The Boarders: Bloomington Blues
I see you standing on the other side.
I don’t know how the river got so wide.
— Leonard Cohen, “Tower of Song”
Our farewell to drummer and good friend Jonathan Nichols-Pethick was extended and cordial.
Considering how sorry we were to watch Jon go, that was a jolly good show on the part of bassist Gretchen Schaefer and me, the other members of the Boarders.
The band, descended from a quintet called the Cowlix, had started out strong in 1994 and only gotten better. As previously noted in this space, we enjoyed a musical and personal synchromesh expressed as persuasively eclectic song lists and a quirky stage presence whose like
was seldom found in Portland.
We kept our standards high right through the bitter end. Final gigs included the highly unusual (for us) occasion of a live radio performance in January on “Local Motions,” a program dedicated to Portland-area musicians on WMPG-FM, the University of Southern Maine radio station.
We returned to our spiritual home, the Free Street Taverna, for a couple of dates including our final performance, in July. Close to the end of that gig, accompanied by Gretchen’s bass and some poorly chosen sounds from my accordion, Jonathan played my Stratocaster and sang Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” with some lyrics of his own. And that was that for the Boarders.
It was good to know Nancy and Jonathan, and happily we still do, though we don’t see them often. Eighteen years after the Boarders, they are still in Indiana, living in Terre Haute with their children, David and Trinity. Nancy has taught painting and drawing at Indiana State University since 2003. She devoted her sabbatical last fall to making an acclaimed series of paintings of the Wabash River.
Jonathan wrote a book about television police shows, TV Cops: The American Television Police Drama (Routledge, 2012). He teaches film and media at DePauw University and just this month became director of the Media Fellows Program and the Eugene S. Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media at DePauw.
Though our lives are now far apart and our connection derives from being in bands together long ago, it interests me to think about how we continue to relate to each other. Nancy and Gretchen are both visual artists, for example. And my day job at a small Maine college often involves publicizing faculty achievements like Jon’s new appointment or Nancy’s Wabash paintings.
It’s generational, right? They are about 10 years younger than Gretchen and I, so when the Boarders broke up they were doing only what we had done 10 years earlier: doing what they needed to do to get established in their careers. At the time of the Boarders, Gretchen and I were just settling into lives that, 20 years later, haven’t changed that much. But Jonathan and Nancy were preparing for takeoff.
One difference, though, involves intentionality. Gretchen and I had career dreams that glowed in the distance like Boston’s Citgo sign, but never took a straight path toward them.
We fumbled around for years until we finally found situations that seemed to work.
The Nichols-Pethicks, on the other hand, seemed to have their eyes on the longer-term goal ever since we knew them. They chose what they wanted, went for it and got it.
In a different way, maybe that’s generational too. Most of my contemporaries have career histories as haphazard as mine, but few of the younger people I meet do — and the younger the acquaintances, the more linear the resume.
So our drummer was gone. But during the ensuing months, Gretchen and I continued to make music. Thinking we might not have another drummer, we went acoustic and turned to country music and close harmonies — pretty much what we’re doing now as Day for Night.
I have a vivid memory of us playing acoustic guitars in the living room and singing the Carter Family’s “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow.” We worked on Leonard Cohen’s “The Bells” and Willie Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely,” among other songs, and we considered calling ourselves The Lagerhythms, a name I had wanted to use since the Cowlix days.
These five recordings from rehearsals, plus one from a live radio broadcast, capture The Boarders in the last six months of our time together.
- Shortwave Radio (Hubley) Leonard Cohen once told an interviewer something to the effect that performing “Bird on a Wire” reminded him of his duties. “Shortwave Radio” plays a similar role for me, albeit involving not duties as much as, simply, why I want to be in music, to the extent that I am. I started writing the lyrics in an art history class at USM in 1981, and finished the song up over a gin gimlet in my sister’s living room on a sunny summer evening, Bob Newhart on the TV, volume muted. This stayed in the repertoire for more than 20 years, from the Fashion Jungle to the Boarders to Howling Turbines. I can’t explain the doubled vocal in this late Boarders rehearsal recording. “Shortwave Radio” copyright © 1981 by Douglas L. Hubley.
- Slow Poison (Hubley) I wrote “Slow Poison” for the Cowlix in 1990, aiming for an Everly Brothers kind of thing that proved to be beyond my reach. But the song eventually made it into the ‘Lix setlist and thence to the Boarders’, whose energy suited it well. This song lives on in the Day for Night repertoire. “Slow Poison” copyright (C) 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley.
- Watching You Go (Hubley) Fate is generous with opportunities to dwell on the loss of loved ones, but it took the death of my cat Harry to get me to actually write about it. Fortunately I was able to generalize the lyrics somewhat beyond “my kitty died.” A rehearsal recording from July 9, 1996, just prior to the Boarders’ last gig. “Watching You Go” copyright © 1996 by Douglas L. Hubley.
- Dance (Hubley) This song started out in 1988 as a Fashion Jungle collaboration on a setting for my bleak lyrics. Six or seven years later, casting about for material for the Boarders and feeling no more optimistic about the fate of the world, I rediscovered the lyrics and created a new tune for them. A rehearsal recording from July 9, 1996, just prior to the Boarders’ last gig. This recording is a copy of a copy made on a mastering deck with a wow-and-flutter problem, hence the wow-and-flutter. “Dance” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley.
- Looks Like My Monkey Got Loose (Hubley) I must admit that Jonathan’s impression of a chimp being forced to put on a sweater had a certain inspirational effect here. (You diligent DePauw students who track this down on Google: Live it up!) But I was sitting on a Metro bus in January 1996, waiting to leave Elm Street, when I thought of a crazy monkey as a metaphor for lack of self-control. (You may not believe it, but I myself have had impulse-control issues.) I had most of the lyrics done by the time I got home. My only recording of the Boarders playing this selection, this is a copy of a copy made on a defective cassette deck. Recorded in June 1996. We had to give up the Little Debbie Swiss Rolls once and for all after the news about transfats came out. “Looks Like My Monkey Got Loose” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley.
- Watching You Go (Hubley) A selection from The Boarders’ performance on “Local Motives,” a showcase for Greater Portland bands, on the University of Southern Maine radio station, WMPG-FM. Thanks to an incompetent mix engineer, this is one of only a few usable recordings from the session. “Watching You Go” copyright © 1996 by Douglas L. Hubley.
Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2012–14 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.