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.
Bassist Gretchen Schaefer created this image to promote the band’s WMPG-FM performance in 1996. The key harks back to our marketing campaign in 1994.
As I recall, it was during the winter of 1995–96 that Jon announced that he and his wife, Nancy Nichols-Pethick, would be leaving for Bloomington, Indiana, and graduate school in July, soon after Nancy’s graduation from the University of Southern Maine. He wanted to teach communications, she wanted to teach art, and the grad programs they wanted were not in Maine.
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.
Press Herald music columnist Ben Monaghan on the Boarders’ swan song. Hubley Archives.
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.
For his Press Herald column about the Boarders’ final concert, Ben Monaghan pulled this quote directly from my news release.
That was a hair-raiser: We played well enough, but the wind howled, the rain poured down and the WMPG sound engineer managed to lose Gretchen’s bass almost completely in the mix, while helpfully adding unneeded digital effects.
In this 1994 publicity image, the long faces were just a pose. Fifteen months later, we were wearing them for real. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
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.
The long goodbye included a joint yard sale at our place with the Nichols-Pethicks so they could liquidate possessions prior to their move; a farewell dinner downtown; and their going-away party at a friend’s lakeside camp. I still remember when the Nichols-Pethicks stopped at our house on their way out of town for the last time.
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.
Jon Nichols-Pethick, left, at the July 1996 going-away party for him and Nancy Nichols-Pethick. At right, Scott “Diesel Doug” Link, whose band, the Long-Haul Truckers, used to perform the song “All Over,” which Jon (mostly) and I wrote. Hubley Archives.
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.
I’ve been told by other former musical colleagues that they might have stayed around if there’d been more happening with the band. Would that have held true for Jonathan? Obviously a question for him to answer, but I suspect that the Nichols-Pethicks would have left town anyway.
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.
What’s so funny (about Jon, Doug and Gretchen)? Jeff Stanton photo.
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.
But there was one more electric band to come, made possible by the surprising return of an old friend.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A concise Boarders history lesson thanks to Portland Press Herald columnist Ben Monaghan. Hubley Archives
The Boarders in an autumn 1994 publicity image. From left, Doug Hubley, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Gretchen Schaefer. Jeff Stanton photo.
Late in the 1860s novel Little Women, heroine Jo March, dreading her friend Laurie’s budding romantic feelings for her, tells her mother she feels “restless and anxious to be seeing, doing and learning more than I am.” Her solution is to move to the city, to live and work in a boardinghouse. There, she has a room to herself, time to write, and the welcome distraction of friendships with her fellow boarders.
Larger musical groups are empowered by their capacity for complexity. Smaller bands are empowered by the need to keep it simple.
Obvious, for sure, but for the musicians involved, it’s a powerful reality that encompasses infinite subtleties in both directions — perhaps unexpectedly so in the case of the minimal. The richness of potential there can be highly gratifying. Every time I have gone from a larger to a smaller band, I’ve felt suddenly light, ready to fly.
My fellow remnants were Gretchen Schaefer, who played bass and guitar, and drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. I played guitar and accordion, proposed much of the material and sang most of it.
Post-Cowlix, we wasted little time finding a direction. And circularly enough, our direction was to be the Boarders.
Atop a hard core of held-over Cowlix country and folk-dance repertoire, we added pop-rock by Buddy Holly, Jackson Browne and others. I was gratified to add two songs by Tim Hardin, one of my first big influences, to the repertoire.
We learned two by the Kinks; the Oysterband’s brilliant “When I’m Up”; Anne Savoy’s adaptation of the Cajun song “Mon Chere Bebe Creole.” From the torch song catalog came “What’s New” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
We glommed up enough Leonard Cohen to jokingly bill ourselves as Portland’s only L.C. tribute band, even tackling the French Resistance anthem “The Partisan,” which Lennie covered on his second album.
And we revived several originals by my pre-Cowlix combo, the loudly romantic Fashion Jungle.
Another image from the autumn 1994 Boarders publicity shoot by Jeff Stanton. The setting was Jeff’s apartment house on Portland’s Eastern Promenade. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley.
Speaking of which, among other improvements that came with the Boarders, it was here that I felt at home as a songwriter again after five years adrift. It was ironic, or at least telling, that toward the end of the ’Lix I was thinking about revisiting Fashion Jungle material (and we even picked up “Shortwave Radio”).
Apparently I am on a short chain fastened to a post in the ground, because I walk in one direction until the chain is wrapped completely around and then I wind it again the other way. For me, anyway, the Boarders captured the best of both worlds, repertoire-wise: the diversity of the Cowlix and the edgy intensity of the FJ.
And for the first time since the Fashion Jungle, I wasn’t the only songwriter in the band. We hung onto Jonathan’s “All Over,” and he and his wife, Nancy Nichols-Pethick later presented “Tragedy.”
What started out as a master list of all Cowlix repertoire shows the transition from ‘Lix to Boarders. (Hubley Archives)
Nostalgia wears rose-colored contact lenses, but it seems to me that our musical interests were as harmonious as everything else about the Boarders. I don’t recall Gretchen, Jonathan and me ever discussing our repertoire in broad or aspirational terms, and neither did we disagree about material. We just brought songs in and, for the most part, played them.
It was a relief to lose the country music fiction espoused by the Cowlix, a band with a long stylistic reach and a grasp that almost matched. As previously noted, I, at least, had started violating the “country” descriptor early on.
And now here were the Boarders with no such mandate to obey or defy. Like the Cowlix, we had the range to pull off a variety of music, but there was a crucial difference: What the ’Lix lacked and the Boarders possessed was a collective personality focused enough to forge an identifiable sound from some disparate types of music.
So much for 1992’s standard Cowlix poster! (Hubley Archives)
Much of that personality was purely musical and organic, but — and I know it will shock and surprise you that such things happen in the music biz — some slight contrivance went into the Boarders’ public identity.
The three of us had zero interest in retaining the Cowlix name. Not only did we wish to leave the past in the past (as I am obviously so dedicated to doing), but we had discovered along the way that we weren’t the only ones using that name. Pretty obvious moniker for a country band, after all.
I don’t recall where or how “Boarders” turned up, but it seemed sufficiently random-yet-meaningful, that irresistible combination, to work for this “new” band that seemed capable of anything.
The richness of the Boarders’ prospects and potential, coupled with my decade-plus experience, as a music journalist, with musicians angling for my attention, prompted a fairly focused publicity campaign. We even created press kits, including a band history, demo tapes, a sample lyric (“Trouble Train”), publicity photos by longtime friend Jeff Stanton — and a key pin.
Key pin? Just like it sounded: an old-fashioned lever-lock key with a pin-back epoxied onto it, so it could be worn as a pin. The concept of the key came from the boardinghouse theme — every boarder must have a key, yes? — and it worked on so many levels! Etc. But the grand idea was derived from my having learned that journalists and club owners would be more likely to remember a band that gave them presents. Who doesn’t like presents?
My two remaining promotional Boarders key pins.
I have no idea whether the key pins made any difference to our getting work — although we did get work. But, revisiting the two key pins that I still have from the Boarders’ exciting blossoming 20 years ago, I would like to think there are still a few Boarders key pins turning up, from time to time, on the sport jacket lapels and cloche hats of Portland’s former hip and cool.
The Boarders in a 1994 publicity image by Jeffery Stanton.
Three 1994 demo recordings by the Boarders, featuring the first song I wrote for the band, “1,000 Pounds of Rain,” and two revivals from the Fashion Jungle repertoire. Of minor interest is the fact that this is the last two-track recording I made of any of my electric bands, as I moved to the four-track audiocassette format in December 1994.
1,000 Pounds of Rain (Hubley) The title was inspired by a 1990 Cowlix performance at the Drydock, which necessitated our carrying the equipment to the second-story performance area up a cast-iron fire escape in a pouring rain. I lugged the title around for years not knowing what the song would be about. Finally finished in spring 1994, around the time the ‘Lix were splitting up, “1,000 Pounds” turned out to be a cry of despair at reaching middle age. Incidentally, drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick first heard us at the Drydock date and joined the ’Lix a year later.
Je t’aime (Hubley) 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. Written in 1982 and originally performed with the Fashion Jungle, this song came into its own with the Boarders.
Breaker’s Remorse (Hubley) Hearing the expression “buyer’s remorse” for the first time in 1987, I parlayed it into a song about someone who needs encouragement expressing herself. This late Fashion Jungle number was an early addition to the Boarders songbook.
A complete listing of Notes from a Basement postsand Bandcamp albums relating to the Fashion Jungle appears at the end of this post.
“It’s hard to believe it has been 40 years,” says Mike Piscopo — 40 years since the emergence of the Fashion Jungle, a rock band that he, Ken Reynolds, Jim Sullivan and I created.
Evolving over nine years from that original quartet to trio, quartet, quintet and trio again, the FJ remains an emotional landmark for many who were involved in it.
For me, the FJ was like graduation, as we sloughed off our covers-band identity as The Mirrors and focused, instead, on original songs rooted in personal experience and delivered with all the ardor we could muster.
“The FJ opened my eyes to the possibility that instead of just being a technician copying things, you could actually invent music with nothing limiting it but imagination,” says multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jim Sullivan.
The 1980s rock press in Portland, Maine, were fans. The music magazine Sweet Potato put us on the cover three times and reviewed our shows. According to SP writers Seth Berner and Will Jackson, respectively, we were Maine’s “best ‘new wave’ songsters,” offering “[p]otent, provocative, inventive originals played with precision and intensity.”
For me and for others involved with the band, the FJ years stand out as personally transformational. “I loved it,” says Gretchen Schaefer, who applied her talents in visual art to FJ projects and didn’t shy away from carrying amps. The excitement wasn’t totally about the music (or the fact that, even as the FJ was becoming a thing, she and I were building a relationship that’s still going strong). In some ways, the FJ was providing the soundtrack for myriad life changes within our circle.
In Gretchen’s case, she says, “I was taking myself more seriously as an artist at that time — it was the beginning of that for me. I finally was out of an extended adolescence and I felt like an adult with some agency in my life. I was doing things that young adults do, instead of just dubbing around as a student.”
I realized early in 2021
that the 40th anniversary of the Fashion Jungle would arrive this summer, as Mike, Jim, Ken and I had settled on the FJ moniker in June 1981. And that anniversary is the perfect opportunity for a long-overdue departure from the solitary musings that typically constitute Notes from a Basement.
So, four decades after it all began, it’s a genuine pleasure to present a Fashion Jungle retrospective in the words of the people — other than me — who played in the band or supported the musicians through the occasional thick and the frequent episodes of thin. (Constitutionally unable to butt out, I do offer a few notes in italic type for clarity and continuity.) Read on to hear from:
Ken Reynolds and Mike Piscopo, with whom I first played in the Curley Howard Band in the late 1970s;
Jim Sullivan, who joined us in The Mirrors;
Steve Chapman, who played with Ken and me in the band’s most enduring lineups;
Kathren Torraca, whose youthful spark and keyboard work defined the best-known FJ lineup;
Dan Knight, who helped fill a gap in the band’s eight years of being;
and from GretchenSchaefer and fellow roadie Jeff Stanton, whose photos have documented the adventures of the FJ and many of the bands that followed.
Ken Reynolds, take it away!
Ken Reynolds: Drums, vocals, lyrics
Curley Howard Band (1977–78) / The Mirrors (1979–81) / The Fashion Jungle (1981–89) / The Cowlix (1989–91) / Howling Turbines (1997–2004)
Ken and I met in 1975 as employees of the Jordan Marsh department store in South Portland, Maine. Our musical interests were quite disparate, but our senses of humor meshed — and we were both itching to escape our respective lonely basements and make music with other humans. Ken’s drive and imagination on the drums became defining elements of the FJ sound.
Ken says: The tasks of a band member are many, whether it’s working on a musical idea for a song, the constant reworking and formation of a nearly completed song or, even better, working on a set list for a gig. But the creating of a song, a sound or a style, lyrically and musically, is a collective joy and fulfillment that aspiring musicians hope to achieve.
I think I can speak for all members of the Fashion Jungle: We experienced all this.
Here’s an example. In 1983, I couldn’t rehearse for several weeks due to a mishap I suffered at a company barbecue in Westbrook. I was playing a game of pepper — a warmup exercise where a batter hits a softball back to a gloved fielder in rapid succession. The batter, my boss, was a little too enthusiastic — he got aggressive with his swings and swatted a ball back to me that hit my gloved hand and fractured my thumb.
I needed surgery and was out of commission for a month. The Fashion Jungle continued to meet weekly and started working on new material. The song being developed was Doug’s “Nothing To Say.” When I finally returned, the band had a basic structure for it in place. Doug and Steve played the song for me a couple of times and I started to get ideas for a beat. What was amazing was how quickly it coalesced into one of the best songs in the band’s repertoire and became a staple in our set list.
