Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

The Boarders, All Keyed Up

Late in the 1860s novel Little Women, heroine Jo March, dreading her friend Laurie’s budding romantic feelings for her, tells her mother she feels “restless and anxious to be seeing, doing and learning more than I am.” Her solution is to move to the city, to live and work in a boardinghouse. There, she has a room to herself, time to write, and the welcome distraction of friendships with her fellow boarders. — Ruth Graham, The Boston Sunday Globe, Jan. 12, 2013 [Week of March 24] Boarders Let's begin with something deceptively obvious. Larger musical groups are empowered by their capacity for complexity. Smaller bands are empowered by the need to keep it simple. Obvious, for sure, but for the musicians involved, it's a powerful reality that encompasses infinite subtleties in both directions -- perhaps unexpectedly so in the case of the minimal. The richness of potential there can be highly gratifying. Every time I have gone from a larger to a smaller band, I've felt suddenly light, ready to fly. This was especially true in the case of the Boarders, the trio remaining after two musicians departed our so-called country band, the Cowlix. Singer Marcia Goldenberg left in March 1994 and violinist Melinda McCardell in May, after one last gig. My fellow remnants were Gretchen Schaefer, who played bass and guitar, and drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. I played guitar and accordion, proposed much of the material and sang most of it. Post-Cowlix, we wasted little time finding a direction. And circularly enough, our direction was to be the Boarders. Atop a hard core of held-over Cowlix country and folk-dance repertoire, we added pop-rock by Buddy Holly, Jackson Browne and others. I was gratified to add two songs by Tim Hardin, one of my first big influences, to the repertoire. We learned two by the Kinks; the Oysterband's brilliant "When I'm Up"; Anne Savoy's adaptation of the Cajun song "Mon Chere Bebe Creole." From the torch song catalog came "What's New" and "I'll Be Seeing You." We glommed up enough Leonard Cohen to jokingly bill ourselves as Portland's only L.C. tribute band, even tackling the French Resistance anthem "The Partisan," which Lennie covered on his second album. And we revived several originals by my pre-Cowlix combo, the loudly romantic Fashion Jungle. Speaking of which, among other improvements that came with the Boarders, it was here that I felt at home as a songwriter again after five years adrift. It was ironic, or at least telling, that toward the end of the 'Lix I was thinking about revisiting Fashion Jungle material (and we even picked up "Shortwave Radio"). Apparently I am on a short chain fastened to a post in the ground, because I walk in one direction until the chain is wrapped completely around and then I wind it again the other way. In the four years of the Cowlix, I wrote two songs: "Slow Poison" and "Trouble Train." In the two years of the Boarders, I wrote three, including two that I consider among my best, "1,000 Pounds of Rain" and "Watching You Go." And for the first time since the Fashion Jungle, I wasn't the only songwriter in the band. We hung onto Jonathan's "All Over," and he and his wife, Nancy Nichols-Pethick later presented "Tragedy." Nostalgia wears rose-colored contact lenses, but it seems to me that our musical interests were as harmonious as everything else about the Boarders. I don't recall Gretchen, Jonathan and me ever discussing our repertoire in broad or aspirational terms, and neither did we disagree about material. We just brought songs in and, for the most part, played them. It was a relief to lose the country music fiction espoused by the Cowlix, a band with a long stylistic reach and a grasp that almost matched. As previously noted, I, at least, had started violating the "country" descriptor early on. And now here were the Boarders with no such mandate to obey or defy. Like the Cowlix, we had the range to pull off a variety of music, but there was a crucial difference: What the 'Lix lacked and the Boarders possessed was a collective personality focused enough to forge an identifiable sound from some disparate types of music. Much of that personality was purely musical and organic, but -- and I know it will shock and surprise you that such things happen in the music biz -- some slight contrivance went into the Boarders' public identity. The three of us had zero interest in retaining the Cowlix name. Not only did we wish to leave the past in the past (as I am obviously so dedicated to doing), but we had discovered along the way that we weren't the only ones using that name. Pretty obvious moniker for a country band, after all. I don't recall where or how "Boarders" turned up, but it seemed sufficiently random-yet-meaningful, that irresistible combination, to work for this "new" band that seemed capable of anything. The richness of the Boarders' prospects and potential, coupled with my decade-plus experience, as a music journalist, with musicians angling for my attention, prompted a fairly focused publicity campaign. We even created press kits, including a band history (remarkably free of factual content), demo tapes, a sample lyric ("Trouble Train"), publicity photos by longtime friend Jeff Stanton -- and a key pin. Key pin? Just like it sounded: an old-fashioned lever-lock key with a pin-back epoxied onto it, so it could be worn as a pin. The key concept was derived from the boardinghouse concept, and the whole works was derived from my realization that journalists and club owners would be more likely to remember a band that gave them presents. Who doesn't like presents? I have no idea whether the key pins made any difference to our getting work -- although we did get work. But, revisiting the two key pins that I still have from that exciting Boarders efflorescence 20 years ago, I would like to think there are still a few Boarders key pins turning up, from time to time, on the sport jacket lapels and cloche hats of Portland's hip-and-cool.

The Boarders in an autumn 1994 publicity image. From left, Doug Hubley, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Gretchen Schaefer. Jeff Stanton photo.

Late in the 1860s novel Little Women, heroine Jo March, dreading her friend Laurie’s budding romantic feelings for her, tells her mother she feels “restless and anxious to be seeing, doing and learning more than I am.” Her solution is to move to the city, to live and work in a boardinghouse. There, she has a room to herself, time to write, and the welcome distraction of friendships with her fellow boarders.

— Ruth Graham, “Boardinghouses: where the city was born,The Boston Sunday Globe, Jan. 12, 2013

Never mind literary classics! Go directly to throbbing rock rhythms!


Let’s begin with something deceptively obvious.

Larger musical groups are empowered by their capacity for complexity. Smaller bands are empowered by the need to keep it simple.

Obvious, for sure, but for the musicians involved, it’s a powerful reality that encompasses infinite subtleties in both directions — perhaps unexpectedly so in the case of the minimal. The richness of potential there can be highly gratifying. Every time I have gone from a larger to a smaller band, I’ve felt suddenly light, ready to fly.

