Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the tag “The Boarders”

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.

The Boarders: Taverna Nights

A Casco Bay Weekly listing for a Boarders gig at the Free Street Taverna, October 1995.

A Casco Bay Weekly listing for a Boarders gig at the Free Street Taverna, October 1995.

We want these archives, whether digital or physical, to point back to the very real experience we had, or, just as importantly, to give us insight into someone else’s experience. Silicon Valley tech culture expert Paul Philleo calls these mementos “anchors of memory.”

— From Our Virtual Shadow by Damon Brown

Hoist these anchors of memory and sail away on the catchy riptide of the famous Boarders!

Standing on stage at the Free Street Taverna,

you faced a long, narrow room that had a single window and was therefore dim much of the time. The bar was on the left. There was a video gambling
gizmo on the bar and dollar bills stapled to the ceiling joists.

At your back was the window, a big one, and beyond that the sidewalk. To your left, a vestibule enclosed the street door and stairs up to the restaurant. The vestibule was close enough to the stage that anyone who entered or left had to crowd past a PA speaker, and sent cold drafts across the stage in winter.

The Boarders in a 1994 publicity image by Jeff Stanton. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley. Hubley Archives.

The Boarders in a 1994 publicity image by Jeff Stanton. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley. Hubley Archives.

Bassist Gretchen Schaefer occupied the left side of the stage. Drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick set up in the center. I was at stage right. This was the mid-1990s in Portland, Maine, and we were the Boarders.

The space was intimate. I remember the faces of friends who frequently came to hear the Boarders at the Taverna: Jeff Stanton and Alden Bodwell, who helped with load-in and setup; Barbie Weed and Tracey Mousseau; former bandmates Ken Reynolds and Steve Chapman, and Steve’s wife, Jeri Chapman.

Three musicians and a marketing concept. Jeff Stanton photo.

Three musicians and a marketing concept. Jeff Stanton photo.

Sometimes the nights were long and I could see our friends propping themselves up above the rising waters of fatigue. We were into our 40s.

We didn’t play the Taverna till the Boarders were a few months along. Instead, our formal debut was outdoors at the Congress Square Festival on a brutally windy Saturday in September 1994. (That June, with Gretchen away visiting family, Jonathan and I did a couple of songs as the Boarders at Brian Ború when Jonathan’s friend Steve Gerlach invited us to share his stage time. On the sunny deck, I played acoustic guitar and Jon thumped a green suitcase.)

But virtually every other Boarders gig took place at the Taverna, located at 128 Free St.

Our poster for that October 1995 Taverna date. The third image from the top shows the fence at Gretchen's and my house after a motorist flattened it. I propped it back up and the insurance money paid for a trip to Montreal. Hubley Archives.

Our poster for that October 1995 Taverna date. The second image from the top shows the fence at Gretchen’s and my house after a motorist flattened it. I propped it back up and the insurance money paid for a trip to Montreal (top). Hubley Archives.

A restaurant as well as bar, the Taverna was a happening place in those early days of the “Portland Arts District” — a concept that I mocked at the time but that now seems to have taken hold.

Taverna proprietor Peter Kostopoulos had the Arts District spirit. He booked adventurous bands, hung local artwork on the brick walls and presented bohemian activities like poetry nights. (We still recall an earnest young blonde from Texas who read poems about wolves and about being naked, pronounced “woofs” and “nekkid.”) It was a scene, man!

The Kostopoulos family had once run the Zapion Taverna, a Greek restaurant on Congress Street, and still run the Good Table in Cape Elizabeth. There were Greek dishes on the Free Street Taverna menu.

The Taverna building belonged to the family. From 1968 until 1974, Peter’s parents, Tony and Sylvia, had International Cargo there, a sort of proto-Pier 1. It was previously the site of a tailor shop owned by Sylvia’s father. In those days, Victor Kahill, who sculpted the Maine Lobsterman statue, had his studio upstairs. The clock from the tailor shop now hangs at the Good Table.

A Gretchen Schaefer illustration for Maine Times' A&E section. Hubley Archives.