Those years together were some of the happiest in my life. I was working two part-time jobs, studying to complete a four-year college degree, having a steady supportive girlfriend, practicing and playing gigs around town. I was extremely busy and every day my schedule was different. Never the rote routine. The sense of purpose was gratifying and exciting!
My favorite FJ gig was at Zootz when we supplemented my drumming with a drum machine on a few songs. Steve, Doug and I successfully streamlined our music to connect the songs together, making ourselves sound more professional while adding a certain stage persona. It felt like we were creating a show and not just playing a regular gig. I think it was our best-received performance by fans and critics alike. [The show was “Dance Alert II,” a November 1987 benefit for Salvadoran refugees.]
Other memories include recording the Six Songs cassette. We all felt pressure to record and distribute some of our original music. It was a hastily completed project, lasting about a day and a half. We each chipped in some dough to book the session. The atmosphere at the studio, the Outlook in Bethel, Maine, was very relaxed and ownership was very cooperative about working with us and suggesting ideas. All in all, a fun experience (despite the high-carb meals that were provided during our overnight stay. :))
I always enjoyed opening for the Boston-based alternative bands that performed at Kayo’s. They were always friendly and genuinely offered their perspectives on the music scene in general and their support for us. Two bands in particular were Arms Akimbo and Zodio Doze — their members were very affable as they discussed the vibrant Boston scene and the best bands there.
Mike Piscopo: Guitar, bass, organ, vocals, songwriting
Curley Howard Band (1977–78) / The Mirrors (1979–81) / The Fashion Jungle (1981)
I knew Mike from “The Corner” — a convenience store in South Portland, Maine, called Patty Ann’s Superette. It was a busy social scene that spanned a wide age range. I’d been hanging around for years as a friend of the proprietors, the Stantons, and Mike was friends with Jeff Stanton’s youngest brother, Philip. Ken and I were looking for additional musicians, and Mike was learning guitar. Our first session consisted of two hours of “Green Onions.”The three of us plus bassist Andy Ingalls became the Curley Howard Band. Later, for The Mirrors, Mike added bass and organ to his portfolio. He moved to Texas in 1981.
Mike says: I don’t think the Fashion Jungle changed me personally, but I believe the structure we had — multiple instruments, vocals, etc. — really helped me musically. I was able to use that experience in a couple of bands I played with here in Texas.
And I enjoyed all the songs (or the ones I remember). I take great pride in playing them to my kids — all grown and accomplished musicians in their own form.
What does the band and that time of life represent to me now? Fond memories (although I really have to emphasize that the Curley Howard Band memories are my favorites!) Overall, I always felt the band was a tight-knit group of folks, probably because of the core history we had together. My favorite FJ gigs were the ones at Kayo’s — we were really tight [Sept. 16 and Oct. 6, 1981].
Overall, there is a special place in my mind for the time we spent making music — Curley Howard, The Mirrors, Karl Rossmann [the late-stage Mirrors], Fashion Jungle. Also, the friendships we had and still have, I believe, are priceless.
Jim Sullivan: Violin, guitar, bass, tenor sax, organ, vocals, songwriting
The Mirrors (1979–81) / The Fashion Jungle (1981–82)
The Curley Howard Band became The Mirrors with the departure of bassist Andy Ingalls and arrival of singer Christine Hanson. In response to an ad, Jim Sullivan joined us in early 1979 and turned out to be stunningly versatile — a good singer and songwriter, and an instrumentalist whose range encompassed fiddle, guitar, bass, keys and ultimately, tenor sax. Jim also brought professional savvy, which we sorely needed as a local agent heaped work on us, and a wicked sense of humor. Today Jim plays and writes music in The Barnyard Incident, an Americana band in Bethlehem, N.H.
Jim says: A bandmate during my time on the Boston Irish/Celtic circuit in the ’90s once said there are two types of bands: practicing bands and performing bands.
It was the transition from The Mirrors to the Fashion Jungle that gave me my first hint of that: Even though The Mirrors did perform songs we all liked, it seemed, in a way, more like a group of musicians taking turns in the spotlight than a cohesive unit.
The FJ, though, was the actualization of one musical trend of The Mirrors [punk and New Wave]. This focus seemed to gel more as a performing band, with everyone pulling the cart in the same direction. That did not mean we stayed in a box — just that one song had some thematic connection to the last, and led to some justified expectation for the next, giving the band its “sound.”
In addition, the FJ opened my eyes to the possibility that instead of just being a technician copying things, you could actually invent music with nothing limiting it but imagination. And I discovered at that time that I could stretch beyond stringed instruments, both banging out some tunes on the Farfisa rock organ, and taking up tenor sax and continuing to dabble in it for a couple more years. (But let’s face it: There’s something wrong with any instrument that needs a “spit valve”!)
Looking back at my all-too-short stint with the FJ (and with The Mirrors), as with all the bands of various genres I have been in, I am forever grateful that I was exposed to so much great music I might never have run into otherwise. I also took away from that era the importance of recording, both to capture a moment in time and to listen to and improve on my own playing.
On the originals front, one FJ song still on regular rotation in my mental spinning wheel is “Keep On Smiling,” mostly because of its sheer sonic power, and because I’m always easily seduced by organs of all types, from pipe to Hammond B3 to Farfisa.
Steve Chapman: Bass, guitar, vocals, songwriting
The Fashion Jungle (1981–85, 1987–89) / The Cowlix (1989)
Steve joined the FJ in autumn 1981, as Mike departed for Texas and Jim moved to Boston to attend school. Steve brought a musical sophistication that, in his bass work, was key to our ability to succeed as a trio; and that in his songwriting, simply provided the FJ with some of its very best material.
Steve says: The Fashion Jungle is still a part of me after all this time and is the band I identify with the most. The other (10-plus) bands are pretty distant memories at this point, even those I was in after the FJ.
I’ve got to say that I quite enjoyed playing Geno’s, even though it was such a pit in those days — it was also a bonafide New Wave venue. Probably a bit like The Cavern Club, although I don’t think they had the same activities in the ladies room that Geno’s had.
Maybe my favorite FJ gig of all was the Maine Festival in Brunswick [in 1984. Steve, Ken and I also played the Portland edition in 1988]. That felt fairly significant. Another would be the Portland Expo concert where we hit the big time. I can still see David Minehan of The Neighborhoods slinking around in his trench coat waiting to go on — never letting anyone catch his eye. They were pretty good but we were better, in my humble opinion. [“Going To A Go Go,” Oct. 16, 1982. Also on the bill were The Pathetix, with Mike Piscopo’s brother Gary and future FJ keyboardist Kathren Torraca.]
We had a lot of songs. Some of my favorites to play were “Breaker’s Remorse,” “Je t’aime” and, believe it or not, “Dumb Models.” We got bored with it, but it was about as heavy as it gets. We also had a nice selection of covers. I always liked playing Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan.”
The FJ made me a much better bass player as time went by. I wasn’t doing much when we first got together and the band exposed me to a lot of music that I hadn’t been paying much attention to. It was a real period of growth for me as a musician.
Kathren Torraca: Keyboards
The Fashion Jungle (1983–85)
With keyboardist Kat making it a quartet, the band reached a pinnacle of sonic richness — and local recognition — in 1983–84. Her synth textures and colors had a dramatic effect on the FJ, both expanding the types of material we could pull off and, perhaps more importantly, bringing the romanticism in our music fully to the fore. A teenager when she first joined us, Kat was also the best kind of smart aleck.
Kat says: I’m not sure that my time with the Fashion Jungle changed me, but it was one of the most fun periods of time that I look back upon. I was always a bit nervous before each gig but at the end, it felt great — no matter how it went! I loved our energy and watching the dance floor fill over the course of the night — most nights….
I was so young! It was a time of learning, maturing, exploring and lots of really great fun. Looking back, I was very excited, and lucky really, to be playing with such talented friends and getting those experiences — practices, recording, gigs, pre-gig prep and post-gig–high hanging out. And the opportunities to meet and work with other talented local musicians, and to have been an active part of the music scene in 1980s Portland.
I remember audiences singing our original songs. No particular gig stands out in detail for me, but there are a couple that I remember more than others. There was one at Kayo’s — the feeling I took from it is of a particularly packed audience and great dancing. And there were many nights at Geno’s where we had good audiences and lots of energy.
I remember going out for breakfast after gigs, practicing in Ben and Hattie Hubley’s basement, and watching you all drink Black Velvet. And Alden and his van, being on the cover of Sweet Potato and printing FJ T-shirts in my basement. [Kathren designed an early FJ shirt that featured a leg in camouflage hose wearing a bright red stiletto heel.]
Dan Knight: Bass, vocals, songwriting
The Fashion Jungle (1985)
After one last Geno’s show in Dec. 1984 — which I don’t recall at all — the Chapman-Torraca edition of the FJ, sometimes also featuring Jim Sullivan, continued to rehearse into early 1985. And then we were done, as Steve, like Jim before him, had moved to Boston, where he was studying software coding and had met his wife-to-be, Jeri Kane. But Ken and I were still game, and placed an ad in the Sweet Potato for musicians. We heard from, and hired, one: bassist Dan Knight. And by July the FJ was back in business, at least for another six months.
Dan says: In the mid-’80s, after three years of alleged study up north at the University of Maine, I’d had enough of playing music in dorm rooms and left school for the big city — Portland.
I originally hooked up with a psychedelic garage band centered around the Geno’s scene when it was in its original location, on Brown Street. I got a job driving a school van and discovered that I had a not-necessarily-healthy fondness for the British-style ale being served at the old Three Dollar Dewey’s. The psych band didn’t last long — and it was right about then that I had the obligatory hopeless romance, resulting in a broken heart that I nursed for years. Good Times.
I’d heard the name Fashion Jungle around town. They were of a previous generation when the place for cool bands was the original Downtown Lounge — and the Portland waterfront was still dangerous. I saw their ad for a bass player in the Sweet Potato, another relic of that era. It was the local music paper and everybody read it.
Whatever the Fashion Jungle’s past incarnations, at that moment it was now basically down to two, Ken and Doug. They gave me a cassette tape of their original material. I heard echoes of Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, but the Fashion Jungle was definitely its own thing. I played along with the tape as best I could, tried to get the gist, and then had an audition. I apparently passed.
The original songs were genuinely unique and the covers were unusual, including Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash. Rock bands weren’t doing that at the time. We even learned some Motown songs to play at a wedding. I believe my run in the Jungle lasted only six months.
I went back to school, finishing up at the University of Southern Maine. I still play music and, sometimes on a rainy day, still nurse that broken heart.
Gretchen Schaefer: Road manager, staff artist
The Fashion Jungle (1981–89) / As guitarist, bassist, singer: The Cowlix (1989–94) / The Boarders (1994–96) / Howling Turbines (1997–2004) / Day for Night (2007–)
Gretchen and I met in a philosophy of art class at the University of Southern Maine in autumn 1981, at the time the original FJ quartet was coming apart. As our relationship grew, she became integral to the band as a roadie and contributing artist for FJ promotional efforts. In the FJ’s final months, we decided to open for ourselves under a different name and play classic country and rock, and Gretchen joined us on stage playing rhythm guitar. She and I have made music together ever since.
Gretchen says: The first gig I saw the Fashion Jungle play was at Kayo’s [Oct. 6, 1981], and I remember just being really impressed with the band. I didn’t really know you at the time, and people talk a lot of crap, so I did not have high expectations at all — I was basically thinking it was going to be terrible.
I was so surprised at how put together the band was, how professional it seemed, just how well-rehearsed and smooth your sound was. It was a thing — you really projected an image and a sound that was cohesive, and I found that very impressive.
The other thing that struck me was that you all could play on different instruments with some fluidity and authority. It never had occurred to me that people would be able to do that. I always figured in a band, everybody had their one instrument and that’s what they would play.
The original group seemed like this crazy mashup, but it all cohered. It seemed — not really circusy, but really exciting and kind of wild. That changed when it was just you and Ken and Steve. That was a whole different iteration of the band. I was around more for that, to see it shaping and building up, but it seemed more serious in a way than those early gigs.
With the Fashion Jungle, I was an observer mostly. I had a privileged position in that I was very close to the band, I was at a lot of rehearsals, recording sessions and gigs.
I loved it. It was exciting. I’d never been close to a band before — a real band that performed out. Just observing how bands acted and interacted with one another, and how it all came together and how gigs were gotten and played. And bands were such a big part of what we were all thinking about growing up.
