Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the category “But I Digress”

End of a Long Dry Spell


Day for Night performs “Bittersweet” at Andy’s Old Port Pub in March 2016. Videographer: Jeff Stanton.


And they’re handing down my sentence now
And I know what I must do
Another mile of silence while I’m
Coming back to you

— Leonard Cohen, “Coming Back to You”


Visit the Bandcamp electro-Victrola!


Some people write a lot of songs

or write songs quickly or both.

They can find inspiration in a hangnail and can scarcely handle all the melodies welling up from within.

The public debut of “Bittersweet,” and my debut with the mandolin, took place at the Portland wine bar Blue in August 2010. Hubley Archives.

 

But they do modestly assure you, while talking about their productivity, which you didn’t ask about, that they’re only conduits for The Music.

I’m not one of those songwriters. I admit that I envy them. It’s important for me to think of myself as a songwriter, and I do qualify, but three songs make a very big songwriting year for me. And I haven’t seen one of those in decades. Well, there’s always hope.

I’ve accepted my sluggish writing pace and have even had a few peaceful years of not feeling compelled to understand it, although working on this post does reopen the question. Excuses come readily to hand; the real reasons, not so much. It’s a curious way to proceed.

I nevertheless do have a working routine that results in songs, however few and far between. This routine matured as I found my way out of a barren period that lasted for an alarming 11 years.

Gretchen wears a crown of Peaks Island bittersweet in this public relations selfie from October 2010. Hubley Archives.

 

I never gave up on songwriting during those years. I just never finished any songs.

It was a trek through the desert that lasted from 1998’s “Caphead” — the best song that I wrote for the Howling Turbines, or I should say “the better song,” since I wrote only two for that band — to early 2010 and “Bittersweet,” the first title I wrote for my current ensemble, Day for Night.

If my excuses for not writing aren’t interesting and the root causes are hard to ascertain, it is nevertheless clear that what roused me again was Day for Night, the acoustic country duo comprising Gretchen Schaefer, my life partner inside and outside music, and me.

After fumbling around for three years after the demise of Howling Turbines, in 2004, we had settled on a musical approach and were getting some gigs. We loved the classic country we were doing; but at the same time, having a band that, for the first time in a few years, was doing more than walking in place relit the pilot light for my songwriting.

That is, there would be a home and an audience for my songs — not to mention the considerable formal challenge, which I’m still trying to master, of creating credible songs for a two-piece band playing vintage country, with its “three-chords-and-the-truth” aesthetic.

My first songs, way back there in the late 1960s, had a country (-pop-folk) feel because that’s what idols like Neil Young and Tim Hardin were playing as they infected me with wanna-be disease. (Making me more susceptible was the dawning realization that emotions and relationships are dealt with more easily through guitars and microphones than anything as debilitating as personal communication.)

But if I was young enough to want to copy my idols, I was willful or perverse or ornery enough not to be direct about it. (Shades of that personal communication thing.) I frequently had to make things too complicated, which succeeded more often with lyrics than melodies, which in my case tend less to well up from within than to be wrung from pieces of sandstone.

Just above the wine notes are the beginnings of the lyric for “Bittersweet.” Hubley Archives.

That complicating tendency lasted a long time. It actually found a home in the early 1980s, 12 years into my songwriting career, with one of my bands: the Fashion Jungle. The FJ was predicated on original material, was musically capable and, successor to a hopelessly eclectic covers band, was stylistically agnostic.

A song like “Little Cries,” with its chromatic chord progressions, rambling architecture and elusive home key, was definitive Fashion Jungle. It was also about as far from country you could get and still be singing about feigned love and fake orgasms.

But the FJ introduced me to a certain discipline of songwriting. In the belated-but-potent Portland, Maine, New Wave scene, we had to perform our own songs for the sake of credibility and self-respect.

None of us was prolific — I wrote the most, if that tells you anything — so in the early days, we agreed to each bring in something original at regular intervals, even if just a lyrical fragment or a chord progression. And a few good songs resulted from that practice.

Anyway, I have managed to simplify some as the years roll on, and by the time I was ready to finish “Bittersweet” I was able to winnow it down to a mere six chords and the truth.

That was four years after I started it.

Writing “Where Was I” in the bar at the Senator Hotel in late 2012. You work your way, and I’ll work mine. Hubley Archives.

 

“Bittersweet” doesn’t precisely exemplify my current songwriting practice but, to paraphrase the Staples Singers, it took me there.

Inspired by the Carter Family, the idea of a song about love that’s like a destructive clinging vine probably came to me during one of my noontime rambles around Lewiston, Maine, where I work. That was in May 2006.

A month later, loitering in Boulder, Colo., while Gretchen attended a conference, I undertook the exercise of sitting in coffee shops and writing a bunch of crap just to keep the muscles limber in case the muse was lurking nearby. (Poetry by Leonard Cohen helped prime the pump: His Book of Longing was new that year.)

That process produced one useful verse for what I was then calling “Clinging Love #1.”

A year and a half later, I somehow arrived at the actual title: “Bittersweet,” named not for the flavor profile, but for the imported invasive vine that makes such pretty berries, strangles the native trees and provides the rare justification for using Roundup in your yard.

