Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the category “But I Digress”

Young Man, Old Man

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.

Doug Hubley performs "Wild Horses" on the Silvertone 6-string at Nancy Hubley's wedding, May 1975. Hubley Family photo.

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.)

*as well as for a new website showcasing my original songs.

Notes From a Basement copyright © 2012–2020 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Sedum at sunset. Hubley Archives.

In Dreams

Make your dreams come true and visit the EP In Dreams at the Bandcamp store!

There is more music in my dreams

than there are dreams in my music.

This despite the fact that in the obsolete rock and country that I play, dream songs abound. And they tend to be of a type: If dream songs touch all sorts of themes and schemes, as Bob Dylan might say, they’re often about broken or unrequited love. (The same is true for the song-lyric theme of losing sleep. Where are the ballads about the kind of broken heart that causes nine hours of unbroken, restorative slumber?)

I’ve never written a song about dreams and aching hearts, but have performed some of the classics. That famous country duo Day for Night — Gretchen Schaefer and I — learned the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming” 10 or 11 years ago and it’s still on the active list.

Gretchen in an Amtrak lower berth. (Hubley Archives)

So is Lonesome Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams of You,” which we added around 2011.

That was 35 years after I first heard it, on Emmylou Harris’ Elite Hotel (which drove me to seek out Don. My introduction to Don Gibson was an MGM “Golden Archives Series” compilation that I turned up in a department store remainder bin and that I still have.)

My sister Sue and I made a living-room recording of “All I Have to Do Is Dream” 50 years ago. I later decided that song was a bit puerile until I discovered a gripping video, posted in 2014, of Emmylou and Alison Krauss singing it on stage. Another reminder that it’s the singer, not the song.

Those examples and many others demonstrate that monetizing poetic or metaphorical notions of dreaming can be a pretty feathery way to feather your nest. The poetry angle is key, though: Real dreams tend to lack commercial potential.

My father, Ben Hubley, with Ernie and Lily in 1971. (Hubley Family photo)

Nowadays my dreams often feature my parents. Ben died in 2018 and Harriette in 2017 — but in dreams they live on, somehow furloughed from the memory-care facility and back at home with their cats on South Richland Street. (In one recent episode, Dad spent $400 on a fraudulent jewelry sale — which in real life he never would have done — and I had to pay it back.)

But I have a few recurring dreams to which music is central.

A particular favorite, not, is the frustration dream in which I am part of an electric band that is setting up for a gig. Showtime approaches and, for whatever stupid dreamlike reasons, we just can’t seem to get things ready. You have your own special versions of this.

Less frequent but more gratifying are the variants in which the setup is accomplished and music is played, often in front of a big wall of amps (which in fact is something I have never experienced. A Super Reverb is the largest amp I’ve ever owned).

The closest I ever got to a wall of amps, but only one of them worked . . . The South Richland Street basement, 1974. The black cardboard cube at right lives on in the current basement. (Hubley Archives)

Often the dream ends as the music begins. I’m a writer and a musician, but in my dreams I don’t really hear music and I can’t read anything.

Then there’s the bad dream in which I am supposed to perform — on accordion — with the Portland String Quartet or someone similar. But I am realizing, just before the concert, that I haven’t rehearsed with them and I don’t in fact read music. (My accordion, simultaneously, dreams that it’s going on stage in its underwear.) That dream derives from the years I spent previewing and reviewing classical concerts in Southern Maine.

In my mid-teens,

I had a non-musical recurring dream about a small cabinet in my room. (Now painted in black enamel, the cabinet remains in use as our TV stand.) The dream was simple: The cabinet was stuffed full of new pullover shirts, made of velour and very groovy in a mid-1960s quasi–Star Trek style.

In the dream, so many of these alluring shirts were jammed into the cabinet that the door wouldn’t shut and the shirts came tumbling out.

In the dream that we call real life, I actually owned shirts like that — but only two. One was a rancid olive green and had a leather string and eyelets to cinch up the collar. Loved it! The other was a turtleneck in blue and black stripes. Wanted to love it! But even I recognized (finally) how ridiculous I looked in it.

Is the dream tape one of these? Hubley Archives.

That dream stays with me because it vividly represents a dreamy perception of a cornucopia of desirable things lingering just outside reality, so close that it could be just outside the room that I’m in, on the back step like the latest Amazon delivery; so close that it’s hard to believe it’s not real.

That sense of a surreal cornucopia existing just beyond existence crops up again in the recurring musical dream that affects me the most: a dream about a reel-to-reel tape of simply great music that I have written and recorded. It’s generally electric stuff, it’s complex and sophisticated, there are instruments in the mix that I can’t play in real life, and the audio is saturated, immediate, immaculate. It’s the summation of my musical desires and capabilities. It’s my Mylar Holy Grail. (And again, since I can’t really hear music in my dreams, this is all something I just know without benefit of evidence.)

The plot surrounding this masterpiece varies from instance to instance. But generally the tape has been lost and now is found, and it will make all my real-life dreams come true. It’s the conclusive validation of my existence.

In the dream I thread the tape through the machine, the motors hum and the reels turn, the needles jump, the tape follows its course with utter verisimilitude, and the music, I tell you, sounds great. And though it doesn’t much resemble any music I’ve ever made, it’s mine, all mine.

Self-portrait with Sony TC-540, 1982. (Hubley Archives)

As with my silly velour shirts, the dream is a mist rising from a pool of reality. Broadly speaking, I have watched a lot of tape roll through tape recorders. Specifically, decades ago, intoxicated by naive ignorance and self-importance, I would periodically assemble a “project tape,” a reel that in my mind, if nowhere else, was the equivalent of an album release.

The fact that not more than four or five other people would ever hear these magna opera never occurred to me and might not have mattered if it had. (I think I knew, on some level, that I was just practicing.) There are a few OK songs on those tapes — generally written by my partner in project-taping, Tom Hansen — but all told they comprise a big bunch of bad music bordering on racket, and are hard to listen to today.

I mean, hard for me. I shudder to think what they’d do to anyone else. Musicians: The first commandment is to do no harm!

Several people heard, hopefully without injury, the grownup “project tapes” that I made from 2005 to 2011: not tapes, in fact, but a series of CD compilations of music that I’d had a hand in making during the previous decades.

The back and front covers of my final entry in the “40 Years of a Basement” CD compilation series.

Around Christmastime during those years, I gave the sets to the other performers on the original recordings, because one reason for producing the series was to thank people I’ve made music with for the past half-century.

