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 childish 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 Howling Turbines on a blistering hot day at the Free Street Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999: from left, drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Gretchen Schaefer and me — guitarist and singer Doug Hubley. I was wearing the tan sport jacket because we had just seen “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” and I thought that tie, jacket and sweat was a great look. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
Oh no! He’s going to talk about his career again! Skip all that and go directly to the throbbing rock sounds at the Bandcamp store!
The best years of our band the Howling Turbines also happened to be my final years (to this point, anyway) as a freelance writer and editor.
The Turbines’ repertoire in July 2001. The annotations indicate things I needed to work on. Hubley Archives.
A month later, in March 1997, I was ejected from my day job and returned to freelancing, sticking with it until another day job came along, four and a half years later. (I’m still working that one.)
Long-necked woman with a black skirt: Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer at the Free Street Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
During those four-plus years the Turbines had the most energy, learned the most and best songs of our career, and gave the most public performances — albeit nearly all of them at the Free Street Taverna.
A surge of creativity can have many causes, and novelty is a potent one, but it’s safe to say that novelty was not the primary source of our energy during those years. In fact, familiarity and comfort may have had more to do with it.
Gretchen and I had solidified our bass-and-guitar relationship during the previous band, the Boarders. Ken and I had a musical history dating back to the late 1970s, and the three of us had played together in the early Cowlix. Gretchen played rhythm guitar then, so it’s likely that most of the discovery in the Turbines’ evolving musical chemistry took place in Gretchen and Ken’s development as a rhythm section.
An entry in Gretchen Schaefer’s series of Howling Turbines posters based on Three Stooges publicity stills. Hubley Archives.
One of the things that made the Turbines such hot stuff early on, I believe, was an appetite for new-to-us material coupled with the confidence that we could do something good with it. Comfortable with each other personally and musically, we just had a lot of songs we wanted to try.
And if the stylistic promiscuity that I’ve written about so often had risen to a new height with the Boarders, it hit the stratosphere with the return of Ken Reynolds.
In those growth years of the Howling Turbines, Ken was like Santa Claus when it came to bringing in songs. I’m a lifelong Byrds fan and have the Rickenbacker to prove it, but it was Ken who proposed that we do “World Turns All Around Her,” “Have You Seen Her Face,” “Why,” “One Hundred Years From Now” and “Thoughts and Words” — one of the Turbines’ best numbers.
Bang a drum slowly and hold the stick lowly. Ken Reynolds at the Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
Meanwhile, deep into blues and R&B, Ken nudged us in those directions as well. He sang Little Walter’s “My Babe,” and brought in Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.”
Some of Ken’s picks quickly became signature Turbines numbers. “Thoughts and Words” was one; others were Johnny Cash’s “Home of the Blues,” rendered as country-metal, and Buddy Holly’s “That’s What They Say,” propelled by Ken’s trademark rumble on the tom-toms.
DH and the boys outside the Taverna during a Howling Turbines gig on Aug. 1, 1999. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
Not that Gretchen and I were twiddling our thumbs in the parking lot while Ken was doing all the repertoire shopping. Gretchen brought in another of our most durable songs, the Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” on which she sang lead.
In a nod to Gram Parsons’ exemplary soul-country crossovers, we sang through-harmony on James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet.” (We bought the single at Bill O’Neil’s House of Rock and Roll on a February day.) The three of us turned the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” into a dramatic metallic dirge featuring Gretchen’s excellent supporting vocal and bass signature riff adapted from Jeff Beck.
And among my first contributions to the Turbines Hit Parade was a song I had been hankering to do for 20 years, Gene Clark’s “The Same One.” I vividly remember how great it felt as we were learning it and the pieces were falling into place, the whole suddenly transcending the sum of the parts. That’s what I’m in it for.
Who do you love?
That day job that I lost in March 1997, by the way, was a case of crossing the fence to get at the greener grass, only to find that it’s Astroturf. It was an editing position, so-called, at a digital multimedia company in Portland, Maine. The company developed corporate websites with an emphasis on tourism and video games, among other products — pioneering stuff in Maine in the mid-1990s.
Ken’s copy of our late 1998 repertoire, complete with implement notes. Hubley Archives.
The firm had its office downtown. I found out about it during my stint as features editor for Maine Times, an alternative newsweekly that was tottering toward the exit by the time it moved to Portland in 1994. MT and the multimedia firm were in the same building on Congress Street and shared a wall.
So even as we at the doomed MT were feeling the mass-media buzz about the brave new world of digital communications, we were hearing the merry laughter of the staff at the multimedia company next door and smelling the delicious English muffins that they toasted each morning.
Alden Bodwell and Doug setting up the Turbines stage for a performance at the Free Street Taverna. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
Hankering for more merriment and English muffins than Maine Times could provide at that point, in August 1995 I went over the wall and got a job at the multimedia company.
(Actually, I just went down the corridor. And shortly thereafter, the wall was removed. Ms. Carson, tear down that wall! Maine Times moved elsewhere in the building when its owner, who also owned the Casco Bay Weekly, consolidated operations into less space to save on rent. My company expanded into the former MT space, so I could sit at my new desk at my 21st-century job and look over to where my old desk had been, back there in the 20th century.)
Well, so much for merriment and muffins. The multimedia company and I were not a good fit. This I realized only a few weeks in, during an evening of calling state parks in Hawaii to find out how many trails and restrooms they had. Useful work, but not my work.
The end of a long hot afternoon: the Howling Turbines back at the rehearsal hall after a 90 F gig at the Free Street Taverna in August 1999. From left: Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds, Alden Bodwell. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
I’m not sure when the management realized our poor fit. I suppose it could have been around the time I announced I was taking a leave of absence so that Gretchen and I could travel for six weeks. In any case, I was freelancing again by April ’97 — with both my former employers ultimately among my clients.
Once again, I was living up to the mini-bio that followed my published articles — “a musician and writer living in Portland, Maine.” And yep, the band was hot stuff, nuclear batteries to power and Howling Turbines to speed.
But what didn’t happen much for this freelance writer was songwriting. I wrote two for the Turbines, “Just a Word From You, Sir” in 1997 and “Caphead” in 1998 — and that was it for my songwriting career until 2010.
I can’t explain it, at least not definitively. You might think that once I was free-lancing again, it would have been easier to cultivate inspiration and develop a writing routine like real songwriters do. It was a golden opportunity that I somehow failed to seize.
Instead, I chased writing and editing assignments — getting some good ones and even a Maine Press Association award — and worried about money. And the Turbines played on.
A poster for a 1999 performance. The world won. Hubley Archives.
The lack of original material is apparent in this selection of Turbines rehearsal recordings, in which only “Caphead” was written for the band; the rest are holdovers from the Fashion Jungle and the Boarders. See the album in the Bandcamp store.
Caphead (Hubley) In the late 1990s, I started seeing all these young guys wearing ball caps, driving around in tuned Hondas and looking coldly murderous. A fatal fight among some of them in a Denny’s parking lot that year gave me the first verse. This was the last complete song I wrote before a dry spell that lasted until early 2010. Apologies to “Secret Agent Man.” From a Howling Turbines rehearsal on Aug. 8, 1999. Doug Hubley, guitar and lead vocal. Ken Reynolds, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass and vocal.
Je t’aime (Hubley) This song is an interpretation, somewhat unfair to her, of an affair I had with a Swedish girl in 1976. I wrote “Je t’aime” in 1982, during the early Fashion Jungle era, revived it for the Boarders and kept it for the Howling Turbines. Aug. 8, 1999.
Dance (Hubley) This is the final version of a song that started out in 1988 with the Fashion Jungle in a much different musical setting. Seven years later, when I needed material for the Boarders, I wrote new music for those lyrics because I couldn’t remember the Fashion Jungle’s version and didn’t realize that I had a recording of it, later unearthed. Here it is by the Howling Turbines in a rehearsal on March 22, 1998.
Breaker’s Remorse (Hubley) Hearing the expression “buyer’s remorse” for the first time in 1987, I parlayed it into a song for the Fashion Jungle about someone who needs encouragement expressing herself. It came back with the Boarders and ended up with the HTs, who recorded this version in 1998 or ’99.
So we were pleased, if surprised, by Ken Reynolds’ invitation to see the jukebox musical Five Guys Named Moe, based on Jordan’s jumping R&B, at the Ogunquit Playhouse in August 1996.
Ken seemed to take the theme quite seriously in this outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.
Surprised in part because Gretchen and I almost never go to musicals, but in larger part because the invitation from our longtime friend and former bandmate seemed like some kind of overture. “Is Ken asking us on a date?” we wondered.
I have known Ken, who is a drummer, since 1975. We met while working in the stockroom at Jordan Marsh at the Maine Mall, and found that our senses of humor really meshed. Three Stooges and Monty Python seemed very insidery in Portland, Maine, in the mid-1970s. We became good friends.
Gretchen in an outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.
Our musical relationship started in 1977 with the Curley Howard Band, and we played together on and off until 1991, when Ken left the Cowlix. In that countryish band, Gretchen played guitar and bass, and I played guitar and accordion.
Doug Hubley strikes a pose that would intimidate even Wally Cox in this outtake from the boxing-poster session. Hubley Archives.
Through all the musical comings and goings, our longtime friendship with Ken had remained solid. But Ken’s invitation to drinks, dinner and a show (his family had season tickets at the playhouse) was an order of magnitude or two higher than our crowd’s usual frolics.
Gretchen Schaefer and I were calling ourselves “Howling Turbines” before Ken Reynolds returned as drummer. This song list bridges the two periods; the songs in black ink, we learned with Ken. The acoustic material of the interrim, such as Leonard Cohen’s “The Bells” (listed here as “Take This Longing”) didn’t last into the Turbines. Hubley Archives.
It was a fun occasion on a warm sunny day. We had gin and tonics at Barnacle Billy’s and dinner somewhere nice. Five Guys Named Moe — Gretchen’s and my introduction to the Ogunquit Playhouse — was mostly music with a minimum of contrived plot, so we liked it. (Mop!)
The occasion gave us more time to talk than usual and it was good to get caught up with Ken. I remember sitting in the sun on Barnacle Billy’s patio as Ken told us that he had taken up drums again, performing at a church. He was happy to be playing although the congregation was fractious and, I think, split up either just before or just after Ogunquit.
Speaking of split-ups, this get-together was only a month or so after Jonathan Nichols-Pethick had left Gretchen’s and my band, the Boarders. While Jon’s departure had left us without a drummer, it also left us with ideas for new things to try — notably for Gretchen to sing more and for us to try some harmonies.
An ungloved Gretchen in 1998. Hubley Archives.
In the months after Jonathan and his wife, Nancy, lit out for Indiana, Gretchen and I tried out new material, from the Carter Family to Leonard Cohen, and also set the electric instruments aside and played acoustic guitars — anticipating our current band, Day for Night, by about 10 years.
In between the Boarders and Day for Night, though, there was another electric (and how!) band. I can’t remember the specifics, but sometime between our Ogunquit evening and our first rehearsals in early 1997, the three of us agreed that it would be a good idea for Ken to come back. And the Howling Turbines were born.
Ken Reynolds in the late 1990s. Photograph by Jeff Stanton.
Ken hauled his drums back down into the basement in February 1997, 20 years to the month after he and I first started making music together. I remember the distinct pleasure I felt as the three of us got the ball rolling again. We knew each other well, personally and otherwise, and it didn’t take long to find our sound.
Which was not the Boarders’ sound. The two bands shared a format: the classic three-piece lineup of bass, drums and guitar. They shared a certain amount of material, and they shared Gretchen and me. But the sonics were quite different.
Much of the difference, of course, had to do with the drummers. Jonathan and Ken brought clearly
contrasting, if equally effective, approaches to
making the three-piece format work.
Your author in a film selfie, shot in the bedroom mirror in 1999. Notice the Concord Coach schedule tucked in the mirror frame in case we needed to make a quick getaway. Hubley Archives.
Jonathan kept a great beat, but brought a light touch and a lot of ornament and texture to the instrumental fabric.
With perhaps a decade of experience over Jon, by this point Ken was a much sparer stylist. He brought a relentless focus to the beat and an almost mathematical sense to his fills. Interestingly, Ken also worked his tom-toms, especially the floor tom, much harder with the Turbines than with our previous groups.
Their kits sounded quite different, too. Jon was playing a Yamaha set that had a mid-weight sound. Ken, meanwhile, had left his original Ringo Starr-model Ludwigs behind and brought in a massive set of silver-gray Pearls that fairly bristled with chrome pipes and mysterious fittings. That was a kit that invited heavy whacking.