Being able to do some of the artwork was something I really liked. It allowed me to participate in my own artistic way. I was trying to respond to the band, to take in your ideas and meld them with my own vision. I like that commission process a lot, assembling ideas together into a coherent whole. [An established mosaic artist now, doing business as Great Blue Mosaic, Gretchen designed posters, T-shirts and the cover image for the Six Songs audiocassette.]
That time of life seemed like the culmination of my youth. I’d had a lot of different experiences before that, but it seemed like a high point of the young part of my life, not only our relationship building but just being part of that milieu.
So many of the gigs blend together — all those gigs at Geno’s where I was tending the door with Alden. [Alden Bodwell had been a roadie and friend since the Curley Howard days. He passed away in December 2019.] There were certain fans that I would see at every gig. That little blonde skateboard girl — she looked too young to be there, for sure. She’d have a skateboard with her, she clearly was out of bounds, but she came to so many gigs.
Then there was that tall guy with the bushy, sandy hair who danced. A really bouncy dancer. And people like Seth Berner, Will Jackson, you would just see a lot at the gigs, they really liked the FJ.
Geno’s was gritty, like totally gritty. Then the Marble Bar was less gritty. The 1984 Maine Festival was the cool pinnacle, and Zootz seemed like this New York, groovy vibe, which was fun.
It was interesting to hear those same songs over and over at different gigs, and how they would change. They’d be faster or slower, the mood often would change with how you would emphasize the lyrics. It was interesting to me to hear that because I had not heard performances repeatedly like that.
“Shortwave Radio” was always very striking to me. It’s a really percussive song, and I thought that was interesting. That was probably a huge standout for me. “Je t’aime” is a great song, so sophisticated. Those Ken songs, like “Dumb Models” — I thought that was so funny. It was so apropos, and it was such an unapologetically boy view of things. The stripper song, “Entertainer.”
I always liked the postmortem after the gigs. We’d bring the equipment back, and there’d always be that little period of just hanging around for a few minutes, talking it over in the dark. It would be late at night. There was always the rating system: Ken would say, “Well, how do you think it went?” It was a scale of 1 to 10. Everybody would have to give their number.
And the whole divvying up of the money after a gig. Alden would always want to refuse his share, and you’d all have to force him to take some.
The Fashion Jungle as a band changed so much over time. It was interesting to see the rotating personnel piece of it. It had never occurred to me that there would be this changing cast of characters, and that somebody would continue to try to put it together again — “Are we going to actually try to replace that person? Are we just going to function as we are?” — and how that drove the music and how you presented yourselves.
Reading about other bands afterward, it made a lot more sense to me, having seen it firsthand, how difficult it is to keep a group of people all going in the same direction for very long, especially people at a really volatile time of life. You were all in that young adult time, where people were making pretty big life decisions that affected the band.
Jeff Stanton: Road manager, staff photographer-videographer
The Fashion Jungle (1981–89) / The Cowlix (1989–94) / The Boarders (1994–96) / Howling Turbines (1997–2004) / Day for Night (2007–)
Living and working at Patty Ann’s Superette, Jeff and his siblings attracted friends of diverse ages to the Stanton family’s variety store. The roots of several bands, including the FJ, were set deep in this fertile social scene, which produced the Curley Howard Band and its successors, as well as the Pathetix and the Foreign Students. Featuring the latter two bands and the Mirrors (1980) and the FJ (1981), “Corner Night” concerts paid tribute to this South Portland phenomenon. Jeff has amassed an important photographic record of these bands, their descendants and their times.
Jeff says: In connecting with friends of my siblings in the neighborhood, I was, I guess, an observer or a witness to several individuals’ musical development. I would go back as far as Truck Farm — you and John Rolfe and Tom Hansen. That was the seeds in the soil there. Things were germinating then. [Truck Farm, 1971–72, was my first performing band, another decadal milestone for 2021. John Rolfe went on to form the Foreign Students and The Luxembourgs.] I even remember it when I was away at school — the people who played guitar and how others would gather around.
One of the things that I really appreciate about the whole experience was the social connections I made. It was good for me. The bonds that were created then, they’ve endured. We’ve grown as friends.
And being part of that creative enterprise was cool. That goes back to that whole Corner experience, where there was a whole nexus, network, of activity, and people coming and going. It made my social interaction very easy, because I didn’t have to get outside myself — everybody was coming there, for whatever reason. It was a neighborhood vortex. That circle of interaction and creative expression was very satisfying.
I did make some effort to document visually, in photographs, what was happening. And then not being a musical participant, I wanted to contribute some way, so being able to lug equipment, I was certainly capable of doing that. That made me feel I was part of it.
There’s one memory I have from Geno’s where I was talking to a girl, and we were talking about the band. This always stuck with me — she said “crucial,” the music being crucial, or “essential.” It was just this attractive girl I was talking to, and I didn’t really know her. I don’t know if she knew you guys, so it was just interesting to hear a stranger comment about the music, which I thought was cool.
I enjoy live performances now, but I often didn’t go to hear other local bands. I think as a social activity, the FJ actually got me to go out to hear music, probably because I’d been introduced to it — I was desensitized, a little bit more comfortable with it.
I remember once hearing somebody being disappointed by a concert because it didn’t sound like the album. But part of the appeal of live music is that it’s an ephemeral expression, and the result of everything that’s happened to that point. And it’s appealing to hear the same songs live more than once.
If you had gone only once, and they played really fast, “really fast” would be the memory. But there are other times when there’s a different vibe. I know it’s probably different for band members who rehearse and rehearse, and that’s why one has to appreciate when they can bring some freshness to it.
Besides, sometimes “too fast” is just what you need.
I reread some Basement posts, and I’ve been listening to FJ music over the course of things. It’s interesting how listening to it brings this well of emotion back up. It was a high point, it was something that brought things together, got us together.
Whenever I go by there now, heading out to Cape Elizabeth and seeing the Corner, I don’t see a bunch of kids hanging around. I don’t see guitarists standing up against the side of the building, or people sitting on the side, or skateboarding in the parking lot there. I sometimes think of that time and wonder, if I had approached life differently and decided to set out on my own and not stayed at the store — well, things would be a lot different. I would be very interested and curious to know what different things would have sprouted for everybody else, too.
The FJ wove some vibrant threads, tones, and textures into the fabric of my experiences at that period — nights at Jim’s and Geno’s were always an event. I don’t know what the warp and woof of the fabric of my being would be without the various FJ interactions and influences. I imagine the patterns would be different.
Doug Hubley, at left, and Ben Hubley pose for the self-timer during a 1987 camping trip to Fayette, Maine. Dad was 66, the age I am now; and I was 33, Dad’s age when I was born. Hubley Archives.
Is it too depressing to plow through tedious musings about aging? Cut to the chase and hear the new EP!
In 1974, when I was a callow 20-year-old,
I recorded French pop singer Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday, When I Was Young” in my parents’ basement.
I’d heard Aznavour’s 1964 version, “Hier encore,” thanks to my sister Susie, a big Aznavour fan. I loved the melody, and the drama of his recording. And I loved his words — or so I thought.
In reality, I didn’t actually know Aznavour’s words because I don’t speak French. Instead, like many others, I sang Herbert Kretzmer’s English translation, which was widely familiar from Roy Clark’s 1969 hit version. Aznavour and Kretzmer tell the same basic story, that of an older man lamenting his misspent youth. But the specifics are quite different.
And I had no clue that in Aznavour’s original lyrics, the narrator was a man late in life looking back at himself as — wait for it! — a callow 20-year-old.
That irony blows some of the odor off the abysmal naïveté that gave the clueless 20-year-old me license to perform, with total conviction, Kretzmer’s maudlin lament about regret and world-weariness.
Aznavour’s lyric, in fact, towers over his longtime translator’s. Where Kretzmer sacrifices poetic force to conform to a rhyme scheme (“weak and shifting sand,” yikes!), Aznavour focuses on detailing, pointedly, the many, many ways a smart young man can be a jerk.
Old man inside a young man: 20-year-old Doug Hubley performs “Wild Horses” on the Silvertone 6-string at Nancy Hubley’s wedding, May 1975. Hubley Family photo.
So maybe it was good that I didn’t know the original lyrics when I recorded it. Maybe Kretzmer’s interpretation was right for me at that point in time. Soggy regrets about things that I’d never experienced seemed to suit my 20-year-old mood better than a hard look in the mirror. (Not that I shied away from mirrors.)
But the bigger issue is: Why, at that promising age, with so much of life ahead of me, did I feel compelled to assume the persona of an old man bitter with remorse over past mistakes?
Callous as well as callow in my 20s, was I displacing into fiction feelings of guilt about my youthful hijinks? Did I wish to inhabit elderly narrators because aging is associated with wisdom, and I’m insecure about my intellect?
Did I think the older, wiser, sorrier image was attractive? Was there a connection with my tendency to seek control of unwanted situations by envisioning how they will end?
Like Jim Reeves, I wonder, I wonder — but I really don’t want to know.
The scariest thing on Halloween. Hubley Archives.
At the time, performing “Yesterday, When I Was Young” struck me as highly romantic, or least as a way to channel my bleak outlook into something decorative. I had no job nor lover nor any clear path toward what I wanted out of all that life, beyond emoting into the Sony reel-to-reel.
Anyhoo, whatever my motivations, learning the song was absolutely a good music lesson. Aznavour’s melody is elegant, a chain of perfect phrases that link and then break away as the long line progresses from wistful to bitter to tragic. It felt good on my brain to figure out the chords and learn to sing over them. It was a welcome challenge to my musical foundations in rock and country.
The South Richland Street basement, 1974. One of the amps worked. Hubley Archives.
Older and slightly wiser, I’d achieved some critical distance by 1985, when I made my band learn “It Was a Very Good Year,” Sinatra’s hit of 20 years prior. I still aspired to the regretful roué persona, but now was able to season it with some irony. (As opposed to having the irony present itself 45 years later, as with the Aznavour song during the writing of this post.)
It’s also true that Ervin Drake’s “Very Good Year,” unlike “Yesterday, When I Was Young,” is not about guilty second thoughts. In fact, it’s the opposite — a self-congratulatory review of the Ages of Man, Horndog Division (although the sexy talk is gone by the final verse and with it any charm in the lyrics, as evocative images of perfumed hair and snogging in the back of a limousine give way to, yikes again, the self-satisfied “fine old wine” stuff. Bartender, make mine remorse).
Well, ’nuff said about the lyrics. But Drake’s minor-to-major melody, twining through a chordal structure closely anchored to D, was quite compelling. “Very Good Year” was first recorded by the Kingston Trio, it made the charts with Sinatra, and its composer was American — but Drake’s melody had the same exotic appeal to my uninformed brain as the Eastern Mediterranean music I was enamored of in the 1980s.
So my band the Fashion Jungle learned it, complete with a Richard Thompson guitar treatment that would have been the cat’s pajamas if I could play like Richard Thompson. And the same year we learned it, I forced a tape of our version on poor Richard after his Bowdoin College performance, which I’d previewed for the Maine Sunday Telegram, complete with Thompson interview. I don’t want to know what he thought of the FJ, but I’ll never forget him, sweaty in his pink suit, backing away from me apprehensively as I approached with the tape.
The Boarders striving for a bygone look in a 1994 publicity image by Jeff Stanton. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley. Hubley Archives.
Ten years and two bands later, The Boarders elevated “It Was a Very Good Year” to some sort of pinnacle in our strange and diverse repertoire. Driven by drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick and bassist Gretchen Schaefer (still my partner in life and in music), Drake’s melody got a heavy, vaguely Balkan accordion setting that I still like, bombast and all.
Today, 26 years later, though I don’t wallow in them anymore, I still enjoy musical elegies for lost youth — “September Song,” “When the World Was Young,” etc. (And we just discovered Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair,” only 90 years late.)
And then, in an altogether different vein, there’s Waylon Jennings’ version of “A Couple More Years,” the Dr. Hook song whose narrator makes plain to a younger lover the pitfalls of their May-August relationship.
In fact, I think Waylon’s willingness to play the world-weary elder, something he shared with Willie Nelson, is a reason that I like them both. I could never sing Waylon’s “Slow Movin’ Outlaw” with a straight face, but as maudlin as that song is, the crack in Waylon’s voice and the loss in Dee Moeller’s lyrics — and, of course, the railroad frame of reference — get me every time:
“All the old stations are being torn down And the high-flying trains no longer roll The floors are all sagging with boards that are suffering From not being used anymore Things are all changing, the world’s rearranging A time that will soon be no more Where has a slow-movin’, once quick-draw outlaw got to go?”
Ben and Harriette Hubley in 1942. They were married for 75 years. Hubley Archives.
