JAMES MASTRO “MY GOD” Video Premiere – with Web-Exclusive Interview


Video Feature:  “MY GOD”






by Rodeo Marie Hanson

Gripping the wheel at 2 and 4, a young musician’s knuckles drained white from desire as he commanded the caravan’s sturdy helm for his band’s gig in Nashville. Tethered to the inner sanctum’s dashboard, a boombox rattled with The Rolling Stones’ raucous rhythms as the chariot’s wheels pounded the asphalt below. Echoing Kowalski’s contextualized flashbacks in Vanishing Point, memories of his young life reflected from his consciousness as he peered into the perspective offered by a posterior looking glass—teenage years peeling back layers of clubs’ security to unite with live music’s discipleship of devotees, dissolved to performing on hallowed ground at a grimy CBGB’s in the 1970s. Within seconds, James Mastro and the band’s itinerary would be detoured courtesy of a driver executing a U-turn on the motorized artery putting his vehicle in the lane of a not-yet fully realized life.

As the van capitulated to avoid a collision on the monument to mechanized boxes, it trundled at 65 miles per hour—the ballet of twisted metal groaned its mortal dirge as the unrelenting road violently lashed the chassis and body indiscriminately. Miraculously Mastro, the other souls onboard and the musical impedimenta emerged from the wreckage unscathed. A pristine Fender Princeton amp marred by a broken knob, a newly acquired van now totaled, and the cancellation of Health & Happiness Show’s tour (the quartet for which Mastro was the frontman) formed the menagerie of casualties—the year was 1994.

Slender framed and beguiling face, James Mastro exudes the vibe of a benevolent hustler. He could blend in effortlessly as a three-card monte dealer on New York’s 43rd Street while the “Crossroads of the World’s” luminescence sanctifies the tilted fedora floating like a halo above his head. A cool and confident mien shadows every one of his machinations.

“River of Stars” The Ebbs & Flows of Record Label Courtships
Singer-songwriter and guitar player, Mastro’s esse is a creative laboratory populated by multitudinous music species. At the conclusion of the “Me Decade,” Mastro played the role of axeman on The Richard Lloyd Group’s 1979 sheared and stripped rock debut Alchemy (Elektra). He bathed in punk’s afterglow as mohawks and safety pins acquiesced to the gel of short spiky hair and skinny ties facilitating indie-power pop in the process with the Bongos as the group’s plank spanker on their 1983 effort Numbers with Wings (RCA Records). When the verglas of a post-Cold War thawed, Mastro’s lead vocals and fretboard frenzy took center stage as the visual liaison for Health & Happiness Show, an ensemble specializing in the flavor of Americana, on critically acknowledged early 1990s releases Tonic and Instant Living (Bar-None).

Feelings of euphoria and discontent, precipitated by the ebbs and flows of record label courtships have perfected the poet’s prowess, are culminated in Dawn of a New Error (MPress Records). Mastro’s entree as a solo artist explores bookends of birth and death and events punctuating life’s odyssey—an unofficial compendium to Health & Happiness Show’s Instant Living.


Humanity meets divinity with a much-needed universal message of acceptance in the face of faith-based friction around the globe—a weaving, lucid dream.

“Gangster Baby” First Generation Exposed to Rock ‘N’ Roll
An older brother who started buying albums and bringing them home opened up a whole new world to James Mastro during his childhood. Both of Mastro’s parents were of Greek ancestry, actually being born in Greece. Mastro was the first generation to be exposed to rock music as a little kid after being inundated with Greek music. Every Sunday after church, Mastro and his family would make their way to the local department store—he and his brother escaped the vigilant eyes of their parents long enough to procure albums. Making their bolt for freedom, the brothers furtively placed their treasures in the hooptie so their begetters didn’t catch them in the act of contributing to rock ’n’ roll’s bulging coffers. Those albums liberated Mastro, implanting a desire to wend his way to a career as a professional musician.

