Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the tag “Ken Reynolds”

From a Hole in the Ground, Part One

The Fashion Jungle rehearses in Ben & Harriette Hubley’s basement in a composite image from the early 1980s. From left, Steve Chapman, Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley. Photos by Jeff Stanton.

See the basements, read about the basements — and hear the basements in the Bandcamp and Nimbit stores!

NOTE: All musical excerpts in this post were recorded in basements except the first one, included so that you can hear the Kent and Capt. Distortion, played by Steve McKinney; my bass playing heard through the RCA stereo; and Tom Hansen playing cardboard boxes, a tambourine and a metal bicycle basket as percussion. We all sing, and Judy McKinney sings and plays rhythm guitar. This was recorded in the Hubleys’ living room in 1969.


My parents’ basement in South Portland, Maine, in the late 1960s. Notice the particle board stereo speakers, the coffee-can light fixture at upper left and the cloth speaker grille on Capt. Distortion, lower left. This image is the source for the Notes From a Basement banner. Hubley Archives.

 

Most musicians from Bob Dylan on down,

especially those of a certain age, can tell you about making music in a basement.

I count at least nine residential basements in which I’ve played alone or with bands — to say nothing of such illustrious subterranean nightspots in Portland, Maine, as the original Geno’s, Squire Morgan’s, the short-lived Ratskellar and the Free Street Taverna (only slightly below street level, but with a true basement feel).

An equivalent view in April 2013, after we cleared out the house for sale and my parents moved into assisted living. Hubley Archives.

Allow me to explain the obvious. Musical equipment takes up a lot of space, is hard to dust and to vacuum around, and looks good only in its functional context — that is, when you’re using it to play music or make other musicians envious.

In addition, of course, electric music can get loud. And by the same token, domestic life can interfere with musical moods. You don’t want someone watching NASCAR nearby when you’re trying to record a tender folk ballad.

Perhaps most decisively, musicians at work create a powerful social energy that, for better or worse, intrudes into whatever hopes for their time your non-musical roommates might be aspiring to.

Doug Hubley and the Kent

Me and the Kent, my first guitar that I didn’t steal from my sister. Pre-Capt. Distortion, it was plugged into the RCA Victor stereo. Hubley Archives.

So for many of us, music gets made in the basement — spiders and pill bugs, dust and grit, mildew and mold, darkness and chilliness be damned.  (Garages, of course, also have a noble history as musical refuges, even lending their name to a musical genre).

And don’t forget the water during snowmelt and heavy rains. Standing water on the basement floor every spring was a special attraction in the 1910 house where I grew up, on a side street near Red Bolling’s legendary Tastee Freez (now known as Red’s).

When we moved in, in 1958, the largest of the three cellar rooms was set off by a pair of French doors. If a 60-year-recollection is worth anything, that space briefly harbored a little sitting area with curtains and some kind of dainty furniture. (I’m the only Hubley who remembers that amenity. Dream or reality?)

One French door, with all of its glass but painted into opacity, still remained 55 years later when we cleared the house out and moved my parents into assisted living.

The massive gray gizmo on the green hassock was a “portable” turntable, weighing about 40 pounds, that once used by WCSH-AM for remote broadcasts (if that’s still a recognizable concept). Hubley Archives.

Anyhoo, back there in 1966 or ’67, one or both of my sisters, who are older than me, turned that room into a hangout. They walled half of it off with blankets, and added amenities such as an old, deep stuffed chair with a rock-hard seat and touches of paint that included “I love you” (and, less idealistically, “69”) daubed on the bricks.

As my sisters’ hangout-related interests matured and my involvement in music deepened, I claimed the room. But it didn’t happen overnight. What shaped the situation was a chronic inadequacy of musical gear that prevailed until I was out of high school and drawing a paycheck. (I’m often gobsmacked by how well-equipped today’s young players are.)

Doug plays bass through the new Guild Superstar and sister Sue Hubley sings in early 1970. The “mic stand” was a tent pole. Hubley Archives.

The first guitar that was really mine, not “borrowed,” was a six-string Kent, Model 823. It was a birthday present in 1967, when I turned 13. But I didn’t have a proper amplifier until Christmas 1969.

During those 30 months before I got the Guild Superstar, my father improvised a couple of solutions to my unamplified plight. (Dad knew electronics — he’d even been a radioman with Eisenhower’s headquarters during WW II.)

First he rigged an input to the household record player, a much-modified RCA console model in the living room. The Kent sounded clean through the RCA — a bass sounded better, as it turned out — but the disruption to the household was significant.

Dad’s next offering was a bare-chassis amplifier of unknown origin (record player? intercom? public-address?) hooked up to an 8-inch speaker that must have come from some other console record player. The speaker was mounted onto a cloth-and-wood panel, and the amp was screwed onto a plain pine board. Dangling wires connected them, and the whole works teetered on a rolling metal TV stand. 

It wasn’t too loud but it sure sounded rough. In fact, it set a standard of overdriven amp tone that remains a criterion for me, in a good way. I called that contraption Capt. Distortion.

I continued to clear the living room with the RCA from time to time, but the Captain really changed my musical life. Most importantly, the Captain — along with other stopgaps, such as a second-hand particle-board stereo that Dad also dredged up from who knows where — untethered me from the living room.

And, actually, tethered me instead to basements.

Cellar, beware

A kid named Tom Hansen was one of my best friends for about five years, starting in 1966. We shared interests in music, in putting on a show, and in wacky humor. (The product of an academic household, Tom had a much more sophisticated wit than mine.)

Drummer Tom plays cardboard boxes and a real, though cracked, cymbal, in the Hubley basement in early 1970. Hubley Archives.

Our adolescent energies converged like phaser beams on my father’s poor Panasonic reel-to-reel tape recorder. We used it, with a succession of cheap plastic microphones, to record music ranging from earnest and bad to cacophonous and unlistenable. We also attempted comedy. Tom and I spent most of 1969 and ’70 recording crap on that poor tape recorder.

We surrounded ourselves with such musical instruments as we had. Along with the Kent and the Captain, that arsenal included a 12-string guitar from the Sears catalog, a kiddie piano, metal spoons and a tambourine, cheap bells, nose flutes and kazoos. And harmonicas: While I knew him, Tom developed into a very good harp player.

To the basement decor I added some colored light bulbs (I still remember buying them. I still have a green one), and Tom and I sat there in the near darkness just killing ourselves with what we considered really funny stuff. It’s just amazing how wrong people can be.


John Rolfe rehearses with our band Airmobile in the basement of a building at what is now Southern Maine Community College. This was summer 1973, the school was then known as Southern Maine Vocational-Technical Institute, and the building was the residence of bassist Glen Tracy, whose father worked at the college. Hubley Archives.

The Thunderbirds (previously Airmobile. It gets confusing) are back in the Hubley basement in this image from 1974. At left is bassist Glen Tracy. The drummer is Eddie Greco. Hubley Archives.

One product in particular made us very proud. Totaling 13 installments, it was called, with occasional variations, “The Captain Spoon Show.” As Captain Spoon, Tom carried the verbal weight of the show and had the best jokes. I was Mr. Music, plunking out chords for the ad-lib songs and sprinkling random notes over Tom’s verbal riffing. (Capt. Distortion and Capt. Spoon, eh? I think “Spoon” came first.)

Despite a few recurring bits, we pretty much winged each episode, exploring every corner of offensive adolescent spontaneity we could find. Between making music and “Captain Spoon,” we felt pretty special, which the thugs at South Portland High School rewarded with accusations, which sometimes escalated into physical harassment, of being gay. An enlightened era.

Tom and I remained friends through the SPHS grief and through his parents shipping him off briefly to private school to get him away from me. (Despite their fears, there was no gay sex, no booze, no drugs; just colored lights, stupid humor, music that gradually got better and an abused tape recorder). What did end Tom’s and my friendship was starting a band when we were 17. And, of course, becoming mature.

The Hubley studio post-paint job, 1974. Hubley Archives.

Years of a basement

Where most of my contemporaries in the early 1970s were absorbing the influences of school, sports, clubs, church and who knows what all, my character was being molded by records, radio, Rolling Stone and Hit Parader magazines — and my parents’ cellar.

For a while around 1970–71, on the basis of no experience and no professional equipment, I pretended that crummy room was a recording studio. I even “produced,” and Tom and I played on, an album-on-tape by his then-girlfriend, who sang and wrote all the songs. Later Tom came down with some friends from a religious organization and we tried to record “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.”

The Hubley basement studio at its apogee, in the mid-1970s. Note the Chevy hubcap ash tray, the three tambourines hanging from a beam, and the Carmencita psychedelic guitar at right. Hubley Archives.

A few years later — I was 20 and really should have known better — I pretended it was a nightclub and invited cronies down for drinks and performances. Friends knew to bypass the regular house entrance and come in through the cellar door, which was reminiscent of a bomb shelter entryway. 

The room was at its apogee then. Somewhere along the way I formally demarcated my space with tie-dyed muslin curtains (my father used the other half of the room for his own self-indulgences). With eager support from my mother — who was probably happy that I wanted to do something down there besides play loud guitar, or get drunk and lie on the floor listening to Hank Williams on headphones — I painted the moldering concrete walls in 1974.

Ensconced in the ass-numbing maroon easy chair, Ken Reynolds appreciates the Hubley cellar in 1977. Hubley Archives.

The standard of furnishings rose slightly, as I replaced old Hubley discards with newer ones. Gone was the old mattress and frame that served more to mock than to make possible any possibilities of l’amour. In addition to the original ass-numbing stuffed chair, there was a car bench seat (later replaced by the old pink family sofa) and a giant hassock covered in limeade-green fabric. There was a Chevy hubcap for an ashtray, although nobody much was smoking.

More important, the standard of musical furnishings rose markedly. Thanks to real jobs, first at the King Cole potato chip factory and then at the Jordan March department store (both establishments are long gone), I had a real stereo, real guitars and real amplifiers. Thanks again to Dad, I had my own tape recorder, a big heavy graduation-present Sony TC-540.

The Fashion Jungle poses for a publicity image in Steve Chapman’s basement, 1987. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives.

