The voyage home

A local songwriter gives a gift to the universe

The cover of Dan Ruby’s new album is a nude portrait of him painted by Ahern Hertel.

The cover of Dan Ruby’s new album is a nude portrait of him painted by Ahern Hertel.

His primary motivation for making the album was to give it to the people he wanted to give it to. "It's a love letter to friends," he said.

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Dan Ruby’s all-time favorite artwork is the Voyager Golden Record, the collection of Earth sounds, including whale songs, greetings in dozens of languages, and long, eclectic mixes of music—from J. S. Bach to Chuck Berry—which was included aboard the two Voyager space probes launched in 1977. The album was compiled by author/astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/TV producer Ann Druyan. In 1980, they collaborated on the acclaimed TV series Cosmos, and then, in 1981, they were married.

The Golden Record also includes an electronic recording of Druyan’s brainwaves, recorded shortly after she and Sagan became engaged. During the recording, she thought lovingly of her new fiancé. To add to the quintessentially messy human-ness of the project: At the time, Sagan was already married to someone else—Linda Salzman, who also worked on the Golden Record, including designing the cover. And Sagan and Salzman’s kid recorded one of the greetings on the album.

Both Voyager space probes, according to current projections as they continue to drift out into space, are unlikely to pass anywhere near any solar systems.

“It is an imperfect encapsulation of humanity sent out into the cosmos—and no one will ever hear it, ever,” Ruby told me during a recent conversation. “It’s my favorite art project ever because they include this three-record set with instructions on how to decode it and a needle, but no equipment. So it’s totally futile anyway, because even if it were found by somebody, they wouldn’t understand it, recognize it or understand it as artwork, and definitely not audio artwork. It’s so awesome. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do, art-wise.”

The Voyager Golden Record is one of the hundreds of credited inspirations for Ruby’s new collection of original music, titled 33-45. The album, credited to Dan Ruby and Friends, contains seven songs, one of which, “Opus 40 (Cote Deux),” is a side-long suite. The album is already available on Spotify and iTunes, and will be available on vinyl locally at Discology and Sundance Books. Ruby is also giving the record as a gift to 250 people—friends, inspirational acquaintances, and people who introduced him to music referenced on the album. About half of the recipients are Reno residents.

Love letter

Full disclosure: he’s giving me one. I’ve known Dan for approximately 20 years. We were friends and neighbors during college. And his wife, Leah, and I played in a band together for a couple of years back in the mid ’00s. I met with him twice recently to discuss the 33-45 project. Both times were lunch meetings where we split the check. Both times he brought manila envelopes filled to the brim with written material, including essays he intends to include with the album, as well as background information about the album. Many of the background materials he gave me were marked “confidential” with a bright red stamp and contained heavily redacted sections.

The album title refers to RPMs—revolutions per minute, the speeds at which records play—the most common of which are 33.3 and 45. But it also references ages.

“The album is actually 21 to 33 and 33 to 45,” Ruby said. “Each side has its own 12-year arc—12 years because it’s 12 inches, because it’s a record.”

The album title is 33-45, rather than 21-45, he says, because the long suite that makes up the entirety of the second side is “the important part.” The songs are autobiographical and roughly sequential, he explained, “But I’m only 40, so it speculates into the future.”

His primary motivation for making the album was to give it to the people he wanted to give it to. “It’s a love letter to friends,” he said. “Getting older, friendships change. It’s not hanging out like it was in your 20s. That’s good, and it’s not like I was doing this as a service to people, but one thing I’ve noticed through this process is that people are pretty lonely. It’s hard for people to grasp how friendships change. As a grownup person, you don’t spend all weekend hanging out with another person your age and then crash at their house, and do lots of drugs, and stay up all night, and have those kinds of adventures. Maybe that happens every once in a while, but it’s different. People see each other once in a while. I think people think of that as they don’t have friends anymore, or they’ve lost closeness in their relationships. They haven’t. Things just change. … I kind of just wanted to reconnect with people. I wasn’t in a place where I felt like, ’Oh my god, I don’t have any friends any more. What am I doing?’ No, it was more like, ’That would be fun.’”

One of the basic utilities of music is bringing people together.

“With bands, you’re doing two things at once,” Ruby said. “You’re doing music, producing a thing. But also you’re hanging out, and it’s super fun, and there’s a human connection there. It’s different from visual artwork in that way, and it’s a lot better information compression because you can encode ideas in lyrics, in music, and you can include visual artwork in a release. … It’s a pretty good complete artwork.”

