A long time ago — not long after my brief and inglorious tenure with We Saw The Wolf, in fact — I directed a church choir. (This becomes relevant later, but for now you can take it as an admission that I have never, despite my occasional fronting, been one of the cool kids.) I stepped into the job when the previous director — a paid employee of the diocese — departed in a huff, burning bridges and planting landmines behind her. I called in every friend and every favor I could muster, eventually assembling a ragtag posse of choristers who could handle our parish’s liturgical needs.
I wasn’t much of a director, in truth. I was young-ish — in my late twenties — with all the flaws to which the young are prone. I was impatient, tunnel-visioned, quick to mock. I was careless of the feelings of others. I took on all the creative work of the position myself — picking every song, with no input from the others. I told myself I was taking one for the team (a self-deception I justified by the endless drudging hours spent photocopying and collating sheet music), but in fact I did it because I was an imperious, micromanaging prick.
After a couple of years, we thought it might be a good idea to see how the choice of music was going over. We designed a survey and distributed it to the congregation; when the forms came back, we held a choir meeting to review the findings.
From the remove of so many years, I forget whether we found a consensus about our song choices. I suspect not. What I do remember is the write-in comments, where perhaps a dozen parishioners — mostly elderly people who’d known me since I was a boy — singled out my performances for special praise. No other chorister was mentioned by name. Give us more of Jack. They weren’t paying attention to the music at all; they were paying attention to me.
My response was to immediately devolve my leadership authority down to the choir membership, resign my position, and move with my family out of state, leaving the town where I’d lived my whole life.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
Life comes at you fast. I get a berth in Roscoe’s Basement on a Tuesday; go to my first full first rehearsal on Thursday; leave Friday for a long Patriot’s Day weekend in Massachusetts. When I get back, I’ve got the beginnings of a new song in my head — and more than that: I’ve got a gig on the calendar. Tom has set us up to play a happy hour at a semi-beloved local dump called the Bug Jar.
We will play for two hours on a Friday night in early June. This leaves six weeks for me to learn a massive amount of material, and for the band to get tight.
And we do start to get tight — not just as musicians, but as people. It’s slow, that part. We’re all sufficiently adult that we can hold our personal lives as our own business. But we do come to know each other; the music is our initial point of entry. Guitarist Mike is meticulous, silent; his first loves are hard rock and metal, but he has an unexpected enthusiasm for the Velvet Underground. Deanna is exactly my age, and we share a love for the cool side of the ’80s, especially the Police and early U2. She runs the board from onstage, and I soon learn to trust her ears. Tom, the drummer, is a talker — sometimes before he thinks, it seems — with that curious obliquity of thought that I always associate with drummers. Their heads are too full of numbers and patterns to have room for the niceties of language. (He later confesses that for the first few rehearsals, he thinks my name is “Fred.”)
The two songwriters are a study in contrasts. Chuck is the punk rocker of the bunch, way into the Ramones, Nirvana, the Dictators, and pro wrestling — who also plays chess and listens to cool jazz and reads books on theology. His songs have a catchy, muscular simplicity — bubblegum with a hard edge — developed by playing and refining rough sketches with the full band.
Studio demo of “Offensive,” words and music by Chuck Romano, performed by Roscoe’s Basement. Jack Feerick – lead and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, tambourine; Deanna Finn – backing vocals; Tom Finn – drums; Craig Hanson – bass guitar, backing vocals; Mike Mann – electric guitars; Chuck Romano – electric guitar; with Debbie Stiker-Mann, backing vocals. Engineered and mixed by Joe Nauert at Finger Lakes Community College Studio 1, November 2016.
Craig, the bass player — I’ve definitely got them straight now — is an all-arounder: a scholar of several decades of garage rock, referencing Paisley Undergound legends the Three O’Clock and psychedelic obscuros Bubble Puppy with equal aplomb; a veteran of combos ranging from hard-rock power trios to a ska outfit with full horn section. He’s got thirty years’ worth of songs stashed away, all showing formal chops and songcraft out the wazoo; even the bangers have complex harmonies, tricky bridges, and false endings to go with their big hooks, and there’s almost always humor — sometimes wry, sometimes gonzo, sometimes pitch-black — bubbling under his lyrics. Unlike Chuck, he’ll present his songs in more-or-less finished form, in fully arranged demos.
Original home demo of “Waiting For World War III,” recorded some time in the late 1980s (!). Words, music, production, all vocals and instruments by Craig Hanson.
I’ve got my own songs to bring to the band, of course — a stockpile stretching back years and years — but not yet. I’m the new kid. It would be unseemly to make a play as a dominant creative force at this point, while I’m still on probation. Smarter, I think — certainly safer for my ego — to begin my reshaping of the setlist by bringing in some covers.
It’s hard to choose. There are so many songs I’ve always wanted to do — by John Cale and the Skids, Matthew Sweet and INXS and a hundred more; personal All-Time Top Tens, half-forgotten regional hits, one-offs and never-weres off the dozens of CDs I stole from the college radio station. In the end, I pick a double fistful and submit them to the band for approval.
As I figured, Elvis Costello’s take on “Peace, Love, and Understanding” is a shoo-in. So is the Kinks’ “Destroyer,” a big radio hit in its day but a deep cut now. I’m less certain about the others. The infectious bass hook of Fischer Z’s “So Long” and Translator’s haunting “Un-Alone” seem like picks to click, but they pass unnoticed.
The real dark horse, I figure, is “Friction.” I’d love to play something by Television, but I figure that realistically it’s all too dark, too knotty, too off-kilter.
But I have an unexpected ally in Mike, who I think is the only other band member to own a copy of Marquee Moon. I can scarce imagine how many hours of woodshedding it takes him to nail those spidery lead lines, but nail them he does. Chuck and Craig keep the changes steady, and Tom does something extraordinary on the drums, capturing the original’s feeling of imminent collapse. This rehearsal recording represents, I think, our first complete successful run-through of the song. It’s rough, even sloppy, but it holds together; I remember the exhilaration of this moment.
Floor recording of Roscoe’s Basement performing “Friction,” from a rehearsal dated May 26, 2016.
And it is when we play this song in particular — its power and angular funk sending Deanna and me into a shared little staggering dance — that I really begin to understand what I’ve got here, and what it could be, if I let it.
If I don’t blow the whole thing, that is.
Next month: Get Happy!