Solo, casually with friends, or with bands, I went on to make countless hours of music in the room. (During the summer of 1974, the first year of the “nightclub,” I was unemployed and spent nearly all my time there recording and writing songs. That didn’t help the possibilities of l’amour at all, to say nothing of the development of any sense of responsibility, but it was a useful musical immersion.)

It was the band work that justified and made real my musical aspirations. From Truck Farm to Airmobile, from the Mirrors all the way to the 1985 incarnation of the Fashion Jungle, all my bands rehearsed in the Hubley basement at some time or other. I extend eternal gratitude to my parents, who were very generous and tolerant of high-decibel band rehearsals two or three evenings a week. 

Those were wonderful days in the cellar. Recordings came out of there that I’m still proud to share today. Because we were young, music was still new territory and we had the energy and drive to explore it. We rode out on rhythm and loudness like cowboys. It made our brains feel good to develop music together.

And we had a lot of laughs. I’ll never forget the late-night load-ins after a gig — the gingerly descent with an amp in arms through the concrete bulkhead; wrangling tall, skinny Shure Vocalmaster speakers in through a cellar window; standing in the driveway at 2 a.m. divvying up the buck-three-eighty we made at the door at Geno’s (and keeping my mother awake with our jawing); the jokes and happy exhaustion.

A basement of one’s own

In 1989, Gretchen Schaefer and I bought a house. At last we had a basement to do with as we wished: wash and hang laundry, store stuff, start seedlings. And make music. 

The largest of the four cellar rooms is indeed the music studio. It’s outfitted to a level that would have been incomprehensible to me in 1970, and I work there alone and with Gretchen as the country band Day for Night.

My former studio in parents’ house, after they moved to assisted living and the Dump Guys cleaned it out. Hubley Archives.

This room, too, has colored lights (a string of Christmas lights). The floor is crumbling like the one at my parents’, but it’s maroon instead of robin’s egg blue and most important, it’s dry. Back when we had bigger bands, we rehearsed there, lugged amps and drums up and down for gigs, kept a neighbor awake with our jawing in the driveway at 2 a.m.

Me in the current basement, 2017. (Hubley Archives)

But we use our room only when we need the equipment. It’s not a refuge or a hangout, because other parts of the house are much more comfortable. Gretchen and I make much more music in our living room, which is warm and bright and has windows. We even record there, on a digital unit that’s about the size of a sandwich and probably weighs one-fiftieth of the Sony reel-to-reel. (The last times we recorded on tape were in November 2009.)

Unlike my sisters, who made the South Portland room into a teen hangout only to move on quickly to adult activities, I was in no hurry to leave it. That room turned out to be a halfway house for adulthood, which I wanted to reach, but on my own slow timetable.

I didn’t get out much, but I practiced adult activities in that room — being a musician, being in a romance, entertaining friends in sophisticated ways — that I looked forward to enjoying in some sweet empowered by-and-by.

Which happens to be now.


A collection of notes, as in musical, from some different basements. (Help me find the old Chevy hubcap ashtray on E-Bay — why not buy the whole album on BandCamp or Nimbit?)

Caphead (Hubley) The Howling Turbines: Doug Hubley, guitar and vocal • Gretchen Schaefer, bass and supporting vocal • Ken Reynolds, drums. Recorded in the current basement, Aug. 8, 1999. In the late 1990s, I started seeing all these young guys wearing ball caps, driving around in small cars and looking coldly murderous. A fatal fight among some of them in a Denny’s parking lot one year gave me the first verse. (“Caphead,” “Don’t Sell the Condo” and “Let the Singer” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved. ASCAP.)

Candy Says (Reed) The Karl Rossmann Band in Ben and Hattie Hubley’s basement, winter 1981. Our exploration of the Velvet Underground songbook hits a high point as Jim Sullivan’s perfectly ingenuous vocal nails the spirit of this lyric. Jim, lead vocal, guitar • DH, supporting vocal, lead guitar • Chris Hanson, supporting vocal • Mike Piscopo, supporting vocal, bass • KR, drums.

Don’t Forget to Cry (B. Bryant–F. Bryant) Day for Night recorded this on tape in the current basement, November–December 2006. I piled up guitars, bass and tambourine on the four-track for Gretchen Schaefer and I to sing over. The remarkable thing about my relatively sophisticated recording technology is that in spite of it all, the sound quality of my recordings has hardly advanced over the cheesy stuff I made in the 1970s. To thine own self be true.

A Certain Hunger (Chapman) The Fashion Jungle at Mr. & Mrs. Hubley’s, September 1983. Steve Chapman, bass, and vocal • DH, guitar • Kathren Torraca, keyboard. We were rehearsing with a drum machine because KR was sidelined with a baseball injury. One of my favorite songs by Steve, and a worthy addition to the my-lover-is-a-vampire school of romantic art. (“A Certain Hunger” copyright © 1983 by Steven Chapman. All rights reserved.)

When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down (Telfer–Prosser–Jones) The Boarders: DH, guitar and vocal • GS, bass • Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums. A fabulous song by a hit-or-miss Celtic rock group, Oysterband. I have neither the dignity to spare nor the constitution for the lifestyle depicted here, but I sure can relate. A staple of the Boarders repertoire, one of my all-time favorites, recorded in the current basement on Oct. 15, 1995.

Polly (Clark) Day for Night: GS and DH, guitar and vocal. D4N had a Gene Clark jag that resulted in our learning four of his songs in one gulp in autumn 2008. Gretchen contributes an especially fine lead vocal on Clark’s mysterious “Polly.” Recorded in the current basement, Nov. 25, 2009.

Don’t Sell the Condo (Hubley) The Fashion Jungle: SC, DH, KR. One of my favorites of my songs and, I think, one of the Fashion Jungle’s best — too bad few people ever heard it. Gretchen knew an art dealer whose charismatic lover, prominent in the Old Port scene, was rumored to be a coke dealer, woman beater, Satan in the flesh, etc. This is the couple’s story as I imagined it. I wrote the lyric over gimlets in the lobby of the Eastland Hotel on a snowy afternoon while waiting for Gretchen to get out of class. This recording comes from a videotape that she made of the FJ in the Chapmans’ basement early in 1988.

She Lives Downstairs (Hubley–Piscopo–Reynolds–Sullivan) The Fashion Jungle: DH, lead vocal, lead guitar • Mike Piscopo, backing vocal, rhythm guitar (we were both playing Gretsches, hence the groovy sound) • KR, drums • Jim Sullivan, bass and backing vocal. Directly descended from the Mirrors via the Karl Rossmann Band, the FJ was our gesture at faster-louder-more fun music. We put an emphasis on original songs, but because none of us was a prolific writer, we undertook an ongoing exercise in collaborations like this. The Ken Reynolds lyric was based on an actual person. Recorded in Mr. and Mrs. Hubley’s basement, spring 1981. (“She Lives Downstairs” copyright © 1981 by Douglas L. Hubley, Michael Piscopo, Kenneth Reynolds, Jim Sullivan. All rights reserved.)

Let the Singer (Hubley) One of my few 1970s compositions that have held up. It’s a paean to the live fast–die young lifestyle that seemed very romantic until all those musicians I liked died young. This is a 1978 solo recording, done in my parents’ basement, for a submission to a WBLM-FM songwriting contest. (How could I not have won?!?)

Notes From a Basement text © 2017 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Howling Turbines: A Sense of Overtime

Talk about woodshedding: The Howling Turbines perform in the woodpile for a fundraiser at Flatbread Company in 2002. In addition to being relegated to the woodpile, we weren’t allowed to use a PA — heaven forfend that we should interrupt the joyous shrieking of familial bliss at this popular family restaurant. Jeff Stanton photo and montage.


The merry-go-round is beginning to slow now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
The music has stopped and the children must go now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?

— Billy Barnes


Avoid the sad words! Instead, spend freely at the Bandcamp Howling Turbines store!


With our host Bob Gallagher shown at upper left, the Howling Turbines perform at a party circa 2002. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

With our host Bob Gallagher shown at upper left, the Howling Turbines perform at a party circa 2002. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

As I look back, the last years of the Howling Turbines, from 2001 to 2004, had a winter-sunset quality.

Of course, it didn’t seem that way to me at the time. Instead, it felt like business as usual, right up to the end. But now, recalling those years and listening to recordings from then, I get a distinct sense of streetlights flickering on, the sky going briefly garish then dark, and crows flocking home to roost.

HT-Setlist-July03058

The Turbines’ setlist for the last party we played at Rikki and Bob Gallagher’s house, in 2003. We set up on the back deck, rain began and we tore it all down, the rain stopped and we set it all up again. Hardly anyone attended. Hubley Archives.

The Howling Turbines continued to rehearse and, very occasionally, to perform. We bought more instruments to make more sounds, although there was less energy behind the sounds. The tempos slowed but we still found new reservoirs of sophistication, feeling and even beauty.

Our demise was not dramatic. In fact, though the Turbines’ music could be quite dramatic, or at least loud and then soft, there was never much personal drama among the three of us. We came together as musical veterans who shared a long history, solid affection and a lot of musical taste.

Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer, shown circa 2001 in Rikki and Bob Gallagher's backyard in Westbrook during one of the four Gallagher parties we played. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer, shown in Rikki and Bob Gallagher’s backyard in Westbrook during one of the four Gallagher parties we played. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Drummer Ken Reynolds and I started playing together in the late 1970s. Bassist Gretchen Schaefer, my wife since 2002, entered the picture in 1981 during the days of Ken’s and my band the Fashion Jungle, and she had performed with me in the Cowlix and Boarders.

In short, we were congenial. The Turbines’ end wasn’t a big knife festival. It was more like death from a thousand cuts.

Gretchen and Doug during a Gallagher party. Photo by Jeff Stanton (image distortion  by inkjet printer)

Gretchen and Doug during a Gallagher party. Photo by Jeff Stanton (image distortion by inkjet printer)

Never energetic about bird-dogging gigs (perfect: a band of introverts), we lost our one steady venue in 2002 when Peter Kostopoulos sold the Free Street Taverna. I don’t remember if we tried to get bookings from the Taverna’s next owner, but in any event we never played there again. The sale of that bohemian watering hole was the end of an era, and not just for the Turbines.

