The Strange Case of Dr. Caspi and Mr. Jon

Older, louder, now with 30 percent more Clooney: rockological Ph.D Jon Caspi leaves the classroom for the Brighton barroom on November 19, with the official release party (w/ promised surprises) of his Pete-produced new set with the First Gun, entitled THE LITTLE ONES.

“The older I get, the louder I’m getting,” says the voice at the other end of the line. “I’m definitely bucking the trend.”

It was right there on our Facebook wall the other day — yet another of our friends and contemporaries had transitioned over to the not-so-sweet side of 50; a mortifying milestone that prompted at least one mutual acquaintance to weigh in with a reassurance to the effect of “what’s really pathetic is when you’re 50 and trying to be 25!”

It gave pause, just for a little bit, to your humble correspondent; a 50-something working-world dropout sans car/ career/ credit card who keeps “Lullaby of Broadway” hours; whose TV tastes run to the Tosh/frat/fart humor side of things — and for whom the whole middle class, NJ Transit commuter, family guy deal seems SO eight or nine lives ago by this late stage of the lopsided game.

There’s another perspective to be had on this midlife mire, however, and it’s espoused by a very smart man named Dr. Jonathan Caspi, Ph.D. — professor at Montclair State, licensed therapist, published author and internationally recognized frequent public speaker on the topics of child development and family studies.

Dr. Caspi — who you’re more likely to know as Jon Caspi, singer/songwriter, electrical guitarist, prolific indie recording artist and highly visible gigger up and down the Upper Wet Side of NJ — put it most succinctly in his (1:50) song “Fading Into Gray“: “Wake up/ it’s getting hard to even stay up/ c’mon now put on your makeup/ staying in is not OK.”

“I don’t care how old you are, if you don’t leave the four walls of your house, you don’t live,” says Caspi, who in between his dichotomic existence as educator and entertainer has somehow managed to pen two books in three years — and who, just to make you feel even more like some slackass slug, is also a husband and father of three young kids.

Adds the salt ‘n pepper haired performer who’s had some fun with his storied resemblance to George Clooney, “I get annoyed with other people telling me they’re ‘too tired’ to go out.”

Although he doesn’t stray too far from his homebase on the mean streets of Holmdel, Caspi has been known to walk that talk in recent months; appearing with his rocked-up trio The First Gun in cred-encrusted Shore rocklubs of the sort that would once have brought down a promising academic career simply by association. This Saturday, November the 19th, the professor takes it to the hallowed Home of Original Music on the Jersey Shore, when the Brighton Bar hosts a CD release sale-a-bration for his fifth(!) and latest solo album, a supercharged set known as The Little Ones.

Punk pedigree: Jon Caspi with Pete Steinkopf, guitarist for the Bouncing Souls and producer of the new Caspi platter THE LITTLE ONES.

Produced by none other The Bouncing Souls guitarist Pete “The Pete” Steinkopf, recorded this past summer at the Bouncing boys’ secret clubhouse recording studio in Asbury Park (just up Fourth Ave from the groovy grotto where we peck out this blogfest), The Little Ones is, despite the title, not some Dan Zanes kinder-rock singalong, but an electrified, driving, merciless set with a terse punk-fueled energy and a very particular, in-your-face point of view. This in a musical climate in which the hacky-sack sounds of Brooklyn-bred Americana acoustica would appear to hold sway.

“I listened to a lot of punk growing up,” says the songwriter, who also professed to having been influenced by the story-songs of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel in an earlier interview about his concept album and theatrical presentation Eddie Knows.

“There was a time, a few years back, when I was doing more acoustic than electric material,” recalls Caspi, who we first encountered in strictly solo settings at places like the Red Bank Public Library and Twisted Tree Cafe. “The harder edged, First Gun sort of sound evolved over the most recent couple of albums — it seemed to fit where these new songs were coming from.”

Indeed, that aforementioned edge extends to the subject matter of the new Caspi compositions — which, as in the example of “Got It Good,” are designed to make listeners anything but comfortable in their suburban skins. It’s far from a hedonistic puke-pasted pogo party, although you CAN conceivably dance to it.

“The song ‘The Little Ones’ is about child soldiers in places like Uganda and the Ivory Coast,” says Caspi of the title track to the disc that, in a design by bass player Doug Lane, juxtaposes a front cover image of a deadpan African preteen brandishing an assault rifle, with a back cover shot of a white American kid looking tough behind the trigger of a water pistol.

“Children who are 12, 13 years old are growing up in the worst, most impoverished conditions, and they’re being abducted from their families and made to fight in these ongoing civil wars,” the professional family counselor continues. “There can’t be anything worse, and it continues to happen.”

“I remember a time not too long ago, during the era of Live Aid and ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas,’ when people were interested in what was going on in Africa…there seems to be a sense of having moved on from it, which makes no sense whatsoever, since all of us are very much a part of the same family.”

For Caspi, these are anything but empty if emphatic words. Far from being a fashionably concerned dilettante, the singer has made several trips to Sub-Saharan Africa — culminating in the adoption of an Ethiopian child, whose journey to join the Caspi family’s two biological kids was documented by Dad in his 2010 song cycle Strange Situation.

You were expecting maybe any lesser level of commitment from the likes of Jon Caspi?

Calling his now two year old adoptee a “great kid; definitely one of the family in every way,” the domestic dynamics expert laughs when asked if his young ‘uns ever exhibit any annoyance at providing an inexhaustible stream of material for their father’s dissertations and/or ditties — observing that “my ten year old certainly knows what I do…he thinks it gives him the advantage.”

Whether the spark of inspiration is being ripped screaming from today’s headlines — or simply happening at the breakfast table on the other side of the daily paper — there’s no denying that Jon Caspi is finding that spark in the world around him, and is transforming that impulse to observe and report into words, music and more words, even if it sometimes means forcing himself to play by everybody else’s timetable.

The Little Ones was wrapped up and ready to be released as early as last June, but I had just put out Strange Situation only eight months prior,” says Caspi. “We had to  stop for a second and admit that it would be best for everyone if we gave at least a year between albums.”

Within that brief window, Caspi watched as “every area I’ve worked in…academia, publishing, music…continued  to completely change out from underneath us.”

“The band talked about about maybe not doing a CD this time; calling it a dead medium,” says Caspi. “I’m still of the opinion that my audience is a CD audience…although we’re just doing a fairly small run, and also doing download cards since that’s where it’s been heading for a lot of people.”

Admitting that “in high school, I loved vinyl; just the process of buying a record, bringing it home, unwrapping it, putting the needle on it for the first time,” Caspi lets on that the band will have another little surprise awaiting fans on Saturday night’s merch table — a delightfully retro, limited run, long neglected recorded music format that might just be making its final appearance in our lifetime, if it doesn’t otherwise kick off a whole crazy revival.

Jon Caspi & the First Gun are scheduled to take the stage at approximately 10:15pm on November 19, atop a Brighton bill that further features Goat Rope, Rebel Pawn, and the latest reunion of The Xmen, the 1980s band that’s fronted of course by Brighton co-owner (and high school history teacher) Greg Macolino. Watch this space for more news and activity from the ever-busy Caspi (including a rumored film panel appearance at The Showroom in Asbury Park) — and don’t forget about The Pete and The Bouncing Souls’ big annual Home for the Holidays stand at the Stoney, December 27-30.