A Gretchen Schaefer illustration for the Maine Times A&E section. The Mayans appeared frequently. Hubley Archives.

Peter was a good boss. We got a cut of the bar, which never made us rich because we weren’t a huge draw, but at least it acknowledged the notion, which now seems rather quaint, that musicians should be paid for their work. And Peter kept bringing us back every three or four months despite the smallness of our following.

What a time that was. Against all evidence, I remain convinced of my coolness and cutting-edginess, but I really had it bad back then. During the Boarders’ first year, I was features editor at Maine Times — running out of steam by the time I got there, but still wielding its prestige, and frequently its value, as Maine’s first and foremost alternative newsweekly.

Maine Times editor Peter Cox gave me extraordinary latitude, as long as I made sure to include garden tours in the event listings. It was the best job I ever had. (An added perk was that I got to hire Gretchen as an illustrator for my pages, gratifying for both of us.)

A display ad in Face magazine for a June 1995 date at the Taverna. Hubley Archives.

A display ad in Face magazine for a June 1995 date at the Taverna. Hubley Archives.

The Boarders were demonstrably cool. Solid original material, well-chosen covers, attractive mix of musical styles, cathartic and funny performances. It was one of those rare periods in life when our endeavors and the circumstances sang in harmony: a band in its sweet spot, a certified hip-and-cool nightspot willing to book us, a burgeoning local arts and music scene.

The logical question at this point is, of course, what could possibly go wrong? Surprisingly, at least as far as the Boarders were concerned, not much did. I only have one regret on that score: that I never recorded our live shows.

That lapse resulted from my proclivity to hole up mentally. Despite my reflexive self-image of being a bold thinker, in the real world I realize that I don’t tend to think outside the box. Moreover, I don’t push the envelope because how would that work, anyway? And I don’t leave my comfort zone because — guess what? — it makes me uncomfortable.

I tend to perceive obstacles more than opportunities. I see myself being boxed in by circumstances and restrained from acting, but the truth is that my thinking gets boxed in by habit, laziness, fear, or lack of curiosity or imagination.

Boarders bassist Gretchen Schaefer. Jeff Stanton photo.

Boarders bassist Gretchen Schaefer. Jeff Stanton photo.

So what does this unfortunate mindset have to do with performance recordings, which I had made routinely for years prior to the Boarders? In late 1994, I began recording band rehearsals on a four-track machine in place of a two-track. That was fairly complicated (probably twice as complicated as the two-track) but manageable in a basement.

However, I believed it would not be so manageable in the performance environment. It never occurred to me that I could bring the four-track to a gig but use only two tracks, as I had done for years when I had only two-track machines to work with.

This bright idea, by the way, has occurred to me only now, 20 years too late.

In short, there were expeditious ways to get the job done. I just couldn’t see them.

A Taverna setlist in Gretchen's handwriting. Hubley Archives.

Setlists in Gretchen’s handwriting for holiday gigs at the Taverna and a Rotary Club seniors event at the Purpoodock Club. Hubley Archives.

So what was lost? Every Boarders performance save for our January, 1996, live show on Portland radio station WMPG-FM, which the station recorded (badly, omitting the bass almost completely).

What was lost? It’s not like our music is irretrievably vanished. I have plenty of rehearsal recordings by the band. But I would love to hear the actual performances on those Taverna nights.

The music with its highs and lows, the way the songs coalesced (or didn’t) into sets, the random details: song intros, jokes on stage and remarks to our friends in the audience, greetings to new arrivals, the guitars being tuned and racket from the bar.

More than anything, it’s those details that create the illusion that the moment lives again, poised to be relived by the people who were there all those years ago.

Of course, the grand subtext of these memoirs is the relationship among experience, memory and document. As I stated in a 2012 post, for me the documents promise to be a supplement and stimulant to memory — but the promise is sometimes broken, as the documents mislead, confuse or simply don’t exist for the memories I hope to recover.

The existential angst of being the Boarders. Jeff Stanton photo.

The existential angst of being the Boarders. Jeff Stanton photo.

