Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the category “Songwriting”

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)

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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)

Fashion Jungle: Late to the Party

The Mirrors had two Downtown Lounge dates in March 1980. I lost my voice for the second one. Hubley Archives.

New Wave music* finally hit the beach in Maine around 1979-80.

In those days, there must have been other places in Portland where the hip and cool met and mingled, but the first one I heard about was the Downtown Lounge, the legendary dance club in the Plaza Hotel, located on Preble Street about where the Public Market is now (itself fodder for nostalgia at this point; whole other story).


TLDR? Go straight to the Bandcamp EP!


If the Mirrors’ metamorphosis into the Fashion Jungle was bound to happen, there was no more efficacious catalyst than the DTL during its brief heyday in 1980. Suddenly there was a place in Portland where you could hear the newest and nowest sounds from the Northeast — Jonathan Richman, Robin Lane & the Chartbusters, Lou Miami and the Kozmetix. More important, impresario Will Jackson was so desperate for talent that local bands who previously couldn’t get arrested in square old Portland suddenly had a home.

The Mirrors were a cut above the couldn’t-get-arrested category, and we played the DTL a few times: among them an anti-nuclear power benefit, a “country night” with 25-cent draft beers for the band (no audience, but we had a blast) and Corner Night, when, as previously described in this space, the up-and-coming Foreign Students and Pathetix ate our lunch.

What the DTL did — for the Portland music scene, for four of the five Mirrors and for me personally — was provide one of those rare and so exciting views to not only a new and better world, but one that was completely accessible. There was absolutely no reason Portland couldn’t have cutting-edge music. No reason that Mike Piscopo, Ken Reynolds, Jim Sullivan and I couldn’t take our places in a scene where loud fast music about sex and politics would be embraced.

And no reason that I — well, what exactly? Well, no reason that I couldn’t be the man about town that, in 1980, I was suddenly qualified to be. Six months in college, 12 months of working (though not writing) at a newspaper and 12 of playing music in bars had exposed me to a lot of new ideas, new experiences and most important, new possibilities. My nerve endings had grown for miles in all sorts of new directions. And they were tingling.

In particular, after years of feeling invisible around women, I was suddenly an object of interest to them. This goes to your head, etc. At the time I was living with a woman whom I’d seduced unfairly and in error, proceeding on looks alone. And as the possibilities multiplied, the home fires dwindled. By the days of the DTL, the handwriting was on that wall too. Maybe it was just my stage of life and had nothing to do with the nightclub, but it’s also true that there is nothing like an exciting scene to excite a person.

I remember one time when after a particularly fun night at the club, several of us were standing around speculating about getting more DTL bookings. Will Jackson’s name was mentioned; the woman I was with said, “Well, Will Jackson isn’t God!” And I looked up and there was Will looking back at me. No, he wasn’t God, but we had common interests, and suddenly I realized that the woman and I had one less of those.

The original Fashion Jungle posing for a self-timer publicity shot in the Hubleys’ basement. From left: Doug Hubley, Ken Reynolds, Jim Sullivan, Mike Piscopo. Hubley Archives.

(Interestingly enough, on another night at the DTL, I spied among the dancers a dark-haired girl wearing striped coveralls and a keen perceptivity. “That’s someone I’d like to get to know,” I thought to myself. Eventually I did, in a class at USM — philosophy of art, of all things — and Gretchen Schaefer and I have been together ever since.)

The ironic thing was that while the DTL, in a sense, made the Fashion Jungle, the FJ never played there (at least under that name. In fact, singer Chris Hanson was absent for the Mirrors’ “country night” gig, making that an FJ gig in personnel if not in repertoire.) The FJ came into being in spring 1981, but by then the DTL was long gone, having collapsed in late 1980 during a rollicking stretch of time whose other events included my leaving my lover, Reagan getting elected president and John Lennon getting shot.

