The Mirrors at the Downtown Lounge, 1980. From left: Jim Sullivan, Mike Piscopo, Chris Hanson, Doug Hubley. Concealed by Chris is drummer Ken Reynolds. Photographer unknown.
In music, as in so many other things, I can’t make up my mind.
In virtually every style* of music I hear, I hear something to like**.
And because I want to play music that I want to hear, my stylistic promiscuity has been a problem over the years. Not all listeners, or bandmates, are as restless as I am. And in any case, extreme eclecticism is difficult to pull off. It requires strong chops, discerning taste and the kind of musical personality that can unify disparate influences. (Well, one out of three is better than none: I have pretty good taste.)
My current band, Day for Night, plays only country — but when we were starting out, in the mid-2000s, we had a country set and a bossa nova set. Because it took me about two months, on average, to work out a new bossa nova song (lacking the strong chops, you see) the set became stale and we got realistic and bagged it. I don’t know where we ever could have performed a night of bossa nova and country, anyway.
But back in the day I wasn’t so sensible. The Mirrors, my first somewhat professional band, had the eclecticism problem about as bad as could be. The arc of a typical Mirrors performance was reasonable enough, starting out blue and quiet, ending red and electric. But in between we veered all over the map.
A Mirrors set list from 1980, handwritten by Ken Reynolds (click to embiggen). Hubley Archives.
The set list at right, from 1980, will give you some idea. It includes:
Country songs by Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris and the Flying Burrito Bros., Hank Williams, George Jones, Don Williams, Patsy Cline, Asleep at the Wheel
Blues and R&B by Bonnie Raitt, Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, the Clovers, Otis Redding
Vintage pop and rock by Presley, the Searchers, Carl Perkins, the Rolling Stones, ? and the Mysterians, the Ventures, the Monkees, Bobby Troupe, Johnny Rivers, the Rascals, Bo Diddley
Then-contemporary rock by the Fabulous Poodles (their interpretation of the Everly Brothers’ “Man With Money”), Elvis Costello, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, the Specials, the English Beat (their version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”), Madness, Pat Benatar, Graham Parker
And songs by the Velvet Underground, Richard Thompson, Jimmy Cliff and Frank Sinatra.
All that jumping around, in addition to a penchant for instrument-swapping that seriously slowed the pace, must have made some early Mirrors performances exasperating. (I still cringe at the memory of taking long minutes to retune the guitars to the Farfisa rock organ for the sake of one or two songs.) I remember someone’s graffiti in the men’s room of the original Downtown Lounge, in the Plaza Hotel: “The Mirrors suck.”
I guess I can see why someone would say that, in view of one or two of our DTL performances: an anti-nuclear-power benefit where I had laryngitis but tried to sing anyway, or the 1980 Corner Night where we were fine, but just hopelessly tame compared to the Foreign Students and the Pathetix. And we had other issues in addition to the stylistic indecisiveness.
A 1980 Mirrors set list handwritten by Chris Hanson (click to embiggen). Hubley Archives.
But in spite of sucking, which we really didn’t most of the time, the Mirrors always got work. In 1980, our last year together, working for Maine country impresario Slim Andrews as well as getting our own dates, we were gigging all the time, from Kittery, in southern Maine, to Guilford, 182 miles away. Venues ranged from the punkish DTL (located in the Plaza, which stood where the Portland Public Market building is now) to York Animal Kingdom.
And, as will happen, we learned a lot and got a lot better, not only musically but professionally (even if we did ignore Slim’s injunctions against drinking and wearing sneakers on stage).
So, yes, looking back, I see things we could have done differently. But overall I don’t regret the way it played out. In the greater perspective, in fact, the Mirrors served me, and I hope some of my bandmates, the way your first big failed affair serves the remainder of your love life. It teaches you how to do what’s right and how not to do what isn’t, all on the stage of a grand romantic fantasy that gradually becomes your reality.
And in the short term, the Mirrors led directly to the Fashion Jungle. Among the things we learned were the facts that we wanted to concentrate on rock — and on our own material. About which, more next time.
Here are two of the three original songs the Mirrors ever performed, all by yours truly. Someday, when I am in a mood to give the Harry Fox Agency large dollars to license other peoples’ music, I will post a few Mirrors covers as well.
You Know How It Is (Hubley) Here’s a lament about the working life drawn from my own experiences as a sensitive young artiste destroying my soul as a “materials handler” (stockboy) at the South Portland branch of the Jordan Marsh department store. Jordan Marsh is gone, and I am still here. The Mirrors at the Hourglass, Free Street, Portland, August 1979.
Maine State Pier Blues (Hubley) Ken Reynolds and I somehow got the impression that all the street alcoholics hung out on Maine State Pier. This naive narrative, which Chris Hanson once called “preachy,” presages my current dissipation, but is uncorrected for the salubrious effects of self-consciousness and affluence. Note the Silvertone with Barcus-Berry pickup. The Mirrors at Friendship III, Dec. 30, 1979.
Christine Hanson, vocals and percussion Doug Hubley, guitar, bass, organ and vocals Mike Piscopo, bass, guitar, organ and vocals Ken Reynolds, drums and vocals Jim Sullivan, fiddle, guitar, bass, organ, saxophone and vocals
*In our last months, we were known as the Karl Rossmann Band, after the protagonist in Kafka’s Amerika. We were sick of the name “Mirrors” and used a ranked-ballot system to select a new one. The other contenders included “Goats of the Trapezoid,” Ken’s tribute to Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, and “Cadence.”
* Chainsaw metal, ragtime and pop a cappella being towering exceptions.
** People who know me well may be laughing at this point, having heard me mutter “I hate this song” or “I hate this group” repeatedly anywhere music can be heard. Yes, I’m annoyingly picky about specific songs and musicians, and in fact dislike most of them. But here I’m talking about musical styles.
A complete listing of Notes from a Basement postsand Bandcamp albums relating to the Fashion Jungle appears at the end of this post.
“It’s hard to believe it has been 40 years,” says Mike Piscopo — 40 years since the emergence of the Fashion Jungle, a rock band that he, Ken Reynolds, Jim Sullivan and I created.
Evolving over nine years from that original quartet to trio, quartet, quintet and trio again, the FJ remains an emotional landmark for many who were involved in it.
For me, the FJ was like graduation, as we sloughed off our covers-band identity as The Mirrors and focused, instead, on original songs rooted in personal experience and delivered with all the ardor we could muster.
“The FJ opened my eyes to the possibility that instead of just being a technician copying things, you could actually invent music with nothing limiting it but imagination,” says multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jim Sullivan.
The 1980s rock press in Portland, Maine, were fans. The music magazine Sweet Potato put us on the cover three times and reviewed our shows. According to SP writers Seth Berner and Will Jackson, respectively, we were Maine’s “best ‘new wave’ songsters,” offering “[p]otent, provocative, inventive originals played with precision and intensity.”
For me and for others involved with the band, the FJ years stand out as personally transformational. “I loved it,” says Gretchen Schaefer, who applied her talents in visual art to FJ projects and didn’t shy away from carrying amps. The excitement wasn’t totally about the music (or the fact that, even as the FJ was becoming a thing, she and I were building a relationship that’s still going strong). In some ways, the FJ was providing the soundtrack for myriad life changes within our circle.
In Gretchen’s case, she says, “I was taking myself more seriously as an artist at that time — it was the beginning of that for me. I finally was out of an extended adolescence and I felt like an adult with some agency in my life. I was doing things that young adults do, instead of just dubbing around as a student.”
I realized early in 2021
that the 40th anniversary of the Fashion Jungle would arrive this summer, as Mike, Jim, Ken and I had settled on the FJ moniker in June 1981. And that anniversary is the perfect opportunity for a long-overdue departure from the solitary musings that typically constitute Notes from a Basement.
So, four decades after it all began, it’s a genuine pleasure to present a Fashion Jungle retrospective in the words of the people — other than me — who played in the band or supported the musicians through the occasional thick and the frequent episodes of thin. (Constitutionally unable to butt out, I do offer a few notes in italic type for clarity and continuity.) Read on to hear from:
Ken Reynolds and Mike Piscopo, with whom I first played in the Curley Howard Band in the late 1970s;
Jim Sullivan, who joined us in The Mirrors;
Steve Chapman, who played with Ken and me in the band’s most enduring lineups;
Kathren Torraca, whose youthful spark and keyboard work defined the best-known FJ lineup;
Dan Knight, who helped fill a gap in the band’s eight years of being;
and from GretchenSchaefer and fellow roadie Jeff Stanton, whose photos have documented the adventures of the FJ and many of the bands that followed.
Ken Reynolds, take it away!
Ken Reynolds: Drums, vocals, lyrics
Curley Howard Band (1977–78) / The Mirrors (1979–81) / The Fashion Jungle (1981–89) / The Cowlix (1989–91) / Howling Turbines (1997–2004)
Ken and I met in 1975 as employees of the Jordan Marsh department store in South Portland, Maine. Our musical interests were quite disparate, but our senses of humor meshed — and we were both itching to escape our respective lonely basements and make music with other humans. Ken’s drive and imagination on the drums became defining elements of the FJ sound.
Ken says: The tasks of a band member are many, whether it’s working on a musical idea for a song, the constant reworking and formation of a nearly completed song or, even better, working on a set list for a gig. But the creating of a song, a sound or a style, lyrically and musically, is a collective joy and fulfillment that aspiring musicians hope to achieve.
I think I can speak for all members of the Fashion Jungle: We experienced all this.
Here’s an example. In 1983, I couldn’t rehearse for several weeks due to a mishap I suffered at a company barbecue in Westbrook. I was playing a game of pepper — a warmup exercise where a batter hits a softball back to a gloved fielder in rapid succession. The batter, my boss, was a little too enthusiastic — he got aggressive with his swings and swatted a ball back to me that hit my gloved hand and fractured my thumb.