Part of the Boarders press kit.

Part of the Boarders press kit.

This was especially true in the case of the Boarders, the trio remaining after two musicians departed our so-called country band, the Cowlix. Singer Marcia Goldenberg left in March 1994 and violinist Melinda McCardell in May, after one last gig.

My fellow remnants were Gretchen Schaefer, who played bass and guitar, and drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. I played guitar and accordion, proposed much of the material and sang most of it.

Post-Cowlix, we wasted little time finding a direction. And circularly enough, our direction was to be the Boarders.

Atop a hard core of held-over Cowlix country and folk-dance repertoire, we added pop-rock by Buddy Holly, Jackson Browne and others. I was gratified to add two songs by Tim Hardin, one of my first big influences, to the repertoire.

We learned two by the Kinks; the Oysterband’s brilliant “When I’m Up”; Anne Savoy’s adaptation of the Cajun song “Mon Chere Bebe Creole.” From the torch song catalog came “What’s New” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

We glommed up enough Leonard Cohen to jokingly bill ourselves as Portland’s only L.C. tribute band, even tackling the French Resistance anthem “The Partisan,” which Lennie covered on his second album.

And we revived several originals by my pre-Cowlix combo, the loudly romantic Fashion Jungle.

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

Another image from the autumn 1994 Boarders publicity shoot by Jeff Stanton. The setting was Jeff’s apartment house on Portland’s Eastern Promenade. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley.

Speaking of which, among other improvements that came with the Boarders, it was here that I felt at home as a songwriter again after five years adrift. It was ironic, or at least telling, that toward the end of the ’Lix I was thinking about revisiting Fashion Jungle material (and we even picked up “Shortwave Radio”).

Apparently I am on a short chain fastened to a post in the ground, because I walk in one direction until the chain is wrapped completely around and then I wind it again the other way. For me, anyway, the Boarders captured the best of both worlds, repertoire-wise: the diversity of the Cowlix and the edgy intensity of the FJ.

In the four years of the Cowlix, I wrote two songs: “Slow Poison” and “Trouble Train.” In the two years of the Boarders, I wrote three, including two that I consider among my best, “1,000 Pounds of Rain” (excerpted above and available in its entirety at my Bandcamp store) and “Watching You Go.” A pathetically small total by any standard, but I’m just sayin’.

And for the first time since the Fashion Jungle, I wasn’t the only songwriter in the band. We hung onto Jonathan’s “All Over,” and he and his wife, Nancy Nichols-Pethick later presented “Tragedy.”

What started out as a master list of all Cowlix repertoire shows the transition from 'Lix to Boarders. (Hubley Archives)

What started out as a master list of all Cowlix repertoire shows the transition from ‘Lix to Boarders. (Hubley Archives)

Nostalgia wears rose-colored contact lenses, but it seems to me that our musical interests were as harmonious as everything else about the Boarders. I don’t recall Gretchen, Jonathan and me ever discussing our repertoire in broad or aspirational terms, and neither did we disagree about material. We just brought songs in and, for the most part, played them.

It was a relief to lose the country music fiction espoused by the Cowlix, a band with a long stylistic reach and a grasp that almost matched. As previously noted, I, at least, had started violating the “country” descriptor early on.

And now here were the Boarders with no such mandate to obey or defy. Like the Cowlix, we had the range to pull off a variety of music, but there was a crucial difference: What the ’Lix lacked and the Boarders possessed was a collective personality focused enough to forge an identifiable sound from some disparate types of music.

So much for 1992's standard Cowlix poster! (Hubley Archives)

So much for 1992’s standard Cowlix poster! (Hubley Archives)

Much of that personality was purely musical and organic, but — and I know it will shock and surprise you that such things happen in the music biz — some slight contrivance went into the Boarders’ public identity.

The three of us had zero interest in retaining the Cowlix name. Not only did we wish to leave the past in the past (as I am obviously so dedicated to doing), but we had discovered along the way that we weren’t the only ones using that name. Pretty obvious moniker for a country band, after all.

I don’t recall where or how “Boarders” turned up, but it seemed sufficiently random-yet-meaningful, that irresistible combination, to work for this “new” band that seemed capable of anything.

The richness of the Boarders’ prospects and potential, coupled with my decade-plus experience, as a music journalist, with musicians angling for my attention, prompted a fairly focused publicity campaign. We even created press kits, including a band history, demo tapes, a sample lyric (“Trouble Train”), publicity photos by longtime friend Jeff Stanton — and a key pin.

Key pin? Just like it sounded: an old-fashioned lever-lock key with a pin-back epoxied onto it, so it could be worn as a pin. The concept of the key came from the boardinghouse theme — every boarder must have a key, yes? — and it worked on so many levels! Etc. But the grand idea was derived from my having learned that journalists and club owners would be more likely to remember a band that gave them presents. Who doesn’t like presents?

My two remaining promotional Boarders key pins.

My two remaining promotional Boarders key pins.

I have no idea whether the key pins made any difference to our getting work — although we did get work. But, revisiting the two key pins that I still have from the Boarders’ exciting blossoming 20 years ago, I would like to think there are still a few Boarders key pins turning up, from time to time, on the sport jacket lapels and cloche hats of Portland’s former hip and cool.


The Boarders in a 1994 publicity image by Jeffery Stanton.

The Boarders in a 1994 publicity image by Jeffery Stanton.

Hear the Boarders’ first recordings, from August 1994.

Three 1994 demo recordings by the Boarders, featuring the first song I wrote for the band, “1,000 Pounds of Rain,” and two revivals from the Fashion Jungle repertoire. Of minor interest is the fact that this is the last two-track recording I made of any of my electric bands, as I moved to the four-track audiocassette format in December 1994.

