A Notes From a Basement post dedicated to the Christmas season was out of the question in 2015 because in previous such posts I’ve presented all or most of the suitable music in the vaults to which I have publishing rights. More important, I had no big ideas to explore this year, which shouldn’t be an excuse, but there you go.
A digitally manipulated view of Congress Square Plaza in Portland, Maine, from the Top of the East in December 1984. Hubley Archives.
The Boarders’ multi-talented bassist, Gretchen Schaefer, created the poster for this 1995 gig. Hubley Archives.
With the exception of a shot of the side yard in South Portland that Harriette Hubley took around 1981 and some 1988 Fashion Jungle footage from a concert produced by South Portland Television, the images were taken by me or by Gretchen Schaefer. They represent locations as diverse as from Boston and Cambridge, Mass.; Charleston, S.C.; San Francisco and Denver; Brattleboro, Vt.; and Portland, South Portland and Cornish, Maine.
This Howling Turbines poster for a December 2000 date was a group effort. Gretchen Schaefer created the Santa hats to superimpose on Jeff Stanton’s image of the Howling Turbines, taken at the Free Street Taverna on a 90-degree day. I wrote and laid out the poster. Hubley Archives.
If you were in a band with me back in the day, certain Christmas obligations came with the job.
The Boarders’ multi-talented bassist, Gretchen Schaefer, created the poster for this 1995 gig. Hubley Archives.
The Boarders and the Howling Turbines, in particular, tended to land December gigs (at the Free Street Taverna, natch) for which I would insist we play a few holiday numbers. Among them:
“Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” with a ska beat; the 16th-century German carol “Maria Durch ein Dornwald ging”; and my compositions “Scary Christmas Polka,” “Hedonistic Christmas,” “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” and “Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree.”
Our news release for the December 1995 Taverna performance. Hubley Archives.
My memories of these gigs are fragmentary: shoveling the driveway before a Boarders date that was complicated by the snow. Singing “Santa Claus,” a lyric I wrote to the tune, and inspired by the theme, of Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc.” The Christmas lights against the Taverna’s brick walls and the chilling draft every time someone entered or left. Our friend Jeff Stanton propping himself up at a table as the evening grew late.
This Turbines poster for a December 2000 date was a group effort. Gretchen Schaefer created the Santa hats to superimpose on Jeff Stanton’s image of the Howling Turbines, taken at the Free Street Taverna on a 90-degree day. I wrote and laid out the poster. Hubley Archives.
For my bandmates — bassist Gretchen Schaefer, and drummers Jonathan Nichols-Pethick (Boarders) and Ken Reynolds (Turbines) — the Christmas gigs were gigs like others, just more festive and affording the chance to do material different from what we dragged around with us the rest of the year.
But in my mind there has been, since childhood, a link between Christmas and performing — though it’s also true that I never had enough community spirit, religious affiliation or even garden-variety empathy to frame my Yuletide performances in some broadly meaningful cultural context. (Even the currently popular holiday burlesque shows have that much going for them.)
Instead, I simply have old, random, but deeply felt sentiments for the season, and I simply hoped that I could present them in a way that, like an oddly dressed stranger speaking poor English who shows up in town on Christmas Eve, might elicit some fellow feeling.
As a pup I annoyed my family at dinnertime by talking into the telephone and pretending to be Santa Claus’ publicist (which perhaps anticipated my current work, which involves a lot of marketing). In a Christmas gift to all concerned, that phase was short. Odd that I was astute enough to know what a publicist did, but not enough to know how annoying I was.
Me under the Hubley tree in the mid-1970s. My sister Nancy has her back to the camera. Hubley Family photo.
Later there were Christmas concerts with the Mahoney Middle School chorus, during one of which we performed the first song I ever wrote, “For Something’s Happened” — a calling-all-shepherds Christmas carol, though I knew even at age 12 or 13 that I was an atheist.
In 1973, the desire to put on a holiday show ascended to a new plane. That autumn, the nation was in the depths of Watergate, the first energy crisis, Vietnam and an emergent hangover from the cultural efflorescence of the 1960s. Gram Parsons and Jim Croce died — and Croce got all the mourning.
Who are these Turbines? Read it and find out, if you would be so bold! Hubley Archives.
I was unemployed, overweight, drinking too much, mourning my recently broken-up band, hanging around my parents’ basement and pining for romance. Clearly, it was time to put on a show! Somehow — I think through an invitation from the South Portland High School Keyette Club via my friend Patty Stanton — I ended up booked for the SPHS Christmas assembly.
No band? No problem! In my infinite ill-founded self-confidence, I used the Sony 540 reel-to-reel and my parents’ cassette deck to create backing tracks — drums, bass and guitar, all ineptly played by me and rendered in distorted meatball-as-pingpong ball multiple tracking — for four songs, which I sang and added live guitar to during the assembly. Not just once, but twice, in ’73 and ’74.
The songs: “White Christmas,” Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas, Baby,” “Silver Bells” and Elvis Presley’s “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” That one got some attention, at least according to my tape of the 1974 show.
Of course, responses to Christmas are complex, and my impulse to put on a show flew in formation with a squadron of other tendencies. (Trigger alert: Baby Boomer reminiscences follow.)
During the 1960s, I entered a holiday fugue state every November, a delirium inflamed by product lust encouraged by indulgent parents and the Sears, Roebuck Wish Book; and embellished with colorful Christmas-tree chiaroscuro, heart-rendering music and hearty sparkling TV specials. (The greed has spent itself, but the other components linger on.)
Digitally retouched to increase sentimental value, this is a view across the side yard at 103 Richland St., South Portland, Maine, where my family lived for many years. Harriette H. Hubley photo.
For a brief pre-teen period I practiced unspeakable (not perverted, just embarrassing) occult pre-Christmas rituals influenced by Tom Swift Jr. stories and TV spy series. These dictated specifically when I could take my Christmas stocking out of storage, put up my Christmas list, etc., etc.
Eventually I absorbed the idea that Christmas involved giving as well as getting. What an adjustment! Maturing at the same time was my innate neurotic responsiveness to deadlines. These traits converged at Christmas season to form compulsive, self-imposed sensations of obligation and urgency.
The buildup to the Big Day began to entail gift projects that inexorably led to late-night, last-minute labors that likely bore little relation to the holiday expectations of anyone around me.
All these psychological currents flowing through the Christmas season — the urge to perform, the sentimental reverberations, the self-imposed Big Projects — converged and blossomed forth in the Christmas Greeting Tapes, discussed in an earlier post, that I made for friends and family over the course of more than two decades.
The front and back covers of the final entry in my CD compilation series, “40 Years of a Basement.” The mosaic is by Gretchen Schaefer.
All the songs that I expected my bands to perform at the Free Street Taverna and elsewhere, I had developed or adapted for the Christmas tapes.
These tapes were the mother of self-imposed Christmas obligations: Having done one, in 1974 (featuring recordings of the SPHS gig), I saw the creative potential and quickly developed the idea, purely out of thin air, that it was vitally important to keep making them — important not just to me, but to everyone I gave them to and, probably, to untold future generations, too. (I’m quite sure that people liked getting them, but really.)
