"You get called a 'veteran singer-songwriter' at age 36," Peter Himmelman mused during a recent phone conversation from his home in Santa Monica. "If you were a lawyer or something, you'd just be getting started at 36. I don't feel like a veteran. I feel like I'm about 16, you know?"
His career started back in the late '70s when he was a member of Sussman Lawrence and was categorized as an "angry young man" a la Elvis Costello and Graham Parker.
Eight albums later, Himmelman--who plays tonight at the Coach House--hasn't exactly mellowed with age. Indeed, his has emerged as one of the most distinctive and intriguing voices of rage left on the scene.
Thoughtful but sarcastic, friendly but sometimes defensive, he has taken his share of neglect and hard knocks in the music business--which in turn must account, at least in part, for his continuing prickly nature. His albums have always been favorites of critics but something less than top-sellers. Record companies have failed to promote him as much as his talents warrant.
But those talents are substantial indeed. Last year, he painted a masterpiece, "Skin," a concept album about the death of a morally bankrupt hedonist. The work dealt with coming to terms--with one's own life, the lives of others and the world in general. When "Skin" failed to sell enough to satisfy the powers-that-be at Sony Music, Himmelman was summarily dropped from the label.
At first, he recalls, "people at Sony were kissing me and hugging me and calling me a genius. Two months later, you couldn't even get a phone call returned. It struck me at the time as depressing, but now it's really comical. I'm not blaming them, really. I was disappointed at the time, but it's been so long since I really thought about it, I can scarcely recall it now."
But the story of "Skin," he says, may not be over.
"I actually wrote 'Skin' as a Broadway show, and it's slowly and quietly headed toward that end. I have lawyers putting in a few calls here and there. It's a long loop, about a 10-year cycle to put it together. I don't lose sleep over it. The stage treatment is pretty detailed. It's a musical, a rock opera in the grand and bawdy tradition, over the top."
A practicing Jew who goes so far as to stay kosher even when touring, Himmelman frequently writes material that deals with matters of morality, ethics and spirituality.
"You talk about God and people go, 'I don't believe in God,' " he said. "There's this limited portrayal of a man on a cloud with a long beard. It's a very rejectable quantity. To me, the spiritual is not much different than the physical. Any person you see on the street is living a very spiritual existence. You can't avoid it. To me, every conversation is a spiritual conversation, every act is a spiritual act. It's not something additional to reality."
Another singer-songwriter of some note who frequently concerns himself with Big Questions is Himmelman's father-in-law: Bob Dylan.
"People want to know what he eats for breakfast and that kind of thing," said Himmelman. "So you can ask me anything you want about him, and I'll give you a smart-aleck answer." Easing up a bit, he allowed that Dylan has "been an inspiration to any musician in the Western world and beyond. I started to get into his music when I was about 17."
Do he and Dylan ever run songs by one another? "No way. That sentiment comes with a lot of assumptions, and I think assumptions are not something to come in with in this case."
Himmelman has written more than 40 songs since "Skin" and currently is talking with various record labels about the prospects for a new album, perhaps a summer release. To the negotiating table, he brings hard-won knowledge that comes from having been in the corporate ring long enough to be--whether he likes to admit it or not--a veteran.
"Every year I learn something new," he said. "Growth. It's embarrassing how naive I was a year ago. And next year, I'll know what I don't know now."
* Peter Himmelman plays tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tim Moyer and Brand New World open. 8 p.m. $10. (714) 496-8930.