Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the tag “the Pathetix”

Dial K for Keys: Torraca Joins the Fashion Jungle

The Kathren Torraca-era Fashion Jungle in a publicity image taken in 1984 by Gretchen Schaefer. From left: Ken Reynolds, Kathren, Doug Hubley, Steve Chapman.

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“The Fashion Jungle started [the show]. For those who have still never seen this remarkable trio, I will state for the record that they are the most creative and intelligent group in Portland . . . Unfortunately, they are not at their best in cavernous confines. . . . “

“The Pathetix laid to rest all doubts I had coming in . . .On this night, they exhibited a brashness reminiscent of . . . the real Generation X. . . . The lineup has solidified at Gary Piscopo doing most of the bass playing and lead singing, guitarist Chuck Fredericks, drummer Kevin Flemming [sic] and newest addition Kathren Torraca on keyboards.”

— Seth Berner, review, “Going to A Go Go,”
Sweet Potato magazine, Nov. 10-24, 1982

Anyone involved in any way with any band will possess a vision of the band, or a version, that defines that band for them. (Rashomon much?)

To me, for example, The Beatles’ Second Album is the Fab Four’s Finest. But to the Beatles themselves it was no album at all — just Capitol Records’ sloppy attempt at housekeeping.

The most-used image of the Torraca-era Fashion Jungle, taken in 1984 by Gretchen Schaefer. From left: Steve Chapman, Doug Hubley, Ken Reynolds, Kathren.

Looking at my own bands, the version of the Fashion Jungle that may be the most definitive for the most people (probably 25 or so) began during the winter of 1982-83. Although drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Steve Chapman and I had honed the trio format to a fine expressive edge — and we rocked pretty hard too — we wanted more instrumental color.

So when the opportunity appeared that winter to poach keyboardist Kathren Torraca from the Pathetix, we grabbed it.

It was no bolt from the blue. For years I had known the Torraca family, a smart and accomplished bunch who today are involved in demanding endeavors like restoring vintage airplanes, raising excellent families of their own and practicing emergency medicine in war zones.

I first met them at the Corner, that tendrilous social organism based at Patty Ann’s Superette, a family variety store in South Portland, Maine. They were teenagers when we met — I was a few years older — and were doing teenage stuff. Such as working after school at Patty Ann’s, making pizza and Italian sandwiches at the food counter tucked into the back of the store.

First Elizabeth Torraca and then her younger sister Kathren held that job, which resulted in a friendship that still endures between the Torracas and the family that owned the store, the Stantons — particularly Jeff Stanton, who is also one of my closest friends.

Whenever I visited the Torracas I was impressed by the implied musicality of their family life. There was a grand piano in the living room and guitars lying around, songbooks, a tambourine, a concertina. It was the most musical living room I’d ever seen, in terms of both equipment and mood. The furniture was ample and cushiony, and a curtain of trees across the house front kept the room quite dark. (The first people to hear my song “Shortwave Radio” were Jeff and Liz. I played it for them on a Torraca classical guitar.)

I formed an early impression of Kathren from a movie that Jeff made using a Kodak consumer-grade camera that miraculously captured sound as well as image. In The Corner Movie, she wears black nail polish and plays Joni Mitchell’s “River” from a songbook on the grand piano. (Aimee Torraca is another featured performer, also with a Mitchell selection. Other Corner denizens appeared as well; I’m shown in the store performing “You Know How It Is,” a song about working in a store.)

But Kathren was very young in the film and I didn’t think of her as a potential musical colleague until 1982. Enjoying a steep and fast upward trajectory that fall, the three-member FJ was somehow engaged to play the “Going to A Go Go” gig described in Seth Berner’s review excerpted above. We opened the bill for the Pathetix, the Substance and the Neighborhoods, considered one of Boston’s best alt-rock outfits. The venue was the Portland Expo; in memory it seems as big as George Miller’s Thunderdome, but much more reverberant.

Kathren Torraca and Phil Stanton hard at work at Patty Ann’s, 1982. Hubley Archives.

