime collaborator and onetime band mate featured on the new project is Mark Hart, well known for his many years with Crowded House and Supertramp. Hart is part of the core band on Stardust Angels Ghosts, playing keyboards, organ, lap steel, pedal steel and slide guitars.
Looking back, one of the essential experiences that originally led Binkley into the craft of songwriting came in 1975, when he left his day job in finance to study at the Songwriting Workshop at the Guitar Study Center in New York City with Paul Simon’s brother Eddie and music industry veteran Barry Kornfeld. Barry became Binkley’s mentor, ribbing him at one point as “the singing banker.” In the early 80’s in LA, Binkley formed a band which included Dudas and Hart (and the late Doug Lunn who plays bass on “Slow Dance,” the fourth track on the new album) and recorded demos and played The Palomino Club in The Valley. His concurrent time in the steel and glass corporate world would ultimately lead to the fascinating duality he chronicled on Pin Stripe Brain. The collection gave him the opportunity to reflect, in song, upon his fears of the slow wasting away of youthful curiosity and creativity as we inevitably age and become locked into our respective careers, however remunerative.
“For many years, my musical life was about shattering the image of all ‘Pinstripe Brains’ as one-dimensional automatons. But since 2003, writing is more salve, a kind of self-medication, self-reflection, meditation even. Stardust Angels Ghosts, further reflects on, recognizes, and honors the redemptive power that is empathy and our innately human ability to let love in and heal us. It’s a plea for all of us in this complex universe to become more aware of our indivisibility even though we may think ourselves invisible, ghosts moving through an urban or desert landscape, and realize that we are all, in essence, stardust. As I start to sing ‘We Are Stardust,’ I quote from Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘Song of Myself’: ‘…from every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you…’ and then repeat the refrain, ‘We’re all in this together’.”