  • 1,000 Pounds of Rain (Hubley) The title was inspired by a 1990 Cowlix performance at the Drydock, which necessitated our carrying the equipment to the second-story performance area up a cast-iron fire escape in a pouring rain. I lugged the title around for years not knowing what the song would be about. Finally finished in spring 1994, around the time the ‘Lix were splitting up, “1,000 Pounds” turned out to be a cry of despair at reaching middle age. Incidentally, drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick first heard us at the Drydock date and joined the ’Lix a year later.
  • Je t’aime (Hubley) An interpretation, somewhat unfair, of an affair I had with a Swedish girl in 1976. For the song, nationalities were changed because, well, Paris, you know. Although, or because, I distorted the facts to save face, I still regard it as one of my best songs. Written in 1982 and originally performed with the Fashion Jungle, this song came into its own with the Boarders.
  • Breaker’s Remorse (Hubley) Hearing the expression “buyer’s remorse” for the first time in 1987, I parlayed it into a song about someone who needs encouragement expressing herself. This late Fashion Jungle number was an early addition to the Boarders songbook.

“1,000 Pounds of Rain” copyright © 1995; “Je t’aime” copyright © 1983; “Breaker’s Remorse” copyright © 1995, all by Douglas L. Hubley. Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2012–14 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Cowlix All Over

The Cowlix after a gig for Ken Reynolds' family in 1992. From left, Marcia Goldenberg, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley, Melinda McCardell, Gretchen Schaefer. Photograph by Alden Bodwell/Hubley Archives.

The Cowlix after a gig for Ken Reynolds’ family in 1992. From left, Marcia Goldenberg, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley, Melinda McCardell, Gretchen Schaefer. The hand placements are interesting. Photograph by Alden Bodwell/Hubley Archives.


A prepositional exploration of the Two Big Years of the Cowlix, 1992–94.

Part I: All In

Why wait any longer for the bass player you want, when she’s standing in front of you?

— After Bob Dylan

After Ted Papadopoulos left the Cowlix, in late 1991 after several months and two gigs, rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer agreed to learn bass.

She picked it up pretty fast: I remember her sitting on the bed (we lived together then and still do) after just a month or two with my old Hagstrom, moving right along through “Linda, Linda,” a challenging Middle Easternish number by 3 Mustaphas 3.

Gretchen Schaefer, 1993. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer, 1993. Hubley Archives.

For Gretchen, singer Marcia Goldenberg and me, this ended an on-and-off, two-year search that began with Steve Chapman’s departure in 1989 and careened through a wacky succession of bassy contenders. These included a teenager whose amp consisted of a bare chassis with wires sticking out all over it and an apparent crystal meth user who, backing Gretchen and me into a corner of our basement, maniacally insisted that we were all Nashville-bound.

“That time was a transitional guitar-playing period for me,” Gretchen says. “I hadn’t settled into any particular thing that I was comfortable with. So moving to the bass wasn’t a big wrench.

“I liked it. I liked the sound of the different parts that I would play, they had their own sort of melodic sense that was enjoyable. And the plucking came pretty naturally, because I’d done a lot of fingerpicking back in the day.”

Around the same time Gretchen was learning bass, we were reunited with Jon Nichols-Pethick, who, the previous spring, had played drums with us long enough to evoke a collective “Wow, he’s really good!” and then bugged out on a cross-country trip.

The ad that brought Jonathan into the Cowlix . . . a year later. (Hubley Archives)

The ad that brought Jonathan into the Cowlix . . . a year later. (Hubley Archives)

Jonathan and Nancy Nichols-Pethick had already planned their journey when he responded to the ‘Lix ad for a drummer. When the time came to announce his departure, “I felt so utterly sick at the thought of telling you about it that I considered just vanishing,” he says — “letting you forever wonder, ‘Whatever happened to that kid who played drums with us?’ But I sucked it up.”

At the time, we weren’t sure if Jonathan would return or not. We didn’t count on it, anyway. But with founding Cowlix drummer Ken Reynolds out of the picture once and for all by winter 1992, we were delighted to welcome the kid back despite all. Twelve years younger than Gretchen and I, he came from California and a musical background in bar-band rock, including stints in Portland with Jenny Woodman and a band called Split 50.

The Cowlix front line during the 1992 opening gig for the Moxie Men at Norton's in Kittery. From left, Melinda McCardell, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg, Gretchen Schaefer. Not visible is drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

The Cowlix front line during the 1992 opening gig for the Moxie Men at Norton’s in Kittery. From left, Melinda McCardell, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg, Gretchen Schaefer. Not visible is drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

With the Cowlix, “I loved playing these songs I had known only peripherally at best and having to figure out how to do something other than slam my snare on 2 and 4,” he says. “Plus, I just liked hanging out with you all.” Jonathan was a melodic drummer. He made choices that somehow, on some subliminal level, supported more than the beat.

And he and Gretchen quickly found each other’s wavelength, forming a rhythm section that was one of the best things about the Cowlix. “I did feel that mutuality with Jonathan a lot, which was very fun,” says Gretchen. “He was a lot more attuned to that than I was initially, and then by the time I got my playing together enough to actually think of more than just my own concerns, it was really enjoyable.”

It’s something I haven’t thought about till now, but Jonathan was the first drummer I worked with since Ken, with whom I had first played in 1977. And Jon and Gretchen formed the first stable bass-and-drums pairing I had worked with since Ken and Steve.

Cowlix gone rogue: Melinda, Gretchen and Doug playing obscure folk music at a wedding in October 1993.

Cowlix gone rogue: Melinda, Gretchen and Doug playing obscure folk music at a wedding in October 1993.

Finally, during the autumn of 1991, violinist Melinda McCardell joined the Cowlix. A classically trained player who lived in Dayton, Maine, Melinda had approached us at a barn dance in 1991 (one of the year’s two Cowlix performances) and asked to try out, attracted by the folk music we were doing. So by spring 1992, the best-known, longest-lived Cowlix lineup was in place.

Part II: All Over the Map
Gretchen took this image of four 'Lix with our longtime friend and roadie Alden Bodwell. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen took this image of four ‘Lix with our longtime friend and roadie Alden Bodwell. Hubley Archives.

The band that followed my seven years with the Fashion Jungle, the Cowlix started out as a country band, but soon busted out of that corral. That’s largely on me. It took me 30 years, from the Curley Howard Band to today’s Day for Night, to learn the virtues of truth to genre, as opposed to the pleasures of stylistic promiscuity.