The one song I can remember the Pathetix playing was John Cale’s “Dead or Alive.” But we were impressed with Kathren. I’m not sure if “poach” is the right word to describe our asking her to join the FJ; I don’t recall any particular resentment from Gary’s band thereafter — but she was rehearsing with us by February 1983, and made her FJ debut in March or April.

Musically and personally, Kathren transformed the Fashion Jungle. Kathren was, and is, very fun. (I almost called this post “A buck three-eighty,” in honor of her default price estimate for anything whose price she didn’t know; she’s big on puns and malapropisms.)

Steve, Ken and I liked to make jokes and laugh at them in that manly way that’s so much about distinguishing yourself against the world, since they’ve taken dueling away from us. But for Kat, as wry as she could be, humor seemed less about making some kind of statement and more about the sheer enjoyment of life. She was effervescent in a way the other three of us just couldn’t muster.

Her musical contribution was transformative. She played the old Farfisa rock organ that we had acquired during the Mirrors days, but the Farfisa ended up serving mostly as a stand for her main axe, a Casio keyboard that I never got close to. I never understood how she got so many colors and textures, many of them quite mind-bending, from that fairly simple rig.

Steve and I suggested parts to Kathren, but her musical sensibility was sui generis. It was painterly, often expressed in big washes of sound that billowed nicely around the hard-focused sound made by the boys of the FJ. And like Kathren herself, it was exuberant.

At the same time, Steve and I were entering our most prolific songwriting period — bringing to our work, without even trying, a sense of high mystery and romance. The tumblers clicked into place and the massive door began to swing open again. As it turned out, Portland was ready for us.


The first and last of these recordings were made during an April 1983 concert at the building at the corner of Market and Middle streets in Portland — once the Rathskellar (the Mirrors played there), then Ruby Begonia’s (I played there), much later the Big Easy (the Cowlix played there).

I don’t have a record of what the venue was called when we played this show with
(I think) the Neighborhoods — or was it Lou Miami & The Kozmetix? — on April 1, 1983. This was our second public performance with Kathren, who had absorbed part of the repertoire at that point. (She debuted with us at Kayo’s the previous month.) The mix comes off the soundboard and is quite good aside from a strange phasing sound and occasional swellings in the guitar signal.

The middle five songs date from September 1983. Ken Reynolds is absent from these recordings, having broken his thumb in a softball game. Using Steve’s Yamaha drum machine, we used the opportunity to record much of our current material to document the keyboard parts for the next keyboardist — as Kathren had indicated her intention to leave the band. A false alarm, as it turned out.

Personnel: Steve Chapman, bass; Doug Hubley, guitar; Ken Reynolds, drums; Kathren Torraca, keyboards. Vocals as noted.

Ah, the romance! The mystery! The Fashion Jungle! Photo by Gretchen Schaefer.

  • Censorship (Sullivan) We could do plenty as a trio, but Jim Sullivan’s protest against right-wing threats against free speech really needed a lead instrument. It was one of the first numbers Kathren learned. I sing it.
  • Sporting Life (Chapman) Steve apparently imprinted on James Bond at an early age, as evidenced by this evocation of Jet Set living, as well as by “Dial M for Mamba,” below. One of his early contributions to the FJ repertoire, “Sporting Life” started as a fast rocker and later became a slow ska number. Steve sings.
  • A Certain Hunger (Chapman) I liked everything Steve wrote for the FJ, but when he brought this in, I was flabbergasted by its sophistication and appeal. It’s a psychological, if not literal, portrait of someone who understands only too late that his lover is some kind of vampire. Not, as it turns out, that he minds. Steve is the singer.
  • Old Masters (Chapman) The last post featured a version of Steve’s second songwriting contribution to the FJ in which he laid a new (as in 2012) vocal on a 30-year-old track by the trio FJ. Here’s a version with Kathren and the drum box. Again, a Chapman lead vocal.
  • Dial M for Mamba (Chapman) A ’60s spy fantasy from Steve. I remember confusion all around about the difference between the snake and the dance, but if your life is threatened, I guess a poisonous snake is more useful than a Latin beat. But we have the beat anyway, thanks to the drum machine. Don’t ask me where I got that accent . . .
  • Pleasures of the Flesh (Reynolds-Hubley) Ken and I wrote two songs together, this and “Entertainer.” In both cases, I wrote the music and he wrote the lyrics, which I edited. He also sang lead — but not on this recording, where my scratch vocal one or twice tries to conjure up some Reynoldish qualities.
  • Sporting Life (Chapman) It’s back to the April Fool’s date — and the pre-Kathren portion of the set, to boot — for yet another version, crackling with musical energy and some sort of weird electronic phasing, of Steve’s song.