Vocals made the other big difference between the Boarders and the Turbines. Where Gretchen had one vocal number with the earlier group, she did lead or harmony vocals on much of the Turbines’ repertoire, including through-harmonies on songs like “Matty Groves,” which we had worked out prior to Ken’s return.
Ken later picked up some lead vocals, too. The simple fact of additional voices added a welcome new dimension to the Turbines’ sound.
The Howling Turbines repertoire in November 1997. Ten of the 23 songs were new to the Turbines. Hubley Archives.
There was one other sonic supplement that is ridiculous to mention except for the fact that it had such a big effect. Actually, it was a big effect: a Danelectro “Daddy O” overdrive box that opened up a whole new world of noisemaking to me. I had been using a compressor for the big big sounds — and now the Daddy O enabled me to be not just loud, but abrasive!
Heavy drums, more vocals, metal guitar. Gretchen and I had been playing around with the name “Howling Turbines” before Ken came back (it was that or “The Lager-Rhythms”).
But these Turbines really did howl.
Another slice of the Turbines team. From left, photographer and longtime friend Jeff Stanton, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds. Photo by Doug Hubley.
Early Howling Turbines rehearsal recordings on Bandcamp:
Matty Groves (Traditional) Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer and I devoted one of our first through-harmony efforts to this very old British folk song. It’s such a country tune! The success of this early HT staple encouraged us to try a few other folk songs like “John Riley” and “Pretty Polly,” but this was always the best of the lot. A rehearsal recording from June 1, 1997.
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 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.
A complete listing of Notes from a Basement postsand Bandcamp albums relating to the Fashion Jungle appears at the end of this post.
“It’s hard to believe it has been 40 years,” says Mike Piscopo — 40 years since the emergence of the Fashion Jungle, a rock band that he, Ken Reynolds, Jim Sullivan and I created.
Evolving over nine years from that original quartet to trio, quartet, quintet and trio again, the FJ remains an emotional landmark for many who were involved in it.
For me, the FJ was like graduation, as we sloughed off our covers-band identity as The Mirrors and focused, instead, on original songs rooted in personal experience and delivered with all the ardor we could muster.
“The FJ opened my eyes to the possibility that instead of just being a technician copying things, you could actually invent music with nothing limiting it but imagination,” says multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jim Sullivan.
The 1980s rock press in Portland, Maine, were fans. The music magazine Sweet Potato put us on the cover three times and reviewed our shows. According to SP writers Seth Berner and Will Jackson, respectively, we were Maine’s “best ‘new wave’ songsters,” offering “[p]otent, provocative, inventive originals played with precision and intensity.”
For me and for others involved with the band, the FJ years stand out as personally transformational. “I loved it,” says Gretchen Schaefer, who applied her talents in visual art to FJ projects and didn’t shy away from carrying amps. The excitement wasn’t totally about the music (or the fact that, even as the FJ was becoming a thing, she and I were building a relationship that’s still going strong). In some ways, the FJ was providing the soundtrack for myriad life changes within our circle.
In Gretchen’s case, she says, “I was taking myself more seriously as an artist at that time — it was the beginning of that for me. I finally was out of an extended adolescence and I felt like an adult with some agency in my life. I was doing things that young adults do, instead of just dubbing around as a student.”
I realized early in 2021
that the 40th anniversary of the Fashion Jungle would arrive this summer, as Mike, Jim, Ken and I had settled on the FJ moniker in June 1981. And that anniversary is the perfect opportunity for a long-overdue departure from the solitary musings that typically constitute Notes from a Basement.
So, four decades after it all began, it’s a genuine pleasure to present a Fashion Jungle retrospective in the words of the people — other than me — who played in the band or supported the musicians through the occasional thick and the frequent episodes of thin. (Constitutionally unable to butt out, I do offer a few notes in italic type for clarity and continuity.) Read on to hear from:
Ken Reynolds and Mike Piscopo, with whom I first played in the Curley Howard Band in the late 1970s;
Jim Sullivan, who joined us in The Mirrors;
Steve Chapman, who played with Ken and me in the band’s most enduring lineups;
Kathren Torraca, whose youthful spark and keyboard work defined the best-known FJ lineup;
Dan Knight, who helped fill a gap in the band’s eight years of being;
and from GretchenSchaefer and fellow roadie Jeff Stanton, whose photos have documented the adventures of the FJ and many of the bands that followed.
Ken Reynolds, take it away!
Ken Reynolds: Drums, vocals, lyrics
Curley Howard Band (1977–78) / The Mirrors (1979–81) / The Fashion Jungle (1981–89) / The Cowlix (1989–91) / Howling Turbines (1997–2004)
Ken and I met in 1975 as employees of the Jordan Marsh department store in South Portland, Maine. Our musical interests were quite disparate, but our senses of humor meshed — and we were both itching to escape our respective lonely basements and make music with other humans. Ken’s drive and imagination on the drums became defining elements of the FJ sound.
Ken says: The tasks of a band member are many, whether it’s working on a musical idea for a song, the constant reworking and formation of a nearly completed song or, even better, working on a set list for a gig. But the creating of a song, a sound or a style, lyrically and musically, is a collective joy and fulfillment that aspiring musicians hope to achieve.
I think I can speak for all members of the Fashion Jungle: We experienced all this.
Here’s an example. In 1983, I couldn’t rehearse for several weeks due to a mishap I suffered at a company barbecue in Westbrook. I was playing a game of pepper — a warmup exercise where a batter hits a softball back to a gloved fielder in rapid succession. The batter, my boss, was a little too enthusiastic — he got aggressive with his swings and swatted a ball back to me that hit my gloved hand and fractured my thumb.
I needed surgery and was out of commission for a month. The Fashion Jungle continued to meet weekly and started working on new material. The song being developed was Doug’s “Nothing To Say.” When I finally returned, the band had a basic structure for it in place. Doug and Steve played the song for me a couple of times and I started to get ideas for a beat. What was amazing was how quickly it coalesced into one of the best songs in the band’s repertoire and became a staple in our set list.
Those years together were some of the happiest in my life. I was working two part-time jobs, studying to complete a four-year college degree, having a steady supportive girlfriend, practicing and playing gigs around town. I was extremely busy and every day my schedule was different. Never the rote routine. The sense of purpose was gratifying and exciting!
My favorite FJ gig was at Zootz when we supplemented my drumming with a drum machine on a few songs. Steve, Doug and I successfully streamlined our music to connect the songs together, making ourselves sound more professional while adding a certain stage persona. It felt like we were creating a show and not just playing a regular gig. I think it was our best-received performance by fans and critics alike. [The show was “Dance Alert II,” a November 1987 benefit for Salvadoran refugees.]
Other memories include recording the Six Songs cassette. We all felt pressure to record and distribute some of our original music. It was a hastily completed project, lasting about a day and a half. We each chipped in some dough to book the session. The atmosphere at the studio, the Outlook in Bethel, Maine, was very relaxed and ownership was very cooperative about working with us and suggesting ideas. All in all, a fun experience (despite the high-carb meals that were provided during our overnight stay. :))
I always enjoyed opening for the Boston-based alternative bands that performed at Kayo’s. They were always friendly and genuinely offered their perspectives on the music scene in general and their support for us. Two bands in particular were Arms Akimbo and Zodio Doze — their members were very affable as they discussed the vibrant Boston scene and the best bands there.
Mike Piscopo: Guitar, bass, organ, vocals, songwriting
Curley Howard Band (1977–78) / The Mirrors (1979–81) / The Fashion Jungle (1981)
I knew Mike from “The Corner” — a convenience store in South Portland, Maine, called Patty Ann’s Superette. It was a busy social scene that spanned a wide age range. I’d been hanging around for years as a friend of the proprietors, the Stantons, and Mike was friends with Jeff Stanton’s youngest brother, Philip. Ken and I were looking for additional musicians, and Mike was learning guitar. Our first session consisted of two hours of “Green Onions.”The three of us plus bassist Andy Ingalls became the Curley Howard Band. Later, for The Mirrors, Mike added bass and organ to his portfolio. He moved to Texas in 1981.
Mike says: I don’t think the Fashion Jungle changed me personally, but I believe the structure we had — multiple instruments, vocals, etc. — really helped me musically. I was able to use that experience in a couple of bands I played with here in Texas.
And I enjoyed all the songs (or the ones I remember). I take great pride in playing them to my kids — all grown and accomplished musicians in their own form.
What does the band and that time of life represent to me now? Fond memories (although I really have to emphasize that the Curley Howard Band memories are my favorites!) Overall, I always felt the band was a tight-knit group of folks, probably because of the core history we had together. My favorite FJ gigs were the ones at Kayo’s — we were really tight [Sept. 16 and Oct. 6, 1981].
Overall, there is a special place in my mind for the time we spent making music — Curley Howard, The Mirrors, Karl Rossmann [the late-stage Mirrors], Fashion Jungle. Also, the friendships we had and still have, I believe, are priceless.
Jim Sullivan: Violin, guitar, bass, tenor sax, organ, vocals, songwriting
The Mirrors (1979–81) / The Fashion Jungle (1981–82)
The Curley Howard Band became The Mirrors with the departure of bassist Andy Ingalls and arrival of singer Christine Hanson. In response to an ad, Jim Sullivan joined us in early 1979 and turned out to be stunningly versatile — a good singer and songwriter, and an instrumentalist whose range encompassed fiddle, guitar, bass, keys and ultimately, tenor sax. Jim also brought professional savvy, which we sorely needed as a local agent heaped work on us, and a wicked sense of humor. Today Jim plays and writes music in The Barnyard Incident, an Americana band in Bethlehem, N.H.
Jim says: A bandmate during my time on the Boston Irish/Celtic circuit in the ’90s once said there are two types of bands: practicing bands and performing bands.
It was the transition from The Mirrors to the Fashion Jungle that gave me my first hint of that: Even though The Mirrors did perform songs we all liked, it seemed, in a way, more like a group of musicians taking turns in the spotlight than a cohesive unit.
The FJ, though, was the actualization of one musical trend of The Mirrors [punk and New Wave]. This focus seemed to gel more as a performing band, with everyone pulling the cart in the same direction. That did not mean we stayed in a box — just that one song had some thematic connection to the last, and led to some justified expectation for the next, giving the band its “sound.”
In addition, the FJ opened my eyes to the possibility that instead of just being a technician copying things, you could actually invent music with nothing limiting it but imagination. And I discovered at that time that I could stretch beyond stringed instruments, both banging out some tunes on the Farfisa rock organ, and taking up tenor sax and continuing to dabble in it for a couple more years. (But let’s face it: There’s something wrong with any instrument that needs a “spit valve”!)
Looking back at my all-too-short stint with the FJ (and with The Mirrors), as with all the bands of various genres I have been in, I am forever grateful that I was exposed to so much great music I might never have run into otherwise. I also took away from that era the importance of recording, both to capture a moment in time and to listen to and improve on my own playing.
On the originals front, one FJ song still on regular rotation in my mental spinning wheel is “Keep On Smiling,” mostly because of its sheer sonic power, and because I’m always easily seduced by organs of all types, from pipe to Hammond B3 to Farfisa.
Steve Chapman: Bass, guitar, vocals, songwriting
The Fashion Jungle (1981–85, 1987–89) / The Cowlix (1989)
Steve joined the FJ in autumn 1981, as Mike departed for Texas and Jim moved to Boston to attend school. Steve brought a musical sophistication that, in his bass work, was key to our ability to succeed as a trio; and that in his songwriting, simply provided the FJ with some of its very best material.
Steve says: The Fashion Jungle is still a part of me after all this time and is the band I identify with the most. The other (10-plus) bands are pretty distant memories at this point, even those I was in after the FJ.
I’ve got to say that I quite enjoyed playing Geno’s, even though it was such a pit in those days — it was also a bonafide New Wave venue. Probably a bit like The Cavern Club, although I don’t think they had the same activities in the ladies room that Geno’s had.
Maybe my favorite FJ gig of all was the Maine Festival in Brunswick [in 1984. Steve, Ken and I also played the Portland edition in 1988]. That felt fairly significant. Another would be the Portland Expo concert where we hit the big time. I can still see David Minehan of The Neighborhoods slinking around in his trench coat waiting to go on — never letting anyone catch his eye. They were pretty good but we were better, in my humble opinion. [“Going To A Go Go,” Oct. 16, 1982. Also on the bill were The Pathetix, with Mike Piscopo’s brother Gary and future FJ keyboardist Kathren Torraca.]
