I’ve been a fan of Tristan Israel’s music since I first heard him play at a Chilmark Potluck Jam a half-dozen years ago. He writes songs about hep C and pillbugs, about love and the environment, and a lot of songs about the Island. Some of them are tongue-in-cheek, like the song he wrote about his bout of pneumonic tularemia in 2000, aptly titled “Tularemia.” That one made him a rock star among the pencil pocket-protector set. Israel, 71 now and finally retired after nearly 25 years as a Tisbury selectman, gets a kick out of telling me the “Tularemia” story about selling out of CDs at a Woods Hole scientific conference he was invited to, and barely skims over the fact that he could’ve died from the illness.
He’s released a new CD, “Out Into the Midnight,” and now that Israel’s retired, he has time to focus on music. The CD is full of storytelling treasures, and was made with the help of two of his longtime collaborators, Nancy Jephcote and Paul Thurlow. You’ll hear a pennywhistle, fiddle, snappy keyboard playing, and drums by Tristan’s brother Michael, who lives in California. Tristan’s own excellent guitar picking and playing are there too. As usual, these songs are musical stories, with Israel taking the listener along for the ride. When you listen, you want to hear the story, but you want to hear the voice and the musicians too. You’ll have to listen more than once to make your way through the lyrical layers. (You’ll get a chance to hear him play at the Old Whaling Church on Saturday, Dec. 21, at 7 pm. He’ll be joined by Thurlow, Jephcote, Anthony Espisito, Wes Nagy, and Brian Weiland. Mark Lovewell will open.)
Tristan is on the phone when I get to his house in Snake Hollow in Vineyard Haven. He’s trying to straighten out his son Christopher’s Medicaid red tape that’s plagued him since last summer. Christopher, 31, moved to Florida, and is an adult on the autism spectrum, and the jumble of services is something Tristan’s used to navigating. He finally reaches some semblance of success, and knows what his next step will be: another phone call to make after we’re done talking.
His wife, author and fisherman Janet Messineo-Israel, a friend of mine from the Wednesday Writers Group led by mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, gets a cup of coffee for me and shows me her mother’s collection of Toby mugs while Tristan’s on hold. Her mother died recently, and Janet and Tristan have been cleaning out her Cape Cod home piece by piece, discovering old photos and memories along the way. Janet looks around the eclectic scene in her colorful living room, and tells me she has no idea where she’ll put the rest of her mother’s “stuff.” The rooms in the house are the kind that have been added one at a time to what was initially a small house. it’s comfy and cozy, and filled with furniture scavenged from the Dumptique, colorful fabrics, and artwork. Their dog Lily takes a seat on the sofa not far away from us. She’s a sweet rescue from Puerto Rico, and blends perfectly into the setting.
Janet explains to me that Tristan’s uncle, Marvin Israel, was a successful photographer and artist. He was art director for Harper’s Bazaar in the ’60s, published the photography of Richard Avedon and Walker Evans, and was a major influence on Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Lee Friedlander, and others. Marvin Israel’s wife, Margaret Ponce Israel, was a painter and ceramist. One of her papier-mâché creations hangs on the wall in the living room. There’s a thread of creativity that sews the house together.
Tristan apologizes for the delay, and we sit down to talk about music.
“My father played a little bit, and there was a lot of music in the house when I was growing up, from Broadway shows to Ray Charles,” Tristan tells me. “My uncle was in the music business, and I dimly remember W.C. Handy, who wrote ‘Saint Louis Blues,’ came to our house.”
Tristan grew up in Mamaroneck in Westchester County, N.Y., with three brothers, and says, “My mother desperately wanted a girl.” He started playing a ukulele with an Arthur Godfrey music book when he was a kid, and explains that the first four strings of a guitar are essentially the same as the four strings on a ukulele, so he figured out how to play on his own. “Some of my fingering is unique because of that.”
Living just outside New York in the 1960s, Israel was attracted to the bohemian lifestyle popular in Greenwich Village.
“I was kind of a ‘bad boy,’” he says. “I’d go whenever I could, and I did a few open mic nights. I was very drawn to that music world … Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, John Hammond Jr., Frank Zappa. I’d go weekly to watch the Mothers of Invention, the guy who opened for them was Tim Buckley. You know Jeff Buckley, his dad died at a young age too, but his dad was an amazing writer. Then it started to change, I guess I had my lost years then.”
Israel moved to Cambridge, and played in a group called the Pencil Tappers with his brother and a friend. He took a few classes at Berklee and drove a cab: “I was in the urban transportation business,” he laughs.
A couple of friends of his had places on the Vineyard, so he spent some time here. “My brother and I played here in ’72 or ’73,” Israel says. “We hitchhiked from Boston to play here in February in the middle of the night. Maybe four people heard us.”
He moved to the Vineyard in the late 1970s, taught guitar to kids, and worked driving a delivery truck and playing music. Israel met Janet in the mid-1980s, but they think they might have met sooner, in the late 1960s, because they hung around with the same people. “I was 18 or 19 years old then; I wasn’t totally aware of everything around me,” he says with a grin.
This new CD pays homage to the Vineyard with “WMVY Porch Song,” and Israel said he was happy to have drummer Roy Blumenfeld from the 1960s Blues Project drum on the song “Whitehouse Blues.” It took almost a year to put the CD together; some songs are honed over the course of 15 or 20 years, others come faster, he says: “I’m not a prolific writer.”
Still involved in many Island organizations, Israel is a county commissioner and on the board of WMVY Radio. He’s interested in climate change and environmental impacts locally and globally. I ask him about his volunteer work with the homeless, something I know he’s been doing for a while now. “The best deeds go unnoticed,” he says. I asked him about how the Island has changed over the years since he first arrived.
“Sometimes I can get negative about the changes, but if you watch someone getting off the boat for the first time and beholding the Island for the first time, it reminds me of what a wondrous place this is, and how lucky we are to live here. If you want Chuck E. Cheese at 10 o’clock at night, you’re not going to get it here, but I love living on this Island, and I love the unique community. If we’re able to live here, we’re blessed.”
“Tristan Israel and Friends,” Old Whaling Church, Edgartown, Saturday, Dec. 21, 7 pm. Janet Messineo-Israel will have her book, “Casting Into the Light,” available for purchasing and signing at the event.