Doug and Gretchen in a Manchester hotel, November 2007. Hubley Archives.

 

Having a metaphor to work with opened the cupboard to a lot of useful imagery, which I pillaged in a hotel room on a freezing evening in Manchester, N.H., 17 months later, in November 2007.

Gretchen was reclining on the bed, coming down with shingles and reading Georges Simenon. I was in a chair with a notebook belaboring “Bittersweet” at length, fueled by Jack Daniels highballs and a songwriting urge stronger than it had been in years.

Since “Bittersweet,” I’ve come to recognize these scribbling sessions as the most exciting phase of songwriting — when they pan out. It’s about inspiration, but it’s not just about being inspired: It’s about capturing inspiration, converting it into a thing, a product.

This phase works better, for me, away from the house and its distractions. (Home is where I finish songs, which is largely an editorial process.) I generally go for the big scribble in cafes, bars and, as in Manchester, hotels.

Hotel rooms are especially good for working on melody as well as lyrics. Composing music must be private (all that sandstone-wringing is unseemly), while writing lyrics can be public.

Manchester scribbles, part one. The letters down the left side were an attempt to impart a rhyme scheme. Be glad I’m not showing you the page where I listed all the words that rhyme with “bind.” Hubley Archives.

In fact, while working on lyrics it helps to have people around. Not too many: just enough to stimulate the socially attuned areas of one’s brain, which can then helpfully suggest behaviors or even stories that can feed a song lyric.

Booze helps, too — until it doesn’t. That was the case with “Bittersweet.” After a couple of hours of graphomania, I felt like I’d left the lyrics in a pretty good place and would get back to it right away.

Well, I got back to it two years later. The idea was still powerful, but the scribbles in my Bob Slate notebook didn’t add up to a whole lot.

Manchester scribbles, part two. Hubley Archives.

Nowadays, at least when I’m trying to write, I drink judiciously, striving for a delicate balance between freeing, on the one hand, the lyrical brain, and on the other, the inner jerk. Cocktails are too small and strong, but nursing a boilermaker or two glasses of wine works out fine. (A bag of M&M Peanuts does no harm, either.)

In the scribbling phase, I’m not looking for finished lyrics, but instead for words in which the finished song lies waiting: maybe a musical setting, definitely a plot, some catch phrases to make it memorable, the right blend of pithy lyrics and words that just advance the story.

(It can’t all be poetry, because singers and listeners alike will choke on that. In fact, singing didn’t start out as words and singers don’t always need them: My goal is to someday write a song that has some well-placed woos or la-la-las.)

So, that’s the ideal. But I can write pages of rhymes and never close in on any of that stuff. (30 years is not an extreme amount of time for me to carry a half-finished lyric around. When it gets to be 50, I may have to find a different outlet.)

But when I can push a lyric to the point where there’s a song discernible within it, my rule — ever since “Bittersweet” — has been to just finish the damned thing. Which, of course, I should have been doing all along.

And which, with “Bittersweet,” I did in January 2010. Sitting at the dining table on one gray cold day, I polished off the lyrics in one intense session. In the basement studio on a different cold gray day, I puzzled out and recorded the music.

And I was a songwriter again . . . just like that.


Tendrils Reach

Three songs written by Doug Hubley and performed by Day for Night, available in the Bandcamp store.

  • Bittersweet (Hubley) As described above, the song that broke a long dry spell for me as a songwriter. An invasive vine becomes a metaphor for clinging destructive love. Performed at the 2016 Cornish Apple Festival.
  • Stranger Wherever I Go (Hubley) New in spring 2016, this is pretty much a summary of my role in society. Another recording from the 2016 Cornish Apple Festival.
  • The Ceiling (Hubley) The first song I wrote for mandolin, as well as my contribution to country music’s illustrious history of songs that are about parts of a room. Also, something of a “hit” for Day for Night after its publication online . . . bringing me three cents in streaming fees every month or so.

“Bittersweet” and “The Ceiling” copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley; “Stranger Wherever I Go” copyright © 2016 by Douglas L. Hubley. “Notes From a Basement” text copyright © 2012–2017 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Still Looking for That Christmas Feeling, or The Christmas Greeting Video


A Notes From a Basement post dedicated to the Christmas season was out of the question in 2015 because in previous such posts I’ve presented all or most of the suitable music in the vaults to which I have publishing rights. More important, I had no big ideas to explore this year, which shouldn’t be an excuse, but there you go.

A digitally manipulated view of Congress Square Plaza in Portland, Maine, from the Top of the East in December 1984. Hubley Archives.

A digitally manipulated view of Congress Square Plaza in Portland, Maine, from the Top of the East in December 1984. Hubley Archives.

Instead, I took a holiday song already issued from the Basement — a 1995 recording of “Looking for That Christmas Feeling,” performed by the Boarders in rehearsal for a Christmastime gig at the Free Street Taverna — and used it as the basis for a video comprising still and moving images.

The Boarders' multi-talented bassist, Gretchen Schaefer, created the poster for this 1995 gig. Hubley Archives.

The Boarders’ multi-talented bassist, Gretchen Schaefer, created the poster for this 1995 gig. Hubley Archives.