All this is written in a retrospective tense, but don’t be fooled. True, the Christmas Greeting Tapes are long over with, and no one has offered a Christmas gig to my current band, Day for Night (we’ll take it! Please!!) — but the Christmas projects continue, albeit benefiting from somewhat less OCD and somewhat more refinement.
A combined setlist for two Christmastime 1995 Boarders dates: the Dec. 9 Taverna gig and a Rotary-sponsored performance for seniors at the Purpooduc Club. We played very quietly at that one. Hubley Archives.
You are reading the latest iteration of them, third in a series of Yule-themed Notes From a Basement blogs. Just prior to starting the blog, from 2005 through 2011, I produced on CD for family and friends annual compilations of music that those friends and I have recorded since the late 1960s.
In some ways the CD sets are realizations of unmet goals for the Christmas tapes. The seven compilations comprise 17 discs containing a total of 340 tracks played by 10 acts or artists. The sets are nicely annotated and illustrated, with five of them packaged in wordy (big surprise) 8.5-by-5.5-inch booklets. (Gretchen, thank you again for the long-reach stapler.)
I regret that I remember less about the Boarders and Howling Turbines Christmas performances, offered by a group of musicians for a group of people who wanted to hear what we were doing, than I do about the somewhat onanistic projects that preceded them by 20 years and more. And I would like to know more about our audiences’ responses to them, as that perhaps was a context in which my responses to Christmas made most sense.
Well, there’s always the WordPress comment option, folks. I’d love to hear from you. Meanwhile, another Christmas season is just beginning (or, according to whom you ask, several weeks along). A tree fell on our garage during the Nov. 26-27 snowstorm — we don’t yet know the damage but at least Gretchen was able to work in her studio, at the back of the garage, today — and I hurt my back shoveling snow, putting an end to my long-held conviction that I would never have back trouble.
Yet in a sign of progress, I feel grateful that in spite of all, we continue to enjoy great good fortune. And yes, I still feel vestigial stirrings of the old incoherent Christmas nostalgia, the deadline obsession and the need to show off in a seasonally appropriate way.
I say to those feelings and to you who have come this far reading about them: fond greetings, old friends. And to you who are reading, I also wish contentment with, or at least acceptance of, your own Christmas complications; and much happiness in the company of those who stay with you in spite of them.
The Boarders in an autumn 1994 Boarders publicity shoot by Jeff Stanton. Hubley Archives.
Compare and contrast! Available on Nimbit and Bandcamp, hear The Boarders and the Howling Turbines offer their distinctive interpretations of a few holiday numbers. As an added bonus, or something, there are two accordion numbers and an excerpt from the 1984 Christmas Greeting Tape.
Maria Durch ein DornwaldGing (trad. German) In the late 1980s I abandoned the skit+music format of my Christmas Greeting Tapes and instead produced little compilations of Christmas music played on accordion. Recorded on a Sony Walkman through a mic the size of a bullion cube, this is a solo performance of a German carol from the 15th or 16th century. The words depict Mary, pregnant with the Birthday Boy, wandering through a thicket of seemingly dead roses (a “thorn woods”) that burst into flower as she passes. Recorded Dec. 21, 1988.
Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging (trad. German) From an Oct. 10, 2001, rehearsal by the Howling Turbines. Doug Hubley, guitar and vocal. Ken Reynolds, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass. Song note: This German carol made a very fine addition to the holiday repertoires of both the Turbines and the Boarders, which first developed the electric version (see below).
Sel bych rad k Bethlemu (trad. Czech) Another accordion piece from the music-only Christmas tapes. The title of this Czech carol means “to Bethlehem I would go” and the lyrics are aimed at children. I liked the tune and, added bonus, I could play it. Also recorded Dec. 21, 1988.
Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging — The Boarders, rehearsing on Dec. 5, 1995, for a Free Street Taverna gig a few days hence: Doug Hubley, guitar and cheezy double-tracked vocal. Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass.
These combined music with “funny” bits (sometimes yes, sometimes not so much) and a few minutes of cringeworthy personal messaging. I recorded the greetings in my parents’ basement on the Sony reel-to-reel and stayed up too late, usually just a day or two before the holiday, dubbing them onto cassettes for friends and family.
Cover art from the 1987 Christmas Greeting Tape. Hubley Archives.
The 1974 greeting pretty much consisted of “Jingle Bells,” recorded with Alvin and the Chipmunks-style singing: the vocals enunciated precisely and recorded at a slow speed. Playback at normal speed produced that wacky high-pitched sound we all love so well. It was a technique I used again on the 1975 and 1976 greetings (sample follows).
That 1974 “Jingle Bells” was cute (and that’s about all it was), and today it’s a song that I absolutely can’t stand, thanks to overexposure (to which I, in a microscopic way, contributed). And for me, much of the American Christmas music catalog has been rendered similarly toxic by inescapability and sheer blindered irrelevance.
How can an ironic spirit prevail against the holiday-industrial complex? What does any of this — the birth of Christ, walking in a winter wonderland, chestnuts roasting on an open fire — have to do with the lives that we’re living now? Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” strikes me as the most pertinent of the bunch these days.
A statuette in The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Portland, Maine, 1989. Digital scan from black & white negative / Hubley Archives.
Well, back in those days, I was looking for a way to make it work. I was still trying to master (and reconcile) the influences of Curley Howard, Raymond Chandler, Gram Parsons, Lou Reed and Bing Crosby. For the Christmas Greeting Tapes, I continued to mine mid-century Christmas pop into the 1980s, from “The Christmas Song” to “Silver Bells,” from “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” I threw in a few originals and familiar traditional numbers. (The otherwise lackluster 1985 tape featured a standout “Twelve Days of Christmas” performed by as many friends and family members as I could muster up.)
Clues to a new direction surfaced around 1980 when, in a record shop on Portland’s Fore Street, I discovered Nowell Sing We Clear. Recorded by four Vermonters — U.K. natives John Roberts and Tony Barrand and American accompanists Fred Breunig and Steve Woodruff — this collection of centuries-old British carols showed me the door to a realm of much less familiar traditional Old World holiday music.
What eventually got me through the door, a few years later, was the accordion.
The Carmen accordion was an auction bargain at $35. Gretchen Schaefer photo.
Let’s go back still further, to the 1960s. There was a funny-looking kid whom I scorned in middle school not only on account of his visage, but also his earnest and well-intended squareness. He was always friendly to me, the bastard. Worst of all, despite all these disqualifications, he had a lock on a girl I wanted.
The cherry on this sundae of hideous offenses was that he played the accordion. (Offering “Lady of Spain,” no less, at a Mahoney Middle School talent show, or so I recall).
I have realized only now that this guy, with the blemishes on his mug and the girl of my dreams (of the month) on his arm, actually had something going for him. We call it talent.
Posing with our prey at Merry Christmas Trees, Windham, in 1994. Photo by self-timer / scanned from black and white negative. Hubley Archives.
I have thought of him only now as I realize that he got more accordion playing into his fingers in 10 or 12 years of life than I did during the 24 years I was active with the accordion, from 1986 to 2010. I think I peaked on the squeezebox from 1992 through 1996, when, with my bands the Cowlix and the Boarders, I was able to get through the accordion material without shame, but also without glory.
