Can’t Make Tears

Here’s a little-known fact about Jim Dolan, the President and CEO of Cablevision and Executive Chairman of Madison Square Garden, Inc.: He is a long-time, passionate lover of music. Like most kids, Dolan became entranced by the Beatles at age 11, wearing out the grooves on his copy of Magical Mystery Tour. But it was hearing The Allman Brothers Band’s 1971 album At Fillmore East that changed his life and inspired him to pick up a guitar, which he taught himself to play. “Other influences eventually crept in, like Eric Clapton, Grateful Dead, and Santana,” he says, “but when The Allman Brothers put out that live album, I just couldn’t believe how it made me feel.”

Dolan decided to major in music at SUNY New Paltz and planned to become a professional musician, despite his parents’ skepticism. “They had some names for it,” he says. “’Pipe dream’ is one that comes to mind.” Ultimately pressure from home won out and Dolan switched his major to Communications and Business during his sophomore year and eventually went into the family business. “It was a huge turning point in my life,” he says. “I believe if I’d worked at it that I could have been successful, and I would have had a totally different life. But I didn’t, and you can’t go back.”

Perhaps not, but now as an adult, Dolan has given himself a second chance to live the dream of fronting his own band. In 2005, he launched JD and the Straight Shot, a blues-rock ensemble that, in its current incarnation, features some of the industry’s most in-demand musicians, including drummer Charley Drayton (Rolling Stones, Paul Simon), bassist Zev Katz (Aretha Franklin, Elton John), guitarist Marc Copely (B.B. King), guitarist Adam Levy (Norah Jones, Amos Lee), keyboardist Brian Mitchell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm), and violinist Soozie Tyrell (Bruce Springsteen). The band has toured with The Eagles (opening for them at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium and at Chicago’s Soldier Field), as well as opening for Eagles Joe Walsh and Don Henley on their solo tours. The Straight Shot has also performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Austin City Limits Festival. The band has released an EP, 2010’s Daily News Blues, and two full-length albums, 2008’s Right On Time and this year’s Can’t Make Tears, which was produced by Kevin Killen (U2, Peter Gabriel) and recorded at New York’s Avatar Studios.

Dolan dabbled in songwriting in college, but really took to it over the last ten years. For his generation, which came of age in the ’60s, “music wasn’t just part and parcel of who we were,” he says. “It was also a reflection of how we looked at the times. So to me, the idea of using music to make a point or tell a story made sense.”

Dolan wrote all the lyrics on Can’t Make Tears and collaborated on the music with the band, first sitting down to write with Copely and Mitchell while The Straight Shot were on tour with The Eagles last summer and continuing over the following six months. “I had great musicians with me, so I was constantly soliciting ideas from them,” he says. “I wanted the music to reflect whatever story I was trying to tell in the lyrics.” The album shows a different side of Dolan, who is well-known in New York as a tough negotiator on behalf of his business interests, which include the Knicks basketball team and the Rangers hockey team. He addresses that role in a lighthearted song on the album called “Fix the Knicks.” “I’d been holding off writing about the team, because I wanted it to be about the music, but Brian came up with this really catchy piano line, and I was inspired,” he says. “As a team owner, I get all kinds of opinions from everyone, but the one thing that always amazes me is how passionate people are. I’ll be walking across the street and a guy will roll down his window and yell, ‘Hey, man, you’ve got to do something about my Knicks!’”

Other highlights include the album’s title track, which has been selected as the theme song for the television drama Hell on Wheels that airs on AMC in November. “The show takes place after the Civil War when the Transcontinental Railroad was being built and all the desperation and nastiness that went into it,” Dolan says. “The president of the network thought it was a perfect fit for the show.” Then there’s “Little White Lies,” which came into being after a discussion amongst the band members about someone who was trying to slide by in a dishonest way. “A lot of my lyrics are an attempt to examine a human situation that I’m familiar with, then look underneath it and say, ‘Why is that person doing that? What are they thinking?’ In this case, what they’re thinking is that they can get by telling lies.”

Other thoughtful moments include “Don’t Waste My Time,” written in the wake of a discussion Dolan had with one of his band members who was dealing with a parent coming in and out of his life, and “Try,” which chronicles Dolan’s experience helping a loved one get sober. “I’m 18 years sober,” he says. “This is an important issue to me.” Dolan’s recovery has led to his involvement with MusiCares, an assistance program established by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences that assists people in the music community who may be having financial, personal, or medical crises. Dolan has committed a percentage of the proceeds earned from his performances with The Straight Shot, as well as money earned from sales of Can’t Make Tears, to MusiCares.

“Musicians particularly seem to be prone to having issues with addictions,” Dolan says. “Maybe because what they do is so emotionally connected to themselves. They’re also probably the least resourced at dealing with it. Addiction robs you of everything. So to help musicians is really important to me. That’s a part of my life that has been compartmentalized, but it is probably the closest to who I truly am.”

Another charity close to Dolan’s heart is the Lustgarten Pancreatic Cancer Foundation, which he helped establish in 1998 in honor of his good friend, Cablevision executive Marc Lustgarten, who passed away from the disease at age 52. With Cablevision underwriting all of the Foundation’s administrative expenses, 100 percent of every donation goes to directly to research. Over the past 12 years, Dolan has helped the Foundation raise $14 million dollars in the fight against pancreatic cancer.

Lustgarten is not the only person Dolan has lost to cancer. In 2010, his friend Bill Langan, who sailed with Dolan for 20 years and built his boats, passed away from leukemia. “Sailor Song (For Bill)” on Can’t Make Tears is written for him.

It gives Dolan great personal fulfillment to be able to pay tribute to his friend and also raise money through his music to help those in need. “It validates an entire part of me that nothing else does,” he says. “I want people to understand that you can be a person who does all the things I do business-wise, and still connect with that passion. Like I said, if I had stayed with music at age 19, my life would have been very different. I’ve never let go of that, and to see it flourishing now is very fulfilling. It gives you real balance in your life to connect with your passions, so you’re not just chasing success and the dollar. It’s important to live your dreams and this is my shot.”


[October 2011]