With the exception of a shot of the side yard in South Portland that Harriette Hubley took around 1981 and some 1988 Fashion Jungle footage from a concert produced by South Portland Television, the images were taken by me or by Gretchen Schaefer. They represent locations as diverse as from Boston and Cambridge, Mass.; Charleston, S.C.; San Francisco and Denver; Brattleboro, Vt.; and Portland, South Portland and Cornish, Maine.

This Turbines poster for a December 2000 date was a group effort. Gretchen Schaefer created the Santa hats to superimpose on Jeff Stanton's image of the Howling Turbines, taken at the Free Street Taverna on a 90-degree day. I wrote and laid out the poster. Hubley Archives.

This Howling Turbines poster for a December 2000 date was a group effort. Gretchen Schaefer created the Santa hats to superimpose on Jeff Stanton’s image of the Howling Turbines, taken at the Free Street Taverna on a 90-degree day. I wrote and laid out the poster. Hubley Archives.

Of particular note is a 1981 drawing of the Portland nightclub Kayo’s that Gretchen made, and scenes from the Christmas greeting film, loosely (and I mean loosely) based on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” that we shot on magnetic-sound Super 8 film in 1986.

The facially immobilized blonde is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer doll that Jeff Stanton gave Gretchen for her birthday in the early 2000s, and that we now use for a Christmas tree ornament.

The video was edited in iMovie on Dec. 21–22, 2015.

Visit the Christmas bin at my Nimbit store:

“Merry Christmas!” He Bellowed

Judo Santa

Hurry, Santa, don’t make us wait! Let’s go straight to swinging Christmas sounds!


In 1974, as described in a previous Note From the Basement, I started producing so-called Christmas Greeting Tapes as substitutes for holiday cards.

These combined music with “funny” bits (sometimes yes, sometimes not so much) and a few minutes of cringeworthy personal messaging. I recorded the greetings in my parents’ basement on the Sony reel-to-reel and stayed up too late, usually just a day or two before the holiday, dubbing them onto cassettes for friends and family.

Cover art from the 1987 Christmas Greeting Tape.

Cover art from the 1987 Christmas Greeting Tape. Hubley Archives.

The 1974 greeting pretty much consisted of “Jingle Bells,” recorded with Alvin and the Chipmunks-style singing: the vocals enunciated precisely and recorded at a slow speed. Playback at normal speed produced that wacky high-pitched sound we all love so well. It was a technique I used again on the 1975 and 1976 greetings (sample follows).

That 1974 “Jingle Bells” was cute (and that’s about all it was), and today it’s a song that I absolutely can’t stand, thanks to overexposure (to which I, in a microscopic way, contributed). And for me, much of the American Christmas music catalog has been rendered similarly toxic by inescapability and sheer blindered irrelevance.

How can an ironic spirit prevail against the holiday-industrial complex? What does any of this — the birth of Christ, walking in a winter wonderland, chestnuts roasting on an open fire — have to do with the lives that we’re living now? Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” strikes me as the most pertinent of the bunch these days.

A statuette in The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Portland, Maine, 1989. Digital scan from black & white negative / Hubley Archives.

A statuette in The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Portland, Maine, 1989. Digital scan from black & white negative / Hubley Archives.

Well, back in those days, I was looking for a way to make it work. I was still trying to master (and reconcile) the influences of Curley Howard, Raymond Chandler, Gram Parsons, Lou Reed and Bing Crosby. For the Christmas Greeting Tapes, I continued to mine mid-century Christmas pop into the 1980s, from “The Christmas Song” to “Silver Bells,” from “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” I threw in a few originals and familiar traditional numbers. (The otherwise lackluster 1985 tape featured a standout “Twelve Days of Christmas” performed by as many friends and family members as I could muster up.)

Clues to a new direction surfaced around 1980 when, in a record shop on Portland’s Fore Street, I discovered Nowell Sing We Clear. Recorded by four Vermonters — U.K. natives John Roberts and Tony Barrand and American accompanists Fred Breunig and Steve Woodruff — this collection of centuries-old British carols showed me the door to a realm of much less familiar traditional Old World holiday music.

What eventually got me through the door, a few years later, was the accordion.

The Carmen accordion was an auction bargain at $35. Gretchen Schaefer photo.

The Carmen accordion was an auction bargain at $35. Gretchen Schaefer photo.

Let’s go back still further, to the 1960s. There was a funny-looking kid whom I scorned in middle school not only on account of his visage, but also his earnest and well-intended squareness. He was always friendly to me, the bastard. Worst of all, despite all these disqualifications, he had a lock on a girl I wanted.

The cherry on this sundae of hideous offenses was that he played the accordion. (Offering “Lady of Spain,” no less, at a Mahoney Middle School talent show, or so I recall).

I have realized only now that this guy, with the blemishes on his mug and the girl of my dreams (of the month) on his arm, actually had something going for him. We call it talent.

Posing with our prey at Merry Christmas Trees, Windham, in 1994. Photo by self-timer/scanned from black & white negative.

Posing with our prey at Merry Christmas Trees, Windham, in 1994. Photo by self-timer / scanned from black and white negative. Hubley Archives.

I have thought of him only now as I realize that he got more accordion playing into his fingers in 10 or 12 years of life than I did during the 24 years I was active with the accordion, from 1986 to 2010. I think I peaked on the squeezebox from 1992 through 1996, when, with my bands the Cowlix and the Boarders, I was able to get through the accordion material without shame, but also without glory.

