Bon to the jour, my friends. Bon to the jour. Today, we’re stepping into the Wayback Machine all the way back to the summer of 2016. Can you remember it? Hope was in the air. Bruno Mars was on the radio. The kids all wore these crazy things called “shorts” which are like pants, but shorter. You remember. This happened back in July of that year. Ready to time travel? Here we goooo…
I was breezing through Massachusetts and I decided to swing by Gloucester, on the coast. My dear friends Eileen and Nathan live there, so I wanted to say hi. Little did I know my van would live in their driveway for the next month. Long story short, at one point Nathan said, “Hey, there’s this small island just off the coast with some lighthouses on it. I’ve been given permission to have a musicians’ retreat on the island for a few days, where we’ll all be writing music, catching lobster, testing the acoustics of the lighthouses, and generally having a good time. Would you want to come?”
This was an incredible offer, and it immediately brought in a flood of insecurities. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 18 but I probably plateaued around age 20. I added ukulele to my bag of toys about two years ago, but I don’t practice all that often so I still don’t know a ton of chords. My understanding was that Nathan was hoping I’d document the workshop, but I could participate in the music if I wanted, which, if I was going, I felt like I had to do. I hadn’t written a song in years, and I had some ideas. I knew I’d be the worst musician of the clan, easily, but I decided that somebody had to be the worst and it might as well be me, so I’ll just own it and try to not psyche myself out. Let’s do the damn thing.
When the day finally arrived we headed down to the dock. I had my guitar and uke, camera gear, mics, drone, and surfboard (just in case), and yet I seemed to have packed the lightest. The tiny boat was piled high with musical instruments, food, and whiskey, and we headed out into Cape Ann to Thacher Island.
While a small island, Thacher has two lighthouses on it: One at the north end and one at the south. These are sometimes referred to as Ann’s Eyes. Since they glow. And there are two of them. And they’re in Cape Ann. Get it? There’s a small museum on the island that gave us a history lesson. Shipwrecks with two survivors, Fresnel lenses, and an at-the-time revolutionary lighthouse technology called the Funck Moderator Float Lamp. We decided immediately that would be our band name.
Days on the island were idyllic. We’d putter out on a small dinghy, checking the lobster traps for bugs (that’s what the locals call lobsters, y’see). We’d swim in the ocean, with the water so clear we could dive down and inspect some of the traps before we even pulled them up. On the island we’d meander off on our own to pick away at the songs we wanted to work on. We’d paint the stairs of the lighthouses with Rustoleum and sing as we went. Everybody had these incredible voices, and they all knew how to harmonize. I did my best to keep up, but mostly I just listened and drank it in. I would hike around the island, looking for old relics, while trying to avoid the house-sized bushes of poison ivy.
The only constant on the island was the sound of birds. I’ve never seen so many seagulls in my life. Or heard so many. At times, it was deafening, and it was a twenty-four hour affair. Earplugs were mandatory for sleep. Not that there was a lot of that.
At night we would make the long climb up the southern lighthouse, into the room with the spinning red light. It was a 70 foot tall and very narrow spiral staircase. And yet, somehow, we lugged all of our instruments (and, in my case, cameras and microphones) up there. Most impressively, the bass player, Joe Cardoza, lugged his massive stand-up bass up and down those stairs every night.
There was something magical about those nights. And it wasn’t the whiskey. Or the tequila. It was the sound of those voices and those instruments, so high off the ground, echoing downward into the darkness and back up at us. It was the openness of the group. The support, even for me, whose playing and pipes clearly weren’t of the same caliber, was moving. We sat in the circular room at the top of the tower, illuminated only by the red, rotating light. The music that vibrated through the tower was full of passion, and deeply personal.
When our eyelids grew heavy and our throats were dry, we’d begin the long spiral back down to Earth. I was exhausted, and at least a little drunk, and all my body wanted was a bed to flop into, but the stars were calling. It isn’t often that you get a dark and fairly clear sky with something as striking as an old lighthouse for the foreground, let alone two lighthouses. So Nathan and I would venture out into the night with my camera and tripod in tow, hunting for the perfect shot.
The Milky Way wasn’t nearly as pristine as I might have hoped for. Clouds, haze, and some light pollution from the mainland made shooting tough, and editing them took me forever. In fact for almost all of them I had to do way more post-processing than I normally like to do, which makes the scenes look surreal. But all things considered, I got some shots that I really love.
This shot shows the south tower, where we would play music every night, and behind it the house where we slept. Unfortunately the haze really caught the light from the nearby towns of Gloucester and Rockport.
One shot that remains among my very favorite is this one I call Ghost House. It was one of those right place / right time things. The lighting was just so strange in that moment, looking back at the house we were all staying in. I decided to take a shot on a whim, and it turned out way cooler than I would have thought.
There were plenty of shots to be had during the day, too. A golden eagle had recently made its home on Thacher, much to the chagrin of the seagull population. We were lucky enough to see it one day, just behind the house. A few brave gulls would buzz its head, trying to scare it away. Protecting the chicks there, I’d assume. It was a stunning bird.
I also got a few shots from my drone that give a better sense of the island’s scale, and a few of the sunset, which lit up the island so perfectly.
All in all, it was an incredible few days. I did, indeed, complete my first song in years. A bluesy, silly, (sexy?,) ukulele tune. The perfect thing for a someone who’s never been able to take themselves seriously as a musician. I’d like to believe it will lead to more writing. We shall see.
The retreat culminated in a small lawn concert for a small group of friends of the island. Volunteers, mostly who live in nearby communities, who watch over the place. My friends Richard Thieriot and Chelsea Berry collaborated to write a song called Ann’s Eyes, which we all played and sang on. I recorded that one at the base of one of the lighthouse towers, along side a traditional song sung by Brian King. The recording, unfortunately, doesn’t do either song justice, but together they made a fitting soundtrack for the video I cut together from all the footage I shot there.
I don’t know why I waited so long to share this story. Or why I continue to wait to share so many others. It is what it is.
I want to thank Nathan Cohen (pictured above in the moonlight) for inviting me to step out of my comfort zone and into a place that I love. Our gracious hosts on the island were the volunteer lighthouse keepers John and Darlene Fulton.
Funck Moderator Float Lamp, from left to right, were Renee Dupuis (ukulele/melodica),Chelsea Berry (guitar/lead vocals), Brian King (guitar/lead vocals), Brent Rose (ukulele/guitar), Nathan Cohen (violin), Joe Cardoza (standup bass), and Richard Thieriot (guitar). Everybody sang.
As always, thanks for reading. See below for a few more pics.
On a flight from SF to Chicago