Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

We’ll Be Your Mirrors

The Mirrors at the Downtown Lounge, 1980.

The Mirrors at the Downtown Lounge, 1980. From left: Jim Sullivan, Mike Piscopo, Chris Hanson, Doug Hubley. Concealed by Chris is drummer Ken Reynolds. Photographer unknown.

In music, as in so many other things, I can’t make up my mind.

In virtually every style* of music I hear, I hear something to like**.

And because I want to play music that I want to hear, my stylistic promiscuity has been a problem over the years. Not all listeners, or bandmates, are as restless as I am. And in any case, extreme eclecticism is difficult to pull off. It requires strong chops, discerning taste and the kind of musical personality that can unify disparate influences. (Well, one out of three is better than none: I have pretty good taste.)

My current band, Day for Night, plays only country — but when we were starting out, in the mid-2000s, we had a country set and a bossa nova set. Because it took me about two months, on average, to work out a new bossa nova song (lacking the strong chops, you see) the set became stale and we got realistic and bagged it. I don’t know where we ever could have performed a night of bossa nova and country, anyway.

But back in the day I wasn’t so sensible. The Mirrors, my first somewhat professional band, had the eclecticism problem about as bad as could be. The arc of a typical Mirrors performance was reasonable enough, starting out blue and quiet, ending red and electric. But in between we veered all over the map.

A Mirrors set list from 1980, handwritten by Ken Reynolds (click to embiggen). Hubley Archives.

The set list at right, from 1980, will give you some idea. It includes:

  • Country songs by Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris and the Flying Burrito Bros., Hank Williams, George Jones, Don Williams, Patsy Cline, Asleep at the Wheel
  • Blues and R&B by Bonnie Raitt, Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, the Clovers, Otis Redding
  • Vintage pop and rock by Presley, the Searchers, Carl Perkins, the Rolling Stones, ? and the Mysterians, the Ventures, the Monkees, Bobby Troupe, Johnny Rivers, the Rascals, Bo Diddley
  • Then-contemporary rock by the Fabulous Poodles (their interpretation of the Everly Brothers’ “Man With Money”), Elvis Costello, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, the Specials, the English Beat (their version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”), Madness, Pat Benatar, Graham Parker
  • And songs by the Velvet Underground, Richard Thompson, Jimmy Cliff and Frank Sinatra.

All that jumping around, in addition to a penchant for instrument-swapping that seriously slowed the pace, must have made some early Mirrors performances exasperating. I still cringe at the memory of taking long minutes to retune the guitars to the Farfisa rock organ for the sake of one or two songs. I also remember someone’s graffiti in the men’s room of the original Downtown Lounge, in the Plaza Hotel: “The Mirrors suck.”

I guess I can see why someone would say that, in view of one or two of our DTL performances: an anti-nuclear-power benefit where I had laryngitis but tried to sing anyway, or the 1980 Corner Night where we were fine, but just hopelessly tame compared to the Foreign Students and the Pathetix. And we had other issues in addition to the stylistic indecisiveness.

A 1980 Mirrors set list handwritten by Chris Hanson (click to embiggen). Hubley Archives.

But in spite of sucking, which we really didn’t most of the time, the Mirrors always got work. In 1980, our last year together, working for Maine country impresario Slim Andrews as well as getting our own dates, we were gigging all the time, from Kittery, in southern Maine, to Guilford, 182 miles away. Venues ranged from the punkish DTL (located in the Plaza, which stood where the Portland Public Market building is now) to York Animal Kingdom.

And, as will happen, we learned a lot and got a lot better, not only musically but professionally (even if we did ignore Slim’s injunctions against drinking and wearing sneakers on stage).

So, yes, looking back, I see things we could have done differently. But overall I don’t regret the way it played out. In the greater perspective, in fact, the Mirrors served me, and I hope some of my bandmates, the way your first big failed affair serves the remainder of your love life. It teaches you how to do what’s right and how not to do what isn’t, all on the stage of a grand romantic fantasy that gradually becomes your reality.

And in the short term, the Mirrors led directly to the Fashion Jungle. Among the things we learned were the facts that we wanted to concentrate on rock — and on our own material. About which, more next time.


Here are two of the three original songs the Mirrors ever performed, by yours truly. Someday, when I am in a mood to give the Harry Fox Agency large dollars to license other peoples’ music, I will post a few Mirrors covers as well.

  • You Know How It Is (Hubley) Here’s a lament about the working life drawn from my own experiences as a sensitive young artiste destroying my soul as a “materials handler” (stockboy) at the South Portland branch of Jordan Marsh. Jordan Marsh is gone, and I am still here. The Mirrors at the Hourglass, Free Street, Portland, August 1979.
  • Maine State Pier Blues (Hubley) Ken Reynolds and I somehow got the impression that all the street alcoholics hung out on Maine State Pier.  This naive narrative, which Chris Hanson once callerd “preachy,” presages my current dissipation, but is uncorrected for the salubrious effects of self-consciousness and affluence. Note the Silvertone with Barcus-Berry pickup. The Mirrors at Friendship III, Dec. 30, 1979.