I couldn’t have pictured myself wearing the bellows in the 1960s, when I was scorning my “Lady of Spain”-squeezing schoolmate. My conversion from hater to lover of accordion began 10 years later, in the late 1970s, when friend and bandmate Ken Reynolds introduced me to the great English musician Richard Thompson.

I instantly became a rabid fan and bought as much of Thompson as I could. He incorporated a lot of British folk influences into his music and there was plenty of accordion, mostly button box played by the excellent John Kirkpatrick.

Detail from a roadside Christmas display, 1988. Digitally irradiated scan from black and white negative.

Detail from a roadside Christmas display, 1988. Digitally irradiated scan from black and white negative. Hubley Archives.

In a kind of parallel with Nowell Sing We Clear and Christmas music, what brought me around to accordion was hearing it as a folk instrument instead of a pop schmaltz generator. I liked the simpler scales, the rougher sound and the snappy pulmonary rhythms of the folk squeezebox.

Moreover, as my ears were opening to the accordion, they were also flapping in the prevailing breezes of the 1980s world music craze. I didn’t so much join the throngs congregating around African and Latin American styles, but instead gravitated to sounds of Canada, Europe and especially around the Mediterranean.

Gretchen and I dolled up and awaiting guests for the 1988 holiday party. Note the alpine window inserts that G. made. Photo by self-timer/scanned from black and white negative.

Gretchen and I dolled up and awaiting guests for the 1988 holiday party. Note the alpine window inserts that G. made. Photo by self-timer / scanned from black and white negative. Hubley Archives.

This wealth of music, along with the classical stuff I was trying to absorb for concert reviews, effected a seismic shift in perspective. If you get a well-syncopated two-beat into your brain, for instance, or the 7/8 or 11/8 or other odd rhythms of Balkan music, the square 4/4 of rock music suddenly looms a lot smaller. Ditto with the melodies of much mainstream pop-rock. (“Forty flavors of milk” was the term I used in a Maine Sunday Telegram review.)

So in 1986, a year when I was not in a band, I bought a cheap piano accordion and a bunch of Palmer-Hughes instruction books and dug in. (This necessitated learning to read music as well as to manipulate the instrument. Palmer-Hughes must have been OK pedagogically, since I did learn to translate musical notation and to play accordion after a fashion, but the song choices were strictly from Schmaltzville. “Vegetables on Parade,” anyone?)

1986 was also the first year since 1974 when I didn’t produce a Christmas Greeting Tape, in light of the uninspired 1985 edition. But 1987 brought the first in a new wave of Christmas Greeting Tapes, dedicated primarily to traditional European Christmas music. (Some selections from those tapes follow.)

South Portland, Maine, Christmas Day, 1981.

South Portland, Maine, Christmas Day, 1981. Hubley Archives.

Unlike the funny-looking kid from Mahoney, I never really got it right with the accordion. Nowadays the Excelsior 48-bass just sits there in the cellar looking reproachful as I neglect it in favor of mandolin and guitar.

But if I never had a gift for the accordion, the world of music that I discovered through the squeezebox was certainly a gift for me.


Selections from the 1987, 1988, 1990 and 1995 Christmas Greeting Tapes. All selections except “Scary Christmas Polka” are traditional. “Scary Christmas Polka” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

  • Czech Christmas Medley — Recorded for “Duple Triple Christmas” in 1990, this medley consists of the traditional Czech carols “Hajej, nynjej,” a lullaby; and “Pujdem spolu do Betléma (“Come to Bethlehem”).
  • Scary Christmas Polka (Hubley) The one original song in this set, and the only one performed with a band. I wrote “Scary Christmas Polka” in 1990, during a period of unemployment and financial worry, and released it as a solo performance on that year’s Christmas Greeting Tape. In 1995, the Boarders learned it for a December gig and are performing it here in a rehearsal recording. Gretchen Schaefer plays bass and Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums.
  • C’est la Noël — A traditional song from the south of France that I recorded for the 1990 tape. I remember standing at the mic in the dark music room cursing each mistake.
  • European Christmas Medley — From “Christmas, Or Else!” (1987), my first Christmas Greeting Tape featuring accordion. The songs: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (English) / “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” (German and English) / “Lulajze Jezuniu” (Polish) / “Lippai” (Tyrolean) / “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” (French).
  • No Room at the Inn — (Trad., arranged and with new lyrics by Doug Hubley) From the 1988 tape, “It Came Upon a Midnight Lira, or Merry Christmas! He Bellowed” (Lira was the brand of my accordion). A song cobbled together in 1928 from lyrics and melodies of diverse old English origins. I took it a bit further with a strong rhythm and a new verse of still-pertinent import.
  • Masters in This Hall — 1988. An old French melody.
  • Susanni — A 16th-century German melody with 17th-century lyrics. I like the image of all the musicians showing up. Backing vocal by Gretchen Schaefer. From the 1990 tape.

Text copyright © 2013 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

A wintery Portland seen from an upper floor at the University of Southern Maine, 1981. Camera: Kodak Brownie box model

A wintery Portland seen from an upper floor at the University of Southern Maine, 1981. Camera: Kodak Brownie box model. Hubley Archives.