Well, there was nothing to be done about Reagan and Lennon. But Portland learned its lesson from the DTL, and thenceforth there was nearly always at least one joint where you could you catch music brainier than the usual club fare. For me it wasn’t so much about learning lessons: I was never a DTL insider, but the DTL got inside me. I simply walked in there as one person, and walked out as another.


Here are the remaining FJ demos from the beloved Reel 96. Personnel: Doug Hubley, Mike Piscopo, Ken Reynolds (drums on all tracks), Jim Sullivan. Recorded on the Sony TC540 in Ben and Hattie Hubley’s basement, South Portland, Maine, summer 1981.

  • Censorship (Sullivan) Another social commentary by Jim, who also plays the sax while I sing lead and play guitar. Jim was learning sax all the while the Mirrors were beating our way from country bar to country bar in Maine; I’d love to hear Jim’s thoughts on what influence his new instrument had on his interest in going the FJ way. Mike, bass.
  • Shortwave Radio (Hubley) I started writing the lyrics in an art history class at USM, and finished the song up over a gin gimlet in my sister’s living room on a sunny summer evening, Bob Newhart on the TV, volume muted. This stayed in the repertoire for more than 20 years, from the FJ through the Howling Turbines. Mike, bass; Jim, organ.
  • She Lives Downstairs (Hubley-Piscopo-Reynolds-Sullivan) Like “Dumb Models,” this was a product of the short-lived “song-per-week” phase when everyone tried to bring in at least a musical fragment that we could work with. This is based around a typically earnest KR lyric. Note the nods to “Gloria” and “Gimme Some Loving.” Doug, lead vocal, lead guitar. Mike, backing vocal, rhythm guitar (we were both playing Gretsches, hence the groovy sound). Jim, backing vocal, bass.
  • Keep on Smiling (Hubley) The push for original material was so insistent that I revived this song created in 1973, when I was mad at one of my friends. These lyrics are melodramatic but the overall sense of angst still works. The big anthemic ending turned into something of an FJ characteristic. Doug, Rickenbacker 12-string, vocal. Mike, backing vocal, bass. Jim, backing vocal, organ.
  • Nothing Works (Hubley) John Rolfe and I contrived a setting for my rather silly, but nihilistic in a still-pertinent way, lyrics in 1973. But for the FJ, wishing no encumbrances from the past, I devised a new tune. Doug, Rickenbacker 12-string, vocal. Mike, backing vocal, bass. Jim, backing vocal, organ.

“Censorship” copyright © 1981 by James Sullivan. “Shortwave Radio” copyright © 1981 by Douglas L. Hubley. “She Lives Downstairs” copyright © 2011 by Douglas Hubley, Michael Piscopo, Kenneth Reynolds and James Sullivan. “Keep on Smiling” and “Nothing Works” copyright © 2010 by Douglas Hubley. All rights reserved.


* In this sense, referring less to the major label-supported “safe” responses to punk and more to the wild embrace of all kinds of music, from reggae to ’60s pop, that seemed to retain some kind of integrity.

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

‘Faster, Louder, More Fun!*’ The Fashion Jungle Arrives

 

The summer of 1981 is all here: It’s Patty Anne’s Superette in South Portland, Jeff Stanton is taking the photo, the original Fashion Jungle is posing casually just prior to a party performance at Sebago Lake. And the automobile: my beloved 1973 VW Squareback, into which I could pack nearly all the FJ gear except the drums. Photo by Jeff Stanton.


Experience the lifelike sounds of the Fashion Jungle at the Bandcamp store!


There’s a great paradox in looking back at the original Fashion Jungle.

The band was founded in 1981 by four young men in Portland, Maine, who were hastening to stake a claim in the local punk-New Wave scene — a scene whose complex and moralistic aesthetics frowned on nostalgia, along with other soggy sentiments.

So how, after three decades, do I review a year that was one of the best of my life? If there’s even a whiff of nostalgia’s room-freshener scent in this post, have I betrayed everything we stood for?