I spent much of that November 2012 post exploring the relationship among experiences, memories and physical proxies thereof. I asked a lot of good questions and produced few good answers. In the year and a half since then, having cleaned out my parents’ house and seen how masses of stuff definitely do not translate into a lifetime of memories, I am more in the dark about this issue than ever.

Maybe an experience is like the big love of your life: You don’t perceive half of what’s happening around you, but the impression feels complete, a world unto itself. And then a memory is like that relationship when your lover is gone. And then a document is just the rebound affair, something to see and touch while you try to get back to the real thing, which of course you’ll never do.


Clips-Monahan-695001

A concise Boarders history lesson thanks to Portland Press Herald columnist Ben Monaghan. Hubley Archives

Hear a collection of Boarders rehearsal recordings from 1994-95.

Tragedy (J. Nichols-PethickN. Nichols-PethickHubley) Drummer Jon Nichols-Pethick had previously contributed “All Over” to the Cowlix. His ironic awareness of the details of romantic tension suited the repertoires of that band and even more, the Boarders. He wrote this song with his wife, Nancy, and I added the signature riff and a few lyrics. (But dropped a few lyrics in this rehearsal performance from Dec. 5, 1995: “You say, ‘I need another drink.'”) Note the tribute to “Hill Street Blues” at the end. “Tragedy” copyright © 1995 by Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Nancy Nichols-Pethick and Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Trouble Train (Hubley) There was a sign by the Androscoggin River in Topsham, Maine, warning that operations at the nearby hydroelectric dam could cause the water to rise suddenly. That sign inspired this song, which is less a train song than a collection of metaphors for trouble. This was one of two songs I wrote for the Cowlix; the Boarders’ more ominous treatment befits the theme. “Trouble Train” copyright © 1994 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

All Over (Nichols-Pethick–Hubley) Written by Jon Nichols-Pethick with some tweaks from me, this is a classic country weeper with a great beat. Jonathan actually was inspired to write the song as he gazed at the bottom of a beer glass. Originating with the Cowlix, it later turned up in the repertoire of Scott Link’s band Diesel Doug & the Long-Haul Truckers, appearing on their first CD in a contrasting interpretation. A rehearsal recording from Oct. 15, 1995. “All Over” copyright © 1992 by Jonathan Nichols-Pethick and Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Our rehearsal guide to the dynamics of the French Resistance anthem "The Partisan."

Our rehearsal guide to the dynamics of the French Resistance anthem “The Partisan.”

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 arrangement much too elaborate. Once we reformed the FJ with bassist Dan Knight, I reset “Passion” to a straight beat with the guitar riff heard here. But this version is a further evolution, developed with the Boarders under the influence of Three Mustaphas Three. Drummer Jon Nichols-Pethick plays what we called the “camel beat” and my guitar solo pays homage to Middle Eastern pop radio (as I imagined it). An over-processed rehearsal recording from April 1996. “Why This Passion” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

1,000 Pounds of Rain (Hubley) The Boarders in a December 1995 rehearsal recording of a desperate cry of the middle-aged heart, written in spring 1994. Notice the gains in ensemble and intensity over the 1994 version on The Boarders, All Keyed Up. The title came from a Drydock gig for which we were made to carry our equipment up a fire escape in the pouring rain. I liked the title, but it took me four years to figure out what the song should be about. One of the first songs the Boarders learned, it stayed on the playlist all the way through the Howling Turbines. “1,000 Pounds of Rain” copyright © 1995 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2012-14 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

 

Cowlix All Over

The Cowlix after a gig for Ken Reynolds' family in 1992. From left, Marcia Goldenberg, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley, Melinda McCardell, Gretchen Schaefer. Photograph by Alden Bodwell/Hubley Archives.

The Cowlix after a gig for Ken Reynolds’ family in 1992. From left, Marcia Goldenberg, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley, Melinda McCardell, Gretchen Schaefer. The hand placements are interesting. Photograph by Alden Bodwell/Hubley Archives.


A prepositional exploration of the Two Big Years of the Cowlix, 1992-94.

Part I: All In

Why wait any longer for the bass player you want, when she’s standing in front of you?