But as much as I liked them, I never performed many of those songs nor did I regret not doing so. I guess it’s a healthy sign that as I finally learned to enjoy my fast-passing youth, I became less interested in fictionalizing it.
And a sharper corrective came from the punk-rock scene in Portland, Maine. Punk’s be-here-now ethos, its acid anti-sentimentality — especially when the sentiment was nostalgia — made a deep impression on me. (Still, I bet there’s no shortage of people my age nostalgic for their punk years.)
So I learned to think twice before waxing nostalgic in unfamiliar company. (Good training for one’s 60s, especially during 2020, a year that has lowered the bar for what might qualify as the Good Ole Days.)
More important, I started to understand the emotional uses, good and bad, of nostalgia — how it can comfort, how it can anesthetize, how it can co-opt, how it can deflect, how it can be weaponized. (Could there be such a thing as an ethics of nostalgia? Yep. Try it on Google.)
Doug Hubley and Gretchen Schaefer in 1991.
In any case, in 2010 they moved me to a new cubicle in the Tower of Song (actually the Tower of Song annex out by the Maine Mall), and a couple years later I made my own contribution to the catalog of songs that view youth across the wide river of age. They say you shouldn’t drink alone, and my song “I Never Drink Alone” is about someone who is saved from that habit only by the ghosts and memories keeping him company at the bar.
I’m blessed to still have loved ones in my life (if not so many as in 2012), but then, well into my 50s, I was looking ahead. (See “control of unwanted situations,” above.) “I Never Drink Alone” is one of the truest songs emotionally I have ever written, a picture of mourning what’s lost and fearing how one mourns.
Three years later, “Just a Moment in the Night” came along. Like “I Never Drink Alone,” it comes straight from the heart. But typical me: I finally manage to write a love song after 50 years, and instead of a celebration, it’s another frigging elegy for times past.
In other words, I’ve arrived: I have become that retrospective old man I thought I wanted to be all those years ago, when I was strumming the Silvertone and turning the Shure Vocalmaster reverb to 11. Then a young man assuming the role of an old man, I’m now an old man looking back at the youngster and thinking: twerp.
Yes, I’m an old man; and regrets, I have a few, as Paul Anka whispered in Sinatra’s ear. (Sinatra, according to Wikipedia, didn’t actually like “My Way,” although I imagine he gritted his teeth and deposited the royalty checks anyway. I don’t like it either, although Sid Vicious’s version is funny — the first time.)
Would I have written “I Never Drink Alone” and “Just a Moment in the Night” in the 2010s if I hadn’t loved “Yesterday, When I Was Young” and “Slow Movin’ Outlaw” in the 1970s? Would such odes to longing and regret, sung in the December of one’s years, yada yada, still resonate so strongly if I heard them for the first time only now, in my 60s?
Gretchen Schaefer photo (detail).
Beats me. Doesn’t matter. Relatively few things really do, as one discovers in one’s golden years. Old age comes with its own very special concerns, and they seem far removed from the rampaging lusts and hot tears of youthful folly. Regrets, I have a few, and they’re pretty much about arthritic feet, dwindling energy and loved ones we’ve lost.
So at last I understand the listeners who most closely identified with those songs, as opposed to the callow 20-year-old looking for a persona. I’m not quite the narrator in those songs — too lucky, even happy, for that — but we nod “hello” when our paths cross at the bar. Really, I’d rather drink the fine old wine from vintage kegs than waste it on a metaphor.
We mourn the past that’s gone, we regret the hurt we caused. But we don’t regret the powers, and the opportunities to use them, that we had. Little did I know, when I was wandering through the Seine River fog of “Yesterday, When I Was Young” all those years ago, that the regrets for one’s lost youth would seem more and more like a luxury?
These three songs
resulted from a summer 2020 push to record music for this Notes post*. Here are three diverse takes on getting older. On the first two, it’s all me in front of the mic. “Beyond the Great Divide” is a Day for Night recording featuring Gretchen Schaefer on harmony vocal. (See the EP on Bandcamp.)
No time for pesky reading? Head straight for the Notes From A Basement store atBandcamp!
What have I learned
about songwriting since 1969?
Not as much as one could have hoped. I still haven’t picked up enough music theory to use “jazz chords,” although at least I’m no longer afraid of them. Killer riffs? Forget it. My riffs don’t even like to argue.
Because I’ve never supported myself from songwriting, I haven’t learned to produce good songs when I’m not “feeling it.” For the same reason, I’ve never internalized the various kinds of self-discipline that go into crafting hits (as opposed to merely good songs).
For instance, a songwriting rule that I have trouble obeying is songwriter Harlan Howard’s observation, later elevated to the status of commandment, that country music is “three chords and the truth.”
Invoking the holy name of “truth” feels powerful, but that’s deceptive. Where does country music, or any genre of any medium, get off laying claim to truth, or is it Truth? Isn’t blues also three chords and the truth? (And maybe a truer truth, on average, than country, a genre that for all its greatness is still capable of producing toxins like “God Made Girls.”)
In fact, it’s actually true that truth isn’t really so scarce in creative work. Many songwriters remain true to themselves in their work even if their truth isn’t your truth. (And in any case, it’s also true that a grain of truth doesn’t make a pearl of every song.)
And if their truth is your truth, or something akin to it — or the song resonates with you even though the writer’s intention has escaped you altogether — then you can add your own truth to that particular heap.
I doubt that it’s possible to like a song without it striking some chord in your being, even if it’s just the urge to yell “Wooo!” And if you hate a song, that’s likewise reflecting something true in you.
It’s the “meh” songs that you have to feel sorry for.
So decreeing that a form of music (visual art, literature, etc.) has to be truthful in order to qualify for a label is like decreeing that a liquid must contain water to qualify as a beverage. It’s not really such a high threshold to get over. Ultimately, the “three chords and the truth” thing strikes me as more grandstanding or even defensiveness — “I don’t know many chords, but I speak truth” — than anything else. Go ahead and plant your flag on the hill of truth, if there’s any room left.
Therefore the truth part, while problematic, doesn’t challenge me as a songwriter. (And, again, since I don’t make my living from it, I can afford to wait for the True Ideas.) But that three-chord limit — wow, that’s tough. Five or six is more like it for me. Maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t use jazz chords.
This struggle with simplifying stems from both my relatively feeble melodic imagination — that is, I’m inclined to derive melody from chords and not the other way around; and my resistance to echoing the old and familiar, even if it’s familiar because people like it and people like it because it’s good. I’ll happy play the old, familiar and good if somebody else wrote it — but trying to emulate it in my own songwriting just makes me feel like a chump and a wanna-be. (And I get enough of that from walking past mirrors.)
Similarly, despite compelling evidence that compact song structures are generally preferable in the genres I play, rock and country, six- or eight-line verses and bridges tend to be my stock in trade.
But a few times I have managed to keep it simple (and didn’t even need the “stupid”). One example is my song “You Wore It Well.” After writing a string of songs that are country mostly because I say they are, I wanted to write something that came across as “country” all by itself.
Song structure was only one component of the exercise, but I made it work: four-line verses and bridge and, if not three, then four chords all told. And no minor chords! — quite unusual in my catalog. (See Recording Notes, below, for more information on the recordings linked here.)
Something else I have learned since 1969 is to carry a songwriting notebook. This provides a place to store ideas, and a place to find ideas when you’re casting about for one. (And a place to revisit past failures and stalemates, but never mind.)
The concept for “You Wore It Well” — a song that uses things applied to the skin to sketch the course of a relationship — lived in the notebook for a while until, in a hotel room in Portsmouth, N.H., in February 2013, I roughed out some words. Four months later, in Cabin No. 19 at the Chautauqua in Boulder, Colo., during the afternoon quiet hours, “You Wore It Well” came together with a minimum of agony, as the better songs seem to do.
Another pretty good country song, despite all the songwriting lessons I hadn’t yet absorbed in 1977, is “Let the Singer.” I say “country song” despite its cryptic and fragmentary title and, even more transgressive, the chord count — seven, including both major- and minor-sevenths.
Seven chords and, yes, some truth. It’s not an especially macho howl, yet “Let the Singer” is a howl nonetheless — baying at the moon by a wolf who wants to join the pack. As angsty young guitarslingers will do, in those days I valorized the live fast–die young lifestyle and its practitioners, like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons.
It all seemed very romantic until so many musicians that I liked died young.
Thirty-eight years later I had developed a finer grasp of the effects that time and romance can work on one another. More concretely, in the helpful-advice category, I’d realized that you can plan out your song or skip the plan, but either way, it should sound like you skipped the plan.
For a few years I had wanted to write a song about three sounds that catch my heart’s notice: a train horn in the distance, pedal steel guitar playing especially by Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and the voice of my wife and musical partner, Gretchen Schaefer. But a number of writing attempts that hewed close to that literal theme went nowhere. They were too schematic. It was too much plan, not enough song.
Finally, in 2015, again at the Chautauqua, I wrestled the controls away from the conceptual scheme so that the words could go where they wanted. The result was “Just a Moment in the Night.” Gretchen, steel, and the train are all still there, but now as prominent elements in a larger tapestry depicting the pleasures and pains of passing time.
“The pleasures and pains of passing time” — vague much? Well, yes. Because I also learned, pretty early on, some reasons why many songwriters are reluctant to get specific about what their songs mean. That meaning, of course, is ultimately up to you, the listener. Why should I limit your experience of a song or pre-empt your imagination?
See, here’s a way to make truth, in the sense of “three chords and —,” work for you. It’s a lovely thing if the songwriter’s, singer’s and untold throngs of listeners’ truths all chime together as one. But even if only one participant’s bell is rung, that song has earned its wings.
So, just as it’s preferable not to talk too specifically about what your songs mean, it’s better yet when the songs themselves aren’t too prescriptive or obvious. It’s not fair to invite your listener’s imagination inside if there’s no place at the table for it.
Don’t tell ’em — don’t even show ’em — just strew the path with images and hints and fragments, and let the listener piece the story together into a truth of their own. (Bob Dylan being the master of this approach.)
I was waiting for an art history class to start in early 1981 when I wrote the line, “The only time you’re happy is when it’s right after sex.” That was the start to “Shortwave Radio,” which I finished on a June evening a few months later, with a gin gimlet sweating greenly on the glossy red table and The Bob Newhart Show, muted, on the television.
Although I do have a short but happy history with shortwave radios, I can’t explain how they came to symbolize something about my character in that song. (And if I could explain, as noted above, I wouldn’t.) But it was true at the time. And I’m just glad it happened because it’s a good song and it came along just as my band at the time, the Fashion Jungle, was scrambling for good originals.
The biggest challenge to Harlan Howard’s truth is the worst kind of schematic song — and country music abounds with them: the ones that get written because someone has been afflicted with a big stiff idea for a gimmick that must be gratified by wrapping a song around it, whether because a paycheck is dangling out in front of them somewhere or they just can’t get over themselves.
(I’d like to offer as evidence “A Boy Named Sue,” but its huge chart success meant that fans were mining a lot of some kind of truth out of it. And they’re digging deeper now. The title was adopted for both a documentary with a transgender protagonist and a 2004 book about the role of gender in American country music. So truth is as truth does.)
But sometimes a gimmick can be convincingly cleaned up and dressed in a decent suit. At least once, my weakness for wordplay started me on a song — “Where Was I,” whose cute “inspiration” resulted in a lyric that’s quite good, but not at all cute.
One day I got the Grass Roots’ hit “Where Were You When I Needed You” in my head — and “Where was I when you needed me?” seemed like a potentially meaty converse of it. The resulting lyric is cross-listed in the Themes of Country Songs index under both Cheating and Mid-life Crisis. (But the 6/8 rhythm and the melody would have sounded nice with the Stax rhythm section.)
A few guidelines are apparently helpful in songwriting, since here I am offering some, but as a non-professional songwriter I can indulge in the belief that much of songwriting success is out of my hands. I like to think that random combinations of time, place, season, weather, companion, political climate, frame of mind, mode of transport, historical interests, overheard remarks, current reading, prevailing odors, beverages at hand, etc., can, when you least expect it but maybe when you most want it, spontaneously coalesce into a song idea.
Which leads me to another lesson for songwriters (even though it somewhat weakens the previous edict about gimmicks): Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Song ideas are rare and precious. If something looks like a song idea (and doesn’t look like “A Boy Named Sue” or “May the Bird of Paradise Fly up Your Nose” or “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”), grab it. (You don’t have to keep it.)
A likely specimen floated my way in summer 2019 via the intercom on an Amtrak train. We were stopped on a siding somewhere, not at a station, amidst trees in western Massachusetts.
It was June 2019, the train was Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited and we were headed west on a single-track mainline. A voice on the intercom announced that we were waiting for an eastbound train to clear the track. So we sat and waited, as we have done many times before.