I needed surgery and was out of commission for a month. The Fashion Jungle continued to meet weekly and started working on new material. The song being developed was Doug’s “Nothing To Say.” When I finally returned, the band had a basic structure for it in place. Doug and Steve played the song for me a couple of times and I started to get ideas for a beat. What was amazing was how quickly it coalesced into one of the best songs in the band’s repertoire and became a staple in our set list.
Those years together were some of the happiest in my life. I was working two part-time jobs, studying to complete a four-year college degree, having a steady supportive girlfriend, practicing and playing gigs around town. I was extremely busy and every day my schedule was different. Never the rote routine. The sense of purpose was gratifying and exciting!
My favorite FJ gig was at Zootz when we supplemented my drumming with a drum machine on a few songs. Steve, Doug and I successfully streamlined our music to connect the songs together, making ourselves sound more professional while adding a certain stage persona. It felt like we were creating a show and not just playing a regular gig. I think it was our best-received performance by fans and critics alike. [The show was “Dance Alert II,” a November 1987 benefit for Salvadoran refugees.]
Other memories include recording the Six Songs cassette. We all felt pressure to record and distribute some of our original music. It was a hastily completed project, lasting about a day and a half. We each chipped in some dough to book the session. The atmosphere at the studio, the Outlook in Bethel, Maine, was very relaxed and ownership was very cooperative about working with us and suggesting ideas. All in all, a fun experience (despite the high-carb meals that were provided during our overnight stay. :))
I always enjoyed opening for the Boston-based alternative bands that performed at Kayo’s. They were always friendly and genuinely offered their perspectives on the music scene in general and their support for us. Two bands in particular were Arms Akimbo and Zodio Doze — their members were very affable as they discussed the vibrant Boston scene and the best bands there.
Mike Piscopo: Guitar, bass, organ, vocals, songwriting
Curley Howard Band (1977–78) / The Mirrors (1979–81) / The Fashion Jungle (1981)
I knew Mike from “The Corner” — a convenience store in South Portland, Maine, called Patty Ann’s Superette. It was a busy social scene that spanned a wide age range. I’d been hanging around for years as a friend of the proprietors, the Stantons, and Mike was friends with Jeff Stanton’s youngest brother, Philip. Ken and I were looking for additional musicians, and Mike was learning guitar. Our first session consisted of two hours of “Green Onions.”The three of us plus bassist Andy Ingalls became the Curley Howard Band. Later, for The Mirrors, Mike added bass and organ to his portfolio. He moved to Texas in 1981.
Mike says: I don’t think the Fashion Jungle changed me personally, but I believe the structure we had — multiple instruments, vocals, etc. — really helped me musically. I was able to use that experience in a couple of bands I played with here in Texas.
And I enjoyed all the songs (or the ones I remember). I take great pride in playing them to my kids — all grown and accomplished musicians in their own form.
What does the band and that time of life represent to me now? Fond memories (although I really have to emphasize that the Curley Howard Band memories are my favorites!) Overall, I always felt the band was a tight-knit group of folks, probably because of the core history we had together. My favorite FJ gigs were the ones at Kayo’s — we were really tight [Sept. 16 and Oct. 6, 1981].
Overall, there is a special place in my mind for the time we spent making music — Curley Howard, The Mirrors, Karl Rossmann [the late-stage Mirrors], Fashion Jungle. Also, the friendships we had and still have, I believe, are priceless.
Jim Sullivan: Violin, guitar, bass, tenor sax, organ, vocals, songwriting
The Mirrors (1979–81) / The Fashion Jungle (1981–82)
The Curley Howard Band became The Mirrors with the departure of bassist Andy Ingalls and arrival of singer Christine Hanson. In response to an ad, Jim Sullivan joined us in early 1979 and turned out to be stunningly versatile — a good singer and songwriter, and an instrumentalist whose range encompassed fiddle, guitar, bass, keys and ultimately, tenor sax. Jim also brought professional savvy, which we sorely needed as a local agent heaped work on us, and a wicked sense of humor. Today Jim plays and writes music in The Barnyard Incident, an Americana band in Bethlehem, N.H.
Jim says: A bandmate during my time on the Boston Irish/Celtic circuit in the ’90s once said there are two types of bands: practicing bands and performing bands.
It was the transition from The Mirrors to the Fashion Jungle that gave me my first hint of that: Even though The Mirrors did perform songs we all liked, it seemed, in a way, more like a group of musicians taking turns in the spotlight than a cohesive unit.
The FJ, though, was the actualization of one musical trend of The Mirrors [punk and New Wave]. This focus seemed to gel more as a performing band, with everyone pulling the cart in the same direction. That did not mean we stayed in a box — just that one song had some thematic connection to the last, and led to some justified expectation for the next, giving the band its “sound.”
In addition, the FJ opened my eyes to the possibility that instead of just being a technician copying things, you could actually invent music with nothing limiting it but imagination. And I discovered at that time that I could stretch beyond stringed instruments, both banging out some tunes on the Farfisa rock organ, and taking up tenor sax and continuing to dabble in it for a couple more years. (But let’s face it: There’s something wrong with any instrument that needs a “spit valve”!)
Looking back at my all-too-short stint with the FJ (and with The Mirrors), as with all the bands of various genres I have been in, I am forever grateful that I was exposed to so much great music I might never have run into otherwise. I also took away from that era the importance of recording, both to capture a moment in time and to listen to and improve on my own playing.
On the originals front, one FJ song still on regular rotation in my mental spinning wheel is “Keep On Smiling,” mostly because of its sheer sonic power, and because I’m always easily seduced by organs of all types, from pipe to Hammond B3 to Farfisa.
Steve Chapman: Bass, guitar, vocals, songwriting
The Fashion Jungle (1981–85, 1987–89) / The Cowlix (1989)
Steve joined the FJ in autumn 1981, as Mike departed for Texas and Jim moved to Boston to attend school. Steve brought a musical sophistication that, in his bass work, was key to our ability to succeed as a trio; and that in his songwriting, simply provided the FJ with some of its very best material.
Steve says: The Fashion Jungle is still a part of me after all this time and is the band I identify with the most. The other (10-plus) bands are pretty distant memories at this point, even those I was in after the FJ.
I’ve got to say that I quite enjoyed playing Geno’s, even though it was such a pit in those days — it was also a bonafide New Wave venue. Probably a bit like The Cavern Club, although I don’t think they had the same activities in the ladies room that Geno’s had.
Maybe my favorite FJ gig of all was the Maine Festival in Brunswick [in 1984. Steve, Ken and I also played the Portland edition in 1988]. That felt fairly significant. Another would be the Portland Expo concert where we hit the big time. I can still see David Minehan of The Neighborhoods slinking around in his trench coat waiting to go on — never letting anyone catch his eye. They were pretty good but we were better, in my humble opinion. [“Going To A Go Go,” Oct. 16, 1982. Also on the bill were The Pathetix, with Mike Piscopo’s brother Gary and future FJ keyboardist Kathren Torraca.]
We had a lot of songs. Some of my favorites to play were “Breaker’s Remorse,” “Je t’aime” and, believe it or not, “Dumb Models.” We got bored with it, but it was about as heavy as it gets. We also had a nice selection of covers. I always liked playing Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan.”
The FJ made me a much better bass player as time went by. I wasn’t doing much when we first got together and the band exposed me to a lot of music that I hadn’t been paying much attention to. It was a real period of growth for me as a musician.
Kathren Torraca: Keyboards
The Fashion Jungle (1983–85)
With keyboardist Kat making it a quartet, the band reached a pinnacle of sonic richness — and local recognition — in 1983–84. Her synth textures and colors had a dramatic effect on the FJ, both expanding the types of material we could pull off and, perhaps more importantly, bringing the romanticism in our music fully to the fore. A teenager when she first joined us, Kat was also the best kind of smart aleck.
Kat says: I’m not sure that my time with the Fashion Jungle changed me, but it was one of the most fun periods of time that I look back upon. I was always a bit nervous before each gig but at the end, it felt great — no matter how it went! I loved our energy and watching the dance floor fill over the course of the night — most nights….
I was so young! It was a time of learning, maturing, exploring and lots of really great fun. Looking back, I was very excited, and lucky really, to be playing with such talented friends and getting those experiences — practices, recording, gigs, pre-gig prep and post-gig–high hanging out. And the opportunities to meet and work with other talented local musicians, and to have been an active part of the music scene in 1980s Portland.
I remember audiences singing our original songs. No particular gig stands out in detail for me, but there are a couple that I remember more than others. There was one at Kayo’s — the feeling I took from it is of a particularly packed audience and great dancing. And there were many nights at Geno’s where we had good audiences and lots of energy.
I remember going out for breakfast after gigs, practicing in Ben and Hattie Hubley’s basement, and watching you all drink Black Velvet. And Alden and his van, being on the cover of Sweet Potato and printing FJ T-shirts in my basement. [Kathren designed an early FJ shirt that featured a leg in camouflage hose wearing a bright red stiletto heel.]
Dan Knight: Bass, vocals, songwriting
The Fashion Jungle (1985)
After one last Geno’s show in Dec. 1984 — which I don’t recall at all — the Chapman-Torraca edition of the FJ, sometimes also featuring Jim Sullivan, continued to rehearse into early 1985. And then we were done, as Steve, like Jim before him, had moved to Boston, where he was studying software coding and had met his wife-to-be, Jeri Kane. But Ken and I were still game, and placed an ad in the Sweet Potato for musicians. We heard from, and hired, one: bassist Dan Knight. And by July the FJ was back in business, at least for another six months.
Dan says: In the mid-’80s, after three years of alleged study up north at the University of Maine, I’d had enough of playing music in dorm rooms and left school for the big city — Portland.
I originally hooked up with a psychedelic garage band centered around the Geno’s scene when it was in its original location, on Brown Street. I got a job driving a school van and discovered that I had a not-necessarily-healthy fondness for the British-style ale being served at the old Three Dollar Dewey’s. The psych band didn’t last long — and it was right about then that I had the obligatory hopeless romance, resulting in a broken heart that I nursed for years. Good Times.
