Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Three in a Match, or the Jungle at Jim’s

A poster for a Fashion Jungle performance at Jim’s Neighborhood Cafe, 1982. Hubley Archives.

Skip the blah-blah! Go directly to the music!

In January 1982, I did something I’ve regretted ever since: I got rid of my sunburst 1976 Fender Telecaster.

It’s true that Tellies are a dreadful cliche in Nashville country music now — which leaves me a little ashamed that I still want one. Steve Cropper, Don Rich, James Burton, Waylon Jennings; Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman on TV with their twin Tellies (a fond dream I have for my current band, Day for Night) — how could I NOT want one?

I drove to a music store on the river in Cornish, Maine, to trade the Fender. The car was my beloved 1973 Sumatra Green VW Squareback. It was less beloved than usual on that sortie because exhaust was billowing into the cabin, so I had to drive with the windows open. As noted, it was January in Maine, back in the pre-climate-change days when January in Maine meant cold.

The Telly was my first Fender in the succession of electric six-strings: the Kent something-or-other, which was the first guitar I owned; a Rickenbacker 360, which a friend now has; a Gibson SG; the Fender. After the Gibson, I wanted a guitar that would stay in tune, and not lose its tonal character when I backed the loudness down. The Fender not only did those things, but was extremely playable in that inimitable Fendery way.

And then I had Buckdancer’s Choice fabricate for it a black pickguard, with a fine white outline, that redlined the coolness gauge.

A shot from a 1982 Fashion Jungle publicity shoot. From left, bassist Steve Chapman, drummer Ken Reynolds and guitarist Doug Hubley. Photo by self-timer/Hubley Archives.

But by 1982 I was worried that the Fender lacked the tonal variety that I believed I would need now that my band, the Fashion Jungle, had shrunk from four to three members and the classic minimalist lineup of drums, lone guitar and bass. And I couldn’t afford a new guitar without a trade-in.

So, practically crying, I traded the Telly toward a new black Stratocaster. Then drove back through the frigid air and failing sunshine, enveloped in VW exhaust, to South Portland.

Regrets aside, the trade was the right thing to do. There were gaps in the FJ sound that it filled well, as its three equally powered pickups afforded a much broader spectrum than the Telly’s quaint lead-and-rhythm arrangement. (Which doesn’t stop me craving one, though I have played Strats ever since.)

Perhaps my sadness at losing multi-instrumentalists Jim Sullivan and Mike Piscopo was sublimated into fears that a three-piece FJ would pale in comparison to the founding lineup, in which Mike and Jim could color songs with fiddle, sax, organ or a second guitar.

But (as usual) I needn’t have worried. This new Fashion Jungle was sui generis. It was a whole new thing, even if we did cling to the original quartet’s original songs for a year after bassist Steve Chapman joined, in autumn 1981.

As it turned out, Steve’s presence was decisive. He rendered the whole question of instrumental variety much less exigent (although we did later add a keyboard player, and were glad to have her).

One of my typically slapdash band posters, featuring our friend Alden Bodwell draining the bottle. An early performance by the three-piece Fashion Jungle, sharing a bill with old friends the Pathetix. Hubley Archives.

As noted in this space previously, Steve is an assertive bassist who can both, if you will, ride the wave and be the wave — meaning, he was able to satisfy the bassist’s obligation to anchor a song while eloquently building its structure out in other directions. In the music presented below, all recordings from a 1982 performance at Jim’s Neighborhood Cafe, listen to:

  • The roar he creates during the instrumental section of “Dumb Models.” Steve downplays the rounded midtones of the bass guitar spectrum in favor of the extremes of high and low.
  • The path he makes through the chords and melody of “Je t’aime,” especially in the bridge.
  • The razor-edged tone in “Little Cries,” an analog to the vitriol of the lyrics.
  • His lines during the middle rave-up in “She Lives Downstairs,” expressing a melodic sense that to me, anyway, became synonymous with the Fashion Jungle.
  • And the way he takes on the signature riffs, originally devised for the Farfisa rock organ, in “End of the Affair” and “Nothing Works.”