“Space Jungle” Grit & Grime Is What Starving Artists Can Afford
At 16 years of age, Mastro played at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City during the 1970s with the likes of Blondie, Ramones and Talking Heads before punk became commercially mainstreamed and rebranded as new wave. Present-day New York is a facsimile of intrigue, power and allure—once served unapologetically by “The City That Never Sleeps.” Sanitized and gentrified decades ago by Mayor Giuliani to attract tourists, “The Big Apple’s” maggots have been removed along with its savored burst of piquancy. The glorious grit and grime that defined CBGB now only exists in a vacuum of video clips from that era.

Mastro explores the erratic heartbeat pulsating behind 1970s Gotham and the altruism it offers to undiscovered talented artists, “The grit and grime is what starving artists can afford—so New York at that time was very exciting and yeah it was kind of dangerous, and there were junkies all over the East Side, mixed in with winos, mixed in with great artists and musicians, but that just can be inspiring. When you’re surrounded by grime, you want to make it more beautiful. That’s kind of what I think everyone was just trying to do then—make their little world a little better and a little more exciting. Also, it was lawless—you were able to do some pretty wild things and kind of be under the radar. Commercialization is bound to happen to anything sooner or later, but back then—pre-internet, pre-anything, it was all word of mouth or print. So it was like a secret little club that you’d get let into and you tell your friend to go see the Ramones. Yeah, if it’s cheap rent—then that’s where it’s always going to start.”

Berlin – Photo Credit Dennis DiBrizzi

“My God” If God Did Not Exist, It Would Be Necessary to Invent Him
Often the God that people worship or create most closely resembles themselves, evoking Peter Fonda’s Captain America quote in Easy Rider, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” “My God,” a track from the new anthology dives into doctrines of divinity—Mastro ruminates about God and what motivated him to write the song, “You want a God that you want to aspire to, and I would hope that’s the case. If this is a good and benevolent God, then yes, you want to aspire to that. But then what’s the opposite? I don’t want to get political at all, but you could say I’m creating a God that’s like me; but if that’s the case, there are some awful Gods then out there. I would like to be a little more hopeful and optimistic that we’re creating a God that is above us in every sense, and that you can reach to and hopefully attain, as opposed to someone who is walking right next to you and is just like you—then we’re all Gods.”

Lamenting the need to address faith-based friction, Mastro wishes there never was a reason to write “My God,” “To me, it’s such a childlike sentiment. The fact that you would have to explain if your God is good and my God is good, then what’s the difference? There shouldn’t be. So what inspired it—it’s been kicked around for a while, and I’m sure there was some kind of war somewhere—a religious war that made me finish it off. You can pick any three or six-month period and find one to mark the start of that, but it’s basically good or bad, smart or stupid. It’s about tolerance. I accept your God, you accept mine—we won’t have any problems. I think sometimes religion is used as a smokescreen for some people to get ulterior motives, but if it’s based on religion—it might be easier to get people more riled up.”

“My God” has a powerful music video. The concept came to Mastro after he completed the first version of an accompanying pictorial which featured faces that cut across all demographics, representing different places and different ethnic backgrounds. The addition of subtitles to the telegenic aquarelle conveys with sparkling clarity—this is a universal thing.

The Health & Happiness Show—For the Love of Arthur
Mastro served as musical director for Robert Plant’s set which closed For the Love of Arthur, a 2006 benefit concert for Arthur Lee, leader of the rock band Love, held at the historic Beacon Theatre. Lee had been diagnosed with leukemia and the Beacon show took place to defray his medical expenses. Other luminaries on the bill included: Ian Hunter, Nils Lofgren and Johnny Echols, co-founder of Love. Lee succumbed to the disease approximately a month after the event.