I’d heard the name Fashion Jungle around town. They were of a previous generation when the place for cool bands was the original Downtown Lounge — and the Portland waterfront was still dangerous. I saw their ad for a bass player in the Sweet Potato, another relic of that era. It was the local music paper and everybody read it.
Whatever the Fashion Jungle’s past incarnations, at that moment it was now basically down to two, Ken and Doug. They gave me a cassette tape of their original material. I heard echoes of Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, but the Fashion Jungle was definitely its own thing. I played along with the tape as best I could, tried to get the gist, and then had an audition. I apparently passed.
The original songs were genuinely unique and the covers were unusual, including Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash. Rock bands weren’t doing that at the time. We even learned some Motown songs to play at a wedding. I believe my run in the Jungle lasted only six months.
I went back to school, finishing up at the University of Southern Maine. I still play music and, sometimes on a rainy day, still nurse that broken heart.
Gretchen Schaefer: Road manager, staff artist
The Fashion Jungle (1981–89) / As guitarist, bassist, singer: The Cowlix (1989–94) / The Boarders (1994–96) / Howling Turbines (1997–2004) / Day for Night (2007–)
Gretchen and I met in a philosophy of art class at the University of Southern Maine in autumn 1981, at the time the original FJ quartet was coming apart. As our relationship grew, she became integral to the band as a roadie and contributing artist for FJ promotional efforts. In the FJ’s final months, we decided to open for ourselves under a different name and play classic country and rock, and Gretchen joined us on stage playing rhythm guitar. She and I have made music together ever since.
Gretchen says: The first gig I saw the Fashion Jungle play was at Kayo’s [Oct. 6, 1981], and I remember just being really impressed with the band. I didn’t really know you at the time, and people talk a lot of crap, so I did not have high expectations at all — I was basically thinking it was going to be terrible.
I was so surprised at how put together the band was, how professional it seemed, just how well-rehearsed and smooth your sound was. It was a thing — you really projected an image and a sound that was cohesive, and I found that very impressive.
The other thing that struck me was that you all could play on different instruments with some fluidity and authority. It never had occurred to me that people would be able to do that. I always figured in a band, everybody had their one instrument and that’s what they would play.
The original group seemed like this crazy mashup, but it all cohered. It seemed — not really circusy, but really exciting and kind of wild. That changed when it was just you and Ken and Steve. That was a whole different iteration of the band. I was around more for that, to see it shaping and building up, but it seemed more serious in a way than those early gigs.
With the Fashion Jungle, I was an observer mostly. I had a privileged position in that I was very close to the band, I was at a lot of rehearsals, recording sessions and gigs.
I loved it. It was exciting. I’d never been close to a band before — a real band that performed out. Just observing how bands acted and interacted with one another, and how it all came together and how gigs were gotten and played. And bands were such a big part of what we were all thinking about growing up.
Being able to do some of the artwork was something I really liked. It allowed me to participate in my own artistic way. I was trying to respond to the band, to take in your ideas and meld them with my own vision. I like that commission process a lot, assembling ideas together into a coherent whole. [An established mosaic artist now, doing business as Great Blue Mosaic, Gretchen designed posters, T-shirts and the cover image for the Six Songs audiocassette.]
That time of life seemed like the culmination of my youth. I’d had a lot of different experiences before that, but it seemed like a high point of the young part of my life, not only our relationship building but just being part of that milieu.
So many of the gigs blend together — all those gigs at Geno’s where I was tending the door with Alden. [Alden Bodwell had been a roadie and friend since the Curley Howard days. He passed away in December 2019.] There were certain fans that I would see at every gig. That little blonde skateboard girl — she looked too young to be there, for sure. She’d have a skateboard with her, she clearly was out of bounds, but she came to so many gigs.
Then there was that tall guy with the bushy, sandy hair who danced. A really bouncy dancer. And people like Seth Berner, Will Jackson, you would just see a lot at the gigs, they really liked the FJ.
Geno’s was gritty, like totally gritty. Then the Marble Bar was less gritty. The 1984 Maine Festival was the cool pinnacle, and Zootz seemed like this New York, groovy vibe, which was fun.
It was interesting to hear those same songs over and over at different gigs, and how they would change. They’d be faster or slower, the mood often would change with how you would emphasize the lyrics. It was interesting to me to hear that because I had not heard performances repeatedly like that.
“Shortwave Radio” was always very striking to me. It’s a really percussive song, and I thought that was interesting. That was probably a huge standout for me. “Je t’aime” is a great song, so sophisticated. Those Ken songs, like “Dumb Models” — I thought that was so funny. It was so apropos, and it was such an unapologetically boy view of things. The stripper song, “Entertainer.”
I always liked the postmortem after the gigs. We’d bring the equipment back, and there’d always be that little period of just hanging around for a few minutes, talking it over in the dark. It would be late at night. There was always the rating system: Ken would say, “Well, how do you think it went?” It was a scale of 1 to 10. Everybody would have to give their number.
And the whole divvying up of the money after a gig. Alden would always want to refuse his share, and you’d all have to force him to take some.
The Fashion Jungle as a band changed so much over time. It was interesting to see the rotating personnel piece of it. It had never occurred to me that there would be this changing cast of characters, and that somebody would continue to try to put it together again — “Are we going to actually try to replace that person? Are we just going to function as we are?” — and how that drove the music and how you presented yourselves.
Reading about other bands afterward, it made a lot more sense to me, having seen it firsthand, how difficult it is to keep a group of people all going in the same direction for very long, especially people at a really volatile time of life. You were all in that young adult time, where people were making pretty big life decisions that affected the band.
Jeff Stanton: Road manager, staff photographer-videographer
The Fashion Jungle (1981–89) / The Cowlix (1989–94) / The Boarders (1994–96) / Howling Turbines (1997–2004) / Day for Night (2007–)
Living and working at Patty Ann’s Superette, Jeff and his siblings attracted friends of diverse ages to the Stanton family’s variety store. The roots of several bands, including the FJ, were set deep in this fertile social scene, which produced the Curley Howard Band and its successors, as well as the Pathetix and the Foreign Students. Featuring the latter two bands and the Mirrors (1980) and the FJ (1981), “Corner Night” concerts paid tribute to this South Portland phenomenon. Jeff has amassed an important photographic record of these bands, their descendants and their times.
Jeff says: In connecting with friends of my siblings in the neighborhood, I was, I guess, an observer or a witness to several individuals’ musical development. I would go back as far as Truck Farm — you and John Rolfe and Tom Hansen. That was the seeds in the soil there. Things were germinating then. [Truck Farm, 1971–72, was my first performing band, another decadal milestone for 2021. John Rolfe went on to form the Foreign Students and The Luxembourgs.] I even remember it when I was away at school — the people who played guitar and how others would gather around.
One of the things that I really appreciate about the whole experience was the social connections I made. It was good for me. The bonds that were created then, they’ve endured. We’ve grown as friends.
And being part of that creative enterprise was cool. That goes back to that whole Corner experience, where there was a whole nexus, network, of activity, and people coming and going. It made my social interaction very easy, because I didn’t have to get outside myself — everybody was coming there, for whatever reason. It was a neighborhood vortex. That circle of interaction and creative expression was very satisfying.
I did make some effort to document visually, in photographs, what was happening. And then not being a musical participant, I wanted to contribute some way, so being able to lug equipment, I was certainly capable of doing that. That made me feel I was part of it.
There’s one memory I have from Geno’s where I was talking to a girl, and we were talking about the band. This always stuck with me — she said “crucial,” the music being crucial, or “essential.” It was just this attractive girl I was talking to, and I didn’t really know her. I don’t know if she knew you guys, so it was just interesting to hear a stranger comment about the music, which I thought was cool.
I enjoy live performances now, but I often didn’t go to hear other local bands. I think as a social activity, the FJ actually got me to go out to hear music, probably because I’d been introduced to it — I was desensitized, a little bit more comfortable with it.
I remember once hearing somebody being disappointed by a concert because it didn’t sound like the album. But part of the appeal of live music is that it’s an ephemeral expression, and the result of everything that’s happened to that point. And it’s appealing to hear the same songs live more than once.
If you had gone only once, and they played really fast, “really fast” would be the memory. But there are other times when there’s a different vibe. I know it’s probably different for band members who rehearse and rehearse, and that’s why one has to appreciate when they can bring some freshness to it.
Besides, sometimes “too fast” is just what you need.
I reread some Basement posts, and I’ve been listening to FJ music over the course of things. It’s interesting how listening to it brings this well of emotion back up. It was a high point, it was something that brought things together, got us together.
Whenever I go by there now, heading out to Cape Elizabeth and seeing the Corner, I don’t see a bunch of kids hanging around. I don’t see guitarists standing up against the side of the building, or people sitting on the side, or skateboarding in the parking lot there. I sometimes think of that time and wonder, if I had approached life differently and decided to set out on my own and not stayed at the store — well, things would be a lot different. I would be very interested and curious to know what different things would have sprouted for everybody else, too.
The FJ wove some vibrant threads, tones, and textures into the fabric of my experiences at that period — nights at Jim’s and Geno’s were always an event. I don’t know what the warp and woof of the fabric of my being would be without the various FJ interactions and influences. I imagine the patterns would be different.
Doug Hubley, at left, and Ben Hubley pose for the self-timer during a 1987 camping trip to Fayette, Maine. Dad was 66, the age I am now; and I was 33, Dad’s age when I was born. Hubley Archives.
Is it too depressing to plow through tedious musings about aging? Cut to the chase and hear the new EP!
In 1974, when I was a callow 20-year-old,
I recorded French pop singer Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday, When I Was Young” in my parents’ basement.
I’d heard Aznavour’s 1964 version, “Hier encore,” thanks to my sister Susie, a big Aznavour fan. I loved the melody, and the drama of his recording. And I loved his words — or so I thought.
In reality, I didn’t actually know Aznavour’s words because I don’t speak French. Instead, like many others, I sang Herbert Kretzmer’s English translation, which was widely familiar from Roy Clark’s 1969 hit version. Aznavour and Kretzmer tell the same basic story, that of an older man lamenting his misspent youth. But the specifics are quite different.