“You Know How It Is” and “Maine State Pier Blues” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

The Mirrors*, 1979-1981

Christine Hanson, vocals and percussion
Doug Hubley, guitar, bass, organ and vocals
Mike Piscopo, bass, guitar, organ and vocals
Ken Reynolds, drums and vocals
Jim Sullivan, fiddle, guitar, bass, organ, saxophone and vocals

*In our last months, we were known as the Karl Rossmann Band, after the protagonist in Kafka’s Amerika. We were sick of the name “Mirrors” and used a ranked-ballot system to select a new one. The other contenders included “Goats of the Trapezoid,” Ken’s tribute to Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, and “Cadence.”


* Chainsaw metal, ragtime and pop a cappella being towering exceptions.
** People who know me well may be laughing at this point, having heard me mutter “I hate this song” or “I hate this group” repeatedly anywhere music can be heard. Yes, I’m annoyingly picky about specific songs and musicians, and in fact dislike most of them. But here I’m talking about musical styles.

Text copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

The Mirrors, 1979: Jim Sullivan, Chris Hanson, Doug Hubley, Mike Piscopo, Ken Reynolds. Photo by Nancy Hubley.

Tomorrow Maybe, Tomorrow I Might

The Curley Howard Band.

Andy Ingalls (behind speaker), Ken Reynolds, Mike Piscopo, Doug Hubley: The Curley Howard Band. Hubley Archives.

I persist in regarding myself as a songwriter despite having written relatively few songs — maybe 60 since 1968, written or co-written, that I wouldn’t be ashamed to play for discerning listeners.

Nowadays I’m cranking the hits out at the rate of about one per year — which sounds pathetic, but I wrote no whole songs at all, just some lyrics, from 1999 till 2010. (Hear “Bittersweet” and “The Ceiling,” my 21st-century songwriting catalog to date, performed by Day for Night.)

My songwriting career started as the wanna-be disease, as I went chasing after idols like Neil Young and the Beatles. But it gradually dawned on me that I had much better results expressing my emotions with a guitar and mic than through anything as prosaic as sharing my feelings with the people who were involved in them.

One of the many dysjunctions in my highly dysjunctive musical career is the fact that during the 1970s, when I was a regular Irving Berlin compared to later decades, I wasn’t that assertive about playing my seven or eight original songs with my bands. And at this distance of time, I can’t explain it.

I did feature my own material on the rare occasions when I performed as a solo, so it wasn’t that I felt insecure about it.

On the other hand, it’s certainly true that other people have written so many good songs that, if you approach the question with any objectivity at all, it’s hard to make a case for one’s own little musical handicrafts when you could be channeling the excellent songs, plus the coolness-by-association, of any number of fabulous songwriters. (Of whom I just now tried to come up with merely a few examples, but I could name a hundred and I’d still be only getting started.)

Whatever was holding me back, I finally managed to get over it for 1977’s “Let the Singer,” presented here. Yes, it’s a paean to the live fast–die young lifestyle, which seems like a very good idea when one is 23, idolizes Gram Parsons and enjoys the robust constitution of youth.

In addition to which, to be honest, when it came to living hard I was a lightweight. I was close to people who actually were doing the dangerous things, and it wasn’t that pretty at all. But, dysjunctive as ever, I didn’t make the connection till sometime later.

In short, singing a high and lonesome song about burning the candle at both ends seemed right and romantic, even as big-name musicians like Parsons continued to helpfully offer object lessons in why it isn’t such a good idea.

“Let the Singer” was the one original song that the Curley Howard Band ever played. CHB began one afternoon in the winter of 1977 in my parents’ basement when a few of us — I can’t recall exactly who — played something, for two hours, that was supposed to be “Green Onions.” We went on from there to become a hard-working, hard-drinking, hardly ever-performing foursome that somehow tried to blend country music, Sixties hits, California stars and British pub rock.

Differences in tastes, abilities and life plans put paid to CHB within a year, but this short-lived outfit had a long tail. CHB begat the Mirrors, which begat the Fashion Jungle, which begat the Cowlix, which begat the Boarders, which begat Howling Turbines, which begat my current band, Day for Night. So, a musical lineage spanning 35 years, and still counting. (More about these later bands, including plenty of music, in later posts.)

Clean-cut me with my brand-new Telecaster in 1976. I used this guitar with the Curley Howard Band. Hubley Family photo.

Three CHB members endured into the Fashion Jungle: drummer Ken Reynolds and bassist-guitarist-keyboardist Mike Piscopo, in addition to me. (Albeit with some hiatuses, Ken was around right through the Howling Turbines.) The fourth member of CHB was Andrew Ingalls, who played bass while Mike played rhythm guitar.