As the New Wavey Fashion Jungle was running out of gas, I was the one who pushed hardest for a turn to country music. And once the country Cowlix were established, I immediately started eyeballing other styles. It was nuts. About half of our repertoire was classic country — but then there was the folk music, from Quebec, Finland, Poland and Mexico. And the straight rock, like “Money” and “Slow Down,” and the ’60s hits like “There’s a Place” and “Here Comes the Night.” (We did “Paint It Black” with a hybrid ska beat and finger cymbals, played by Marcia.)

The Cowlix at Norton's, summer 1992: Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Gretchen Schaefer, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg and Melinda McCardell. We opened for the Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

The Cowlix at Norton’s, summer 1992: Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Gretchen Schaefer, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg and Melinda McCardell. We opened for the Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

And the alt stuff, like our punk version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Hearts Are Trump” by the German band Trio (with accordion and a tiny electronic keyboard, in homage to Trio, of “Da Da Da” fame) and a rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that owed a little something to the Velvet Underground.

The Cowlix' master repertoire list in 1993. "Nadine"? Yep, and with accordion. Hubley Archives.

The Cowlix’ master repertoire list in 1993. “Nadine”? Yep, and with accordion,too. Chuck, is that you? Hubley Archives.

We even billed our material as “Country & Eastern” music, the latter descriptor inspired both by our Atlantic sensibilities and by “Linda, Linda” — whose lyrics are in Hebrew and Arabic, which I learned phonetically. (I still don’t know what that song is about.)

This rampant eclecticism “was a lot of fun,” Gretchen says. But, she continues, “I felt doubtful that we connected especially well with audiences because of that.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that music-goers often go for one particular style. I don’t think we were very easily pigeonholed, and I think that was perhaps a detriment in the commercial sense.

“But it was very fun to play all those different things, and it was challenging to try to get a different feel for them.”

Part III: Over and Out

If all the preceding blather about being eclectic sounds familiar, it ought to. Something else that didn’t occur to me at the time, but sticks out now like a sore thumb, was how closely the Cowlix resembled a previous band of mine, the Mirrors. Some of the similarities are superficial. Both bands, at their commercial peaks, had five members. Violin figured prominently in our sounds. I revived several Mirrors songs for the Cowlix repertoire.

Considering that neither band was professional, both worked quite a lot. In 1992–94, the ’Lix played several times at Geno’s, Portland’s “home of the best bands”; returned twice to the Murrays’ barn dance and once to the Maine College of Art Halloween party; and opened for Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men at Norton’s, in Kittery, among other dates. I will always remember the beginning of our performance at the Porthole, on Portland’s waterfront, in July 1993 — kicking off with Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” with such a big sound, the band sounding great, the spectators on stools at the linoleum counter looking impressed.

The product of my semester in a graphic design course in 1992, this poster template served us well for a year or two. Hubley Archives.

The product of my semester in a graphic design course in 1992, this poster template served us well for a year or two. Hubley Archives.

And I’m glad I don’t have the Porthole on tape. I don’t want to sully that memory with documented reality. I do have plenty of Cowlix on tape, and it has taught me, first, that someone should have taken my digital-delay pedal away until I learned how to use it; and second, that my lead guitar playing was worst on the country music to which we had, however waywardly, pledged our troth.

This somehow brings me to the Mirrors-Cowlix similarities that struck deeper. One is very simple. Both bands started out congenially, united by excitement about the music and the promise of our shining goals. And in both cases, as our musical machine proved itself and our goals were met or reconsidered or just dropped, the fundamental chemistry went wrong. Marcia left the Cowlix in March 1994, after more than four years with the band. Melinda followed her out the door in May.

Then, of course, there was the eclecticism thing discussed above. Both bands loved musical diversity not wisely but too well. And in both cases, after a certain point, what started out as carefree boundary-busting exploration coalesced into something else altogether: the potential for a new direction and new energy that could be consummated only with the band that followed. For Gretchen, Jonathan and me, that band was the Boarders.


Hear six songs by the Cowlix, four original and two in the public domain. Although the Cowlix’ founding premise was a faithful, if slightly ironic, take on the classic country catalog, this successor band to the Fashion Jungle went rogue pretty much at the outset. A given ’Lix set could represent Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, X, David Lindley, Québécois and Polish folk songs, Syd Straw, Nick Lowe . . . you get the idea. We were essentially a covers band in the literal sense, if not with the bar-band implications that come with that term. Padded out with two folk songs in the public domain, this set contains virtually all the original material we ever did (“Shortwave Radio,” not represented here, popped up late in the Cowlix’ run). Personnel: Marcia Goldenberg, vocals and rhythm guitar; Doug Hubley, vocals, lead guitar and accordion; Melinda McCardell, violin; Jon Nichols-Pethick, drums; Gretchen Schaefer, bass and rhythm guitar.

Hubley Archives.

Hubley Archives.