How did this new ingredient affect the chemistry of the band? I can’t say that I discovered dramatic new musical directions in the trio FJ — though I did learn to play less guitar, paradoxically enough in this band with fewer instruments. Steve and Ken were so solid that my most effective contributions often contained the least sound. The trio format, I realize only now, in a way suited my guitar approach well: I’m not talented or domineering enough to want to play a lot of lead, and in some ways I can find more interesting things to do as a rhythm guitarist.

DH with the brand-new Fender Telecaster in 1976 — photographed in Ben and Hattie’s basement, natch. Ampeg guitar amp to my right, Emmylou Harris’ “Elite Hotel” to my left. Hubley Family photo.

Vocally, too, I was changing, but I’m not sure why. Could have just been maturity, as I became less reliant on imitating idols (the Leonard Cohen imitation was still to come, a decade later). And the songwriting continued as before, as Steve proved to be a stimulating peer in that realm.

I think the definitive change involved drummer Ken Reynolds. The trio FJ set him free, the culmination of a process that had begun with the original FJ. As I’ve recounted here previously, the FJ had emerged from another band, the Mirrors, whose mellow commercial tendencies proved too restrictive for our roiling male hormones.

In the founding FJ, Ken could fully inhabit the hard-driving inventiveness he had only been able to visit before. And in the FJ trio, propelled by Steve and with spaces to fill, Ken’s faster-louder sound hardened into his signature style, one that helped define the band for most of the 1980s.

All but one of these Fashion Jungle recordings were made during a performance at Jim’s Neighborhood Cafe, on Danforth Street in Portland, on Oct. 6, 1982. The crowd noise is almost worth the price of admission. Recorded in two-track on a cassette machine: Low fidelity is our trademark! The exception is “Old Masters,” which is old and new. Read on.

For another Jim’s Neighborhood Cafe gig, a poster subtly promoting my new song “Je t’aime.” Hubley Archives.

  • End of the Affair  (Hubley) I was losing my voice on this evening, but never quite lost it. Listen to Ken’s embellishments on this breakneck number, one that stayed with the FJ to the very end.
  • Dumb Models (Hubley-Piscopo-Reynolds-Sullivan) Listen for the trippy flange effect on the Rickenbacker 12-string — and that bassy roar referred to above.
  • Je t’aime (Hubley) Brand-new for this gig, this song is an interpretation, somewhat unfair, of an affair I had with a Swedish girl in 1976. For the song, nationalities were changed because, well, Paris, you know. Although, or because, I distorted the facts to save face, I still regard it as one of my best songs, and it cropped up again later in the repertoires of the Boarders and Howling Turbines.
  • Little Man, Long Shadow (Hubley) The lyric, inspired by a true story, likens a spurned lover to a terrorist. This song didn’t stay long in the repertoire; so much for riding on Bow Wow Wow’s coattails.
  • She Lives Downstairs (Hubley-Piscopo-Reynolds-Sullivan) The backing vocals are rough, but the new arrangement, with an added and oddly obsessive instrumental break, is an improvement over the 1981 version.
  • Nothing Works (Hubley) Ska madness, as Steve picks up the signature line that Jim Sullivan used to play on the organ. The crowd goes wild as we stagger on to the end. What the hell did I know about Chrissie Hynde’s problems, anyway? Or the Red Sox, for that matter?
  • Little Cries (Hubley) Breakneck! Lacking saxophone for the instrumental break, we just bomb through it.
  • Old Masters (Chapman) Because this set is dominated by material that I wrote or that came from the founding FJ, I wanted to close this set with a number by Steve Chapman. “Old Masters,” a commentary about the relationship between technology, culture and fine arts, was the first song with lyrics that he contributed to the FJ. We recorded the instrumental track in 1982; Steve added the vocals in summer 2012.

Copyright © by Douglas L. Hubley: “Little Cries” (1981), “Je t’aime” (1983), “End of the Affair” (1984), “Little Man, Long Shadow” (2012) and “Nothing Works” (2010). All rights reserved.

“Dumb Models” and “She Lives Downstairs” copyright © 2011 by Douglas Hubley, Michael Piscopo, Kenneth Reynolds and James Sullivan. All rights reserved.