We had a lot of songs. Some of my favorites to play were “Breaker’s Remorse,” “Je t’aime” and, believe it or not, “Dumb Models.” We got bored with it, but it was about as heavy as it gets. We also had a nice selection of covers. I always liked playing Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan.”
The FJ made me a much better bass player as time went by. I wasn’t doing much when we first got together and the band exposed me to a lot of music that I hadn’t been paying much attention to. It was a real period of growth for me as a musician.
Kathren Torraca: Keyboards
The Fashion Jungle (1983–85)
With keyboardist Kat making it a quartet, the band reached a pinnacle of sonic richness — and local recognition — in 1983–84. Her synth textures and colors had a dramatic effect on the FJ, both expanding the types of material we could pull off and, perhaps more importantly, bringing the romanticism in our music fully to the fore. A teenager when she first joined us, Kat was also the best kind of smart aleck.
Kat says: I’m not sure that my time with the Fashion Jungle changed me, but it was one of the most fun periods of time that I look back upon. I was always a bit nervous before each gig but at the end, it felt great — no matter how it went! I loved our energy and watching the dance floor fill over the course of the night — most nights….
I was so young! It was a time of learning, maturing, exploring and lots of really great fun. Looking back, I was very excited, and lucky really, to be playing with such talented friends and getting those experiences — practices, recording, gigs, pre-gig prep and post-gig–high hanging out. And the opportunities to meet and work with other talented local musicians, and to have been an active part of the music scene in 1980s Portland.
I remember audiences singing our original songs. No particular gig stands out in detail for me, but there are a couple that I remember more than others. There was one at Kayo’s — the feeling I took from it is of a particularly packed audience and great dancing. And there were many nights at Geno’s where we had good audiences and lots of energy.
I remember going out for breakfast after gigs, practicing in Ben and Hattie Hubley’s basement, and watching you all drink Black Velvet. And Alden and his van, being on the cover of Sweet Potato and printing FJ T-shirts in my basement. [Kathren designed an early FJ shirt that featured a leg in camouflage hose wearing a bright red stiletto heel.]
Dan Knight: Bass, vocals, songwriting
The Fashion Jungle (1985)
After one last Geno’s show in Dec. 1984 — which I don’t recall at all — the Chapman-Torraca edition of the FJ, sometimes also featuring Jim Sullivan, continued to rehearse into early 1985. And then we were done, as Steve, like Jim before him, had moved to Boston, where he was studying software coding and had met his wife-to-be, Jeri Kane. But Ken and I were still game, and placed an ad in the Sweet Potato for musicians. We heard from, and hired, one: bassist Dan Knight. And by July the FJ was back in business, at least for another six months.
Dan says: In the mid-’80s, after three years of alleged study up north at the University of Maine, I’d had enough of playing music in dorm rooms and left school for the big city — Portland.
I originally hooked up with a psychedelic garage band centered around the Geno’s scene when it was in its original location, on Brown Street. I got a job driving a school van and discovered that I had a not-necessarily-healthy fondness for the British-style ale being served at the old Three Dollar Dewey’s. The psych band didn’t last long — and it was right about then that I had the obligatory hopeless romance, resulting in a broken heart that I nursed for years. Good Times.
I’d heard the name Fashion Jungle around town. They were of a previous generation when the place for cool bands was the original Downtown Lounge — and the Portland waterfront was still dangerous. I saw their ad for a bass player in the Sweet Potato, another relic of that era. It was the local music paper and everybody read it.
Whatever the Fashion Jungle’s past incarnations, at that moment it was now basically down to two, Ken and Doug. They gave me a cassette tape of their original material. I heard echoes of Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, but the Fashion Jungle was definitely its own thing. I played along with the tape as best I could, tried to get the gist, and then had an audition. I apparently passed.
The original songs were genuinely unique and the covers were unusual, including Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash. Rock bands weren’t doing that at the time. We even learned some Motown songs to play at a wedding. I believe my run in the Jungle lasted only six months.
I went back to school, finishing up at the University of Southern Maine. I still play music and, sometimes on a rainy day, still nurse that broken heart.
Gretchen Schaefer: Road manager, staff artist
The Fashion Jungle (1981–89) / As guitarist, bassist, singer: The Cowlix (1989–94) / The Boarders (1994–96) / Howling Turbines (1997–2004) / Day for Night (2007–)
Gretchen and I met in a philosophy of art class at the University of Southern Maine in autumn 1981, at the time the original FJ quartet was coming apart. (So the FJ’s is not the only 40th anniversary worth celebrating in 2021.)
As our relationship grew, she became integral to the band as a roadie and contributing artist for FJ promotional efforts. In the FJ’s final months, we decided to open for ourselves under a different name and play classic country and rock, and Gretchen joined us on stage playing rhythm guitar. She and I have made music together ever since.
Gretchen says: The first gig I saw the Fashion Jungle play was at Kayo’s [Oct. 6, 1981], and I remember just being really impressed with the band. I didn’t really know you at the time, and people talk a lot of crap, so I did not have high expectations at all — I was basically thinking it was going to be terrible.
I was so surprised at how put together the band was, how professional it seemed, just how well-rehearsed and smooth your sound was. It was a thing — you really projected an image and a sound that was cohesive, and I found that very impressive.
The other thing that struck me was that you all could play on different instruments with some fluidity and authority. It never had occurred to me that people would be able to do that. I always figured in a band, everybody had their one instrument and that’s what they would play.
The original group seemed like this crazy mashup, but it all cohered. It seemed — not really circusy, but really exciting and kind of wild. That changed when it was just you and Ken and Steve. That was a whole different iteration of the band. I was around more for that, to see it shaping and building up, but it seemed more serious in a way than those early gigs.
With the Fashion Jungle, I was an observer mostly. I had a privileged position in that I was very close to the band, I was at a lot of rehearsals, recording sessions and gigs.
I loved it. It was exciting. I’d never been close to a band before — a real band that performed out. Just observing how bands acted and interacted with one another, and how it all came together and how gigs were gotten and played. And bands were such a big part of what we were all thinking about growing up.
Being able to do some of the artwork was something I really liked. It allowed me to participate in my own artistic way. I was trying to respond to the band, to take in your ideas and meld them with my own vision. I like that commission process a lot, assembling ideas together into a coherent whole. [An established mosaic artist now, doing business as Great Blue Mosaic, Gretchen designed posters, T-shirts and the cover image for the Six Songs audiocassette.]
That time of life seemed like the culmination of my youth. I’d had a lot of different experiences before that, but it seemed like a high point of the young part of my life, not only our relationship building but just being part of that milieu.
So many of the gigs blend together — all those gigs at Geno’s where I was tending the door with Alden. [Alden Bodwell had been a roadie and friend since the Curley Howard days. He passed away in December 2019.] There were certain fans that I would see at every gig. That little blonde skateboard girl — she looked too young to be there, for sure. She’d have a skateboard with her, she clearly was out of bounds, but she came to so many gigs.
Then there was that tall guy with the bushy, sandy hair who danced. A really bouncy dancer. And people like Seth Berner, Will Jackson, you would just see a lot at the gigs, they really liked the FJ.
Geno’s was gritty, like totally gritty. Then the Marble Bar was less gritty. The 1984 Maine Festival was the cool pinnacle, and Zootz seemed like this New York, groovy vibe, which was fun.
It was interesting to hear those same songs over and over at different gigs, and how they would change. They’d be faster or slower, the mood often would change with how you would emphasize the lyrics. It was interesting to me to hear that because I had not heard performances repeatedly like that.
“Shortwave Radio” was always very striking to me. It’s a really percussive song, and I thought that was interesting. That was probably a huge standout for me. “Je t’aime” is a great song, so sophisticated. Those Ken songs, like “Dumb Models” — I thought that was so funny. It was so apropos, and it was such an unapologetically boy view of things. The stripper song, “Entertainer.”
I always liked the postmortem after the gigs. We’d bring the equipment back, and there’d always be that little period of just hanging around for a few minutes, talking it over in the dark. It would be late at night. There was always the rating system: Ken would say, “Well, how do you think it went?” It was a scale of 1 to 10. Everybody would have to give their number.
And the whole divvying up of the money after a gig. Alden would always want to refuse his share, and you’d all have to force him to take some.
The Fashion Jungle as a band changed so much over time. It was interesting to see the rotating personnel piece of it. It had never occurred to me that there would be this changing cast of characters, and that somebody would continue to try to put it together again — “Are we going to actually try to replace that person? Are we just going to function as we are?” — and how that drove the music and how you presented yourselves.
Reading about other bands afterward, it made a lot more sense to me, having seen it firsthand, how difficult it is to keep a group of people all going in the same direction for very long, especially people at a really volatile time of life. You were all in that young adult time, where people were making pretty big life decisions that affected the band.
Jeff Stanton: Road manager, staff photographer-videographer
The Fashion Jungle (1981–89) / The Cowlix (1989–94) / The Boarders (1994–96) / Howling Turbines (1997–2004) / Day for Night (2007–)
Living and working at Patty Ann’s Superette, Jeff and his siblings attracted friends of diverse ages to the Stanton family’s variety store. The roots of several bands, including the FJ, were set deep in this fertile social scene, which produced the Curley Howard Band and its successors, as well as the Pathetix and the Foreign Students. Featuring the latter two bands and the Mirrors (1980) and the FJ (1981), “Corner Night” concerts paid tribute to this South Portland phenomenon. Jeff has amassed an important photographic record of these bands, their descendants and their times.
Jeff says: In connecting with friends of my siblings in the neighborhood, I was, I guess, an observer or a witness to several individuals’ musical development. I would go back as far as Truck Farm — you and John Rolfe and Tom Hansen. That was the seeds in the soil there. Things were germinating then. [Truck Farm, 1971–72, was my first performing band, another decadal milestone for 2021. John Rolfe went on to form the Foreign Students and The Luxembourgs.] I even remember it when I was away at school — the people who played guitar and how others would gather around.
One of the things that I really appreciate about the whole experience was the social connections I made. It was good for me. The bonds that were created then, they’ve endured. We’ve grown as friends.
And being part of that creative enterprise was cool. That goes back to that whole Corner experience, where there was a whole nexus, network, of activity, and people coming and going. It made my social interaction very easy, because I didn’t have to get outside myself — everybody was coming there, for whatever reason. It was a neighborhood vortex. That circle of interaction and creative expression was very satisfying.
I did make some effort to document visually, in photographs, what was happening. And then not being a musical participant, I wanted to contribute some way, so being able to lug equipment, I was certainly capable of doing that. That made me feel I was part of it.
There’s one memory I have from Geno’s where I was talking to a girl, and we were talking about the band. This always stuck with me — she said “crucial,” the music being crucial, or “essential.” It was just this attractive girl I was talking to, and I didn’t really know her. I don’t know if she knew you guys, so it was just interesting to hear a stranger comment about the music, which I thought was cool.
I enjoy live performances now, but I often didn’t go to hear other local bands. I think as a social activity, the FJ actually got me to go out to hear music, probably because I’d been introduced to it — I was desensitized, a little bit more comfortable with it.
I remember once hearing somebody being disappointed by a concert because it didn’t sound like the album. But part of the appeal of live music is that it’s an ephemeral expression, and the result of everything that’s happened to that point. And it’s appealing to hear the same songs live more than once.
If you had gone only once, and they played really fast, “really fast” would be the memory. But there are other times when there’s a different vibe. I know it’s probably different for band members who rehearse and rehearse, and that’s why one has to appreciate when they can bring some freshness to it.
Besides, sometimes “too fast” is just what you need.
I reread some Basement posts, and I’ve been listening to FJ music over the course of things. It’s interesting how listening to it brings this well of emotion back up. It was a high point, it was something that brought things together, got us together.
Whenever I go by there now, heading out to Cape Elizabeth and seeing the Corner, I don’t see a bunch of kids hanging around. I don’t see guitarists standing up against the side of the building, or people sitting on the side, or skateboarding in the parking lot there. I sometimes think of that time and wonder, if I had approached life differently and decided to set out on my own and not stayed at the store — well, things would be a lot different. I would be very interested and curious to know what different things would have sprouted for everybody else, too.
The FJ wove some vibrant threads, tones, and textures into the fabric of my experiences at that period — nights at Jim’s and Geno’s were always an event. I don’t know what the warp and woof of the fabric of my being would be without the various FJ interactions and influences. I imagine the patterns would be different.
More from the Fashion Jungle on Bandcamp and in Notes From A Basement
No time for pesky reading? Head straight for the Notes From A Basement store atBandcamp!
What have I learned
about songwriting since 1969?