So thereafter performances were even less frequent than before. In fact, it was mainly because of two friends, Gretchen’s colleague Rikki Gallagher and her husband Bob, who several times invited us to play at their parties, that we had any gigs at all during those last years. (We did have the inestimable honor of playing acoustically in the woodpile of a hangar-like Portland pizza place that wouldn’t let us use any P.A., so, sonically at least, we might as well not
even have been there at all.)

Larry assumes a whole new persona in Gretchen Schaefer's series of Howling Turbines posters based on Three Stooges publicity stills. And here I thought he was the nicest of the bunch. Hubley Archives.

It’s a different side of Larry in one of Gretchen Schaefer’s Howling Turbines posters based on Three Stooges publicity stills. And here I thought he was the nicest of the bunch. Hubley Archives.

And the Gallaghers’ invitations led to a fruitful new direction for the Turbines. Although we twice played electric in the Gallaghers’ back yard, we also performed indoors for them in the winter. This meant going acoustic — and we liked it.

The memories of those performances in the Gallaghers’ living rooms, one in Westbook and one in Raymond, remain vivid: so satisfying, so musical, such great communication among the Howling Turbines.

For those dates, Gretchen played a Martin acoustic bass guitar, I played the Gibson J-100 and Ken alternated among his new djembe, a very minimal kit played with brushes, and bongo drums that I had given Gretchen for Christmas an eternity ago, in the 1980s. The musical communication among the three of us seemed to gain both nuance and depth. We couldn’t make the big sound or the big beat, but we seemed to gain capability in other ways. Suddenly we were branching out in new directions: going deeper into torch music, deeper into folk and world music.

The Epiphone Casino in a hotel in Montreal, where I bought it at a music shop near the Jean Talon market. Gretchen Schaefer photo/Hubley Archives.

The Epiphone Casino in a hotel in Montreal, where I bought it at a shop near the Jean Talon market. Gretchen Schaefer photo/Hubley Archives.

The djembe, which Ken got around 2000, was transformative. This hand drum opened to us the extensive bazaar of world variations on the ole two-beat. In both acoustic and electric modes, we glommed up a gratifyingly new, to us, diversity of rhythms that was a welcome added dimension to the metallic Turbines sound.

The Excelsior, bought at Accordion-O-Rama in New York City in November 2002. Photo by Gretchen Schaefer/Hubley Archives.

The Excelsior, aka Bluebell, purchased at Accordion-O-Rama in New York City. Photo by Gretchen Schaefer/Hubley Archives.

I got a couple of new instruments in those years, too. In summer 2002, at a store near the Jean Talon market in Montreal, I succumbed to the longtime desire to own an Epiphone Casino. This specimen was blond and, unlike other Casinos I had tried, would stay in tune for the duration of an entire song. At the time they were priced at about US$550 and C$550, and the Canadian dollar was much cheaper, so how could I resist?

That same year, in November, I made my second purchase at the legendary Accordion-O-Rama, located at the time in Manhattan (and now in South Amboy, New Jersey). Gretchen was attending a conference, and since I was footloose and fancy-free, it was only natural that my first thought was to buy a new accordion.

Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley and Gretchen Schaefer: the Howling Turbines, circa 2001, in a party at the Westbrook home of Rikki and Bob Gallagher. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley and Gretchen Schaefer: the Howling Turbines, circa 2002, at a party at the Westbrook home of Rikki and Bob Gallagher. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

My first Accordion-O-Rama purchase was the used, black and silver Lira 120-bass that I got in 1987 and played with the Cowlix and the Boarders. Carefully packing the old Lira accordion according to Peter Shearer’s instructions, I shipped it ahead to the Big City. It was a trade-in toward accordion No. 3: a sweet blue Excelsior 48-bass that weighed about a ton less than the Lira and had a full set of musette reeds, as opposed to the Lira’s half-musette.

This did not represent an accordion renaissance for me (that would come later, with Gretchen’s and my current band, Day for Night). But I did use the Excelsior, aka Bluebell, on a few numbers that would come to symbolize the late Turbines for me — both sung by Ken Reynolds.

Ken with the djembe, at right, as Doug drones on. Jeff Stanton photo.

Ken with the djembe, at right, as Doug drones on. Jeff Stanton photo.

Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes” was a revival from our old band, the Mirrors. Inspired by a 1970s affair, Ken had sung it poignantly then, but now in our maturity and with the streetlights flickering on around the Howling Turbines, it gained a new depth of emotion.

Reed’s onetime Velvet Underground colleague John Cale wrote “I’m Not the Loving Kind.” If stunning electricity and pounding tom-toms defined the Turbines’ early years, this song — Ken’s unforced singing, the accordion, the bongoes, Gretchen’s bass and our restrained backing vocals — symbolizes the end game to me. For all its simplicity, it was one of our best numbers. It came so late in the game.

The oddest turn we took was toward Brazil. Sometime in the late 1990s, I bought for Gretchen a compilation of Stan Getz bossa nova recordings, and I would borrow it for my 45-minute commute to work. I got hooked. It was mainly the rhythm: I remember one day in the Jetta on the Maine Turnpike, the road noise drowning out nearly everything but João Gilberto’s guitar. And it was so infectious I couldn’t stand it.

We had already made a pass at jazz, in our technically circumscribed way. (I remember drifting into the back yard in an ecstatic haze one summer day after work, trying to puzzle out the chords to “I’m Through With Love.”)

Bossa nova seemed like the aesthetically appropriate next step. The Turbines didn’t stay together long enough to get deep into it, but we learned enough to give our sets a spice that you just wouldn’t get from any other band from Portland, Maine, that was also playing Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and John Cale numbers.

Who are these Turbines? Read and find out, if you would be so bold! Hubley Archives.

Who are these Turbines? Read and find out, if you would be so bold! Hubley Archives.

From our early days we revived Cale’s “I Keep a Close Watch,” setting it to a fast bossa nova beat. As opposed to Cale’s full piano chords or the stately Rickenbacker 12-string setting we had started out with, this late rendition had a chilly sparsity that rendered the stark lyrics all the starker.

And from the Gilberto-Getz-Gilberto songbook, in an audacious grab that resolved into an ideal Howling Turbines selection, we picked up Benny Carter and Sammy Kahn’s “Only Trust Your Heart.” It was Gretchen’s best vocal performance with the Howling Turbines, and we hung onto it into the early days of Day for Night.

But the crows were gathering around us, if we had just had the perspicacity to wonder what the cawing was about. Descendants of a band premised on the primacy of original material, the Fashion Jungle, the Turbines nevertheless learned no new originals after 1998’s “Caphead” — which, in fact, was the last song I wrote until 2010.

So much to do and so little time. The songs that I prepared for the Turbines to learn or revive in early 2004. Hubley Archives

So much to do and so little time. The songs that I prepared for the Turbines to learn or revive in early 2004. Hubley Archives.

We remained loyal to the notion of being an originals band even as the well ran dry, clinging to Big Hits from the Old Days dating back even to the FJ. But 15 or 20 years after the first flush of inspiration, it took some emotional gymnastics to conjure up enthusiasm for “Shortwave Radio” and “Groping for the Perfect Song.”

In the end, what stopped the Turbines’ spin was the same stick in the blades that stalls most bands: Our lives were changing in ways that couldn’t accommodate the band. I think that was particularly true for Ken. He got involved with a woman in the early 2000s and wanted, naturally, to devote time to that relationship — a desire complicated by his job at the post office, which almost invariably entailed evening or overnight shifts.

Paying work, and love: It’s hard not to prioritize those.

In January 2004, in what I considered the lead-up to a fresh start, I prepared several cover songs for us to learn or revive (including “Bargiallo” by the Italian band Madreblu, Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted” and the bossa nova version of “I Keep a Close Watch”).

"Brief return from obscurity" refers to the fact that the Turbines played only private parties after the sale of the Free Street Taverna, our sole public venue. And the Acoustic Coffee date turned out to be the Turbines' last gig. Hubley Archives.

“Brief return from obscurity” refers to the fact that the Turbines played only private parties after the sale of the Free Street Taverna, our sole public venue. And the Acoustic Coffee date turned out to be the Turbines’ last gig. Hubley Archives.

Three months later, on April 17, the Howling Turbines played what turned out to be our last gig, at a place on Danforth Street called Acoustic Coffee.

We played pretty well — and not acoustically, despite the club name — but it was an uneasy date, even though Gretchen and I, at least, had no idea it was the band’s finale. The club owner had booked us but didn’t really seem to like us, and had weirdly passive-aggressive ways of showing it.

Among our friends in attendance were Barbie Weed and Tracey Mousseau. The Acoustic Coffee chairs were folding chairs, and Barbie’s collapsed, trapping her thumb in a shear point and injuring it. Tracey took her to the emergency room. As I recall, the club owner wasn’t nice to Barbie about the injury his defective furniture inflicted on her. Sorry our friend hurt your chair, mister!

We hauled the gear back to the basement and said our goodnights as usual and, surprise, the Howling Turbines were done . . . as we realized sometime later. There was no big breakup scene or even a discussion — and we’re still friends with Ken — but he never came back for another rehearsal, returning to the basement only several months later to retrieve his drums.

For Gretchen and me, what followed was three years in a musical wilderness — much of it Brazilian.


I present these rehearsal recordings an as accompaniment to this post, but it’s really a mismatch. The post dwells on the last years of the Howling Turbines, in which our music had a distinct decline-of-the-empire quality. These songs, though, are from our growth years, 1998-99. I offer them because I can’t put cover versions up for sale. But it was covers, by Lou Reed, John Cale, Leonard Cohen and others, that really formed the soundtrack of this chapter of the band. The excerpts embedded in the text above will give you a better sense of what was happening musically.

Visit the Nimbit store. Visit the Bandcamp store.