“Censorship” copyright © 1981 by James Sullivan. “Sporting Life,” “Dial M for Mamba” and “A Certain Hunger” all copyright © 1983 by Steven Chapman. “Pleasures of the Flesh” copyright © 1983 by Kenneth W. Reynolds and Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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

 

 

Standing on the Corner . . . Suitcase in My Hand

The Corner in its heyday: Patty Ann’s Superette, summer 1980. Scan from black & white negative/Hubley Archives.

See photo galleries featuring pictures of Corner scenes and people, and more images from the May 1981 Fashion Jungle publicity shoot. Click on an image to enlarge (in slideshow mode, click to go to next image).


The Corner is more than just the parking lot of a small South Portlandish variety store . . . Maybe you yourself have stood in the neon and watched the cars arrive and depart. Maybe you have launched an aircraft or an escape attempt. Maybe you have shown up, desperate for some laughs, and found no one there. For ten years now many legendary (many? five? six?) rock bands have emerged from the ferment at the Corner. You can see three of them . . .

— From a poster promoting the first Corner Night, 1980

Corner Night was a tough concept to market: A concert by bands that all had roots in a social scene based at a corner store in South Portland.

For those in the know, it felt deeply meaningful; or felt like it would be, if you could figure out what it meant. For those on the outside, well, Corner Night needed a lot of explanation.

Jeff

Jeff Stanton in the Stanton family quarters upstairs from the store on Ocean Street, 1980. Image scanned from black & white negative/Hubley Archives.

Do you know Peter Frame, the British music journalist who in the 1970s made “family trees” depicting the histories and personnel changes of rock bands? (One based on the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield hung on my wall for a long time, back before they were expensive collector’s items.) Something like that would help clarify the tangled history of the Corner scene, musically and otherwise. But, lacking the time and the facts to do a Frame-style tree, I can only tell you what I know. It seems like a lot, but is really only a narrow view through one of the many windows into Patty Ann’s Superette.

Best friends and musical collaborators since 1966, Tom Hansen and I fell into the Corner scene in 1970. It happened through Tom, who lived nearby and was friends with our South Portland High School classmates John Rolfe and Craig Stanton; and with Scott and Patty Ann Stanton, whose family owned the store. That was our little group. (Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo’s South Portland: A Nostalgic Look at Our Neighborhood Stores offers a concise history of the building at 512 Ocean St. and the Stantons’ tenure there.)

The Pathetix are featured in this poster for the 1980 Corner Night. At left, Gary Piscopo and Chuckie Frederick are the Pathetix who were with the band from first to last. I think, but am not sure, that the other guys are Rick Hendrickson and Terry McElroy. Hubley Archives.

Hanging around in the basement of the store, we were busy little teens, listening to Poco and the Blues Project, wearing bell bottom jeans, burning incense, etc. We hung around and talked, got snacks from the store, even tried our hand at launching a magazine (Gutroot— two issues, cranked out on a mimeograph at Craig’s house). But ultimately, as so often happens, there coalesced a band.

Truck Farm comprised Rolfe on rhythm guitar, me on lead guitar and most of the vocals, Hansen on drums, and a bassist named Ted Angel, whom I taught to play and supplied with my Hagstrom. For Tom and me, having a band was the realization of a three-year fantasy. And, typically enough, the fantasy couldn’t stand the strain.