Not as much as one could have hoped. I still haven’t picked up enough music theory to use “jazz chords,” although at least I’m no longer afraid of them. Killer riffs? Forget it. My riffs don’t even like to argue.
Because I’ve never supported myself from songwriting, I haven’t learned to produce good songs when I’m not “feeling it.” For the same reason, I’ve never internalized the various kinds of self-discipline that go into crafting hits (as opposed to merely good songs).
For instance, a songwriting rule that I have trouble obeying is songwriter Harlan Howard’s observation, later elevated to the status of commandment, that country music is “three chords and the truth.”
Invoking the holy name of “truth” feels powerful, but that’s deceptive. Where does country music, or any genre of any medium, get off laying claim to truth, or is it Truth? Isn’t blues also three chords and the truth? (And maybe a truer truth, on average, than country, a genre that for all its greatness is still capable of producing toxins like “God Made Girls.”)
In fact, it’s actually true that truth isn’t really so scarce in creative work. Many songwriters remain true to themselves in their work even if their truth isn’t your truth. (And in any case, it’s also true that a grain of truth doesn’t make a pearl of every song.)
And if their truth is your truth, or something akin to it — or the song resonates with you even though the writer’s intention has escaped you altogether — then you can add your own truth to that particular heap.
I doubt that it’s possible to like a song without it striking some chord in your being, even if it’s just the urge to yell “Wooo!” And if you hate a song, that’s likewise reflecting something true in you.
It’s the “meh” songs that you have to feel sorry for.
So decreeing that a form of music (visual art, literature, etc.) has to be truthful in order to qualify for a label is like decreeing that a liquid must contain water to qualify as a beverage. It’s not really such a high threshold to get over. Ultimately, the “three chords and the truth” thing strikes me as more grandstanding or even defensiveness — “I don’t know many chords, but I speak truth” — than anything else. Go ahead and plant your flag on the hill of truth, if there’s any room left.
Therefore the truth part, while problematic, doesn’t challenge me as a songwriter. (And, again, since I don’t make my living from it, I can afford to wait for the True Ideas.) But that three-chord limit — wow, that’s tough. Five or six is more like it for me. Maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t use jazz chords.
This struggle with simplifying stems from both my relatively feeble melodic imagination — that is, I’m inclined to derive melody from chords and not the other way around; and my resistance to echoing the old and familiar, even if it’s familiar because people like it and people like it because it’s good. I’ll happy play the old, familiar and good if somebody else wrote it — but trying to emulate it in my own songwriting just makes me feel like a chump and a wanna-be. (And I get enough of that from walking past mirrors.)
Similarly, despite compelling evidence that compact song structures are generally preferable in the genres I play, rock and country, six- or eight-line verses and bridges tend to be my stock in trade.
But a few times I have managed to keep it simple (and didn’t even need the “stupid”). One example is my song “You Wore It Well.” After writing a string of songs that are country mostly because I say they are, I wanted to write something that came across as “country” all by itself.
Song structure was only one component of the exercise, but I made it work: four-line verses and bridge and, if not three, then four chords all told. And no minor chords! — quite unusual in my catalog. (See Recording Notes, below, for more information on the recordings linked here.)
Something else I have learned since 1969 is to carry a songwriting notebook. This provides a place to store ideas, and a place to find ideas when you’re casting about for one. (And a place to revisit past failures and stalemates, but never mind.)
The concept for “You Wore It Well” — a song that uses things applied to the skin to sketch the course of a relationship — lived in the notebook for a while until, in a hotel room in Portsmouth, N.H., in February 2013, I roughed out some words. Four months later, in Cabin No. 19 at the Chautauqua in Boulder, Colo., during the afternoon quiet hours, “You Wore It Well” came together with a minimum of agony, as the better songs seem to do.
Another pretty good country song, despite all the songwriting lessons I hadn’t yet absorbed in 1977, is “Let the Singer.” I say “country song” despite its cryptic and fragmentary title and, even more transgressive, the chord count — seven, including both major- and minor-sevenths.
Seven chords and, yes, some truth. It’s not an especially macho howl, yet “Let the Singer” is a howl nonetheless — baying at the moon by a wolf who wants to join the pack. As angsty young guitarslingers will do, in those days I valorized the live fast–die young lifestyle and its practitioners, like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons.
It all seemed very romantic until so many musicians that I liked died young.
Thirty-eight years later I had developed a finer grasp of the effects that time and romance can work on one another. More concretely, in the helpful-advice category, I’d realized that you can plan out your song or skip the plan, but either way, it should sound like you skipped the plan.
For a few years I had wanted to write a song about three sounds that catch my heart’s notice: a train horn in the distance, pedal steel guitar playing especially by Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and the voice of my wife and musical partner, Gretchen Schaefer. But a number of writing attempts that hewed close to that literal theme went nowhere. They were too schematic. It was too much plan, not enough song.
Finally, in 2015, again at the Chautauqua, I wrestled the controls away from the conceptual scheme so that the words could go where they wanted. The result was “Just a Moment in the Night.” Gretchen, steel, and the train are all still there, but now as prominent elements in a larger tapestry depicting the pleasures and pains of passing time.
“The pleasures and pains of passing time” — vague much? Well, yes. Because I also learned, pretty early on, some reasons why many songwriters are reluctant to get specific about what their songs mean. That meaning, of course, is ultimately up to you, the listener. Why should I limit your experience of a song or pre-empt your imagination?
See, here’s a way to make truth, in the sense of “three chords and —,” work for you. It’s a lovely thing if the songwriter’s, singer’s and untold throngs of listeners’ truths all chime together as one. But even if only one participant’s bell is rung, that song has earned its wings.
So, just as it’s preferable not to talk too specifically about what your songs mean, it’s better yet when the songs themselves aren’t too prescriptive or obvious. It’s not fair to invite your listener’s imagination inside if there’s no place at the table for it.
Don’t tell ’em — don’t even show ’em — just strew the path with images and hints and fragments, and let the listener piece the story together into a truth of their own. (Bob Dylan being the master of this approach.)
I was waiting for an art history class to start in early 1981 when I wrote the line, “The only time you’re happy is when it’s right after sex.” That was the start to “Shortwave Radio,” which I finished on a June evening a few months later, with a gin gimlet sweating greenly on the glossy red table and The Bob Newhart Show, muted, on the television.
Although I do have a short but happy history with shortwave radios, I can’t explain how they came to symbolize something about my character in that song. (And if I could explain, as noted above, I wouldn’t.) But it was true at the time. And I’m just glad it happened because it’s a good song and it came along just as my band at the time, the Fashion Jungle, was scrambling for good originals.
The biggest challenge to Harlan Howard’s truth is the worst kind of schematic song — and country music abounds with them: the ones that get written because someone has been afflicted with a big stiff idea for a gimmick that must be gratified by wrapping a song around it, whether because a paycheck is dangling out in front of them somewhere or they just can’t get over themselves.
(I’d like to offer as evidence “A Boy Named Sue,” but its huge chart success meant that fans were mining a lot of some kind of truth out of it. And they’re digging deeper now. The title was adopted for both a documentary with a transgender protagonist and a 2004 book about the role of gender in American country music. So truth is as truth does.)
But sometimes a gimmick can be convincingly cleaned up and dressed in a decent suit. At least once, my weakness for wordplay started me on a song — “Where Was I,” whose cute “inspiration” resulted in a lyric that’s quite good, but not at all cute.
One day I got the Grass Roots’ hit “Where Were You When I Needed You” in my head — and “Where was I when you needed me?” seemed like a potentially meaty converse of it. The resulting lyric is cross-listed in the Themes of Country Songs index under both Cheating and Mid-life Crisis. (But the 6/8 rhythm and the melody would have sounded nice with the Stax rhythm section.)
A few guidelines are apparently helpful in songwriting, since here I am offering some, but as a non-professional songwriter I can indulge in the belief that much of songwriting success is out of my hands. I like to think that random combinations of time, place, season, weather, companion, political climate, frame of mind, mode of transport, historical interests, overheard remarks, current reading, prevailing odors, beverages at hand, etc., can, when you least expect it but maybe when you most want it, spontaneously coalesce into a song idea.
Which leads me to another lesson for songwriters (even though it somewhat weakens the previous edict about gimmicks): Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Song ideas are rare and precious. If something looks like a song idea (and doesn’t look like “A Boy Named Sue” or “May the Bird of Paradise Fly up Your Nose” or “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”), grab it. (You don’t have to keep it.)
A likely specimen floated my way in summer 2019 via the intercom on an Amtrak train. We were stopped on a siding somewhere, not at a station, amidst trees in western Massachusetts.
It was June 2019, the train was Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited and we were headed west on a single-track mainline. A voice on the intercom announced that we were waiting for an eastbound train to clear the track. So we sat and waited, as we have done many times before.
But the rhythm of that announcement — “We’re waiting for an eastbound train” — struck me. I wrote those words in my songwriting notebook in hopes that some actual song idea would come along and keep them company.
Sure enough, a few days later, while Gretchen and I were sitting on the back porch of No. 19, back at the Chautauqua, I wrote “(Waiting For A) Westbound Train.” What a gift: A nuisance for an Amtrak conductor and his passengers that sparks a new song for me, my first and last in 2019. I prefer gifts (most of the time) that don’t come at other people’s expense, but when it comes to bolstering my glacier-paced songwriting output, I can’t be fussy.
You will notice the directional change, from eastbound in the conductor’s announcement to westbound in the song. Between the alliteration, which is nothing to be sneezed at in songwriting, and the fraught and many-layered symbolism of East vs. West in the American mythology, I had to bend the facts to suit the reality. “We’re headed back East as we always must be / To the same old and the good old and the old used-to-be.”
Fifty years almost to the month prior to “Westbound Train,” in 1969, I wrote the first song that I thought was any good. Its inspiration was simple: my relief at breaking up with a perfectly nice girl whose only offense was to be around when I was feeling hemmed in.
Well, I was 15 and the song, “Glad to Be Free,” sounds in every way like the product of a 15-year-old. But though I’m not linking to it here, not will I likely ever sing it again (way to clear the room in a hurry!), I still regard it as the start of my credibility as a songwriter.
And what my oldest and my newest song (and some of the good ones in between) have in common is their rootedness in a real and immediate situation — a teenager out of love who’s moving on, riders on a train who’d like to move on. Small realities, way back in 1969 and just last summer, but they’re my realities and that’s what I have to work with.
That’s country songwriting the way I do it: seven chords and some truth.
The setup for a songwriting session at the Maine Idyll motor court in Freeport, Maine, October 2017. Hubley Archives.
Skip the wordy blabbington and hightail it directly to the Bandcamp album!
Sometime in the fall
of 1972 I wrote a song called “Waiting.” I was 18 and the lyrics of “Waiting” were correspondingly melodramatic, but the music had possibilities in a Jefferson Airplane kind of way. In any case, at the time I thought it was just fine.
My band at the time was Airmobile (named for a song by Tim Hardin and Artie Butler — um, and Chuck Berry), and my bandmates were singer-guitarist John Rolfe, bassist Tom Berg and drummer Eddie Greco. We rehearsed in Eddie’s garage in Cape Elizabeth and played a few dates at the South Portland Rec Center and similar milestone-on-the-road-to-fame engagements.
I wanted the band to learn “Waiting,” and so in December I recorded a demo in my parents’ basement. Wow! Awful! There’s some decent lead guitar (Neil Young and Jorma Kaukonen much? etc.), but limited exposure is the only way to survive this recording — distorted, shrill, badly sung and drenched with reverb.
I am providing an excerpt anyway, but not because I think you’ll enjoy it.
Remnants of an Airmobile, together again for the last time at a party at John Rolfe’s apartment in the 1980s. From left, Ed Greco, Doug Hubley, John Rolfe. Jeff Stanton photo.
We never did add “Waiting” to our repertoire, because the song is no root beer float and the demo sure doesn’t help it. But it does have the dubious distinction of being the first demo labeled as such in The Tape Catalog, the contents list of all my hundreds of homemade recordings.
As a demo, “Waiting” has scant company in the reel-to-reel section of the catalog, maybe four or five songs. (As a bad recording of a cringeworthy piece of music, however, it has all kinds of company.) There wasn’t much need for demos: I’ve never been a prolific songwriter, for one thing. And anyway, in the days when I was playing with electric bands, it was just as easy to teach my occasional creations to the group at rehearsal.
