In high school, I was oddly fascinated by Buzz Aldrin. I made a stencil of his face and planned to spray paint it in a bathroom but chickened out.
This fascination grew into a musical performance project that evolved over many years. Numerous artists and musicians touched and impacted the project over the course of its development and I am immensely grateful to them all. In 2018, 1969: The Second Man premiered as part of Next Door @ New York Theatre Workshop, with a book by the supremely talented playwright Dan Giles.
I’d always hoped to record this music as a standalone album, and in 2019, I re-examined the songs for a concept album. Now, that album is available wherever you listen to music, and I hope you’ll take a listen.
We start the album with static, the beginning of a transmission. This song places the event of the moon landing within a mythic framework. What are the costs of humanity’s desire to dominate nature? What is the value of this dominance? Does it even exist?
“Million Headed Witness”
During performances at Next Door @ New York Theatre Workshop, this track was split into two longer songs. The intro and outro of the song you hear on the album were part of a song called “Change This World,” which laid out an abbreviated history of the space program in the ’60s and Buzz Aldrin’s place within it. The lyric “Carry on, into the wild new frontier” becomes a refrain you’ll hear throughout the album.
In his book Of A Fire On The Moon, Norman Mailer describes the scene at the Apollo 11 launch site as a “million headed witness.” People came from all over the world to sit on top of their cars and watch the rocket go up. It was sweltering hot and tense as hell. Millions watched on television. The American space program was under an immense amount of scrutiny. While many Americans saw the Apollo missions as an essential and patriotic assertion of America’s global dominance, many others believed that the unstable landscape of the country here on Earth was a far more pressing priority.
I imagine Buzz Aldrin standing at the top of the rocket, just before the launch, and seeing this scrutiny embodied as far the eye can see. Aldrin, a man of hard science and a man of God. Right or wrong, no matter the cost, he’s about to risk his life for this mission. The future couldn’t be more uncertain. Is it pride? Guilt? Excitement? Dread? The astronauts were trained to stave off their emotional responses in order to focus on the details of their mission. At the top of the rocket, I imagine this to be nearly impossible.
The songs in the show were written over a several-year period, and this was one of the earliest. The guitar riff repeated throughout the song is a little nod to the “Moonlight Sonata.” I was recently talking to longtime friend and collaborator Paris Ellsworth, who plays the hell out of the violin on the album, and played astronaut Mike Collins in the show. He told me that his first violin entrance on this song, (a riff he’s been playing for years), is a little nod to the famous Strauss piece “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” featured in 2001: A Space Oddysey. I’d never quite put that together, but I’m a big fan of Easter eggs.
This song takes us from the moments just before lift off, up through where our three astronauts—Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Mike Collins—leave the earth’s atmosphere.
The boisterous rattling of our team leaving the atmosphere (brought to sonic life by the incredible Seth Eliser’s drumming), gives way to the silent, weightlessness of space. In this new setting, the typically country western slide guitar—expertly played by Jonah Scott from the awesome band The Altogether—takes on a floaty, galactic sound.
Many of the more light-hearted musical moments (including a short emo pop punk anthem sung by a puppet of LBJ) ended up on the cutting room floor. This one, however, has always felt essential. As the three astronauts sang this song in various iterations of the live show, we created some accompanying lo-fi zero gravity magic. In a concert at The Tank, Seth Eliser balanced a chair on his chin while playing tambourine for the duration of the song (certainly awe-inspiring). In our run at Next Door @ NYTW, our brilliant director Jaki Bradley unleashed an inordinate amount of balloons from a secret trap door. The last little part of the song takes an inward turn as most of the music falls away. I imagine Buzz floating by, catching a glimpse out of the tiny window of the craft.
“Moon Facts and Fictions”
This was the final song written for the show. For a long time, I’d toyed around with having a jokey song listing facts about the moon, and I had a document with a list of some facts, but the song never materialized. One fact always stuck out to me, however: The distance from the Earth to the moon is 30 Earths long (roughly, I think, I’m not a scientist).
Later on, I’d been reading about the Overview Effect, a psychological paradigm shift astronauts experience when they see the Earth from space. Some people experience this as an elevated perspective, a newfound understanding of where humanity fits into the universe. Others experience it as an immensely disorienting smallness. The experience can have profound long term effects on a person. I was so stunned and moved by this concept. I watched a loop of sunrise over Earth from space for about an hour, and then wrote this song in one sitting.
Buzz Aldrin has openly discussed his struggles with mental health and addiction in the years after the moon landing. Astronaut mental health was not really considered or tracked until well after the Apollo missions, but I imagine that the utterly unique experience Buzz, Neil, and Mike went through required massive amounts of psychological processing upon return. They’d come back to a planet celebrating a journey totally unfathomable to anyone who wasn’t on it.
I imagine Buzz, midway between the moon and the earth, looking at both. The astronauts were hard scientists and athletes, titans in their fields, tiny in their spacecraft. Whether we look out the window and experience peace or pain, we now hurtle towards a deeply uncertain and dangerous future.