  • All Over (J. Nichols-Pethick–D. Hubley) “It started, obviously enough I suppose, while I was drinking a beer and noticed my reflection in the glass,” recalls Jonathan, whose song this essentially is. “‘That’s kind of poetic,’ I thought, ‘in a country sort of way. I should try to write a song that incorporates that.’  . . . I started playing around with the phrases and came up with ‘It’s all over now and it’s all over town.’ I thought that had the requisite wordplay that I had come to admire about good country songs and I went from there.” In a version much different from ours, this later turned up in the repertoire of Scott Link’s band Diesel Doug & the Long-Haul Truckers, and appeared on their first CD. The recording was made at Tree Frog, a professional studio in Buxton, in early 1994, just before the Cowlix ceased to be. Copyright © 1992 by Jonathan Nichols-Pethick and Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Slow Poison (Hubley) I wrote “Slow Poison” early in the Cowlix’ run, in 1990, aiming for an Everly Brothers kind of thing. It was beyond my reach. In fact, I concluded that I could never write like that and, since we were performing so much country music that I felt unable to match, I stopped trying for a few years. We fooled around with “Slow Poison” (it was a slow foxtrot at first), tabled it, finally solidified it in 1992. This performance was recorded at the Maine College of Art 1992 Halloween Party, held in the Baxter Building in downtown Portland. This song lives on once again in the Day for Night repertoire with a nice through-harmony. Copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Un Canadien Errant (Antoine Gérin-Lajoie) Lamenting the misery of exile, this French-language number was written in 1842 by a French Canadian man following the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837–38. I heard it first by Leonard Cohen (who recorded it in a mariachi style, of all things) and later by Ian & Sylvia, among other folksingers. This early Cowlix selection was also one of the most durable in our repertoire. This is a rehearsal recording from 1992.
  • You Know How It Is (Hubley) As with Amtrak and train songs, great country lyrics are not waiting to be written about the work of a press-release writer at a small elite college. It was much easier to complain in song about working in the stockroom at the Jordan Marsh department store, which I was doing in 1978 when I wrote this. Even the title makes a virtue out of banality. This song started with the Mirrors and came back for the Cowlix. Recorded at the Murrays’ barn dance, August 1993. Copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Trouble Train (Hubley) There used to be a sign at the Androscoggin River in Topsham, Maine, that warned visitors to the riverbank that the water could rise suddenly due to operations at the nearby hydroelectric dam. That sign inspired this song, which is less a train song than a collection of metaphors for trouble. Another Tree Frog recording. Copyright © 1994 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Wieczorna Róza-Waltz (Vitak-Elsnic Co.) Back in the ’80s, when I was first torturing the accordion (and any listeners in the vicinity), a member of the Delux Productions troupe lent me a funny little book of contrived Polish “folk” music. Hence this waltz.  This excerpt comes from a Cowlix date at the Murrays’ barn dance, August 1993.

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

“Merry Christmas!” He Bellowed

Judo Santa

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


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

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

Cover art from the 1987 Christmas Greeting Tape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Portland, Maine, Christmas Day, 1981.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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 an Archives page here). 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. 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 “1,000 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.


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.


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 a different song, “Why This Passion,” and used that for the solo.
    • Why This Passion (Hubley) But this is not that original arrangement of the song written for the FJ in 1983, 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.

1986

Famous music critic on local television wires, 1986!

 


In March 1986, I interviewed Alana MacDonald of the trio Devonsquare for an article about the status and experiences of women in pop music.

The living room at 506 Preble St., South Portland. The music stand holds a Palmer-Hughes accordion instruction book. Digital scan from black & white negative/Hubley Archives.

The living room at 506 Preble St., South Portland. The music stand holds a Palmer-Hughes accordion instruction book. Digital scan from black & white negative/Hubley Archives.

MacDonald, singer and violinist for one of the most popular club acts in the Northeast, was friendly and forthcoming. Toward the end of our meeting I felt encouraged to ask about perhaps submitting a few of my songs to Devonsquare.

MacDonald kindly expressed openness to the idea (although it’s hard to imagine that folk-pop trio doing, say, “Little Cries”).

But I never followed up.

That article today doesn’t read like much (especially to a regular viewer of “Nashville”).

But the interview, over coffee at the legendary Portland bistro Deli One, stands out as symbolic of that time in my life.

In recent years I’ve lost sight of how connected I was back then, how many acquaintances I had made as a writer and musician. The same was true for my then-partner, now my wife, Gretchen Schaefer. As manager of Congress Square Gallery, she encountered a steady stream of art makers and consumers*.

Backstage at the Cumberland County Civic Center in 1985, I give Ricky Scaggs copies of my Sunday Telegram article about him.

Backstage at the Cumberland County Civic Center in 1985, I give Ricky Scaggs copies of my Sunday Telegram article about him.

By no means are we recluses today, but the steady stream of encounters back then seemed part and parcel of our having “arrived” on the Portland scene. We weren’t in with the In Crowd, but we knew it to say “hi” to.

I talked to MacDonald for “Club Beat,” my music column for the Maine Sunday Telegram. My other interviewees for that piece included Cathie Stebbins, a pop-blues singer big on the local circuit, and Chris Horne, a member of the all-female (“all-chick” to Chris) retro ’60s band The Brood — established players all.

And I never sent MacDonald any songs because I understood, even then, that my offer was less about sharing music than making it clear that I was not just someone who wrote about musicians, but was really a musician too. (See proof of my musical qualifications.)

Gretchen's studio at 506 Preble St., South Portland. Digital scan from black & white negative/Hubley Archives.

Gretchen’s studio at 506 Preble St., South Portland. Digital scan from black & white negative/Hubley Archives.

In 1986 it was a shaky claim. My band, the Fashion Jungle, had ground to a halt at the end of January, and for the rest of the year I barely touched a guitar, to say nothing about climbing up on a stage. I wrote no songs. I have no recordings from 1986.

This disconnect from what I profess to care so much about must have bothered me; but I don’t remember it. I suspect I was relieved to be done with the uncertainty of it all. I contemplated putting together a solo act, but couldn’t seem to get any traction. I like playing with other people.

So, typically for me, instead getting back up on the Fashion Jungle horse and trying again, I lurched in a new direction. That fall I bought a cheap used 120-bass piano accordion and some Palmer-Hughes instruction books at Starbird Music. And it was love at first honk.

Gretchen in the garden at 506 Preble St. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen in the garden at 506 Preble St. Hubley Archives.

While I was playing little music, and none presentable (Palmer-Hughes’ “Vegetables on Parade,” anyone?), I was hearing a ton of it, thanks to writing assignments from the Guy Gannett newspapers in Portland, Maine. Those included rock and pop record reviews; concert previews and reviews; and features about topics musical and otherwise.

In 1986, in addition to 18 “Club Beat” columns, I did countless Portland Symphony Orchestra and other classical reviews, and covered in depth the sweepstakes for the selection of the PSO’s new conductor. I also reviewed pop and rock, live and on disc.

I advanced the Maine Festival and New Year’s / Portland — remember them? I wrote food stories, art reviews, a Christmas-shopping guide to new books about rock and pop music, and a feature about the stage costumes worn by classical and heavy metal musicians.

Doug with "Addicted to Show Biz" star Omar Ricardo, aka Frank Omar. Randy Visser photo/SPTV.

Doug with “Addicted to Show Biz” star Omar Ricardo, aka Frank Omar. Randy Visser photo/SPTV.

