Seated at the piano that once belonged to his mother, Robert J grips a yellow legal pad, inked with bits of lyrics that came to him in a darkened hospital room, on one of the scariest nights of his life.
"My heart is a survivor." His fingers trace the writing on the page. "My heart is true.
"My heart will keep breaking / because of you."
He turns a page.
"My heart is stubborn."
"My heart won't quit."
"They're very simple ideas," he says. "I was just playing around with some of the lines, seeing what I could do as far as a melody."
For Robert J. Conaway, life is the stuff of songs. Twelve days before Thanksgiving, the well-known Madison-area singer-songwriter suffered a heart attack.
But at 56, the musician known as Robert J ("I didn't think people would want to see 'Bob Conaway,'" he quips) has bounced back to performing, tackling six gigs this month and two more in February. It's a low-key return for a guy who's had a constant and respected presence on the Madison music scene for 25 years.
"I still have good days and bad days," Conaway said. "But I'm going to rehab three times a week (to work out), and my heart is looking good. The medicines are wreaking havoc on my stomach, so now I have other medicines for that. But I'm moving forward."
In late November, Conaway released not one but two new CDs - the adult-alternative album "A Beautiful Blur" and the Americana/country-rock album "The Revenge of the Rowdy Prairie Dogs." A double CD release party, originally planned for December, was been postponed until sometime next spring.
In the meantime Conaway is taking care of himself - exercising, enjoying family, trying to ignore the short-of-breath feeling he sometimes gets when he sings. And writing songs like "Tomorrow Leaves All Behind": "So don't waste your time," begins one verse of the song still in progress. "Start up your day / Get out and play / Everything will be all right."
\ A life on the move
Born in Minneapolis, Conaway moved around a lot as a kid as his father, an executive for the Canadian National Railroad, was transferred again and again. Living in one new city after another "gave me an opportunity to become a little more knowledgeable about the world, at least North America," says Conaway. "So I got to see a little bigger picture. I never thought moving was hard. I thought we had the great, perfect upbringing.
"But then you think back about it, some of the saddest days were the days you moved away."
In school, Conaway was hooked on sports and music - especially music.
"Ever since I heard Elvis, I was pretty much into it," he says. "I had my little plastic Mickey Mouse crank guitar," which still occupies a coveted spot in the Conaways' ranch home in Windsor.
"And then the Beatles hit," he says. "I was a big fan, like everybody was."
In 1964, then living in Skokie, Ill., Conaway's family had a black-and-white TV. When the Beatles made their U.S. debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show," "We said, 'We'll go to the appliance store and see them on color TV,'" he recalls. "We didn't think about it, but it was a Sunday night and they were closed. So we freaked out and ran across the street to a Howard Johnson's motel. We did get to see the show, but in black and white, on the lobby TV."
Conaway calls himself "a product of rock and roll," influenced early on by classics like Buddy Holly and Hank Williams, then the British Invasion; later, rhythm and blues and "all that was going on in the '60s." One of his biggest influences: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
"Dave Crosby is one of the people I'd like to meet someday," says Conaway, whose song "Page 43 Again" on his "Beautiful Blur" album is a tribute to the famed songwriter. Crosby's original "Page 43" "is a beautiful song I go back to every now and then," he says. "It kind of reminds me that life is fine, even with the ups and downs."
\ Music took over
After Conaway finished high school outside Toronto, his family moved to Detroit and he attended Wayne State University. Despite his major in radio and TV production, "music kind of took over. Pretty much the day I graduated from college, I jumped in a band van and moved to Colorado," he says. "I had a lot of friends who were migrating out there. It was the cool, hip time of the early '70s, and Colorado was a cool, hip place to be. So we had nothing to lose."
After five years in Colorado with his band Happy Trails, Conaway moved to L.A. with his Wisconsin-born girlfriend. He worked as a singing waiter and quickly burned out on his 110-mile roundtrip commutes to the restaurant. In 1982, they moved to Madison.
"I've been here ever since," he says. "It's home. It's where my kids were born." In the 1990s, "I was told by some publishers in Nashville who liked what I was doing that I needed to move down there. But at that point, I was going through a divorce, and I had a three-year-old daughter. I wanted to be here for her years growing up, and I just couldn't move away."
That daughter, Kristina, is now 17. Conaway remarried in 1997; he and wife Jill, assistant principal at Sacred Hearts School, also are parents to daughter Addy, nearly 6, and son Jacy, 4.
\ The ups and downs
Through the years, Conaway has performed solo and as part of several bands, particularly the Moon Gypsies with friends Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines. Together since 1999, the Moon Gypsies will play their last show May 17 at the Harmony Bar. In part, it's so Conaway can pursue his writing.
"I think to musicians, (Robert J.) shows that persistence is worth it," says Gaines, who notes that Conaway normally "has the energy of about three people."
"We always kid him that he's the youngest guy in the band," she says, "even though he's the oldest guy in the band."
Conaway also co-founded PopBomb Records with Dave Stratton in 2004, and soon the label signed young Madison singer-songwriter Lucas Cates. Cates' album "Contradictory," produced by Conaway, won three Madison Area Music Awards last spring, including best pop record and best pop song.
Cates credits Conaway with connecting him with a lot of Madison musicians and teaching him about the music world. "A lot of people like to keep the secrets of the business to themselves," he says. "Robert J is not like that."
Despite a family history, Conaway's heart attack while raking leaves in his backyard took everyone by surprise - especially the patient.
"I've been through a lot of crap, and all the things that musicians go through in life, I've probably done most of it," he says. "But in the last seven or eight years, I've been watching my living.
"When a doctor came into the ER and said, 'Robert, you're having a heart attack,' that's the most scared I've ever been. I just started shaking uncontrollably. All I could think about were my kids. My wife. The songs I hadn't finished."
But today there are new songs, songs of conviction, hope, and a new kind of determination.
Like Conaway's "Too Stubborn to Die": "I'm old enough to know this ain't the hill I want to die on," he sings. "Old enough to know you can't take nothing with you when you're gone / So I'll just give away all the love that I can / I'd like to go down as that kind of man."