And I had no clue that in Aznavour’s original lyrics, the narrator was a man late in life looking back at himself as — wait for it! — a callow 20-year-old.
That irony blows some of the odor off the abysmal naïveté that gave the clueless 20-year-old me license to perform, with total conviction, Kretzmer’s maudlin lament about regret and world-weariness.
Aznavour’s lyric, in fact, towers over his longtime translator’s. Where Kretzmer sacrifices poetic force to conform to a rhyme scheme (“weak and shifting sand,” yikes!), Aznavour focuses on detailing, pointedly, the many, many ways a smart young man can be a jerk.
Old man inside a young man: 20-year-old Doug Hubley performs “Wild Horses” on the Silvertone 6-string at Nancy Hubley’s wedding, May 1975. Hubley Family photo.
So maybe it was good that I didn’t know the original lyrics when I recorded it. Maybe Kretzmer’s interpretation was right for me at that point in time. Soggy regrets about things that I’d never experienced seemed to suit my 20-year-old mood better than a hard look in the mirror. (Not that I shied away from mirrors.)
But the bigger issue is: Why, at that promising age, with so much of life ahead of me, did I feel compelled to assume the persona of an old man bitter with remorse over past mistakes?
Callous as well as callow in my 20s, was I displacing into fiction feelings of guilt about my youthful hijinks? Did I wish to inhabit elderly narrators because aging is associated with wisdom, and I’m insecure about my intellect?
Did I think the older, wiser, sorrier image was attractive? Was there a connection with my tendency to seek control of unwanted situations by envisioning how they will end?
Like Jim Reeves, I wonder, I wonder — but I really don’t want to know.
The scariest thing on Halloween. Hubley Archives.
At the time, performing “Yesterday, When I Was Young” struck me as highly romantic, or least as a way to channel my bleak outlook into something decorative. I had no job nor lover nor any clear path toward what I wanted out of all that life, beyond emoting into the Sony reel-to-reel.
Anyhoo, whatever my motivations, learning the song was absolutely a good music lesson. Aznavour’s melody is elegant, a chain of perfect phrases that link and then break away as the long line progresses from wistful to bitter to tragic. It felt good on my brain to figure out the chords and learn to sing over them. It was a welcome challenge to my musical foundations in rock and country.
The South Richland Street basement, 1974. One of the amps worked. Hubley Archives.
Older and slightly wiser, I’d achieved some critical distance by 1985, when I made my band learn “It Was a Very Good Year,” Sinatra’s hit of 20 years prior. I still aspired to the regretful roué persona, but now was able to season it with some irony. (As opposed to having the irony present itself 45 years later, as with the Aznavour song during the writing of this post.)
It’s also true that Ervin Drake’s “Very Good Year,” unlike “Yesterday, When I Was Young,” is not about guilty second thoughts. In fact, it’s the opposite — a self-congratulatory review of the Ages of Man, Horndog Division (although the sexy talk is gone by the final verse and with it any charm in the lyrics, as evocative images of perfumed hair and snogging in the back of a limousine give way to, yikes again, the self-satisfied “fine old wine” stuff. Bartender, make mine remorse).
Well, ’nuff said about the lyrics. But Drake’s minor-to-major melody, twining through a chordal structure closely anchored to D, was quite compelling. “Very Good Year” was first recorded by the Kingston Trio, it made the charts with Sinatra, and its composer was American — but Drake’s melody had the same exotic appeal to my uninformed brain as the Eastern Mediterranean music I was enamored of in the 1980s.
So my band the Fashion Jungle learned it, complete with a Richard Thompson guitar treatment that would have been the cat’s pajamas if I could play like Richard Thompson. And the same year we learned it, I forced a tape of our version on poor Richard after his Bowdoin College performance, which I’d previewed for the Maine Sunday Telegram, complete with Thompson interview. I don’t want to know what he thought of the FJ, but I’ll never forget him, sweaty in his pink suit, backing away from me apprehensively as I approached with the tape.
The Boarders striving for a bygone look in a 1994 publicity image by Jeff Stanton. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley. Hubley Archives.
Ten years and two bands later, The Boarders elevated “It Was a Very Good Year” to some sort of pinnacle in our strange and diverse repertoire. Driven by drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick and bassist Gretchen Schaefer (still my partner in life and in music), Drake’s melody got a heavy, vaguely Balkan accordion setting that I still like, bombast and all.
Today, 26 years later, though I don’t wallow in them anymore, I still enjoy musical elegies for lost youth — “September Song,” “When the World Was Young,” etc. (And we just discovered Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair,” only 90 years late.)
And then, in an altogether different vein, there’s Waylon Jennings’ version of “A Couple More Years,” the Dr. Hook song whose narrator makes plain to a younger lover the pitfalls of their May-August relationship.
In fact, I think Waylon’s willingness to play the world-weary elder, something he shared with Willie Nelson, is a reason that I like them both. I could never sing Waylon’s “Slow Movin’ Outlaw” with a straight face, but as maudlin as that song is, the crack in Waylon’s voice and the loss in Dee Moeller’s lyrics — and, of course, the railroad frame of reference — get me every time:
“All the old stations are being torn down And the high-flying trains no longer roll The floors are all sagging with boards that are suffering From not being used anymore Things are all changing, the world’s rearranging A time that will soon be no more Where has a slow-movin’, once quick-draw outlaw got to go?”
Ben and Harriette Hubley in 1942. They were married for 75 years. Hubley Archives.
But as much as I liked them, I never performed many of those songs nor did I regret not doing so. I guess it’s a healthy sign that as I finally learned to enjoy my fast-passing youth, I became less interested in fictionalizing it.
And a sharper corrective came from the punk-rock scene in Portland, Maine. Punk’s be-here-now ethos, its acid anti-sentimentality — especially when the sentiment was nostalgia — made a deep impression on me. (Still, I bet there’s no shortage of people my age nostalgic for their punk years.)
So I learned to think twice before waxing nostalgic in unfamiliar company. (Good training for one’s 60s, especially during 2020, a year that has lowered the bar for what might qualify as the Good Ole Days.)
More important, I started to understand the emotional uses, good and bad, of nostalgia — how it can comfort, how it can anesthetize, how it can co-opt, how it can deflect, how it can be weaponized. (Could there be such a thing as an ethics of nostalgia? Yep. Try it on Google.)
Doug Hubley and Gretchen Schaefer in 1991.
In any case, in 2010 they moved me to a new cubicle in the Tower of Song (actually the Tower of Song annex out by the Maine Mall), and a couple years later I made my own contribution to the catalog of songs that view youth across the wide river of age. They say you shouldn’t drink alone, and my song “I Never Drink Alone” is about someone who is saved from that habit only by the ghosts and memories keeping him company at the bar.
I’m blessed to still have loved ones in my life (if not so many as in 2012), but then, well into my 50s, I was looking ahead. (See “control of unwanted situations,” above.) “I Never Drink Alone” is one of the truest songs emotionally I have ever written, a picture of mourning what’s lost and fearing how one mourns.
Three years later, “Just a Moment in the Night” came along. Like “I Never Drink Alone,” it comes straight from the heart. But typical me: I finally manage to write a love song after 50 years, and instead of a celebration, it’s another frigging elegy for times past.
In other words, I’ve arrived: I have become that retrospective old man I thought I wanted to be all those years ago, when I was strumming the Silvertone and turning the Shure Vocalmaster reverb to 11. Then a young man assuming the role of an old man, I’m now an old man looking back at the youngster and thinking: twerp.
Yes, I’m an old man; and regrets, I have a few, as Paul Anka whispered in Sinatra’s ear. (Sinatra, according to Wikipedia, didn’t actually like “My Way,” although I imagine he gritted his teeth and deposited the royalty checks anyway. I don’t like it either, although Sid Vicious’s version is funny — the first time.)
Would I have written “I Never Drink Alone” and “Just a Moment in the Night” in the 2010s if I hadn’t loved “Yesterday, When I Was Young” and “Slow Movin’ Outlaw” in the 1970s? Would such odes to longing and regret, sung in the December of one’s years, yada yada, still resonate so strongly if I heard them for the first time only now, in my 60s?
Gretchen Schaefer photo (detail).
Beats me. Doesn’t matter. Relatively few things really do, as one discovers in one’s golden years. Old age comes with its own very special concerns, and they seem far removed from the rampaging lusts and hot tears of youthful folly. Regrets, I have a few, and they’re pretty much about arthritic feet, dwindling energy and loved ones we’ve lost.
So at last I understand the listeners who most closely identified with those songs, as opposed to the callow 20-year-old looking for a persona. I’m not quite the narrator in those songs — too lucky, even happy, for that — but we nod “hello” when our paths cross at the bar. Really, I’d rather drink the fine old wine from vintage kegs than waste it on a metaphor.
We mourn the past that’s gone, we regret the hurt we caused. But we don’t regret the powers, and the opportunities to use them, that we had. Little did I know, when I was wandering through the Seine River fog of “Yesterday, When I Was Young” all those years ago, that the regrets for one’s lost youth would seem more and more like a luxury?
These three songs
resulted from a summer 2020 push to record music for this Notes post*. Here are three diverse takes on getting older. On the first two, it’s all me in front of the mic. “Beyond the Great Divide” is a Day for Night recording featuring Gretchen Schaefer on harmony vocal. (See the EP on Bandcamp.)
No time for pesky reading? Head straight for the Notes From A Basement music stores atbandcamp and Nimbit!
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 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 last summer 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.
Shown playing sax at a Fashion Jungle gig at Kayo’s in 1981, Jim Sullivan also brought skills on keyboard, violin, guitar and bass to the FJ and the Mirrors. (Jeff Stanton photo)
By Jim Sullivan
In the mid-’80s when I was still attempting to get reasonable on tenor sax, and realizing that the instrument was capable of sonically reducing buildings to rubble (second only to bagpipes, perhaps), I gathered some retired braided rag carpets, beat them enough to get most of the mites and dust out, and erected a practice booth in the basement of the two-family house I rented the first floor of with my wife, in hopes of respecting both hers and the upstairs landlords’ ears.
