1/15: A Border Crossing in Red Bank

Christopher CrossGrammy’d-up singer-songwriter Christopher Cross comes to Red Bank’s Two River Theater for an Intimate Evenings concert (and a benefit for Sandy Relief) on Thursday, January 17.

To a huge cross section of humanity, his songs are integrated with the Soundtrack To Our Lives — whether the Number One hit ballad “Sailing” was on the turntable during a certain memorable moment in your adolescence, or whether “Ride Like the Wind” was part of the choral curriculum in Mr. Grueter’s fifth-period music class, or whether “I Will (Take You Forever)” was danced to at your sister’s wedding, or whether you just heard “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” piped into the Shop-Rite not ten minutes ago.

Yet, for all of the units he sold back around the turn of the 1980s; for all of the awards that have made his trophy case buckle and groan — no less than five Grammys, a Golden Globe, and even an Oscar for that theme to the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy — we tend to know precious little about Christopher Cross.

Even if you do happen to know a thing or two about the smooth-tenor voiced (but low-key as regards his public persona) singer and songwriter, you might be surprised to find that the San Antonio native divides his residential time between his Texas stomping grounds and Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. You probably wouldn’t be at all surprised to know that he continues to release new albums of precision-crafted pop music, and to play dozens of live concerts every year — a line of endeavor that brings him to the stage of Two River Theater this Thursday night, January 17.

The 7:30 pm show is the latest in an ongoing series of “Intimate Evenings” events produced by MusicWorks Entertainment, the concert promotion and production company co-founded by former Count Basie Theatre Foundation CEO Rusty Young. In keeping with the MusicWorks mission statement, portions of proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Hurricane Sandy Relief Foundation and its network of locally based humanitarian and restoration efforts.

Expect the expected on Thursday, in the form of those signature standards rendered with an angelic tone that hasn’t coarsened or dulled over the oceans of time that have passed since their release. Expect as well the unexpected, in the form of songs from such recent projects as 2011’s Dr. Faith — an album that proves Cross has ceded none of his claim to being king of the adult-contemporary love song, soft-rock candy mountain (“When You Come Home”). It also amps up the chunky guitars in a manner that might pop a monocle or two — and on compositions like “I’m Too Old For This,” introduces us to an Angry (but still sweet-voiced) Chris who rails against “the willful ignorance across the nation…the screaming yahoos on every station.”

UpperWETside spoke to the affable, down-to-earth Cross, somewhere between the Moon and Red Bank Borough…

Christopher CrossupperWETside: One of the most intriguing things about speaking to Christopher Cross is that we know so very little about you, and we’re sure that’s largely by design. Even with all the hits you had on the cusp of the whole MTV era, there was always the sense of the song taking precedence over the public persona of the singer. And we don’t recall ever seeing you on TMZ, getting ejected from a nightclub or taking a sledgehammer to somebody’s car.

CHRISTOPHER CROSS: I have followed the trend of being pretty private, I suppose. But I did get on TMZ, in a way…according to some friends of mine, an African American guy who was being interviewed said, ‘Christopher Cross has to play the Apollo — black people like his music!’ It was a pleasant surprise for me.

That reminds us of one thing we were surprised to find out, which is that you’re a New Yorker a great deal of the time — meaning we don’t exactly have to explain the whole Superstorm Sandy thing to you in any great detail.

My neighborhood’s a great location; my daughter, who’s 20, is in the Village, so I’m able to see her. And I’m able to take in a lot of music close to where I live — I saw the Stones in Newark pretty recently.

I’m very impressed with how the city’s come back since the storm — you would expect the center of where the money is to get fixed first, but they really have done a fantastic job repairing Manhattan. The outlying areas, of course, have a lot of work to be done.

This show in Red Bank is for a good cause; the area’s been so hard hit — and if we’ve learned anything in the past few months, it’s that our idea of success doesn’t mean a thing when Mother Nature has the last word. One minute you’re doing OK, then Nature comes along and wipes out your life.

We had a listen to your most recent album, and we couldn’t help but notice that in addition to a lot more electric guitar there’s an edge of social commentary that’s manifested itself in your music along the line…it’s evident on the title track, and on “Hey Kid,” and especially on the one called “I’m Too Old For This,” where we encounter a Christopher Cross who’s actually angry about the state of America, Congress, the media. We don’t usually think of lyrics like “it’s raining morons” or “so hard not to wish some people dead” as something we’d encounter in one of your songs. 

A lot of journalists that I’ve talked to are especially interested in that song…it’s sort of a Bill Maher rant. In fact, I’ve got some hippie-type friends who told me, ‘take that song off the album, it’s pretty negative.’ But, you know, I’m 61 years old, and by this point we kind of feel the need to comment, to put in our two cents on things like the Kardashians — the whole ‘famous for being famous’ thing.