I’m pretty sure that my country leanings, coupled with my role as bandleader, was one of the more divisive sources of tension within CHB. (I vividly recall “I Fall to Pieces,” which admittedly was a really bad idea, dying a slow death by lack of enthusiasm.)

And I don’t know what Ken, Mike and Andy thought about “Let the Singer,” but I do know that we pulled it off as well as anything else in our overstuffed closet of a repertoire, for which I’m still grateful.

It was an important song to me at the time — still is. It wasn’t much of a philosophy of life, but in those days it was my philosophy of life. It was profoundly gratifying to get to sing about it, even if I couldn’t quite live it.


Hear “Let the Singer” in three versions, which vary only in the details, over three years:

  • By three members of the Curley Howard Band: Andy Ingalls, bass; Mike Piscopo, guitar; Doug, lead guitar and vocal. Absent from the session was drummer Ken Reynolds. Recorded in June 1977.
  • By the Mirrors, which followed CHB by two years. Mike, guitar; Doug, lead guitar and vocal; Ken Reynolds, drums. Also in the band was singer Chris Hanson, who didn’t perform on this song. (Multi-instrumentalist Jim Sullivan joined the following month.) Recorded at Jim’s Night Club, Portland, Maine, March 3, 1979, early in the Mirrors’ run. I had a cheap piezo pickup plastered onto the Silvertone with putty, hence the distinctive guitar timbre.
  • In a 1978 solo performance by Doug Hubley, recorded for a submission to a WBLM-FM songwriting contest. (How could I not have won?!?) I also submitted “Oh, What a Feeling,” available on the Notes Jukebox.

“Let the Singer” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Text copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

1974

The Hubleys' back yard was a splendid if challenging setting for rough-court croquet.

The Hubleys’ back yard was a splendid if challenging setting for rough-court croquet in 1974. Hubley Archives.

I worked for a while in 1973 at the King’s department store in South Portland, on Waterman Drive where the Shaw’s is now.

They sacked me in October, the same day that Spiro Agnew resigned and the very fine drummer Alan Smith quit our band, Airmobile. One out of three is better than none, I guess. A year later I got another department store job in South Portland, wrangling stock at the Jordan Marsh out at the Maine Mall.

The year in between the first stockboy job and the second, I know now, was one of the best of my life — but, aside from Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, it sure didn’t feel like it. I was drinking, moping, listening to Hank Williams and getting up at 4 a.m. to see Bing Crosby movies on Channel 6. In fact, I came down with the 20-year-old guy blues. I had no job, no band, no lover.

Embracing the black cat.

Embracing the black cat. Hubley Family photo.

I was still living with my parents. Aside from a few noontime shifts running the cash register at Patty Anne’s Superette, I was unemployed between the two jobs. I looked for work, including a visit to the Army recruiting center, but I was uninterested in anything besides making music and writing, and didn’t look very hard. It was one of those emotional pretzels where one manages to feel wrong about not doing something one doesn’t really want to do in the first place.

On a more practical plane, it would have been nice to make some money.

After Alan quit the band, John Rolfe, Glen Tracy and I invited back a previous drummer, Eddie Greco, and as the Thunderbirds we played one last date, a teen dance in South Portland.  That was the end of my musical partnership with John, which dated back to 1971 and our first performing band, Truck Farm. It’s evident now that we were both ready to move on, but I like being in a band and was sorry it was over.*

As for the women — to the very limited extent that you want to read about and I want to write about my love life — suffice it to say that, like a dog that chases cars, I was avid for love but wouldn’t have known what to do with it had I caught it.

So I spent the year preoccupied with what I didn’t have, while obliviously making good use of what I did have in abundance: time. I’m sure my parents didn’t love my loitering around the house, with only occasional half-hearted forays in search of work, but they were kind about it.

Meaning that I felt perfectly OK about spending most of my waking hours in the cellar with the Sony TC540 and my guitars (with occasional breaks for visiting Patty Ann’s to build model airplanes with my friend Jeff Stanton**). I spent winter, spring and summer 1974 writing and recording songs, a couple of which are presented here for your listening pleasure.

What an opportunity to concentrate on what I loved and wanted to do; what a gift.


Songs from 1974:

  • Oh, What a Feeling (Hubley) Nicked the title from an Everly Brothers song, but otherwise this is all me. Recorded on Aug. 5 in the upstairs hall, for the reverb (but I have since added more).
  • I Guess You All Know What I Mean (Hubley) What a gloomy Gus. A lost-love lament, recorded in the Hubleys’ basement in April, and complete with an expediently cryptic closing line.

Copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.


*John is now leader of the Luxembourgs, among whose other members is Steve Chapman, former bassist for my band the Fashion Jungle. John has played with two other bassists that I too have worked with: Andy Ingalls (Curley Howard Band) and Dan Knight (the 1985 Fashion Jungle).

**Among the other recreations of the golden summer of 1974 was learning to play rough-court croquet with the Stantons.

Text copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

A product of 1974.

A product of 1974. Hubley Archives.

 

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