Interlude: Looking for That Christmas Feeling

 

In a digitally colorized image suitable to the holiday season, here is Fore Street in Portland, Maine, early in 1982. The camera was a Kodak Brownie from the 1920s or '30s that I kept in the Squareback. I was on my way to work in the clip library at the Guy Gannett newspapers on a Saturday morning. Hubley Archives.

In a digitally colorized image suitable to the holiday season, here is Fore Street in Portland, Maine, early in 1982. The camera was a Kodak Brownie from the 1920s or ’30s that I kept in the Squareback. I was on my way to work in the clip library at the Guy Gannett newspapers on a Saturday morning. Hubley Archives.

Why read when you can listen to famous Christmas Greeting Tapes? Go directly to music!


Some people believe that secular humanist liberals like me, in cahoots with the whole holiday-industrial complex, are waging a “war against Christmas.” I don’t think so — we’re too busy trying to write socialism into the Constitution. Anyway, even if we were at war with Christmas, isn’t God man enough to protect his holidays?

We all look for that Christmas feeling in our own ways. Me exaggerating my greed, but not by much. Circa 1979. Hubley Family photo.

We all look for that Christmas feeling in our own ways. This is me exaggerating my greed, but not by much, around 1979. Hubley Family photo.

Truth be told, we secular Christmas lovers have our own issues. Barren of religious faith, what exactly do we have to hang our affection for the holiday on? Our alleged joy at Christmastime, rather than swelling from within on a geothermal upsurge of faith, is glommed together from a mishmash of sentiments that are both noble (human fellowship, romantic connections, family bonds, peace on and goodwill toward, etc.) and not so much — greed and excessive self-indulgence, for instance.

And what gums this rickety sentiment together for us Christmas-loving non-believers is nostalgia, which is certainly a potent force for the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd too.

The Hubley Christmases from the 1960s through the ’80s embraced the power of human connection, but sure didn’t stint on the materialism. They were quite lavish, relative to our means. I admit that I was pretty spoiled. I remember waking up early one morning, still dopey from the partial dose of Seconal that my parents had administered to settle me down and amuse my sisters, and seeing the Beatles’ single “I Feel Fine” / “She’s a Woman” sticking out of the top of a Christmas stocking that was jammed full — a stocking made from one leg of a pair of tights, if that tells you anything about greed. O glory and excitement, not mention complicity with the holiday-industrial complex.

The Homburg years fortunately were brief. DH with the family tree, 1972. Hubley Family photo.

The Homburg years fortunately were brief. DH with the family tree, 1972. Hubley Family photo.

Here’s some more nostalgia for you. In the mid-1960s, the radio station of choice for the Hubley siblings was Boston’s WBZ-AM. Deejays like “Juicy Brucie” Bradley, Dave Maynard and Jefferson Kaye were knowledgeable and witty in presenting the pop music of the day. I remember lying awake late at night listening to Kaye’s folk music show, which he ended with Tom Rush’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.” Enchanting to a young teenager.

Bradley in particular introduced me to much of the music that was most formative at the start of my teens. One Friday in early 1965, the height of Beatlemania, he played a strange and wondrous thing: the Christmas greeting that the Fab Four recorded in 1963 for members of their official fan club. (I happened to have a tape recorder at the ready and captured the broadcast for posterity; hear an excerpt below.)

Turns out that for most of their time together, the Beatles made annual greetings for fan club members; I found them collected on a bootleg LP in 1973 or ’74. They ended up over-produced and impersonal, but the early ones were fresh, funny and loose. Thus inspired, and always ready to honor a good idea by appropriating it, in 1974 I began to make similar greetings for my closest friends.

The Hubley Christmas tree in 1972, but it could have been any year. Hubley Family photo.

The Hubley Christmas tree in 1972, but it could have been any year. Hubley Family photo.

I started out fresh, funny and loose, and simple, with a little music and a personal message, but as I descended into the depths of my basement recording mania over the years, the greetings got more and more elaborate: attempted comedy, some of it actually funny; music, both originals and covers, pop and traditional; and always the “corny sentimental endings,” personal heartfelt outpourings that often turned uncomfortably weird.

Several ideas turned into recurring motifs: radio station WHUB in Rumford, Maine, and star deejay Lance Boyles; the Longines Symphonette Society “Home Christmas Greeting” instructional series; the Squirrel Trio, ironic knockoffs of Dave Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks; the talk show “Coffee With Doug.”

The original series ran from 1974 through 1985. By then the tapes were more complex than enjoyable to make and, I suspect, to listen to. The following year I recorded nothing but traditional holiday music on my new accordion, topped off with a very brief spoken greeting.

With Gretchen Schaefer increasingly participating on vocals and guitar, I made a few more of those, learning a bunch of obscure holiday songs from around Europe — and then dropped the whole recorded greeting idea until 1995, when I made one final Christmas Greeting Tape, in the old variety show format, on my new TASCAM four-track recorder. Those extra tracks sure made it easier.

That was a pretty good entry, and ended the Christmas greeting tape journey on a high note. It was simply time for something different — and in that spirit, I’ll offer no corny sentimental ending about the demise of the Christmas tapes here. Instead, I’ll just wish you a friendly “Merry Christmas.”