Following a highly exciting string of weekly performances at the Cape Elizabeth Youth Center in summer and fall 1971, the Farm fell apart — but Rolfe and I continued to play together for the next three years, in bands like Lama (don’t ask), Airmobile and the Thunderbirds.

Music aside, the Corner remained a focus of my social life pretty much until the Stantons sold the store, in 1983. On summer evenings in the 1970s, after my shifts in the stock room at Jordan Marsh, I would bike to the store carrying the Silvertone 6-string; buy a Coke, pour half of it out and refill with bourbon; and sit on the bench by the mailbox singing country music.

Phil at the store

Phil Stanton working the food counter at Patty Ann’s, 1980. Scanned from a black & white negative/Hubley Archives.

The eldest Stanton sibling, Jeff, remains one of my closest friends, and I was buddies with Phil Stanton as well as Scott. Among other things, we killed many hours making Super 8 movies and building U-control model airplanes through the 1970s. Jeff used to borrow the family Dodge van to drive our equipment back in the big-amps-and-drums days, and still attends nearly every Day for Night performance.

A younger crowd, friends of Phil and Scott, gravitated to the Corner in the 1970s and early ‘80s. I must say, they were a more numerous and much livelier bunch than my original little clique, and very fun. It was a fairly wild and peripatetic group that, when not at the Corner, occupied the high ground where Officer’s Row once stood at Fort Williams; or held slapdash parties on the beach in Mill Cove. (Against all laws of neuroscience, I still clearly remember fragments of an ecstatically fun evening in 1981 with that Corner gang on the Stantons’ second-story deck. I was working at the newspaper, had very heavy hours and not much sleep, and was drilled, as we liked to say, on Ballantine ale — all adding up to the kind of bliss you can never get back.)

Mike with the Pathetix

Mike performs with the Pathetix during a dance party in Ferry Village, South Portland, 1981. Image scanned from black & white negative/Hubley Archives.

Among that Corner population were Mike Piscopo and his brother Gary. Don’t ask me how — I guess it was just what happened at the Corner — but by early 1977, Mike and I, a more peripheral Corner guy called Andrew Ingalls, and my Jordan Marsh co-worker Ken Reynolds were playing together as the Curley Howard Band. This, as you know if you follow this blog, led directly to the Mirrors, which played at the Downtown Lounge at the first Corner Night, in 1980, and to the Fashion Jungle, whose debut public performance took place the following year at the second Corner Night, at a place called Rock ‘n’ Roll Flavor.

Where the Mirrors, as previously noted, were both headliners and flatliners at the first Corner Night, we opened the show and shut out the competition the following year. That was a close-run thing: The manager of Rock ‘n’ Roll Flavor picked the day of Corner Night to disappear, and it took some telephone persuasion to get the building owner to agree to the show’s going on.

Filling out the bill at both Corner Nights were the Pathetix, consisting of Gary Piscopo and other denizens of the Corner; and the Foreign Students, led by John Rolfe and including his wife-to-be, Audrey Michaud; drummer Mike Alfiero, who continues to play with John (and with later-Fashion Jungle bassist Steve Chapman) in the Luxembourgs; and bassist Joe Marsh, brother of Ken’s and my Jordan Marsh stockroom colleague John Marsh.

The FJ looking soulful in a 1981 publicity image. From left, Ken Reynolds, Jim Sullivan, Mike Piscopo, DH. Scanned from a black and white negative/Hubley Archives.

Pretty incestuous. So I guess the point of all this, so far, is that in a small city like South Portland, “everyone knows everyone, for miles and miles around” (Ray Pennington and Roy Marcum, “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown”). The bonds of acquaintance extended in all directions and, to really abuse the metaphor, wove a net that you could get a pretty good bounce off of.