Interstellar overdrive

Simply put, Ruby’s music is chamber pop, akin to literate ’70s singer-songwriters, like Harry Nilsson, or, to pick a songwriter of more recent vintage, Ben Folds. 33-45 was recorded at Vince Gates’s Carson City music store, Play Your Own Music, over the course of 2017. Gates was a key collaborator, who engineered the record and also played guitar and bass on the album. Gates’s son, Ivan, and his daughters, Samantha and Shaolin, all of whom play with well-known local bands, also perform on the album. Fans of Northern Nevadan music will recognize many of the contributors. For example, the sad-bastard country band Future Criminals of America back Ruby on album opener “33 to 45 (Ménage &#;agrave; Trois: 45).” Moondog Matinee and Jake Houston & The Royal Flush guitarist Drea Ballard contributes some great honky tonk guitar to the album.

It will come accompanied by a package of ephemera, including 40 postcards with the lyrics of “Opus 40 (Cote Deux),” the side-long suite, which is described on the first card as “a pocket symphony-cantata in four cantos punctuated by three preludes, an interlude, and some codas.” The song is a thick tapestry of verbose, interwoven vocal lines bookended by the main descending chromatic guitar riff of the Pink Floyd song “Interstellar Overdrive.” It’s played once on bass near the beginning of the song and then rocked repeatedly by the full band at the climax of the song some 20 minutes later.

Ruby points out that Pink Floyd’s original song also begins and ends with the riff—with an extended improvisation in the middle. “They play it, and then they jam for 10 minutes, and then they play that riff again like four times. So, effectively, that entire side two is just a cover of that song. It’s just a different jam in the middle.”

There’s no chorus, just an unending torrent of words—line after line of overlapping lyrics with no room for breath. It’s an extended exploration of Ruby’s life and loves, including his wife and kids, as well as his record collection. There are innumerable allusions to songs by the Beach Boys, the Kinks, Elvis Costello and more.

“It’s information compression,” he said. “I wanted to fit in as much as needed to be in there. … I’ve lived in those songs—but that song specifically—for a year and a half, so I’ve found most of the edges. The documentation is supposed to help people navigate the thing. But it’s hopefully big enough that even if someone had the interest, it would still be pretty hard to find the edges of it.”

The album cover features a fully nude portrait of Ruby by acclaimed local painter Ahren Hertel. He’s standing on the beach at Pyramid Lake and waving hello in a friendly gesture borrowed from the plaques placed on the Pioneer spacecrafts a few years before the Voyager launches.

“That totally solves a bunch of problems because it’s supposed to be personal, it’s supposed to be naked, and it’s supposed to be vulnerable,” said Ruby. “It would also be funny. And it can reference the Pioneer plaques.”

The album cover is equipped with removable sticker underwear, tighty-whitey briefs with a mock designer label, “Andy Warhol” in lieu of Calvin Klein or whatever. It’s a nice reference to the iconic Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones album covers designed by Warhol.

Each of the 250 copies he plans to give to specific people will include a “User’s Manual” with essays about the album and background information, as well as “Appendix A: Selected References (’Friends’)”—a long list of books, albums, songs, artworks and films referenced in the album. (Some choice entries include Beach Boys, The. “Good Vibrations,” 1966.; Cervantes, M. “Don Quixote,” 1605/1615; Duchamp, M. “Fountain,” 1917/1964; and, of course, NASA. Voyager 1 & 2, 1977.)

Each package will also include a letter to each recipient. He gave me a draft copy of the one he wrote for me as well as a copy of the generic letter template he plans to revise and personalize for each recipient. The template begins:

“Dear X,

I think you’re special and I love you. I made an album for you, because of you, and probably a little bit about you (and her, and him, and them).

I aimed to write a love letter to the music and people that inform me, that collaborate (both wittingly and un-) to my personal meaning and, in a larger sense, give our little corner of the world value I appreciate. The way the universe is made tends gradually to disarray, but you help make this brief improbable bubble of life worthwhile.

I like the idea that art is not capsules of finished products, but a rich tradition of working drafts: written across lifetimes, published with errors, picked up by successive authors and editors, and translated into new languages.”

In my letter, he wrote “You’re only a secondhand bit player—I don’t know if that’s reassuring or upsetting.” (I’m not sure either.) He also commended me for deepening his appreciation for the Kinks, and for trying unsuccessfully to do the same with Talking Heads. He included some nice personal and professional compliments and ended the letter, “I look forward to a lifetime of continued friendship.”

33-45 is Ruby’s own Voyager record. It’s an album that collects his favorite things, including his thoughts on love, and sends them out into the universe, where they might be discovered, unlocked and enjoyed by some alien intelligence. But probably not.