I couldn’t have pictured myself wearing the bellows in the 1960s, when I was scorning my “Lady of Spain”-squeezing schoolmate. My conversion from hater to lover of accordion began 10 years later, in the late 1970s, when friend and bandmate Ken Reynolds introduced me to the great English musician Richard Thompson.
I instantly became a rabid fan and bought as much of Thompson as I could. He incorporated a lot of British folk influences into his music and there was plenty of accordion, mostly button box played by the excellent John Kirkpatrick.
Detail from a roadside Christmas display, 1988. Digitally irradiated scan from black and white negative. Hubley Archives.
In a kind of parallel with Nowell Sing We Clear and Christmas music, what brought me around to accordion was hearing it as a folk instrument instead of a pop schmaltz generator. I liked the simpler scales, the rougher sound and the snappy pulmonary rhythms of the folk squeezebox.
Moreover, as my ears were opening to the accordion, they were also flapping in the prevailing breezes of the 1980s world music craze. I didn’t so much join the throngs congregating around African and Latin American styles, but instead gravitated to sounds of Canada, Europe and especially around the Mediterranean.
Gretchen and I dolled up and awaiting guests for the 1988 holiday party. Note the alpine window inserts that G. made. Photo by self-timer / scanned from black and white negative. Hubley Archives.
This wealth of music, along with the classical stuff I was trying to absorb for concert reviews, effected a seismic shift in perspective. If you get a well-syncopated two-beat into your brain, for instance, or the 7/8 or 11/8 or other odd rhythms of Balkan music, the square 4/4 of rock music suddenly looms a lot smaller. Ditto with the melodies of much mainstream pop-rock. (“Forty flavors of milk” was the term I used in a Maine Sunday Telegram review.)
So in 1986, a year when I was not in a band, I bought a cheap piano accordion and a bunch of Palmer-Hughes instruction books and dug in. (This necessitated learning to read music as well as to manipulate the instrument. Palmer-Hughes must have been OK pedagogically, since I did learn to translate musical notation and to play accordion after a fashion, but the song choices were strictly from Schmaltzville. “Vegetables on Parade,” anyone?)
1986 was also the first year since 1974 when I didn’t produce a Christmas Greeting Tape, in light of the uninspired 1985 edition. But 1987 brought the first in a new wave of Christmas Greeting Tapes, dedicated primarily to traditional European Christmas music. (Some selections from those tapes follow.)
South Portland, Maine, Christmas Day, 1981. Hubley Archives.
Unlike the funny-looking kid from Mahoney, I never really got it right with the accordion. Nowadays the Excelsior 48-bass just sits there in the cellar looking reproachful as I neglect it in favor of mandolin and guitar.
But if I never had a gift for the accordion, the world of music that I discovered through the squeezebox was certainly a gift for me.
Czech Christmas Medley — Recorded for “Duple Triple Christmas” in 1990, this medley consists of the traditional Czech carols “Hajej, nynjej,” a lullaby; and “Pujdem spolu do Betléma (“Come to Bethlehem”).
Scary Christmas Polka (Hubley) The one original song in this set, and the only one performed with a band. I wrote “Scary Christmas Polka” in 1990, during a period of unemployment and financial worry, and released it as a solo performance on that year’s Christmas Greeting Tape. In 1995, the Boarders learned it for a December gig and are performing it here in a rehearsal recording. Gretchen Schaefer plays bass and Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums.
C’est la Noël — A traditional song from the south of France that I recorded for the 1990 tape. I remember standing at the mic in the dark music room cursing each mistake.
European Christmas Medley — From “Christmas, Or Else!” (1987), my first Christmas Greeting Tape featuring accordion. The songs: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (English) / “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” (German and English) / “Lulajze Jezuniu” (Polish) / “Lippai” (Tyrolean) / “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” (French).
No Room at the Inn — (Trad., arranged and with new lyrics by Doug Hubley) From the 1988 tape, “It Came Upon a Midnight Lira, or Merry Christmas! He Bellowed” (Lira was the brand of my accordion). A song cobbled together in 1928 from lyrics and melodies of diverse old English origins. I took it a bit further with a strong rhythm and a new verse of still-pertinent import.
In a digitally colorized image suitable to the holiday season, here is Fore Street in Portland, Maine, early in 1982. The camera was a Kodak Brownie from the 1920s or ’30s that I kept in the Squareback. I was on my way to work in the clip library at the Guy Gannett newspapers on a Saturday morning. Hubley Archives.
Some people believe that secular humanist liberals like me, in cahoots with the whole holiday-industrial complex, are waging a “war against Christmas.” I don’t think so — we’re too busy trying to write socialism into the Constitution. Anyway, even if we were at war with Christmas, isn’t God man enough to protect his holidays?
We all look for that Christmas feeling in our own ways. This is me exaggerating my greed, but not by much, around 1979. Hubley Family photo.
Truth be told, we secular Christmas lovers have our own issues. Barren of religious faith, what exactly do we have to hang our affection for the holiday on? Our alleged joy at Christmastime, rather than swelling from within on a geothermal upsurge of faith, is glommed together from a mishmash of sentiments that are both noble (human fellowship, romantic connections, family bonds, peace on and goodwill toward, etc.) and not so much — greed and excessive self-indulgence, for instance.
And what gums this rickety sentiment together for us Christmas-loving non-believers is nostalgia, which is certainly a potent force for the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd too.
The Hubley Christmases from the 1960s through the ’80s embraced the power of human connection, but sure didn’t stint on the materialism. They were quite lavish, relative to our means. I admit that I was pretty spoiled. I remember waking up early one morning, still dopey from the partial dose of Seconal that my parents had administered to settle me down and amuse my sisters, and seeing the Beatles’ single “I Feel Fine” / “She’s a Woman” sticking out of the top of a Christmas stocking that was jammed full — a stocking made from one leg of a pair of tights, if that tells you anything about greed. O glory and excitement, not mention complicity with the holiday-industrial complex.
The Homburg years fortunately were brief. DH with the family tree, 1972. Hubley Family photo.
Here’s some more nostalgia for you. In the mid-1960s, the radio station of choice for the Hubley siblings was Boston’s WBZ-AM. Deejays like “Juicy Brucie” Bradley, Dave Maynard and Jefferson Kaye were knowledgeable and witty in presenting the pop music of the day. I remember lying awake late at night listening to Kaye’s folk music show, which he ended with Tom Rush’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.” Enchanting to a young teenager.
Bradley in particular introduced me to much of the music that was most formative at the start of my teens. One Friday in early 1965, the height of Beatlemania, he played a strange and wondrous thing: the Christmas greeting that the Fab Four recorded in 1963 for members of their official fan club. (I happened to have a tape recorder at the ready and captured the broadcast for posterity; hear an excerpt below.)
Turns out that for most of their time together, the Beatles made annual greetings for fan club members; I found them collected on a bootleg LP in 1973 or ’74. They ended up over-produced and impersonal, but the early ones were fresh, funny and loose. Thus inspired, and always ready to honor a good idea by appropriating it, in 1974 I began to make similar greetings for my closest friends.
