Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the tag “Mahoney Middle School”

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.


https://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.

“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.

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