The rugs did deaden the sound quite a bit, but the environment was noxious enough that I often found something else to do. To complete the smelly-old-rug atmosphere, the heating pipes down there had asbestos coverings, and the walls had urea foam insulation: I don’t know if my playing improved any, but the combined toxics probably ruined my chances of ever winning the Nobel for making advances in quantum mechanics.
Around the same time, I saw a couple of local tenor players whose expertise convinced me to retreat to focusing on stringed instruments, where I had a bit more of a foothold. The tenor sat neglected until I resurrected it for an Fashion Jungle reunion gig (audio evidence of which can be found here), shortly thereafter to be sold in favor of funding a new acoustic-electric five-string violin. Good decision.
Hear more of the Fashion Jungle with Jim on sax here and here.
The Fashion Jungle rehearses in Ben & Harriette Hubley’s basement in a composite image from the early 1980s. From left, Steve Chapman, Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley. Photos by Jeff Stanton.
See the basements, read about the basements — and hear the basements in the Bandcamp and Nimbit stores!
NOTE: All musical excerpts in this post were recorded in basements except the first one, included so that you can hear the Kent and Capt. Distortion, played by Steve McKinney; my bass playing heard through the RCA stereo; and Tom Hansen playing cardboard boxes, a tambourine and a metal bicycle basket as percussion. We all sing, and Judy McKinney sings and plays rhythm guitar. This was recorded in the Hubleys’ living room in 1969.
My parents’ basement in South Portland, Maine, in the late 1960s. Notice the particle board stereo speakers, the coffee-can light fixture at upper left and the cloth speaker grille on Capt. Distortion, lower left. This image is the source for the Notes From a Basement banner. Hubley Archives.
Most musicians from Bob Dylan on down,
especially those of a certain age, can tell you about making music in a basement.
I count at least nine residential basements in which I’ve played alone or with bands — to say nothing of such illustrious subterranean nightspots in Portland, Maine, as the original Geno’s, Squire Morgan’s, the short-lived Ratskellar and the Free Street Taverna (only slightly below street level, but with a true basement feel).
An equivalent view in April 2013, after we cleared out the house for sale and my parents moved into assisted living. Hubley Archives.
Allow me to explain the obvious. Musical equipment takes up a lot of space, is hard to dust and to vacuum around, and looks good only in its functional context — that is, when you’re using it to play music or make other musicians envious.
In addition, of course, electric music can get loud. And by the same token, domestic life can interfere with musical moods. You don’t want someone watching NASCAR nearby when you’re trying to record a tender folk ballad.
Perhaps most decisively, musicians at work create a powerful social energy that, for better or worse, intrudes into whatever hopes for their time your non-musical roommates might be aspiring to.
Me and the Kent, my first guitar that I didn’t steal from my sister. Pre-Capt. Distortion, it was plugged into the RCA Victor stereo. Hubley Archives.
So for many of us, music gets made in the basement — spiders and pill bugs, dust and grit, mildew and mold, darkness and chilliness be damned. (Garages, of course, also have a noble history as musical refuges, even lending their name to a musical genre).
And don’t forget the water during snowmelt and heavy rains. Standing water on the basement floor every spring was a special attraction in the 1910 house where I grew up, on a side street near Red Bolling’s legendary Tastee Freez (now known as Red’s).
When we moved in, in 1958, the largest of the three cellar rooms was set off by a pair of French doors. If a 60-year-recollection is worth anything, that space briefly harbored a little sitting area with curtains and some kind of dainty furniture. (I’m the only Hubley who remembers that amenity. Dream or reality?)
One French door, with all of its glass but painted into opacity, still remained 55 years later when we cleared the house out and moved my parents into assisted living.
The massive gray gizmo on the green hassock was a “portable” turntable, weighing about 40 pounds, that once used by WCSH-AM for remote broadcasts (if that’s still a recognizable concept). Hubley Archives.
Anyhoo, back there in 1966 or ’67, one or both of my sisters, who are older than me, turned that room into a hangout. They walled half of it off with blankets, and added amenities such as an old, deep stuffed chair with a rock-hard seat and touches of paint that included “I love you” (and, less idealistically, “69”) daubed on the bricks.
As my sisters’ hangout-related interests matured and my involvement in music deepened, I claimed the room. But it didn’t happen overnight. What shaped the situation was a chronic inadequacy of musical gear that prevailed until I was out of high school and drawing a paycheck. (I’m often gobsmacked by how well-equipped today’s young players are.)
Doug plays bass through the new Guild Superstar and sister Sue Hubley sings in early 1970. The “mic stand” was a tent pole. Hubley Archives.
The first guitar that was really mine, not “borrowed,” was a six-string Kent, Model 823. It was a birthday present in 1967, when I turned 13. But I didn’t have a proper amplifier until Christmas 1969.
During those 30 months before I got the Guild Superstar, my father improvised a couple of solutions to my unamplified plight. (Dad knew electronics — he’d even been a radioman with Eisenhower’s headquarters during WW II.)
First he rigged an input to the household record player, a much-modified RCA console model in the living room. The Kent sounded clean through the RCA — a bass sounded better, as it turned out — but the disruption to the household was significant.
Dad’s next offering was a bare-chassis amplifier of unknown origin (record player? intercom? public-address?) hooked up to an 8-inch speaker that must have come from some other console record player. The speaker was mounted onto a cloth-and-wood panel, and the amp was screwed onto a plain pine board. Dangling wires connected them, and the whole works teetered on a rolling metal TV stand.
It wasn’t too loud but it sure sounded rough. In fact, it set a standard of overdriven amp tone that remains a criterion for me, in a good way. I called that contraption Capt. Distortion.
I continued to clear the living room with the RCA from time to time, but the Captain really changed my musical life. Most importantly, the Captain — along with other stopgaps, such as a second-hand particle-board stereo that Dad also dredged up from who knows where — untethered me from the living room.
And, actually, tethered me instead to basements.
A kid named Tom Hansen was one of my best friends for about five years, starting in 1966. We shared interests in music, in putting on a show, and in wacky humor. (The product of an academic household, Tom had a much more sophisticated wit than mine.)
Drummer Tom plays cardboard boxes and a real, though cracked, cymbal, in the Hubley basement in early 1970. Hubley Archives.
Our adolescent energies converged like phaser beams on my father’s poor Panasonic reel-to-reel tape recorder. We used it, with a succession of cheap plastic microphones, to record music ranging from earnest and bad to cacophonous and unlistenable. We also attempted comedy. Tom and I spent most of 1969 and ’70 recording crap on that poor tape recorder.
We surrounded ourselves with such musical instruments as we had. Along with the Kent and the Captain, that arsenal included a 12-string guitar from the Sears catalog, a kiddie piano, metal spoons and a tambourine, cheap bells, nose flutes and kazoos. And harmonicas: While I knew him, Tom developed into a very good harp player.
To the basement decor I added some colored light bulbs (I still remember buying them. I still have a green one), and Tom and I sat there in the near darkness just killing ourselves with what we considered really funny stuff. It’s just amazing how wrong people can be.
John Rolfe rehearses with our band Airmobile in the basement of a building at what is now Southern Maine Community College. This was summer 1973, the school was then known as Southern Maine Vocational-Technical Institute, and the building was the residence of bassist Glen Tracy, whose father worked at the college. Hubley Archives.
The Thunderbirds (previously Airmobile. It gets confusing) are back in the Hubley basement in this image from 1974. At left is bassist Glen Tracy. The drummer is Eddie Greco. Hubley Archives.
One product in particular made us very proud. Totaling 13 installments, it was called, with occasional variations, “The Captain Spoon Show.” As Captain Spoon, Tom carried the verbal weight of the show and had the best jokes. I was Mr. Music, plunking out chords for the ad-lib songs and sprinkling random notes over Tom’s verbal riffing. (Capt. Distortion and Capt. Spoon, eh? I think “Spoon” came first.)
Despite a few recurring bits, we pretty much winged each episode, exploring every corner of offensive adolescent spontaneity we could find. Between making music and “Captain Spoon,” we felt pretty special, which the thugs at South Portland High School rewarded with accusations, which sometimes escalated into physical harassment, of being gay. An enlightened era.
Tom and I remained friends through the SPHS grief and through his parents shipping him off briefly to private school to get him away from me. (Despite their fears, there was no gay sex, no booze, no drugs; just colored lights, stupid humor, music that gradually got better and an abused tape recorder). What did end Tom’s and my friendship was starting a band when we were 17. And, of course, becoming mature.
The Hubley studio post-paint job, 1974. Hubley Archives.
Years of a basement
Where most of my contemporaries in the early 1970s were absorbing the influences of school, sports, clubs, church and who knows what all, my character was being molded by records, radio, Rolling Stone and Hit Parader magazines — and my parents’ cellar.
For a while around 1970–71, on the basis of no experience and no professional equipment, I pretended that crummy room was a recording studio. I even “produced,” and Tom and I played on, an album-on-tape by his then-girlfriend, who sang and wrote all the songs. Later Tom came down with some friends from a religious organization and we tried to record “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.”
The Hubley basement studio at its apogee, in the mid-1970s. Note the Chevy hubcap ash tray, the three tambourines hanging from a beam, and the Carmencita psychedelic guitar at right. Hubley Archives.
A few years later — I was 20 and really should have known better — I pretended it was a nightclub and invited cronies down for drinks and performances. Friends knew to bypass the regular house entrance and come in through the cellar door, which was reminiscent of a bomb shelter entryway.
The room was at its apogee then. Somewhere along the way I formally demarcated my space with tie-dyed muslin curtains (my father used the other half of the room for his own self-indulgences). With eager support from my mother — who was probably happy that I wanted to do something down there besides play loud guitar, or get drunk and lie on the floor listening to Hank Williams on headphones — I painted the moldering concrete walls in 1974.
Ensconced in the ass-numbing maroon easy chair, Ken Reynolds appreciates the Hubley cellar in 1977. Hubley Archives.