The Hubley Christmas tree in 1972, but it could have been any year. Hubley Family photo.
I started out fresh, funny and loose, and simple, with a little music and a personal message, but as I descended into the depths of my basement recording mania over the years, the greetings got more and more elaborate: attempted comedy, some of it actually funny; music, both originals and covers, pop and traditional; and always the “corny sentimental endings,” personal heartfelt outpourings that often turned uncomfortably weird.
Several ideas turned into recurring motifs: radio station WHUB in Rumford, Maine, and star deejay Lance Boyles; the Longines Symphonette Society “Home Christmas Greeting” instructional series; the Squirrel Trio, ironic knockoffs of Dave Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks; the talk show “Coffee With Doug.”
The original series ran from 1974 through 1985. By then the tapes were more complex than enjoyable to make and, I suspect, to listen to. The following year I recorded nothing but traditional holiday music on my new accordion, topped off with a very brief spoken greeting.
With Gretchen Schaefer increasingly participating on vocals and guitar, I made a few more of those, learning a bunch of obscure holiday songs from around Europe — and then dropped the whole recorded greeting idea until 1995, when I made one final Christmas Greeting Tape, in the old variety show format, on my new TASCAM four-track recorder. Those extra tracks sure made it easier.
That was a pretty good entry, and ended the Christmas greeting tape journey on a high note. It was simply time for something different — and in that spirit, I’ll offer no corny sentimental ending about the demise of the Christmas tapes here. Instead, I’ll just wish you a friendly “Merry Christmas.”
Or should I say “Happy Holidays”?
DH at Richland Street, circa 1981. That officer’s jacket, about a size too small, was my winter outerwear for years. Photograph by Harriette Hubley.
Gift From WBZ’s Bruce Bradley — Recorded on the Hosho reel-to-reel, with its glowing green eye, in early 1965 in the Hubleys’ kitchen. Presented here as a fragment so as not to infringe on anyone’s copyright, this holiday greeting was recorded by the Beatles for their fan club in 1963 and intercepted by the intrepid Boston deejay Bruce “Juicy Brucie” Bradley of WBZ-AM. Opening the track are the Bachelors singing “No Arms Can Ever Hold You” (Crafter-Nebb).
Hedonistic Christmas — Starting in 1979 with a fairly terrible song called “I’m a College Student,” which I wrote and you will never hear if you haven’t already, I often drafted my bands to perform a song on the Christmas tapes, usually without telling them what the song was: To maintain the happy Christmas surprise, I would just teach them an arrangement and dub on the vocals later. For instance, the Karl Rossmann Band did a terrific ska-style “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” in 1980. But here’s an original number, as the Fashion Jungle in 1982 — bassist Steve Chapman, drummer Ken Reynolds and I — does a song addressing one dimension of my feelings about the holiday.
Looking for That Christmas Feeling (1981) — In December 1981 I was stressed by finals and the demise of my current band, the original Fashion Jungle, but also all electrified by my new affair with Gretchen Schaefer. That peculiar tension informed this song exploring the longing for some kind of deeper meaning to Christmas that didn’t involve, well, Christ. Like “Shortwave Radio,” also written that year, it involves fairly personal imagery (I drank a lot of Freixenet that year), but I hope it somehow reaches outside my head to speak to people. The recording is all me: vocal, Farfisa rock organ, drums, two Gretsch guitars. It was the best thing about that year’s Christmas tape.
Christmas party in the Jordan Marsh stockroom, circa 1978. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.
Squirrel Trio in Hawaii — This sample from the 1975 Christmas tape features the Squirrel Trio, my blatant but ironic ripoff of Ross Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks. I think it was Tom Hansen who revealed Bagdasarian’s essential trick to me by playing a Chipmunks LP at 16 rpm: If you record your talking rodents at a slow speed, taking care that they enunciate clearly, and play them back at normal speed, voila: Chipmunks, or Squirrels, if you prefer. I put them to work on several greetings, entangling myself in multiple tracks bounced between two tape recorders, and culminating with a monumental recording of “Holiday Inn” in 1976. This tropical-themed number, meanwhile, is four tracks total.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht — The 1982 tape benefited from careful planning and an extremely limited amount of time in which to produce it. German was my favorite subject at USM, and I took advantage of my somewhat expanded ability to record this. It occurred as part of an extended parody of public radio’s “Morning Pro Musica.”
Coffee With Doug’s Christmas Around the World — The talk show “Coffee With Doug” appeared in the early 1980s and proved to be a useful device that turned up both in the Christmas tapes and as a TV show concept that Gretchen, several other friends and I seriously considered bringing to the South Portland public access cable station in the mid-’80s. This sequence comes from the 1984 Christmas tape, one of the better entries in the series. Along with the tribute to a detestable Spanish pop singer, this excerpt exemplifies my affection for a bargain-bin sound-effects record that I used on just about every Christmas tape; Gretchen gave me a CD equivalent in the 1990s.
Oh, my love: The doomed first Squareback, winter 1977. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.
Looking for That Christmas Feeling (1984) — Chet Baker much? Once again faced with the dissolution of a Fashion Jungle seemingly poised on the brink of success, I returned to this song for a holiday tape that was one of the stronger ones. The introduction, new that year, was provoked by a spell of warm December weather that had me worried about global warming even then. I didn’t perform this song live until the Boarders learned it, in 1995.
Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree — Here’s a brand-new recording of a Christmas song I wrote in 1978. The angelic choir idea, easily executed on the Tascam 2488 (no multiple tape recorders required), came from the Mirrors’ short-lived version of the song in 1980.
Make your dreams come true and visit the EP In Dreams at the Bandcamp or Nimbit stores!
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’d 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 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 and Nimbit stores!
NOTE: All musical excerpts in this post were recorded in basements except the first one, included so that you can hear the Kent and Capt. Distortion, 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 March 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 or Nimbit?)
• 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?!?)
Talk about woodshedding: The Howling Turbines perform in the woodpile for a fundraiser at Flatbread Company in 2002. In addition to being relegated to the woodpile, we weren’t allowed to use a PA — heaven forfend that we should interrupt the joyous shrieking of familial bliss at this popular family restaurant. Jeff Stanton photo and montage.
The merry-go-round is beginning to slow now Have I stayed too long at the fair? The music has stopped and the children must go now Have I stayed too long at the fair?
With our host Bob Gallagher shown at upper left, the Howling Turbines perform at a party circa 2002. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
As I look back, the last years of the Howling Turbines, from 2001 to 2004, had a winter-sunset quality.
Of course, it didn’t seem that way to me at the time. Instead, it felt like business as usual, right up to the end. But now, recalling those years and listening to recordings from then, I get a distinct sense of streetlights flickering on, the sky going briefly garish then dark, and crows flocking home to roost.
The Turbines’ setlist for the last party we played at Rikki and Bob Gallagher’s house, in 2003. We set up on the back deck, rain began and we tore it all down, the rain stopped and we set it all up again. Hardly anyone attended. Hubley Archives.
