Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the tag “Silvertone”

Day for Night: Blame It on the Bossa Nova


With Willy Thurston on drums, Day for Night makes its first and last presentation of the bossa nova material, at Alden Bodwell’s house in March 2006. Photos and montage by Jeff Stanton.


How much sense does it make

for a two-piece acoustic band to base its repertoire on both American country music and bossa nova?

Holding onto the past: Five months after the end of the Howling Turbines, Gretchen and I were still trying to keep the HT repertoire alive. Hubley Archives.

Holding onto the past: Five months after the end of the Howling Turbines, Gretchen and I were still trying to keep the HT repertoire alive. Hubley Archives.

If you should reply, “Not much sense at all, Hoss,” the members of the country band Day for Night would be right there with you — now. But it took us two years of being a bossa nova–country band to figure it out.

Howling Turbines, the threesome that Gretchen Schaefer and I played in prior to D4N, was just dipping its toes into Brazil’s bossa nova when, in April 2004, drummer Ken Reynolds departed. And Ken’s departure launched Gretchen and me into a year of fumbling for direction as a two-piece.

His leaving also extended a tendency that had begun a decade previously: an acceptance of shrinkage. I’ve written previously about the comparative virtues of bigger vs. smaller bands: When two members left our band the Cowlix, back in 1994, the remaining trio — Gretchen, I and drummer Jon Nichols-Pethick — liked the resulting maneuverability so much that we never considered replacing the departed musicians.

Similarly, when Ken left, Gretchen and I didn’t even discuss seeking another drummer. In the gap between Jon and Ken, we had spotted some potential in working as a duo. After Ken, we set out to explore that potential.

Gretchen with the 2004 grape harvest. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer with the 2004 grape harvest. Hubley Archives.

So there in 2004 we were, facing each other over the Howling Turbines songlist and trying to salvage what we could. It didn’t seem so unreasonable, given the HTs’ success as an acoustic trio. In our new and as yet unnamed configuration, Gretchen switched off between bass and acoustic guitar, and I used electric and acoustic. During the remainder of 2004, we spent more than a few evenings trying different things different ways — but it quickly became evident that most of the old stuff wouldn’t fly. A fresh approach was needed.

But two of the few songs from the HT days that did remain viable were our bossa nova numbers: the Stan Getz setting of Benny Carter and Sammy Kahn’s “Only Trust Your Heart” (unfortunately without Stan Getz) and our own arrangement of John Cale’s “(I Keep a) Close Watch.” I was still captivated by the genre and decided to work up some more.

And down the rabbit hole we went.

First off, I needed the right guitar for the job. A questionable habit that I have never broken, in both music and other aspects of life, is that I respond to times of flux or uncertainty by buying things. (Really not a helpful response when, for instance, you lose your job.)

Doug PartyMix 2004-005

In the studio on the eve of Thanksgiving, 2004, as Gretchen and I made a mixtape for a forthcoming party. Gretchen Schaefer photo.

This time our outlay was for a classical guitar, a new Manuel Rodriguez flamenco model purchased in August 2004 from a now-defunct music store on a wide and sun-drenched highway in Winthrop, Maine. (Thanks to Gretchen, the expedition included a fine picnic lunch of baked chicken, potato salad and white wine, enjoyed on the roadside next to a lake that I now cannot identify.)

Dubbed “The Palomino” by Gretchen on account of its blonde complexion, the Rodriguez had a bright and powerful sound. I adapted quickly to the different feel of wide fretboard and nylon strings (although I never did get used to an intonation problem on the D string).

So there was the guitar on which to play the bossa nova songs. The next problem was, what songs?

Gretchen Schaefer awaiting guests for our 2004 autumn party. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer awaiting guests for our 2004 autumn party. Hubley Archives.

Supply was not the problem. As Ross Perot used to say about solutions to national problems, there are all kinds of great bossa nova songs just lying around waiting to be used. Instead, the problem — two problems — was me. First, being neither a trained musician nor intrinsically fascinated by theory, I scarcely knew any of the sophisticated chords that are used in bossa nova. “Only Trust Your Heart” was the frontier of my chordy know-how, and it had taken me quite some time to beat my way out there (a fact I should have paid attention to).

Second, I don’t speak or understand Brazilian Portuguese, which, of course, is the language that classic bossa nova songs tend to be sung in.

A partial solution to the first obstacle was to spend still more money, this time on music books that explicated complicated chords. It was like going back to 1966 and learning guitar all over again as, several times a week after dinner, I hauled out The Palomino, sat on the bed and laboriously tried to get chords into my fingers.

The venerable Silvertone in 2005, 34 years after I got it. Gretchen took this image the night before I sold the guitar to a Bates College student from Rwanda, who sent it home as a gift to her boyfriend. I wonder how it's doing.

My old friend, the venerable Silvertone, in 2005, 34 years after I got it. Gretchen took this image the night before I sold the guitar to a Bates College student from Rwanda, who sent it home as a gift to her boyfriend. I wonder how it’s doing.

I was a tourist in jazzland: I could follow a map, but didn’t really know where I was. It was yet another reminder (they just keep piling up inside the mailbox) that for all the room for spontaneity you may have as a dilettante, you lack the ultimate freedom that comes with knowing your discipline cold.

In the lyrics department, the situation was slightly more tractable. Like “Close Watch,” there were a few songs lying around, thank you Ross, that had English lyrics and would work as bossa nova. Our finest effort in this direction was a grim and, actually, rather deranged number recorded by Bing Crosby in 1933 called “I’ve Got to Pass Your House to Get to My House.” I continue to count this as one of my all-time greatest finds for cover material.