On a day when I’m feeling my age, 1981 holds plenty of golden memories. There was more musical excitement in our band than we had ever felt. The scene was poised to welcome us with open arms. My personal life was in ecstatic tumult. I was insane from lack of sleep and too much Ballantine XXX ale. I loved my car. The sun shone everyday. And I had just become a published writer, covering music for the local newspaper. (Read the article that began my journalistic career.)

But I disgust myself. Nostalgia really is kind of gross, almost prurient in its quest for easy gratification. So I will try to choose my path through these memories carefully.

The Mirrors were victims of our own success. As I’ve noted previously in this space, we worked a lot in 1980, and the result was a musical momentum that brought out the divergent interests in the band, like an airplane flying faster than its structure can bear. We became more electric, more heavily rhythmic, more lyrically edgy, all qualities that made us harder to book in Slim Andrews’ country bars, and qualities that increasingly made Chris less a part of the band.

Those irrepressible boys! The original Fashion Jungle posing for a self-timer publicity shot in the Hubleys’ basement. From left: Doug Hubley, Ken Reynolds, Jim Sullivan, Mike Piscopo. Hubley Archives.

At the same time, Ken Reynolds, Mike Piscopo and Jim Sullivan — drummer, multi-instrumentalist, multi-instrumentalist, in that order — were following the local punk–New Wave scene and saw more creative gratification, if less paying work, in that direction. I saw the light, as also previously mentioned, at the first Corner Night. It took place in August 1980 at the Downtown Lounge, a bar at the Plaza Hotel that for one shining year was like the Cavern Club of Portland’s hip&cool scene. We shared the bill with the Pathetix, featuring Mike’s brother Gary and making their debut, and the Foreign Students, led by my former bandmate John Rolfe, who wore a hard hat and screamed John Cale songs until his voice was raw.

The Mirrors, closing the night, were fine. But the other bands were wild. They were electric and kinetic. In front of Portland’s newly emergent hipsters, a crowd that cut a sharp contrast in so many ways with the cozy mainstream bar scene whence we came, we ended up looking like chumps with our smooth all-things-to-all-people (read: nothing to nobody) approach.

And while the Mirrors (aka Karl Rossmann Band, in our final months) hung on till March 1981, the writing was on the wall, as we recorded demos of songs by Elvis Costello, the Specials, the English Beat and others that gave Chris little to do.

The Mirrors’ last date was on a snowy March night at the Cracked Platter in Harrison. (Owner, after many of the songs: “That wasn’t too good.”) Then we let Chris go.

I saw a listing for a movie called The Garment Jungle, and somehow we twisted it around to Fashion Jungle. I remember the four of us agreeing on that name at a party in Cape Elizabeth, grinning like idiots and shaking hands. (Piscopo got us into great parties.)

Our friend Kathren Torraca, who would later play keys for the Pathetix and, yes, the FJ, designed our first logo, a female leg in camouflage hose with the band name in scarlet.

What we also shook hands on, figuratively if not literally, was that the FJ would focus on original material. This was part of that punk-New Wave aesthetic that we were signing onto; and frankly, at that point, ceasing to be a covers band was like shedding a too-tight skin. Writing songs became the order of the day. It was a good, if too-brief, introduction to the stimulating effect that the demand for material has on your musical mind.

And, while I had collaborated on songs before, with the Fashion Jungle I first discovered how pleasurable it is to learn a brand-new song, or write one, with other musicians — adding, subtracting, shaping, refining and learning how to exist together inside it, like lovers learning to inhabit their first apartment together.


The front line of the original Fashion Jungle during a 1981 performance at Kayo’s, Portland, Maine. From left: Doug Hubley, Jim Sullivan, Mike Piscopo. Photo: Jeff Stanton.

These four songs come from the sainted Reel 96, a collection of demos of our original material recorded during the glorious (ack! nostalgia’s getting to me!) summer of 1981. KR, drums on all selections.