The standard of furnishings rose slightly, as I replaced old Hubley discards with newer ones. Gone was the old mattress and frame that served more to mock than to make possible any possibilities of l’amour. In addition to the original ass-numbing stuffed chair, there was a car bench seat (later replaced by the old pink family sofa) and a giant hassock covered in limeade-green fabric. There was a Chevy hubcap for an ashtray, although nobody much was smoking.
More important, the standard of musical furnishings rose markedly. Thanks to real jobs, first at the King Cole potato chip factory and then at the Jordan March department store (both establishments are long gone), I had a real stereo, real guitars and real amplifiers. Thanks again to Dad, I had my own tape recorder, a big heavy graduation-present Sony TC-540.
The Fashion Jungle poses for a publicity image in Steve Chapman’s basement, 1987. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives.
Solo, casually with friends, or with bands, I went on to make countless hours of music in the room. (During the summer of 1974, the first year of the “nightclub,” I was unemployed and spent nearly all my time there recording and writing songs. That didn’t help the possibilities of l’amour at all, to say nothing of the development of any sense of responsibility, but it was a useful musical immersion.)
It was the band work that justified and made real my musical aspirations. From Truck Farm to Airmobile, from the Mirrors all the way to the 1985 incarnation of the Fashion Jungle, all my bands rehearsed in the Hubley basement at some time or other. I extend eternal gratitude to my parents, who were very generous and tolerant of high-decibel band rehearsals two or three evenings a week.
Those were wonderful days in the cellar. Recordings came out of there that I’m still proud to share today. Because we were young, music was still new territory and we had the energy and drive to explore it. We rode out on rhythm and loudness like cowboys. It made our brains feel good to develop music together.
And we had a lot of laughs. I’ll never forget the late-night load-ins after a gig — the gingerly descent with an amp in arms through the concrete bulkhead; wrangling tall, skinny Shure Vocalmaster speakers in through a cellar window; standing in the driveway at 2 a.m. divvying up the buck-three-eighty we made at the door at Geno’s (and keeping my mother awake with our jawing); the jokes and happy exhaustion.
A basement of one’s own
In 1989, Gretchen Schaefer and I bought a house. At last we had a basement to do with as we wished: wash and hang laundry, store stuff, start seedlings. And make music.
The largest of the four cellar rooms is indeed the music studio. It’s outfitted to a level that would have been incomprehensible to me in 1970, and I work there alone and with Gretchen as the country band Day for Night.
My former studio in parents’ house, after they moved to assisted living and the Dump Guys cleaned it out. Hubley Archives.
This room, too, has colored lights (a string of Christmas lights). The floor is crumbling like the one at my parents’, but it’s maroon instead of robin’s egg blue and most important, it’s dry. Back when we had bigger bands, we rehearsed there, lugged amps and drums up and down for gigs, kept a neighbor awake with our jawing in the driveway at 2 a.m.
Me in the current basement, 2017. (Hubley Archives)
But we use our room only when we need the equipment. It’s not a refuge or a hangout, because other parts of the house are much more comfortable. Gretchen and I make much more music in our living room, which is warm and bright and has windows. We even record there, on a digital unit that’s about the size of a sandwich and probably weighs one-fiftieth of the Sony reel-to-reel. (The last times we recorded on tape were in November 2009.)
Unlike my sisters, who made the South Portland room into a teen hangout only to move on quickly to adult activities, I was in no hurry to leave it. That room turned out to be a halfway house for adulthood, which I wanted to reach, but on my own slow timetable.
I didn’t get out much, but I practiced adult activities in that room — being a musician, being in a romance, entertaining friends in sophisticated ways — that I looked forward to enjoying in some sweet empowered by-and-by.
Which happens to be now.
A collection of notes, as in musical, from some different basements. (Help me find the old Chevy hubcap ashtray on E-Bay — why not buy the whole album on BandCamp or Nimbit?)
• Candy Says (Reed) The Karl Rossmann Band in Ben and Hattie Hubley’s basement, winter 1981. Our exploration of the Velvet Underground songbook hits a high point as Jim Sullivan’s perfectly ingenuous vocal nails the spirit of this lyric. Jim, lead vocal, guitar • DH, supporting vocal, lead guitar • Chris Hanson, supporting vocal • Mike Piscopo, supporting vocal, bass • KR, drums.
• Don’t Forget to Cry (B. Bryant–F. Bryant) Day for Night recorded this on tape in the current basement, November–December 2006. I piled up guitars, bass and tambourine on the four-track for Gretchen Schaefer and I to sing over. The remarkable thing about my relatively sophisticated recording technology is that in spite of it all, the sound quality of my recordings has hardly advanced over the cheesy stuff I made in the 1970s. To thine own self be true.
• When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down (Telfer–Prosser–Jones) The Boarders: DH, guitar and vocal • GS, bass • Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums. A fabulous song by a hit-or-miss Celtic rock group, Oysterband. I have neither the dignity to spare nor the constitution for the lifestyle depicted here, but I sure can relate. A staple of the Boarders repertoire, one of my all-time favorites, recorded in the current basement on Oct. 15, 1995.
• Polly (Clark) Day for Night: GS and DH, guitar and vocal. D4N had a Gene Clark jag that resulted in our learning four of his songs in one gulp in autumn 2008. Gretchen contributes an especially fine lead vocal on Clark’s mysterious “Polly.” Recorded in the current basement, Nov. 25, 2009.
• Don’t Sell the Condo (Hubley) The Fashion Jungle: SC, DH, KR. One of my favorites of my songs and, I think, one of the Fashion Jungle’s best — too bad few people ever heard it. Gretchen knew an art dealer whose charismatic lover, prominent in the Old Port scene, was rumored to be a coke dealer, woman beater, Satan in the flesh, etc. This is the couple’s story as I imagined it. I wrote the lyric over gimlets in the lobby of the Eastland Hotel on a snowy afternoon while waiting for Gretchen to get out of class. This recording comes from a videotape that she made of the FJ in the Chapmans’ basement early in 1988.
• Let the Singer (Hubley) One of my few 1970s compositions that have held up. It’s a paean to the live fast–die young lifestyle that seemed very romantic until all those musicians I liked died young. This is a 1978 solo recording, done in my parents’ basement, for a submission to a WBLM-FM songwriting contest. (How could I not have won?!?)
Shown playing sax at a Fashion Jungle gig at Kayo’s in 1981, Jim Sullivan also brought skills on keyboard, violin, guitar and bass to the FJ and the Mirrors. Also shown, from left: Doug Hubley, Mike Piscopo, Ken Reynolds. Jeff Stanton photo.
(Jim wrote to Notes on April 4, 2017, to fill in some gaps in the history of the original Fashion Jungle.)
. . . I loved FJ (as well as the Mirrors) — the second set of bands I was ever in, and I did not want to leave it, especially at the genesis of originality.
You may remember I had entered an electrician’s program at Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute [now Southern Maine Community College] that fall, with intentions of moving to their electronics program second semester, when the disciplines would diverge academically, and when (as they told me was likely) some students would drop out, making room.
The latter never happened, despite the fact that I got all A’s that first semester, and they were hanging onto a couple of D students in the program I wanted into. So I had to leave school or move.
The front line of the original Fashion Jungle during a 1981 performance at Kayo’s, Portland, Maine. From left: Doug Hubley, Jim Sullivan, Mike Piscopo. Jeff Stanton photo.
And beyond wanting to learn a trade in a demand industry and escape “crap jobs,” the science unexpectedly grabbed my interest, I graduated on top of my class at Wentworth, and was offered some good local jobs.
Nevertheless, I had to abandon my avocation for a while, and very much missed FJ and the imagination and musical diversity that came with it. I learned a great deal about composition and arrangement, even though I was not so prolific myself. But I’m sorry I split abruptly without expressing any of that.
I have learned along the way that bands are an organic combination of individuals, some more dominant in influence than others, and one departure can have a moderate or devastating effect on the whole. The Western Swingtones faded out a few years ago when we lost our rhythm section all at once, including the best string bass player I’ve ever worked with. (You can still find some clips of us on YouTube. “Bands: Can’t live with them, can’t push them off a cliff” (did I get that from you?).
I was remarried a year and a half ago to a current band-mate of mine, Deb. You can find us at www.TheBarnyardIncident.com. Speaking of band departures, our banjo player of our first year (2016) left, and after a spate of subs, we are starting to work with a dobro-mando-guitarist, nowhere to be found on the site yet. Anyhow, check us out.
Talk about woodshedding: The Howling Turbines perform in the woodpile for a fundraiser at Flatbread Company in 2002. In addition to being relegated to the woodpile, we weren’t allowed to use a PA — heaven forfend that we should interrupt the joyous shrieking of familial bliss at this popular family restaurant. Jeff Stanton photo and montage.
The merry-go-round is beginning to slow now Have I stayed too long at the fair? The music has stopped and the children must go now Have I stayed too long at the fair?
With our host Bob Gallagher shown at upper left, the Howling Turbines perform at a party circa 2002. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
As I look back, the last years of the Howling Turbines, from 2001 to 2004, had a winter-sunset quality.
Of course, it didn’t seem that way to me at the time. Instead, it felt like business as usual, right up to the end. But now, recalling those years and listening to recordings from then, I get a distinct sense of streetlights flickering on, the sky going briefly garish then dark, and crows flocking home to roost.
The Turbines’ setlist for the last party we played at Rikki and Bob Gallagher’s house, in 2003. We set up on the back deck, rain began and we tore it all down, the rain stopped and we set it all up again. Hardly anyone attended. Hubley Archives.
The Howling Turbines continued to rehearse and, very occasionally, to perform. We bought more instruments to make more sounds, although there was less energy behind the sounds. The tempos slowed but we still found new reservoirs of sophistication, feeling and even beauty.
Our demise was not dramatic. In fact, though the Turbines’ music could be quite dramatic, or at least loud and then soft, there was never much personal drama among the three of us. We came together as musical veterans who shared a long history, solid affection and a lot of musical taste.
Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer, shown in Rikki and Bob Gallagher’s backyard in Westbrook during one of the four Gallagher parties we played. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
So thereafter performances were even less frequent than before. In fact, it was mainly because of two friends, Gretchen’s colleague Rikki Gallagher and her husband Bob, who several times invited us to play at their parties, that we had any gigs at all during those last years. (We did have the inestimable honor of playing acoustically in the woodpile of a hangar-like Portland pizza place that wouldn’t let us use any P.A., so, sonically at least, we might as well not
even have been there at all.)
It’s a different side of Larry in one of Gretchen Schaefer’s Howling Turbines posters based on Three Stooges publicity stills. And here I thought he was the nicest of the bunch. Hubley Archives.
And the Gallaghers’ invitations led to a fruitful new direction for the Turbines. Although we twice played electric in the Gallaghers’ back yard, we also performed indoors for them in the winter. This meant going acoustic — and we liked it.
The memories of those performances in the Gallaghers’ living rooms, one in Westbook and one in Raymond, remain vivid: so satisfying, so musical, such great communication among the Howling Turbines.
For those dates, Gretchen played a Martin acoustic bass guitar, I played the Gibson J-100 and Ken alternated among his new djembe, a very minimal kit played with brushes, and bongo drums that I had given Gretchen for Christmas an eternity ago, in the 1980s. The musical communication among the three of us seemed to gain both nuance and depth. We couldn’t make the big sound or the big beat, but we seemed to gain capability in other ways. Suddenly we were branching out in new directions: going deeper into torch music, deeper into folk and world music.
The Epiphone Casino in a hotel in Montreal, where I bought it at a shop near the Jean Talon market. Gretchen Schaefer photo/Hubley Archives.
The djembe, which Ken got around 2000, was transformative. This hand drum opened to us the extensive bazaar of world variations on the ole two-beat. In both acoustic and electric modes, we glommed up a gratifyingly new, to us, diversity of rhythms that was a welcome added dimension to the metallic Turbines sound.
The Excelsior, aka Bluebell, purchased at Accordion-O-Rama in New York City. Photo by Gretchen Schaefer/Hubley Archives.
I got a couple of new instruments in those years, too. In summer 2002, at a store near the Jean Talon market in Montreal, I succumbed to the longtime desire to own an Epiphone Casino. This specimen was blond and, unlike other Casinos I had tried, would stay in tune for the duration of an entire song. At the time they were priced at about US$550 and C$550, and the Canadian dollar was much cheaper, so how could I resist?
That same year, in November, I made my second purchase at the legendary Accordion-O-Rama, located at the time in Manhattan (and now in South Amboy, New Jersey). Gretchen was attending a conference, and since I was footloose and fancy-free, it was only natural that my first thought was to buy a new accordion.
Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley and Gretchen Schaefer: the Howling Turbines, circa 2002, at a party at the Westbrook home of Rikki and Bob Gallagher. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
My first Accordion-O-Rama purchase was the used, black and silver Lira 120-bass that I got in 1987 and played with the Cowlix and the Boarders. Carefully packing the old Lira accordion according to Peter Shearer’s instructions, I shipped it ahead to the Big City. It was a trade-in toward accordion No. 3: a sweet blue Excelsior 48-bass that weighed about a ton less than the Lira and had a full set of musette reeds, as opposed to the Lira’s half-musette.
This did not represent an accordion renaissance for me (that would come later, with Gretchen’s and my current band, Day for Night). But I did use the Excelsior, aka Bluebell, on a few numbers that would come to symbolize the late Turbines for me — both sung by Ken Reynolds.
Ken with the djembe, at right, as Doug drones on. Jeff Stanton photo.
Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes” was a revival from our old band, the Mirrors. Inspired by a 1970s affair, Ken had sung it poignantly then, but now in our maturity and with the streetlights flickering on around the Howling Turbines, it gained a new depth of emotion.
Reed’s onetime Velvet Underground colleague John Cale wrote “I’m Not the Loving Kind.” If stunning electricity and pounding tom-toms defined the Turbines’ early years, this song — Ken’s unforced singing, the accordion, the bongoes, Gretchen’s bass and our restrained backing vocals — symbolizes the end game to me. For all its simplicity, it was one of our best numbers. It came so late in the game.
The oddest turn we took was toward Brazil. Sometime in the late 1990s, I bought for Gretchen a compilation of Stan Getz bossa nova recordings, and I would borrow it for my 45-minute commute to work. I got hooked. It was mainly the rhythm: I remember one day in the Jetta on the Maine Turnpike, the road noise drowning out nearly everything but João Gilberto’s guitar. And it was so infectious I couldn’t stand it.
We had already made a pass at jazz, in our technically circumscribed way. (I remember drifting into the back yard in an ecstatic haze one summer day after work, trying to puzzle out the chords to “I’m Through With Love.”)
Bossa nova seemed like the aesthetically appropriate next step. The Turbines didn’t stay together long enough to get deep into it, but we learned enough to give our sets a spice that you just wouldn’t get from any other band from Portland, Maine, that was also playing Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and John Cale numbers.
Who are these Turbines? Read and find out, if you would be so bold! Hubley Archives.
From our early days we revived Cale’s “I Keep a Close Watch,” setting it to a fast bossa nova beat. As opposed to Cale’s full piano chords or the stately Rickenbacker 12-string setting we had started out with, this late rendition had a chilly sparsity that rendered the stark lyrics all the starker.
And from the Gilberto-Getz-Gilberto songbook, in an audacious grab that resolved into an ideal Howling Turbines selection, we picked up Benny Carter and Sammy Kahn’s “Only Trust Your Heart.” It was Gretchen’s best vocal performance with the Howling Turbines, and we hung onto it into the early days of Day for Night.
But the crows were gathering around us, if we had just had the perspicacity to wonder what the cawing was about. Descendants of a band premised on the primacy of original material, the Fashion Jungle, the Turbines nevertheless learned no new originals after 1998’s “Caphead” — which, in fact, was the last song I wrote until 2010.
So much to do and so little time. The songs that I prepared for the Turbines to learn or revive in early 2004. Hubley Archives.
We remained loyal to the notion of being an originals band even as the well ran dry, clinging to Big Hits from the Old Days dating back even to the FJ. But 15 or 20 years after the first flush of inspiration, it took some emotional gymnastics to conjure up enthusiasm for “Shortwave Radio” and “Groping for the Perfect Song.”
In the end, what stopped the Turbines’ spin was the same stick in the blades that stalls most bands: Our lives were changing in ways that couldn’t accommodate the band. I think that was particularly true for Ken. He got involved with a woman in the early 2000s and wanted, naturally, to devote time to that relationship — a desire complicated by his job at the post office, which almost invariably entailed evening or overnight shifts.
Paying work, and love: It’s hard not to prioritize those.
In January 2004, in what I considered the lead-up to a fresh start, I prepared several cover songs for us to learn or revive (including “Bargiallo” by the Italian band Madreblu, Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted” and the bossa nova version of “I Keep a Close Watch”).
“Brief return from obscurity” refers to the fact that the Turbines played only private parties after the sale of the Free Street Taverna, our sole public venue. And the Acoustic Coffee date turned out to be the Turbines’ last gig. Hubley Archives.
Three months later, on April 17, the Howling Turbines played what turned out to be our last gig, at a place on Danforth Street called Acoustic Coffee.
We played pretty well — and not acoustically, despite the club name — but it was an uneasy date, even though Gretchen and I, at least, had no idea it was the band’s finale. The club owner had booked us but didn’t really seem to like us, and had weirdly passive-aggressive ways of showing it.
Among our friends in attendance were Barbie Weed and Tracey Mousseau. The Acoustic Coffee chairs were folding chairs, and Barbie’s collapsed, trapping her thumb in a shear point and injuring it. Tracey took her to the emergency room. As I recall, the club owner wasn’t nice to Barbie about the injury his defective furniture inflicted on her. Sorry our friend hurt your chair, mister!
We hauled the gear back to the basement and said our goodnights as usual and, surprise, the Howling Turbines were done . . . as we realized sometime later. There was no big breakup scene or even a discussion — and we’re still friends with Ken — but he never came back for another rehearsal, returning to the basement only several months later to retrieve his drums.
For Gretchen and me, what followed was three years in a musical wilderness — much of it Brazilian.
I present these rehearsal recordings an as accompaniment to this post, but it’s really a mismatch. The post dwells on the last years of the Howling Turbines, in which our music had a distinct decline-of-the-empire quality. These songs, though, are from our growth years, 1998-99. I offer them because I can’t put cover versions up for sale. But it was covers, by Lou Reed, John Cale, Leonard Cohen and others, that really formed the soundtrack of this chapter of the band. The excerpts embedded in the text above will give you a better sense of what was happening musically.
Looks Like My Monkey Got Loose (Hubley) I was sitting on a bus in January 1996, waiting to leave Elm Street, when I thought of a crazy monkey as a metaphor for lack of self-control. (You may not believe it, but I myself have had impulse-control issues.) The song started out with the Boarders and endured into the Howling Turbines, who recorded this take in a 1998 rehearsal. Gretchen and I gave up the Little Debbie Swiss Rolls once and for all after the news about transfats came out, but the jones never goes away. Copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
Just a Word From You, Sir (Hubley) The second of two very different versions of this number. One of two songs I wrote for the Turbines, this number is generally about my relationship with authority, and specifically about Stalin, Leonard Cohen and God. The original arrangement was slow, grinding, heavy and metallic. I now prefer the original to this sprightly tap-dance setting, but the later one too has its charms and is certainly more dynamic than the other. This 1999 rehearsal recording is a recent discovery in the Basement vault. Copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
Watching You Go (Hubley) Another holdover from the Boarders. I regard this as one of the best songs I’ve written. Fate is generous with opportunities to dwell on the loss of loved ones, but it took the death of my cat Harry to get me to actually write about it. Fortunately I was able to expand the lyrics beyond “my kitty died.” A 1999 Howling Turbines rehearsal recording. Copyright 1996 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
Why This Passion (Hubley) A wordy attempt to trace the course of a lovers’ quarrel, this high-romantic epic started out with the Chapman-Torraca Fashion Jungle in an over-elaborate arrangement, became more straightforward in the FJ’s later incarnations, and finally, with the Boarders, picked up the “camel beat” heard here. Given Ken Reynolds’ latter-day attraction to the tom-toms, that beat was a natch for him, as you can hear in this 1998 or 1999 rehearsal recording. Copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
The Cowlix after a gig for Ken Reynolds’ family in 1992. From left, Marcia Goldenberg, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley, Melinda McCardell, Gretchen Schaefer. The hand placements are interesting. Photograph by Alden Bodwell/Hubley Archives.