I talked with Harry Belafonte, Maria Muldaur, George Shearing, the Kronos Quartet, Sharon Isbin and Christopher Parkening, Simple Minds’ lead singer Jim Kerr, magician David Copperfield and a variety of Maine visual artists. My Smith-Corona typewriter got a workout.

At the same time, I was catching shifts on the copy desk at the Portland Press Herald and the Evening Express. PH shifts ran from mid-afternoon till midnight or later, and Express shifts from 5 or 6 a.m. till early afternoon. A few times I’d show up for an Express shift a few hours after finishing a review or copy-desk stint for the Press Herald.

In short, the “creative renaissance” of 1985, with its metaphorical overtones of sweet dawn and blooming posies, had matured into a blurry high-pressure reality of late nights, early mornings, weekend work, writing and editing and gadding about. It was a hard slog, deficient in down time, but deeply educational.

The Swedish Ball Team, seen through the control room window during the cablecast of "Addicted to Show Biz." Randy Visser photo/SPTV.

The Swedish Ball Team, seen through the control room window during the cablecast of “Addicted to Show Biz.” Randy Visser photo/SPTV.

1986 was also a year for domestic synergy. After five years together, Gretchen and I moved in together in March, renting a charming duplex in a charming neighborhood, near South Portland’s Willard Beach, amidst not so charming neighbors.

For the first time, I had an actual office, in a spare bedroom, and Gretchen had a large sunporch for her studio. The reality of hard work did not dampen our creative-renaissance ideal, and living together gave it new energy.

We did carve out spare time, and immediately found ways to fill it up. Among them was the local public-access TV station, headquartered at Southern Maine Vocational-Technical Institute, just down the beach from us. We took a couple of TV production courses and began a relationship with South Portland TV director Randy Visser that would last a couple of years, and result in some actual programming.

Gretchen and I each produced and directed a program for SPTV as our final projects for a course. Gretchen’s was “Art Who,” a look at the commercial art world that reflected her connections through the gallery. Her guests were Roger Richmond, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Augusta, Maine; Elena Kubler, her colleague at the gallery; and Ellen Schiferl, a professor of art history with whom we had studied at the University of Southern Maine.

"Addicted to Show Biz": Charlie Brown, Mike Wiskey, Sean Potter, Will Jackson, Carla Bryson. Randy Visser photo/SPTV.

“Addicted to Show Biz”: Charlie Brown, Mike Wiskey, Sean Potter, Will Jackson, Carla Bryson. Randy Visser photo/SPTV.

Meanwhile, I had gotten to know the people of Delux Productions, a Maine musical cabaret troupe that made funny, sharply post-modernist takeoffs on showbiz tropes from the second half of the 20th century.

“We’re no less accessible than ‘I Love Lucy,’ ” Maria “Delux” Locke, one of the troupe’s leaders, told me for a “Club Beat” story about “A Big Big Show With a Big Big Band,” their 1986 summer cabaret series in Old Orchard Beach.

The only difference between Ricky Ricardo’s Tropicana and the Delux cabarets, added her colleague Beth Hartman, “is that we have kind of an ’80s sensibility. We’re not just doing nostalgia . . . It’s a parody, and yet it’s kind of straightforward somehow. It’s a paradox, but it works.”

I approached Delux about appearing on SPTV, and the result was “Addicted to Show Biz.” A half-hour live cablecast, it was a variety show showcasing the best of Delux: host Omar Ricardo (real name: Frank Omar), a Ricky Ricardo wannabe; the acrobatic dancers of the Swedish Ball Team; the suave pop stylings of Will Jackson and Carla Bryson, sitting at the Fashion Jungle’s old Farfisa rock organ; Latin dance numbers; garish / vintage costumes created by Theresa Visinaire (who lent me a songbook of Polish songs for the accordion); Hartman singing Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”; and the jazzy pop of a small combo led by keyboardist extraordinaire Charlie Brown.

"Addicted to Show Biz" goes live. Director/producer Doug Hubley, center, with technical director Gretchen Schaefer, right, and audio engineer Neal Portnoy. Randy Visser photo/SPTV.

“Addicted to Show Biz” goes live. Director / producer Doug Hubley, center, with technical director Gretchen Schaefer, right, and audio engineer Neal Portnoy. Randy Visser photo/SPTV.

That was some intense evening. It was the first and only time I directed a TV show, and the tensions ran high and the camera angles askew. But it came off, distributed over SPTV’s cable feed to — what? 20, 30 people? Didn’t matter. I was ecstatic. I never heard how Delux really felt about it, but we stayed in touch, so they couldn’t have been too put off.

In a year spent offstage and away from songwriting, it was a huge creative consolation. It was part of an interest in moving-image work that we sustained for a few years and that included a Super-8 sound film based on Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” (Look for that in November.)

Meanwhile, the wheel of fortune continued to turn. “Addicted to Show Biz” aired on Sept. 16. Just a week or so prior, former Fashion Jungle bassist Steve Chapman and Jeri Kane, whom he’d met in Boston, were married on a beautiful weekend day at Steve’s family cabin on Conway Lake, in New Hampshire. Gretchen, Kathren, Ken and I were among the guests.

Soon the Chapmans moved to Portland. And soon after that, the Fashion Jungle was back.

*In fact, at one point it dawned on us that one artsy couple was buddying up to us pretty much because of what we could do for them professionally. Our get-togethers with this pair, one of whom was a chilly landscapist with some name recognition, were marked by differences in outlook that belied any basis for real friendship. Naifs that we were, we got wise only when our jobs changed and we were no longer of use to them.

Fashion Jungle: Knights and Free-lances

Gretchen Schaefer, Dan Knight and Jeff Stanton at Frosty's doughnut shop, Brunswick, July 1985. We were in Brunswick to see a solo 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.

Gretchen Schaefer, Dan Knight and Jeff Stanton at Frosty’s doughnut shop, Brunswick, August 1985. We were in town to see a Maine Festival concert by Richard Thompson, who was wearing a pink suit that clashed quite splendidly with his red hair. Having interviewed him a few weeks earlier, I felt entitled to corner Thompson backstage and force a Fashion Jungle tape on him. Hubley Archives.

See two galleries of 1985 images:

Skip prolix verbiage! Go straight to Body Shop and swinging Fashion Jungle tunes!