The Howling Turbines continued to rehearse and, very occasionally, to perform. We bought more instruments to make more sounds, although there was less energy behind the sounds. The tempos slowed but we still found new reservoirs of sophistication, feeling and even beauty.
Our demise was not dramatic. In fact, though the Turbines’ music could be quite dramatic, or at least loud and then soft, there was never much personal drama among the three of us. We came together as musical veterans who shared a long history, solid affection and a lot of musical taste.
Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer, shown in Rikki and Bob Gallagher’s backyard in Westbrook during one of the four Gallagher parties we played. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
So thereafter performances were even less frequent than before. In fact, it was mainly because of two friends, Gretchen’s colleague Rikki Gallagher and her husband Bob, who several times invited us to play at their parties, that we had any gigs at all during those last years. (We did have the inestimable honor of playing acoustically in the woodpile of a hangar-like Portland pizza place that wouldn’t let us use any P.A., so, sonically at least, we might as well not
even have been there at all.)
It’s a different side of Larry in one of Gretchen Schaefer’s Howling Turbines posters based on Three Stooges publicity stills. And here I thought he was the nicest of the bunch. Hubley Archives.
And the Gallaghers’ invitations led to a fruitful new direction for the Turbines. Although we twice played electric in the Gallaghers’ back yard, we also performed indoors for them in the winter. This meant going acoustic — and we liked it.
The memories of those performances in the Gallaghers’ living rooms, one in Westbook and one in Raymond, remain vivid: so satisfying, so musical, such great communication among the Howling Turbines.
For those dates, Gretchen played a Martin acoustic bass guitar, I played the Gibson J-100 and Ken alternated among his new djembe, a very minimal kit played with brushes, and bongo drums that I had given Gretchen for Christmas an eternity ago, in the 1980s. The musical communication among the three of us seemed to gain both nuance and depth. We couldn’t make the big sound or the big beat, but we seemed to gain capability in other ways. Suddenly we were branching out in new directions: going deeper into torch music, deeper into folk and world music.
The Epiphone Casino in a hotel in Montreal, where I bought it at a shop near the Jean Talon market. Gretchen Schaefer photo/Hubley Archives.
The djembe, which Ken got around 2000, was transformative. This hand drum opened to us the extensive bazaar of world variations on the ole two-beat. In both acoustic and electric modes, we glommed up a gratifyingly new, to us, diversity of rhythms that was a welcome added dimension to the metallic Turbines sound.
The Excelsior, aka Bluebell, purchased at Accordion-O-Rama in New York City. Photo by Gretchen Schaefer/Hubley Archives.
I got a couple of new instruments in those years, too. In summer 2002, at a store near the Jean Talon market in Montreal, I succumbed to the longtime desire to own an Epiphone Casino. This specimen was blond and, unlike other Casinos I had tried, would stay in tune for the duration of an entire song. At the time they were priced at about US$550 and C$550, and the Canadian dollar was much cheaper, so how could I resist?
That same year, in November, I made my second purchase at the legendary Accordion-O-Rama, located at the time in Manhattan (and now in South Amboy, New Jersey). Gretchen was attending a conference, and since I was footloose and fancy-free, it was only natural that my first thought was to buy a new accordion.
Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley and Gretchen Schaefer: the Howling Turbines, circa 2002, at a party at the Westbrook home of Rikki and Bob Gallagher. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
My first Accordion-O-Rama purchase was the used, black and silver Lira 120-bass that I got in 1987 and played with the Cowlix and the Boarders. Carefully packing the old Lira accordion according to Peter Shearer’s instructions, I shipped it ahead to the Big City. It was a trade-in toward accordion No. 3: a sweet blue Excelsior 48-bass that weighed about a ton less than the Lira and had a full set of musette reeds, as opposed to the Lira’s half-musette.
This did not represent an accordion renaissance for me (that would come later, with Gretchen’s and my current band, Day for Night). But I did use the Excelsior, aka Bluebell, on a few numbers that would come to symbolize the late Turbines for me — both sung by Ken Reynolds.
Ken with the djembe, at right, as Doug drones on. Jeff Stanton photo.
Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes” was a revival from our old band, the Mirrors. Inspired by a 1970s affair, Ken had sung it poignantly then, but now in our maturity and with the streetlights flickering on around the Howling Turbines, it gained a new depth of emotion.
Reed’s onetime Velvet Underground colleague John Cale wrote “I’m Not the Loving Kind.” If stunning electricity and pounding tom-toms defined the Turbines’ early years, this song — Ken’s unforced singing, the accordion, the bongoes, Gretchen’s bass and our restrained backing vocals — symbolizes the end game to me. For all its simplicity, it was one of our best numbers. It came so late in the game.
The oddest turn we took was toward Brazil. Sometime in the late 1990s, I bought for Gretchen a compilation of Stan Getz bossa nova recordings, and I would borrow it for my 45-minute commute to work. I got hooked. It was mainly the rhythm: I remember one day in the Jetta on the Maine Turnpike, the road noise drowning out nearly everything but João Gilberto’s guitar. And it was so infectious I couldn’t stand it.
We had already made a pass at jazz, in our technically circumscribed way. (I remember drifting into the back yard in an ecstatic haze one summer day after work, trying to puzzle out the chords to “I’m Through With Love.”)
Bossa nova seemed like the aesthetically appropriate next step. The Turbines didn’t stay together long enough to get deep into it, but we learned enough to give our sets a spice that you just wouldn’t get from any other band from Portland, Maine, that was also playing Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and John Cale numbers.
Who are these Turbines? Read and find out, if you would be so bold! Hubley Archives.
From our early days we revived Cale’s “I Keep a Close Watch,” setting it to a fast bossa nova beat. As opposed to Cale’s full piano chords or the stately Rickenbacker 12-string setting we had started out with, this late rendition had a chilly sparsity that rendered the stark lyrics all the starker.
And from the Gilberto-Getz-Gilberto songbook, in an audacious grab that resolved into an ideal Howling Turbines selection, we picked up Benny Carter and Sammy Kahn’s “Only Trust Your Heart.” It was Gretchen’s best vocal performance with the Howling Turbines, and we hung onto it into the early days of Day for Night.
But the crows were gathering around us, if we had just had the perspicacity to wonder what the cawing was about. Descendants of a band premised on the primacy of original material, the Fashion Jungle, the Turbines nevertheless learned no new originals after 1998’s “Caphead” — which, in fact, was the last song I wrote until 2010.
So much to do and so little time. The songs that I prepared for the Turbines to learn or revive in early 2004. Hubley Archives.
We remained loyal to the notion of being an originals band even as the well ran dry, clinging to Big Hits from the Old Days dating back even to the FJ. But 15 or 20 years after the first flush of inspiration, it took some emotional gymnastics to conjure up enthusiasm for “Shortwave Radio” and “Groping for the Perfect Song.”
In the end, what stopped the Turbines’ spin was the same stick in the blades that stalls most bands: Our lives were changing in ways that couldn’t accommodate the band. I think that was particularly true for Ken. He got involved with a woman in the early 2000s and wanted, naturally, to devote time to that relationship — a desire complicated by his job at the post office, which almost invariably entailed evening or overnight shifts.
Paying work, and love: It’s hard not to prioritize those.