But the rhythm of that announcement — “We’re waiting for an eastbound train” — struck me. I wrote those words in my songwriting notebook in hopes that some actual song idea would come along and keep them company.
Sure enough, a few days later, while Gretchen and I were sitting on the back porch of No. 19, back at the Chautauqua, I wrote “(Waiting For A) Westbound Train.” What a gift: A nuisance for an Amtrak conductor and his passengers that sparks a new song for me, my first and last in 2019. I prefer gifts (most of the time) that don’t come at other people’s expense, but when it comes to bolstering my glacier-paced songwriting output, I can’t be fussy.
You will notice the directional change, from eastbound in the conductor’s announcement to westbound in the song. Between the alliteration, which is nothing to be sneezed at in songwriting, and the fraught and many-layered symbolism of East vs. West in the American mythology, I had to bend the facts to suit the reality. “We’re headed back East as we always must be / To the same old and the good old and the old used-to-be.”
Fifty years almost to the month prior to “Westbound Train,” in 1969, I wrote the first song that I thought was any good. Its inspiration was simple: my relief at breaking up with a perfectly nice girl whose only offense was to be around when I was feeling hemmed in.
Well, I was 15 and the song, “Glad to Be Free,” sounds in every way like the product of a 15-year-old. But though I’m not linking to it here, not will I likely ever sing it again (way to clear the room in a hurry!), I still regard it as the start of my credibility as a songwriter.
And what my oldest and my newest song (and some of the good ones in between) have in common is their rootedness in a real and immediate situation — a teenager out of love who’s moving on, riders on a train who’d like to move on. Small realities, way back in 1969 and just last summer, but they’re my realities and that’s what I have to work with.
That’s country songwriting the way I do it: seven chords and some truth.
Make your dreams come true and visit the EP In Dreams at the Bandcamp store!
There is more music in my dreams
than there are dreams in my music.
This despite the fact that in the obsolete rock and country that I play, dream songs abound. And they tend to be of a type: If dream songs touch all sorts of themes and schemes, as Bob Dylan might say, they’re often about broken or unrequited love. (The same is true for the song-lyric theme of losing sleep. Where are the ballads about the kind of broken heart that causes nine hours of unbroken, restorative slumber?)
I’ve never written a song about dreams and aching hearts, but have performed some of the classics. That famous country duo Day for Night — Gretchen Schaefer and I — learned the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming” 10 or 11 years ago and it’s still on the active list.
That was 35 years after I first heard it, on Emmylou Harris’ Elite Hotel (which drove me to seek out Don. My introduction to Don Gibson was an MGM “Golden Archives Series” compilation that I turned up in a department store remainder bin and that I still have.)
My sister Sue and I made a living-room recording of “All I Have to Do Is Dream” 50 years ago. I later decided that song was a bit puerile until I discovered a gripping video, posted in 2014, of Emmylou and Alison Krauss singing it on stage. Another reminder that it’s the singer, not the song.
Those examples and many others demonstrate that monetizing poetic or metaphorical notions of dreaming can be a pretty feathery way to feather your nest. The poetry angle is key, though: Real dreams tend to lack commercial potential.
Nowadays my dreams often feature my parents. Ben died in 2018 and Harriette in 2017 — but in dreams they live on, somehow furloughed from the memory-care facility and back at home with their cats on South Richland Street. (In one recent episode, Dad spent $400 on a fraudulent jewelry sale — which in real life he never would have done — and I had to pay it back.)
But I have a few recurring dreams to which music is central.
A particular favorite, not, is the frustration dream in which I am part of an electric band that is setting up for a gig. Showtime approaches and, for whatever stupid dreamlike reasons, we just can’t seem to get things ready. You have your own special versions of this.
Less frequent but more gratifying are the variants in which the setup is accomplished and music is played, often in front of a big wall of amps (which in fact is something I have never experienced. A Super Reverb is the largest amp I’ve ever owned).
Often the dream ends as the music begins. I’m a writer and a musician, but in my dreams I don’t really hear music and I can’t read anything.
Then there’s the bad dream in which I am supposed to perform — on accordion — with the Portland String Quartet or someone similar. But I am realizing, just before the concert, that I haven’t rehearsed with them and I don’t in fact read music. (My accordion, simultaneously, dreams that it’s going on stage in its underwear.) That dream derives from the years I spent previewing and reviewing classical concerts in Southern Maine.
In my mid-teens,
I had a non-musical recurring dream about a small cabinet in my room. (Now painted in black enamel, the cabinet remains in use as our TV stand.) The dream was simple: The cabinet was stuffed full of new pullover shirts, made of velour and very groovy in a mid-1960s quasi–Star Trek style.
In the dream, so many of these alluring shirts were jammed into the cabinet that the door wouldn’t shut and the shirts came tumbling out.
In the dream that we call real life, I actually owned shirts like that — but only two. One was a rancid olive green and had a leather string and eyelets to cinch up the collar. Loved it! The other was a turtleneck in blue and black stripes. Wanted to love it! But even I recognized (finally) how ridiculous I looked in it.
Is the dream tape one of these? Hubley Archives.
That dream stays with me because it vividly represents a dreamy perception of a cornucopia of desirable things lingering just outside reality, so close that it could be just outside the room that I’m in, on the back step like the latest Amazon delivery; so close that it’s hard to believe it’s not real.
That sense of a surreal cornucopia existing just beyond existence crops up again in the recurring musical dream that affects me the most: a dream about a reel-to-reel tape of simply great music that I have written and recorded. It’s generally electric stuff, it’s complex and sophisticated, there are instruments in the mix that I can’t play in real life, and the audio is saturated, immediate, immaculate. It’s the summation of my musical desires and capabilities. It’s my Mylar Holy Grail. (And again, since I can’t really hear music in my dreams, this is all something I just know without benefit of evidence.)
The plot surrounding this masterpiece varies from instance to instance. But generally the tape has been lost and now is found, and it will make all my real-life dreams come true. It’s the conclusive validation of my existence.
In the dream I thread the tape through the machine, the motors hum and the reels turn, the needles jump, the tape follows its course with utter verisimilitude, and the music, I tell you, sounds great. And though it doesn’t much resemble any music I’ve ever made, it’s mine, all mine.
As with my silly velour shirts, the dream is a mist rising from a pool of reality. Broadly speaking, I have watched a lot of tape roll through tape recorders. Specifically, decades ago, intoxicated by naive ignorance and self-importance, I would periodically assemble a “project tape,” a reel that in my mind, if nowhere else, was the equivalent of an album release.
The fact that not more than four or five other people would ever hear these magna opera never occurred to me and might not have mattered if it had. (I think I knew, on some level, that I was just practicing.) There are a few OK songs on those tapes — generally written by my partner in project-taping, Tom Hansen — but all told they comprise a big bunch of bad music bordering on racket, and are hard to listen to today.
I mean, hard for me. I shudder to think what they’d do to anyone else. Musicians: The first commandment is to do no harm!
Several people heard, hopefully without injury, the grownup “project tapes” that I made from 2005 to 2011: not tapes, in fact, but a series of CD compilations of music that I’d had a hand in making during the previous decades.
Around Christmastime during those years, I gave the sets to the other performers on the original recordings, because one reason for producing the series was to thank people I’ve made music with for the past half-century.
But another reason, I imagine, was simply that my project-tape impulse is irrepressible.
Of course, it’s all rooted in the same resource: the homemade recordings that have been piling up in one basement or another (or under the bed in banana boxes, etc.) since 1966. Though each 40 Years of a Basement set includes songs recorded specifically for the series, the project was primarily the outcome of foraging through old recordings.
The Tape Catalogue was my guide through that process. I’ve told you about the Tape Catalogue before: two stuffed loose-leaf binders, including one dilapidated veteran from middle school (its cover, like that velour shirt, a rancid olive drab), that list the contents of all those tapes and digital media.
A typical page from the Tape Catalogue.
Descriptions for each recording include the performers, recording location and, in most cases, the exact or approximate date of recording. There’s also a lot of blah-blah about the quality of the sound and performances; notes about other circumstances, musical and otherwise, that prevailed during the recording; and, especially in the 110 or so reel-to-reel tapes, most of them from the 1960s and ’70s, a lot of self-scrutiny that was droll at best and naively self-pitying at worst.
Maintaining the catalogue has been a high obligation for me, but no obligation is so lofty that I can’t find a way to fall short of it. (If you see what I mean.) I’m more dutiful nowadays, but there were times when the uncatalogued tapes piled up.
40 Years of a Basement was good in that it inspired me to clear up the catalogue backlog. And it was also good in that it was an analog to that reel-of-tape-as-Holy Grail dream: I found material, new-song demos in particular, that I had lost track of. Some of it was actually pretty good, if not the conclusive validation of my existence.
Eight years have passed since I started on the seventh 40 Years of a Basement set. I add a few items to the collection each year (generally live Day for Night sets), but I visit the tapes only rarely, mostly when I’m seeking something for one of these posts.
I stay away but time is always there, a gently but insistently rising tide that will make all things unknowable, untouchable. For all the life and living they represent, the recordings don’t care. They sit in the basement, waiting patiently and deteriorating slowly, and the Tape Catalogue stands on its shelf ready to serve.
I didn’t start the catalogue as a weapon against time. In 1971, I was 17 years old and time’s tectonic force was the furthest thing from my mind. I was just trying to keep the tapes organized.
Now I do see the catalogue, and all the other documents, as a defense against time’s insistence on nothingness. It’s a Mylar-thin bulwark but it’s what I’ve got. I’ll never lay hands on the cornucopia in dreams, so I’ll continue to cling to the shabby reality within the four walls of the basement.
Dreams are the theme of both the post and the following selection of tunes from the basement.
When I Stop Dreaming (Ira Louvin–Charlie Louvin) Day for Night performing at Quill Books & Beverage, Aug. 5, 2018.
Sweet Dreams of You (Don Gibson) Day for Night performing at Quill Books & Beverage, June 17, 2018.
How Can We Hang On To A Dream (Tim Hardin) A selection from 1995 or ’96 that speaks to the theme of the post not solely in its title, but because I’d lost sight of it until I compiled the first 40 Years of a Basement set. The Boarders: Doug, vocal and accordion; Gretchen, bass; Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums.
It’s a Dream (Neil Young) One of the first songs we learned as Day for Night, during the period before we focused hard on country music. We very much enjoyed the Neil Young concert film Heart of Gold. A few days after we saw it, I came home from work and Gretchen casually started playing and singing this song from the film, which she learned on the sly. Gretchen, autoharp and vocal. Doug, accordion.
The setup for a songwriting session at the Maine Idyll motor court in Freeport, Maine, October 2017. Hubley Archives.
Skip the wordy blabbington and hightail it directly to the Bandcamp album!
Sometime in the fall
of 1972 I wrote a song called “Waiting.” I was 18 and the lyrics of “Waiting” were correspondingly melodramatic, but the music had possibilities in a Jefferson Airplane kind of way. In any case, at the time I thought it was just fine.
My band at the time was Airmobile (named for a song by Tim Hardin and Artie Butler — um, and Chuck Berry), and my bandmates were singer-guitarist John Rolfe, bassist Tom Berg and drummer Eddie Greco. We rehearsed in Eddie’s garage in Cape Elizabeth and played a few dates at the South Portland Rec Center and similar milestone-on-the-road-to-fame engagements.
I wanted the band to learn “Waiting,” and so in December I recorded a demo in my parents’ basement. Wow! Awful! There’s some decent lead guitar (Neil Young and Jorma Kaukonen much? etc.), but limited exposure is the only way to survive this recording — distorted, shrill, badly sung and drenched with reverb.
I am providing an excerpt anyway, but not because I think you’ll enjoy it.
Remnants of an Airmobile, together again for the last time at a party at John Rolfe’s apartment in the 1980s. From left, Ed Greco, Doug Hubley, John Rolfe. Jeff Stanton photo.
We never did add “Waiting” to our repertoire, because the song is no root beer float and the demo sure doesn’t help it. But it does have the dubious distinction of being the first demo labeled as such in The Tape Catalog, the contents list of all my hundreds of homemade recordings.
As a demo, “Waiting” has scant company in the reel-to-reel section of the catalog, maybe four or five songs. (As a bad recording of a cringeworthy piece of music, however, it has all kinds of company.) There wasn’t much need for demos: I’ve never been a prolific songwriter, for one thing. And anyway, in the days when I was playing with electric bands, it was just as easy to teach my occasional creations to the group at rehearsal.