“Waiting” in the Tape Catalog. The weird “HSE” emblem is the Hubley Seal of Approval, reserved for tracks that I wouldn’t have been embarrassed to play for company in the mid-1970s. “PEA Source” and “Tear Source” indicate that these cuts appeared on the “Forty Years of a Basement” compilations Phoney English Accent and Tear in Every Eye, respectively. The Post-It was telling me there was usable material on this tape. The “ha, ha” — well, ha, ha.
For many years, when I did rise to the level of demo’ing a song, that may have been more about my state of mind than anything else. Hence the 1983 version of “Nothing to Say” (below) that, for me and the Gretsch Anniversary Model, is a sustained howl as much as it is a teaching tool.
A four-track recorder that I obtained in 1994 encouraged me to develop more of a demo habit. It was the first recorder I’d had since 1987 that enabled me to overdub and, better yet, no tedious-but-perilous bouncing was needed to layer up three or four tracks, in contrast to the Sony reel-to-reel two-track I’d used for so long. (Bouncing is the technique of mixing multiple recorded tracks onto a blank track so you can reuse the first tracks for new parts. For me in the 1970s, this involved mixing the two Sony tracks onto a cassette recorder and then recording parts back onto the Sony alongside that mixdown.)
Suddenly I was back to building arrangements on tape, and I liked it as much as ever.
The band at that time was the Boarders, featuring Gretchen Schaefer, my partner then and now, on bass and Jonathan Nichols-Pethick on drums. In contrast to its covers-heavy predecessor outfit, the Cowlix, this trio developed a fair amount of originals and therefore had more use for demos. I had a few new or re-conceived songs, and Jon had a couple others that I interfered with — er, contributed to — with the four-track coming in handy.
Like demos often do, these reveal facets or details of the songs that got lost along the way, and it’s fun to compare what stayed and what sloughed off. And then there are memos: scratch recordings, often fragmentary, that those of us who can’t read or write music make to remember important bits, like melodies.
In the musical world
there is nothing special about demos and memos, and I’m riding in a commuter van writing this and trying to figure out how such recordings relate to my fixation on material objects, notably documents in whatever medium, and their role as anchors of memory.
My memo-and-demo machine of choice: The Zoom H4n stands ready in Colorado. Hubley Archives.
Such recordings are not the keys to total recall, but most of the demos presented here do retain at least a vestige of their making, if only the glow from the metal-shaded lamp I use in the basement. Better than no memories at all.
There was a little outbreak of demo fever in the early 1980s, as Bruce Springsteen chose to issue his Nebraska material in the form of the original demos rather than as produced versions with the E Street Band; and Peter Townshend released Scoop, a demo compilation of songs first released (or not) by the Who. These raised my demo consciousness a bit, which probably explains the “Nothing to Say” recording.
But ultimately, for me there are thin lines or no lines at all dividing memos, demos and performances, especially if you view, as I do, all recordings of a song (or of all songs) as threads in a common fabric whose variations all tint and reflect each other’s light.
Phenomena like hit singles or TV performances that change a viewer’s life (does that still happen?) can instill the idea of songs having “definitive” versions. And so they may be — in broad cultural terms. (We’ve all got ’em, although I may be distinctive in my affection for the wrong note Chris Hillman plays for half a bar in “Spanish Harlem Incident” on Mr. Tambourine Man. On the basis of no evidence, I’m convinced he needed a drag off a cigarette.)
Patch bays in the basement enable me to “associate many things with many things,” as Bunny Watson said. Hubley Archives.
But from a narrower musical perspective, “definitive version” is almost a laughable idea. (And of course there are also laughable versions that are definitive in their own ways, if only as examples of what not to do. Welcome to my musical catalog.)
Every performance of a song listens to the one that came before and sings to the one that follows. It’s trite and not quite correct to say, “It’s all one version,” but all the performances of a song certainly do constitute one conversation about at least that one topic and probably more.
Which may be one reason that the more interesting professional musicians can sell their hits night after night.
Here’s the real difference, I guess: Unless you’re super-attuned to the stewardship of your public persona, the monetizing of every sequin on your character, etc., what distinguishes memos and demos is that they’re not created for an audience. And when they are heard outside your immediate circle, it’s more like being overheard, with all the accompanying qualities of authenticity, honesty, etc.
So, for your eavesdropping pleasure, here’s an assortment of demos and memos from a 30-year period, coupled with fully realized performances of the songs.
Day for Night in Cornish, Maine: Doug Hubley and Gretchen Schaefer. Hubley Archives.
‘The Other Me’
Day for Night: Dirges had constituted most of my output after I resumed songwriting, in 2010, after a 12-year layoff. So when I started this song in 2016, it was time for something upbeat. “The Other Me” is still wordy, bleak and overly self-referential, but it has a good beat and you can dance to it.
I got most of the lyrics written in the bar of the Samoset Resort, in Rockport, Maine, while Gretchen Schaefer (my partner in life and music) was showing mosaics at a craft fair at the resort. But the tune, especially the bridge, was problematic and I had to hammer away at it for quite a while.
“The Other Me” was also a bear to learn, necessitating a few changes of key and arrangement before we found something that we liked. And this is it, recorded on Aug. 5, 2018, at Quill Books & Beverage in Westbrook, Maine. Hear it on Bandcamp (and click through on the audio player title to purchase):
Demo: Recorded on Oct. 2, 2016, in the computer room, this memo includes one of a few bridge melodies that I tried and discarded before arriving at something usable later in the month. Hear (and buy) it on Bandcamp:
The Corner, summer 1981: It’s Patty Ann’s Superette in South Portland and the original Fashion Jungle is posing casually just prior to a party performance at Sebago Lake. Also starring my beloved 1973 VW Squareback, into which I could pack nearly all the FJ gear except the drums. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
The Fashion Jungle: This isn’t a demo, it’s a memo. When my band the Mirrors became the Fashion Jungle, a rule was that everyone had to bring in at least a fragment of original music each week. Here’s a result of that discipline: the lyrics are by Ken Reynolds, edited by me; the opening guitar riff was Mike Piscopo’s; and with the fourth member of the band being Jim Sullivan, we collectively put the whole thing together in June 1981. We made this seldom-heard recording early in the song’s life so as not to forget it during our vacations.
A billy nice guy? Never mind. Anyway, we later added chorus vocals and a “bah-bah-bah” coda, very 1968. Doug Hubley, 12-string guitar and vocal; Mike Piscopo, 6-string guitar (lead guitar in the refrain); Ken Reynolds, drums; Jim Sullivan, bass. Recorded on the Sony two-track in the Hubleys’ basement (and I don’t know where that tone at the end came from). Bandcamp:
The next Fashion Jungle: And here we are more than a year later and with the next iteration of the FJ: Jim and Mike have moved on, and Steve Chapman has joined on bass. The performance was recorded at Jim’s Neighborhood Cafe, Danforth Street, on Oct. 6, 1982. I miss the growl of Mike’s Gretsch guitar, but Steve provides his own kind of roar.
The existential angst of being the Boarders. Jeff Stanton photo.
Demo: The immediate impetus for this song seems a little immature — the death of my cat Harry. But I did realize that this was a topic to be addressed at a more sophisticated level, and fortunately I was able to generalize the lyrics somewhat beyond “my kitty died.” (He was a pretty cool cat, though.)
I suppose I was looking ahead to a period such as this, in which I’ve lost my mother, father and a good friend in the space of two years. But I can’t say I’ve wanted to sing this song much lately.
Recorded in the basement in autumn 1995 on the Tascam 4-track. Tracks: acoustic guitar, voice, and percussion consisting of my foot and change being jingled in my pockets. Bandcamp:
The Boarders: On a windy and rainy Jan. 19, 1996, we performed live on the University of Southern Maine radio show “Local Motives.” It was almost a fun experience, except for an inept audio engineer who suppressed Gretchen’s bass almost to the vanishing point on many songs (it was recoverable on this number) and slathered digital reverb and delay all over us (at the beginning of this track, you can hear the doofus searching for the correct tempo on the delay). Jon Nichols-Pethick, drums. Bandcamp:
Gretchen Schaefer, Dan Knight and Jeff Stanton at Frosty’s doughnut shop, Brunswick, July 1985. We were in Brunswick to see a concert at Bowdoin College by Richard Thompson, who was wearing a pink suit that clashed quite splendidly with his red hair. Having interviewed him for a Press Herald advance a few weeks earlier, I felt entitled to corner Thompson backstage and force an FJ tape on him. Hubley Archives.
Demo: This song is an attempt to come to grips with the fleeting nature of local rock bands and local fame, or at least recognition, of the kind the Fashion Jungle briefly enjoyed in the 1980s. Corner Night itself was actually a show, a triple bill that the Mirrors / Fashion Jungle, John Rolfe’s Foreign Students and Gary Piscopo’s Pathetix presented in 1980 and ’81. All three bands had ties to Patty Ann’s Superette, aka The Corner, in South Portland.
I wrote the words in 1981 after Mike Piscopo and Jim Sullivan left the Fashion Jungle, and finished the song after Steve Chapman and Kathren Torraca left in 1984. The song holds up — one of my better melodies, although the lyrics are very insidery. Yes, the Elvis Costello imitation is embarrassing, and there’s also some debt to Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset.” This demo was recorded on the two-track Sony in my parents’ basement in 1985 for the Dan Knight lineup of the FJ. Bandcamp:
The Fashion Jungle: And here’s the Knight-era FJ performing the song at Geno’s, in Portland, on July 27, 1985. We were opening for Judy’s Tiny Head, and taping the show off their sound board helped some with recording quality. What is an interesting and intricate arrangement on the demo turns into a busyness for its own sake here, but kudos to bassist Dan and drummer Ken Reynolds for taking all those twists and turns so tightly.
Songwriting in the bar at the Senator Inn and Spa in late 2012. Hubley Archives.
When we perform, I like to joke that this is the most depressing song I’ve ever written, most depressing you’ll ever hear, etc. I say it to be funny but also to show some self-awareness, because this really is a downer.
Well, that’s life: This, like “Watching You Go,” is an attempt to anticipate or envision or reconcile myself to — or try to inoculate myself against — the potentially barren landscape of old age. I wrote it in 2012, during which year my sisters and Gretchen and I were starting preparations for moving Ben and Hattie Hubley, who were in their early 90s, into a memory-care facility.
Day for Night: Recorded in a living room rehearsal on Nov. 27, 2016.
Memo: This is a hotel room recording made so I could remember the melody. (One wonders if there was any sort of decline in sales of music notation paper that was correlated with the advent of portable audio recorders.) I made the recording in the Sheraton Hotel in Portsmouth, N.H., on Feb. 23, 2012.
Demo: The second original in the catalog from Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drummer of the Boarders, who had previously contributed “All Over” to the Cowlix. He co-wrote this song with his wife, Nancy. I added a signature riff and a few lyrics, and heightened the S&M overtones a bit (or so I would like to believe).
Recorded in the basement in autumn 1995 on the Tascam 4-track. Tracks: acoustic guitars and voice.
The Boarders: And here’s the whole band playing it, recorded in rehearsal on Dec. 5, 1995. Dropped line: “You say, ‘I need another drink.'”
Nancy, at center, and Jonathan Nichols-Pethick at their farewell party in July 1996. At left is Louise Philbrick. Hubley Archives.
‘Just a Word From You, Sir’
Howling Turbines: If you’re wondering, this number from 1997 is generally about my relationship with authority and specifically about Stalin, Leonard Cohen and God. So there.
Anyhoo, this is the first of two very different versions of a song (one of two) I wrote for the Howling Turbines. Here’s the original setting, which was an attempt to capitalize on what I perceived as our heavy-rock potential (I had bought a distortion pedal that changed my world). Performed by the Turbines in the basement in March 1998. Bandcamp:
Demo: I prefer the above version now, but at the time we didn’t feel it was working for us. This demo from April 11, 1999, captures my second setting of the song, which is more sophisticated than the original but ultimately reminded me of something Davy Jones should be singing. This is how the Turbines did it for a while, but it ultimately fell out of the repertoire.
(“Just a Word From You, Sir” copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.)
The Howling Turbines on a blistering hot day at the Free Street Taverna, Aug. 1, 1999: from left, drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Gretchen Schaefer and me — guitarist and singer Doug Hubley. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
House of Dances, Cologne, Germany, June 2000. Hubley Archives.
Demo / The Boarders: Just to round things out, here’s a demo and a final version neatly packaged together. “Dance” started out with with the Fashion Jungle, my lyrics riding on a tune created collaboratively by Steve Chapman, Ken Reynolds and me. Six or seven years later, casting about for material for the Boarders and feeling no more optimistic about the fate of the world, I rediscovered these lyrics, for which I created a new tune.