A prepositional exploration of the Two Big Years of the Cowlix, 1992-94.
Part I: All In
Why wait any longer for the bass player you want, when she’s standing in front of you?
— After Bob Dylan
After Ted Papadopoulos left the Cowlix, in late 1991 after several months and two gigs, rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer agreed to learn bass.
She picked it up pretty fast: I remember her sitting on the bed (we lived together then and still do) after just a month or two with my old Hagstrom, moving right along through “Linda, Linda,” a challenging Middle Easternish number by 3 Mustaphas 3.
Gretchen Schaefer, 1993. Hubley Archives.
For Gretchen, singer Marcia Goldenberg and me, this ended an on-and-off, two-year search that began with Steve Chapman’s departure in 1989 and careened through a wacky succession of bassy contenders. These included a teenager whose amp consisted of a bare chassis with wires sticking out all over it and an apparent crystal meth user who, backing Gretchen and me into a corner of our basement, maniacally insisted that we were all Nashville-bound.
“That time was a transitional guitar-playing period for me,” Gretchen says. “I hadn’t settled into any particular thing that I was comfortable with. So moving to the bass wasn’t a big wrench.
“I liked it. I liked the sound of the different parts that I would play, they had their own sort of melodic sense that was enjoyable. And the plucking came pretty naturally, because I’d done a lot of fingerpicking back in the day.”
Around the same time Gretchen was learning bass, we were reunited with Jon Nichols-Pethick, who, the previous spring, had played drums with us long enough to evoke a collective “Wow, he’s really good!” and then bugged out on a cross-country trip.
The ad that brought Jonathan into the Cowlix . . . a year later. (Hubley Archives)
Jonathan and Nancy Nichols-Pethick had already planned their journey when he responded to the ‘Lix ad for a drummer. When the time came to announce his departure, “I felt so utterly sick at the thought of telling you about it that I considered just vanishing,” he says — “letting you forever wonder, ‘Whatever happened to that kid who played drums with us?’ But I sucked it up.”
At the time, we weren’t sure if Jonathan would return or not. We didn’t count on it, anyway. But with founding Cowlix drummer Ken Reynolds out of the picture once and for all by winter 1992, we were delighted to welcome the kid back despite all. Twelve years younger than Gretchen and I, he came from California and a musical background in bar-band rock, including stints in Portland with Jenny Woodman and a band called Split 50.
The Cowlix front line during the 1992 opening gig for the Moxie Men at Norton’s in Kittery. From left, Melinda McCardell, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg, Gretchen Schaefer. Not visible is drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
With the Cowlix, “I loved playing these songs I had known only peripherally at best and having to figure out how to do something other than slam my snare on 2 and 4,” he says. “Plus, I just liked hanging out with you all.” Jonathan was a melodic drummer. He made choices that somehow, on some subliminal level, supported more than the beat.
And he and Gretchen quickly found each other’s wavelength, forming a rhythm section that was one of the best things about the Cowlix. “I did feel that mutuality with Jonathan a lot, which was very fun,” says Gretchen. “He was a lot more attuned to that than I was initially, and then by the time I got my playing together enough to actually think of more than just my own concerns, it was really enjoyable.”
It’s something I haven’t thought about till now, but Jonathan was the first drummer I worked with since Ken, with whom I had first played in 1977. And Jon and Gretchen formed the first stable bass-and-drums pairing I had worked with since Ken and Steve.
Cowlix gone rogue: Melinda, Gretchen and Doug playing obscure folk music at a wedding in October 1993.
Finally, during the autumn of 1991, violinist Melinda McCardell joined the Cowlix. A classically trained player who lived in Dayton, Melinda had approached us at a barn dance in 1991 (one of the year’s two Cowlix performances) and asked to try out, attracted by the folk music we were doing. So by spring 1992, the best-known, longest-lived Cowlix lineup was in place.
Part II: All Over the Map
Gretchen took this image of four ‘Lix with our longtime friend and roadie Alden Bodwell. Hubley Archives.
The band that followed my seven years with the Fashion Jungle, the Cowlix started out as a country band, but soon busted out of that corral. That’s largely on me. It took me 30 years, from the Curley Howard Band to today’s Day for Night, to learn the virtues of truth to genre, as opposed to the pleasures of stylistic promiscuity.
As the New Wavey Fashion Jungle was running out of gas, I was the one who pushed hardest for a turn to country music. And once the country Cowlix were established, I immediately started eyeballing other styles. It was nuts. About half of our repertoire was classic country — but then there was the folk music, from Quebec, Finland, Poland and Mexico. And the straight rock, like “Money” and “Slow Down,” and the ’60s hits like “There’s a Place” and “Here Comes the Night.” (We did “Paint It Black” with a hybrid ska beat and finger cymbals, played by Marcia.)
The Cowlix at Norton’s, summer 1992: Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Gretchen Schaefer, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg and Melinda McCardell. We opened for the Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men. Photo by Jeff Stanton.
And the alt stuff, like our punk version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Hearts Are Trump” by the German band Trio (with accordion and a tiny electronic keyboard, in homage to Trio, of “Da Da Da” fame) and a rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that owed a little something to the Velvet Underground.
The Cowlix’ master repertoire list in 1993. “Nadine”? Yep, and with accordion,too. Chuck, is that you? Hubley Archives.
We even billed our material as “Country & Eastern” music, the latter descriptor inspired both by our Right Coast sensibilities and by “Linda, Linda” — whose lyrics are in Hebrew and Arabic, which I learned phonetically. (I still don’t know what that song is about.)
This rampant eclecticism “was a lot of fun,” Gretchen says. But, she continues, “I felt doubtful that we connected especially well with audiences because of that.
“Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that music-goers often go for one particular style. I don’t think we were very easily pigeonholed, and I think that was perhaps a detriment in the commercial sense. “But it was very fun to play all those different things, and it was challenging to try to get a different feel for them.”
Part III: Over and Out
If all the preceding blather about being eclectic sounds familiar, it ought to. Something else that didn’t occur to me at the time, but sticks out now like a sore thumb, was how closely the Cowlix resembled a previous band of mine, the Mirrors. Some of the similarities are superficial. Both bands, at their commercial peaks, had five members. Violin figured prominently in our sounds. I revived several Mirrors songs for the Cowlix repertoire.
Considering that neither band was professional, both worked quite a lot. In 1992-94, the ’Lix played several times at Geno’s, Portland’s “home of the best bands”; returned twice to the Murrays’ barn dance and once to the Maine College of Art Halloween party; and opened for Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men at Norton’s, in Kittery, among other dates. I will always remember the beginning of our performance at the Porthole, on Portland’s waterfront, in July 1993 — kicking off with Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” with such a big sound, the band sounding great, the spectators on stools at the linoleum counter looking impressed.
The product of my semester in a graphic design course in 1992, this poster template served us well for a year or two. Hubley Archives.
And I’m glad I don’t have the Porthole on tape. I don’t want to sully that memory with documented reality. I do have plenty of Cowlix on tape, and it has taught me, first, that someone should have taken my digital delay pedal away until I learned how to use it; and second, that my lead guitar playing was worst on the country music to which we had, however waywardly, pledged our troth.
This somehow brings me to the Mirrors-Cowlix similarities that struck deeper. One is very simple. Both bands started out congenially, united by excitement about the music and the promise of our shining goals. And in both cases, as our musical machine proved itself and our goals were met or reconsidered or just dropped, the fundamental chemistry went wrong. Marcia left the Cowlix in March 1994, after more than four years with the band. Melinda followed her out the door in May.
Then, of course, there was the eclecticism thing discussed above. Both bands loved musical diversity not wisely but too well. And in both cases, after a certain point, what started out as carefree boundary-busting exploration coalesced into something else altogether: the potential for a new direction and new energy that could be consummated only with the band that followed. For Gretchen, Jonathan and me, that band was the Boarders.
Hear six songs by the Cowlix, four original and two in the public domain. Although the Cowlix’ founding premise was a faithful, if slightly ironic, take on the classic country catalog, this successor band to the Fashion Jungle went rogue pretty much at the outset. A given ’Lix set could represent Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, X, David Lindley, Québécois and Polish folk songs, Syd Straw, Nick Lowe . . . you get the idea. We were essentially a covers band in the literal sense, if not with the bar-band implications that come with that term. Padded out with two folk songs in the public domain, this set contains virtually all the original material we ever did (“Shortwave Radio,” not represented here, popped up late in the Cowlix’ run). Personnel: Marcia Goldenberg, vocals and rhythm guitar; Doug Hubley, vocals, lead guitar and accordion; Melinda McCardell, violin; Jon Nichols-Pethick, drums; Gretchen Schaefer, bass and rhythm guitar.
Un Canadien Errant (Antoine Gérin-Lajoie) Lamenting the misery of exile, this French-language number was written in 1842 by a French Canadian man following the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837–38. I heard it first by Leonard Cohen (who recorded it in a mariachi style, of all things) and later by Ian & Sylvia, among other folksingers. This early Cowlix selection was also one of the most durable in our repertoire. This is a rehearsal recording from 1992.
Wieczorna Róza-Waltz (Vitak-Elsnic Co.) Back in the ’80s, when I was first torturing the accordion (and any listeners in the vicinity), a member of the Delux Productions troupe lent me a funny little book of contrived Polish “folk” music. Hence this waltz. This excerpt comes from a Cowlix date at the Murrays’ barn dance, August 1993.