“Waiting” in the Tape Catalog. The weird “HSE” emblem is the Hubley Seal of Approval, reserved for tracks that I wouldn’t have been embarrassed to play for company in the mid-1970s. “PEA Source” and “Tear Source” indicate that these cuts appeared on the “Forty Years of a Basement” compilations Phoney English Accent and Tear in Every Eye, respectively. The Post-It was telling me there was usable material on this tape. The “ha, ha” — well, ha, ha.
For many years, when I did rise to the level of demo’ing a song, that may have been more about my state of mind than anything else. Hence the 1983 version of “Nothing to Say” (below) that, for me and the Gretsch Anniversary Model, is a sustained howl as much as it is a teaching tool.
A four-track recorder that I obtained in 1994 encouraged me to develop more of a demo habit. It was the first recorder I’d had since 1987 that enabled me to overdub and, better yet, no tedious-but-perilous bouncing was needed to layer up three or four tracks, in contrast to the Sony reel-to-reel two-track I’d used for so long. (Bouncing is the technique of mixing multiple recorded tracks onto a blank track so you can reuse the first tracks for new parts. For me in the 1970s, this involved mixing the two Sony tracks onto a cassette recorder and then recording parts back onto the Sony alongside that mixdown.)
Suddenly I was back to building arrangements on tape, and I liked it as much as ever.
The band at that time was the Boarders, featuring Gretchen Schaefer, my partner then and now, on bass and Jonathan Nichols-Pethick on drums. In contrast to its covers-heavy predecessor outfit, the Cowlix, this trio developed a fair amount of originals and therefore had more use for demos. I had a few new or re-conceived songs, and Jon had a couple others that I interfered with — er, contributed to — with the four-track coming in handy.
Like demos often do, these reveal facets or details of the songs that got lost along the way, and it’s fun to compare what stayed and what sloughed off. And then there are memos: scratch recordings, often fragmentary, that those of us who can’t read or write music make to remember important bits, like melodies.
In the musical world
there is nothing special about demos and memos, and I’m riding in a commuter van writing this and trying to figure out how such recordings relate to my fixation on material objects, notably documents in whatever medium, and their role as anchors of memory.
My memo-and-demo machine of choice: The Zoom H4n stands ready in Colorado. Hubley Archives.
Such recordings are not the keys to total recall, but most of the demos presented here do retain at least a vestige of their making, if only the glow from the metal-shaded lamp I use in the basement. Better than no memories at all.
There was a little outbreak of demo fever in the early 1980s, as Bruce Springsteen chose to issue his Nebraska material in the form of the original demos rather than as produced versions with the E Street Band; and Peter Townshend released Scoop, a demo compilation of songs first released (or not) by the Who. These raised my demo consciousness a bit, which probably explains the “Nothing to Say” recording.
But ultimately, for me there are thin lines or no lines at all dividing memos, demos and performances, especially if you view, as I do, all recordings of a song (or of all songs) as threads in a common fabric whose variations all tint and reflect each other’s light.
Phenomena like hit singles or TV performances that change a viewer’s life (does that still happen?) can instill the idea of songs having “definitive” versions. And so they may be — in broad cultural terms. (We’ve all got ’em, although I may be distinctive in my affection for the wrong note Chris Hillman plays for half a bar in “Spanish Harlem Incident” on Mr. Tambourine Man. On the basis of no evidence, I’m convinced he needed a drag off a cigarette.)
Patch bays in the basement enable me to “associate many things with many things,” as Bunny Watson said. Hubley Archives.
But from a narrower musical perspective, “definitive version” is almost a laughable idea. (And of course there are also laughable versions that are definitive in their own ways, if only as examples of what not to do. Welcome to my musical catalog.)
Every performance of a song listens to the one that came before and sings to the one that follows. It’s trite and not quite correct to say, “It’s all one version,” but all the performances of a song certainly do constitute one conversation about at least that one topic and probably more.
Which may be one reason that the more interesting professional musicians can sell their hits night after night.
Here’s the real difference, I guess: Unless you’re super-attuned to the stewardship of your public persona, the monetizing of every sequin on your character, etc., what distinguishes memos and demos is that they’re not created for an audience. And when they are heard outside your immediate circle, it’s more like being overheard, with all the accompanying qualities of authenticity, honesty, etc.
So, for your eavesdropping pleasure, here’s an assortment of demos and memos from a 30-year period, coupled with fully realized performances of the songs.
Day for Night in Cornish, Maine: Doug Hubley and Gretchen Schaefer. Hubley Archives.
‘The Other Me’
Day for Night: Dirges had constituted most of my output after I resumed songwriting, in 2010, after a 12-year layoff. So when I started this song in 2016, it was time for something upbeat. “The Other Me” is still wordy, bleak and overly self-referential, but it has a good beat and you can dance to it.
I got most of the lyrics written in the bar of the Samoset Resort, in Rockport, Maine, while Gretchen Schaefer (my partner in life and music) was showing mosaics at a craft fair at the resort. But the tune, especially the bridge, was problematic and I had to hammer away at it for quite a while.
“The Other Me” was also a bear to learn, necessitating a few changes of key and arrangement before we found something that we liked. And this is it, recorded on Aug. 5, 2018, at Quill Books & Beverage in Westbrook, Maine. Hear it on Bandcamp (and click through on the audio player title to purchase):
Demo: Recorded on Oct. 2, 2016, in the computer room, this memo includes one of a few bridge melodies that I tried and discarded before arriving at something usable later in the month. Hear (and buy) it on Bandcamp:
The Corner, summer 1981: It’s Patty Ann’s Superette in South Portland and the original Fashion Jungle is posing casually just prior to a party performance at Sebago Lake. Also starring my beloved 1973 VW Squareback, into which I could pack nearly all the FJ gear except the drums. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
The Fashion Jungle: This isn’t a demo, it’s a memo. When my band the Mirrors became the Fashion Jungle, a 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 Ken Reynolds, edited by me; the opening guitar riff was Mike Piscopo’s; and with the fourth member of the band being Jim Sullivan, we collectively put the whole thing together in June 1981. We made this seldom-heard recording early in the song’s life so as not to forget it during our vacations.
A billy nice guy? Never mind. Anyway, we later added chorus vocals and a “bah-bah-bah” coda, very 1968. Doug Hubley, 12-string guitar and vocal; Mike Piscopo, 6-string guitar (lead guitar in the refrain); Ken Reynolds, drums; Jim Sullivan, bass. Recorded on the Sony two-track in the Hubleys’ basement (and I don’t know where that tone at the end came from). Bandcamp:
The next Fashion Jungle: And here we are more than a year later and with the next iteration of the FJ: Jim and Mike have moved on, and Steve Chapman has joined on bass. The performance was recorded at Jim’s Neighborhood Cafe, Danforth Street, on Oct. 6, 1982. I miss the growl of Mike’s Gretsch guitar, but Steve provides his own kind of roar.
The existential angst of being the Boarders. Jeff Stanton photo.
Demo: The immediate impetus for this song seems a little immature — the death of my cat Harry. But I did realize that this was a topic to be addressed at a more sophisticated level, and fortunately I was able to generalize the lyrics somewhat beyond “my kitty died.” (He was a pretty cool cat, though.)
I suppose I was looking ahead to a period such as this, in which I’ve lost my mother, father and a good friend in the space of two years. But I can’t say I’ve wanted to sing this song much lately.
Recorded in the basement in autumn 1995 on the Tascam 4-track. Tracks: acoustic guitar, voice, and percussion consisting of my foot and change being jingled in my pockets. Bandcamp:
The Boarders: On a windy and rainy Jan. 19, 1996, we performed live on the University of Southern Maine radio show “Local Motives.” It was almost a fun experience, except for an inept audio engineer who suppressed Gretchen’s bass almost to the vanishing point on many songs (it was recoverable on this number) and slathered digital reverb and delay all over us (at the beginning of this track, you can hear the doofus searching for the correct tempo on the delay). Jon Nichols-Pethick, drums. Bandcamp:
Gretchen Schaefer, Dan Knight and Jeff Stanton at Frosty’s doughnut shop, Brunswick, July 1985. We were in Brunswick to see a concert at Bowdoin College by Richard Thompson, who was wearing a pink suit that clashed quite splendidly with his red hair. Having interviewed him for a Press Herald advance a few weeks earlier, I felt entitled to corner Thompson backstage and force an FJ tape on him. Hubley Archives.
Demo: This song is an attempt to come to grips with the fleeting nature of local rock bands and local fame, or at least recognition, of the kind the Fashion Jungle briefly enjoyed in the 1980s. Corner Night itself was actually a show, a triple bill that the Mirrors / Fashion Jungle, John Rolfe’s Foreign Students and Gary Piscopo’s Pathetix presented in 1980 and ’81. All three bands had ties to Patty Ann’s Superette, aka The Corner, in South Portland.
I wrote the words in 1981 after Mike Piscopo and Jim Sullivan left the Fashion Jungle, and finished the song after Steve Chapman and Kathren Torraca left in 1984. The song holds up — one of my better melodies, although the lyrics are very insidery. Yes, the Elvis Costello imitation is embarrassing, and there’s also some debt to Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset.” This demo was recorded on the two-track Sony in my parents’ basement in 1985 for the Dan Knight lineup of the FJ. Bandcamp:
The Fashion Jungle: And here’s the Knight-era FJ performing the song at Geno’s, in Portland, on July 27, 1985. We were opening for Judy’s Tiny Head, and taping the show off their sound board helped some with recording quality. What is an interesting and intricate arrangement on the demo turns into a busyness for its own sake here, but kudos to bassist Dan and drummer Ken Reynolds for taking all those twists and turns so tightly.
Songwriting in the bar at the Senator Inn and Spa in late 2012. Hubley Archives.
When we perform, I like to joke that this is the most depressing song I’ve ever written, most depressing you’ll ever hear, etc. I say it to be funny but also to show some self-awareness, because this really is a downer.
Well, that’s life: This, like “Watching You Go,” is an attempt to anticipate or envision or reconcile myself to — or try to inoculate myself against — the potentially barren landscape of old age. I wrote it in 2012, during which year my sisters and Gretchen and I were starting preparations for moving Ben and Hattie Hubley, who were in their early 90s, into a memory-care facility.
Day for Night: Recorded in a living room rehearsal on Nov. 27, 2016.
Memo: This is a hotel room recording made so I could remember the melody. (One wonders if there was any sort of decline in sales of music notation paper that was correlated with the advent of portable audio recorders.) I made the recording in the Sheraton Hotel in Portsmouth, N.H., on Feb. 23, 2012.
Demo: The second original in the catalog from Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drummer of the Boarders, who had previously contributed “All Over” to the Cowlix. He co-wrote this song with his wife, Nancy. I added a signature riff and a few lyrics, and heightened the S&M overtones a bit (or so I would like to believe).
Recorded in the basement in autumn 1995 on the Tascam 4-track. Tracks: acoustic guitars and voice.
The Boarders: And here’s the whole band playing it, recorded in rehearsal on Dec. 5, 1995. Dropped line: “You say, ‘I need another drink.'”
Nancy, at center, and Jonathan Nichols-Pethick at their farewell party in July 1996. At left is Louise Philbrick. Hubley Archives.
‘Just a Word From You, Sir’
Howling Turbines: If you’re wondering, this number from 1997 is generally about my relationship with authority and specifically about Stalin, Leonard Cohen and God. So there.
Anyhoo, this is the first of two very different versions of a song (one of two) I wrote for the Howling Turbines. Here’s the original setting, which was an attempt to capitalize on what I perceived as our heavy-rock potential (I had bought a distortion pedal that changed my world). Performed by the Turbines in the basement in March 1998. Bandcamp:
Demo: I prefer the above version now, but at the time we didn’t feel it was working for us. This demo from April 11, 1999, captures my second setting of the song, which is more sophisticated than the original but ultimately reminded me of something Davy Jones should be singing. This is how the Turbines did it for a while, but it ultimately fell out of the repertoire.
(“Just a Word From You, Sir” copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.)
The Howling Turbines on a blistering hot day at the Free Street Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999: from left, drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Gretchen Schaefer and me — guitarist and singer Doug Hubley. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
House of Dances, Cologne, Germany, June 2000. Hubley Archives.
Demo / The Boarders: Just to round things out, here’s a demo and a final version neatly packaged together. “Dance” started out with with the Fashion Jungle, my lyrics riding on a tune created collaboratively by Steve Chapman, Ken Reynolds and me. 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 these lyrics, for which I created a new tune.
The first third is the demo that I made for Gretchen and Jonathan to learn it from; the remainder, cleverly spliced on through the cleverness of digital audio editing, is the Boarders playing the song on July 9, 1996, at Forest Avenue. The Boarders section is a copy of a copy that was made on a mastering deck with a wow-and-flutter problem, hence the wowing and fluttering.