Being in the right place at the right time, and knowing promoter Steve Weitzman, who was putting on that show was instrumental in Mastro landing the sweet spot. Weitzman called Mastro and asked if Ian Hunter would be interested in doing the show. Mastro took Weitzman’s request to Ian, who agreed to participate. Then Weitzman called Mastro a couple days later sharing the news that Led Zeppelin’s golden-throated troubadour Robert Plant is a huge Love fan and would be part of the philanthropic entertainment endeavor. Weitzman inquired about the possibility of Mastro putting a band together for Plant. Mastro eloquently and succinctly expresses his reaction at the time, “Anything like that you just take with a grain of salt—yeah, whatever—that’ll never happen.” He continues, “A couple days later my phone rang ‘Is this James? Yeah, this is Robert, Robert Plant’ I’m like (expletive F-word).” Right away Mastro and Plant started putting together a setlist. Plant’s query was surrealistic, asking Mastro if he knew “Immigrant Song” before naming several other Led Zeppelin song titles. Mastro paints his impression of Robert Plant, “He was so great, so lovely and funny, and just a part of the band—really liked hanging out with the guys. It was incredibly special and I’d never been on stage with someone who was that powerful enough that if he had told everyone right then to rip every seat out of that place, they would’ve done it. There was such a guttural response from people when he walked on stage—it was incredible.”

“Brave New World” From Hoboken to MTV
Purveyors of power-pop the Bongos share their birthplace of Hoboken, New Jersey with blue-eyed crooner Frank Sinatra. They received a proclamation from Hoboken Mayor David Roberts in 2007 and were also nominated at the first MTV Video Music Awards for ‘Best Direction.’ Cogitating on his tenure with the troupe and the Bongos’ contribution to alternative rock Mastro postulates, “Well I’d say we were a part of it sure, after punk after any musical movement there’s always going to be something that’s going to follow it or take some of that and grow with it. Bongos were huge fans of Ramones and Talking Heads and so we tried to take it to the next level, whatever that was. Our friends at the time were bands like R.E.M, the dB’s, and the Feelies—these were our peers and it was a great time to come up.”

Mastro comes out of his corner swinging with scathing lyrics that symbolically indict the media and political leaders. A blistering guitar solo and primal howls percolating through the bridge accurately portray human frustration with the current state of the world. Backing vocals by Ian Hunter provide another layer of credibility—driving the point home with the finality of a nail in a coffin.

“Numbers With Wings” If I Didn’t Play Guitar, I Wouldn’t Be Alive Now
In 2009, the Bongos performed a full concert set at the City Winery in NYC following a tribute to their friends R.E.M. at Carnegie Hall—a fundraiser for music education programs. Discerning his thoughts on the value of music education in public schools, he articulates, “It is one of the most valuable things, and anytime I hear that a school doesn’t have a music program I am so upset. I’ll pick up guitars and donate them to schools. It’s a proven fact that students do better in school if they’re musicians—their brains work better, their math skills are better. For me, I can speak personally as a kid, as a teenager, if I didn’t play guitar I don’t know if I’d be alive now. Seriously, it was my escape, my release, and it has made me a better person. Yes, music education—all for it.”

Wales – Photo Credit Dennis DiBrizzi

“Portrait of Disaster” Two Terrible Words to Put Together—Music & Business
Less than enthusiastic best describes Mastro’s panorama of the music business. He expatriates on the reasons why, and renders advice for someone who has talent and wants to pursue music as a career, “Two terrible words I think to put together are music and business. Music is all about joy in life and creating, and business is the opposite. Prior to Health & Happiness Show and after leaving the Bongos, I had a band that was popular in New York, and we had every record company come to see us saying ‘we love you, we’re going to do a record blah, blah, blah’ and I had so many meetings, and nothing ever came of it. I realized I started playing music for businesspeople that I didn’t know, trying to think what they would like, what should I do now and that’s the wrong reason. If you’re not pleasing yourself, you’re not going to please anyone else, so I was kind of done and just playing with a lot of friends more as a side guy, which was great. I still got to play guitar and be with friends and travel, but the business side of it I didn’t have to deal with. The Health & Happiness Show started with me and a couple friends just sitting around playing songs we liked, cover songs—Hank Williams songs, Dylan songs—for the sheer fun of it, and it just kind of brought it all back to me why I did it. We started playing out with no intention of ever getting a record deal or making anything of it, but it was one of the more successful things I’ve done spiritually and creatively. If you don’t try too hard, sometimes things come to you.”