Or should I say “Happy Holidays”?


DH at Richland Street, circa 1981. That officer's jacket, about a size too small, was my winter outerwear for years. Photograph by Harriette Hubley.

DH at Richland Street, circa 1981. That officer’s jacket, about a size too small, was my winter outerwear for years. Photograph by Harriette Hubley.

Now for some music — and a few choice excerpts from the legendary, or seldom heard of, Doug Hubley Christmas Greeting Tapes.

  • Gift From WBZ’s Bruce Bradley — Recorded on the Hosho reel-to-reel, with its glowing green eye, in early 1965 in the Hubleys’ kitchen. Presented here as a fragment so as not to infringe on anyone’s copyright, this holiday greeting was recorded by the Beatles for their fan club in 1963 and intercepted by the intrepid Boston deejay Bruce “Juicy Brucie” Bradley of WBZ-AM. Opening the track are the Bachelors singing “No Arms Can Ever Hold You” (Crafter-Nebb).
  • Hedonistic Christmas — Starting in 1979 with a fairly terrible song called “I’m a College Student,” which I wrote and you will never hear if you haven’t already, I often drafted my bands to perform a song on the Christmas tapes, usually without telling them what the song was: To maintain the happy Christmas surprise, I would just teach them an arrangement and dub on the vocals later. For instance, the Karl Rossmann Band did a terrific ska-style “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” in 1980. But here’s an original number, as the Fashion Jungle in 1982 — bassist Steve Chapman, drummer Ken Reynolds and I — does a song addressing one dimension of my feelings about the holiday.
  • Looking for That Christmas Feeling (1981) — In December 1981 I was stressed by finals and the demise of my current band, the original Fashion Jungle, but also all electrified by my new affair with Gretchen Schaefer. That peculiar tension informed this song exploring the longing for some kind of deeper meaning to Christmas that didn’t involve, well, Christ. Like “Shortwave Radio,” also written that year, it involves fairly personal imagery (I drank a lot of Freixenet that year), but I hope it somehow reaches outside my head to speak to people. The recording is all me: vocal, Farfisa rock organ, drums, two Gretsch guitars. It was the best thing about that year’s Christmas tape.
Christmas party in the Jordan Marsh stockroom, circa 1978. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

Christmas party in the Jordan Marsh stockroom, circa 1978. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

  • Squirrel Trio in Hawaii — This sample from the 1975 Christmas tape features the Squirrel Trio, my blatant but ironic ripoff of Ross Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks. I think it was Tom Hansen who revealed Bagdasarian’s essential trick to me by playing a Chipmunks LP at 16 rpm: If you record your talking rodents at a slow speed, taking care that they enunciate clearly, and play them back at normal speed, voila: Chipmunks, or Squirrels, if you prefer. I put them to work on several greetings, entangling myself in multiple tracks bounced between two tape recorders, and culminating with a monumental recording of “Holiday Inn” in 1976. This tropical-themed number, meanwhile, is four tracks total.
  • Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht — The 1982 tape benefited from careful planning and an extremely limited amount of time in which to produce it. German was my favorite subject at USM, and I took advantage of my somewhat expanded ability to record this. It occurred as part of an extended parody of public radio’s “Morning Pro Musica.”
  • Coffee With Doug’s Christmas Around the World — The talk show “Coffee With Doug” appeared in the early 1980s and proved to be a useful device that turned up both in the Christmas tapes and as a TV show concept that Gretchen, several other friends and I seriously considered bringing to the South Portland public access cable station in the mid-’80s. This sequence comes from the 1984 Christmas tape, one of the better entries in the series. Along with the tribute to a detestable Spanish pop singer, this excerpt exemplifies my affection for a bargain-bin sound-effects record that I used on just about every Christmas tape; Gretchen gave me a CD equivalent in the 1990s.
Oh, my love: The doomed first Squareback, winter 1977. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

Oh, my love: The doomed first Squareback, winter 1977. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

  • Looking for That Christmas Feeling (1984) — Chet Baker much? Once again faced with the dissolution of a Fashion Jungle seemingly poised on the brink of success, I returned to this song for a holiday tape that was one of the stronger ones. The introduction, new that year, was provoked by a spell of warm December weather that had me worried about global warming even then. I didn’t perform this song live until the Boarders learned it, in 1995.
  • Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree — Here’s a brand-new recording of a Christmas song I wrote in 1978.  The angelic choir idea, easily executed on the Tascam 2488 (no multiple tape recorders required), came from the Mirrors’ short-lived version of the song in 1980.

“Hedonistic Christmas,” “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” and “Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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

Interlude: 10 Million Papers

Track listings for two reel-to-reel recordings by the Curley Howard Band in my Tape Catalogue. The comment indicated by the arrow sums up this entire post; click to embiggen.


Skip philosophizing! Go directly to music!

See a mind-bending collection of items from the Hubley Archives. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg!


A break from the band chronology, with an overdose of materials from the archives:

This Kodak Instamatic (not Instagram, Instamatic!) image from winter 1971 shows three of the four members of my first performing band, Truck Farm, which came together later that year. Clockwise from left: Tom Hansen, drummer; John Rolfe, guitarist; DH, dolled up for who knows what; and our friends Patty Stanton and Scott Stanton. Hubley Family photograph.