But another reason, I imagine, was simply that my project-tape impulse is irrepressible.

Of course, it’s all rooted in the same resource: the homemade recordings that have been piling up in one basement or another (or under the bed in banana boxes, etc.) since 1966. Though each 40 Years of a Basement set includes songs recorded specifically for the series, the project was primarily the outcome of foraging through old recordings.

The Tape Catalogue was my guide through that process. I’ve told you about the Tape Catalogue before: two stuffed loose-leaf binders, including one dilapidated veteran from middle school (its cover, like that velour shirt, a rancid olive drab), that list the contents of all those tapes and digital media.

A typical page from the Tape Catalogue.

Descriptions for each recording include the performers, recording location and, in most cases, the exact or approximate date of recording. There’s also a lot of blah-blah about the quality of the sound and performances; notes about other circumstances, musical and otherwise, that prevailed during the recording; and, especially in the 110 or so reel-to-reel tapes, most of them from the 1960s and ’70s, a lot of self-scrutiny that was droll at best and naively self-pitying at worst.

Maintaining the catalogue has been a high obligation for me, but no obligation is so lofty that I can’t find a way to fall short of it. (If you see what I mean.) I’m more dutiful nowadays, but there were times when the uncatalogued tapes piled up.

40 Years of a Basement was good in that it inspired me to clear up the catalogue backlog. And it was also good in that it was an analog to that reel-of-tape-as-Holy Grail dream: I found material, new-song demos in particular, that I had lost track of. Some of it was actually pretty good, if not the conclusive validation of my existence.

Eight years have passed since I started on the seventh 40 Years of a Basement set. I add a few items to the collection each year (generally live Day for Night sets), but I visit the tapes only rarely, mostly when I’m seeking something for one of these posts.

I stay away but time is always there, a gently but insistently rising tide that will make all things unknowable, untouchable. For all the life and living they represent, the recordings don’t care. They sit in the basement, waiting patiently and deteriorating slowly, and the Tape Catalogue stands on its shelf ready to serve.

I didn’t start the catalogue as a weapon against time. In 1971, I was 17 years old and time’s tectonic force was the furthest thing from my mind. I was just trying to keep the tapes organized.

Now I do see the catalogue, and all the other documents, as a defense against time’s insistence on nothingness. It’s a Mylar-thin bulwark but it’s what I’ve got. I’ll never lay hands on the cornucopia in dreams, so I’ll continue to cling to the shabby reality within the four walls of the basement.

Dreams are the theme of both the post and the following selection of tunes from the basement.

When I Stop Dreaming (Ira Louvin–Charlie Louvin) Day for Night performing at Quill Books & Beverage, Aug. 5, 2018.

Sweet Dreams of You (Don Gibson) Day for Night performing at Quill Books & Beverage, June 17, 2018.

How Can We Hang On To A Dream (Tim Hardin) A selection from 1995 or ’96 that speaks to the theme of the post not solely in its title, but because I’d lost sight of it until I compiled the first 40 Years of a Basement set. The Boarders: Doug, vocal and accordion; Gretchen, bass; Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums.

It’s a Dream (Neil Young) One of the first songs we learned as Day for Night, during the period before we focused hard on country music. We very much enjoyed the Neil Young concert film Heart of Gold. A few days after we saw it, I came home from work and Gretchen casually started playing and singing this song from the film, which she learned on the sly. Gretchen, autoharp and vocal. Doug, accordion.

. . . “perchance to dream.” (Gretchen Schaefer photo/Hubley Archives)

Notes From a Basement copyright © 2012–2019 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

End of a Long Dry Spell

Day for Night performs “Bittersweet” at Andy’s Old Port Pub in March 2016. Videographer: Jeff Stanton.

And they’re handing down my sentence now
And I know what I must do
Another mile of silence while I’m
Coming back to you

— Leonard Cohen, “Coming Back to You”

Visit the Bandcamp electro-Victrola!

Some people write a lot of songs

or write songs quickly or both.

They can find inspiration in a hangnail and can scarcely handle all the melodies welling up from within.

The public debut of “Bittersweet,” and my debut with the mandolin, took place at the Portland wine bar Blue in August 2010. Hubley Archives.


But they do modestly assure you, while talking about their productivity, which you didn’t ask about, that they’re only conduits for The Music.

I’m not one of those songwriters. I admit that I envy them. It’s important for me to think of myself as a songwriter, and I do qualify, but three songs make a very big songwriting year for me. And I haven’t seen one of those in decades. Well, there’s always hope.

I’ve accepted my sluggish writing pace and have even had a few peaceful years of not feeling compelled to understand it, although working on this post does reopen the question. Excuses come readily to hand; the real reasons, not so much. It’s a curious way to proceed.

I nevertheless do have a working routine that results in songs, however few and far between. This routine matured as I found my way out of a barren period that lasted for an alarming 11 years.

Gretchen wears a crown of Peaks Island bittersweet in this public relations selfie from October 2010. Hubley Archives.


I never gave up on songwriting during those years. I just never finished any songs.

It was a trek through the desert that lasted from 1998’s “Caphead” — the best song that I wrote for the Howling Turbines, or I should say “the better song,” since I wrote only two for that band — to early 2010 and “Bittersweet,” the first title I wrote for my current ensemble, Day for Night.

If my excuses for not writing aren’t interesting and the root causes are hard to ascertain, it is nevertheless clear that what roused me again was Day for Night, the acoustic country duo comprising Gretchen Schaefer, my life partner inside and outside music, and me.

After fumbling around for three years after the demise of Howling Turbines, in 2004, we had settled on a musical approach and were getting some gigs. We loved the classic country we were doing; but at the same time, having a band that, for the first time in a few years, was doing more than walking in place relit the pilot light for my songwriting.

That is, there would be a home and an audience for my songs — not to mention the considerable formal challenge, which I’m still trying to master, of creating credible songs for a two-piece band playing vintage country, with its “three-chords-and-the-truth” aesthetic.

My first songs, way back there in the late 1960s, had a country (-pop-folk) feel because that’s what idols like Neil Young and Tim Hardin were playing as they infected me with wanna-be disease. (Making me more susceptible was the dawning realization that emotions and relationships are dealt with more easily through guitars and microphones than anything as debilitating as personal communication.)

But if I was young enough to want to copy my idols, I was willful or perverse or ornery enough not to be direct about it. (Shades of that personal communication thing.) I frequently had to make things too complicated, which succeeded more often with lyrics than melodies, which in my case tend less to well up from within than to be wrung from pieces of sandstone.

Just above the wine notes are the beginnings of the lyric for “Bittersweet.” Hubley Archives.

That complicating tendency lasted a long time. It actually found a home in the early 1980s, 12 years into my songwriting career, with one of my bands: the Fashion Jungle. The FJ was predicated on original material, was musically capable and, successor to a hopelessly eclectic covers band, was stylistically agnostic.

A song like “Little Cries,” with its chromatic chord progressions, rambling architecture and elusive home key, was definitive Fashion Jungle. It was also about as far from country you could get and still be singing about feigned love and fake orgasms.

But the FJ introduced me to a certain discipline of songwriting. In the belated-but-potent Portland, Maine, New Wave scene, we had to perform our own songs for the sake of credibility and self-respect.

None of us was prolific — I wrote the most, if that tells you anything — so in the early days, we agreed to each bring in something original at regular intervals, even if just a lyrical fragment or a chord progression. And a few good songs resulted from that practice.

Anyway, I have managed to simplify some as the years roll on, and by the time I was ready to finish “Bittersweet” I was able to winnow it down to a mere six chords and the truth.

That was four years after I started it.

Writing “Where Was I” in the bar at the Senator Hotel in late 2012. You work your way, and I’ll work mine. Hubley Archives.


“Bittersweet” doesn’t precisely exemplify my current songwriting practice but, to paraphrase the Staples Singers, it took me there.

Inspired by the Carter Family, the idea of a song about love that’s like a destructive clinging vine probably came to me during one of my noontime rambles around Lewiston, Maine, where I work. That was in May 2006.

A month later, loitering in Boulder, Colo., while Gretchen attended a conference, I undertook the exercise of sitting in coffee shops and writing a bunch of crap just to keep the muscles limber in case the muse was lurking nearby. (Poetry by Leonard Cohen helped prime the pump: His Book of Longing was new that year.)

That process produced one useful verse for what I called, at the time, “Clinging Love #1.”

A year and a half later, I somehow arrived at the actual title: “Bittersweet,” named not for the flavor profile, but for the imported invasive vine that makes such pretty berries, strangles the native trees and provides the rare justification for using Roundup in your yard.

Doug and Gretchen in a Manchester hotel, November 2007. Hubley Archives.


Having a metaphor to work with opened the cupboard to a lot of useful imagery, which I pillaged in a hotel room on a freezing evening in Manchester, N.H., 17 months later, in November 2007.

Gretchen was reclining on the bed, coming down with shingles and reading Georges Simenon. I was in a chair with a notebook belaboring “Bittersweet” at length, fueled by Jack Daniels highballs and a songwriting urge stronger than it had been in years.

Since “Bittersweet,” I’ve come to recognize these scribbling sessions as the most exciting phase of songwriting — when they pan out. It’s about inspiration, but it’s not just about being inspired: It’s about capturing inspiration, converting it into a thing, a product.

This phase works better, for me, away from the house and its distractions. (Home is where I finish songs, which is largely an editorial process.) I generally go for the big scribble in cafes, bars and, as in Manchester, hotels.

Hotel rooms are especially good for working on melody as well as lyrics. Composing music must be private (all that sandstone-wringing is unseemly), while writing lyrics can be public.

Manchester scribbles, part one. The letters down the left side were an attempt to impart a rhyme scheme. Be glad I’m not showing you the page where I listed all the words that rhyme with “bind.” Hubley Archives.

In fact, while working on lyrics it helps to have people around. Not too many: just enough to stimulate the socially attuned areas of one’s brain, which can then helpfully suggest behaviors or even stories that can feed a song lyric.

Booze helps, too — until it doesn’t. That was the case with “Bittersweet.” After a couple of hours of graphomania, I felt like I’d left the lyrics in a pretty good place and would get back to it right away.

Well, I got back to it two years later. The idea was still powerful, but the scribbles in my Bob Slate notebook didn’t add up to a whole lot.

Manchester scribbles, part two. Hubley Archives.

Nowadays, at least when I’m trying to write, I drink judiciously, striving for a delicate balance between freeing, on the one hand, the lyrical brain, and on the other, the inner jerk. Cocktails are too small and strong, but nursing a boilermaker or two glasses of wine works out fine. (A bag of M&M Peanuts does no harm, either.)

In the scribbling phase, I’m not looking for finished lyrics, but instead for words in which the finished song lies waiting: maybe a musical setting, definitely a plot, some catch phrases to make it memorable, the right blend of pithy lyrics and words that just advance the story.

(It can’t all be poetry, because singers and listeners alike will choke on that. In fact, singing didn’t start out as words and singers don’t always need them: My goal is to someday write a song that has some well-placed woos or la-la-las.)

So, that’s the ideal. But I can write pages of rhymes and never close in on any of that stuff. (30 years is not an extreme amount of time for me to carry a half-finished lyric around. When it gets to be 50, I may have to find a different outlet.)

But when I can push a lyric to the point where there’s a song discernible within it, my rule — ever since “Bittersweet” — has been to just finish the damned thing. Which, of course, I should have been doing all along.

And which, with “Bittersweet,” I did in January 2010. Sitting at the dining table on one gray cold day, I polished off the lyrics in one intense session. In the basement studio on a different cold gray day, I puzzled out and recorded the music.

And I was a songwriter again . . . just like that.

Tendrils Reach

Three songs written by Doug Hubley and performed by Day for Night, available in the Bandcamp store.

  • Bittersweet (Hubley) As described above, the song that broke a long dry spell for me as a songwriter. An invasive vine becomes a metaphor for clinging destructive love. Performed at the 2016 Cornish Apple Festival.
  • Stranger Wherever I Go (Hubley) New in spring 2016, this is pretty much a summary of my role in society. Another recording from the 2016 Cornish Apple Festival.
  • The Ceiling (Hubley) The first song I wrote for mandolin, as well as my contribution to country music’s illustrious history of songs that are about parts of a room. Also, something of a “hit” for Day for Night after its publication online . . . bringing me three cents in streaming fees every month or so.

“Bittersweet” and “The Ceiling” copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley; “Stranger Wherever I Go” copyright © 2016 by Douglas L. Hubley. “Notes From a Basement” text copyright © 2012–2017 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Still Looking for That Christmas Feeling, or The Christmas Greeting Video

A Notes From a Basement post dedicated to the Christmas season was out of the question in 2015 because in previous such posts I’ve presented all or most of the suitable music in the vaults to which I have publishing rights. More important, I had no big ideas to explore this year, which shouldn’t be an excuse, but there you go.

A digitally manipulated view of Congress Square Plaza in Portland, Maine, from the Top of the East in December 1984. Hubley Archives.

A digitally manipulated view of Congress Square Plaza in Portland, Maine, from the Top of the East in December 1984. Hubley Archives.

Instead, I took a holiday song already issued from the Basement — a 1995 recording of “Looking for That Christmas Feeling,” performed by the Boarders in rehearsal for a Christmastime gig at the Free Street Taverna — and used it as the basis for a video comprising still and moving images.

The Boarders' multi-talented bassist, Gretchen Schaefer, created the poster for this 1995 gig. Hubley Archives.

The Boarders’ multi-talented bassist, Gretchen Schaefer, created the poster for this 1995 gig. Hubley Archives.

With the exception of a shot of the side yard in South Portland that Harriette Hubley took around 1981 and some 1988 Fashion Jungle footage from a concert produced by South Portland Television, the images were taken by me or by Gretchen Schaefer. They represent locations as diverse as Boston and Cambridge, Mass.; Charleston, S.C.; San Francisco and Denver; Brattleboro, Vt.; and Portland, South Portland and Cornish, Maine.

This Turbines poster for a December 2000 date was a group effort. Gretchen Schaefer created the Santa hats to superimpose on Jeff Stanton's image of the Howling Turbines, taken at the Free Street Taverna on a 90-degree day. I wrote and laid out the poster. Hubley Archives.

This Howling Turbines poster for a December 2000 date was a group effort. Gretchen Schaefer created the Santa hats to superimpose on Jeff Stanton’s image of the Howling Turbines, taken at the Free Street Taverna on a 90-degree day. I wrote and laid out the poster. Hubley Archives.

Of particular note is a 1981 drawing of the Portland nightclub Kayo’s that Gretchen made, and scenes from the Christmas greeting film, loosely (and I mean loosely) based on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” that we shot on magnetic-sound Super 8 film in 1986.

The facially immobilized blonde is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer doll that Jeff Stanton gave Gretchen for her birthday in the early 2000s, and that we now use for a Christmas tree ornament.

The video was edited in iMovie on Dec. 21–22, 2015.

Visit the Christmas bin at my Bandcamp store:

“Merry Christmas!” He Bellowed

Judo Santa

Hurry, Santa, don’t make us wait! Let’s go straight to swinging Christmas sounds!

In 1974, as described in a previous Note From the Basement, I started producing so-called Christmas Greeting Tapes as substitutes for holiday cards.

These combined music with “funny” bits (sometimes yes, sometimes not so much) and a few minutes of cringeworthy personal messaging. I recorded the greetings in my parents’ basement on the Sony reel-to-reel and stayed up too late, usually just a day or two before the holiday, dubbing them onto cassettes for friends and family.

Cover art from the 1987 Christmas Greeting Tape.

Cover art from the 1987 Christmas Greeting Tape. Hubley Archives.

The 1974 greeting pretty much consisted of “Jingle Bells,” recorded with Alvin and the Chipmunks-style singing: the vocals enunciated precisely and recorded at a slow speed. Playback at normal speed produced that wacky high-pitched sound we all love so well. It was a technique I used again on the 1975 and 1976 greetings (sample follows).

That 1974 “Jingle Bells” was cute (and that’s about all it was), and today it’s a song that I absolutely can’t stand, thanks to overexposure (to which I, in a microscopic way, contributed). And for me, much of the American Christmas music catalog has been rendered similarly toxic by inescapability and sheer blindered irrelevance.

How can an ironic spirit prevail against the holiday-industrial complex? What does any of this — the birth of Christ, walking in a winter wonderland, chestnuts roasting on an open fire — have to do with the lives that we’re living now? Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” strikes me as the most pertinent of the bunch these days.

A statuette in The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Portland, Maine, 1989. Digital scan from black & white negative / Hubley Archives.

A statuette in The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Portland, Maine, 1989. Digital scan from black & white negative / Hubley Archives.

Well, back in those days, I was looking for a way to make it work. I was still trying to master (and reconcile) the influences of Curley Howard, Raymond Chandler, Gram Parsons, Lou Reed and Bing Crosby. For the Christmas Greeting Tapes, I continued to mine mid-century Christmas pop into the 1980s, from “The Christmas Song” to “Silver Bells,” from “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” I threw in a few originals and familiar traditional numbers. (The otherwise lackluster 1985 tape featured a standout “Twelve Days of Christmas” performed by as many friends and family members as I could muster up.)

Clues to a new direction surfaced around 1980 when, in a record shop on Portland’s Fore Street, I discovered Nowell Sing We Clear. Recorded by four Vermonters — U.K. natives John Roberts and Tony Barrand and American accompanists Fred Breunig and Steve Woodruff — this collection of centuries-old British carols showed me the door to a realm of much less familiar traditional Old World holiday music.

What eventually got me through the door, a few years later, was the accordion.

The Carmen accordion was an auction bargain at $35. Gretchen Schaefer photo.

The Carmen accordion was an auction bargain at $35. Gretchen Schaefer photo.

Let’s go back still further, to the 1960s. There was a funny-looking kid whom I scorned in middle school not only on account of his visage, but also his earnest and well-intended squareness. He was always friendly to me, the bastard. Worst of all, despite all these disqualifications, he had a lock on a girl I wanted.

The cherry on this sundae of hideous offenses was that he played the accordion. (Offering “Lady of Spain,” no less, at a Mahoney Middle School talent show, or so I recall).

I have realized only now that this guy, with the blemishes on his mug and the girl of my dreams (of the month) on his arm, actually had something going for him. We call it talent.

Posing with our prey at Merry Christmas Trees, Windham, in 1994. Photo by self-timer/scanned from black & white negative.

Posing with our prey at Merry Christmas Trees, Windham, in 1994. Photo by self-timer / scanned from black and white negative. Hubley Archives.

I have thought of him only now as I realize that he got more accordion playing into his fingers in 10 or 12 years of life than I did during the 24 years I was active with the accordion, from 1986 to 2010. I think I peaked on the squeezebox from 1992 through 1996, when, with my bands the Cowlix and the Boarders, I was able to get through the accordion material without shame, but also without glory.

I couldn’t have pictured myself wearing the bellows in the 1960s, when I was scorning my “Lady of Spain”-squeezing schoolmate. My conversion from hater to lover of accordion began 10 years later, in the late 1970s, when friend and bandmate Ken Reynolds introduced me to the great English musician Richard Thompson.

I instantly became a rabid fan and bought as much of Thompson as I could. He incorporated a lot of British folk influences into his music and there was plenty of accordion, mostly button box played by the excellent John Kirkpatrick.

Detail from a roadside Christmas display, 1988. Digitally irradiated scan from black and white negative.

Detail from a roadside Christmas display, 1988. Digitally irradiated scan from black and white negative. Hubley Archives.

In a kind of parallel with Nowell Sing We Clear and Christmas music, what brought me around to accordion was hearing it as a folk instrument instead of a pop schmaltz generator. I liked the simpler scales, the rougher sound and the snappy pulmonary rhythms of the folk squeezebox.

Moreover, as my ears were opening to the accordion, they were also flapping in the prevailing breezes of the 1980s world music craze. I didn’t so much join the throngs congregating around African and Latin American styles, but instead gravitated to sounds of Canada, Europe and especially around the Mediterranean.

Gretchen and I dolled up and awaiting guests for the 1988 holiday party. Note the alpine window inserts that G. made. Photo by self-timer/scanned from black and white negative.

Gretchen and I dolled up and awaiting guests for the 1988 holiday party. Note the alpine window inserts that G. made. Photo by self-timer / scanned from black and white negative. Hubley Archives.

This wealth of music, along with the classical stuff I was trying to absorb for concert reviews, effected a seismic shift in perspective. If you get a well-syncopated two-beat into your brain, for instance, or the 7/8 or 11/8 or other odd rhythms of Balkan music, the square 4/4 of rock music suddenly looms a lot smaller. Ditto with the melodies of much mainstream pop-rock. (“Forty flavors of milk” was the term I used in a Maine Sunday Telegram review.)

So in 1986, a year when I was not in a band, I bought a cheap piano accordion and a bunch of Palmer-Hughes instruction books and dug in. (This necessitated learning to read music as well as to manipulate the instrument. Palmer-Hughes must have been OK pedagogically, since I did learn to translate musical notation and to play accordion after a fashion, but the song choices were strictly from Schmaltzville. “Vegetables on Parade,” anyone?)

1986 was also the first year since 1974 when I didn’t produce a Christmas Greeting Tape, in light of the uninspired 1985 edition. But 1987 brought the first in a new wave of Christmas Greeting Tapes, dedicated primarily to traditional European Christmas music. (Some selections from those tapes follow.)

South Portland, Maine, Christmas Day, 1981.

South Portland, Maine, Christmas Day, 1981. Hubley Archives.

Unlike the funny-looking kid from Mahoney, I never really got it right with the accordion. Nowadays the Excelsior 48-bass just sits there in the cellar looking reproachful as I neglect it in favor of mandolin and guitar.

But if I never had a gift for the accordion, the world of music that I discovered through the squeezebox was certainly a gift for me.

Selections from the 1987, 1988, 1990 and 1995 Christmas Greeting Tapes. All selections except “Scary Christmas Polka” are traditional. “Scary Christmas Polka” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

  • Czech Christmas Medley — Recorded for “Duple Triple Christmas” in 1990, this medley consists of the traditional Czech carols “Hajej, nynjej,” a lullaby; and “Pujdem spolu do Betléma (“Come to Bethlehem”).
  • Scary Christmas Polka (Hubley) The one original song in this set, and the only one performed with a band. I wrote “Scary Christmas Polka” in 1990, during a period of unemployment and financial worry, and released it as a solo performance on that year’s Christmas Greeting Tape. In 1995, the Boarders learned it for a December gig and are performing it here in a rehearsal recording. Gretchen Schaefer plays bass and Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums.
  • C’est la Noël — A traditional song from the south of France that I recorded for the 1990 tape. I remember standing at the mic in the dark music room cursing each mistake.
  • European Christmas Medley — From “Christmas, Or Else!” (1987), my first Christmas Greeting Tape featuring accordion. The songs: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (English) / “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” (German and English) / “Lulajze Jezuniu” (Polish) / “Lippai” (Tyrolean) / “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” (French).
  • No Room at the Inn — (Trad., arranged and with new lyrics by Doug Hubley) From the 1988 tape, “It Came Upon a Midnight Lira, or Merry Christmas! He Bellowed” (Lira was the brand of my accordion). A song cobbled together in 1928 from lyrics and melodies of diverse old English origins. I took it a bit further with a strong rhythm and a new verse of still-pertinent import.
  • Masters in This Hall — 1988. An old French melody.
  • Susanni — A 16th-century German melody with 17th-century lyrics. I like the image of all the musicians showing up. Backing vocal and guitar by Gretchen Schaefer. From the 1990 tape.

Text copyright © 2013 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

A wintery Portland seen from an upper floor at the University of Southern Maine, 1981. Camera: Kodak Brownie box model

A wintery Portland seen from an upper floor at the University of Southern Maine, 1981. Camera: Kodak Brownie box model. Hubley Archives.

Interlude: Looking for That Christmas Feeling


In a digitally colorized image suitable to the holiday season, here is Fore Street in Portland, Maine, early in 1982. The camera was a Kodak Brownie from the 1920s or '30s that I kept in the Squareback. I was on my way to work in the clip library at the Guy Gannett newspapers on a Saturday morning. Hubley Archives.

In a digitally colorized image suitable to the holiday season, here is Fore Street in Portland, Maine, early in 1982. The camera was a Kodak Brownie from the 1920s or ’30s that I kept in the Squareback. I was on my way to work in the clip library at the Guy Gannett newspapers on a Saturday morning. Hubley Archives.

Are your Christmas presents unaccounted for? Why not buy your loved ones and less-bitter enemies a famous holiday EP on the beloved Bandcamp?

Some people believe that secular humanist liberals like me, in cahoots with the whole holiday-industrial complex, are waging a “war against Christmas.” I don’t think so — we’re too busy trying to write socialism into the Constitution. Anyway, even if we were at war with Christmas, isn’t God man enough to protect his holidays?

We all look for that Christmas feeling in our own ways. Me exaggerating my greed, but not by much. Circa 1979. Hubley Family photo.

We all look for that Christmas feeling in our own ways. This is me exaggerating my greed, but not by much, around 1979. Hubley Family photo.

Truth be told, we secular Christmas lovers have our own issues. Barren of religious faith, what exactly do we have to hang our affection for the holiday on? Our alleged joy at Christmastime, rather than swelling from within on a geothermal upsurge of faith, is glommed together from a mishmash of sentiments that are both noble (human fellowship, romantic connections, family bonds, peace on and goodwill toward, etc.) and not so much — greed and excessive self-indulgence, for instance.

And what gums this rickety sentiment together for us Christmas-loving non-believers is nostalgia, which is certainly a potent force for the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd too.

The Hubley Christmases from the 1960s through the ’80s embraced the power of human connection, but sure didn’t stint on the materialism. They were quite lavish, relative to our means. I admit that I was pretty spoiled. I remember waking up early one morning, still dopey from the partial dose of Seconal that my parents had administered to settle me down and amuse my sisters, and seeing the Beatles’ single “I Feel Fine” / “She’s a Woman” sticking out of the top of a Christmas stocking that was jammed full — a stocking made from one leg of a pair of tights, if that tells you anything about greed. O glory and excitement, not mention complicity with the holiday-industrial complex.

The Homburg years fortunately were brief. DH with the family tree, 1972. Hubley Family photo.

The Homburg years fortunately were brief. DH with the family tree, 1972. Hubley Family photo.

Here’s some more nostalgia for you. In the mid-1960s, the radio station of choice for the Hubley siblings was Boston’s WBZ-AM. Deejays like “Juicy Brucie” Bradley, Dave Maynard and Jefferson Kaye were knowledgeable and witty in presenting the pop music of the day. I remember lying awake late at night listening to Kaye’s folk music show, which he ended with Tom Rush’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.” Enchanting to a young teenager.

Bradley in particular introduced me to much of the music that was most formative at the start of my teens. One Friday in early 1965, the height of Beatlemania, he played a strange and wondrous thing: the Christmas greeting that the Fab Four recorded in 1963 for members of their official fan club. (I happened to have a tape recorder at the ready and captured the broadcast for posterity; hear an excerpt below.)

Turns out that for most of their time together, the Beatles made annual greetings for fan club members; I found them collected on a bootleg LP in 1973 or ’74. They ended up over-produced and impersonal, but the early ones were fresh, funny and loose. Thus inspired, and always ready to honor a good idea by appropriating it, in 1974 I began to make similar greetings for my closest friends.

The Hubley Christmas tree in 1972, but it could have been any year. Hubley Family photo.

The Hubley Christmas tree in 1972, but it could have been any year. Hubley Family photo.

I started out fresh, funny and loose, and simple, with a little music and a personal message, but as I descended into the depths of my basement recording mania over the years, the greetings got more and more elaborate: attempted comedy, some of it actually funny; music, both originals and covers, pop and traditional; and always the “corny sentimental endings,” personal heartfelt outpourings that often turned uncomfortably weird.

Several ideas turned into recurring motifs: radio station WHUB in Rumford, Maine, and star deejay Lance Boyles; the Longines Symphonette Society “Home Christmas Greeting” instructional series; the Squirrel Trio, ironic knockoffs of Dave Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks; the talk show “Coffee With Doug.”

The original series ran from 1974 through 1985. By then the tapes were more complex than enjoyable to make and, I suspect, to listen to. The following year I recorded nothing but traditional holiday music on my new accordion, topped off with a very brief spoken greeting.

With Gretchen Schaefer increasingly participating on vocals and guitar, I made a few more of those, learning a bunch of obscure holiday songs from around Europe — and then dropped the whole recorded greeting idea until 1995, when I made one final Christmas Greeting Tape, in the old variety show format, on my new TASCAM four-track recorder. Those extra tracks sure made it easier.

That was a pretty good entry, and ended the Christmas greeting tape journey on a high note. It was simply time for something different — and in that spirit, I’ll offer no corny sentimental ending about the demise of the Christmas tapes here. Instead, I’ll just wish you a friendly “Merry Christmas.”

Or should I say “Happy Holidays”?

DH at Richland Street, circa 1981. That officer's jacket, about a size too small, was my winter outerwear for years. Photograph by Harriette Hubley.

DH at Richland Street, circa 1981. That officer’s jacket, about a size too small, was my winter outerwear for years. Photograph by Harriette Hubley.

Now for some music — and a few choice excerpts from the legendary, or seldom heard of, Doug Hubley Christmas Greeting Tapes.

Gift From WBZ’s Bruce Bradley — Recorded on the Hosho reel-to-reel, with its glowing green eye, in early 1965 in the Hubleys’ kitchen. Presented here as a fragment so as not to infringe on anyone’s copyright, this holiday greeting was recorded by the Beatles for their fan club in 1963 and intercepted by the intrepid Boston deejay Bruce “Juicy Brucie” Bradley of WBZ-AM. Opening the track are the Bachelors singing “No Arms Can Ever Hold You” (Crafter-Nebb).

Hedonistic Christmas — Starting in 1979 with a fairly terrible song called “I’m a College Student,” which I wrote and you will never hear if you haven’t already, I often drafted my bands to perform a song on the Christmas tapes, usually without telling them what the song was: To maintain the happy Christmas surprise, I would just teach them an arrangement and dub on the vocals later. For instance, the Karl Rossmann Band did a terrific ska-style “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” in 1980. But here’s an original number, as the Fashion Jungle in 1982 — bassist Steve Chapman, drummer Ken Reynolds and I — does a song addressing one dimension of my feelings about the holiday.

Looking for That Christmas Feeling (1981) — In December 1981 I was stressed by finals and the demise of my current band, the original Fashion Jungle, but also all electrified by my new affair with Gretchen Schaefer. That peculiar tension informed this song exploring the longing for some kind of deeper meaning to Christmas that didn’t involve, well, Christ. Like “Shortwave Radio,” also written that year, it involves fairly personal imagery (I drank a lot of Freixenet that year), but I hope it somehow reaches outside my head to speak to people. The recording is all me: vocal, Farfisa rock organ, drums, two Gretsch guitars. It was the best thing about that year’s Christmas tape.

Christmas party in the Jordan Marsh stockroom, circa 1978. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

Christmas party in the Jordan Marsh stockroom, circa 1978. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

Squirrel Trio in Hawaii — This sample from the 1975 Christmas tape features the Squirrel Trio, my blatant but ironic ripoff of Ross Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks. I think it was Tom Hansen who revealed Bagdasarian’s essential trick to me by playing a Chipmunks LP at 16 rpm: If you record your talking rodents at a slow speed, taking care that they enunciate clearly, and play them back at normal speed, voila: Chipmunks, or Squirrels, if you prefer. I put them to work on several Christmas greetings, entangling myself in multiple tracks bounced between two tape recorders, and culminating with a monumental recording of “Holiday Inn” in 1976. This tropical-themed number, meanwhile, is four tracks total.

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht — The 1982 tape benefited from careful planning and an extremely limited amount of time in which to produce it. German was my favorite subject at USM, and I took advantage of my somewhat expanded ability to record this. It occurred as part of an extended parody of public radio’s “Morning Pro Musica.”

Coffee With Doug’s Christmas Around the World — The talk show “Coffee With Doug” appeared in the early 1980s and proved to be a useful device that turned up both in the Christmas tapes and as a TV show concept that Gretchen, several other friends and I seriously considered bringing to the South Portland public access cable station in the mid-’80s. This sequence comes from the 1984 Christmas tape, one of the better entries in the series. Along with the tribute to a detestable Spanish pop singer, this excerpt exemplifies my affection for a bargain-bin sound-effects record that I used on just about every Christmas tape; Gretchen gave me a CD equivalent in the 1990s.

Oh, my love: The doomed first Squareback, winter 1977. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

Oh, my love: The doomed first Squareback, winter 1977. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

Looking for That Christmas Feeling (1984) — Chet Baker much? Once again faced with the dissolution of a Fashion Jungle seemingly poised on the brink of success, I returned to this song for a holiday tape that was one of the stronger ones. The introduction, new that year, was provoked by a spell of warm December weather that had me worried about global warming even then. I didn’t perform this song live until the Boarders learned it, in 1995.

Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree — Here’s a new-for-Notes recording of a Christmas song I wrote in 1978.  Old friends will spot a verse that has been rewritten: the original made perfect sense to a chronically outraged 24-year-old but is inappropriate and embarrassing now. The angelic choir idea, easily executed on the Tascam 2488 (no multiple tape recorders required), came from the Mirrors’ short-lived version of the song in 1980.

“Hedonistic Christmas,” “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” and “Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Text copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Interlude: 10 Million Papers

Track listings for two reel-to-reel recordings by the Curley Howard Band in my Tape Catalogue. The comment indicated by the arrow sums up this entire post; click to embiggen.

See a mind-bending collection of items from the Hubley Archives. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg!

A break from the band chronology, with an overdose of materials from the archives:

This Kodak Instamatic (not Instagram, Instamatic!) image from winter 1971 shows three of the four members of my first performing band, Truck Farm, which came together later that year. Clockwise from left: Tom Hansen, drummer; John Rolfe, guitarist; DH, dolled up for who knows what; and our friends Patty Stanton and Scott Stanton. Hubley Family photograph.

When you see people close to you losing their memories, and your own is less than rock-solid, it may cause you to think seriously about what you remember. And what it means: the role memories play in your thinking and in your understanding of your life. The ways you call memories up, examine them and try to hold onto them. The fact that they are so plastic, and ultimately fugitive.

A South Portland police officer pays a visit to an early Truck Farm rehearsal en plein air at Craig Johnson’s house. I still hear him saying, “Can you tone it down a little bit, boys?” I’m at right and Tom Hansen at left in this image by an unknown photographer from spring or summer 1971. Hubley Archives.

Are we merely the sum of our memories? Do they accrete onto the bare armature of our personalities like layers of clay? Can you do anything with your conscious mind that isn’t somehow connected with memory?

Are memories a form of currency in the social marketplace — that is, if you remember more, are you a more interesting person? Do you have a mental wallet or portfolio of stories about yourself that you whip out at appropriate moments in a gathering? (I am generally barren of amusing stories suitable for social occasions, although there is the one about the dress shop in Vienna.)

How is it you can not see somebody for two years, and then when you meet again, you pick up the conversation like it was just yesterday?

Why are memories of life experiences — the stories that seem to constitute our lives — so important to some people, like me, and not others?

See a gallery of Truck Farm Images. Text continues after gallery!

See the Archives page, offering way too much information.

Dating myself

I had a great memory, with a particular facility for dates, into my 40s. I had a reputation for my ability to recall the dates when things happened, even fairly unimportant things. Example: On Oct. 24, 1970, my mother took Tom Hansen and me to see Poco at the University of Maine Portland-Gorham.

My sticky memory was one of the primary colors of my sense of self. Now it’s fading, not drastically, but noticeably. As with the other things that age has diminished, I accept it, because what else can you do? But it dulls my self-esteem and leaves a numb spot in my mood, like the flat place on your gums where a tooth used to be.

Self-portrait with Sony TC-540, 1982.

At worst, it worries me that it’s the start of some kind of serious deterioration. But I try not to go there too often.

The documents in the case

I’ve always associated memories with documentation. For me, a piece of paper or a recording is like a ticket to something I experienced. It’s hard to say which came first, this belief or my paper-saving habit, but I’ve amassed a lot — lyric sheets, newspaper clippings and night club listings, set lists, photographs, performance and rehearsal recordings, letters, journal entries (way too few of those), etc. And that’s just the stuff related to music.

One of the most robust sources for these strolls down Memory Lane is the “Tape Catalogue,” my extremely annotated index of most of the analog audio tapes that I own, about 130 reel-to-reel tapes and god knows how many cassettes. These are life experiences of a especially vivid kind that are embedded in physical objects, and for the most part, the objects are unique. You can copy an analog recording, but always with a loss of quality, vs. a digital recording, which is endlessly replicable with no loss of quality (except the upfront loss of quality inherent to digital recording).

Some of the tapes.

That replicability is one reason digital audio media are disorienting to a product, like me, of the analog age. A slightly different reason has to do with physicality. Digital recordings ultimately exist as physical media, of course — on a server somewhere — but you don’t need to have them in your house to access them, and you don’t have to own them to access them.

How unsettling. I am all about owning things and having them in my house. Can you really get anything from a Cloud besides vapor, rain or snow? But ultimately all our endeavors, and their physical manifestations, will evaporate anyway, no?

Tickets, please

I’ve always believed that by revisiting the document, the experience will somehow spring back to life fully formed in my mind.

In the nine months I’ve been writing these posts, though, the mnemonic payoff from all the paperwork hasn’t been quite so dramatic. It has been nice to rediscover the facts in the documents, but the big payoff — the once forgotten, now recalled scene in the Movie of Doug — has rarely been forthcoming.


A page for a chronology of my bands that I drew up in preparation for a never-completed 1985 slideshow about the rise and fall of the Fashion Jungle. Note the March 1983 entry. Hubley Archives.

So documentation isn’t the key to a lockbox full of precious memories. There’s not always even an exact correspondence between one paper item and one recollection. The best I can hope for is random and fragmentary recovery of memories from the abyss.

For instance, this autumn I was surprised to be reminded that the Chapman-Torraca edition of the Fashion Jungle stayed together (to the extent we could, with members living in Boston) until March 1985. This intelligence came from a handwritten band chronology that I started back in the 1980s, when I was really manic about documentation, and that I just unearthed.

From a hasty logbook of Fashion Jungle operations that I kept in 1983, I was able to disabuse myself of the erroneous belief that Kathren Torraca’s FJ debut was at a certain club on a certain date and relearn that it was at a different club, good old Kayo’s, on an earlier date. The big takeaway there was not so much the facts of her debut, but the realization that I’d remembered them wrong all these years, just because I had a tape of one gig, her second with the FJ, and not of her first.

The documents give and the documents take away.

See the logbook and other Fashion Jungle images. After visiting the second gallery installment, use the back arrow to assure the optimum Notes From a Basement experience. Text continues after gallery!

See the Archives page, offering way too much information.

The rehearsal lyric sheet for “Shortwave Radio,” typed on my blue Smith-Corona portable. The yellow splotches on the paper are probably sweat or Freixenet sparkling wine, which I drank constantly during the golden summer of 1981.


Song lyric sheets are quite evocative. They, more than any other category of the rubbish I hoard, often return me to the day. As I’ve previously written in this space, one of the clearer memories I have from the original Fashion Jungle days in 1981 is the writing of “Shortwave Radio” — sitting at the red table in my sister’s house on Cottage Road, drinking a gin gimlet, “Bob Newhart” rerun on TV with the sound off, etc. My process is to scribble down a bunch of crap until it coalesces into a song, and when it seems solid enough to start on the melody, I’ll type a clean copy. But the “Shortwave Radio” lyrics here give me a change to talk about secondary, but still alluring, aspect of documentation: incidentals.

Nicholson Baker, an unusually focused writer whom I interviewed in 2000 following his purchase of the British Library’s hard-copy newspaper archives, first opened my eyes to the historical power of incidentals. He wrote (in The New Yorker, I think) about the computer databases replacing physical card catalogs in libraries. He didn’t like it; and one reason was that librarians tended to mark up catalog cards, and their markings constituted an important source of information that would be lost with computerization.

That made perfect sense to me. Nothing happens in isolation, and the bits of stray information that come along with what you really intended to save can shed light on the context in which the primary event took place.

The backside of the “Shortwave Radio” lyrics — originally a WCSH-TV program log.

In this spirit, I’m presenting not only my original master copy of the “Shortwave” lyrics, but the backside of the paper I typed them on. It was originally the front: My father, Ben, worked in advertising sales at WCSH-TV, and being obsessively thrifty, would bring home discarded program logs (showing information about commercials) for use as scrap paper.

Ben and Hattie still have in their den the pale green desk that was the repository of writing materials at 103 Richland St., and there’s probably still a pile of these log sheets in with the scrap paper in that desk. (Although the last time I went looking there for scrap paper, I latched onto a hunk of continuous computer-printer paper, the kind with the detachable sprocket holes, and it just kept coming, sheet after sheet. That was two days ago.)

So, after you read the lyrics to “Shortwave Radio” and then go to my Bandcamp Store to buy a copy (and then I would request that you burn it onto a CD and then copy it to an audiocassette, all while thinking of me), take a look at the entries on the program log. When was the last time you saw a TV ad for Canada Dry mixers or Quaker State motor oil? And note the political spots at the bottom of the sheet.

See more original Fashion Jungle images. Text continues after gallery!

See the Archives page, offering way too much information.

This is it

It strains me to have to accept that my legendary memory ain’t what it used to be. Time is hollowing out the past as it exists in my mind. It shakes me up to have to acknowledge this.

Writing a play, or playing at writing, complete with tequila sunrise, in 1975. Hubley Family photo.

But acknowledge it I must. I know people much older than me who share my belief (or more likely gave it to me) in the evocative power of documentation, and I’ve seen how the memories continue to evaporate while the goddamned paperwork just keeps piling up like the snowdrifts in the pre-climate-change winters that we don’t have anymore. Paper covers rock, but it doesn’t stand a chance against time. And neither do the rocks.

The saddest or silliest thing about all this musing about documents and memories, about the paper trail that leads to an outline of a version of a possible life, out of all the possible lives, is that for all these years I have entertained the notion that all these documents would someday be of historical interest — that I should keep them because some institution would someday want them for the sake of researchers who would want to know more about me. This on the basis of a small writing career largely given over to the exercise of marketing communications; and a tiny musical career.

It embarrasses me to confess this, but I do so in the hope that it may (a) be of some kind of interest — delusions being both entertaining and informative — and (b), more selfishly, that it might help me get over the idea.

I’ve come to realize that if anyone’s going to write about me, it’s probably going to be me. And I’m already doing it. And thank you for continuing to read it.

As long as we’re rummaging around in the archives, here are four more recordings for your pleasure and bemusement.

  • Nothing Can Change the Way I Feel (Hubley) A song written in 1978 as an exercise in self-directed propaganda. Even then I knew the relationship was a mistake. The words are clunky — does metallurgy really have a place in tender romantic lyrics? — but the melody is nice. (Gene Clark much?):
  • What You Wanted (Hubley) Three-quarters of the Fashion Jungle perform this sort-of love song in the Hubleys’ basement in September 1983. DH, guitar and vocal; Steve Chapman, bass; Kathren Torraca, keyboards. Drummer Ken Reynolds was on the disabled list with a thumb broken playing ball, so the percussion is electronic. This was from a recording session dedicated to preserving our material for a new keyboardist, because Kathren was threatening to quit. (She didn’t.):
  • Why This Passion (Hubley) An early version of a romantic song debuted by the FJ in 1984. In later years, this cumbersome setting was discarded for a more straightforward and rocking arrangement. Recorded at Geno’s, Oct. 12, 1984:
  • Corner Night (Demo 1985) (Hubley)  Elvis Costello much? Ray Davies much? Self-referential much? I wax reminiscent about the early days of the Fashion Jungle in this song written and demoed in 1985 for the Dan Knight edition of the FJ.

These four songs copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Text copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

See images from the times before and between bands.

See the Archives page, offering way too much information.

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