— After Bob Dylan

After Ted Papadopoulos left the Cowlix, in late 1991 after several months and two gigs, rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer agreed to learn bass.

She picked it up pretty fast: I remember her sitting on the bed (we lived together then and still do) after just a month or two with my old Hagstrom, moving right along through “Linda, Linda,” a challenging Middle Easternish number by 3 Mustaphas 3.

Gretchen Schaefer, 1993. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer, 1993. Hubley Archives.

For Gretchen, singer Marcia Goldenberg and me, this ended an on-and-off, two-year search that began with Steve Chapman’s departure in 1989 and careened through a wacky succession of bassy contenders. These included a teenager whose amp consisted of a bare chassis with wires sticking out all over it and an apparent crystal meth user who, backing Gretchen and me into a corner of our basement, maniacally insisted that we were all Nashville-bound.

“That time was a transitional guitar-playing period for me,” Gretchen says. “I hadn’t settled into any particular thing that I was comfortable with. So moving to the bass wasn’t a big wrench.

“I liked it. I liked the sound of the different parts that I would play, they had their own sort of melodic sense that was enjoyable. And the plucking came pretty naturally, because I’d done a lot of fingerpicking back in the day.”

Around the same time Gretchen was learning bass, we were reunited with Jon Nichols-Pethick, who, the previous spring, had played drums with us long enough to evoke a collective “Wow, he’s really good!” and then bugged out on a cross-country trip.

The ad that brought Jonathan into the Cowlix . . . a year later. (Hubley Archives)

The ad that brought Jonathan into the Cowlix . . . a year later. (Hubley Archives)

Jonathan and Nancy Nichols-Pethick had already planned their journey when he responded to the ‘Lix ad for a drummer. When the time came to announce his departure, “I felt so utterly sick at the thought of telling you about it that I considered just vanishing,” he says — “letting you forever wonder, ‘Whatever happened to that kid who played drums with us?’ But I sucked it up.”

At the time, we weren’t sure if Jonathan would return or not. We didn’t count on it, anyway. But with founding Cowlix drummer Ken Reynolds out of the picture once and for all by winter 1992, we were delighted to welcome the kid back despite all. Twelve years younger than Gretchen and I, he came from California and a musical background in bar-band rock, including stints in Portland with Jenny Woodman and a band called Split 50.

The Cowlix front line during the 1992 opening gig for the Moxie Men at Norton's in Kittery. From left, Melinda McCardell, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg, Gretchen Schaefer. Not visible is drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

The Cowlix front line during the 1992 opening gig for the Moxie Men at Norton’s in Kittery. From left, Melinda McCardell, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg, Gretchen Schaefer. Not visible is drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

With the Cowlix, “I loved playing these songs I had known only peripherally at best and having to figure out how to do something other than slam my snare on 2 and 4,” he says. “Plus, I just liked hanging out with you all.” Jonathan was a melodic drummer. He made choices that somehow, on some subliminal level, supported more than the beat.

And he and Gretchen quickly found each other’s wavelength, forming a rhythm section that was one of the best things about the Cowlix. “I did feel that mutuality with Jonathan a lot, which was very fun,” says Gretchen. “He was a lot more attuned to that than I was initially, and then by the time I got my playing together enough to actually think of more than just my own concerns, it was really enjoyable.”

It’s something I haven’t thought about till now, but Jonathan was the first drummer I worked with since Ken, with whom I had first played in 1977. And Jon and Gretchen formed the first stable bass-and-drums pairing I had worked with since Ken and Steve.

Cowlix gone rogue: Melinda, Gretchen and Doug playing obscure folk music at a wedding in October 1993.

Cowlix gone rogue: Melinda, Gretchen and Doug playing obscure folk music at a wedding in October 1993.

Finally, during the autumn of 1991, violinist Melinda McCardell joined the Cowlix. A classically trained player who lived in Dayton, Melinda had approached us at a barn dance in 1991 (one of the year’s two Cowlix performances) and asked to try out, attracted by the folk music we were doing. So by spring 1992, the best-known, longest-lived Cowlix lineup was in place.