  • Looks Like My Monkey Got Loose (Hubley) I was sitting on a bus in January 1996, waiting to leave Elm Street, when I thought of a crazy monkey as a metaphor for lack of self-control. (You may not believe it, but I myself have had impulse-control issues.) The song started out with the Boarders and endured into the Howling Turbines, who recorded this take in a 1998 rehearsal. Gretchen and I gave up the Little Debbie Swiss Rolls once and for all after the news about transfats came out, but the jones never goes away. Copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Just a Word From You, Sir (Hubley) The second of two very different versions of this number. One of two songs I wrote for the Turbines, this number is generally about my relationship with authority, and specifically about Stalin, Leonard Cohen and God. The original arrangement was slow, grinding, heavy and metallic. I now prefer the original to this sprightly tap-dance setting, but the later one too has its charms and is certainly more dynamic than the other. This 1999 rehearsal recording is a recent discovery in the Basement vault. Copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Watching You Go (Hubley) Another holdover from the Boarders. I regard this as one of the best songs I’ve written. Fate is generous with opportunities to dwell on the loss of loved ones, but it took the death of my cat Harry to get me to actually write about it. Fortunately I was able to expand the lyrics beyond “my kitty died.” A 1999 Howling Turbines rehearsal recording. Copyright 1996 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Why This Passion (Hubley) A wordy attempt to trace the course of a lovers’ quarrel, this high-romantic epic started out with the Chapman-Torraca Fashion Jungle in an over-elaborate arrangement, became more straightforward in the FJ’s later incarnations, and finally, with the Boarders, picked up the “camel beat” heard here. Given Ken Reynolds’ latter-day attraction to the tom-toms, that beat was a natch for him, as you can hear in this 1998 or 1999 rehearsal recording. Copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2012–2015 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Howling Turbines vs. The World

The Howling Turbines on a blistering hot day at the Free Street Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999: from left, drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Gretchen Schaefer and me -- guitarist and singer Doug Hubley. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

The Howling Turbines on a blistering hot day at the Free Street Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999: from left, drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Gretchen Schaefer and me — guitarist and singer Doug Hubley. I was wearing the tan sport jacket because we had just seen “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” and I thought that tie, jacket and sweat was a great look. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Oh no! He’s going to talk about his career again! Skip all that and go directly to the throbbing rock sounds at the Nimbit and Bandcamp stores!


The best years of our band the Howling Turbines also happened to be my final years (to this point, anyway) as a freelance writer and editor.

The Turbines' repertoire in July 2001. Hubley Archives.

The Turbines’ repertoire in July 2001. The annotations indicate things I needed to work on. Hubley Archives.

As previously noted, the Turbines came together in February 1997, as drummer Ken Reynolds rejoined bassist Gretchen Schaefer and me after a separation of more than five years.

A month later, in March 1997, I was ejected from my day job and returned to freelancing, sticking with it until another day job came along, four and a half years later. (I’m still working that one.)

Long-necked woman with a black skirt: Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer at the Free Street Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Long-necked woman with a black skirt: Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer at the Free Street Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

During those four-plus years the Turbines had the most energy, learned the most and best songs of our career, and gave the most public performances — albeit nearly all of them at the Free Street Taverna.

A surge of creativity can have many causes, and novelty is a potent one, but it’s safe to say that novelty was not the primary source of our energy during those years. In fact, familiarity and comfort may have had more to do with it.

Gretchen and I had solidified our bass-and-guitar relationship during the previous band, the Boarders. Ken and I had a musical history dating back to the late 1970s, and the three of us had played together in the early Cowlix. Gretchen played rhythm guitar then, so it’s likely that most of the discovery in the Turbines’ evolving musical chemistry took place in Gretchen and Ken’s development as a rhythm section.

An entry in Gretchen Schaefer's series of Howling Turbines posters based on Three Stooges publicity stills. Hubley Archives.

An entry in Gretchen Schaefer’s series of Howling Turbines posters based on Three Stooges publicity stills. Hubley Archives.

One of the things that made the Turbines such hot stuff early on, I believe, was an appetite for new-to-us material coupled with the confidence that we could do something good with it. Comfortable with each other personally and musically, we just had a lot of songs we wanted to try.

And if the stylistic promiscuity that I’ve written about so often had risen to a new height with the Boarders, it hit the stratosphere with the return of Ken Reynolds.

In those growth years of the Howling Turbines, Ken was like Santa Claus when it came to bringing in songs. I’m a lifelong Byrds fan and have the Rickenbacker to prove it, but it was Ken who proposed that we do “World Turns All Around Her,” “Have You Seen Her Face,” “Why,” “One Hundred Years From Now” and “Thoughts and Words” — one of the Turbines’ best numbers.

Bang a drum slowly and hold the stick lowly. Ken Reynolds at the Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Bang a drum slowly and hold the stick lowly. Ken Reynolds at the Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Meanwhile, deep into blues and R&B, Ken nudged us in those directions as well. He sang Little Walter’s “My Babe,” and brought in Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.”

Some of Ken’s picks quickly became signature Turbines numbers. “Thoughts and Words” was one; others were Johnny Cash’s “Home of the Blues,” rendered as country-metal, and Buddy Holly’s “That’s What They Say,” propelled by Ken’s trademark rumble on the tom-toms.

DH and the boys outside the Taverna during a Howling Turbines gig on Aug. 1, 1999. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

DH and the boys outside the Taverna during a Howling Turbines gig on Aug. 1, 1999. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Not that Gretchen and I were twiddling our thumbs in the parking lot while Ken was doing all the repertoire shopping. Gretchen brought in another of our most durable songs, the Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” on which she sang lead.

In a nod to Gram Parsons’ exemplary soul-country crossovers, we sang through-harmony on James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet.” (We bought the single at Bill O’Neil’s House of Rock and Roll on a February day.) The three of us turned the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” into a dramatic metallic dirge featuring Gretchen’s excellent supporting vocal and bass signature riff adapted from Jeff Beck.

And among my first contributions to the Turbines Hit Parade was a song I had been hankering to do for 20 years, Gene Clark’s “The Same One.” I vividly remember how great it felt as we were learning it and the pieces were falling into place, the whole suddenly transcending the sum of the parts. That’s what I’m in it for.

Who do you love?

That day job that I lost in March 1997, by the way, was an case of crossing the fence to get at the greener grass, only to find that it’s Astroturf. It was an editing position, so-called, at a digital multimedia company in Portland, Maine. The company developed corporate websites with an emphasis on tourism and video games, among other products — pioneering stuff in Maine in the mid-1990s.

Ken's copy of our late 1998 repertoire, complete with implement notes. Hubley Archives.

Ken’s copy of our late 1998 repertoire, complete with implement notes. Hubley Archives.

The firm had its office downtown. I found out about it during my stint as features editor for Maine Times, an alternative newsweekly that was tottering toward the exit by the time it moved to Portland in 1994. MT and the multimedia firm were in the same building on Congress Street and shared a wall.

So even as we at the doomed MT were feeling the mass-media buzz about the brave new world of digital communications, we were hearing the merry laughter of the staff at the multimedia company next door and smelling the delicious English muffins that they toasted each morning.

Alden Bodwell and Doug setting up the Turbines stage for a performance at the Free Street Taverna. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Alden Bodwell and Doug setting up the Turbines stage for a performance at the Free Street Taverna. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

Hankering for more merriment and English muffins than Maine Times could provide at that point, in August 1995 I went over the wall and got a job at the multimedia company.

(Actually, I just went down the corridor. And shortly thereafter, the wall was removed. Ms. Carson, tear down that wall! Maine Times moved elsewhere in the building when its owner, who also owned the Casco Bay Weekly, consolidated operations into less space to save on rent. My company expanded into the former MT space, so I could sit at my new desk at my 21st-century job and look over to where my old desk had been, back there in the 20th century.)

Well, so much for merriment and muffins. The multimedia company and I were not a good fit. This I realized only a few weeks in, during an evening of calling state parks in Hawaii to find out how many trails and restrooms they had. Useful work, but not my work.

The end of a long hot afternoon: the Howling Turbines back at the rehearsal hall after a 90 F gig at the Free Street Taverna in August 1999. From left: Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds, Alden Bodwell. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

The end of a long hot afternoon: the Howling Turbines back at the rehearsal hall after a 90 F gig at the Free Street Taverna in August 1999. From left: Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds, Alden Bodwell. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

I’m not sure when the management realized our poor fit. I suppose it could have been around the time I announced I was taking a leave of absence so that Gretchen and I could travel for six weeks. In any case, I was freelancing again by April ’97 — with both my former employers ultimately among my clients.

Once again, I was living up to the mini-bio that followed my published articles — “a musician and writer living in Portland, Maine.” And yep, the band was hot stuff, nuclear batteries to power and Howling Turbines to speed.

But what didn’t happen much for this freelance writer was songwriting. I wrote two for the Turbines, “Just a Word From You, Sir” in 1997 and “Caphead” in 1998 — and that was it for my songwriting career until 2010.

I can’t explain it, at least not definitively. You might think that once I was free-lancing again, it would have been easier to cultivate inspiration and develop a writing routine like real songwriters do. It was a golden opportunity that I somehow failed to seize.

Instead, I chased writing and editing assignments — getting some good ones and even a Maine Press Association award — and worried about money. And the Turbines played on.


A poster for a 1999 performance. Hubley Archives.

A poster for a 1999 performance. The world won. Hubley Archives.

The lack of original material is apparent in this selection of Turbines rehearsal recordings, in which only “Caphead” was written for the band; the rest are holdovers from the Fashion Jungle and the Boarders. See the album in the Nimbit and Bandcamp stores.

