Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the category “From Curley to the Mirrors”

Howling Turbines: Natty Gloves

The Howling Turbines in an early publicity shot by Jeff Stanton, circa 1998. From left: Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds.

The Howling Turbines looking skeptical in an early publicity shot by Jeff Stanton, circa 1998. From left: Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds. Hubley Archives.

Enjoy the champagne-bubble sounds of Howling Turbines on the Nimbit Internet!


A poster for a 1999 performance. Hubley Archives.

A poster for a 1999 performance. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer and I are Louis Jordan fans.

So we were pleased, if surprised, by Ken Reynolds’ invitation to see the jukebox musical Five Guys Named Moe, based on Jordan’s jumping R&B, at the Ogunquit Playhouse in August 1996.

Ken seemed to take the theme quite seriously in this outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.

Ken seemed to take the theme quite seriously in this outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.

Surprised in part because Gretchen and I almost never go to musicals, but in larger part because the invitation from our longtime friend and former bandmate seemed like some kind of overture. “Is Ken asking us on a date?” we wondered.

I have known Ken, who is a drummer, since 1975.  We met while working in the stockroom at Jordan Marsh at the Maine Mall, and found that our senses of humor really meshed. Three Stooges and Monty Python seemed very insidery in Portland, Maine, in the mid-1970s. We became good friends.

Gretchen in an outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen in an outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.

Our musical relationship started in 1977 with the Curley Howard Band, and we played together on and off until 1991, when Ken left the Cowlix. In that countryish band, Gretchen played guitar and bass, and I played guitar and accordion.

Doug Hubley strikes a pose that would intimidate even Wally Cox in this outtake from the boxing-poster session. Hubley Archives.

Doug Hubley strikes a pose that would intimidate even Wally Cox in this outtake from the boxing-poster session. Hubley Archives.

Through all the musical comings and goings, our longtime friendship with Ken had remained solid. But Ken’s invitation to drinks, dinner and a show (his family had season tickets at the playhouse) was an order of magnitude or two higher than our crowd’s usual frolics.

Gretchen Schaefer and I were calling ourselves "Howling Turbines" before Ken Reynolds returned as drummer. This song list bridges the two periods; the songs in darker ink, we learned with Ken. The acoustic material of the interrim, such as Leonard Cohen's "The Bells" (listed here as "Take This Longing") didn't make it into the Turbines' repertoire. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer and I were calling ourselves “Howling Turbines” before Ken Reynolds returned as drummer. This song list bridges the two periods; the songs in black ink, we learned with Ken. The acoustic material of the interrim, such as Leonard Cohen’s “The Bells” (listed here as “Take This Longing”) didn’t last into the Turbines. Hubley Archives.

It was a fun occasion on a warm sunny day. We had gin and tonics at Barnacle Billy’s and dinner somewhere nice. Five Guys Named Moe — Gretchen’s and my introduction to the Ogunquit Playhouse — was mostly music with a minimum of contrived plot, so we liked it. (Mop!)

The occasion gave us more time to talk than usual and it was good to get caught up with Ken. I remember sitting in the sun on Barnacle Billy’s patio as Ken told us that he had taken up drums again, performing at a church. He was happy to be playing although the congregation was fractious and, I think, split up either just before or just after Ogunquit.

Speaking of split-ups, this get-together was only a month or so after Jonathan Nichols-Pethick had left Gretchen’s and my band, the Boarders. While Jon’s departure had left us without a drummer, it also left us with ideas for new things to try — notably for Gretchen to sing more and for us to try some harmonies.

An ungloved Gretchen in 1998. Hubley Archives.

An ungloved Gretchen in 1998. Hubley Archives.

In the months after Jonathan and his wife, Nancy, lit out for Indiana, Gretchen and I tried out new material, from the Carter Family to Leonard Cohen, and also set the electric instruments aside and played acoustic guitars — anticipating our current band, Day for Night, by about 10 years.

In between the Boarders and Day for Night, though, there was another electric (and how!) band. I can’t remember the specifics, but sometime between our Ogunquit evening and our first rehearsals in early 1997, the three of us agreed that it would be a good idea for Ken to come back. And the Howling Turbines were born.

Howl

Ken Reynolds in the late 1990s. Photograph by Jeff Stanton.

Ken Reynolds in the late 1990s. Photograph by Jeff Stanton.

Ken hauled his drums back down into the basement in February 1997, 20 years to the month after he and I first started making music together. I remember the distinct pleasure I felt as the three of us got the ball rolling again. We knew each other well, personally and otherwise, and it didn’t take long to find our sound.

Which was not the Boarders’ sound. The two bands shared a format: the classic three-piece lineup of bass, drums and guitar. They shared a certain amount of material, and they shared Gretchen and me. But the sonics were quite different.

Much of the difference, of course, had to do with the drummers. Jonathan and Ken brought clearly
contrasting, if equally effective, approaches to
making the three-piece format work.