Part II: All Over the Map
Gretchen took this image of four 'Lix with our longtime friend and roadie Alden Bodwell. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen took this image of four ‘Lix with our longtime friend and roadie Alden Bodwell. Hubley Archives.

The band that followed my seven years with the Fashion Jungle, the Cowlix started out as a country band, but soon busted out of that corral. That’s largely on me. It took me 30 years, from the Curley Howard Band to today’s Day for Night, to learn the virtues of truth to genre, as opposed to the pleasures of stylistic promiscuity.

As the New Wavey Fashion Jungle was running out of gas, I was the one who pushed hardest for a turn to country music. And once the country Cowlix were established, I immediately started eyeballing other styles. It was nuts. About half of our repertoire was classic country — but then there was the folk music, from Quebec, Finland, Poland and Mexico. And the straight rock, like “Money” and “Slow Down,” and the ’60s hits like “There’s a Place” and “Here Comes the Night.” (We did “Paint It Black” with a hybrid ska beat and finger cymbals, played by Marcia.)

The Cowlix at Norton's, summer 1992: Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Gretchen Schaefer, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg and Melinda McCardell. We opened for the Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

The Cowlix at Norton’s, summer 1992: Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Gretchen Schaefer, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg and Melinda McCardell. We opened for the Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

And the alt stuff, like our punk version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Hearts Are Trump” by the German band Trio (with accordion and a tiny electronic keyboard, in homage to Trio, of “Da Da Da” fame) and a rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that owed a little something to the Velvet Underground.

The Cowlix' master repertoire list in 1993. "Nadine"? Yep, and with accordion. Hubley Archives.

The Cowlix’ master repertoire list in 1993. “Nadine”? Yep, and with accordion,too. Chuck, is that you? Hubley Archives.

We even billed our material as “Country & Eastern” music, the latter descriptor inspired both by our Right Coast sensibilities and by “Linda, Linda” — whose lyrics are in Hebrew and Arabic, which I learned phonetically. (I still don’t know what that song is about.)

This rampant eclecticism “was a lot of fun,” Gretchen says. But, she continues, “I felt doubtful that we connected especially well with audiences because of that.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that music-goers often go for one particular style. I don’t think we were very easily pigeonholed, and I think that was perhaps a detriment in the commercial sense. “But it was very fun to play all those different things, and it was challenging to try to get a different feel for them.”

Part III: Over and Out

If all the preceding blather about being eclectic sounds familiar, it ought to. Something else that didn’t occur to me at the time, but sticks out now like a sore thumb, was how closely the Cowlix resembled a previous band of mine, the Mirrors. Some of the similarities are superficial. Both bands, at their commercial peaks, had five members. Violin figured prominently in our sounds. I revived several Mirrors songs for the Cowlix repertoire.

Considering that neither band was professional, both worked quite a lot. In 1992-94, the ’Lix played several times at Geno’s, Portland’s “home of the best bands”; returned twice to the Murrays’ barn dance and once to the Maine College of Art Halloween party; and opened for Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men at Norton’s, in Kittery, among other dates. I will always remember the beginning of our performance at the Porthole, on Portland’s waterfront, in July 1993 — kicking off with Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” with such a big sound, the band sounding great, the spectators on stools at the linoleum counter looking impressed.

The product of my semester in a graphic design course in 1992, this poster template served us well for a year or two. Hubley Archives.

The product of my semester in a graphic design course in 1992, this poster template served us well for a year or two. Hubley Archives.

And I’m glad I don’t have the Porthole on tape. I don’t want to sully that memory with documented reality. I do have plenty of Cowlix on tape, and it has taught me, first, that someone should have taken my digital delay pedal away until I learned how to use it; and second, that my lead guitar playing was worst on the country music to which we had, however waywardly, pledged our troth.

This somehow brings me to the Mirrors-Cowlix similarities that struck deeper. One is very simple. Both bands started out congenially, united by excitement about the music and the promise of our shining goals. And in both cases, as our musical machine proved itself and our goals were met or reconsidered or just dropped, the fundamental chemistry went wrong. Marcia left the Cowlix in March 1994, after more than four years with the band. Melinda followed her out the door in May.