      • Caphead (Hubley) In the late 1990s, I started seeing all these young guys wearing ball caps, driving around in tuned Hondas and looking coldly murderous. A fatal fight among some of them in a Denny’s parking lot that year gave me the first verse. This was the last complete song I wrote before a dry spell that lasted until early 2010. Apologies to “Secret Agent Man.” From a Howling Turbines rehearsal on Aug. 8, 1999. Doug Hubley, guitar and lead vocal. Ken Reynolds, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass and vocal.
      • Je t’aime (Hubley) This song is an interpretation, somewhat unfair to her, of an affair I had with a Swedish girl in 1976. I wrote “Je t’aime” in 1982, during the early Fashion Jungle era, revived it for the Boarders and kept it for the Howling Turbines. Aug. 8, 1999.
      • Dance (Hubley) This is the final version of a song that started out in 1988 with the Fashion Jungle in a much different musical setting. Seven years later, when I needed material for the Boarders, I wrote new music for those lyrics because I couldn’t remember the Fashion Jungle’s version and didn’t realize that I had a recording of it, later unearthed. Here it is by the Howling Turbines in a rehearsal on March 22, 1998.
      • Breaker’s Remorse (Hubley) Hearing the expression “buyer’s remorse” for the first time in 1987, I parlayed it into a song for the Fashion Jungle about someone who needs encouragement expressing herself. It came back with the Boarders and ended up with the HTs, who recorded this version in 1998 or ’99.

 

“Caphead,” “Breaker’s Remorse” and “Dance” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. “Je t’aime” copyright © 1983 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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

Obsessive Christmas Disorder

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.

The swinging new release Obsessive Christmas Disorder makes a great Christmas gift!


If you were in a band with me back in the day, certain Christmas obligations came with the job.

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.

The Boarders and the Howling Turbines, in particular, tended to land December gigs (at the Free Street Taverna, natch) for which I would insist we play a few holiday numbers. Among them:

“Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” with a ska beat; the 16th-century German carol “Maria Durch ein Dornwald ging”; and my compositions “Scary Christmas Polka,” “Hedonistic Christmas,” “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” and “Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree.”

Our news release for the December 1995 Taverna performance. Hubley Archives.

Our news release for the December 1995 Taverna performance. Hubley Archives.

My memories of these gigs are fragmentary: shoveling the driveway before a Boarders date that was complicated by the snow. Singing “Santa Claus,” a lyric I wrote to the tune, and inspired by the theme, of Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc.” The Christmas lights against the Taverna’s brick walls and the chilling draft every time someone entered or left. Our friend Jeff Stanton propping himself up at a table as the evening grew late.

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 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.

For my bandmates — bassist Gretchen Schaefer, and drummers Jonathan Nichols-Pethick (Boarders) and Ken Reynolds (Turbines) — the Christmas gigs were gigs like others, just more festive and affording the chance to do material different from what we dragged around with us the rest of the year.

But in my mind there has been, since childhood, a link between Christmas and performing — though it’s also true that I never had enough community spirit, religious affiliation or even garden-variety empathy to frame my Yuletide performances in some broadly meaningful cultural context. (Even the currently popular holiday burlesque shows have that much going for them.)

Instead, I simply have old, random, but deeply felt sentiments for the season, and I simply hoped that I could present them in a way that, like an oddly dressed stranger speaking poor English who shows up in town on Christmas Eve, might elicit some fellow feeling.

As a pup I annoyed my family at dinnertime by talking into the telephone and pretending to be Santa Claus’ publicist (which perhaps anticipated my current work, which involves a lot of marketing). In a Christmas gift to all concerned, that phase was short. Odd that I was astute enough to know what a publicist did, but not enough to know how annoying I was.

Me under the Hubley Christmas tree in the mid-1970s. My sister Nancy has her back to the camera. Hubley Family photo.

Me under the Hubley tree in the mid-1970s. My sister Nancy has her back to the camera. Hubley Family photo.

Later there were Christmas concerts with the Mahoney Middle School chorus, during one of which we performed the first song I ever wrote, “For Something’s Happened” — a calling-all-shepherds Christmas carol, though I knew even at age 12 or 13 that I was an atheist.

In 1973, the desire to put on a holiday show ascended to a new plane. That autumn, the nation was in the depths of Watergate, the first energy crisis, Vietnam and an emergent hangover from the cultural efflorescence of the 1960s. Gram Parsons and Jim Croce died — and Croce got all the mourning.

Who are these Turbines? Read it and find out, if you would be so bold! Hubley Archives.

Who are these Turbines? Read it and find out, if you would be so bold! Hubley Archives.

I was unemployed, overweight, drinking too much, mourning my recently broken-up band, hanging around my parents’ basement and pining for romance. Clearly, it was time to put on a show! Somehow — I think through an invitation from the South Portland High School Keyette Club via my friend Patty Stanton — I ended up booked for the SPHS Christmas assembly.

No band? No problem! In my infinite ill-founded self-confidence, I used the Sony 540 reel-to-reel and my parents’ cassette deck to create backing tracks — drums, bass and guitar, all ineptly played by me and rendered in distorted meatball-as-pingpong ball multiple tracking — for four songs, which I sang and added live guitar to during the assembly. Not just once, but twice, in ’73 and ’74.

The songs: “White Christmas,” Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas, Baby,” “Silver Bells” and Elvis Presley’s “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” That one got some attention, at least according to my tape of the 1974 show.

Of course, responses to Christmas are complex, and my impulse to put on a show flew in formation with a squadron of other tendencies. (Trigger alert: Baby Boomer reminiscences follow.)

During the 1960s, I entered a holiday fugue state every November, a delirium inflamed by product lust encouraged by indulgent parents and the Sears, Roebuck Wish Book; and embellished with colorful Christmas-tree chiaroscuro, heart-rendering music and hearty sparkling TV specials. (The greed has spent itself, but the other components linger on.)

Digitally retouched to increase sentimental value, this is a view across the side yard at 103 Richland St., South Portland, Maine, where my family lived for many years. Harriette H. Hubley photo.

Digitally retouched to increase sentimental value, this is a view across the side yard at 103 Richland St., South Portland, Maine, where my family lived for many years. Harriette H. Hubley photo.

For a brief pre-teen period I practiced unspeakable (not perverted, just embarrassing) occult pre-Christmas rituals influenced by Tom Swift Jr. stories and TV spy series. These dictated specifically when I could take my Christmas stocking out of storage, put up my Christmas list, etc., etc.

Eventually I absorbed the idea that Christmas involved giving as well as getting. What an adjustment! Maturing at the same time was my innate neurotic responsiveness to deadlines. These traits converged at Christmas season to form compulsive, self-imposed sensations of obligation and urgency.

The buildup to the Big Day began to entail gift projects that inexorably led to late-night, last-minute labors that likely bore little relation to the holiday expectations of anyone around me.

All these psychological currents flowing through the Christmas season — the urge to perform, the sentimental reverberations, the self-imposed Big Projects — converged and blossomed forth in the Christmas Greeting Tapes, discussed in an earlier post, that I made for friends and family over the course of more than two decades.

The front and back covers of the final entry in my CD compilation series, "40 Years of a Basement."

The front and back covers of the final entry in my CD compilation series, “40 Years of a Basement.” The mosaic is by Gretchen Schaefer.

All the songs that I expected my bands to perform at the Free Street Taverna and elsewhere, I had developed or adapted for the Christmas tapes.

These tapes were the mother of self-imposed Christmas obligations: Having done one, in 1974 (featuring recordings of the SPHS gig), I saw the creative potential and quickly developed the idea, purely out of thin air, that it was vitally important to keep making them — important not just to me, but to everyone I gave them to and, probably, to untold future generations, too. (I’m quite sure that people liked getting them, but really.)

All this is written in a retrospective tense, but don’t be fooled. True, the Christmas Greeting Tapes are long over with, and no one has offered a Christmas gig to my current band, Day for Night (we’ll take it! Please!!) — but the Christmas projects continue, albeit benefiting from somewhat less OCD and somewhat more refinement.

A combined setlist for two Christmastime 1995 Boarders dates: the Dec. 9 Taverna gig and a Rotary-sponsored performance for seniors at the Purpooduc Club. We played very quietly at that one. Hubley Archives.

A combined setlist for two Christmastime 1995 Boarders dates: the Dec. 9 Taverna gig and a Rotary-sponsored performance for seniors at the Purpooduc Club. We played very quietly at that one. Hubley Archives.

You are reading the latest iteration of them, third in a series of Yule-themed Notes From a Basement blogs.  Just prior to starting the blog, from 2005 through 2011, I produced on CD for family and friends annual compilations of music that those friends and I have recorded since the late 1960s.

In some ways the CD sets are realizations of unmet goals for the Christmas tapes. The seven compilations comprise 17 discs containing a total of 340 tracks played by 10 acts or artists. The sets are nicely annotated and illustrated, with five of them packaged in wordy (big surprise) 8.5-by-5.5-inch booklets. (Gretchen, thank you again for the long-reach stapler.)

I regret that I remember less about the Boarders and Howling Turbines Christmas performances, offered by a group of musicians for a group of people who wanted to hear what we were doing, than I do about the somewhat onanistic projects that preceded them by 20 years and more. And I would like to know more about our audiences’ responses to them, as that perhaps was a context in which my responses to Christmas made most sense.

Xmas Tree 13-E

Hubley Archives.

Well, there’s always the WordPress comment option, folks. I’d love to hear from you. Meanwhile, another Christmas season is just beginning (or, according to whom you ask, several weeks along). A tree fell on our garage during the Nov. 26-27 snowstorm — we don’t yet know the damage but at least Gretchen was able to work in her studio, at the back of the garage, today — and I hurt my back shoveling snow, putting an end to my long-held conviction that I would never have back trouble.

Yet in a sign of progress, I feel grateful that in spite of all, we continue to enjoy great good fortune. And yes, I still feel vestigial stirrings of the old incoherent Christmas nostalgia, the deadline obsession and the need to show off in a seasonally appropriate way.

I say to those feelings and to you who have come this far reading about them: fond greetings, old friends. And to you who are reading, I also wish contentment with, or at least acceptance of, your own Christmas complications; and much happiness in the company of those who stay with you in spite of them.


http://www.dhubley.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Boarders-Keys-Excerpt-MCBC.mp3

The Boarders in an autumn 1994 Boarders publicity shoot by Jeff Stanton. Hubley Archives.

Compare and contrast! Available on Nimbit and Bandcamp, hear The Boarders and the Howling Turbines offer their distinctive interpretations of a few holiday numbers. As an added bonus, or something, there are two accordion numbers and an excerpt from the 1984 Christmas Greeting Tape.