  • Dumb Models (Hubley-Piscopo-Reynolds-Sullivan) A short-lived Fashion Jungle 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 KR, edited by me; the opening guitar riff was Piscopo’s; and we collectively put the whole thing together. It was one of our smash hits during that ecstatic summer of 1981, which is when it was recorded at Hubleys’. DH, 12-string guitar, lead vocal; MP, rhythm guitar, backing vocal; KR, backing vocal; JS, bass, backing vocal. Ba-bah-bah-bah!
  • Peacetime Hero (Sullivan) Jim’s distinctive contributions to the FJ catalog were sophisticated musical structures and politically attuned lyrics. Here he puts himself into the mind of a killer who can find no other way to have a place in society. For years after Jim’s departure, this remained in the FJ repertoire. JS, rhythm guitar, vocal; MP, bass; DH, lead guitar.
  • Little Cries (Hubley) Where Ken’s lyrics went in search of upstanding women and Jim’s took on the political right wing, I was negotiating the tangled politics of the bedroom (not to mention tangled contortions in guitar chording). This was the first song I wrote for the FJ. DH, 12-string guitar, vocal; JS, sax and backing vocal; MP, bass and backing vocal.
  • Fashion Jungle Theme (Hubley-Piscopo-Reynolds-Sullivan) See “Dumb Models.” Untangling the roots of this song is no mean feat, but I will say that (a) KR and I liked the conga-line rhythm because Curly Howard of the Three Stooges was so funny dancing to it (b) we all liked to make fun of disco and (c) we thought that high-speed ska was the coolest beat ever. Why we felt we needed a theme song is a whole other question. DH, guitar; JS, sax; MP, bass.

“Dumb Models” and “Fashion Jungle Theme” copyright © 2011 by Douglas Hubley, Michael Piscopo, Kenneth Reynolds, James Sullivan. “Peacetime Hero” copyright © 1981 by James Sullivan. “Little Cries” copyright 1981 © by Douglas Hubley. All rights reserved.

*Marketing slogan for the Downtown Lounge.

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

Tape Recorders

Doug Hubley and the Kent

Me and the Kent, my first guitar that I didn’t steal from my sister.

This is a very 1960s story.

Sometime in the middle of the decade, my father, who worked at a television and radio station, brought home a Hosho reel-to-reel tape recorder. This gray metal machine had a glowing green electronic eye (shades of Richard Thompson’s “Calvary Cross”) to indicate how strong the recording signal was.

Captivating. You put sounds in and they came back out. “Does my voice really sound like that?”

I was just turning teenager. Around the same time I began to learn guitar, laboriously hammering out “Eleanor Rigby” and “Rock Island Line” on my sister’s Carmencita acoustic. I have a couple of early tapes that may have been recorded on the Hosho, including Steve Sesto and I torturing “Yellow Submarine.” The die was cast. There have been tape recorders ever since.

Dad bought himself a Panasonic stereo unit in 1968. I would let him use it once in a while. I have a few dozen tapes of music and teenage nonsense recorded on that machine. Four years later, for a high school graduation present, my parents very sensibly gave me a used Sony TC-540, I guess so Dad could have the Panasonic back. I used the Sony a lot until 1987, when its recording function died. It still plays tapes, after a fashion, although my main machine these days is a refurbished TEAC A-1200 that I bought from Play It Again Sam, in Ohio.

I have spun so many tapes, even as the hapless amateur that I am, that the reel-to-reel action is part of my own mechanism. I periodically dream of an unfinished tape reel full of great songs that, once finished and released, will put my music on the map. Perhaps this website has something to do with that.

Here’s a very primitive song and recording made on the Panasonic in 1969, when I was 15: 

Glad to Be Free (Hubley) *

* “My lady”! Yep, I said it. It made sense at the time.

“Glad to be Free” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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

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