The FashionJungle: And here’s the original setting. Sounding very FJ at our most melodramatically disco-licious, this came off the sound board at the 1988 Maine Festival, recorded on a sultry August evening in Deering Oaks. That was a fine event despite my guitar-tuning issues. I rediscovered this recording while going through tapes for this CD set; most of the cuts on the tape were lost or damaged because of a bad connection, but this survived intact, albeit with drums taking up 80 percent of the soundscape.
Doug plays the Gretsch Anniversary Model in Ben and Hattie’s back yard in summer 1983. Hubley Family photo.
‘Nothing to Say’
Demo: I remember stepping out onto Middle Street from the restaurant Carbur’s carrying the legal pad on which I had just finished these lyrics, which attempt to explore both my own shallowness and the big sellout of the punk-New Wave scene.
This one-track recording, made in September 1983 at Richland Street with the Gretsch Anniversary Model, was the demo that the FJ learned it from — another big anthem. Dropped line: “Now the room fills up with expectations while my blood drains away.”
The Fashion Jungle: The fully realized version by the Chapman-Torraca lineup of the Fashion Jungle, recorded in January 1984 at the Outlook, in Bethel. The lyrics sit better in this well-rehearsed performance, but the arrangement certainly has blossomed forth. The Anniversary Model returns for a solo. Steve Chapman, bass and backing vocals; DH, guitars and vocals; Ken Reynolds, drums and backing vocals; Kathren Torraca, keyboards. Remastered from the commercially released audiocassette Six Songs.
The Fashion Jungle rehearses in Ben & Harriette Hubley’s basement in a composite image from the early 1980s. From left, Steve Chapman, Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley. Photos by Jeff Stanton.
See the basements, read about the basements — and hear the basements in the Bandcamp store!
NOTE: All musical excerpts in this post were recorded in basements except the first one, which I included so that you can hear the Kent guitar and Capt. Distortion amplifier, played by Steve McKinney; my bass playing heard through the RCA stereo; and Tom Hansen playing cardboard boxes, a tambourine and a metal bicycle basket as percussion. We all sing, and Judy McKinney sings and plays rhythm guitar. This was recorded in the Hubleys’ living room in 1969.
My parents’ basement in South Portland, Maine, in the late 1960s. Notice the particle board stereo speakers, the coffee-can light fixture at upper left and the cloth speaker grille on Capt. Distortion, lower left. This image is the source for the Notes From a Basement banner. Hubley Archives.
Most musicians from Bob Dylan on down,
especially those of a certain age, can tell you about making music in a basement.
I count at least nine residential basements in which I’ve played alone or with bands — to say nothing of such illustrious subterranean nightspots in Portland, Maine, as the original Geno’s, Squire Morgan’s, the short-lived Ratskellar and the Free Street Taverna (only slightly below street level, but with a true basement feel).
An equivalent view in April 2013, after we cleared out the house for sale and my parents moved into assisted living. Hubley Archives.
Allow me to explain the obvious. Musical equipment takes up a lot of space, is hard to dust and to vacuum around, and looks good only in its functional context — that is, when you’re using it to play music or make other musicians envious.
In addition, of course, electric music can get loud. And by the same token, domestic life can interfere with musical moods. You don’t want someone watching NASCAR nearby when you’re trying to record a tender folk ballad.
Perhaps most decisively, musicians at work create a powerful social energy that, for better or worse, intrudes into whatever hopes for their time your non-musical roommates might be aspiring to.
Me and the Kent, my first guitar that I didn’t steal from my sister. Pre-Capt. Distortion, it was plugged into the RCA Victor stereo. Hubley Archives.
So for many of us, music gets made in the basement — spiders and pill bugs, dust and grit, mildew and mold, darkness and chilliness be damned. (Garages, of course, also have a noble history as musical refuges, even lending their name to a musical genre).
And don’t forget the water during snowmelt and heavy rains. Standing water on the basement floor every spring was a special attraction in the 1910 house where I grew up, on a side street near Red Bolling’s legendary Tastee Freez (now known as Red’s).
When we moved in, in 1958, the largest of the three cellar rooms was set off by a pair of French doors. If a 60-year-recollection is worth anything, that space briefly harbored a little sitting area with curtains and some kind of dainty furniture. (I’m the only Hubley who remembers that amenity. Dream or reality?)
One French door, with all of its glass but painted into opacity, still remained 55 years later when we cleared the house out and moved my parents into assisted living.
The massive gray gizmo on the green hassock was a “portable” turntable, weighing about 40 pounds, that once used by WCSH-AM for remote broadcasts (if that’s still a recognizable concept). Hubley Archives.
Anyhoo, back there in 1966 or ’67, one or both of my sisters, who are older than me, turned that room into a hangout. They walled half of it off with blankets, and added amenities such as an old, deep stuffed chair with a rock-hard seat and touches of paint that included “I love you” (and, less idealistically, “69”) daubed on the bricks.
As my sisters’ hangout-related interests matured and my involvement in music deepened, I claimed the room. But it didn’t happen overnight. What shaped the situation was a chronic inadequacy of musical gear that prevailed until I was out of high school and drawing a paycheck. (I’m often gobsmacked by how well-equipped today’s young players are.)
Doug plays bass through the new Guild Superstar and sister Sue Hubley sings in early 1970. The “mic stand” was a tent pole. Hubley Archives.
The first guitar that was really mine, not “borrowed,” was a six-string Kent, Model 823. It was a birthday present in 1967, when I turned 13. But I didn’t have a proper amplifier until Christmas 1969.
During those 30 months before I got the Guild Superstar, my father improvised a couple of solutions to my unamplified plight. (Dad knew electronics — he’d even been a radioman with Eisenhower’s headquarters during WW II.)
First he rigged an input to the household record player, a much-modified RCA console model in the living room. The Kent sounded clean through the RCA — a bass sounded better, as it turned out — but the disruption to the household was significant.
Dad’s next offering was a bare-chassis amplifier of unknown origin (record player? intercom? public-address?) hooked up to an 8-inch speaker that must have come from some other console record player. The speaker was mounted onto a cloth-and-wood panel, and the amp was screwed onto a plain pine board. Dangling wires connected them, and the whole works teetered on a rolling metal TV stand.
It wasn’t too loud but it sure sounded rough. In fact, it set a standard of overdriven amp tone that remains a criterion for me, in a good way. I called that contraption Capt. Distortion.
I continued to clear the living room with the RCA from time to time, but the Captain really changed my musical life. Most importantly, the Captain — along with other stopgaps, such as a second-hand particle-board stereo that Dad also dredged up from who knows where — untethered me from the living room.
And, actually, tethered me instead to basements.
A kid named Tom Hansen was one of my best friends for about five years, starting in 1966. We shared interests in music, in putting on a show, and in wacky humor. (The product of an academic household, Tom had a much more sophisticated wit than mine.)
Drummer Tom plays cardboard boxes and a real, though cracked, cymbal, in the Hubley basement in early 1970. Hubley Archives.
Our adolescent energies converged like phaser beams on my father’s poor Panasonic reel-to-reel tape recorder. We used it, with a succession of cheap plastic microphones, to record music ranging from earnest and bad to cacophonous and unlistenable. We also attempted comedy. Tom and I spent most of 1969 and ’70 recording crap on that poor tape recorder.
We surrounded ourselves with such musical instruments as we had. Along with the Kent and the Captain, that arsenal included a 12-string guitar from the Sears catalog, a kiddie piano, metal spoons and a tambourine, cheap bells, nose flutes and kazoos. And harmonicas: While I knew him, Tom developed into a very good harp player.
To the basement decor I added some colored light bulbs (I still remember buying them. I still have a green one), and Tom and I sat there in the near darkness just killing ourselves with what we considered really funny stuff. It’s just amazing how wrong people can be.
John Rolfe rehearses with our band Airmobile in the basement of a building at what is now Southern Maine Community College. This was summer 1973, the school was then known as Southern Maine Vocational-Technical Institute, and the building was the residence of bassist Glen Tracy, whose father worked at the college. Hubley Archives.
The Thunderbirds (previously Airmobile. It gets confusing) are back in the Hubley basement in this image from 1974. At left is bassist Glen Tracy. The drummer is Eddie Greco. Hubley Archives.
One product in particular made us very proud. Totaling 13 installments, it was called, with occasional variations, “The Captain Spoon Show.” As Captain Spoon, Tom carried the verbal weight of the show and had the best jokes. I was Mr. Music, plunking out chords for the ad-lib songs and sprinkling random notes over Tom’s verbal riffing. (Capt. Distortion and Capt. Spoon, eh? I think “Spoon” came first.)
Despite a few recurring bits, we pretty much winged each episode, exploring every corner of offensive adolescent spontaneity we could find. Between making music and “Captain Spoon,” we felt pretty special, which the thugs at South Portland High School rewarded with accusations, which sometimes escalated into physical harassment, of being gay. An enlightened era.
Tom and I remained friends through the SPHS grief and through his parents shipping him off briefly to private school to get him away from me. (Despite their fears, there was no gay sex, no booze, no drugs; just colored lights, stupid humor, music that gradually got better and an abused tape recorder). What did end Tom’s and my friendship was starting a band when we were 17. And, of course, becoming mature.
The Hubley studio post-paint job, 1974. Hubley Archives.
Years of a basement
Where most of my contemporaries in the early 1970s were absorbing the influences of school, sports, clubs, church and who knows what all, my character was being molded by records, radio, Rolling Stone and Hit Parader magazines — and my parents’ cellar.
For a while around 1970–71, on the basis of no experience and no professional equipment, I pretended that crummy room was a recording studio. I even “produced,” and Tom and I played on, an album-on-tape by his then-girlfriend, who sang and wrote all the songs. Later Tom came down with some friends from a religious organization and we tried to record “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.”
The Hubley basement studio at its apogee, in the mid-1970s. Note the Chevy hubcap ash tray, the three tambourines hanging from a beam, and the Carmencita psychedelic guitar at right. Hubley Archives.
A few years later — I was 20 and really should have known better — I pretended it was a nightclub and invited cronies down for drinks and performances. Friends knew to bypass the regular house entrance and come in through the cellar door, which was reminiscent of a bomb shelter entryway.
The room was at its apogee then. Somewhere along the way I formally demarcated my space with tie-dyed muslin curtains (my father used the other half of the room for his own self-indulgences). With eager support from my mother — who was probably happy that I wanted to do something down there besides play loud guitar, or get drunk and lie on the floor listening to Hank Williams on headphones — I painted the moldering concrete walls in 1974.
Ensconced in the ass-numbing maroon easy chair, Ken Reynolds appreciates the Hubley cellar in 1977. Hubley Archives.
The standard of furnishings rose slightly, as I replaced old Hubley discards with newer ones. Gone was the old mattress and frame that served more to mock than to make possible any possibilities of l’amour. In addition to the original ass-numbing stuffed chair, there was a car bench seat (later replaced by the old pink family sofa) and a giant hassock covered in limeade-green fabric. There was a Chevy hubcap for an ashtray, although nobody much was smoking.
More important, the standard of musical furnishings rose markedly. Thanks to real jobs, first at the King Cole potato chip factory and then at the Jordan Marsh department store (both establishments are long gone), I had a real stereo, real guitars and real amplifiers. Thanks again to Dad, I had my own tape recorder, a big heavy graduation-present Sony TC-540.
The Fashion Jungle poses for a publicity image in Steve Chapman’s basement, 1987. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives.
Solo, casually with friends, or with bands, I went on to make countless hours of music in the room. (During the summer of 1974, the first year of the “nightclub,” I was unemployed and spent nearly all my time there recording and writing songs. That didn’t help the possibilities of l’amour at all, to say nothing of the development of any sense of responsibility, but it was a useful musical immersion.)
It was the band work that justified and made real my musical aspirations. From Truck Farm to Airmobile, from the Mirrors all the way to the 1985 incarnation of the Fashion Jungle, all my bands rehearsed in the Hubley basement at some time or other. I extend eternal gratitude to my parents, who were very generous and tolerant of high-decibel band rehearsals two or three evenings a week.
Those were wonderful days in the cellar. Recordings came out of there that I’m still proud to share today. Because we were young, music was still new territory and we had the energy and drive to explore it. We rode out on rhythm and loudness like cowboys. It made our brains feel good to develop music together.
And we had a lot of laughs. I’ll never forget the late-night load-ins after a gig — the gingerly descent with an amp in arms through the concrete bulkhead; wrangling tall, skinny Shure Vocalmaster speakers in through a cellar window; standing in the driveway at 2 a.m. divvying up the buck-three-eighty we made at the door at Geno’s (and keeping my mother awake with our jawing); the jokes and happy exhaustion.