  • Looking for That Christmas Feeling (Hubley) This performance is by the Boarders, in a Dec. 6, 1995, rehearsal for our Christmas date at the Free Street Taverna. Doug Hubley, guitar and vocal. Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass. Song note: 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. That peculiar tension informs this song exploring the longing for some kind of meaning to Christmas that didn’t involve, well, Christ. Like “Shortwave Radio,” also from 1981, this involves closely personal imagery (I drank a lot of Freixenet that year), but I nevertheless hope it is somehow meaningful to others as well. The intro came later, in 1984 — coincidentally, again coinciding with the dissolution of a Fashion Jungle seemingly poised on the brink of success. The opening image was provoked by a spell of December warmth that had me worried about global warming even then. “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging (trad. German) In the late 1980s I abandoned the skit+music format of my Christmas Greeting Tapes and instead produced little compilations of Christmas music played on accordion. Recorded on a Sony Walkman through a mic the size of a bullion cube, this is a solo performance of a German carol from the 15th or 16th century. The words depict Mary, pregnant with the Birthday Boy, wandering through a thicket of seemingly dead roses (a “thorn woods”) that burst into flower as she passes. Recorded Dec. 21, 1988.
  • Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging (trad. German) From an Oct. 10, 2001, rehearsal by the Howling Turbines. Doug Hubley, guitar and vocal. Ken Reynolds, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass. Song note: This German carol made a very fine addition to the holiday repertoires of both the Turbines and the Boarders, which first developed the electric version (see below).
  • Sel bych rad k Bethlemu (trad. Czech) Another accordion piece from the music-only Christmas tapes. The title of this Czech carol means “to Bethlehem I would go” and the lyrics are aimed at children. I liked the tune and, added bonus, I could play it. Also recorded Dec. 21, 1988.
  • Looking for That Christmas Feeling (Hubley) The Howling Turbines on Oct. 10, 2001, rehearsing for a Christmastime date at the Free Street Taverna. Doug Hubley, guitar and vocal. Ken Reynolds, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass. “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging — The Boarders, rehearsing on Dec. 5, 1995, for a Free Street Taverna gig a few days hence: Doug Hubley, guitar and cheezy double-tracked vocal. Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass.
  • “Coffee With Doug”: Christmas Around the World — An excerpt from one of the more successful entries in the Christmas Greeting Tape series, from 1984.

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

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.

 

“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.

Cowlix, Coming and Going

“Je t’aime” by Doug Hubley from “20 Years of a Basement,” Aug. 10, 1991. (“Je t’aime” copyright © 1983 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved. Visit Hubley Industries Music on Vimeo.)


The summer of 1991 was my 20th anniversary of publicly performing with rock bands, and I wanted to celebrate.

I took a very literal approach to the celebration. It would be a concert featuring not only my current band, the Cowlix, but — I hoped — members of previous bands. I didn’t invite everyone I’d ever played with, but beckoned the most fun and creative people, dating back to 1971 and Truck Farm, my first real band.

Of course, not every invitee could, or wanted to, take part.

So in the event, in addition to the Cowlix, what we wound up with was the Fashion Jungle of late 1984: bassist Steve Chapman; drummer Ken Reynolds; multi-instrumentalist Jim Sullivan, up from the Boston area; and keyboardist Kathren Torraca, who came back East from California. (Ken and I had first played together in the Curley Howard Band (1977), and Jim had joined us in the Mirrors (1979-80), which segued into the FJ in 1981.)


Gretchen and Doug express a basic tenet of their philosophy.


I titled the event “20 Years of a Basement” (pun intentional. And yes, “basement” is a recurring theme in my work, so sue me). We rented Sprague Hall, a popular old community hall under the trees in Cape Elizabeth, for Saturday, Aug. 10, 1991.

What an exciting day. We had grand plans. For the audience we invited everyone we could think of, and many of them even showed. We asked our friend Alden Bodwell to videotape it, with excerpts from the result presented in this post (and on this Archives page). We worked out a big finale, of Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” and Graham Parker’s “Pouring It All Out,” a signature number from the first bands Ken and I had been in, 14 years prior.

I still dream about setting up masses of musical equipment, walls of amps and drums and miles of cables. I think the elaborate rig we erected in Sprague Hall planted the seed for those dreams. It took most of the afternoon for us to prepare for the evening concert — there the longest were rhythm guitarist and my girlfriend Gretchen Schaefer, singer Marcia Goldenberg, Ken and also Steve, who contributed PA equipment.


Marcia Goldenberg of the Cowlix sings Billy Walker’s hit.


Steve ran the sound for the Cowlix sets, and turned the board over to Cowlix bassist Ted Papadopoulos for the Fashion Jungle numbers, which Steve played on. Steve, in other words, was sharing that responsibility with his replacement in the Cowlix. It was still a bit awkward even though nearly two years had passed since Steve left the band.

But in these chronicles, for whatever that’s worth, Ted is just a footnote. (Sorry Ted!) He was the last in a succession of would-be Cowlix bassists who came and went, lacking the interest, equipment, ability, maturity and/or mental stability, in at least one case, for the connection to click.


The “Québécois Medley” — “You Married My Daughter (But Yet You Didn’t)” and “St. Anne’s Reel” — stayed with the Cowlix from first to last.


Ted was a deejay and musician who relied on gigs for his income, unlike the rest of us dilettantes. Getting scant return from his investment of time with the ‘Lix, he was gone by September. He performed with us only twice, at Sprague Hall and at a barn dance that same month, at the York County home of a colleague of Gretchen’s.

And those two gigs were the Cowlix’ only performances in 1991.


Fiddler/saxophonist Jim Sullivan joined the Cowlix for several numbers, including the best-known country song ever to come out of Maine.


It was quite a contrast from one year to the next. In 1991, two measly jobs. In 1990, we had a recording session, a WMPG-FM spot and at least seven performances, including opening spots for the Sir Douglas Quintet and Bill Monroe — both at Portland’s best-ever night club, Raoul’s.

(The Sir Doug job was very fun. Doug Sahm was a sweet and generous guy, we played well and of course the SDQ, well, there you go! The Monroe date, another story. The bluegrass great was past his prime, his blowhard bus driver bombarded us with bombast, Raoul’s sound guy disliked us and the bluegrass fanatics downright despised us.)


The Cowlix with a song that never made the country charts.


Another 1990 date was a charity event on the beach at Small Point on an August evening. We were on a makeshift stage on the sand, playing rough country music as waves of humid salt air washed over us.

Playing for our supper (not) on the beach at Small Point. (Hubley Archives)

Playing for our supper (not) on the beach at Small Point. (Hubley Archives)

Our one condition for doing the show had been that they give us dinner. This well-heeled crowd really didn’t want to give us dinner. I think we each got a hot dog and they begrudged us that. That’s how you stay rich, I guess.

We opened for Darien Brahms and the Soul Miners in September 1990 at the Drydock, a waterfront bar in Portland that’s still going strong. It was pouring rain and the management made us carry our equipment up a fire escape to the second-floor performance room. (This experience inspired my song “Thousand Pounds of Rain.”) We played well, as I recall. The punk dimension of our country sound had coalesced.

The setlist from the Drydock. Note the paper and marking: By this point we were using "setlist forms," four-leaf self-duplicating forms that we had scavenged from somewhere.(Hubley Archives)

The setlist from the Drydock. Note the paper and marking: By this point we were using “setlist forms,” four-leaf self-duplicating forms that we had scavenged from somewhere. (Hubley Archives)

Our next drummer was in the Dry Dock audience, but we didn’t know that.

“I remember it well for two reasons,” says that musician, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. “The first was that I was trying to recreate myself as a smoker . .  . and was dragging away awkwardly on a Lucky Strike when my good friend Jimmy McGirr, Darien’s bassist, turned to me during the Cowlix’s rendition of ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding’ and said, ‘That’s beautiful eh?’

“I had to agree. The second was that I made a mental note that I wanted to be in that band.”

Which finally came to pass. But how Jonathan came — and went — and then came back to stay, about a year after the Drydock, is another story.

Darien would again ask us to open for her, this time at a Halloween party at the Maine College of Art. All I remember about that is a giant conga line undulating around the room, in the old Portland Public Library building, while Ken, and I on accordion, played . . . I don’t know what. There was no conga-line music in the ‘Lix repertoire.

I never knew it was so easy to win fame: The Cowlix profiled by the Evening Express' Barry Mothes, 1990. Hubley Archives.

The Cowlix profiled by the Evening Express’ Barry Mothes, 1990. I meant to say, “An additional instrument.” Hubley Archives.

I’m sorry I don’t recall more of that gig, because it was Ken’s last for the next 10 months, although we didn’t know it at the time. And I also don’t remember why he left. Maybe he was just tired of country music, never his favorite genre in any case. And working second and third shifts at the post office was no day at Small Point

But he returned for “20 Years of a Basement” (and for Shyla and Bill Murray’s barn dance, where we met the fifth member of the 1992-94 Cowlix, fiddler Melinda McCardell).

And how did “20 Years” work out? The weather was sunny and humid for the biggest party we ever threw. I remember Gretchen, Steve, his wife Jeri and probably Ken standing outside the building passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, the descending August sun shining through the trees.

Between Darien Brahms and the Soul Miners and the worldly electropop of Too Much Truth, where did the garage-country of the Cowlix fit in? (Hubley Archives)

Our first non-open-mic gig in 1990. Between Darien Brahms and the Soul Miners and the worldly electropop of Too Much Truth, where did the garage-country of the Cowlix fit in? (Hubley Archives)

Never one to search for an original idea when there was one worth stealing, I copped Talking Heads’ conceit from the film Stop Making Sense and structured the program such that I would begin with a song, Gretchen would join me for the second number, Marcia would come in next and finally Ken, Ted — and in a special guest appearance Jim Sullivan, on fiddle and mandolin — would complete the set.

We alternated sets with the Fashion Jungle, which also began small (Steve, Ken and Doug) and got bigger. I wore a Col. Sanders tie for the country stuff and one of my skinny neckties for the FJ.

The Cowlix did well — four of the five players were solid while my singing and guitar were somewhat erratic. The reunited FJ, which had time for only a few short rehearsals after years apart, had shaky moments but produced gratifyingly long stretches of our old sound.