Imagine a bloody hot attic apartment on a sunny afternoon, people crammed in under the dormers, champagne punch garnished with edible flowers frozen in ice (oh la), the mood garnished with kudos.

It was a party marking the beginning of my (first) career as a freelance writer and editor. My girlfriend, Gretchen Schaefer, now my wife, graciously hosted the event in her tiny apartment near Willard Beach in South Portland, Maine. As Ray Davies sang, all of my friends were there. It was June 1, 1985.

What a blast. Much of it is a blur but I have a vivid memory of Gretchen, me and Jeff Stanton, our good friend then and now, standing at water’s edge at Willard after the others had left, swaying happily in an alcoholic breeze as the waves caressed the sand and the sun sank low.

‘Creative renaissance’

That moment seems to symbolize that time in life for Gretchen and me. There are several half-baked concepts that my mind can’t shake off, and one of them is the “creative renaissance”: a rare and miraculous flowering of creative energy. The mid- to late 1980s was such a time for us. After four years together, for us 1985 was the year when our interests and ambitions seemed to begin to bear fruit.

Gretchen with two of her paintings in 1986. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen with two of her paintings in 1986. Hubley Archives.

For two years I had worked full time in the library at the Guy Gannett newspapers in Portland, but at the same time I was writing arts and entertainment stories for those papers on the side. That work was much more fulfilling — and the pace was picking up, to the extent that it was a challenge to work writing assignments in around the library job.

When Gannett put out a call for occasional copy editors, work that appealed to me and paid well, I saw my ticket out of the library and its endless routine of clipping, filing, retrieving and refiling news stories. Between copy desk shifts and writing, I figured I could make a decent living doing work I liked.

Doug at Geno's in 1985. Jeff Stanton photo.

Doug at Geno’s in 1985. Jeff Stanton photo.

For a few years, that’s how it worked out. But the real benefit was over the long haul, as the journalistic and editorial experience I gained in the second half of the 1980s continues to stand me in good stead even now.

Gretchen, meanwhile, was painting and making prints as intensively as she could, given the constraints of her job at a high-end photo processor and of that cramped attic apartment.

And in fact, in a June when auspicious events seemed to fall into place like tumblers in a combination lock, she became manager of an art gallery on Congress Street. If this was not quite fulfillment for an artist, it was motion in the right direction and valuable exposure to the business of art.

So in this Year of the Creative Renaissance, our lives were largely about creative work: making our own, contemplating others’, talking about it all. On June 8, over bourbon and Coke, Gretchen and I hatched the idea of the Visible Gallery: a gallery / open studio / performance room where, of course, fulfillment would reside with us and money would come in with the tide. We called it the Visible Gallery because of the open-studio idea: like the anatomical toys of the 1960s, all the guts would be on display.

“I think we’re serious about it,” I wrote in my journal. And so we were, as events a couple months later would demonstrate. (Read a full journal entry.)

Knight comes in

The cherry on this sundae of bohemian fantasy-made-real, for me at least, was that my band, the Fashion Jungle, was back in business after a winter and spring dedicated to declaring it over and done with. (Read more about the rise and fall of the 1983–84 FJ.)

Bassist Dan Knight during a 1985 Fashion Jungle performance at Geno's, Brown Street, Portland. Jeff Stanton photo.

Bassist Dan Knight during a 1985 Fashion Jungle performance at Geno’s, Brown Street, Portland. Jeff Stanton photo.

We all took a turn calling it quits, but the decisive blow came when drummer Ken Reynolds was hired full-time at the post office, working six evenings a week. Ken and I had played together for eight years, and the propect of breaking in a new drummer seemed insurmountable.

But in March 1985, just a month after that development, Ken switched from second to third shift, and was once again able (and willing) to rehearse.

An ad in Sweet Potato produced Dan Knight, a young University of Southern Maine student who was friendly, earnest and a good player conversant with an impressive variety of music. We took him on in early July — and promptly accepted a July 27 booking, back at Geno’s.

Hmmm, I wonder where this was taken . . . Ken Reynolds during a 1985 Fashion Jungle performance at Geno's, Brown Street, Portland. Jeff Stanton photo.

Hmmm, I wonder where this was taken . . . Ken Reynolds during a 1985 Fashion Jungle performance at Geno’s, Brown Street, Portland. Jeff Stanton photo.

Dan absorbed the FJ material quickly, no mean feat considering its complexity. Like that of Steve Chapman, his predecessor, Dan’s playing was fluent, but it was much more reflective of the bass vernacular. Steve’s playing was big, romantic and in a style unto itself. In Dan, you could hear decades of roots music and pop radio, organized with witty energy into a burbling, driving stream.

It’s a question how much of Dan’s style was driven by his equipment. It’s possible that he needed to play a lot of notes because, as a student, he couldn’t afford the gear to get a more sustaining sound. He used a succession of inexpensive basses, including my Hagstrom, a flatulent device with whimsical intonation; and I don’t think he ever got a bass amp powerful enough to stand up to the FJ decibel level.

Our run with Dan was only six months, and I regret it wasn’t longer, because we made a start at a new Fashion Jungle sound — raw, driving, and more like rock than the previous band’s “New Wave” — that was promising. (Hear the recordings below.)

A poster by Gretchen Schaefer depicts the FJ rising from the ashes for a Geno's gig.

A poster by Gretchen Schaefer depicts the FJ rising from the ashes for a Geno’s gig.

We played a bunch of times, including three dates at Geno’s and the wedding of Ken’s friend Doug Czerwonka, held at the Lost Valley ski resort in Auburn in October. We learned a bunch of totally unlikely songs for that job, from “My Girl” to “Get Off My Cloud” to “Una Paloma Blanca” to “Come Fly With Me” (awful) to Myron Floren’s “Fingertip Polka” — the start of a pesky polka obsession for me. Creative Renaissance!

Boozeness meetings

As hard as we were pursuing our creative pursuits, Gretchen and I were also putting more energy into our social lives, thanks to work schedules that accommodated late nights. Somewhere along the way we launched a series of Monday-night “boozeness meetings” — gatherings at Three-Dollar Dewey’s, in the original Fore Street location in Portland.