When you see people close to you losing their memories, and your own is less than rock-solid, it may cause you to think seriously about what you remember. And what it means: the role memories play in your thinking and in your understanding of your life. The ways you call memories up, examine them and try to hold onto them. The fact that they are so plastic, and ultimately fugitive.

A South Portland police officer pays a visit to an early Truck Farm rehearsal en plein air at Craig Johnson’s house. I still hear him saying, “Can you tone it down a little bit, boys?” I’m at right and Tom Hansen at left in this image by an unknown photographer from spring or summer 1971. Hubley Archives.

Are we merely the sum of our memories? Do they accrete onto the bare armature of our personalities like layers of clay? Can you do anything with your conscious mind that isn’t somehow connected with memory?

Are memories a form of currency in the social marketplace — that is, if you remember more, are you a more interesting person? Do you have a mental wallet or portfolio of stories about yourself that you whip out at appropriate moments in a gathering? (I am generally barren of amusing stories suitable for social occasions, although there is the one about the dress shop in Vienna.)

How is it you can not see somebody for two years, and then when you meet again, you pick up the conversation like it was just yesterday?

Why are memories of life experiences — the stories that seem to constitute our lives — so important to some people, like me, and not others?


See a gallery of Truck Farm Images. Text continues after gallery!


See the Archives page, offering way too much information.

Dating myself

I had a great memory, with a particular facility for dates, into my 40s. I had a reputation for my ability to recall the dates when things happened, even fairly unimportant things. Example: On Oct. 24, 1970, my mother took Tom Hansen and me to see Poco at the University of Maine Portland-Gorham.

My sticky memory was one of the primary colors of my sense of self. Now it’s fading, not drastically, but noticeably. As with the other things that age has diminished, I accept it, because what else can you do? But it dulls my self-esteem and leaves a numb spot in my mood, like the flat place on your gums where a tooth used to be.

Self-portrait with Sony TC-540, 1982.

At worst, it worries me that it’s the start of some kind of serious deterioration. But I try not to go there too often.

The documents in the case

I’ve always associated memories with documentation. For me, a piece of paper or a recording is like a ticket to something I experienced. It’s hard to say which came first, this belief or my paper-saving habit, but I’ve amassed a lot — lyric sheets, newspaper clippings and night club listings, set lists, photographs, performance and rehearsal recordings, letters, journal entries (way too few of those), etc. And that’s just the stuff related to music.

One of the most robust sources for these strolls down Memory Lane is the “Tape Catalogue,” my extremely annotated index of most of the analog audio tapes that I own, about 130 reel-to-reel tapes and god knows how many cassettes. These are life experiences of a especially vivid kind that are embedded in physical objects, and for the most part, the objects are unique. You can copy an analog recording, but always with a loss of quality, vs. a digital recording, which is endlessly replicable with no loss of quality (except the upfront loss of quality inherent to digital recording).

Some of the tapes.

That replicability is one reason digital audio media are disorienting to a product, like me, of the analog age. A slightly different reason has to do with physicality. Digital recordings ultimately exist as physical media, of course — on a server somewhere — but you don’t need to have them in your house to access them, and you don’t have to own them to access them.

How unsettling. I am all about owning things and having them in my house. Can you really get anything from a Cloud besides vapor, rain or snow? But ultimately all our endeavors, and their physical manifestations, will evaporate anyway, no?

Tickets, please

I’ve always believed that by revisiting the document, the experience will somehow spring back to life fully formed in my mind.

In the nine months I’ve been writing these posts, though, the mnemonic payoff from all the paperwork hasn’t been quite so dramatic. It has been nice to rediscover the facts in the documents, but the big payoff — the once forgotten, now recalled scene in the Movie of Doug — has rarely been forthcoming.

eo

A page for a chronology of my bands that I drew up in preparation for a never-completed 1985 slideshow about the rise and fall of the Fashion Jungle. Note the March 1983 entry. Hubley Archives.

So documentation isn’t the key to a lockbox full of precious memories. There’s not always even an exact correspondence between one paper item and one recollection. The best I can hope for is random and fragmentary recovery of memories from the abyss.

For instance, this autumn I was surprised to be reminded that the Chapman-Torraca edition of the Fashion Jungle stayed together (to the extent we could, with members living in Boston) until March 1985. This intelligence came from a handwritten band chronology that I started back in the 1980s, when I was really manic about documentation, and that I just unearthed.

From a hasty logbook of Fashion Jungle operations that I kept in 1983, I was able to disabuse myself of the erroneous belief that Kathren Torraca’s FJ debut was at a certain club on a certain date and relearn that it was at a different club, good old Kayo’s, on an earlier date. The big takeaway there was not so much the facts of her debut, but the realization that I’d remembered them wrong all these years, just because I had a tape of one gig, her second with the FJ, and not of her first.

The documents give and the documents take away.


See the logbook and other Fashion Jungle images. After visiting the second gallery installment, use the back arrow to assure the optimum Notes From a Basement experience. Text continues after gallery!


See the Archives page, offering way too much information.