Drawing a parallel between material of Health & Happiness Show’s Instant Living and Dawn of a New Error Mastro reveals, “The title for Instant Living came off a billboard—our van rolled over twice and amazingly no one got seriously hurt so we had to rent cars to get back home. We canceled our tour. On the way home, Vinny the drummer noticed a billboard for mobile parks ‘instant living’ and we all just started laughing because we somehow survived this, and it just stuck with us. We’re happy to be alive and every second is an instant part of living, so that is why that title came to that record. Dawn of a New Error is about learning from your mistakes, not that mistakes are a bad thing, I think they’re there to make you better. If you learn from them, then it’s a very good mistake.”

“Video Eyes” Walter Cronkite, Ed Morrow & KAOS Action News
News used to be losers for network television, both financially and ratings-wise. They didn’t make their bread and butter by selling news as entertainment, but the addition of cable channels in the 80s and 90s changed the business model. Now news sometimes resembles elements of entertainment more than journalism, and there is a temptation to focus on ratings and making money. Some of these thematic elements appear in the music video for “Right Words, Wrong Song”—KAOS Action News is the fictitious network’s moniker. Making observations about the news currently being more entertainment-oriented than journalistic in its approach, “Absolutely, it’s sadly all about ratings. Go look at an old Walter Cronkite newscast, Ed Morrow—there’s always going to be a slant on the news. These days, you can find just about any newscast that’ll cover your political religious beliefs, so the impartialness or the honesty of it seems to not matter as much. There are wars going on that affect thousands of people, but then when you hear about one particular person over and over again, something’s not right.” Mastro was thinking about the 1976 motion picture Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky, while making the music video for “Right Words, Wrong Song.” When the film was released, it was satire, but it eerily foreshadowed reality in the 21st century.

“Paths That Cross” Utility Player for Patti Smith
Collaborator, sideman and utility player are some of Mastro’s other identities. He has been a utility player for Patti Smith and defines the role, “It’s going to vary a little bit with everybody but someone like Patti, her voice is the lead guitar. You got to ride her wave—it’s exciting and it’s great. Like a lead guitar player, she can start off slow with her singing, but if she feels it she starts vamping and ramping up. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen her live, but all of a sudden her lyrics will just start building intensity, so you’ve got to be there to support it. It’s not about being the best guitar player or doing the best solo, it’s about being part of a band to make her comfortable or whoever you’re working with comfortable. It’s just staying tuned in and reacting to what is going on around you.”

Ian Hunter and James Mastro

“One Of The Boys” Working Relationship with Ian Hunter
“Right Words, Wrong Song,” “The Face of the Sun,” and “Three Words,” all feature the guest vocals of Ian Hunter, who also appears in the music video for “Right Words.” Mastro sketches his working relationship with Hunter and how Mott the Hoople’s lead singer became involved with this project, “I’ve been playing with Ian since the year 2000, so I’ve been on these past 6 or 8 records or however many there are, and he’s just become one of my best friends. Ian Hunter and his band Mott the Hoople are the sole reason why I started playing guitar as a kid—I just loved that band. Years later, to end up playing with him was a dream come true, and to have him return the favor and end up on my record is pretty great. He’s just an exceptional guy in every way, as a human, as an artist—I’ve never seen someone who works harder at making sure a song is perfect in every way lyrically, musically. I learned a lot from him.”