The first third is the demo that I made for Gretchen and Jonathan to learn it from; the remainder, cleverly spliced on through the cleverness of digital audio editing, is the Boarders playing the song on July 9, 1996, at Forest Avenue. The Boarders section is a copy of a copy that was made on a mastering deck with a wow-and-flutter problem, hence the wowing and fluttering.
The FashionJungle: And here’s the original setting. Sounding very FJ at our most melodramatically disco-licious, this came off the sound board at the 1988 Maine Festival, recorded on a sultry August evening in Deering Oaks. That was a fine event despite my guitar-tuning issues. I rediscovered this recording while going through tapes for this CD set; most of the cuts on the tape were lost or damaged because of a bad connection, but this survived intact, albeit with drums taking up 80 percent of the soundscape.
Doug plays the Gretsch Anniversary Model in Ben and Hattie’s back yard in summer 1983. Hubley Family photo.
‘Nothing to Say’
Demo: I remember stepping out onto Middle Street from the restaurant Carbur’s carrying the legal pad on which I had just finished these lyrics, which attempt to explore both my own shallowness and the big sellout of the punk-New Wave scene.
This one-track recording, made in September 1983 at Richland Street with the Gretsch Anniversary Model, was the demo that the FJ learned it from — another big anthem. Dropped line: “Now the room fills up with expectations while my blood drains away.”
The Fashion Jungle: The fully realized version by the Chapman-Torraca lineup of the Fashion Jungle, recorded in January 1984 at the Outlook, in Bethel. The lyrics sit better in this well-rehearsed performance, but the arrangement certainly has blossomed forth. The Anniversary Model returns for a solo. Steve Chapman, bass and backing vocals; DH, guitars and vocals; Ken Reynolds, drums and backing vocals; Kathren Torraca, keyboards. Remastered from the commercially released audiocassette Six Songs.
The Fashion Jungle rehearses in Ben & Harriette Hubley’s basement in a composite image from the early 1980s. From left, Steve Chapman, Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley. Photos by Jeff Stanton.
See the basements, read about the basements — and hear the basements in the Bandcamp store!
NOTE: All musical excerpts in this post were recorded in basements except the first one, which I included so that you can hear the Kent guitar and Capt. Distortion amplifier, played by Steve McKinney; my bass playing heard through the RCA stereo; and Tom Hansen playing cardboard boxes, a tambourine and a metal bicycle basket as percussion. We all sing, and Judy McKinney sings and plays rhythm guitar. This was recorded in the Hubleys’ living room in 1969.
My parents’ basement in South Portland, Maine, in the late 1960s. Notice the particle board stereo speakers, the coffee-can light fixture at upper left and the cloth speaker grille on Capt. Distortion, lower left. This image is the source for the Notes From a Basement banner. Hubley Archives.
Most musicians from Bob Dylan on down,
especially those of a certain age, can tell you about making music in a basement.
I count at least nine residential basements in which I’ve played alone or with bands — to say nothing of such illustrious subterranean nightspots in Portland, Maine, as the original Geno’s, Squire Morgan’s, the short-lived Ratskellar and the Free Street Taverna (only slightly below street level, but with a true basement feel).
An equivalent view in April 2013, after we cleared out the house for sale and my parents moved into assisted living. Hubley Archives.
Allow me to explain the obvious. Musical equipment takes up a lot of space, is hard to dust and to vacuum around, and looks good only in its functional context — that is, when you’re using it to play music or make other musicians envious.
In addition, of course, electric music can get loud. And by the same token, domestic life can interfere with musical moods. You don’t want someone watching NASCAR nearby when you’re trying to record a tender folk ballad.
Perhaps most decisively, musicians at work create a powerful social energy that, for better or worse, intrudes into whatever hopes for their time your non-musical roommates might be aspiring to.
Me and the Kent, my first guitar that I didn’t steal from my sister. Pre-Capt. Distortion, it was plugged into the RCA Victor stereo. Hubley Archives.
So for many of us, music gets made in the basement — spiders and pill bugs, dust and grit, mildew and mold, darkness and chilliness be damned. (Garages, of course, also have a noble history as musical refuges, even lending their name to a musical genre).
And don’t forget the water during snowmelt and heavy rains. Standing water on the basement floor every spring was a special attraction in the 1910 house where I grew up, on a side street near Red Bolling’s legendary Tastee Freez (now known as Red’s).
When we moved in, in 1958, the largest of the three cellar rooms was set off by a pair of French doors. If a 60-year-recollection is worth anything, that space briefly harbored a little sitting area with curtains and some kind of dainty furniture. (I’m the only Hubley who remembers that amenity. Dream or reality?)
One French door, with all of its glass but painted into opacity, still remained 55 years later when we cleared the house out and moved my parents into assisted living.
The massive gray gizmo on the green hassock was a “portable” turntable, weighing about 40 pounds, that once used by WCSH-AM for remote broadcasts (if that’s still a recognizable concept). Hubley Archives.
Anyhoo, back there in 1966 or ’67, one or both of my sisters, who are older than me, turned that room into a hangout. They walled half of it off with blankets, and added amenities such as an old, deep stuffed chair with a rock-hard seat and touches of paint that included “I love you” (and, less idealistically, “69”) daubed on the bricks.
As my sisters’ hangout-related interests matured and my involvement in music deepened, I claimed the room. But it didn’t happen overnight. What shaped the situation was a chronic inadequacy of musical gear that prevailed until I was out of high school and drawing a paycheck. (I’m often gobsmacked by how well-equipped today’s young players are.)
Doug plays bass through the new Guild Superstar and sister Sue Hubley sings in early 1970. The “mic stand” was a tent pole. Hubley Archives.
The first guitar that was really mine, not “borrowed,” was a six-string Kent, Model 823. It was a birthday present in 1967, when I turned 13. But I didn’t have a proper amplifier until Christmas 1969.
During those 30 months before I got the Guild Superstar, my father improvised a couple of solutions to my unamplified plight. (Dad knew electronics — he’d even been a radioman with Eisenhower’s headquarters during WW II.)
First he rigged an input to the household record player, a much-modified RCA console model in the living room. The Kent sounded clean through the RCA — a bass sounded better, as it turned out — but the disruption to the household was significant.
Dad’s next offering was a bare-chassis amplifier of unknown origin (record player? intercom? public-address?) hooked up to an 8-inch speaker that must have come from some other console record player. The speaker was mounted onto a cloth-and-wood panel, and the amp was screwed onto a plain pine board. Dangling wires connected them, and the whole works teetered on a rolling metal TV stand.
It wasn’t too loud but it sure sounded rough. In fact, it set a standard of overdriven amp tone that remains a criterion for me, in a good way. I called that contraption Capt. Distortion.
I continued to clear the living room with the RCA from time to time, but the Captain really changed my musical life. Most importantly, the Captain — along with other stopgaps, such as a second-hand particle-board stereo that Dad also dredged up from who knows where — untethered me from the living room.
And, actually, tethered me instead to basements.
A kid named Tom Hansen was one of my best friends for about five years, starting in 1966. We shared interests in music, in putting on a show, and in wacky humor. (The product of an academic household, Tom had a much more sophisticated wit than mine.)
Drummer Tom plays cardboard boxes and a real, though cracked, cymbal, in the Hubley basement in early 1970. Hubley Archives.
Our adolescent energies converged like phaser beams on my father’s poor Panasonic reel-to-reel tape recorder. We used it, with a succession of cheap plastic microphones, to record music ranging from earnest and bad to cacophonous and unlistenable. We also attempted comedy. Tom and I spent most of 1969 and ’70 recording crap on that poor tape recorder.
We surrounded ourselves with such musical instruments as we had. Along with the Kent and the Captain, that arsenal included a 12-string guitar from the Sears catalog, a kiddie piano, metal spoons and a tambourine, cheap bells, nose flutes and kazoos. And harmonicas: While I knew him, Tom developed into a very good harp player.
To the basement decor I added some colored light bulbs (I still remember buying them. I still have a green one), and Tom and I sat there in the near darkness just killing ourselves with what we considered really funny stuff. It’s just amazing how wrong people can be.
John Rolfe rehearses with our band Airmobile in the basement of a building at what is now Southern Maine Community College. This was summer 1973, the school was then known as Southern Maine Vocational-Technical Institute, and the building was the residence of bassist Glen Tracy, whose father worked at the college. Hubley Archives.
The Thunderbirds (previously Airmobile. It gets confusing) are back in the Hubley basement in this image from 1974. At left is bassist Glen Tracy. The drummer is Eddie Greco. Hubley Archives.
One product in particular made us very proud. Totaling 13 installments, it was called, with occasional variations, “The Captain Spoon Show.” As Captain Spoon, Tom carried the verbal weight of the show and had the best jokes. I was Mr. Music, plunking out chords for the ad-lib songs and sprinkling random notes over Tom’s verbal riffing. (Capt. Distortion and Capt. Spoon, eh? I think “Spoon” came first.)
Despite a few recurring bits, we pretty much winged each episode, exploring every corner of offensive adolescent spontaneity we could find. Between making music and “Captain Spoon,” we felt pretty special, which the thugs at South Portland High School rewarded with accusations, which sometimes escalated into physical harassment, of being gay. An enlightened era.
Tom and I remained friends through the SPHS grief and through his parents shipping him off briefly to private school to get him away from me. (Despite their fears, there was no gay sex, no booze, no drugs; just colored lights, stupid humor, music that gradually got better and an abused tape recorder). What did end Tom’s and my friendship was starting a band when we were 17. And, of course, becoming mature.
The Hubley studio post-paint job, 1974. Hubley Archives.
Years of a basement
Where most of my contemporaries in the early 1970s were absorbing the influences of school, sports, clubs, church and who knows what all, my character was being molded by records, radio, Rolling Stone and Hit Parader magazines — and my parents’ cellar.
For a while around 1970–71, on the basis of no experience and no professional equipment, I pretended that crummy room was a recording studio. I even “produced,” and Tom and I played on, an album-on-tape by his then-girlfriend, who sang and wrote all the songs. Later Tom came down with some friends from a religious organization and we tried to record “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.”
The Hubley basement studio at its apogee, in the mid-1970s. Note the Chevy hubcap ash tray, the three tambourines hanging from a beam, and the Carmencita psychedelic guitar at right. Hubley Archives.
A few years later — I was 20 and really should have known better — I pretended it was a nightclub and invited cronies down for drinks and performances. Friends knew to bypass the regular house entrance and come in through the cellar door, which was reminiscent of a bomb shelter entryway.
The room was at its apogee then. Somewhere along the way I formally demarcated my space with tie-dyed muslin curtains (my father used the other half of the room for his own self-indulgences). With eager support from my mother — who was probably happy that I wanted to do something down there besides play loud guitar, or get drunk and lie on the floor listening to Hank Williams on headphones — I painted the moldering concrete walls in 1974.
Ensconced in the ass-numbing maroon easy chair, Ken Reynolds appreciates the Hubley cellar in 1977. Hubley Archives.
The standard of furnishings rose slightly, as I replaced old Hubley discards with newer ones. Gone was the old mattress and frame that served more to mock than to make possible any possibilities of l’amour. In addition to the original ass-numbing stuffed chair, there was a car bench seat (later replaced by the old pink family sofa) and a giant hassock covered in limeade-green fabric. There was a Chevy hubcap for an ashtray, although nobody much was smoking.
More important, the standard of musical furnishings rose markedly. Thanks to real jobs, first at the King Cole potato chip factory and then at the Jordan Marsh department store (both establishments are long gone), I had a real stereo, real guitars and real amplifiers. Thanks again to Dad, I had my own tape recorder, a big heavy graduation-present Sony TC-540.
The Fashion Jungle poses for a publicity image in Steve Chapman’s basement, 1987. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives.
Solo, casually with friends, or with bands, I went on to make countless hours of music in the room. (During the summer of 1974, the first year of the “nightclub,” I was unemployed and spent nearly all my time there recording and writing songs. That didn’t help the possibilities of l’amour at all, to say nothing of the development of any sense of responsibility, but it was a useful musical immersion.)
It was the band work that justified and made real my musical aspirations. From Truck Farm to Airmobile, from the Mirrors all the way to the 1985 incarnation of the Fashion Jungle, all my bands rehearsed in the Hubley basement at some time or other. I extend eternal gratitude to my parents, who were very generous and tolerant of high-decibel band rehearsals two or three evenings a week.
Those were wonderful days in the cellar. Recordings came out of there that I’m still proud to share today. Because we were young, music was still new territory and we had the energy and drive to explore it. We rode out on rhythm and loudness like cowboys. It made our brains feel good to develop music together.