In January 2004, in what I considered the lead-up to a fresh start, I prepared several cover songs for us to learn or revive (including “Bargiallo” by the Italian band Madreblu, Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted” and the bossa nova version of “I Keep a Close Watch”).
“Brief return from obscurity” refers to the fact that the Turbines played only private parties after the sale of the Free Street Taverna, our sole public venue. And the Acoustic Coffee date turned out to be the Turbines’ last gig. Hubley Archives.
Three months later, on April 17, the Howling Turbines played what turned out to be our last gig, at a place on Danforth Street called Acoustic Coffee.
We played pretty well — and not acoustically, despite the club name — but it was an uneasy date, even though Gretchen and I, at least, had no idea it was the band’s finale. The club owner had booked us but didn’t really seem to like us, and had weirdly passive-aggressive ways of showing it.
Among our friends in attendance were Barbie Weed and Tracey Mousseau. The Acoustic Coffee chairs were folding chairs, and Barbie’s collapsed, trapping her thumb in a shear point and injuring it. Tracey took her to the emergency room. As I recall, the club owner wasn’t nice to Barbie about the injury his defective furniture inflicted on her. Sorry our friend hurt your chair, mister!
We hauled the gear back to the basement and said our goodnights as usual and, surprise, the Howling Turbines were done . . . as we realized sometime later. There was no big breakup scene or even a discussion — and we’re still friends with Ken — but he never came back for another rehearsal, returning to the basement only several months later to retrieve his drums.
For Gretchen and me, what followed was three years in a musical wilderness — much of it Brazilian.
I present these rehearsal recordings an as accompaniment to this post, but it’s really a mismatch. The post dwells on the last years of the Howling Turbines, in which our music had a distinct decline-of-the-empire quality. These songs, though, are from our growth years, 1998-99. I offer them because I can’t put cover versions up for sale. But it was covers, by Lou Reed, John Cale, Leonard Cohen and others, that really formed the soundtrack of this chapter of the band. The excerpts embedded in the text above will give you a better sense of what was happening musically.
Looks Like My Monkey Got Loose (Hubley) I was sitting on a bus in January 1996, waiting to leave Elm Street, when I thought of a crazy monkey as a metaphor for lack of self-control. (You may not believe it, but I myself have had impulse-control issues.) The song started out with the Boarders and endured into the Howling Turbines, who recorded this take in a 1998 rehearsal. Gretchen and I gave up the Little Debbie Swiss Rolls once and for all after the news about transfats came out, but the jones never goes away. Copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
Just a Word From You, Sir (Hubley) The second of two very different versions of this number. One of two songs I wrote for the Turbines, this number is generally about my relationship with authority, and specifically about Stalin, Leonard Cohen and God. The original arrangement was slow, grinding, heavy and metallic. I now prefer the original to this sprightly tap-dance setting, but the later one too has its charms and is certainly more dynamic than the other. This 1999 rehearsal recording is a recent discovery in the Basement vault. Copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
Watching You Go (Hubley) Another holdover from the Boarders. I regard this as one of the best songs I’ve written. Fate is generous with opportunities to dwell on the loss of loved ones, but it took the death of my cat Harry to get me to actually write about it. Fortunately I was able to expand the lyrics beyond “my kitty died.” A 1999 Howling Turbines rehearsal recording. Copyright 1996 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
Why This Passion (Hubley) A wordy attempt to trace the course of a lovers’ quarrel, this high-romantic epic started out with the Chapman-Torraca Fashion Jungle in an over-elaborate arrangement, became more straightforward in the FJ’s later incarnations, and finally, with the Boarders, picked up the “camel beat” heard here. Given Ken Reynolds’ latter-day attraction to the tom-toms, that beat was a natch for him, as you can hear in this 1998 or 1999 rehearsal recording. Copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
The cronies at the Bramhall Pub, late 1980s. From left: Alden Bodwell, Kathren Torraca, Elizabeth Torraca, Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Jeff Stanton, Steve Chapman. Photographer: Jeri Chapman.
We tend to think of country music as a product of the South and the West, but really, the name tells you where it’s from. It’s the music of small towns and no towns, lightless state routes and endless rail lines. It’s the soundtrack for the long ride between where you’ve been and where you’re bound.
There’s a space like those hollow miles in my emotional interior. It feels like open landscape, cold wind, bright stars and a lonesome voice backed by pedal steel on the car radio. This region is something like home to the inner me. I frequently seek its outside analogs — in a bottle, on a train, on a record, or with guitar in hand performing with Day for Night.
Nearly every kind of music has its charms for me, and it’s a pleasure to play the small portfolio of genres within my technical grasp. But for me country is the terminus, the beginning and end of the railroad that I ride through music’s vast territory. My musical career has been defined largely by either running from country or returning to it.
A Fashion Jungle publicity shot, taken c. 1987 in Steve’s cellar. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives
The Fashion Jungle, the band I was in that came closest to fame, was born in the flight from country and died in the return to it — well, that’s one version. History is too complicated and involves too many people to simplify into a turn of phrase that suits one’s transient narrative needs. Some of you reading this will have your own narratives and your own turns of phrase to serve them (send ’em in!).
However, in any event, the ole high and lonesome was among the kickees as the Mirrors drop-kicked much of our baggage to become the FJ, in 1981. And country was where we turned eight years later as the FJ’s arty romantic edge started to dull.
August 1988 was something of a pinnacle for the late FJ, drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Steve Chapman and me. It was our second year after Steve rejoined the band. Our performance at the Maine Festival, in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park on the 13th, was one that I recall as a rare occurrence of an ideal: It was a prestigious gig, we played well, dancers filled the tent under the nighttime trees, there was that sense of us all, everyone under the tent, being in the game together.
When the Fashion Jungle decided in 1989 to become its own opening act, playing classic country and old rock, Gretchen Schaefer joined on rhythm guitar. Here she is with my Gretchen Anniversary Model. Hubley Archives.
But it was a high point on a path that wasn’t leading anywhere. I, at least, was getting that end-of-the-party feeling. The songwriting, our purported reason for being, was drying up — dwindling not in quantity, because we were as non-prolific as ever, but in spark. Our newer songs felt strained and the older ones, well, old.
We learned four original songs in 1988: my “Don’t Sell the Condo” and the collaborative efforts “Dance,” “Rubber Hammer” and “Complaint,” the last of which went unperformed. All respectable, but only “Condo” seems to transcend its particulars the way the best FJ numbers do. Maybe it attained the FJ’s own version of the ole high and lonesome.
The set list from the Reynolds family function, April 1989.
One of Ken’s siblings was planning a big family celebration in April 1989 and invited us to play. We understood that virtually none of our regular material would go over well with this older, largely rural crowd. Needed were songs that we could learn quickly and that the Reynolds clan would enjoy, and, of course, us too.
So we decided to learn several ’60s hits and, crucially, a bunch of country songs. It seemed like a lighthearted and frivolous choice at the time, to the extent that we developed this idea of playing country music as the opening act for ourselves, for the FJ. We toyed with names like the Prairie Oysters and the Cowpokers, ultimately and more tastefully settling on the Cowlix.