I thought we’d be more progressed by now, and yet we’re still fighting over things like the ice caps — things that are kind of undeniable. We’re fighting over whether somebody really needs to walk around with 100 rounds of ammo. Or, we’re giving up the fight too soon — one thing about America is that people are shocked and saddened when a truly tragic thing happens, and then very quickly go back to their lives.

I get some hope from the new generation, who are pretty colorless when it comes to race and preference. They’re so much more accepting of things like biracial couples, having friends who are gay — things that would have gotten a community up in arms not too long ago. And to them, it barely even registers.

Is this an observation that you’ve taken away from your own kids, who are now young adults?

What’s interesting is that my daughter who’s in New York registered to vote for the first time this past year, and was very happy to have voted for a candidate who she feels had her best interests at heart. Meanwhile my son who lives in Texas, where we’ve got politicians like our governor who makes noises about secession, says ‘what’s the point; my vote isn’t going to change anything.’ But I do like to see things like Governor Christie working together with President Obama, toward a common goal.

We imagine you’re going to spotlight a good amount of this new material in your upcoming show, but it’s probably safe to assume that you’ll be doing all the mega-hits as well…which leads us to the elephant in the living room; your first couple of years as a recording artist and the almost surreal degree of success you experienced right out of the box.

There are performers who have gotten that huge hit early on, and then spent the following decades trying to backpedal away from it, like their signature song is an albatross around their neck. A lot of people — Maureen McGovern, who appeared at Two River Theater last year, comes to mind — had their big Number One hit with a song that was pushed upon them, arranged without their input. But we get the feeling that you stand by those instantly recognizable records; you wrote or co-wrote all of those hits, and they’re all your babies…

Well, when you’re still writing songs, the youngest kids are the cutest, you know? But I’m very proud of my early songs…’Sailing’ I always thought of as a rare example of an artistic, introspective sort of song that was also a hit.

So many great songwriters are so overlooked — people like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Eva Cassidy, Imogen Heap. Randy Newman, who could write an amazing song like ‘Rednecks,’ and also have a hit with a song like ‘Short People.’ All of the people that I just mentioned did what they did mostly outside of the usual radio and video channels, and the fact that other people love to sing their songs is what helped them establish careers that aren’t tied down to one single hit record.

To riff on the sailing analogy, you come across as being a pretty savvy navigator when it comes to maintaining a long-playing career — a lot of performers from the 60s, 70s, 80s have hit the county fair circuit by this point; the classic car shows and such.  

It’s what I do, too! We play fairs, with waffle cones — we’ve been put into a genre as a ‘heritage’ band. And while I’d like to have a career like Sting, I’m able to tour, and to support my family through playing music — I do probably 60 to 70 concerts each year. It’s my main source of revenue.

We have to ask, anytime we’re able to talk with an artist whose career straddles the different eras of the record business — basically, pre- and post-internet — how you feel about the sea-changes that our hand-held devices have wrought upon the once-mighty music biz? Do the benefits to the artist outweigh the downside? And do we really want to go back to the days when the big record companies held all the cards?

There was a whole Cycle of Life, where you did an album, then a tour, then another album, another tour. I think it was great — the record companies had a plan, and we followed it. I sold ten million records for Warner Brothers, and I made millions.

Then around 1986, ’87, the record labels changed the royalty rate, for no other reason than ‘just because.’ Because they could, and because there’s always a search on for ways to make money. Now, with the record companies being in the situation that they’re in, they’ve been asking for a piece of the artists’ revenue from live concerts. To which I answered, with expletive deleted — NO!

We entered into a paradigm shift. What the internet did was, it democratized art — and it keeps you from monetizing your art. I feel that music, books, apps are all intellectual property — same with art in general. People took the time to create these things, and we need to find ways to ensure that the people who create stuff get paid fairly for it.

I saw Neil Young on Letterman a while back, talking about this thing called Pono that he’s involved with — this ‘digital to analog’ system that’s an audiophile alternative to the mp3 format. He’d like to get people like Bruce Springsteen on board with it, so one of the things that got my attention is that this is an artist-driven idea.

So what’s ahead for Christopher Cross here in the new year?

I’ve got a new album that we’re working on; we’re going forward, trying to step up our game. And I’ll continue to get out there and do concerts. I’ve got a pretty broad audience, ranging from 20 to 70 years old — I remember one very elderly-looking woman who came to a show and mentioned that she saw Led Zeppelin back around 1969, and when you think of it that seems about right. But as long as people can get to my shows in walkers, I’ll be there for them!

Tickets, priced between $55 – $105, are still available from the Two River online Ticket Purchase Window, with a portion of ticket sales donated to Sandy Relief.

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