Monday, July 11, 2016
Roscoe’s basement has no gigs scheduled until autumn, but our summer is remarkably productive. We played four originals at the Bug Jar — two of Craig’s and two of Chuck’s — and over the course of the summer’s rehearsals, we will double that number. In mid-June, Craig presents us with a half-dozen demos; we glom onto “Got That Girl,” a mid-tempo jangler with soaring harmonies. It take several rehearsals to nail the complex weave of vocals, but when we do — Craig and Deanna and me in three close parts — it gives me the same tingles I get from the Hollies.
(A couple of the songs in the batch strike me as goofy — which is pretty goddam rich considering that I’m the dum-dum who wrote “Meat Clown” — and that leads me to make some unnecessary and frankly hurtful remarks to Craig, which I later regret and for which I apologize in front of the entire band. Writing about it more than a year later, I still curse myself. I try real hard not to blow this whole deal by being a jerk-ass, but God Almighty, it’s so hard to be a saint when you’re just a boy out on the street.)
My own songwriting is in the mix, too. We’ve started toying with “Purple Jesus” — roughing it up some, futzing with the structure. (I’ve also made it plain that I’m down for collaborative songwriting, and Craig includes among his demos a wordless rave-up tagged “Balada Da,” which I earmark for a possible lyrical fix-up.)
And then comes this Monday morning, and all unexpected, I get an email from Mike…
Hey Jack. I was F’n around with this riff/progression. LMK if it’s something you’d be into putting words to.
My ears prick up and I smile. Mike, you sly dog, I think. You’ve been holding out on me. Could I do something with this? Yeah, I reckon. After mulling it over for a week or so, combing the pages of my notebooks, I chop the progression up a little, fit it with a real sick puppy of a lyric, call it “Sister Saintly,” and knock out a quick vocal proof-of-concept in my living room, barely raising my voice — which for some reason makes me sound sort of like Lou Reed:
Mike digs it well enough, so we present it to the band; turns out everybody digs it. It’s a blast to play live. And every time we do, at Deanna’s insistence, I get right up on the mic and croak, “Intro!”
More than anything, I’m just glad that I didn’t let Mike down or hurt him when he took a chance on me. Creativity demands a certain degree of vulnerability, and I am bowled over (and inexpressibly grateful) that Mike — who so often keeps his own counsel — would place that amount of trust in me. Who would have guessed?
Monday, August 1, 2016
One night, as rehearsal is winding down, we’re doing a morale check. Given my (ahem) less-than-stellar track record with organizational behavior, I figure it’s a good idea to periodically assess how everybody is feeling about the band and about their individual roles within it — which means asking people how they feel, and listening to them. (Go figure.)
I’ve been casting about for more opportunities for Deanna to sing lead. I love having multiple singers in the line-up, and I’d like to find a way to make the split more equitable. It’s tricky to find songs that suit her delivery, though. There’s a lot of great material for female vocalists in postpunk guitar pop — the Pretenders’ catalog being the most obvious — but Deanna feels (and I agree) that most of it doesn’t really play to her strengths. She’s got good range and expression and power, but not in a traditional tough-rock-chick way. There’s something choir-like — not just in the way she blends so sweetly in harmonies, but in a certain purity of tone. Not a lot of vibrato. Her range and timbre, in fact, are not unlike Bono circa October — which is very cool, but resists the traditional problem-solving technique of blindly shouting, “What about—?” followed by the name of a random woman-fronted rock band. (Not that we don’t try that, much to my displeasure.)
After a brief impasse, Chuck says — jokingly? maybe? — that if we want Deanna to sing more songs, we’ll have to write them ourselves. Which may not have been meant as a challenge, but I take it as one anyway. Yeah, I agree: We should each write one and pitch it. And there we let it rest.
Over the weekend, I listen to my stock of existing demos. And on Monday, I send around my home recording of “Down by the Wayside,” which I had previously not even considered as a potential Roscoe’s Basement song, and I cross my fingers.
And they take it. And they make it magical.
Mike works some benign voodoo on my little guitar riff, crossbreeding it somehow with “Here Comes the Sun,” and Deanna finds shades of wonder and joy in the lyric that I never imagined, and it is the damnedest sensation: I am experiencing my own music, for the first time, through somebody else’s playing, somebody else’s voice — listening as if I were a fan. Hell, I am a fan. Who knew?
Friday, August 13, 2016
So I’m kicking around the house doing not much of anything when I get an email from Chuck: his other band, the Mooncats — an acoustic trio that also includes Mike — has a show booked for the following evening, but their singer Amy has been called away for a family emergency:
Nothing is sure yet, but if she can’t make it would you be available and want to play? you, me, and Mike? I’m sure we can come up with some songs to play for a couple hours. I’m just trying to find some backup options in lieu of cancelling with late notice if possible.
I think about it for a full ten seconds before I put on a loud shirt, grab my silly hat, and say yes.