But despite how lightly we turned in this new direction, it turned out to be momentous for at least two reasons.
As written above, returning to country was a sort of repudiation of the very founding of the FJ. (This has occurred to me only in the writing of this piece, as opposed to most of the heavy thoughts in Notes, which are the result of decades of stewing.) Ken, Mike Piscopo, Jim Sullivan and I had embraced original New Wavy rock in part as a reaction against all of the roots music we had performed as the Mirrors, including a heavy dose of often-dreary country.
In those days, to quote the slogan of the hallowed Downtown Lounge, the goal was faster-louder-more fun! But eight years into the FJ’s career, as we dragged through songs four or more years old and struggled to come up with new ones, all the while burdened by our sacred oath to high concept and danceable romanticism, and with carefree youth buried down deep in the pile of outstanding bills, country seemed — to me anyway — like much more fun.
Doug and Gretchen in a festive moment, Christmas 1988, Lovell, Maine. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives.
The other, much more consequential outcome of the FJ’s stylistic detour was that we added a new member: rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer, then my significant other and now my wife, too.
Gretchen had played folk music back in college. She knew Hank Williams from her father’s repertoire and inherited his old Gibson archtop. And she was central to the FJ organization long before she started playing with us. She worked as hard as anybody hauling equipment, she tended the admission table at Geno’s (in the words of Iggy Stooge, no fun), and, in a contribution more in line with her specific gifts, made a lot of graphic art for the band.
When we asked her to join us on guitar in the spring of 1989, it was because we needed rhythm guitar and because it seemed like it would be fun. But it turned out to be the beginning of a musical partnership between the two of us, largely devoted to country music, that’s still going strong.
You Know How It Is (Hubley) Dating from 1978, this lament about the working life is drawn from my experiences as a sensitive young artiste having my soul destroyed as a “materials handler” (stockboy) at the South Portland branch of the Jordan Marsh department store. Jordan Marsh is gone, and I am still here.
I Remember (Just as Fast as I Forget) (Hubley) The iffy lyrical premise didn’t deter me from pitching it to the Fashion Jungle as we developed our “opening act,” the country-flavored Prairie Oysters. But this is more “countrypolitan” than country, down to the cha-cha rhythm and Slim Whitman falsetto.
I wasn’t devastated. I knew that once I started making more money, I could simply buy a new reel-to-reel. I could have tried harder to get the Sony fixed. (And maybe I realized on some level that, in any case, digital technology was ultimately going to change the game completely).
I just didn’t like this failure of the Sony’s. As someone with a lifelong silly habit of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects, I felt like a trusted friendship had turned bad.
A boy and his tape recorder, 1982. Hubley Archives.
I wasn’t devastated, but I was unsettled. I flailed for seven years. I made recordings on all kinds of unlikely machines, including a visibility-yellow Sony all-weather boombox and a tiny Walkman that I bought for work-related interviews. It was good training in adaptability, but the sound was never great.
So that was the door.
And what was the window?
It was video. Even as I was thrashing around in search of an audio recording solution, my band, the Fashion Jungle, suddenly got a few opportunities for video recording — opportunities that resulted in the best documentary materials of the band’s last stages.
Our friend Alden Bodwell worked for a media company and was able to borrow video gear. His generosity resulted in two concert videos, including a date at the Brunswick, a nightspot in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. The video of “Little Cries” posted below is from that gig, which Alden shot on a foggy night in May 1988.
Gretchen, then my partner and now my wife, in early 1988 borrowed a camcorder from the school where she was student-teaching. Back then we were rehearsing in a studio that bassist Steve Chapman had built in his basement. “(Drummer Ken Reynolds completed the ensemble.) “Don’t Sell the Condo,” at the top of this post, represents Gretchen’s recording of a typical rehearsal.
Finally, most of the clips here come from one of the stranger episodes in the FJ annals. Since 1986, Gretchen and I had been involved with South Portland Television, a public-access cable operation headquartered at Southern Maine Technical College (now Southern Maine Community College) just down Willard Beach from us. Somehow the idea arose of doing a fundraiser for SPTV (slogan: “Where video meets the sea,” which I suggested ironically and they took to heart.)
We enlisted two other bands for the concert that was cablecast live on May 21, 1988. The Brood, managed by rare-record dealer Richard Julio, was an all-female ensemble led by Chris Horne and dedicated to ’60s garage band sounds. The Holy Bones were fronted by singer-songwriter Darien Brahms, who remains a force in the Portland music scene; and the late Manny Verzosa, remembered as a promising talent lost way too soon.
It was a hot, humid and nervous-making night. The TV crew were all SPTV volunteers, including Alden. The show was cablecast from the SMTC cafeteria. There were audio problems, thanks in part to the distance from the cafeteria to the control booth, in a separate building.
In fact, I don’t remember it actually being that much fun — I think the Brood and the Holy Bones left after their sets, taking their friends with them, and we played to an empty room. I don’t know how much, if any, fundage was generated for SPTV. I do recall some kind of fractiousness, though not who was involved nor what it was about. My nerves were scrambled. Ken and Steve were rock-solid, but my guitar playing was skittery as hell. For years I would not go near either the video or audio recordings of this event — too abrasive in my memory.
Today, of course, I’m delighted to have all these video documents. How young and energetic, and serious, we were (and how old I sound saying that). I’m all the more grateful for these videos when I think how precious and important video seemed back then — these were the years, after all, when MTV and VH-1 were showing music videos, and video was a must-do for musicians — and how inaccessible. I craved a camcorder for years in the 1980s, despite having no means of editing video. But I never felt I could afford one.
Between technology and experience and some money, so many things that once seemed impossible have drifted into reach. It’s one of the things that has impressed me the most about getting older. Then the question is: What do you do with those things once you have them?
They say that when a door closes, a window opens. But they don’t say what happens when the walls go away.
Famous music critic on local television wires, 1986!
In March 1986, I interviewed Alana MacDonald of the trio Devonsquare for an article about the status and experiences of women in pop music.
The living room at 506 Preble St., South Portland. The music stand holds a Palmer-Hughes accordion instruction book. Digital scan from black & white negative/Hubley Archives.
MacDonald, singer and violinist for one of the most popular club acts in the Northeast, was friendly and forthcoming. Toward the end of our meeting I felt encouraged to ask about perhaps submitting a few of my songs to Devonsquare.
MacDonald kindly expressed openness to the idea (although it’s hard to imagine that folk-pop trio doing, say, “Little Cries”).
But I never followed up.
That article today doesn’t read like much (especially to a regular viewer of “Nashville”).
But the interview, over coffee at the legendary Portland bistro Deli One, stands out as symbolic of that time in my life.
In recent years I’ve lost sight of how connected I was back then, how many acquaintances I had made as a writer and musician. The same was true for my then-partner, now my wife, Gretchen Schaefer. As manager of Congress Square Gallery, she encountered a steady stream of art makers and consumers*.
Backstage at the Cumberland County Civic Center in 1985, I give Ricky Scaggs copies of my Sunday Telegram article about him.