Then, of course, there was the eclecticism thing discussed above. Both bands loved musical diversity not wisely but too well. And in both cases, after a certain point, what started out as carefree boundary-busting exploration coalesced into something else altogether: the potential for a new direction and new energy that could be consummated only with the band that followed. For Gretchen, Jonathan and me, that band was the Boarders.


Hear six songs by the Cowlix, four original and two in the public domain. Although the Cowlix’ founding premise was a faithful, if slightly ironic, take on the classic country catalog, this successor band to the Fashion Jungle went rogue pretty much at the outset. A given ’Lix set could represent Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, X, David Lindley, Québécois and Polish folk songs, Syd Straw, Nick Lowe . . . you get the idea. We were essentially a covers band in the literal sense, if not with the bar-band implications that come with that term. Padded out with two folk songs in the public domain, this set contains virtually all the original material we ever did (“Shortwave Radio,” not represented here, popped up late in the Cowlix’ run). Personnel: Marcia Goldenberg, vocals and rhythm guitar; Doug Hubley, vocals, lead guitar and accordion; Melinda McCardell, violin; Jon Nichols-Pethick, drums; Gretchen Schaefer, bass and rhythm guitar.

Hubley Archives.

Hubley Archives.

  • All Over (J. Nichols-Pethick–D. Hubley) “It started, obviously enough I suppose, while I was drinking a beer and noticed my reflection in the glass,” recalls Jonathan, whose song this essentially is. “‘That’s kind of poetic,’ I thought, ‘in a country sort of way. I should try to write a song that incorporates that.’  . . . I started playing around with the phrases and came up with ‘It’s all over now and it’s all over town.’ I thought that had the requisite wordplay that I had come to admire about good country songs and I went from there.” In a version much different from ours, this later turned up in the repertoire of Scott Link’s band Diesel Doug & the Long-Haul Truckers, and appeared on their first CD. The recording was made at Tree Frog, a professional studio in Buxton, in early 1994, just before the Cowlix ceased to be. Copyright © 1992 by Jonathan Nichols-Pethick and Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Slow Poison (Hubley) I wrote “Slow Poison” early in the Cowlix’ run, in 1990, aiming for an Everly Brothers kind of thing. It was beyond my reach. In fact, I concluded that I could never write like that and, since we were performing so much country music that I felt unable to match, I stopped trying for a few years. We fooled around with “Slow Poison” (it was a slow foxtrot at first), tabled it, finally solidified it in 1992. This performance was recorded at the Maine College of Art 1992 Halloween Party, held in the Baxter Building in downtown Portland. This song lives on once again in the Day for Night repertoire with a nice through-harmony. Copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Un Canadien Errant (Antoine Gérin-Lajoie) Lamenting the misery of exile, this French-language number was written in 1842 by a French Canadian man following the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837–38. I heard it first by Leonard Cohen (who recorded it in a mariachi style, of all things) and later by Ian & Sylvia, among other folksingers. This early Cowlix selection was also one of the most durable in our repertoire. This is a rehearsal recording from 1992.
  • You Know How It Is (Hubley) As with Amtrak and train songs, great country lyrics are not waiting to be written about the work of a press-release writer at a small elite college. It was much easier to complain in song about working in the stockroom at the Jordan Marsh department store, which I was doing in 1978 when I wrote this. Even the title makes a virtue out of banality. This song started with the Mirrors and came back for the Cowlix. Recorded at the Murrays’ barn dance, August 1993. Copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Trouble Train (Hubley) There used to be a sign at the Androscoggin River in Topsham, Maine, that warned visitors to the riverbank that the water could rise suddenly due to operations at the nearby hydroelectric dam. That sign inspired this song, which is less a train song than a collection of metaphors for trouble. Another Tree Frog recording. Copyright © 1994 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Wieczorna Róza-Waltz (Vitak-Elsnic Co.) Back in the ’80s, when I was first torturing the accordion (and any listeners in the vicinity), a member of the Delux Productions troupe lent me a funny little book of contrived Polish “folk” music. Hence this waltz.  This excerpt comes from a Cowlix date at the Murrays’ barn dance, August 1993.

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

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