“Old Masters” copyright © 1982 by Steven Chapman. All rights reserved.

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


Wheels Within Wheels: Chapman Joins the Fashion Jungle

An image from a 1982 Fashion Jungle publicity shoot, featuring new guy Steve Chapman, at left. Ken Reynolds is in the center and I’m at the right. Photo by self-timer/Hubley Archives.

See a gallery of images from a 1982 Fashion Jungle publicity shoot. Click on an image to enlarge (in slideshow mode, click to go to next image).

(Go to the music.)

Existential commentators from the Roman tragedian Pacuvius* to Gene Clark have remarked on the wheel of fortune, the random engine of joy and suffering that seems to direct our lives. (*I never heard of him either. Thank you, Wikipedia.)

First you’re up, as Gene sang it, then you’re down again.

The wheel was spinning me two ways at once in autumn 1981. On the down side, as noted previously in this space, my band, the Fashion Jungle, was apparently falling apart just on the eve of its local breakthrough. Simultaneously with a string of fun, creatively auspicious and crowd-pleasing performances came announcements of impending departure from multi-instrumentalists Mike Piscopo and Jim Sullivan.

First you’re down . . . Symbolically sporting a sport coat, army shirt and the FJ logo T-shirt, I mourn the demise of the original Fashion Jungle. The logo, a shapely leg in camouflage hosiery and scarlet shoe, was designed by Kathren Torraca, later the FJ’s keyboardist. Photo by self-timer; Hubley Archives.

I didn’t like it, but I didn’t blame them (much) for going. I understood that if you have to work a crap job to put bread on the table, it’s still a crap job even if you have the best band in the world on the side.

I also learned, somewhat later, that Mike and Jim might have stayed around if drummer Ken Reynolds and I had committed to being in the band full time. And I can’t speak for Ken, but I couldn’t do it.

In contrast with my bandmates (and in betrayal of the punk-rock ethos of the day), I had just gotten comfortable. I was working in the industry of my dreams, journalism, at the Portland newspapers of the Guy Gannett publishing empire.

In addition to my weekend job in the Gannett clip library (we never called it the “morgue”), that summer I had begun to publish as a music writer, encouraged by features editor Jon Halvorsen. (My first byline appeared on an Evening Express story about the emergence of a punk/New Wave scene in Portland.)

Days I was attending the University of Southern Maine, reading Kafka and writing about the role of the middle class in the French Revolution. But as nice as the book-learning was, the best thing about USM was the girl I found there. An artist, Gretchen Schaefer and I met in a philosophy-of-art class in September 1981, hit it off big time, and were dating by November.

In fact, our paths had crossed previously, if anonymously. The first time was in 1980 at the Downtown Lounge, where we were both out carousing with friends and our respective partners. (I understood from G. later that it was a rare night out for her, a break from the grueling schedule at the dairy farm where she and her husband worked.) She was wearing striped overalls and looking very winsome. I took no action except to form an indelible mental image.

. . . then you’re up again. Gretchen Schaefer on New Year’s Eve, 1981, Parson Smith House. Hubley Archives.

The second encounter was at the Gannett library. Filing photographs one day in July 1981 (they were made of paper in those days, you young whippersnappers!), I came across a portrait of Gretchen taken at “Parson Smith Day,” an old-home-days kind of affair at the historic property in Windham where she was the docent.

She was spinning wool; her own hair was pulled back showing off her face, which wore an expression of concentration; she was sporting a short-sleeved top, along with various long flowing other things more appropriate than the top to a celebration of 18th-century technology.

Altogether very winsome, as well as strangely familiar. (Later I realized the Parson Smith and DTL women were the same woman.) This time I took action. I stole the photo.

Then came USM, philosophy of art, my invitation for a first date — “We could go mug people”; you never know what’s going to strike a chord — and away we went.

Still going, in fact. So in wheel-of-fortune terms, very upside. After years of slinging boxes in the Jordan Marsh stockroom and beating my head against no-love’s brick wall, life — aside from the FJ’s travails — was feeling very good in my brain.

Hubley, Chapman, Reynolds. Hubley Archives.