And we had a lot of laughs. I’ll never forget the late-night load-ins after a gig — the gingerly descent with an amp in arms through the concrete bulkhead; wrangling tall, skinny Shure Vocalmaster speakers in through a cellar window; standing in the driveway at 2 a.m. divvying up the buck-three-eighty we made at the door at Geno’s (and keeping my mother awake with our jawing); the jokes and happy exhaustion.
A basement of one’s own
In 1989, Gretchen Schaefer and I bought a house. At last we had a basement to do with as we wished: wash and hang laundry, store stuff, start seedlings. And make music.
The largest of the four cellar rooms is indeed the music studio. It’s outfitted to a level that would have been incomprehensible to me in 1970, and I work there alone and with Gretchen as the country band Day for Night.
My former studio in parents’ house, after they moved to assisted living and the Dump Guys cleaned it out. Hubley Archives.
This room, too, has colored lights (a string of Christmas lights). The floor is crumbling like the one at my parents’, but it’s maroon instead of robin’s egg blue and most important, it’s dry. Back when we had bigger bands, we rehearsed there, lugged amps and drums up and down for gigs, kept a neighbor awake with our jawing in the driveway at 2 a.m.
Me in the current basement, 2017. (Hubley Archives)
But we use our room only when we need the equipment. It’s not a refuge or a hangout, because other parts of the house are much more comfortable. Gretchen and I make much more music in our living room, which is warm and bright and has windows. We even record there, on a digital unit that’s about the size of a sandwich and probably weighs one-fiftieth of the Sony reel-to-reel. (The last times we recorded on tape were in November 2009.)
Unlike my sisters, who made the South Portland room into a teen hangout only to move on quickly to adult activities, I was in no hurry to leave it. That room turned out to be a halfway house for adulthood, which I wanted to reach, but on my own slow timetable.
I didn’t get out much, but I practiced adult activities in that room — being a musician, being in a romance, entertaining friends in sophisticated ways — that I looked forward to enjoying in some sweet empowered by-and-by.
Which happens to be now.
A collection of notes, as in musical, from some different basements. (Help me find the old Chevy hubcap ashtray on E-Bay — why not buy the whole album on BandCamp?)
• Candy Says (Reed) The Karl Rossmann Band in Ben and Hattie Hubley’s basement, winter 1981. Our exploration of the Velvet Underground songbook hits a high point as Jim Sullivan’s perfectly ingenuous vocal nails the spirit of this lyric. Jim, lead vocal, guitar • DH, supporting vocal, lead guitar • Chris Hanson, supporting vocal • Mike Piscopo, supporting vocal, bass • KR, drums.
• Don’t Forget to Cry (B. Bryant–F. Bryant) Day for Night recorded this on tape in the current basement, November–December 2006. I piled up guitars, bass and tambourine on the four-track for Gretchen Schaefer and I to sing over. The remarkable thing about my relatively sophisticated recording technology is that in spite of it all, the sound quality of my recordings has hardly advanced over the cheesy stuff I made in the 1970s. To thine own self be true.
• When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down (Telfer–Prosser–Jones) The Boarders: DH, guitar and vocal • GS, bass • Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums. A fabulous song by a hit-or-miss Celtic rock group, Oysterband. I have neither the dignity to spare nor the constitution for the lifestyle depicted here, but I sure can relate. A staple of the Boarders repertoire, one of my all-time favorites, recorded in the current basement on Oct. 15, 1995.
• Polly (Clark) Day for Night: GS and DH, guitar and vocal. D4N had a Gene Clark jag that resulted in our learning four of his songs in one gulp in autumn 2008. Gretchen contributes an especially fine lead vocal on Clark’s mysterious “Polly.” Recorded in the current basement, Nov. 25, 2009.
• Don’t Sell the Condo (Hubley) The Fashion Jungle: SC, DH, KR. One of my favorites of my songs and, I think, one of the Fashion Jungle’s best — too bad few people ever heard it. Gretchen knew an art dealer whose charismatic lover, prominent in the Old Port scene, was rumored to be a coke dealer, woman beater, Satan in the flesh, etc. This is the couple’s story as I imagined it. I wrote the lyric over gimlets in the lobby of the Eastland Hotel on a snowy afternoon while waiting for Gretchen to get out of class. This recording comes from a videotape that she made of the FJ in the Chapmans’ basement early in 1988.
• Let the Singer (Hubley) One of my few 1970s compositions that have held up. It’s a paean to the live fast–die young lifestyle that seemed very romantic until all those musicians I liked died young. This is a 1978 solo recording, done in my parents’ basement, for a submission to a WBLM-FM songwriting contest. (How could I not have won?!?)
They can find inspiration in a hangnail and can scarcely handle all the melodies welling up from within.
The public debut of “Bittersweet,” and my debut with the mandolin, took place at the Portland wine bar Blue in August 2010. Hubley Archives.
But they do modestly assure you, while talking about their productivity, which you didn’t ask about, that they’re only conduits for The Music.
I’m not one of those songwriters. I admit that I envy them. It’s important for me to think of myself as a songwriter, and I do qualify, but three songs make a very big songwriting year for me. And I haven’t seen one of those in decades. Well, there’s always hope.
I’ve accepted my sluggish writing pace and have even had a few peaceful years of not feeling compelled to understand it, although working on this post does reopen the question. Excuses come readily to hand; the real reasons, not so much. It’s a curious way to proceed.
I nevertheless do have a working routine that results in songs, however few and far between. This routine matured as I found my way out of a barren period that lasted for an alarming 11 years.
Gretchen wears a crown of Peaks Island bittersweet in this public relations selfie from October 2010. Hubley Archives.
I never gave up on songwriting during those years. I just never finished any songs.
It was a trek through the desert that lasted from 1998’s “Caphead” — the best song that I wrote for the Howling Turbines, or I should say “the better song,” since I wrote only two for that band — to early 2010 and “Bittersweet,” the first title I wrote for my current ensemble, Day for Night.
If my excuses for not writing aren’t interesting and the root causes are hard to ascertain, it is nevertheless clear that what roused me again was Day for Night, the acoustic country duo comprising Gretchen Schaefer, my life partner inside and outside music, and me.
After fumbling around for three years after the demise of Howling Turbines, in 2004, we had settled on a musical approach and were getting some gigs. We loved the classic country we were doing; but at the same time, having a band that, for the first time in a few years, was doing more than walking in place relit the pilot light for my songwriting.
That is, there would be a home and an audience for my songs — not to mention the considerable formal challenge, which I’m still trying to master, of creating credible songs for a two-piece band playing vintage country, with its “three-chords-and-the-truth” aesthetic.
My first songs, way back there in the late 1960s, had a country (-pop-folk) feel because that’s what idols like Neil Young and Tim Hardin were playing as they infected me with wanna-be disease. (Making me more susceptible was the dawning realization that emotions and relationships are dealt with more easily through guitars and microphones than anything as debilitating as personal communication.)
But if I was young enough to want to copy my idols, I was willful or perverse or ornery enough not to be direct about it. (Shades of that personal communication thing.) I frequently had to make things too complicated, which succeeded more often with lyrics than melodies, which in my case tend less to well up from within than to be wrung from pieces of sandstone.
Just above the wine notes are the beginnings of the lyric for “Bittersweet.” Hubley Archives.
That complicating tendency lasted a long time. It actually found a home in the early 1980s, 12 years into my songwriting career, with one of my bands: the Fashion Jungle. The FJ was predicated on original material, was musically capable and, successor to a hopelessly eclectic covers band, was stylistically agnostic.
A song like “Little Cries,” with its chromatic chord progressions, rambling architecture and elusive home key, was definitive Fashion Jungle. It was also about as far from country you could get and still be singing about feigned love and fake orgasms.
But the FJ introduced me to a certain discipline of songwriting. In the belated-but-potent Portland, Maine, New Wave scene, we had to perform our own songs for the sake of credibility and self-respect.
None of us was prolific — I wrote the most, if that tells you anything — so in the early days, we agreed to each bring in something original at regular intervals, even if just a lyrical fragment or a chord progression. And a few good songs resulted from that practice.
Anyway, I have managed to simplify some as the years roll on, and by the time I was ready to finish “Bittersweet” I was able to winnow it down to a mere six chords and the truth.
That was four years after I started it.
Writing “Where Was I” in the bar at the Senator Hotel in late 2012. You work your way, and I’ll work mine. Hubley Archives.
“Bittersweet” doesn’t precisely exemplify my current songwriting practice but, to paraphrase the Staples Singers, it took me there.
Inspired by the Carter Family, the idea of a song about love that’s like a destructive clinging vine probably came to me during one of my noontime rambles around Lewiston, Maine, where I work. That was in May 2006.
A month later, loitering in Boulder, Colo., while Gretchen attended a conference, I undertook the exercise of sitting in coffee shops and writing a bunch of crap just to keep the muscles limber in case the muse was lurking nearby. (Poetry by Leonard Cohen helped prime the pump: His Book of Longing was new that year.)
That process produced one useful verse for what I was then calling “Clinging Love #1.”
A year and a half later, I somehow arrived at the actual title: “Bittersweet,” named not for the flavor profile, but for the imported invasive vine that makes such pretty berries, strangles the native trees and provides the rare justification for using Roundup in your yard.
Doug and Gretchen in a Manchester hotel, November 2007. Hubley Archives.
Having a metaphor to work with opened the cupboard to a lot of useful imagery, which I pillaged in a hotel room on a freezing evening in Manchester, N.H., 17 months later, in November 2007.
Gretchen was reclining on the bed, coming down with shingles and reading Georges Simenon. I was in a chair with a notebook belaboring “Bittersweet” at length, fueled by Jack Daniels highballs and a songwriting urge stronger than it had been in years.
Since “Bittersweet,” I’ve come to recognize these scribbling sessions as the most exciting phase of songwriting — when they pan out. It’s about inspiration, but it’s not just about being inspired: It’s about capturing inspiration, converting it into a thing, a product.
This phase works better, for me, away from the house and its distractions. (Home is where I finish songs, which is largely an editorial process.) I generally go for the big scribble in cafes, bars and, as in Manchester, hotels.
Hotel rooms are especially good for working on melody as well as lyrics. Composing music must be private (all that sandstone-wringing is unseemly), while writing lyrics can be public.
Manchester scribbles, part one. The letters down the left side were an attempt to impart a rhyme scheme. Be glad I’m not showing you the page where I listed all the words that rhyme with “bind.” Hubley Archives.
In fact, while working on lyrics it helps to have people around. Not too many: just enough to stimulate the socially attuned areas of one’s brain, which can then helpfully suggest behaviors or even stories that can feed a song lyric.
Booze helps, too — until it doesn’t. That was the case with “Bittersweet.” After a couple of hours of graphomania, I felt like I’d left the lyrics in a pretty good place and would get back to it right away.
Well, I got back to it two years later. The idea was still powerful, but the scribbles in my Bob Slate notebook didn’t add up to a whole lot.
Manchester scribbles, part two. Hubley Archives.
Nowadays, at least when I’m trying to write, I drink judiciously, striving for a delicate balance between freeing, on the one hand, the lyrical brain, and on the other, the inner jerk. Cocktails are too small and strong, but nursing a boilermaker or two glasses of wine works out fine. (A bag of M&M Peanuts does no harm, either.)
In the scribbling phase, I’m not looking for finished lyrics, but instead for words in which the finished song lies waiting: maybe a musical setting, definitely a plot, some catch phrases to make it memorable, the right blend of pithy lyrics and words that just advance the story.
(It can’t all be poetry, because singers and listeners alike will choke on that. In fact, singing didn’t start out as words and singers don’t always need them: My goal is to someday write a song that has some well-placed woos or la-la-las.)
So, that’s the ideal. But I can write pages of rhymes and never close in on any of that stuff. (30 years is not an extreme amount of time for me to carry a half-finished lyric around. When it gets to be 50, I may have to find a different outlet.)
But when I can push a lyric to the point where there’s a song discernible within it, my rule — ever since “Bittersweet” — has been to just finish the damned thing. Which, of course, I should have been doing all along.
And which, with “Bittersweet,” I did in January 2010. Sitting at the dining table on one gray cold day, I polished off the lyrics in one intense session. In the basement studio on a different cold gray day, I puzzled out and recorded the music.
And I was a songwriter again . . . just like that.
Bittersweet (Hubley) As described above, the song that broke a long dry spell for me as a songwriter. An invasive vine becomes a metaphor for clinging destructive love. Performed at the 2016 Cornish Apple Festival.