The idea of the boozeness meetings was that Monday night was the time and Dewey’s was the place, and whoever felt like going would go, in the hopes that someone else would go too. For several months, that’s the way it happened: In addition to G. and I, we could often expect to see Jeff, Ken, former FJ keyboardist Kathren Torraca, our friend Alden Bodwell, and friends of the various friends. We’d hang at Dewey’s, maybe play cards, and wind up with a late visit to the Woodford’s Café for an English mufffin.

A Monday Night Boozeness meeting at Three Dollar Dewey's, 1985. From left, Ken Reynolds, Chris Bruni, two unknown subjects, Kathren Torraca.

A Monday Night Boozeness meeting at Three Dollar Dewey’s, 1985. From left, Ken Reynolds, Chris Bruni, two unknown subjects, Kathren Torraca.

At the same time, our connection with our friends was strengthened by the fact that we got our own playhouse. Gretchen and I had pursued the Visible Gallery idea, and placed a “space wanted” ad in which I blathered on in wry / exalted terms about what we hoped to achieve. This amused a Mrs. Orlando (husband: Tony) who was willing to rent us half of a one-story industrial duplex at 178 Washington Ave.

It was perfect, a large open space accompanied by a bathroom and a small office. Good for painting, for rehearsals, for parties. The best part was the truck door: For a gig, Alden could drive his van right into the rehearsal space for loading and unloading.

I can’t recall, or don’t want to, how much arm-twisting we engaged in, but in August 1985 we rented the Washington Avenue space as a collective: the Fashion Jungle with Jeff and Gretchen. The last time I played music in my parents’ cellar was Aug. 28, 1985 — my diary notes that my mother seemed sad that rehearsals at 103 Richland St. were over, although I’m sure Dad was happy to lose the racket.

If the 1985 Fashion Jungle didn't stay together long enough for the music to really coalesce, we did develop a strong solidarity as friends, thanks to renting the Body Shop -- the warehouse space on Washington Avenue that was our clubhouse for five months. From left: FJ bassist Dan Knight, drummer Ken Reynolds, roadie-photographer Jeff Stanton, roadie-driver Alden Bodwell, roadie-artist Gretchen Schaefer, guitarist-commando Doug Hubley. Photo by Minolta self-timer/Hubley Archives.

Last night at the Body Shop — the warehouse space on Washington Avenue that was our clubhouse for five months. From left: FJ bassist Dan Knight, drummer Ken Reynolds, roadie-photographer Jeff Stanton, roadie-driver Alden Bodwell, roadie-artist Gretchen Schaefer, guitarist-commando Doug Hubley. Photo by Minolta self-timer/Hubley Archives.

 

We moved in at the beginning of September. We had good times at the Body Shop, as we came to call it in honor of a previous tenant. Naturally, it became a social club as much as anything. In fact, over the course of the few gigs that the FJ played while we were based there, I at least perceived a real solidarity amongst the six of us who were at Washington Avenue, and at the gigs, the most: Alden, Dan, Doug, Gretchen, Jeff and Ken.

Romanticizing the writer's life, 1985. I got over it. Hubley Archives.

Romanticizing the writer’s life, 1985. I got over it. Hubley Archives.

But problems soon became obvious with the Body Shop (we weren’t there long enough to bring the Visible Gallery to life). The biggest was that we simply couldn’t afford it. And despite our high ambitions, not everyone had a real use for the space. For Gretchen, who didn’t have a car, simply getting there on her own from South Portland involved two bus trips and a prohibitive amount of time.

By November, the money crunch was exigent (the rent party was fun, but didn’t help the situation much). By December, Ken had given notice, muttering about going to California to work for the Defense Logistics Agency. Through January, we tried to record all of our material, not succeeding. On Jan. 27, 1986, at Geno’s, we played what was billed as the Fashion Jungle’s last gig.

Of course, it wasn’t. But it was the last time I set foot on a stage in 1986.


Gretchen Schaefer's poster for what we thought was the FJ's last performance. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer’s poster for what we thought was the FJ’s last performance. Hubley Archives.

Hear studio recordings by the 1985 Fashion Jungle: We spent our last month at the Body Shop attempting to record our repertoire for posterity. It had been a problematic space for recording because of a commercial radio signal that leaked onto the tape, but somehow we dodged that bullet for these sessions. Dan Knight, bass and vocal (“Blood From a Stone”). Ken Reynolds, drums. Doug Hubley, guitar and vocals. Recorded at the Body Shop on the Sony TC-540.

  • Phony English Accent (Hubley) Bitchy and self-righteous enough that I regret it now (but not enough to withhold it), this standard from the original Fashion Jungle was my response to the posturing that had infected American punk and New Wave by the early 1980s. Hear an earlier version.
  • Why This Passion (Hubley) The original version of this song written for the Fashion Jungle in 1983 was a rococo creation that could barely stand up under the weight of its arrangement. For the 1985 FJ, I streamlined and supercharged the setting, to better effect.
  • Corner Night (Hubley) Unintelligible to anyone who wasn’t close to the 1970s-’80s social scene around Patty Ann’s Superette, in South Portland, these lyrics were written in 1981 about two concerts given by three bands with ties to that scene — the Foreign Students and the Pathetix, in addition to the FJ. I contrived the Costello-esque melody in 1985 for the reborn FJ. Hear an earlier version.
  • Coke Street (Hubley) In the 1980s, Portland’s Old Port Exchange was the go-go ’80s writ large and embellished with seagulls. This country song with its odd lopsided rhythm was one of my rare attempts at social commentary. The lyrics absolutely do not hold up (“Love letters on an Apple II”?), but the music is cool. Hear an earlier version.
  • Blood From a Stone (Knight) This Byrdsy number was bassist Dan Knight’s contribution to the Fashion Jungle catalog.

“Phony English Accent,” “Why This Passion,” “Corner Night” and “Coke Street” all copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. “Blood From a Stone” copyright © 1985 by Daniel B. Knight. All rights reserved.

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

Gretchen Schaefer lugs a box out of the Body Shop during the 1986 retreat. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer lugs a box out of the Body Shop during the 1986 retreat. Hubley Archives.

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