By no means are we recluses today, but the steady stream of encounters back then seemed part and parcel of our having “arrived” on the Portland scene. We weren’t in with the In Crowd, but we knew it to say “hi” to.
I talked to MacDonald for “Club Beat,” my music column for the Maine Sunday Telegram. My other interviewees for that piece included Cathie Stebbins, a pop-blues singer big on the local circuit, and Chris Horne, a member of the all-female (“all-chick” to Chris) retro ’60s band The Brood — established players all.
And I never sent MacDonald any songs because I understood, even then, that my offer was less about sharing music than making it clear that I was not just someone who wrote about musicians, but was really a musician too. (See proof of my musical qualifications.)
Gretchen’s studio at 506 Preble St., South Portland. Digital scan from black & white negative/Hubley Archives.
This disconnect from what I profess to care so much about must have bothered me; but I don’t remember it. I suspect I was relieved to be done with the uncertainty of it all. I contemplated putting together a solo act, but couldn’t seem to get any traction. I like playing with other people.
So, typically for me, instead getting back up on the Fashion Jungle horse and trying again, I lurched in a new direction. That fall I bought a cheap used 120-bass piano accordion and some Palmer-Hughes instruction books at Starbird Music. And it was love at first honk.
Gretchen in the garden at 506 Preble St. Hubley Archives.
While I was playing little music, and none presentable (Palmer-Hughes’ “Vegetables on Parade,” anyone?), I was hearing a ton of it, thanks to writing assignments from the Guy Gannett newspapers in Portland, Maine. Those included rock and pop record reviews; concert previews and reviews; and features about topics musical and otherwise.
In 1986, in addition to 18 “Club Beat” columns, I did countless Portland Symphony Orchestra and other classical reviews, and covered in depth the sweepstakes for the selection of the PSO’s new conductor. I also reviewed pop and rock, live and on disc.
I advanced the Maine Festival and New Year’s / Portland — remember them? I wrote food stories, art reviews, a Christmas-shopping guide to new books about rock and pop music, and a feature about the stage costumes worn by classical and heavy metal musicians.
Doug with “Addicted to Show Biz” star Omar Ricardo, aka Frank Omar. Randy Visser photo/SPTV.
I talked with Harry Belafonte, Maria Muldaur, George Shearing, the Kronos Quartet, Sharon Isbin and Christopher Parkening, Simple Minds’ lead singer Jim Kerr, magician David Copperfield and a variety of Maine visual artists. My Smith-Corona typewriter got a workout.
At the same time, I was catching shifts on the copy desk at the Portland Press Herald and the Evening Express. PH shifts ran from mid-afternoon till midnight or later, and Express shifts from 5 or 6 a.m. till early afternoon. A few times I’d show up for an Express shift a few hours after finishing a review or copy-desk stint for the Press Herald.
In short, the “creative renaissance” of 1985, with its metaphorical overtones of sweet dawn and blooming posies, had matured into a blurry high-pressure reality of late nights, early mornings, weekend work, writing and editing and gadding about. It was a hard slog, deficient in down time, but deeply educational.
The Swedish Ball Team, seen through the control room window during the cablecast of “Addicted to Show Biz.” Randy Visser photo/SPTV.
1986 was also a year for domestic synergy. After five years together, Gretchen and I moved in together in March, renting a charming duplex in a charming neighborhood, near South Portland’s Willard Beach, amidst not so charming neighbors.
For the first time, I had an actual office, in a spare bedroom, and Gretchen had a large sunporch for her studio. The reality of hard work did not dampen our creative-renaissance ideal, and living together gave it new energy.
We did carve out spare time, and immediately found ways to fill it up. Among them was the local public-access TV station, headquartered at Southern Maine Vocational-Technical Institute, just down the beach from us. We took a couple of TV production courses and began a relationship with South Portland TV director Randy Visser that would last a couple of years, and result in some actual programming.
Gretchen and I each produced and directed a program for SPTV as our final projects for a course. Gretchen’s was “Art Who,” a look at the commercial art world that reflected her connections through the gallery. Her guests were Roger Richmond, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Augusta, Maine; Elena Kubler, her colleague at the gallery; and Ellen Schiferl, a professor of art history with whom we had studied at the University of Southern Maine.
“Addicted to Show Biz”: Charlie Brown, Mike Wiskey, Sean Potter, Will Jackson, Carla Bryson. Randy Visser photo/SPTV.
Meanwhile, I had gotten to know the people of Delux Productions, a Maine musical cabaret troupe that made funny, sharply post-modernist takeoffs on showbiz tropes from the second half of the 20th century.
“We’re no less accessible than ‘I Love Lucy,’ ” Maria “Delux” Locke, one of the troupe’s leaders, told me for a “Club Beat” story about “A Big Big Show With a Big Big Band,” their 1986 summer cabaret series in Old Orchard Beach.
The only difference between Ricky Ricardo’s Tropicana and the Delux cabarets, added her colleague Beth Hartman, “is that we have kind of an ’80s sensibility. We’re not just doing nostalgia . . . It’s a parody, and yet it’s kind of straightforward somehow. It’s a paradox, but it works.”
I approached Delux about appearing on SPTV, and the result was “Addicted to Show Biz.” A half-hour live cablecast, it was a variety show showcasing the best of Delux: host Omar Ricardo (real name: Frank Omar), a Ricky Ricardo wannabe; the acrobatic dancers of the Swedish Ball Team; the suave pop stylings of Will Jackson and Carla Bryson, sitting at the Fashion Jungle’s old Farfisa rock organ; Latin dance numbers; garish / vintage costumes created by Theresa Visinaire (who lent me a songbook of Polish songs for the accordion); Hartman singing Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”; and the jazzy pop of a small combo led by keyboardist extraordinaire Charlie Brown.
“Addicted to Show Biz” goes live. Director / producer Doug Hubley, center, with technical director Gretchen Schaefer, right, and audio engineer Neal Portnoy. Randy Visser photo/SPTV.
That was some intense evening. It was the first and only time I directed a TV show, and the tensions ran high and the camera angles askew. But it came off, distributed over SPTV’s cable feed to — what? 20, 30 people? Didn’t matter. I was ecstatic. I never heard how Delux really felt about it, but we stayed in touch, so they couldn’t have been too put off.
In a year spent offstage and away from songwriting, it was a huge creative consolation. It was part of an interest in moving-image work that we sustained for a few years and that included a Super-8 sound film based on Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” (Look for that in November.)
Meanwhile, the wheel of fortune continued to turn. “Addicted to Show Biz” aired on Sept. 16. Just a week or so prior, former Fashion Jungle bassist Steve Chapman and Jeri Kane, whom he’d met in Boston, were married on a beautiful weekend day at Steve’s family cabin on Conway Lake, in New Hampshire. Gretchen, Kathren, Ken and I were among the guests.
Soon the Chapmans moved to Portland. And soon after that, the Fashion Jungle was back.
*In fact, at one point it dawned on us that one artsy couple was buddying up to us pretty much because of what we could do for them professionally. Our get-togethers with this pair, one of whom was a chilly landscapist with some name recognition, were marked by differences in outlook that belied any basis for real friendship. Naifs that we were, we got wise only when our jobs changed and we were no longer of use to them.