Your author in a film selfie, shot in the bedroom mirror in 1999. Notice the Concord Coach schedule tucked in the mirror frame in case we needed to make a quick getaway. Hubley Archives.

Your author in a film selfie, shot in the bedroom mirror in 1999. Notice the Concord Coach schedule tucked in the mirror frame in case we needed to make a quick getaway. Hubley Archives.

Jonathan kept a great beat, but brought a light touch and a lot of ornament and texture to the instrumental fabric.

With perhaps a decade of experience over Jon, by this point Ken was a much sparer stylist. He brought a relentless focus to the beat and an almost mathematical sense to his fills. Interestingly, Ken also worked his tom-toms, especially the floor tom, much harder with the Turbines than with our previous groups.

Their kits sounded quite different, too. Jon was playing a Yamaha set that had a mid-weight sound. Ken, meanwhile, had left his original Ringo Starr-model Ludwigs behind and brought in a massive set of silver-gray Pearls that fairly bristled with chrome pipes and mysterious fittings. That was a kit that invited heavy whacking.

Vocals made the other big difference between the Boarders and the Turbines. Where Gretchen had one vocal number with the earlier group, she did lead or harmony vocals on much of the Turbines’ repertoire, including through-harmonies on songs like “Matty Groves,” which we had worked out prior to Ken’s return.

Ken later picked up some lead vocals, too. The simple fact of additional voices added a welcome new dimension to the Turbines’ sound.

The Howling Turbines repertoire in November 1997. Ten of the 23 songs were new to the Turbines. Hubley Archives.

The Howling Turbines repertoire in November 1997. Ten of the 23 songs were new to the Turbines. Hubley Archives.

There was one other sonic supplement that is ridiculous to mention except for the fact that it had such a big effect. Actually, it was a big effect: a Danelectro “Daddy O” overdrive box that opened up a whole new world of noisemaking to me. I had been using a compressor for the big big sounds — and now the Daddy O enabled me to be not just loud, but abrasive!

Heavy drums, more vocals, metal guitar. Gretchen and I had been playing around with the name “Howling Turbines” before Ken came back (it was that or “The Lager-Rhythms”).

But these Turbines really did howl.


Another slice of the Turbines team. From left, photographer and longtime friend Jeff Stanton, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds. Photo by Doug Hubley.

Another slice of the Turbines team. From left, photographer and longtime friend Jeff Stanton, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds. Photo by Doug Hubley.

Early Howling Turbines rehearsal recordings on Nimbit and Bandcamp:

  • Just a Word From You, Sir (Hubley) One of two songs I wrote for the Howling Turbines, this was an attempt to capitalize on what I perceived as our heavy-rock potential. Generally about my relationship with authority, it’s specifically about Stalin, Leonard Cohen and God. Go figure. A rehearsal recording from March 1998. Copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • 1,000 Pounds of Rain (Hubley) The title was inspired by a 1990 Cowlix performance at the Drydock, for which — so as not to disturb the fried-clam scarfing multitudes — we had to carry the equipment to the second-story performance area up a cast-iron fire escape in a pouring rain. I lugged the title around for years not knowing what the song would be about. Finally finished in spring 1994, around the time the ‘Lix were splitting up, “1,000 Pounds” turned out to be a cry of despair at reaching middle age. This is one of a number of tunes that we carried over from the Boarders to the Turbines. A rehearsal recording from June 1, 1997. Copyright © 1995 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Shortwave Radio (Hubley) Leonard Cohen once told an interviewer something to the effect that performing “Bird on a Wire” reminded him of his duties somehow. “Shortwave Radio” plays a similar role for me. I started writing the lyrics in an art history class at USM in 1981, and finished the song up over a gin gimlet in my sister’s living room on a summer evening, Bob Newhart on the TV, volume muted. This stayed in the repertoire for more than 20 years, from the Fashion Jungle to the Boarders to the Turbines. A rehearsal recording from May 1998. Copyright © 1982 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Groping for the Perfect Song (Hubley) Like “Shortwave Radio,” “Why This Passion” and others, this early Fashion Jungle number seemed primed for a comeback when drummer Ken Reynolds rejoined bassist Gretchen Schaefer and me to form the Turbines. In this rough rehearsal recording I manage to goof up some lyrics including the signature opening line (hence the discount on this track on the Bandcamp and Nimbit stores). I derived some sort of early inspiration for this from David Byrne, but that didn’t last. A rehearsal recording from March 1998. Copyright © 1983 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Matty Groves (Traditional) Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer and I devoted one of our first through-harmony efforts to this very old British folk song. It’s such a country tune! The success of this early HT staple encouraged us to try a few other folk songs like “John Riley” and “Pretty Polly,” but this was always the best of the lot. A rehearsal recording from June 1, 1997.

Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2012–2014 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

 

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.

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