Stranger Wherever I Go (Hubley) New in spring 2016, this is pretty much a summary of my role in society. Another recording from the 2016 Cornish Apple Festival.
The Ceiling (Hubley) The first song I wrote for mandolin, as well as my contribution to country music’s illustrious history of songs that are about parts of a room. Also, something of a “hit” for Day for Night after its publication online . . . bringing me three cents in streaming fees every month or so.
even a little getaway, it’s always wise to research your destination in advance.
Jeff Stanton, Gretchen Schaefer and Doug Hubley living the dream on the veranda at the Cornish Inn, 2014. Photo by iPhone.
But if Gretchen Schaefer and I had done that kind of homework prior to a weekend getaway to Cornish, Maine, in 2007, we might never have landed one of the best gigs Day for Night has ever had — nor embarked upon our present happy relationship with that little town in southwestern Maine.
The getaway plan was to spend a Saturday afternoon and night at the Cornish Inn, right in the heart of downtown: playing music, enjoying the inn’s fine restaurant and relaxing in sleepy little Cornish.
Some sleepy. When we arrived early on the Saturday afternoon, traffic on Route 25, the main drag, was heavy and barely creeping along. Tiny Thompson Park, opposite the inn, was white with vendor tents. A mass of humanity circulated through and around the park, and up and down the main street. A band on a flatbed trailer played “Folsom Prison Blues.”
We were lucky, as we now know, to get a space in the inn’s parking lot, or anywhere else in town on that particular Saturday. We had unwittingly chosen for our quiet getaway the day of the annual Cornish Apple Festival, a regional attraction held on the last Saturday in September every year from 1989 through 2019, after which the COVID-19 put a stop to it (temporarily, we hope). The festival, held simultaneously with a separate musical event at a nearby apple orchard, used to be the busiest day of the year for Cornish.
The main drag at dusk, seen from the Cornish Inn, 2014. Hubley Archives.
If we’d known about the festival, crowd-averse types that we are, we might have chosen a different getaway destination. But the festival proved to be a conversion experience for us.
A few trips in the old green Squareback through western Maine in the 1980s had introduced us to Cornish, and though for a while our visits were much less frequent, the town stayed with us. The big rambling wooden buildings, the trees drooping heavily over the park, the hard curve over the mill dam into downtown. But back then I had neither the knowledge nor the curiosity to appreciate the town’s story in any depth.
Another antique store find in Cornish. Hubley Archives.
Part of Cornish’s visual appeal is that so much remains from that late 19th-century prosperity: that large mirror-like mill pond at the hard curve, for instance, and those big wooden buildings, many still elegant with their Victorian gingerbread.
Another part of the appeal for me, I’m ashamed to report, is that Cornish is somewhat past those prosperous days. It’s doing OK, but not booming, and I like Cornish better for its having failed to become a theme park of itself, even though the downtown businesses are largely given over to tourist appeal, including the regionally popular restaurant Krista’s and way more antique stores than any town of 1,500 really needs.
Country lights at a country fair: The Ossipee Valley Fair, 2008. Hubley Archives.
Meanwhile, all the essential services have fled west from downtown to a district where there’s open land for parking lots.
My work as a music journalist, and later as a writer for a college magazine in Maine, brought us up there occasionally, thanks to the Saco River Music Festival, which presented concerts in the elementary school up on High Street (a school that the town later sold and that is now a church).
In July 2006, I was working on a profile of Frank Glazer — Maine pianist, Saco River festival founder and resident artist at the college where I work — for the magazine. Gretchen and I drove up to see a Saco River festival concert by Glazer and his protege Duncan Cumming, now a music professor in Albany. (Glazer died in 2015.)
The Cornish Inn booked us in December 2011. Jeff Stanton photo.
It was a nice event: Glazer and Cumming made good music, of course, and filled the little auditorium. Past them, through a glass wall behind the stage, the trees and foothills stretched out toward the sunset in a very Cornishy way.
Prior to the concert, Gretchen and I had stopped at the Cornish Inn for a glass of wine. I vividly recall the brilliant yellow the sun cast onto the wall and the wine in our big glasses glowing that exact same color. The restaurant (it was Krista’s first location, before they moved up the street next to the mill stream) was packed, probably with concert-goers like us. It was just happy. Cornish can be like that.
That was the experience that brought us back in September 2007.
Living the dream: Day for Night’s one and only performance on a flatbed trailer, September 2009. Jeff Stanton photo.
I remember standing in our little Cornish Inn room, with its rolling wooden floor, drinking Jack Daniels and working out the song (“Try strumming it like the Everlys’ ‘Roving Gambler”’) while the festival gradually petered out in the park.
The 2009 Apple Festival performance from a different angle. Jeff Stanton photo.
The timing of that visit was fortuitous but not insignificant. Having spent three years flubbing around after the demise of our previous band, the electric Howling Turbines, we had focused on acoustic country music and we wanted to work.
Our first performance as Day for Night had taken place in July, and the Cornish jaunt came just prior to gigs at Bates College and the Frog & Turtle Gastropub, in Westbrook.
So we took it as a sign when we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a well-attended festival that featured a band playing Johnny Cash on a flatbed trailer.
After that highly satisfying weekend, we decided that we absolutely had to try for a booking at the Cornish Apple Festival. So during the winter we threw ourselves at the festival organizers, the Cornish Association of Businesses. And it paid off, albeit in a roundabout way.
A poster for Day for Night’s first performance in Cornish, Maine.
CAB offered us sort of an audition: By performing two sets at an association fundraiser party in the spring, D4N could give the locals a chance to check us out. In consideration of our effort and expense, CAB in turn would comp us with gift certificates for a local motel and restaurant.
The “Spring Celebration” took place on the chilly evening of May 4, 2008, in a just-opened physical therapy center located, natch, west of downtown. We were still working out our performance practice, and at that point our ridiculously complicated stage setup included:
his ‘n’ her music stands, microphone stands with handy drink holders, instrument stands and spot monitors;
two guitars, an accordion and an autoharp;
a little Yamaha PA that we had bought during the fall, trading in the venerable half-ton, eight-channel Peavey mixer-amp;
and a black tangle of cables that covered the floor and strung all the different stands together in treacherous snares and loops that conspired together to threaten to pull the whole works down should a person so much as place one foot wrong.
Day for Night captive to The Rig, 2008 Spring Celebration, Cornish. Jeff Stanton photo.
Much of the evening we played and sang to a reverberant and all-but-empty gym as the revelry rumbled on in another part of the building. I ended the date thinking we hadn’t done that well — with my accordion work being a particular weakness — but Jeff Stanton’s video footage reveals that for the most part, we acquitted ourselves well.
And indeed: We did get hired for the 2008 festival (and each subsequent festival through 2019, except for 2015, when we were sidelined by a medical issue.)
On the drive back, through the fading daylight along a few miles of Route 25, the spring peepers were so loud that we could hear them clearly through the closed car windows.
The setlist for our first Cornish Apple Festival performance, in 2008. “Brunswick” at the bottom refers to a gig we played the following month with bassist Steve Chapman and drummer Willy Thurston. Hubley Archives.
In the years since our first Apple Festival performance, we came to expect warmth and brilliant sun for the event. But for that 2008 debut, the weather was cold and rainy and we played under a canopy on a low stage made from shipping pallets and plywood. (They’ve brought in the flatbed trailer only once since we have played there — too bad, considering what it would do for our country credibility.)
At the festival, in contrast to the Spring Celebration, we went for simplicity and played only guitar material. The weather caused some of the scheduled acts — as well as the PA provider — to withdraw. Gretchen and I were recovering from colds, but we managed to sing loud and still keep our voices throughout our allotted hour.
Spotted in a Cornish antique store. Hubley Archives.
Across the street in Thompson Park, the apple fritter fryers, apple crisp and apple pie pushers, and myriad other vendors and craftspeople and fundraisers soldiered on through the cool wet morning and the depleted trade. The performance was fun despite all — and having done our bit when others had stayed in out of the rain, didn’t we feel like heroes?
Cornish days Though the variables have varied, our festival visits followed a more-or-less consistent pattern.
Most years we stayed at the Cornish inn, known in later years as the Inn at Cornish. The Apple Festival tended to put us onstage us early in the day, which means that we were singing songs of alcohol abuse and adultery to families with young children at 9 or 10 in the morning. But the early start did leave us most of the day free to do what we like to do best in Cornish: hang around.
Our friend Jeff Stanton often made the scenic drive out Route 25 to see us perform. After the Day for Night segment, while the glittery little girls from the local dance school tap out their show in the middle of High Street, we’d stash the musical gear and seek out lunch at the inn or busy Krista’s.
Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer and Willy Thurston at the 2011 Cornish Apple Festival. Jeff Stanton photo.
Later we’d score some apple pie à la mode or apple crisp from festival vendors in Thompson Park (named for an eccentric 19th-century doctor who rarely charged his patients, and who allowed his neighbors to make free with his gardens and orchards). There were also crafters (pot holders!) and a festival-specific booth selling T-shirts and posters.
At some point we might stroll out the River Road and cross the Ossipee River to Friendly River Music, a guitar store distinguished by the variety and vintage of its offering, as well as its longevity as a business. (I traded a Telecaster toward a black Strat there in 1982, and three years later, at Friendly River’s now-defunct Portland branch, on Congress Square, I bought the oddball two-knob Strat that was my main guitar for many years.)
One year, Jeff and Gretchen and I spent the afternoon at a different music festival, the annual bluegrass-plus event hosted by Apple Acres, a forward-thinking orchard in nearby Hiram. We ate giant chicken legs, bought cider doughnuts and watched performances by a Maine bluegrass band and by the four Parkington Sisters, a slick southern New England act that had nothing at all to do with bluegrass.
Gretchen Schaefer at the 2013 Apple Acres bluegrass event. Hubley Archives.
More recently, we spent increasing amounts of time just loitering on the Cornish Inn’s long porches: very agreeable on a warm sunny afternoon as the festival winds down, the tourists drain away, the vendors pack up their booths and food trucks, and the old motorheads putter off in the Model T Fords that they always parked behind the inn.
All in all, Cornish and the festival painted such a picture of white-picket-fence America (do I need to point out the apple pie symbolism?) that I sometimes ponder their seductive power over me — out-on-the-side me, ironic me, bohemian me, not-a-team-player me, shunning-kids-and-dogs me.
But doggone it, the place is just charming with its curvy roads, the lofty wooden buildings, the antique shops, the gemlike little park — how do they fit all those booths in there, anyway? — and its view of the tree-covered foothills from which Gretchen and I, in July 2008, standing with our guitars on a balcony at the Midway Country Lodging, out there west of downtown, saw a deer wander idly into a clearing.
Holland Pond, near Cornish, October 2015. Hubley Archives.
Doggone it: The back porch at Krista’s, which is pretty much the place to be in Cornish, hangs over the mill stream and is lit with Japanese lanterns.
Friendly River had a 1961 Gretsch one year that made the most beautiful electric guitar sound ever, despite the decades-old strings.
When a local garage owner died, I recognized him in the newspaper obit because he once talked to us about a vintage Ford convertible parked in front of his house.
On stage at one Apple Festival, I got a laugh from a couple of teenagers when I introduced a song, one of our adultery specials no doubt, with the remark that “what happens in Limington, stays in Limington.” (Neighboring town. All right, you had to be there.)
Another specimen in a Cornish antique store. Orange you glad you came to the dance? Hubley Archives.
Looking, though, what we did during the evening of our first visit as Apple Festival performers seems to symbolize the most profound reason we keep going back. The gig gets us there; the sweet town fills our day; but the chance to probe deeper into what Day for Night might, maybe someday, be able to show an audience is what anchors us to Cornish.
After dinner in 2008 we set up camp in the inn’s living room and played for another hour or so. We were tired and hoarse, and punishing the Jack Daniels, but somehow it all worked.
It was the kind of music-making that keeps us coming back to places like Cornish. The pressure was off — not just performance pressure, but the day jobs, the family issues, the getting older, the persistent scratching of cares at the door.
We were playing only for the pure experience of the music and each other.
As the dinner crowd hummed on in the dining room nearby, we drooped over our guitars, pawed through the lyric sheets, crept through songs familiar and otherwise, and finally gave the other guests a break and went to bed.
Day for Night performs at the 2014 Cornish Apple Festival: You Wore It Well (Hubley) A song begun in a hotel room in Portsmouth, N.H., and completed in Cottage No. 19 at the Colorado Chautauqua in June 2013.
More of Day for Night at the 2014 Apple Festival, in a Jeff Stanton video: