Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the category “Fashion Jungle”

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.

Fifty Years, Seven Chords and Some Truth

“We’re headed back East as we always must be / To the same old, and the good old, and the old used-to-be.” Portland, Maine, from the Top of the East cocktail lounge in January 1984. (Hubley Archives)

No time for pesky reading? Head straight for the Notes From A Basement music stores at bandcamp 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.”

Three chords, two Rockmount shirts and the truth: Day for Night at Porchfest 2019. (Jeff Stanton photo)

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.

Gretchen Schaefer on the back porch of Cabin No. 19 at the Chautauqua in Boulder, Colo. (Hubley Archives)

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.)

Doug and Gretchen during a 1988 getaway at an inn in western Maine. The image now accompanies some online editions of our single “You Wore It Well.” (Photo by Minolta self-timer/Hubley Archives)

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.

Doug, at left with the lack of grooming, and Ken Reynolds rehearse with the Curley Howard Band in early 1977, the year I wrote “Let the Singer.” Not shown are guitarist Mike Piscopo and bassist Andrew Ingalls, in whose basement the band rehearsed. Andrew’s sister Leigh, who is now chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, took the photo. (Hubley Archives)

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.

Two out of three tributaries that fed “Just a Moment in the Night”: Gretchen and the train. But there’s no room in an Amtrak roomette for a pedal steel. (Hubley Archives)

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.

Just strew the path with images and hints and fragments. (Hubley Archives)

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.

Writing “Where Was I” while I was in the bar at the Senator Inn and Spa in late 2012. (Hubley Archives)

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.

Random combinations of circumstances can, when you least expect it but maybe when you most want it, spontaneously coalesce into a song idea. A sign like this near a dam in Topsham, Maine, prompted my song “Trouble Train,” a catalog of dire warnings including one about spontaneously rising water. (Hubley Archives)

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.

A leafy green screen à la “Westbound Train,” but the Maine Central trains don’t run through here anymore. (Hubley Archives)

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.

A recording session in Ben and Hattie Hubley’s living room in 1969. From left, Chris Church, Susie Hubley, Doug Hubley, Steve McKinney. The mic stands were tent poles. I still have the recording. (Hubley Family photo)

Recording notes

(Waiting For A) Westbound Train (Hubley) In a September 2019 rehearsal in the Basement, Day for Night performs a real anomaly in my recent songwriting output. In a word, it was speedy in every way: The idea, inspired by a conductor’s announcement on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, came to me in a flash. I wrote the song in a couple of days, as opposed to the usual two or three years from conception to completion. And Gretchen Schaefer and I learned it fast, too. Doug Hubley, vocal and lead guitar. Gretchen, vocal and guitar. Written in Boulder, Colo., in June 2019. “(Waiting For A) Westbound Train” copyright © 2019 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Just a Moment In The Night (Hubley) Day for Night again, during that same charmed rehearsal. The middle section of this song comes from the outro of my 1983 song “Nothing to Say.” Written in Boulder, Colo., in June 2015. Personnel as above. “Just a Moment in the Night” copyright © 2015 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

You Wore It Well (Hubley) From a Day for Night rehearsal in September 2016. Personnel as above. “You Wore It Well” copyright © 2014 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Where Was I (Hubley) From a November 2013 Day for Night rehearsal. Personnel as above, except Doug switches to mandolin. “Where Was I” copyright © 2014 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Let the Singer (Hubley) The Curley Howard Band premiered the song in 1977, but this recording was made two years later by the Mirrors at our first gig, at Jim’s Night Club, on Middle Street in Portland, Maine. With Ken Reynolds, drums, and Mike Piscopo, rhythm guitar. “Let the Singer” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Shortwave Radio (Hubley) Leonard Cohen once told an interviewer something to the effect that performing “Bird on a Wire” reminded him of his duties somehow. When my bands were electric, “Shortwave Radio” played a similar role for me, albeit involving not duties as much as, simply, why I want to be in music. This stayed in the repertoire for more than 20 years, from the Fashion Jungle to the Boarders — heard here, in a 1996 rehearsal — to Howling Turbines. Gretchen Schaefer, bass. Jon Nichols-Pethick, drums. “Shortwave Radio” copyright © 1981 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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

Doug and Sears banjo in the Hubley basement, circa 1972. Styling by Erebus. (Hubley Family photo)

From the Vault: Memos and Demos

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 or even the Nimbit 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.

Song Notes

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):

DemoRecorded 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 Other Me” copyright © 2017 by Doug Hubley. All rights reserved.)


‘Dumb Models’

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 JungleThis 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. 

(“Dumb Models” copyright © 2011 by Douglas Hubley, Michael Piscopo, Kenneth Reynolds and James Sullivan. All rights reserved. )


‘Watching You Go’

The existential angst of being the Boarders. Jeff Stanton photo.

DemoThe 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:

(“Watching You Go” copyright © 1996 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.)


‘Corner Night’

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. 

(“Corner Night” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.)


‘I Never Drink Alone’

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.

Hubley Archives.

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. 


(“I Never Drink Alone” copyright © 2014 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.)


‘Tragedy’

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.'” 


(“Tragedy” copyright © 1995 by Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Nancy Nichols-Pethick and Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.)

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.


‘Dance’

Dance House

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. 


(“Dance” (Boarders version) copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.)

The Fashion Jungle: 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.

(“Dance” (Fashion Jungle version) copyright © 2013 by Steven Chapman, Douglas Hubley and Kenneth Reynolds. All rights reserved.)


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.


(“Nothing to Say” copyright © 1984 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.)

The Kathren Torraca-era Fashion Jungle in a publicity image taken in 1984 by Gretchen Schaefer. From left: Ken Reynolds, Kathren, Doug Hubley, Steve Chapman.

Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2012–2018 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

From a Hole in the Ground, Part One

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.

Doug Hubley and the Kent

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.

Cellar, beware

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?)

Caphead (Hubley) The Howling Turbines: Doug Hubley, guitar and vocal • Gretchen Schaefer, bass and supporting vocal • Ken Reynolds, drums. Recorded in the current basement, Aug. 8, 1999. In the late 1990s, I started seeing all these young guys wearing ball caps, driving around in small cars and looking coldly murderous. A fatal fight among some of them in a Denny’s parking lot one year gave me the first verse. (“Caphead,” “Don’t Sell the Condo” and “Let the Singer” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved. ASCAP.)

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.

A Certain Hunger (Chapman) The Fashion Jungle at Mr. & Mrs. Hubley’s, September 1983. Steve Chapman, bass, and vocal • DH, guitar • Kathren Torraca, keyboard. We were rehearsing with a drum machine because KR was sidelined with a baseball injury. One of my favorite songs by Steve, and a worthy addition to the my-lover-is-a-vampire school of romantic art. (“A Certain Hunger” copyright © 1983 by Steven Chapman. All rights reserved.)

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.

She Lives Downstairs (Hubley–Piscopo–Reynolds–Sullivan) The Fashion Jungle: DH, lead vocal, lead guitar • Mike Piscopo, backing vocal, rhythm guitar (we were both playing Gretsches, hence the groovy sound) • KR, drums • Jim Sullivan, bass and backing vocal. Directly descended from the Mirrors via the Karl Rossmann Band, the FJ was our gesture at faster-louder-more fun music. We put an emphasis on original songs, but because none of us was a prolific writer, we undertook an ongoing exercise in collaborations like this. The Ken Reynolds lyric was based on an actual person. Recorded in Mr. and Mrs. Hubley’s basement, spring 1981. (“She Lives Downstairs” copyright © 1981 by Douglas L. Hubley, Michael Piscopo, Kenneth Reynolds, Jim Sullivan. All rights reserved.)

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?!?)

Notes From a Basement text © 2017 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Obsessive Christmas Disorder

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.

The swinging new release Obsessive Christmas Disorder makes a great Christmas gift!


If you were in a band with me back in the day, certain Christmas obligations came with the job.

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

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

The Boarders and the Howling Turbines, in particular, tended to land December gigs (at the Free Street Taverna, natch) for which I would insist we play a few holiday numbers. Among them:

“Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” with a ska beat; the 16th-century German carol “Maria Durch ein Dornwald ging”; and my compositions “Scary Christmas Polka,” “Hedonistic Christmas,” “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” and “Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree.”

Our news release for the December 1995 Taverna performance. Hubley Archives.

Our news release for the December 1995 Taverna performance. Hubley Archives.

My memories of these gigs are fragmentary: shoveling the driveway before a Boarders date that was complicated by the snow. Singing “Santa Claus,” a lyric I wrote to the tune, and inspired by the theme, of Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc.” The Christmas lights against the Taverna’s brick walls and the chilling draft every time someone entered or left. Our friend Jeff Stanton propping himself up at a table as the evening grew late.

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

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

For my bandmates — bassist Gretchen Schaefer, and drummers Jonathan Nichols-Pethick (Boarders) and Ken Reynolds (Turbines) — the Christmas gigs were gigs like others, just more festive and affording the chance to do material different from what we dragged around with us the rest of the year.

But in my mind there has been, since childhood, a link between Christmas and performing — though it’s also true that I never had enough community spirit, religious affiliation or even garden-variety empathy to frame my Yuletide performances in some broadly meaningful cultural context. (Even the currently popular holiday burlesque shows have that much going for them.)

Instead, I simply have old, random, but deeply felt sentiments for the season, and I simply hoped that I could present them in a way that, like an oddly dressed stranger speaking poor English who shows up in town on Christmas Eve, might elicit some fellow feeling.

As a pup I annoyed my family at dinnertime by talking into the telephone and pretending to be Santa Claus’ publicist (which perhaps anticipated my current work, which involves a lot of marketing). In a Christmas gift to all concerned, that phase was short. Odd that I was astute enough to know what a publicist did, but not enough to know how annoying I was.

Me under the Hubley Christmas tree in the mid-1970s. My sister Nancy has her back to the camera. Hubley Family photo.

Me under the Hubley tree in the mid-1970s. My sister Nancy has her back to the camera. Hubley Family photo.

Later there were Christmas concerts with the Mahoney Middle School chorus, during one of which we performed the first song I ever wrote, “For Something’s Happened” — a calling-all-shepherds Christmas carol, though I knew even at age 12 or 13 that I was an atheist.

In 1973, the desire to put on a holiday show ascended to a new plane. That autumn, the nation was in the depths of Watergate, the first energy crisis, Vietnam and an emergent hangover from the cultural efflorescence of the 1960s. Gram Parsons and Jim Croce died — and Croce got all the mourning.

Who are these Turbines? Read it and find out, if you would be so bold! Hubley Archives.

Who are these Turbines? Read it and find out, if you would be so bold! Hubley Archives.

I was unemployed, overweight, drinking too much, mourning my recently broken-up band, hanging around my parents’ basement and pining for romance. Clearly, it was time to put on a show! Somehow — I think through an invitation from the South Portland High School Keyette Club via my friend Patty Stanton — I ended up booked for the SPHS Christmas assembly.

No band? No problem! In my infinite ill-founded self-confidence, I used the Sony 540 reel-to-reel and my parents’ cassette deck to create backing tracks — drums, bass and guitar, all ineptly played by me and rendered in distorted meatball-as-pingpong ball multiple tracking — for four songs, which I sang and added live guitar to during the assembly. Not just once, but twice, in ’73 and ’74.

The songs: “White Christmas,” Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas, Baby,” “Silver Bells” and Elvis Presley’s “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” That one got some attention, at least according to my tape of the 1974 show.

Of course, responses to Christmas are complex, and my impulse to put on a show flew in formation with a squadron of other tendencies. (Trigger alert: Baby Boomer reminiscences follow.)

During the 1960s, I entered a holiday fugue state every November, a delirium inflamed by product lust encouraged by indulgent parents and the Sears, Roebuck Wish Book; and embellished with colorful Christmas-tree chiaroscuro, heart-rendering music and hearty sparkling TV specials. (The greed has spent itself, but the other components linger on.)

Digitally retouched to increase sentimental value, this is a view across the side yard at 103 Richland St., South Portland, Maine, where my family lived for many years. Harriette H. Hubley photo.

Digitally retouched to increase sentimental value, this is a view across the side yard at 103 Richland St., South Portland, Maine, where my family lived for many years. Harriette H. Hubley photo.

For a brief pre-teen period I practiced unspeakable (not perverted, just embarrassing) occult pre-Christmas rituals influenced by Tom Swift Jr. stories and TV spy series. These dictated specifically when I could take my Christmas stocking out of storage, put up my Christmas list, etc., etc.

Eventually I absorbed the idea that Christmas involved giving as well as getting. What an adjustment! Maturing at the same time was my innate neurotic responsiveness to deadlines. These traits converged at Christmas season to form compulsive, self-imposed sensations of obligation and urgency.

The buildup to the Big Day began to entail gift projects that inexorably led to late-night, last-minute labors that likely bore little relation to the holiday expectations of anyone around me.

All these psychological currents flowing through the Christmas season — the urge to perform, the sentimental reverberations, the self-imposed Big Projects — converged and blossomed forth in the Christmas Greeting Tapes, discussed in an earlier post, that I made for friends and family over the course of more than two decades.

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

The front and back covers of the final entry in my CD compilation series, “40 Years of a Basement.” The mosaic is by Gretchen Schaefer.

All the songs that I expected my bands to perform at the Free Street Taverna and elsewhere, I had developed or adapted for the Christmas tapes.

These tapes were the mother of self-imposed Christmas obligations: Having done one, in 1974 (featuring recordings of the SPHS gig), I saw the creative potential and quickly developed the idea, purely out of thin air, that it was vitally important to keep making them — important not just to me, but to everyone I gave them to and, probably, to untold future generations, too. (I’m quite sure that people liked getting them, but really.)

All this is written in a retrospective tense, but don’t be fooled. True, the Christmas Greeting Tapes are long over with, and no one has offered a Christmas gig to my current band, Day for Night (we’ll take it! Please!!) — but the Christmas projects continue, albeit benefiting from somewhat less OCD and somewhat more refinement.

A combined setlist for two Christmastime 1995 Boarders dates: the Dec. 9 Taverna gig and a Rotary-sponsored performance for seniors at the Purpooduc Club. We played very quietly at that one. Hubley Archives.

A combined setlist for two Christmastime 1995 Boarders dates: the Dec. 9 Taverna gig and a Rotary-sponsored performance for seniors at the Purpooduc Club. We played very quietly at that one. Hubley Archives.

You are reading the latest iteration of them, third in a series of Yule-themed Notes From a Basement blogs.  Just prior to starting the blog, from 2005 through 2011, I produced on CD for family and friends annual compilations of music that those friends and I have recorded since the late 1960s.

In some ways the CD sets are realizations of unmet goals for the Christmas tapes. The seven compilations comprise 17 discs containing a total of 340 tracks played by 10 acts or artists. The sets are nicely annotated and illustrated, with five of them packaged in wordy (big surprise) 8.5-by-5.5-inch booklets. (Gretchen, thank you again for the long-reach stapler.)

I regret that I remember less about the Boarders and Howling Turbines Christmas performances, offered by a group of musicians for a group of people who wanted to hear what we were doing, than I do about the somewhat onanistic projects that preceded them by 20 years and more. And I would like to know more about our audiences’ responses to them, as that perhaps was a context in which my responses to Christmas made most sense.

Xmas Tree 13-E

Hubley Archives.

Well, there’s always the WordPress comment option, folks. I’d love to hear from you. Meanwhile, another Christmas season is just beginning (or, according to whom you ask, several weeks along). A tree fell on our garage during the Nov. 26-27 snowstorm — we don’t yet know the damage but at least Gretchen was able to work in her studio, at the back of the garage, today — and I hurt my back shoveling snow, putting an end to my long-held conviction that I would never have back trouble.

Yet in a sign of progress, I feel grateful that in spite of all, we continue to enjoy great good fortune. And yes, I still feel vestigial stirrings of the old incoherent Christmas nostalgia, the deadline obsession and the need to show off in a seasonally appropriate way.

I say to those feelings and to you who have come this far reading about them: fond greetings, old friends. And to you who are reading, I also wish contentment with, or at least acceptance of, your own Christmas complications; and much happiness in the company of those who stay with you in spite of them.


https://www.dhubley.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Boarders-Keys-Excerpt-MCBC.mp3

The Boarders in an autumn 1994 Boarders publicity shoot by Jeff Stanton. Hubley Archives.

Compare and contrast! Available on Nimbit and Bandcamp, hear The Boarders and the Howling Turbines offer their distinctive interpretations of a few holiday numbers. As an added bonus, or something, there are two accordion numbers and an excerpt from the 1984 Christmas Greeting Tape.

  • Looking for That Christmas Feeling (Hubley) This performance is by the Boarders, in a Dec. 6, 1995, rehearsal for our Christmas date at the Free Street Taverna. Doug Hubley, guitar and vocal. Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass. Song note: 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. That peculiar tension informs this song exploring the longing for some kind of meaning to Christmas that didn’t involve, well, Christ. Like “Shortwave Radio,” also from 1981, this involves closely personal imagery (I drank a lot of Freixenet that year), but I nevertheless hope it is somehow meaningful to others as well. The intro came later, in 1984 — coincidentally, again coinciding with the dissolution of a Fashion Jungle seemingly poised on the brink of success. The opening image was provoked by a spell of December warmth that had me worried about global warming even then. “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging (trad. German) In the late 1980s I abandoned the skit+music format of my Christmas Greeting Tapes and instead produced little compilations of Christmas music played on accordion. Recorded on a Sony Walkman through a mic the size of a bullion cube, this is a solo performance of a German carol from the 15th or 16th century. The words depict Mary, pregnant with the Birthday Boy, wandering through a thicket of seemingly dead roses (a “thorn woods”) that burst into flower as she passes. Recorded Dec. 21, 1988.
  • Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging (trad. German) From an Oct. 10, 2001, rehearsal by the Howling Turbines. Doug Hubley, guitar and vocal. Ken Reynolds, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass. Song note: This German carol made a very fine addition to the holiday repertoires of both the Turbines and the Boarders, which first developed the electric version (see below).
  • Sel bych rad k Bethlemu (trad. Czech) Another accordion piece from the music-only Christmas tapes. The title of this Czech carol means “to Bethlehem I would go” and the lyrics are aimed at children. I liked the tune and, added bonus, I could play it. Also recorded Dec. 21, 1988.
  • Looking for That Christmas Feeling (Hubley) The Howling Turbines on Oct. 10, 2001, rehearsing for a Christmastime date at the Free Street Taverna. Doug Hubley, guitar and vocal. Ken Reynolds, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass. “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging — The Boarders, rehearsing on Dec. 5, 1995, for a Free Street Taverna gig a few days hence: Doug Hubley, guitar and cheezy double-tracked vocal. Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, drums. Gretchen Schaefer, bass.
  • “Coffee With Doug”: Christmas Around the World — An excerpt from one of the more successful entries in the Christmas Greeting Tape series, from 1984.

“Notes From a Basement” text copyright © 2012–2014 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Cowlix, Coming and Going

“Je t’aime” by Doug Hubley from “20 Years of a Basement,” Aug. 10, 1991. (“Je t’aime” copyright © 1983 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved. Visit Hubley Industries Music on Vimeo.)


The summer of 1991 was my 20th anniversary of publicly performing with rock bands, and I wanted to celebrate.

I took a very literal approach to the celebration. It would be a concert featuring not only my current band, the Cowlix, but — I hoped — members of previous bands. I didn’t invite everyone I’d ever played with, but beckoned the most fun and creative people, dating back to 1971 and Truck Farm, my first real band.

Of course, not every invitee could, or wanted to, take part.

So in the event, in addition to the Cowlix, what we wound up with was the Fashion Jungle of late 1984: bassist Steve Chapman; drummer Ken Reynolds; multi-instrumentalist Jim Sullivan, up from the Boston area; and keyboardist Kathren Torraca, who came back East from California. (Ken and I had first played together in the Curley Howard Band (1977), and Jim had joined us in the Mirrors (1979-80), which segued into the FJ in 1981.)


Gretchen and Doug express a basic tenet of their philosophy.


I titled the event “20 Years of a Basement” (pun intentional. And yes, “basement” is a recurring theme in my work, so sue me). We rented Sprague Hall, a popular old community hall under the trees in Cape Elizabeth, for Saturday, Aug. 10, 1991.

What an exciting day. We had grand plans. For the audience we invited everyone we could think of, and many of them even showed. We asked our friend Alden Bodwell to videotape it, with excerpts from the result presented in this post (and on this Archives page). We worked out a big finale, of Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” and Graham Parker’s “Pouring It All Out,” a signature number from the first bands Ken and I had been in, 14 years prior.

I still dream about setting up masses of musical equipment, walls of amps and drums and miles of cables. I think the elaborate rig we erected in Sprague Hall planted the seed for those dreams. It took most of the afternoon for us to prepare for the evening concert — there the longest were rhythm guitarist and my girlfriend Gretchen Schaefer, singer Marcia Goldenberg, Ken and also Steve, who contributed PA equipment.


Marcia Goldenberg of the Cowlix sings Billy Walker’s hit.


Steve ran the sound for the Cowlix sets, and turned the board over to Cowlix bassist Ted Papadopoulos for the Fashion Jungle numbers, which Steve played on. Steve, in other words, was sharing that responsibility with his replacement in the Cowlix. It was still a bit awkward even though nearly two years had passed since Steve left the band.

But in these chronicles, for whatever that’s worth, Ted is just a footnote. (Sorry Ted!) He was the last in a succession of would-be Cowlix bassists who came and went, lacking the interest, equipment, ability, maturity and/or mental stability, in at least one case, for the connection to click.


The “Québécois Medley” — “You Married My Daughter (But Yet You Didn’t)” and “St. Anne’s Reel” — stayed with the Cowlix from first to last.


Ted was a deejay and musician who relied on gigs for his income, unlike the rest of us dilettantes. Getting scant return from his investment of time with the ‘Lix, he was gone by September. He performed with us only twice, at Sprague Hall and at a barn dance that same month, at the York County home of a colleague of Gretchen’s.

And those two gigs were the Cowlix’ only performances in 1991.


Fiddler/saxophonist Jim Sullivan joined the Cowlix for several numbers, including the best-known country song ever to come out of Maine.


It was quite a contrast from one year to the next. In 1991, two measly jobs. In 1990, we had a recording session, a WMPG-FM spot and at least seven performances, including opening spots for the Sir Douglas Quintet and Bill Monroe — both at Portland’s best-ever night club, Raoul’s.

(The Sir Doug job was very fun. Doug Sahm was a sweet and generous guy, we played well and of course the SDQ, well, there you go! The Monroe date, another story. The bluegrass great was past his prime, his blowhard bus driver bombarded us with bombast, Raoul’s sound guy disliked us and the bluegrass fanatics downright despised us.)


The Cowlix with a song that never made the country charts.


Another 1990 date was a charity event on the beach at Small Point on an August evening. We were on a makeshift stage on the sand, playing rough country music as waves of humid salt air washed over us.

Playing for our supper (not) on the beach at Small Point. (Hubley Archives)

Playing for our supper (not) on the beach at Small Point. (Hubley Archives)

Our one condition for doing the show had been that they give us dinner. This well-heeled crowd really didn’t want to give us dinner. I think we each got a hot dog and they begrudged us that. That’s how you stay rich, I guess.

We opened for Darien Brahms and the Soul Miners in September 1990 at the Drydock, a waterfront bar in Portland that’s still going strong. It was pouring rain and the management made us carry our equipment up a fire escape to the second-floor performance room. (This experience inspired my song “Thousand Pounds of Rain.”) We played well, as I recall. The punk dimension of our country sound had coalesced.

The setlist from the Drydock. Note the paper and marking: By this point we were using "setlist forms," four-leaf self-duplicating forms that we had scavenged from somewhere.(Hubley Archives)

The setlist from the Drydock. Note the paper and marking: By this point we were using “setlist forms,” four-leaf self-duplicating forms that we had scavenged from somewhere. (Hubley Archives)

Our next drummer was in the Dry Dock audience, but we didn’t know that.

“I remember it well for two reasons,” says that musician, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. “The first was that I was trying to recreate myself as a smoker . .  . and was dragging away awkwardly on a Lucky Strike when my good friend Jimmy McGirr, Darien’s bassist, turned to me during the Cowlix’s rendition of ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding’ and said, ‘That’s beautiful eh?’

“I had to agree. The second was that I made a mental note that I wanted to be in that band.”

Which finally came to pass. But how Jonathan came — and went — and then came back to stay, about a year after the Drydock, is another story.

Darien would again ask us to open for her, this time at a Halloween party at the Maine College of Art. All I remember about that is a giant conga line undulating around the room, in the old Portland Public Library building, while Ken, and I on accordion, played . . . I don’t know what. There was no conga-line music in the ‘Lix repertoire.

I never knew it was so easy to win fame: The Cowlix profiled by the Evening Express' Barry Mothes, 1990. Hubley Archives.

The Cowlix profiled by the Evening Express’ Barry Mothes, 1990. I meant to say, “An additional instrument.” Hubley Archives.

I’m sorry I don’t recall more of that gig, because it was Ken’s last for the next 10 months, although we didn’t know it at the time. And I also don’t remember why he left. Maybe he was just tired of country music, never his favorite genre in any case. And working second and third shifts at the post office was no day at Small Point

But he returned for “20 Years of a Basement” (and for Shyla and Bill Murray’s barn dance, where we met the fifth member of the 1992-94 Cowlix, fiddler Melinda McCardell).

And how did “20 Years” work out? The weather was sunny and humid for the biggest party we ever threw. I remember Gretchen, Steve, his wife Jeri and probably Ken standing outside the building passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, the descending August sun shining through the trees.

Between Darien Brahms and the Soul Miners and the worldly electropop of Too Much Truth, where did the garage-country of the Cowlix fit in? (Hubley Archives)

Our first non-open-mic gig in 1990. Between Darien Brahms and the Soul Miners and the worldly electropop of Too Much Truth, where did the garage-country of the Cowlix fit in? (Hubley Archives)

Never one to search for an original idea when there was one worth stealing, I copped Talking Heads’ conceit from the film Stop Making Sense and structured the program such that I would begin with a song, Gretchen would join me for the second number, Marcia would come in next and finally Ken, Ted — and in a special guest appearance Jim Sullivan, on fiddle and mandolin — would complete the set.

We alternated sets with the Fashion Jungle, which also began small (Steve, Ken and Doug) and got bigger. I wore a Col. Sanders tie for the country stuff and one of my skinny neckties for the FJ.

The Cowlix did well — four of the five players were solid while my singing and guitar were somewhat erratic. The reunited FJ, which had time for only a few short rehearsals after years apart, had shaky moments but produced gratifyingly long stretches of our old sound.

The 'Lix feeling licked in April 1991. (Hubley Archives)

The ‘Lix feeling licked in April 1991. (Hubley Archives)

There was something of a crowd, including my sisters and father and a strong delegation from the Corner. Some folks wanted to dance. Marcia kept turning the house lights off for the sake of atmosphere — we had no stage lights (us? Lighting? Really? Seriously?) — and Alden kept turning them back on for the sake of the video.

We closed with “Pouring It All Out” (having running out of time for “Manhattan”). We chased our friends out at midnight because the masters of Sprague Hall had strict rules about closing time.

And in the midst of all that, quietly and with barely a thought, we closed the book once and for all on the Fashion Jungle, 10 years after it began.


Watch video of the Fashion Jungle at “20 Years of a Basement.”

Hear (and buy) selections from the Fashion Jungle’s performances:

Copyright © by Douglas L. Hubley: “Je t’aime,” 1983; “Breaker’s Remorse,” 2010; “Little Cries,” 1983. All rights reserved.

“Rubber Hammer” copyright © 2013 by Steven Chapman, Douglas Hubley and Kenneth Reynolds. All rights reserved.

Copyright © by Steven Chapman: “Sporting Life,” 1982; “Curious Attraction,” 1984. All rights reserved.

“Peacetime Hero” copyright © 1981 by James Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2013 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

 

The Cowlix: New Basement, No Bass-ment

Current and former Cowlix, 1993. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds, Steve Chapman, Jeri Chapman, Marcia Goldenberg, Doug Hubley. Jeff Stanton photo.

Current and former Cowlix, 1993. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds, Steve Chapman, Jeri Chapman, Marcia Goldenberg, Doug Hubley. Polaroid (not Instagram) photo by Jeff Stanton.

In November 1989, just about eight years after we first met him, bassist Steve Chapman left our band.

Or he could have said that the band left him.

Drummer Ken Reynolds and I had started working with Steve in 1981, when he showed up just in time to rescue our tottering Fashion Jungle. The FJ went on to generate a respectable local buzz with its sharp-edged, romantic original music through the 1980s.

But by the end of that decade, the edge was dulling and creative fatigue setting in. We responded with a turn toward classic country and other rootsy forms. At first it was almost frivolous, just a caprice; but I love old country music. Once in, I wanted to go deeper. (Still do.)

So by that November we were calling ourselves the Cowlix, and the FJ trio had expanded to a quintet. Rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer, my partner, joined during spring 1989. Singer Marcia Goldenberg came on board just weeks before we ended our musical association with Steve.

Cronies-Late80s1709

The Cronies at the Schaefer-Hubley home soon after we moved in. From left: Liz Torraca, Jeri Chapman, Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Steve Chapman, Alden Bodwell (in a dramatic recitation) and Ken Reynolds. Jeff Stanton photo.

That November night the five of us convened at the little house that Gretchen and I had just bought on the outskirts of Portland. (At last, after all those years — a basement of our own!) For Marcia, it must have been strange to be so new on the scene and see so much history being unpacked. That baggage made the meeting tough, with plenty of hurt to go around. (But we have remained good friends with Steve and even play music with him from time to time.)

Much was said that night, but the bones of contention boiled down to two: Steve wasn’t enjoying the music, and couldn’t rehearse as often as we felt necessary.

So there we were. Steve is a really good musician and we felt that loss. Yet sometimes you respond like John Cleese’s Holy Grail knight whose limbs keep getting lopped off: Losing a member can have a bracing effect, up to a point. Though we auditioned bassists for the next year (a series of adventures worth a post of their own), we never let basslessness hold us back.

Just the opposite, in fact. Necessity being the mother of invention, or at least the mother of playing the hand you’re dealt, we set out to own our bassless sound. We branded it a virtue and never apologized for it. (And never mentioned it again after Gretchen started playing bass, in 1992.)

From a contrarian standpoint, the timing was good. Commercial music in general and country in particular — remember the “hat acts”? — were getting nothing but slicker and shinier. We, on the other hand, mustered up a big rough instrumental sound driven by Ken’s powerhouse drumming and Gretchen’s straight-on strumming. I wove my guitar into the gaps, floating between bass-ish and lead parts on a miasma of digital delay.

An early Cowlix songlist. Hubley Archives.

An early Cowlix songlist. Note the categorizing by dance style, including pogo. Hubley Archives.

Then there was Marcia. I learned about her through our mutual friend Suzanne Murphy — during the course of an interview, ironically, for a story I was doing about the Downtown Lounge, a scene that had inspired the FJ.

Marcia brought a lot of energy, a strong voice with a retro country feel and a backlog of good material she was eager to try. After the Fashion Jungle, where a single lead voice and minimal supporting parts was the order of the day, I welcomed the chance to do two-part through-harmonies.

With Steve, we had already put together a country song portfolio that, going thin and wide rather than deep and focused, represented Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, the Everly Brothers, Ian Tyson and others. Now we dug a little deeper.

An unrevealing image of a Cowlix performance on the beach at Small Point, Maine. Hubley Archives.

An unrevealing image of a Cowlix performance on the beach at Small Point, Maine, August 1990. Hubley Archives.

We picked up songs by Bill Monroe and Lefty Frizzell, and more by Hank, the Everlys and Cash. Marcia’s contributions included the Patsy Cline hit “Seven Lonely Days” and Billy Walker’s excellent “Ancient History.”

We revived a few from Ken’s and my old band the Mirrors — notably classics received third-hand via Gram Parsons like “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes” and “That’s All It Took,” as well as Parsons’ cool adaptation of the R&B song “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (which popped up for a third time in the early repertoire of Gretchen’s and my current band, Day for Night. You can’t keep a good song and well-learned accordion part down.)

An early Cowlix song list in Gretchen's handwriting.

An early Cowlix song list in Gretchen’s handwriting. “P.O.H.M.” is “Poor Old Heartsick Me.”

We also took a swing at the Louvin Brothers, those paragons of vocal harmony and sibling disharmony, who were so influential on later musicians like Parsons.  During this phase I walked into the sainted record store Amadeus Music, on Fore Street in Portland, and grandly announced, “I want to buy the entire Louvin Brothers catalog.”

They were able to come up with two LP compilations. We learned three songs by Charlie and Ira and thought we were pretty cool. (Dilettantes! Having pretty much mined out the Louvins’ secular catalog, Day for Night secretly wishes we were religious so we could take on their gospel work. “Satan is real . . .”)

Classic country was the focus, but stylistic promiscuity is hard to shake off and we started looting other genres almost from the start. Some cozied up easily with country music — folk-dance tunes, for example. My accordion playing had become somewhat presentable, and we used it on a few folk instrumentals from Québec (and later Poland, Mexico and Finland).

Covering Maine music as a journalist had introduced me to a broad range of folk styles, which taught me how important sheer danceability was to musical forms other than rock. I became preoccupied with giving audiences dance music — probably a reaction against the FJ, which had always had a hard time getting people onto the floor. These two-beats and waltzes filled that bill nicely.

Half the Cowlix and all of the future Day for Night. Hubley Archives.

Half the Cowlix and all of the future Day for Night, circa 1990. Hubley Archives.

A few rock songs made it into the mix too, chosen carefully to sound good despite the lack of bass. For instance, Them’s “Here Comes the Night,” whose two-beat sections sounded good with my Luther Perkins boom-chick guitar; and the Beatles’ “There’s a Place,” which had a nice harmony. Our biggest stretch was “Around My Heart,” by X, a band with whom we felt a strange affinity. We sounded punkish enough and had a big enough beat to make it work.

In short, we sounded like nobody else at a time when country music was enjoying one of its periodic boomlets. Greater Portland was engulfed in an Americana wave at the time, and our peers were bands like Cattle Call, Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers, the Piners and Slaid Cleaves’ Moxie Men. If each had a distinctive niche, none was more distinctive than ours.

In those early days of the Cowlix, a band that would last until 1994, I felt the same kind of missionary zeal that had been so energizing at the launch of the FJ. Dance music! Good country, not schlock à la the Mirrors! The bass-free sound! The conceptual rigor was shaky, but the excitement was real.

And we knew we were on the right track, because people kept giving us work.


Hear the Cowlix performing one of our rare originals, my “Slow Poison,” in a rough rehearsal recording from 1990.

“Slow Poison” copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

“Notes From a Basement” copyright 2013 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

An Old Friend I Happened to See

The cronies at the Bramhall Pub, late 1980s. From left: Alden Bodwell, Kathren Torraca, Elizabeth Torraca, Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Jeff Stanton, Steve Chapman. Photographer: Jeri Chapman.

The cronies at the Bramhall Pub, late 1980s. From left: Alden Bodwell, Kathren Torraca, Elizabeth Torraca, Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Jeff Stanton, Steve Chapman. Photographer: Jeri Chapman.

A band in transition: Hear the Fashion Jungle morph into the Cowlix before your very ears!


We tend to think of country music as a product of the South and the West, but really, the name tells you where it’s from. It’s the music of small towns and no towns, lightless state routes and endless rail lines. It’s the soundtrack for the long ride between where you’ve been and where you’re bound.

There’s a space like those hollow miles in my emotional interior. It feels like open landscape, cold wind, bright stars and a lonesome voice backed by pedal steel on the car radio. This region is something like home to the inner me. I frequently seek its outside analogs — in a bottle, on a train, on a record, or with guitar in hand performing with Day for Night.

Nearly every kind of music has its charms for me, and it’s a pleasure to play the small portfolio of genres within my technical grasp. But for me country is the terminus, the beginning and end of the railroad that I ride through music’s vast territory. My musical career has been defined largely by either running from country or returning to it.

A Fashion Jungle publicity shot, taken c. 1987 in Steve's cellar. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives

A Fashion Jungle publicity shot, taken c. 1987 in Steve’s cellar. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives

The Fashion Jungle, the band I was in that came closest to fame, was born in the flight from country and died in the return to it — well, that’s one version. History is too complicated and involves too many people to simplify into a turn of phrase that suits one’s transient narrative needs. Some of you reading this will have your own narratives and your own turns of phrase to serve them (send ’em in!).

However, in any event, the ole high and lonesome was among the kickees as the Mirrors drop-kicked much of our baggage to become the FJ, in 1981. And country was where we turned eight years later as the FJ’s arty romantic edge started to dull.

August 1988 was something of a pinnacle for the late FJ, drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Steve Chapman and me. It was our second year after Steve rejoined the band. Our performance at the Maine Festival, in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park on the 13th, was one that I recall as a rare occurrence of an ideal: It was a prestigious gig, we played well, dancers filled the tent under the nighttime trees, there was that sense of us all, everyone under the tent, being in the game together.

When the Fashion Jungle decided in 1989 to become its own opening act, playing classic country and old rock, Gretchen Schaefer joined on rhythm guitar. Here she is with my Gretchen Anniversary Model. Hubley Archives.

When the Fashion Jungle decided in 1989 to become its own opening act, playing classic country and old rock, Gretchen Schaefer joined on rhythm guitar. Here she is with my Gretchen Anniversary Model. Hubley Archives.

But it was a high point on a path that wasn’t leading anywhere. I, at least, was getting that end-of-the-party feeling. The songwriting, our purported reason for being, was drying up — dwindling not in quantity, because we were as non-prolific as ever, but in spark. Our newer songs felt strained and the older ones, well, old.

We learned four original songs in 1988: my “Don’t Sell the Condo” and the collaborative efforts “Dance,” “Rubber Hammer” and “Complaint,” the last of which went unperformed. All respectable, but only “Condo” seems to transcend its particulars the way the best FJ numbers do. Maybe it attained the FJ’s own version of the ole high and lonesome.

The set list from the Reynolds family function, April 1989.

The set list from the Reynolds family function, April 1989.

One of Ken’s siblings was planning a big family celebration in April 1989 and invited us to play. We understood that virtually none of our regular material would go over well with this older, largely rural crowd. Needed were songs that we could learn quickly and that the Reynolds clan would enjoy, and, of course, us too.

So we decided to learn several ’60s hits and, crucially, a bunch of country songs. It seemed like a lighthearted and frivolous choice at the time, to the extent that we developed this idea of playing country music as the opening act for ourselves, for the FJ. We toyed with names like the Prairie Oysters and the Cowpokers, ultimately and more tastefully settling on the Cowlix.

But despite how lightly we turned in this new direction, it turned out to be momentous for at least two reasons.

As written above, returning to country was a sort of repudiation of the very founding of the FJ. (This has occurred to me only in the writing of this piece, as opposed to most of the heavy thoughts in Notes, which are the result of decades of stewing.) Ken, Mike Piscopo, Jim Sullivan and I had embraced original New Wavy rock in part as a reaction against all of the roots music we had performed as the Mirrors, including a heavy dose of often-dreary country.

In those days, to quote the slogan of the hallowed Downtown Lounge, the goal was faster-louder-more fun! But eight years into the FJ’s career, as we dragged through songs four or more years old and struggled to come up with new ones, all the while burdened by our sacred oath to high concept and danceable romanticism, and with carefree youth buried down deep in the pile of outstanding bills, country seemed — to me anyway — like much more fun.

Doug and Gretchen in a festive moment, Christmas 1988, Lovell, Maine. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives.

Doug and Gretchen in a festive moment, Christmas 1988, Lovell, Maine. Photo by Minolta self-timer. Hubley Archives.

The other, much more consequential outcome of the FJ’s stylistic detour was that we added a new member: rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer, then my significant other and now my wife, too.

Gretchen had played folk music back in college. She knew Hank Williams from her father’s repertoire and inherited his old Gibson archtop. And she was central to the FJ organization long before she started playing with us. She worked as hard as anybody hauling equipment, she tended the admission table at Geno’s (in the words of Iggy Stooge, no fun), and, in a contribution more in line with her specific gifts, made a lot of graphic art for the band.

When we asked her to join us on guitar in the spring of 1989, it was because we needed rhythm guitar and because it seemed like it would be fun. But it turned out to be the beginning of a musical partnership between the two of us, largely devoted to country music, that’s still going strong.


Hear rehearsal recordings of two songs by the Fashion Jungle — er, Cowpokers — I mean, the Cowlix. Recorded in Steve’s basement, 1989.

  • You Know How It Is (Hubley) Dating from 1978, this lament about the working life is drawn from my experiences as a sensitive young artiste having my soul destroyed as a “materials handler” (stockboy) at the South Portland branch of the Jordan Marsh department store. Jordan Marsh is gone, and I am still here.
  • I Remember (Just as Fast as I Forget) (Hubley) The iffy lyrical premise didn’t deter me from pitching it to the Fashion Jungle as we developed our “opening act,” the country-flavored Prairie Oysters. But this is more “countrypolitan” than country, down to the cha-cha rhythm and Slim Whitman falsetto.

“You Know How It Is” and “I Remember Just as Fast as I Forget” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

 

Fashion Jungle: Audio out — Video in


Above: The Fashion Jungle rehearses “Don’t Sell the Condo” in Steves basement, early 1988. Videographer: Gretchen Schaefer. | Buy this soundtrack!


They say that when a door closes, a window opens.

I say that when a door closes, one should sit quietly with a magazine and wait for it to open again.

But sometimes that never happens. In the late ’80s, confronted with a closing door, I did actually find a window to crawl out through.

 

 

Gretchen Schaefer and I were trying to record a rootsy version, guitar and accordion, of “Good King Wenceslas” for a Christmas Greeting Tape in December 1987 when the recording device, a Sony TC-540 reel-to-reel tape recorder, became balky about tracking on one of its two channels.

Soon thereafter it wouldn’t capture much sound at all. The problem was diagnosed, vaguely, as deteriorating electronic components.

That meant that after nearly 20 years, I had suddenly lost a foundation of my identify. I had never recorded prolifically, but making music on tape was integral to my self-image.

I think the loss was more emotional than functional: The Sony would still play tapes back, which preserved its role as my personal Wayback Machine. And I could make audio recordings with other equipment — a succession of cassette recorders that afforded neither the nice crisp sound of the Sony (which, if you have played many of the songs that accompany these blogs, you have likely experienced) nor its handy capability for overdubbing.

 

Richard Julio introduces us at Video A Go-Go. 


I wasn’t devastated. I knew that once I started making more money, I could simply buy a new reel-to-reel. I could have tried harder to get the Sony fixed. (And maybe I realized on some level that, in any case, digital technology was ultimately going to change the game completely).

I just didn’t like this failure of the Sony’s. As someone with a lifelong silly habit of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects, I felt like a trusted friendship had turned bad.

A boy and his tape recorder, 1982. Hubley Archives.

A boy and his tape recorder, 1982. Hubley Archives.

I wasn’t devastated, but I was unsettled. I flailed for seven years. I made recordings on all kinds of unlikely machines, including a visibility-yellow Sony all-weather boombox and a tiny Walkman that I bought for work-related interviews. It was good training in adaptability, but the sound was never great.

So that was the door.

And what was the window?

It was video. Even as I was thrashing around in search of an audio recording solution, my band, the Fashion Jungle, suddenly got a few opportunities for video recording — opportunities that resulted in the best documentary materials of the band’s last stages.

 

 

Our friend Alden Bodwell worked for a media company and was able to borrow video gear. His generosity resulted in two concert videos, including a date at the Brunswick, a nightspot in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. The video of “Little Cries” posted below is from that gig, which Alden shot on a foggy night in May 1988.

 

 

Gretchen, then my partner and now my wife, in early 1988 borrowed a camcorder from the school where she was student-teaching. Back then we were rehearsing in a studio that bassist Steve Chapman had built in his basement. “(Drummer Ken Reynolds completed the ensemble.) “Don’t Sell the Condo,” at the top of this post, represents Gretchen’s recording of a typical rehearsal.

Finally, most of the clips here come from one of the stranger episodes in the FJ annals. Since 1986, Gretchen and I had been involved with South Portland Television, a public-access cable operation headquartered at Southern Maine Technical College (now Southern Maine Community College) just down Willard Beach from us. Somehow the idea arose of doing a fundraiser for SPTV (slogan: “Where video meets the sea,” which I suggested ironically and they took to heart.)

 

 

We enlisted two other bands for the concert that was cablecast live on May 21, 1988. The Brood, managed by rare-record dealer Richard Julio, was an all-female ensemble led by Chris Horne and dedicated to ’60s garage band sounds. The Holy Bones were fronted by singer-songwriter Darien Brahms, who remains a force in the Portland music scene; and the late Manny Verzosa, remembered as a promising talent lost way too soon.

It was a hot, humid and nervous-making night. The TV crew were all SPTV volunteers, including Alden. The show was cablecast from the SMTC cafeteria. There were audio problems, thanks in part to the distance from the cafeteria to the control booth, in a separate building.

In fact, I don’t remember it actually being that much fun — I think the Brood and the Holy Bones left after their sets, taking their friends with them, and we played to an empty room. I don’t know how much, if any, fundage was generated for SPTV. I do recall some kind of fractiousness, though not who was involved nor what it was about. My nerves were scrambled. Ken and Steve were rock-solid, but my guitar playing was skittery as hell. For years I would not go near either the video or audio recordings of this event — too abrasive in my memory.

 

 

Today, of course, I’m delighted to have all these video documents. How young and energetic, and serious, we were (and how old I sound saying that). I’m all the more grateful for these videos when I think how precious and important video seemed back then — these were the years, after all, when MTV and VH-1 were showing music videos, and video was a must-do for musicians — and how inaccessible. I craved a camcorder for years in the 1980s, despite having no means of editing video. But I never felt I could afford one.

Now, in effect, I have three video cameras, which together cost less than one camcorder would have gone for in 1988. Video is as easy as pushing a button. I shoot scenery from the train, the winter rye waving in the sun in our front yard, the evidence of a Pabst Blue Ribbon price war in Nederland, Colo.

Between technology and experience and some money, so many things that once seemed impossible have drifted into reach. It’s one of the things that has impressed me the most about getting older. Then the question is: What do you do with those things once you have them?

They say that when a door closes, a window opens. But they don’t say what happens when the walls go away.

 

 

Fashion Jungle: Veterans’ Club

posters-fj-wouldntdie001

Bad, pesky words! Go directly to popular tunes!



“It’s all the more baffling that a band with so many high-quality original songs would seem to have an attitude about its future that borders on the blasé. But the Fashion Jungle three aren’t so much blasé as they are pragmatic. ‘We’re all too old to work our way up the ladder,’ Hubley says.

” ‘It isn’t that we lack ambition,’ [bassist Steve] Chapman adds. ‘We can’t get from here to there without doing things we don’t want to do.’ ”

— “Back in Style: Fashion Jungle Goes ‘Round Again” by Chris Pierson, Sweet Potato, Sept. 2‑9, 1987


fj-87003

A Fashion Jungle publicity shot taken in the basement of Steve Chapman’s house by the Minolta self-timer. Clockwise from left: drummer Ken Reynolds, guitarist Doug Hubley, bassist Steve Chapman.

Steve moved back to Maine in late 1986, accompanied by his new bride, Jeri Kane Chapman.

And the next thing we knew, the Fashion Jungle was a going concern again: the same membership as the 1982 edition, Steve, Doug and drummer Ken Reynolds.

It was like we’d never left off.

The playing came back quickly despite the two-year layoff. We learned new originals — the band’s declared raison d’être — and found a few covers, such as the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” and Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” to which I added lyrics carping about the carpetbaggers flooding into Maine.

Gigs came easily. Not only good old Geno’s, where the reconstituted FJ made its debut on May 29, 1987, but at new venues like the Marble Bar (on York Street where Portland Pie is now; lovely acoustics) and Herb Gideon’s legendary Tree Cafe, on Danforth Street adjacent to its namesake, one of the city’s last elm trees. At Zootz, the epicenter of Portland’s hip-and-cool nightlife for a few short years, we played a benefit for a group advocating against U.S. involvement in Central America. In 1988, we returned to the Maine Festival.

Rehearsals were briefly elevated out of the basement, into the dining room of the duplex that Gretchen and I were renting at 506 Preble St., South Portland. To avoid disturbing the neighbors (who had no such scruples toward us when it came to abusing their children and holding all-night poker games), we played quietly, sans PA and with a partial drum kit. Later in the year we moved back below ground level, into an acoustically insulated rehearsal room that Steve built in the basement of his and Jeri’s house.

Complete with coffee stain, the lyrics to "Veterans' Club." Hubley Archives.

Complete with coffee stain, the lyrics to “Veterans’ Club.” Hubley Archives.

As I had done with “Corner Night,” I wrote a song about this phase of the Fashion Jungle. I’m not normally big on explaining my lyrics, but will make an exception in the case of “Veterans’ Club” because it’s so arcane and yet so germane to this post.

As the title tells you, the song lightly likens being in a rock band to fighting a war. I hope it’s clear that I don’t mean that too seriously, and that I’m mocking my own melodramatic tendencies. But if the FJ wasn’t the crucible of battle, it was at least a saucepan of high hopes, hard work, ecstasy and disappointment . . .  well, enough of that metaphor. But the experience was intense enough to leave us all feeling bound together for years after the band’s demise.

The top of the song is riddled with the names of Fashion Jungle songs treated straight or as puns: “Entertainer,” “A Certain Hunger,” “Nothing Works,” “Nothing to Say,” “Final Words.” There were other insider references. “Box-office barricades” harked back, for example, to the Geno’s practice of making bands appoint someone to take admission at the door, duty that was no picnic at that particular venue (Gretchen, Jeff and Alden usually got stuck with it — thanks again to them!).

But in “Veterans’ Club” all the insider stuff works, more or less, to set up the real topic:  Having starred in the blockbuster Fashion Jungle Story from 1981 to 1984, how did we feel about doing a sequel?

It was a big deal for us to have have three gigs in the course of a single season -- hence this T-shirt design by Gretchen Schaefer commemorating an autumn that found us at Zootz, the Tree and the Marble Bar.

It was a big deal for us to have have three gigs in the course of a single season — hence this T-shirt design by Gretchen Schaefer commemorating an autumn that found us at Zootz, the Tree and the Marble Bar.

I can’t speak for Ken and Steve, but I was done with romanticizing both the FJ and the music biz in general, thanks to a few years of writing about it for the Guy Gannett newspapers. “Try and try, and try again”: We were glad to be back together, and we gave it a good run for a few more years — but fame was no longer a question.

As I explained to Chris Pierson for the Sweet Potato profile excerpted above, I had come to see the FJ as folk musicians (albeit really noisy ones): If our music was sophisticated, our approach to promoting and distributing it was anything but. It was haphazard, low-tech and uninformed by the kind of schmoozing that’s even more important than talent — let’s get real, OK? — in making your mark. In short, we were players, not players. Or as Steve told Pierson, “We can’t get from here to there without doing things we don’t want to do.”

The Fashion Jungle at the Tree Cafe, 1987 or 1988. From left: Steve Chapman, drummer Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley. Photograph by Jeff Stanton.

The Fashion Jungle at the Tree Cafe, 1987 or 1988. From left: Steve Chapman, drummer Ken Reynolds, Doug Hubley. Photograph by Jeff Stanton.

There were other things going on. Real life was picking up momentum, as the song goes. Steve was a newlywed with a new house and a new career in food-service administration. Ken was working vampire hours at the post office. My journalistic schedule was as erratic as ever, mixing days, nights and weekends.

In short, other demands were demanding, and — for me, anyway — the success or failure of the Fashion Jungle, while still something to take seriously, was no longer the yardstick to measure my own success or failure.


Hear 1987-88 recordings from the reformed Fashion Jungle.

    • Blunt Cut (Hubley-Chapman) Steve Chapman and I never sat down to write together as a duo, although we did write collaboratively with Ken Reynolds. Instead, this was a case of fitting my existing lyric — one of the few that use a hairdo as a portent for the demise of an affair — to his excellent existing melody. The words are cryptic, but the images all come from a liaison I had in Austria and Sweden in the mid-1970s. Recorded at Geno’s on July 24, 1987, a stunningly humid day. I don’t know what all the screaming is about toward the end. The fadeout is the intro to “Nothing to Say.” Read Steve’s thoughts about this song.
    • Sporting Life (Chapman) An early SC contribution to the FJ repertoire, this fantasy of life in the Jet Set started as a supersonic rock number. With keyboardist Kathren Torraca and saxophonist Jim Sullivan in late 1984, it was a slower, heavier ska number. Our late three-piece arrangement kept the ska bounce, but got faster and faster and bigger and bigger. Recorded at Geno’s, May 29, 1987 — I think this was our debut after Steve returned. Read Steve’s thoughts about this song.
    • Veterans’ Club (Hubley) This was one of my first songwriting contributions to the reborn Fashion Jungle. Like “Corner Night,” it’s a musical attempt to find some perspective on the travails of the FJ, six years after the band came into existence. Recorded at Geno’s, May 29, 1987.
    • Entertainer (Reynolds-Hubley) Better versions of this striptease serenade appear elsewhere, but this is included because of the change we made to the arrangement. The middle used to be a showcase for a Steve Chapman bass solo, but lacking Kathren Torraca’s keyboard, we now felt the sound was too spare. So we lifted the entire instrumental signature from the original version of “Why This Passion” and used that for the solo.
    • Why This Passion (Hubley) The original version of this song written for the Fashion Jungle in 1983 was a mopey creation that could barely stand up under the weight of an overwrought arrangement. In 1985, for the Dan Knight FJ, I streamlined and supercharged the setting, with the Velvet Underground in mind. Here, with Steve back on bass, this tale of a lovers’ tiff gets the full-blown late FJ blowtorch treatment.
    • Complaint (Chapman-Hubley-Reynolds) A collaborative musical setting for my lyric, which is an elaborate and personalized complaint (hence the title) about overheated land development in Maine in the 1980s. Toward the end of the FJ’s run, as our songwriting slowed down, we increasingly resorted to working out the music for new songs as a group. This is a rough rehearsal recording of one that we never performed — in fact, it’s a composite of two incomplete takes. Chapmans’ basement, 1988.

Exuberance after a Fashion Jungle gig at Geno's, 1987 or 1988. Clockwise from upper left: drummer Ken Reynolds,  Jeri Chapman, Alden Bodwell, bassist Steve Chapman, Gretchen Schaefer, guitarist Doug Hubley. Photograph by Jeff Stanton.

Exuberance after a Fashion Jungle gig at Geno’s, 1987 or 1988. Clockwise from upper left: drummer Ken Reynolds, Jeri Chapman, Alden Bodwell, bassist Steve Chapman, Gretchen Schaefer, guitarist Doug Hubley. Photograph by Jeff Stanton.

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