A basement of one’s own
In 1989, Gretchen Schaefer and I bought a house. At last we had a basement to do with as we wished: wash and hang laundry, store stuff, start seedlings. And make music.
The largest of the four cellar rooms is indeed the music studio. It’s outfitted to a level that would have been incomprehensible to me in 1970, and I work there alone and with Gretchen as the country band Day for Night.
My former studio in parents’ house, after they moved to assisted living and the Dump Guys cleaned it out. Hubley Archives.
This room, too, has colored lights (a string of Christmas lights). The floor is crumbling like the one at my parents’, but it’s maroon instead of robin’s egg blue and most important, it’s dry. Back when we had bigger bands, we rehearsed there, lugged amps and drums up and down for gigs, kept a neighbor awake with our jawing in the driveway at 2 a.m.
Me in the current basement, 2017. (Hubley Archives)
But we use our room only when we need the equipment. It’s not a refuge or a hangout, because other parts of the house are much more comfortable. Gretchen and I make much more music in our living room, which is warm and bright and has windows. We even record there, on a digital unit that’s about the size of a sandwich and probably weighs one-fiftieth of the Sony reel-to-reel. (The last times we recorded on tape were in November 2009.)
Unlike my sisters, who made the South Portland room into a teen hangout only to move on quickly to adult activities, I was in no hurry to leave it. That room turned out to be a halfway house for adulthood, which I wanted to reach, but on my own slow timetable.
I didn’t get out much, but I practiced adult activities in that room — being a musician, being in a romance, entertaining friends in sophisticated ways — that I looked forward to enjoying in some sweet empowered by-and-by.
Which happens to be now.
A collection of notes, as in musical, from some different basements. (Help me find the old Chevy hubcap ashtray on E-Bay — why not buy the whole album on BandCamp?)
• Candy Says (Reed) The Karl Rossmann Band in Ben and Hattie Hubley’s basement, winter 1981. Our exploration of the Velvet Underground songbook hits a high point as Jim Sullivan’s perfectly ingenuous vocal nails the spirit of this lyric. Jim, lead vocal, guitar • DH, supporting vocal, lead guitar • Chris Hanson, supporting vocal • Mike Piscopo, supporting vocal, bass • KR, drums.
• Don’t Forget to Cry (B. Bryant–F. Bryant) Day for Night recorded this on tape in the current basement, November–December 2006. I piled up guitars, bass and tambourine on the four-track for Gretchen Schaefer and I to sing over. The remarkable thing about my relatively sophisticated recording technology is that in spite of it all, the sound quality of my recordings has hardly advanced over the cheesy stuff I made in the 1970s. To thine own self be true.
• When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down (Telfer–Prosser–Jones) The Boarders: DH, guitar and vocal • GS, bass • Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums. A fabulous song by a hit-or-miss Celtic rock group, Oysterband. I have neither the dignity to spare nor the constitution for the lifestyle depicted here, but I sure can relate. A staple of the Boarders repertoire, one of my all-time favorites, recorded in the current basement on Oct. 15, 1995.
• Polly (Clark) Day for Night: GS and DH, guitar and vocal. D4N had a Gene Clark jag that resulted in our learning four of his songs in one gulp in autumn 2008. Gretchen contributes an especially fine lead vocal on Clark’s mysterious “Polly.” Recorded in the current basement, Nov. 25, 2009.
• Don’t Sell the Condo (Hubley) The Fashion Jungle: SC, DH, KR. One of my favorites of my songs and, I think, one of the Fashion Jungle’s best — too bad few people ever heard it. Gretchen knew an art dealer whose charismatic lover, prominent in the Old Port scene, was rumored to be a coke dealer, woman beater, Satan in the flesh, etc. This is the couple’s story as I imagined it. I wrote the lyric over gimlets in the lobby of the Eastland Hotel on a snowy afternoon while waiting for Gretchen to get out of class. This recording comes from a videotape that she made of the FJ in the Chapmans’ basement early in 1988.
• Let the Singer (Hubley) One of my few 1970s compositions that have held up. It’s a paean to the live fast–die young lifestyle that seemed very romantic until all those musicians I liked died young. This is a 1978 solo recording, done in my parents’ basement, for a submission to a WBLM-FM songwriting contest. (How could I not have won?!?)
four to eight public performances a year, and considers the high end of that range hectic, it may be grandiose to state that we ever “arrived.”
But if Day for Night did arrive, it was in 2008. And to my mind, the time of arrival was a private party that we played that October.
Day for Night rates a whole paragraph in the Sun Journal’s advance for the Jan. 2008 Powder Kegs gig. Hubley Archives.
It was an afternoon-to-evening bash in a big attractive loft in Brunswick. Gretchen Schaefer and I were joined by our friends Steve Chapman, on bass, and drummer Willy Thurston, and we called the foursome the Day for Night Orchestra.
A number of other acts were scheduled to play, most of them combinations and permutations of a group of people that, taken altogether, were the big band headlining the show. The ringleader was an impolite fellow who didn’t seem to want us there.
He fussed about this and was rude about that. We stowed our guitar cases in the wrong places at least twice. The coleslaw that we made from homegrown cabbage and brought for the potluck meal was an object of disdain.
Still and all, we were businesslike, played pretty well, put our hearts into it, connected with the listeners, and were polite to the man who didn’t want us there — who went on to confirm it, once the crowd started showing some enthusiasm, by running up to the mic and cutting off our set. His party, after all.
I nevertheless ended up feeling good about the whole thing. That show came late in a year of performances in diverse settings, from a concert at Bates College to the Cornish Apple Festival. It was a year in which we got established as Day for Night, finding our footing as an acoustic country duo after two decades in electric bands.
We worked the fussy man’s birthday party with a combination of aplomb and musical focus that told me that we’d found that footing (albeit, at the risk of contradicting my premise, as an acoustic duo with an electric rhythm section). If we walked away irritated with the birthday boy, we were very satisfied at how we handled his party.
I felt, in short, that we’d arrived.
Gretchen Schaefer at the Library, Portsmouth, N.H., in 2008. Hubley Archives.
As Gretchen and I started feeling more confident about Day for Night, I fired up — as I do pretty much reflexively at this late date — the single-cylinder publicity machine.
Top priority on that front was obtaining demo-quality recordings. Steve rolled the tape (yes, tape. Four-track tape!) for sessions in July 2007 and July 2008.
The 2007 demo landed us a short string of dates at the Frog & Turtle Gastropub, in Westbrook, where we were discouraged by the crash and clatter from the kitchen, directly behind us; but encouraged by Johnny Cash on the house sound system and the generosity of owner James Tranchemontagne.
The 2007 demo also helped get us a gig that shines on in my memory: a spot at Bates College, where I work, opening for a band of hipsters called the Powder Kegs. They were billed as an Americana band, which D4N also is, sort of. So I threw myself at the feet of the event sponsor, the student radio station.
The performance took place in January 2008. The night was frigid and starry, the campus walkways were glare ice.
The setlist for Day for Night’s opening spot for the Powder Kegs (where are they now?) at Bates College in January 2008. We had learned every song here from the Louvin Brothers, Everly Brothers, or Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. We would soon begin broadening our catalog. Hubley Archives.
The publicity machine had coughed out a news release that, through the Lewiston Sun Journal, attracted an old-school country audience of 20 or 30. It was plain that those folks, people in their 50s and 60s and 70s, from Minot and Livermore Falls and Greene, weren’t there for the Powder Kegs. (After our set, one of those listeners talked to us at length about WWVA, the legendary West Virginia country radio station. I was flattered that he would associate Day for Night with the home of the “Jamboree.”)
We eschewed our usual multi-instrumental assault and stuck to two guitars. The sound operator knew his stuff, gave us perfect onstage sound, brought out our best. The locals really liked us — we could see and feel their attention. The Powder Kegs crowd hadn’t gotten there yet.
Okay, I’m romanticizing, but I recall that performance as one of Day for Night’s best-ever (even though I messed up the lyrics to “Cathy’s Clown”).
Yes, four years into the Facebook era, and I was packing press kits in manila envelopes. I still keep a few of the kits around while I look for a museum that will take them.
One October evening we tromped around Portland with a sack of press kits. The kit failed to seduce Empire and Space Gallery, but did work some kind of magic with Blue, the Portland, Maine, nightspot where we went on to play a few times a year between 2008 and 2014. And, as I have noted in an earlier post, 2008 was the year we began our long run at the Cornish Apple Festival.
From the top, Day for Night’s first, second and current business cards. Gretchen designed the rooster crowing at the moon. Hubley Archives.
Simultaneous with the search for gigs in 2008 was a greed for new material.
A previous post describes how a select few artists — the Louvin Brothers, Everly Brothers, Gram Parsons — helped us set our musical compass. In fact, of the 32 songs we performed at a representative D4N date in May 2008, six came from the Everlys, seven from Parsons (including two that he learned from the Everlys) and 11 from the Louvins.
But soon enough, we’d mined out most of the appealing Louvins-Everlys-Parsons repertoire and were eyeing all the other country musicians out there. (Not literally “all.” Setting aside the songs I write, we knew from the start that c. 1938–1978 was our happy place in country music, and with a couple of exceptions we’ve haven’t ventured out of it. This approach was validated by many wasted hours spent watching the primetime soap opera Nashville.)
The Day for Night repertoire in mid-2008. Note our early lineup at left — Everlys, Louvins, too many instruments — and the new material at right, all arranged for two guitars and reflecting a wider range of influences. Hubley Archives.
Exacerbating the repertoire hunger was a sort of feedback loop: The more country we got, the less appropriate a lot of our older material became, so we were shedding material as fast as we added it. It was only inevitable that we’d bust out of our little repertory corral.
I dug deeper into artists I’d always liked. An example is the late Gene Clark, the former Byrd whose songwriting may be the color that’s deepest-dyed in my own compositions.
Harold Eugene Clark — Gene Clark — whose awkwardnesses with lyrics and music somehow translated into a higher order of pathos and poeticism. Clark, who was too passive to stop Crosby from taking the Gretsch away from him, but not too passive to drive a vintage Ferrari; whose two Columbia albums with the Byrds were the band’s best; and who was the only Byrd to bother bringing good original material to the quintet’s 1973 reunion LP.
Clark, not a pure country artist in style, but one of the purest in spirit.
In 2008, in a kind of fever, we learned his “Tried So Hard,” “She Don’t Care About Time,” “Why Not Your Baby” (on autoharp and accordion), “Full Circle Song” and “Polly.” The last two remain in our active repertoire. Later came “I Remember the Railroad.”
If Gene Clark material was a fad for us that year, the George Jones catalog was, and remains, a long-term project. We have claimed a few — “Beneath Still Waters” is one of our strongest numbers — but between the sui generis superiority of Jones’ singing and the tinniness of much of his material, it’s hard to find Jones numbers that suit both our abilities and our fussy tastes.
Doug Hubley at John’s Grill, San Francisco, February 2008. Gretchen Schaefer photo.
Gretchen was not a Buck Owens fan. (Fair enough. I mean, “Tiger by the Tail,” really? “Where Does the Good Times Go?” Obviously they doesn’t go where there’s grammar.) But he sure could sing, and in 2009 we picked up “Under Your Spell Again,” which remains a high point in our set.
We also started exploring artists we’d known about forever but hadn’t looked into. From Webb Pierce we got “There Stands the Glass,” “Wondering” and “More and More,” the latter two boasting lovely lead vocals by Gretchen Schaefer.
From Wynn Stewart came “The Long Black Limousine” (and “Playboy” is still on my to-do list).
I’d heard “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” by the Flying Burrito Brothers, but we weren’t moved to learn it till we heard it by the Maddox Brothers and Rose. We combine “Dim Lights” with George Jones’ “Your Angel Steps Out of Heaven” in our so-called Cheating Housewives medley.
And, when I got home from work one day in 2008, Gretchen surprised me by launching into “Just Someone I Used to Know,” the brilliant Jack Clement number that we heard by Dolly and Porter.
In 2009, the “Trains” episode of Bob Dylan’s splendid “Theme Time Radio Hour” on SiriusXM gave us two hot tickets: Jimmy Martin’s “Mr. Engineer” and Johnny Cash’s “Train of Love.” (Ah, those Monday nights sitting in the Pontiac Vibe, listening to Bobby.)
And on it went, and on it goes. (Anyone for the Bailes Brothers?) 2008 was as big as the big time gets for Day for Night: four to eight gigs a year, from the Frog & Turtle to Blue to Andy’s Old Port Pub, from the Cornish Apple Festival to the Cornish Inn, from the Last House on the Left to the launch party for a friend’s hot dog cart on the banks of the Presumpscot River.
So we arrived and so here we are. For a couple of aging introverts, it could be worse.