The rehearsal lyric sheet for “Shortwave Radio,” typed on my blue Smith-Corona portable. The yellow splotches on the paper are probably sweat or Freixenet sparkling wine, which I drank constantly during the golden summer of 1981.

Incidentals

Song lyric sheets are quite evocative. They, more than any other category of the rubbish I hoard, often return me to the day. As I’ve previously written in this space, one of the clearer memories I have from the original Fashion Jungle days in 1981 is the writing of “Shortwave Radio” — sitting at the red table in my sister’s house on Cottage Road, drinking a gin gimlet, “Bob Newhart” rerun on TV with the sound off, etc. My process is to scribble down a bunch of crap until it coalesces into a song, and when it seems solid enough to start on the melody, I’ll type a clean copy. But the “Shortwave Radio” lyrics here give me a change to talk about secondary, but still alluring, aspect of documentation: incidentals.

Nicholson Baker, an unusually focused writer whom I interviewed in 2000 following his purchase of the British Library’s hard-copy newspaper archives, first opened my eyes to the historical power of incidentals. He wrote (in The New Yorker, I think) about the computer databases replacing physical card catalogs in libraries. He didn’t like it; and one reason was that librarians tended to mark up catalog cards, and their markings constituted an important source of information that would be lost with computerization.

That made perfect sense to me. Nothing happens in isolation, and the bits of stray information that come along with what you really intended to save can shed light on the context in which the primary event took place.

The backside of the “Shortwave Radio” lyrics — originally a WCSH-TV program log.

In this spirit, I’m presenting not only my original master copy of the “Shortwave” lyrics, but the backside of the paper I typed them on. It was originally the front: My father, Ben, worked in advertising sales at WCSH-TV, and being obsessively thrifty, would bring home discarded program logs (showing information about commercials) for use as scrap paper.

Ben and Hattie still have in their den the pale green desk that was the repository of writing materials at 103 Richland St., and there’s probably still a pile of these log sheets in with the scrap paper in that desk. (Although the last time I went looking there for scrap paper, I latched onto a hunk of continuous computer-printer paper, the kind with the detachable sprocket holes, and it just kept coming, sheet after sheet. That was two days ago.)

So, after you read the lyrics to “Shortwave Radio” and then go to my Nimbit Store to buy a copy (and then I would request that you burn it onto a CD and then copy it to an audiocassette, all while thinking of me), take a look at the entries on the program log. When was the last time you saw a TV ad for Canada Dry mixers or Quaker State motor oil? And note the political spots at the bottom of the sheet.


See more original Fashion Jungle images. Text continues after gallery!


See the Archives page, offering way too much information.

This is it

It strains me to have to accept that my legendary memory ain’t what it used to be. Time is hollowing out the past as it exists in my mind. It shakes me up to have to acknowledge this.

Writing a play, or playing at writing, complete with tequila sunrise, in 1975. Hubley Family photo.

But acknowledge it I must. I know people much older than me who share my belief (or more likely gave it to me) in the evocative power of documentation, and I’ve seen how the memories continue to evaporate while the goddamned paperwork just keeps piling up like the snowdrifts in the pre-climate-change winters that we don’t have anymore. Paper covers rock, but it doesn’t stand a chance against time. And neither do the rocks.

The saddest or silliest thing about all this musing about documents and memories, about the paper trail that leads to an outline of a version of a possible life, out of all the possible lives, is that for all these years I have entertained the notion that all these documents would someday be of historical interest — that I should keep them because some institution would someday want them for the sake of researchers who would want to know more about me. This on the basis of a small writing career largely given over to the exercise of marketing communications; and a tiny musical career.

It embarrasses me to confess this, but I do so in the hope that it may (a) be of some kind of interest — delusions being both entertaining and informative — and (b), more selfishly, that it might help me get over the idea.

I’ve come to realize that if anyone’s going to write about me, it’s probably going to be me. And I’m already doing it. And thank you for continuing to read it.


As long as we’re rummaging around in the archives, here are four more recordings for your pleasure and bemusement.

  • Nothing Can Change the Way I Feel (Hubley) A song written in 1978 as an exercise in self-directed propaganda. Even then I knew the relationship was a mistake. The words are clunky — does metallurgy really have a place in tender romantic lyrics? — but the melody is nice. (Gene Clark much?)
  • What You Wanted (Hubley) Three-quarters of the Fashion Jungle perform this sort-of love song in the Hubleys’ basement in September 1983. DH, guitar and vocal; Steve Chapman, bass; Kathren Torraca, keyboards. Drummer Ken Reynolds was on the disabled list with a thumb broken playing ball, so the percussion is electronic. This was from a recording session dedicated to preserving our material for a new keyboardist, because Kathren was threatening to quit. (She didn’t.)
  • Why This Passion (Hubley) An early version of a romantic song debuted by the FJ in 1984. In later years, this cumbersome setting was discarded for a more straightforward and rocking arrangement. Recorded at Geno’s, Oct. 12, 1984.
  • Corner Night (Demo 1985) (Hubley)  Elvis Costello much? Ray Davies much? Self-referential much? I wax reminiscent about the early days of the Fashion Jungle in this song written and demoed in 1985 for the Dan Knight edition of the FJ.

These four songs copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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


See images from the times before and between bands.


See the Archives page, offering way too much information.

 

 

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