And even as Mike was saying his good-byes (Jim stayed around into early winter 1982), the music wheel spun upward again with the appearance of Steve Chapman, a bassist, composer and singer. I think Steve came to us through an ad in Sweet Potato, the Portland music tabloid. He was married, had a child, cooked at a Middle Street restaurant and was a guitarist as well as bassist. I still remember our first meeting, in my parents’ basement in South Portland.

I started to write just now that Steve brought a whole new musical sensibility to the FJ, but that’s not quite true. Actually, while I’ve always had distinct (if not necessarily accurate) impressions of the musical character of anyone I’ve ever played with, impressions are all they were. Only recently have I thought more analytically, and hopefully objectively, about my collaborators’ interests and contributions.

So Steve had in common with Jim Sullivan a grasp of music theory far surpassing anyone else in the FJ at that point. Where Jim’s music was more angular and Steve’s more lyrical, both wrote sophisticated melodies that I learned from, and that continue to stand out in the band’s catalog. (In contrast, my melodies were complicated but not too sophisticated. I was just throwing notes and chords at the wall and hoping some of them would stick together.)

That musicality was apparent in Steve’s work on bass, too. He anchored the music as a bassist should, but — being a lead guitarist as well as bassist — was clearly unwilling to be limited to the foundational role, and was effortlessly able to embellish a song with both taste and imagination. That ability stood the FJ in good stead through our several years as a trio.

So there we all were in late autumn, 1981: G. and I embarking on a hot little fling that we swore wouldn’t last but is, instead, still being flung; and Ken, Doug and new guy Steve, creating the Fashion Jungle that, in the years to come, became a noted presence in the Portland alt rock scene. Even in the case of the wheel of fortune, there are wheels within wheels.

The Fashion Jungle on LaRue (not Johnny) TV: For reasons I no longer remember, one of the LaRue twins, scions of the South Portland Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, made a video of the FJ during the last weeks of Jim Sullivan’s tenure. I took this photo off a monitor at the dealership during my only viewing of the video, in 1982. I think we were playing Leonard Cohen’s “There Is a War.” Hubley Archives.

Enough with the blah-blah! Let’s hear some Fashion Jungle: recordings made during the first year with bassist Steve Chapman. The order is not chronological. Ken Reynolds, drums. Doug Hubley, guitar and vocals. Recorded in the Hubleys’ basement on the Sony TC-540, with a Shure Vocalmaster head as mixer.

  • Sputnik (Chapman) This seldom-heard rocking instrumental was the first Chapman composition the Fashion Jungle learned. Fall 1982.
  • Phoney English Accent (Hubley) Bitchy and self-righteous enough that I regret it now (but not enough to withhold it), this FJ standard was my response to the posturing that had infected American punk and New Wave by the early 1980s. The original FJ learned it, but never recorded a complete version of it; Jim Sullivan of the founding lineup plays the sax here. December 1981.
  • Little Man, Long Shadow (Hubley) The lyric, inspired by a true story, likens a spurned lover to a terrorist. For some reason I was thinking of Andrew Malraux’s Spanish Civil War novel Man’s Hope as I wrote it, which led to my choice of something vaguely Spanish-sounding as the musical setting. The arrangement was inspired by a “New Romantic” band called Bow Wow Wow (some romantic name, huh?) that based all its material on extended drum rolls. Somewhat miraculously, the FJ recorded this complicated instrumental setting in one take. Summer 1982.
  • End of the Affair (Hubley) Back to the December 1981 recording session with Steve and Jim, who plays organ. Again, the original FJ learned but never recorded this number, which I started at an inn up on the Midcoast over Labor Day 1981. Another of the angst-ridden tales of star-crossed lovers that I can’t seem to help writing.
  • Groping for the Perfect Song (Hubley) A rough 1982 recording of a song that persisted throughout the FJ and right into the Howling Turbines days, 20 years later. I guess I was going through a little David Byrne period here.

“Sputnik” copyright © 1982 by Steven Chapman. “Phoney English Accent,” “Little Man, Long Shadow,” “Groping for the Perfect Song” and “End of the Affair” copyright © 2010, 2012, 1983 and 1984, respectively, by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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

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