The 'Lix feeling licked in April 1991. (Hubley Archives)

The ‘Lix feeling licked in April 1991. (Hubley Archives)

There was something of a crowd, including my sisters and father and a strong delegation from the Corner. Some folks wanted to dance. Marcia kept turning the house lights off for the sake of atmosphere — we had no stage lights (us? Lighting? Really? Seriously?) — and Alden kept turning them back on for the sake of the video.

We closed with “Pouring It All Out” (having running out of time for “Manhattan”). We chased our friends out at midnight because the masters of Sprague Hall had strict rules about closing time.

And in the midst of all that, quietly and with barely a thought, we closed the book once and for all on the Fashion Jungle, 10 years after it began.


Watch video of the Fashion Jungle at “20 Years of a Basement.”

Hear (and buy) selections from the Fashion Jungle’s performances:

Copyright © by Douglas L. Hubley: “Je t’aime,” 1983; “Breaker’s Remorse,” 2010; “Little Cries,” 1983. All rights reserved.

“Rubber Hammer” copyright © 2013 by Steven Chapman, Douglas Hubley and Kenneth Reynolds. All rights reserved.

Copyright © by Steven Chapman: “Sporting Life,” 1982; “Curious Attraction,” 1984. All rights reserved.

“Peacetime Hero” copyright © 1981 by James Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2013 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

 

The Cowlix: New Basement, No Bass-ment

Current and former Cowlix, 1993. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds, Steve Chapman, Jeri Chapman, Marcia Goldenberg, Doug Hubley. Jeff Stanton photo.

Current and former Cowlix, 1993. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds, Steve Chapman, Jeri Chapman, Marcia Goldenberg, Doug Hubley. Polaroid (not Instagram) photo by Jeff Stanton.

In November 1989, just about eight years after we first met him, bassist Steve Chapman left our band.

Or he could have said that the band left him.

Drummer Ken Reynolds and I had started working with Steve in 1981, when he showed up just in time to rescue our tottering Fashion Jungle. The FJ went on to generate a respectable local buzz with its sharp-edged, romantic original music through the 1980s.

But by the end of that decade, the edge was dulling and creative fatigue setting in. We responded with a turn toward classic country and other rootsy forms. At first it was almost frivolous, just a caprice; but I love old country music. Once in, I wanted to go deeper. (Still do.)

So by that November we were calling ourselves the Cowlix, and the FJ trio had expanded to a quintet. Rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer, my partner, joined during spring 1989. Singer Marcia Goldenberg came on board just weeks before we ended our musical association with Steve.

Cronies-Late80s1709

The Cronies at the Schaefer-Hubley home soon after we moved in. From left: Liz Torraca, Jeri Chapman, Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Steve Chapman, Alden Bodwell (in a dramatic recitation) and Ken Reynolds. Jeff Stanton photo.

That November night the five of us convened at the little house that Gretchen and I had just bought on the outskirts of Portland. (At last, after all those years — a basement of our own!) For Marcia, it must have been strange to be so new on the scene and see so much history being unpacked. That baggage made the meeting tough, with plenty of hurt to go around. (But we have remained good friends with Steve and even play music with him from time to time.)

Much was said that night, but the bones of contention boiled down to two: Steve wasn’t enjoying the music, and couldn’t rehearse as often as we felt necessary.

So there we were. Steve is a really good musician and we felt that loss. Yet sometimes you respond like John Cleese’s Holy Grail knight whose limbs keep getting lopped off: Losing a member can have a bracing effect, up to a point. Though we auditioned bassists for the next year (a series of adventures worth a post of their own), we never let basslessness hold us back.

Just the opposite, in fact. Necessity being the mother of invention, or at least the mother of playing the hand you’re dealt, we set out to own our bassless sound. We branded it a virtue and never apologized for it. (And never mentioned it again after Gretchen started playing bass, in 1992.)

From a contrarian standpoint, the timing was good. Commercial music in general and country in particular — remember the “hat acts”? — were getting nothing but slicker and shinier. We, on the other hand, mustered up a big rough instrumental sound driven by Ken’s powerhouse drumming and Gretchen’s straight-on strumming. I wove my guitar into the gaps, floating between bass-ish and lead parts on a miasma of digital delay.

An early Cowlix songlist. Hubley Archives.

An early Cowlix songlist. Note the categorizing by dance style, including pogo. Hubley Archives.

Then there was Marcia. I learned about her through our mutual friend Suzanne Murphy — during the course of an interview, ironically, for a story I was doing about the Downtown Lounge, a scene that had inspired the FJ.

Marcia brought a lot of energy, a strong voice with a retro country feel and a backlog of good material she was eager to try. After the Fashion Jungle, where a single lead voice and minimal supporting parts was the order of the day, I welcomed the chance to do two-part through-harmonies.

With Steve, we had already put together a country song portfolio that, going thin and wide rather than deep and focused, represented Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, the Everly Brothers, Ian Tyson and others. Now we dug a little deeper.

An unrevealing image of a Cowlix performance on the beach at Small Point, Maine. Hubley Archives.

An unrevealing image of a Cowlix performance on the beach at Small Point, Maine, August 1990. Hubley Archives.

We picked up songs by Bill Monroe and Lefty Frizzell, and more by Hank, the Everlys and Cash. Marcia’s contributions included the Patsy Cline hit “Seven Lonely Days” and Billy Walker’s excellent “Ancient History.”

We revived a few from Ken’s and my old band the Mirrors — notably classics received third-hand via Gram Parsons like “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes” and “That’s All It Took,” as well as Parsons’ cool adaptation of the R&B song “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (which popped up for a third time in the early repertoire of Gretchen’s and my current band, Day for Night. You can’t keep a good song and well-learned accordion part down.)

An early Cowlix song list in Gretchen's handwriting.

An early Cowlix song list in Gretchen’s handwriting. “P.O.H.M.” is “Poor Old Heartsick Me.”

We also took a swing at the Louvin Brothers, those paragons of vocal harmony and sibling disharmony, who were so influential on later musicians like Parsons.  During this phase I walked into the sainted record store Amadeus Music, on Fore Street in Portland, and grandly announced, “I want to buy the entire Louvin Brothers catalog.”

They were able to come up with two LP compilations. We learned three songs by Charlie and Ira and thought we were pretty cool. (Dilettantes! Having pretty much mined out the Louvins’ secular catalog, Day for Night secretly wishes we were religious so we could take on their gospel work. “Satan is real . . .”)

Classic country was the focus, but stylistic promiscuity is hard to shake off and we started looting other genres almost from the start. Some cozied up easily with country music — folk-dance tunes, for example. My accordion playing had become somewhat presentable, and we used it on a few folk instrumentals from Québec (and later Poland, Mexico and Finland).

Covering Maine music as a journalist had introduced me to a broad range of folk styles, which taught me how important sheer danceability was to musical forms other than rock. I became preoccupied with giving audiences dance music — probably a reaction against the FJ, which had always had a hard time getting people onto the floor. These two-beats and waltzes filled that bill nicely.

Half the Cowlix and all of the future Day for Night. Hubley Archives.

Half the Cowlix and all of the future Day for Night, circa 1990. Hubley Archives.

A few rock songs made it into the mix too, chosen carefully to sound good despite the lack of bass. For instance, Them’s “Here Comes the Night,” whose two-beat sections sounded good with my Luther Perkins boom-chick guitar; and the Beatles’ “There’s a Place,” which had a nice harmony. Our biggest stretch was “Around My Heart,” by X, a band with whom we felt a strange affinity. We sounded punkish enough and had a big enough beat to make it work.

In short, we sounded like nobody else at a time when country music was enjoying one of its periodic boomlets. Greater Portland was engulfed in an Americana wave at the time, and our peers were bands like Cattle Call, Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers, the Piners and Slaid Cleaves’ Moxie Men. If each had a distinctive niche, none was more distinctive than ours.

In those early days of the Cowlix, a band that would last until 1994, I felt the same kind of missionary zeal that had been so energizing at the launch of the FJ. Dance music! Good country, not schlock à la the Mirrors! The bass-free sound! The conceptual rigor was shaky, but the excitement was real.

And we knew we were on the right track, because people kept giving us work.


Hear the Cowlix performing one of our rare originals, my “Slow Poison,” in a rough rehearsal recording from 1990.

“Slow Poison” copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

“Notes From a Basement” copyright 2013 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

An Old Friend I Happened to See

The cronies at the Bramhall Pub, late 1980s. From left: Alden Bodwell, Kathren Torraca, Elizabeth Torraca, Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Jeff Stanton, Steve Chapman. Photographer: Jeri Chapman.

The cronies at the Bramhall Pub, late 1980s. From left: Alden Bodwell, Kathren Torraca, Elizabeth Torraca, Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Jeff Stanton, Steve Chapman. Photographer: Jeri Chapman.

A band in transition: Hear the Fashion Jungle morph into the Cowlix before your very ears!


We tend to think of country music as a product of the South and the West, but really, the name tells you where it’s from. It’s the music of small towns and no towns, lightless state routes and endless rail lines. It’s the soundtrack for the long ride between where you’ve been and where you’re bound.

There’s a space like those hollow miles in my emotional interior. It feels like open landscape, cold wind, bright stars and a lonesome voice backed by pedal steel on the car radio. This region is something like home to the inner me. I frequently seek its outside analogs — in a bottle, on a train, on a record, or with guitar in hand performing with Day for Night.

Nearly every kind of music has its charms for me, and it’s a pleasure to play the small portfolio of genres within my technical grasp. But for me country is the terminus, the beginning and end of the railroad that I ride through music’s vast territory. My musical career has been defined largely by either running from country or returning to it.

A Fashion Jungle publicity shot, taken c. 1987 in Steve's cellar. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives

A Fashion Jungle publicity shot, taken c. 1987 in Steve’s cellar. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives

The Fashion Jungle, the band I was in that came closest to fame, was born in the flight from country and died in the return to it — well, that’s one version. History is too complicated and involves too many people to simplify into a turn of phrase that suits one’s transient narrative needs. Some of you reading this will have your own narratives and your own turns of phrase to serve them (send ’em in!).