“Ramble On” Famous Single Words
Elucidating his take on the following artists in only a single word: Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, John Cale and Robert Plant—Mastro commits without a pause, “Patti Smith I’ll say ‘goddess.’ For John Cale ‘combustible.’ For Robert I’ll say the god ‘Thor.’ Then for Ian, I’ve got to be good on this one because if he reads it and he disagrees then I’m in trouble, I’ll say ‘genuine.’

“No Regrets” I Couldn’t Think of a Better Place to Be
Speaking about president of MPress Records, Rachael Sage, and her contributions to bring Dawn of a New Error to fruition, Mastro enumerates Sage’s largesse, “She brings so much—we talked earlier about combining the word music and business and just how awful it is or can be. As an artist herself, she and her staff are just so sympathetic and intuitive about what I would like or what would make me cringe, because she goes through it too. So yes, she brings a lot to the table, and a woman’s intuition I think is always much more spot-on than a man’s. That may get me in trouble with some people, I don’t know, but I just think she gets it, she gets artists. For me, I couldn’t think of a better place to be.”

Norway Train Tracks – Photo Credit Dennis DiBrizzi

 Album Review

“Right Words, Wrong Song”
Mastro comes out of his corner swinging with scathing lyrics that symbolically indict the media and political leaders. A blistering guitar solo and primal howls percolating through the bridge accurately portray human frustration with the current state of the world. Backing vocals by Ian Hunter provide another layer of credibility—driving the point home with the finality of a nail in a coffin.

“Three Words”
Possesses all the panache of indie-power pop. Delicious, inverted wordplay paints a self-assured protagonist who can offer only one thing—Ian Hunter and New York-based singer-songwriter Megan Reilly’s voices inject color into the black-and-white subject matter.

“The Face of the Sun”
Ian Hunter as the voice of God, lays the celestial foundation for this infectious pop song. The word “baby” is not used gratuitously but rather uniquely—lending weight, legitimacy and emotion to the song.

1970s shades of country-tinged crossover and Americana. It’s on par with the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” with existential content. Chantress Megan Reilly’s vocals proffer salvation for any vexation. “Trouble” was inspired after Mastro shared the stage with Levon Helm.

“My God”
Humanity meets divinity with a much-needed universal message of acceptance in the face of faith-based friction around the globe—a weaving, lucid dream.

Skillful mandolin playing sets the mood—delicate, fragile, but deliberate. Production on this track is interesting, as it utilizes the less is more philosophy to create a larger-than-life space—in turn, the song breathes and almost exceeds the album’s borders.

“Never Die”
This composition could be a more optimistic companion piece to Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.” Everyone is on that road, standing in a line, where one day mortality can no longer be ignored—the number in hand is unknown. Mastro takes on the end of physical existence with unflinching audacity, inviting a meeting on the other side.

“Here Beside Me”
Mellotron musings create a soporific landscape—this song could fit almost any of the Coen Brothers’ films. Ambiguity reigns supreme here, and is open to interpretation—it might be celebratory or mourning.

“Gangster Baby”
Fitting of a love letter penned by Clyde Barrow to Bonnie Parker—folk heroes and partners in crime who are consumed by the flames of passion blinding them to the laws of gravity, reality and the pursuits of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to bring them to justice.

“Someday Someone Will Turn Your Head Around”
The Jersey City New Heights Gospel Group and the Radio Free Song Club Singers render roller coaster-like redemption—all who worship good music are welcome here.

“River Runs Forever”
This track closes out the album and captures the moodiness of an Old West gunslinger’s soliloquy before a duel. Brian Griffin, touring and session drummer (The Black Crowes, Richard Marx, Lana Del Rey) provides percussion resembling the sound of boots and spurs reluctantly marching through a dust bowl, while a fate not yet determined slowly materializes.

Tony Shanahan (best known as Patti Smith’s bassist, co-producer and musical collaborator) is Mastro’s bandmate from his days in Health & Happiness Show, and produced this album and plays bass on all tracks.

James Mastro – Studio – Photo Credit Ray Ketchum

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