But the classic bossa nova songbook, pretty much all in Portuguese, was a heavier lift. It’s true that American lyricists, notably Normal Gimbel, had contrived English lyrics for songs like “Meditação” and “Insensatez.” But I was able to find verbatim translations of some of the original lyrics online and Gimbel’s interpretations, held up to those, just didn’t make it.

For example, Gimbel rendered Vinícius de Moraes’ “Insensatez” as “Insensitive,” in which the narrator is suffering the rejection of an icy-hearted lover. In Portuguese, “insensatez” means folly or foolishness, and in de Moraes’ lyric, the foolishness is the narrator’s adultery, which he is steeling himself to confess.

Now that’s a country song!

D4N Prospects-2004-031

No bossa nova here: These were fodder for the country us, not the bossa us. We still do eight of these songs. Hubley Archives.

Having rejected the highly esteemed professional efforts of the famous and well-paid Norman Gimbel, member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1984, there was nothing for me to do but take the verbatim translations from Portuguese and try to turn them into singable lyrics myself. From 2005:

Oh, my only one
What have I done
In a man’s delusion?
Oh, this foolishness
That I confess
Will you give me absolution?

Jobim’s “Meditação” was the first Brazilian bossa nova that I adapted for Gretchen and me. It was not ready until December 2004 (I recorded a demo in early January, one of the first products of the newly revamped, bafflingly wired, and dark cold basement studio that became one focus of the energy that I had previously channeled into playing loud music).

Why return to love
To the passion that makes one from two
You said you’d had enough
But now, the moon is new
And the picture you see is so true
It’s the one you dream of

“Meditação” is the only one of the classic bossas that I can still play without prolonged puzzling over the fretboard. Its chords fall under the fingers more readily than elsewhere in the Jobim repertoire. And it may also be true that I simply played it more than any of the others, because it took me so damned long to work up the bossa material.

Which is not a problem you can hang on country music.

Silvertones

Doug Hubley performs "Wild Horses" on the Silvertone 6-string at Nancy Hubley's wedding, May 1975. Hubley Family photo.

Doug Hubley performs “Wild Horses” on the Silvertone 6-string at Nancy Hubley’s wedding, May 1975. Hubley Family photo.

Somewhere in Rwanda may still exist a Silvertone 6-string acoustic guitar that began its musical life in South Portland, Maine, with me.

My parents gave me the guitar for Christmas in 1971. I was 17. This guitar that became my close musical friend for the next 23 years was my second acoustic and second Silvertone, a brand carried by Sears, Roebuck & Co. and sold in the catalog.

The first Silvertone was a 12-string that I got in 1968, colored a dull brown sunburst seemingly inspired by Soviet design. This guitar would sound pretty good for the first week or so into a new set of strings, and then the tone subsided into a dull clang resembling a work party shoveling sand. (Hear it here on Glad to be Free.)

Worse than the sound was the action: The strings were so high that I kept them artificially depressed by tuning it low and routinely playing with a capo, advice I received from a 12-string how-to manual purportedly penned by Pete Seeger.


Hear the Silvertone 6-string in two songs written and recorded in summer 1973:

  • For Tonight (Hubley) An attempt to grapple with remorse about my adolescently cavalier attitude toward women.
  • Hamlin Square Song (Hubley) Hamlin School stood across the street from Patty Ann’s Superette, aka The Corner, in South Portland, a social center of gravity for many of us in the 1970s. It’s fitting that I wrote this lyric on a model airplane instruction sheet up in Patty Anne’s attic — Jeff Stanton’s home and our airplane factory — because the subject is precisely that time and place: the store, the time spent hanging around, flying the planes in the schoolyard, watching the girls come and go and the cars head out Ocean Street toward the Cape.

“For Tonight” and “Hamlin Square Song” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.


The Lead Belly songs in the 12-string book gave me some valuable fundamentals, and it was nice chugging along with LB on something like “T.B. Blues.” But that guitar was essentially a dog, as I realized after a heavy flirtation with a friend’s Martin, and it was back to the Sears catalog for something better. (I sold the 12-string at a yard sale in 1978 for $8.)

The six-string wasn’t much better in the playability department (and again I resorted to detuning and the capo, which tended to flummox people I played with, who needed to be convinced that I was actually playing in the correct key). But it was pleasant to handle and had a decent sound, a dry tone that I still favor in an acoustic.

Doug Hubley and the Silvertone 12-string, left, with Tom Hansen and the Carmencita. Hubley Family photo, 1969.

Doug Hubley and the Silvertone 12-string, left, with Tom Hansen and the Carmencita. Notice the capo that lived on the 12-string, and the cotton string that was the Carmencita’s strap. Hubley Family photo, 1969.

The fifth instrument in my arsenal, it quickly became my constant companion. It was on this guitar that I developed my acoustic style. A positive omen came with it too: Hippie that I was, I had stuck a round “skin jewel” on the 12-string that shone with a prism effect — and the new Silvertone came with a similar refracting reflector on it.

Not bad for a $48 guitar. And 1972 was a good year for a good cheap guitar: My first band had fallen apart during the winter, my love life was not thriving, I just was out of high school and into a job at a potato chip factory, and I was diving very deep into country music.

The Silvertone and I spent a lot time together. I didn’t own a car until I was 22, and before then got around by bicycle a lot. I appropriated some World War II vintage backpack webbing from my father and contrived a strap for the guitar case so I could carry it on my bike. In 1976, I brought the Silvertone to Europe: lined the case with foam rubber, coated it with fiberglass and attached a hasp for a padlock. It survived the trip fine.

So I guess I gave that guitar a taste for travel early on. I got a much better instrument in 1994 and the old Silvertone gathered dust for about a decade. Then a Rwandan student at the college where I work posted a want ad for an inexpensive guitar that she could send home to her boyfriend. The Silvertone filled the bill. I hope someone is still making music with it.

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

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