However, in any event, the ole high and lonesome was among the kickees as the Mirrors drop-kicked much of our baggage to become the FJ, in 1981. And country was where we turned eight years later as the FJ’s arty romantic edge started to dull.

August 1988 was something of a pinnacle for the late FJ, drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Steve Chapman and me. It was our second year after Steve rejoined the band. Our performance at the Maine Festival, in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park on the 13th, was one that I recall as a rare occurrence of an ideal: It was a prestigious gig, we played well, dancers filled the tent under the nighttime trees, there was that sense of us all, everyone under the tent, being in the game together.

When the Fashion Jungle decided in 1989 to become its own opening act, playing classic country and old rock, Gretchen Schaefer joined on rhythm guitar. Here she is with my Gretchen Anniversary Model. Hubley Archives.

When the Fashion Jungle decided in 1989 to become its own opening act, playing classic country and old rock, Gretchen Schaefer joined on rhythm guitar. Here she is with my Gretchen Anniversary Model. Hubley Archives.

But it was a high point on a path that wasn’t leading anywhere. I, at least, was getting that end-of-the-party feeling. The songwriting, our purported reason for being, was drying up — dwindling not in quantity, because we were as non-prolific as ever, but in spark. Our newer songs felt strained and the older ones, well, old.

We learned four original songs in 1988: my “Don’t Sell the Condo” and the collaborative efforts “Dance,” “Rubber Hammer” and “Complaint,” the last of which went unperformed. All respectable, but only “Condo” seems to transcend its particulars the way the best FJ numbers do. Maybe it attained the FJ’s own version of the ole high and lonesome.

The set list from the Reynolds family function, April 1989.

The set list from the Reynolds family function, April 1989.

One of Ken’s siblings was planning a big family celebration in April 1989 and invited us to play. We understood that virtually none of our regular material would go over well with this older, largely rural crowd. Needed were songs that we could learn quickly and that the Reynolds clan would enjoy, and, of course, us too.

So we decided to learn several ’60s hits and, crucially, a bunch of country songs. It seemed like a lighthearted and frivolous choice at the time, to the extent that we developed this idea of playing country music as the opening act for ourselves, for the FJ. We toyed with names like the Prairie Oysters and the Cowpokers, ultimately and more tastefully settling on the Cowlix.

But despite how lightly we turned in this new direction, it turned out to be momentous for at least two reasons.

As written above, returning to country was a sort of repudiation of the very founding of the FJ. (This has occurred to me only in the writing of this piece, as opposed to most of the heavy thoughts in Notes, which are the result of decades of stewing.) Ken, Mike Piscopo, Jim Sullivan and I had embraced original New Wavy rock in part as a reaction against all of the roots music we had performed as the Mirrors, including a heavy dose of often-dreary country.

In those days, to quote the slogan of the hallowed Downtown Lounge, the goal was faster-louder-more fun! But eight years into the FJ’s career, as we dragged through songs four or more years old and struggled to come up with new ones, all the while burdened by our sacred oath to high concept and danceable romanticism, and with carefree youth buried down deep in the pile of outstanding bills, country seemed — to me anyway — like much more fun.

Doug and Gretchen in a festive moment, Christmas 1988, Lovell, Maine. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives.

Doug and Gretchen in a festive moment, Christmas 1988, Lovell, Maine. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives.

The other, much more consequential outcome of the FJ’s stylistic detour was that we added a new member: rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer, then my significant other and now my wife, too.

Gretchen had played folk music back in college. She knew Hank Williams from her father’s repertoire and inherited his old Gibson archtop. And she was central to the FJ organization long before she started playing with us. She worked as hard as anybody hauling equipment, she tended the admission table at Geno’s (in the words of Iggy Stooge, no fun), and, in a contribution more in line with her specific gifts, made a lot of graphic art for the band.

When we asked her to join us on guitar in the spring of 1989, it was because we needed rhythm guitar and because it seemed like it would be fun. But it turned out to be the beginning of a musical partnership between the two of us, largely devoted to country music, that’s still going strong.


Hear rehearsal recordings of two songs by the Fashion Jungle — er, Cowpokers — I mean, the Cowlix. Recorded in Steve’s basement, 1989.

  • You Know How It Is (Hubley) Dating from 1978, this lament about the working life is drawn from my experiences as a sensitive young artiste having my soul destroyed as a “materials handler” (stockboy) at the South Portland branch of the Jordan Marsh department store. Jordan Marsh is gone, and I am still here.
  • I Remember (Just as Fast as I Forget) (Hubley) The iffy lyrical premise didn’t deter me from pitching it to the Fashion Jungle as we developed our “opening act,” the country-flavored Prairie Oysters. But this is more “countrypolitan” than country, down to the cha-cha rhythm and Slim Whitman falsetto.

“You Know How It Is” and “I Remember Just as Fast as I Forget” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

 

Fashion Jungle: Audio out — Video in


Above: The Fashion Jungle rehearses “Don’t Sell the Condo” in Steves basement, early 1988. Videographer: Gretchen Schaefer. | Buy this soundtrack!


They say that when a door closes, a window opens.

I say that when a door closes, one should sit quietly with a magazine and wait for it to open again.

But sometimes that never happens. In the late ’80s, confronted with a closing door, I did actually find a window to crawl out through.

 

 

Gretchen Schaefer and I were trying to record a rootsy version, guitar and accordion, of “Good King Wenceslas” for a Christmas Greeting Tape in December 1987 when the recording device, a Sony TC-540 reel-to-reel tape recorder, became balky about tracking on one of its two channels.

Soon thereafter it wouldn’t capture much sound at all. The problem was diagnosed, vaguely, as deteriorating electronic components.

That meant that after nearly 20 years, I had suddenly lost a foundation of my identify. I had never recorded prolifically, but making music on tape was integral to my self-image.

I think the loss was more emotional than functional: The Sony would still play tapes back, which preserved its role as my personal Wayback Machine. And I could make audio recordings with other equipment — a succession of cassette recorders that afforded neither the nice crisp sound of the Sony (which, if you have played many of the songs that accompany these blogs, you have likely experienced) nor its handy capability for overdubbing.

 

Richard Julio introduces us at Video A Go-Go. 


I wasn’t devastated. I knew that once I started making more money, I could simply buy a new reel-to-reel. I could have tried harder to get the Sony fixed. (And maybe I realized on some level that, in any case, digital technology was ultimately going to change the game completely).

I just didn’t like this failure of the Sony’s. As someone with a lifelong silly habit of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects, I felt like a trusted friendship had turned bad.

A boy and his tape recorder, 1982. Hubley Archives.

A boy and his tape recorder, 1982. Hubley Archives.

I wasn’t devastated, but I was unsettled. I flailed for seven years. I made recordings on all kinds of unlikely machines, including a visibility-yellow Sony all-weather boombox and a tiny Walkman that I bought for work-related interviews. It was good training in adaptability, but the sound was never great.

So that was the door.

And what was the window?

It was video. Even as I was thrashing around in search of an audio recording solution, my band, the Fashion Jungle, suddenly got a few opportunities for video recording — opportunities that resulted in the best documentary materials of the band’s last stages.

 

 

Our friend Alden Bodwell worked for a media company and was able to borrow video gear. His generosity resulted in two concert videos, including a date at the Brunswick, a nightspot in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. The video of “Little Cries” posted below is from that gig, which Alden shot on a foggy night in May 1988.

 

 

Gretchen, then my partner and now my wife, in early 1988 borrowed a camcorder from the school where she was student-teaching. Back then we were rehearsing in a studio that bassist Steve Chapman had built in his basement. “(Drummer Ken Reynolds completed the ensemble.) “Don’t Sell the Condo,” at the top of this post, represents Gretchen’s recording of a typical rehearsal.

Finally, most of the clips here come from one of the stranger episodes in the FJ annals. Since 1986, Gretchen and I had been involved with South Portland Television, a public-access cable operation headquartered at Southern Maine Technical College (now Southern Maine Community College) just down Willard Beach from us. Somehow the idea arose of doing a fundraiser for SPTV (slogan: “Where video meets the sea,” which I suggested ironically and they took to heart.)

 

 

We enlisted two other bands for the concert that was cablecast live on May 21, 1988. The Brood, managed by rare-record dealer Richard Julio, was an all-female ensemble led by Chris Horne and dedicated to ’60s garage band sounds. The Holy Bones were fronted by singer-songwriter Darien Brahms, who remains a force in the Portland music scene; and the late Manny Verzosa, remembered as a promising talent lost way too soon.

It was a hot, humid and nervous-making night. The TV crew were all SPTV volunteers, including Alden. The show was cablecast from the SMTC cafeteria. There were audio problems, thanks in part to the distance from the cafeteria to the control booth, in a separate building.

In fact, I don’t remember it actually being that much fun — I think the Brood and the Holy Bones left after their sets, taking their friends with them, and we played to an empty room. I don’t know how much, if any, fundage was generated for SPTV. I do recall some kind of fractiousness, though not who was involved nor what it was about. My nerves were scrambled. Ken and Steve were rock-solid, but my guitar playing was skittery as hell. For years I would not go near either the video or audio recordings of this event — too abrasive in my memory.

 

 

Today, of course, I’m delighted to have all these video documents. How young and energetic, and serious, we were (and how old I sound saying that). I’m all the more grateful for these videos when I think how precious and important video seemed back then — these were the years, after all, when MTV and VH-1 were showing music videos, and video was a must-do for musicians — and how inaccessible. I craved a camcorder for years in the 1980s, despite having no means of editing video. But I never felt I could afford one.

Now, in effect, I have three video cameras, which together cost less than one camcorder would have gone for in 1988. Video is as easy as pushing a button. I shoot scenery from the train, the winter rye waving in the sun in our front yard, the evidence of a Pabst Blue Ribbon price war in Nederland, Colo.

Between technology and experience and some money, so many things that once seemed impossible have drifted into reach. It’s one of the things that has impressed me the most about getting older. Then the question is: What do you do with those things once you have them?

They say that when a door closes, a window opens. But they don’t say what happens when the walls go away.

 

 

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