But every metaphor has its limits, every dog has its day, all good things etc., and the warm relations at the Corner, or in the friendly Greater Portland community in general, weren’t enough to keep everybody around indefinitely. The summer of 1981, as previously noted, was glorious — and then it was over.

It ended with a thud when Mike Piscopo announced his intention to move to Texas in the fall with his fiancee, Joy Pearson. And the next blow didn’t fall far behind as Jim Sullivan, who like Piscopo was fed up with crap jobs*, followed his fellow multi-instrumentalist to the exit, heading for Boston.

Fashion Jungle set list, Corner Night 1981. Hubley Archives.

We performed three more times after Corner Night. We played in September and October at Kayo’s, a bar on Middle Street that was the successor, in terms of taste and talent, to the Downtown Lounge (in the audience for our second night there was Gretchen Schaefer, now my wife and bandmate). And we closed the book on the original FJ at the October wedding of — wait for it — yet another member of the Corner crowd.

We learned “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “Moonlight Bay,” “Everything Is Beautiful” (which sparked up a great conga line there in the Black Point Inn) and similar schmaltz at the request of the wedding party — an ignominious end to a band founded in the rejection of blanditude.

I was desolated. I couldn’t believe that Mike and Jim would just walk away from such a great band — but then, I never really found out what they thought about it all, either.

And anyway, the FJ wasn’t done with Ken and I yet.

*Jim Sullivan updates the record in April 2017.


And now for some music. The original Fashion Jungle in its first public performance — the second Corner Night, August 1981, on a bill with the Pathetix and the Foreign Students at Rock ‘n’ Roll Flavor, Portland, Maine. Apologies for the ugly sound: This recording came straight off the PA, hence the distortion and dominance of the vocals. Setting aside the poor quality of the recording, it’s pretty hot stuff.

Credits: Doug Hubley, lead guitars and vocals. Mike Piscopo and Jim Sullivan, see individual songs. Ken Reynolds, drums.

  • Little Cries (Hubley) Vitriolic lyrics about bedroom dishonesty set to an insanely complicated chord progression. The first song I wrote for the FJ. MP, bass. JS, sax.
  • Peacetime Hero (Sullivan) Jim’s distinctive contributions to the FJ catalog were sophisticated musical structures and politically attuned lyrics. Here he puts himself into the mind of a killer who can find no other way to have a place in society. For years after Jim’s departure, this remained in the FJ repertoire. JS, rhythm guitar, vocal; MP, bass.
  • Dumb Models (Reynolds-Hubley-Piscopo-Sullivan) A short-lived Fashion Jungle rule was that everyone had to bring in at least a fragment of original music each week. Here’s a result of that discipline: the lyrics are by KR, edited by me; the opening guitar riff was Piscopo’s; and we collectively put the whole thing together. MP, rhythm guitar, backing vocal; JS, bass, backing vocal.
  • Shortwave Radio (Hubley) This stayed in the repertoire for more than 20 years, from the FJ through the Howling Turbines. MP, bass; JS, organ.
  • Keep on Smiling (Hubley) The push for original material was so insistent that I revived this song created in 1973, when I was mad at one of my friends. These lyrics are melodramatic but the overall sense of angst still works. The big anthemic ending turned into something of an FJ characteristic. MP, backing vocal, bass. JS, backing vocal, organ.
  • She Lives Downstairs (Reynolds-Hubley-Piscopo-Sullivan) Like “Dumb Models,” this was a product of the short-lived “song-per-week” phase when everyone tried to bring in at least a musical fragment that we could work with. This is based around a typically earnest KR lyric. Note the nods to “Gloria” and “Gimme Some Loving.” MP, backing vocal, rhythm guitar. JS, backing vocal, bass.

“Shortwave Radio” and “Little Cries” copyright © 1981 by Douglas L. Hubley. “Peacetime Hero” copyright © 1981 by James Sullivan. “She Lives Downstairs” and “Dumb Models” copyright © 2011 by Douglas Hubley, Michael Piscopo, Kenneth Reynolds and James Sullivan. “Keep on Smiling” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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

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