Here’s the hitch: Mike himself is out of town, and won’t be back until Saturday afternoon. In fact, he’s still in the shower when Chuck and I get to his house to try to put together a set list, just hours before the show.
A few Roscoe’s Basement songs are adaptable to the three-piece acoustic format — including a couple of our originals — but not enough for a full evening. The Mooncats set list yields a couple more that I know. I’ve got a pretty deep bench from my days as a solo act, but there’s very little from my old sets that’s familiar to either Chuck or Mike. And so we find ourselves doing what strangers gathered for jam sessions have been doing since time immemorial; going around in a circle, saying Do you know this one? No? How about this one? And all the while the clock is ticking.
Eventually, we amass nearly enough songs to fill our allotted time; I propose to sing a mini-set of solo numbers to pad out the evening, and away we go.
We’re at the Starry Nites Café on University, an Art Deco heap that’s one of my favorite places in the city to hang out. We operate under no band name — although later, on the ride home, it occurs to me that we should have gone by “Roscoe’s Unfinished Basement.” The mood is relaxed. We play “Starry Eyes” and “Peace, Love, and Understanding,” and a slowed-down, countrified take on “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
We chunk our way through tried-and-true jammers like “Sweet Jane” and “All Along the Watchtower” and “Werewolves of London.” We even take a run at “Friction,” for cryeye — just three acoustic guitars. Later, Mike’s wife Debbie comes up to sing a couple, including a lead turn on Elle Goulding’s “Exes and Ohs.”
I discover that “The Passenger” is nowhere near as catchy without a rhythm section. I also discover that I don’t actually know “Dear Prudence” as well as I think I do. But we manage to avoid an out-and-out train wreck. And somewhere along the way, the band version of “Purple Jesus” makes its live debut.
It’s a good night — all fun, no pressure. The crowd (such as it is) is friendly, and Mike and Chuck are such pros that even I can’t go too far astray. The one thing I find dissatisfying is my guitar tone. I’m playing the Ovation CC67 that I inherited from my brother, an early-1980s model with a saddle-mounted piezo pickup, run to a phone-level input on the board. The sound is harsh and trebly and underweight. Maybe I need a direct box, I think; but the truth, I know, is that I need a new guitar — and good luck affording that. My freelancer’s income is as sporadic as ever, and it’s a long ways ’til a birthday or any hope of wifely largesse. I can hope for the windfall of an unexpected magazine assignment, but you know the saying: Wish in one hand, shit in the other, and we’ll see which one fills up first.
Not for the first time, my lack of access to decent equipment gnaws at me. What kind of asset am I if my playing sounds like baling wire strung across a shoebox? Good gear can’t make up for lack of talent, of course, but bad gear will make a good player sound worse. Goddammit, this is supposed to be the music of the working classes. That there should be such a high economic barrier to doing it well — it just seems unfair. Look, I know that being a street fighting man was never an option; but what can a poor boy do when even playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band seems beyond his reach?
Monday, August 29, 2016
As I mentioned a few months ago, I sometimes enter online contests to cheer myself up when I feel blue. I never win anything, never expect to — it’s more like a ritual to help me stay positive, to invite good fortune into my life: to assert that, dammit, I am worthwhile and I deserve nice things. Half the time, I forget what contests I’ve even entered. The point is not to win; the point is to feel like a winner.
And then I get this email:I have to read it three times before it sinks in.
I desperately need a new acoustic-electric guitar, and I just won one. Out of the blue.
I just won a motherfucking Martin. Only the greatest name in guitars.
I can scarcely believe it. I think, until the last minute, that it might be some scam; but a mere two days later, on a Wednesday afternoon, the UPS man comes by my house with a big cardboard box:
The guitar is packed inside a gig bag inside a plastic bag inside the box, and when I take it out the action the action is already perfect and it’s in near-perfect tune. All I can think is: Oh my God, it’s so cute. It’s smaller that I thought it would be — a scaled-down dreadnought, 15/16 size, with a 24″ scale. The Ovation, for comparison, has a 25¼” scale, and you wouldn’t think the difference would be noticeable — but it is. (Of course, I have big hands to begin with, and I play bass as much as I play guitar, so.)
The tone and feel are beautiful. It’s incredibly easy and slick to play, and it sounds great plugged in or otherwise. And it is suddenly the second-most valuable object of which I can claim sole ownership — come to think of it, it may actually be worth more than my car.
I will not remember what song I play first on this new machine; something fingerstyle, most likely, probably a jazz tune. But as I play, a feeling comes over me that I will remember. Not contentment: not even happiness, exactly. Say rather the opposite of nostalgia, whatever you might call it. An aching look forward into golden-hued future, with a mixture of hope and yearning and an absolute conviction — despite the inevitability of pain and disappointment — that everything is proceeding according to plan; that life is ultimately good, and full of unexpected wonders.
Next month: Community