“Stuff Up Here”
At this point, we move forward in time, the astronauts safely back on Earth. While making the show, playwright Dan Giles and I felt that it was imperative to end our story with Buzz’s first steps on the moon, but in order to understand the gravity of those steps, we had to return to Earth and see their effect. I’m indebted to Dan for helping me embrace this nonlinear structure, and you hear that structure reflected here.
This song serves as sort of a collage of anecdotes about Buzz’s return. When Buzz and the others made it back, they were promptly put into quarantine for a month. In his autobiography, Buzz describes downing a secreted bottle of whiskey on his first night back. Quarantine gave way to an exhausting international press tour, which in many ways, primarily focused on Neil Armstrong, the first man to have stepped foot on the moon, by 19 minutes.
Buzz maintained that he wasn’t interested in the limelight. When a memorial stamp was released featuring a lone astronaut with the subtitle “First Man On The Moon,” Buzz’s elderly father picketed the White House demanding the stamp be changed to include his son. When I put myself in Aldrin’s shoes, I imagine that these things would weigh on me. Or somehow scratch at the back of my mind, no matter how righteous and humble I might try to be.
“When You Were Gone”
I began writing this song on the roof of my first apartment in New York. I wrote the music first and wasn’t entirely sure that it would end up as part of this project, but it quickly found its place, and was beautifully performed by Angel Lin in the 2018 production.
Buzz’s struggles with depression and alcoholism mounted and his first marriage fell apart. This song takes on the imagined perspective of Buzz’s first wife, Joan. She considers the effect of great distance, both physical and emotional, on her marriage. The bridge of this song introduces a chord progression that reappears in the final two songs of the album, when Buzz is on the moon. In this song, we hear that integral moment echoing into his future in unforeseen ways.
Neil Armstrong and Mike Collins, the astronaut who orbited the moon while Neil and Buzz landed, remained friends for life. As the years passed, Buzz’s relationship with the two of them grew more distant. Buzz and Neil shared something that no two other human beings had experienced. And yet, the years following the moon landing treated the two men quite differently.
Somewhere down the line, I’d invented a phone conversation between Neil and Buzz, and I sort of convinced myself it was real. One where Buzz wonders why Neil’s life seems to be going as planned while his own is not. And Neil tells Buzz that life moves inevitably forward, and we either move with it, or we don’t. Depending on who you are or where you’re at, this piece of advice can be motivating or endlessly frustrating. Even still, I think the sentiment makes for a great rock song. It featured the incredibly powerful voice of Maya Sharpe as Neil Armstrong in the show, and gets another amazing treatment by guitarist Jonah Scott on the album.
Several years after the moon landing, Buzz Aldrin briefly worked as a Cadillac salesman before getting sober. We’ll hear this musical theme when we end up on the moon later on, but we use this hazy soundscape to transport us back to July 1969, as the astronauts approach the moon.
“Gonna Be First / Landing”
The first half of this double track is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the American exceptionalist form of patriotism pervasive at the time. There is no doubt that Apollo 11 is a massive American achievement, but it came at one of the most divisive moments of the 20th century, and many questioned the saccharine ways in which we celebrated some of our imperialistic tendencies.
The second half of the track finds Neil and Buzz, separating from Mike and descending towards the moon in the Eagle. As our heroes hurtled towards the surface, a computer malfunctioned, forcing Buzz to do complex math about the speed and angle of their approach. Had he been unable to do the work of a computer in his head, the landing module may have crashed. People often forget how utterly dangerous these early space missions were. Your smart phone has more computing power than the craft that landed on the moon. Anything could go wrong. I think Seth’s drumming and Paris’ violin work go a long way in giving us that sense.
This is the song where people go, “Wow, he just said the title!”
Buzz Aldrin, a religious man, had brought along a small communion kit in his personal items. He’d been reprimanded during an earlier mission for reading a Bible verse from space. After they’d landed on the moon, Buzz briefly turned off the audio recorder in the module and took communion; an otherworldly intersection of his science and military careers, and his faith.
“It Should’ve Been Me”
This was the first song I wrote for this project. I started by trying to emulate folk ballads and travel songs that I love. But I think that in some ways, the song’s black-and-white point of view is a product of it being the first song. There is so much nuance in Buzz Aldrin’s story, and it took me a long time to internalize that. Desire for recognition is a slippery thing. It’s not necessarily intentional, or even conscious. But it often manifests itself in surprising ways. I in no way mean to insinuate that this song represents Buzz Aldrin’s feelings. I do however, wonder how often, if ever, these thoughts scratched at the back of his mind.
We hear a more buoyant, weightless version of the theme we first head in “Used Cadillacs.” This version, melancholy but optimistic, was written first. These are the first steps of the first men on the moon. The lyrics at the end are adapted from a speech Nixon would have given had the Astronauts perished in space. I’m glad he never gave it, but there’s a lot of beauty in its mythic sentiment. We hear the themes from the previous song. We end with static, the transmission complete.