Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the tag “Curley Howard Band”

Fifty Years, Seven Chords and Some Truth

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

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What have I learned

about songwriting since 1969?

Not as much as one could have hoped. I still haven’t picked up enough music theory to use “jazz chords,” although at least I’m no longer afraid of them. Killer riffs? Forget it. My riffs don’t even like to argue.

Because I’ve never supported myself from songwriting, I haven’t learned to produce good songs when I’m not “feeling it.” For the same reason, I’ve never internalized the various kinds of self-discipline that go into crafting hits (as opposed to merely good songs).

For instance, a songwriting rule that I have trouble obeying is songwriter Harlan Howard’s observation, later elevated to the status of commandment, that country music is “three chords and the truth.”

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

Invoking the holy name of “truth” feels powerful, but that’s deceptive. Where does country music, or any genre of any medium, get off laying claim to truth, or is it Truth? Isn’t blues also three chords and the truth? (And maybe a truer truth, on average, than country, a genre that for all its greatness is still capable of producing toxins like “God Made Girls.”)

In fact, it’s actually true that truth isn’t really so scarce in creative work. Many songwriters remain true to themselves in their work even if their truth isn’t your truth. (And in any case, it’s also true that a grain of truth doesn’t make a pearl of every song.)

And if their truth is your truth, or something akin to it — or the song resonates with you even though the writer’s intention has escaped you altogether — then you can add your own truth to that particular heap.

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

I doubt that it’s possible to like a song without it striking some chord in your being, even if it’s just the urge to yell “Wooo!” And if you hate a song, that’s likewise reflecting something true in you.

It’s the “meh” songs that you have to feel sorry for.

So decreeing that a form of music (visual art, literature, etc.) has to be truthful in order to qualify for a label is like decreeing that a liquid must contain water to qualify as a beverage. It’s not really such a high threshold to get over. Ultimately, the “three chords and the truth” thing strikes me as more grandstanding or even defensiveness — “I don’t know many chords, but I speak truth” — than anything else. Go ahead and plant your flag on the hill of truth, if there’s any room left.

Therefore the truth part, while problematic, doesn’t challenge me as a songwriter. (And, again, since I don’t make my living from it, I can afford to wait for the True Ideas.) But that three-chord limit — wow, that’s tough. Five or six is more like it for me. Maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t use jazz chords.

This struggle with simplifying stems from both my relatively feeble melodic imagination — that is, I’m inclined to derive melody from chords and not the other way around; and my resistance to echoing the old and familiar, even if it’s familiar because people like it and people like it because it’s good. I’ll happy play the old, familiar and good if somebody else wrote it — but trying to emulate it in my own songwriting just makes me feel like a chump and a wanna-be. (And I get enough of that from walking past mirrors.)

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

Similarly, despite compelling evidence that compact song structures are generally preferable in the genres I play, rock and country, six- or eight-line verses and bridges tend to be my stock in trade.

But a few times I have managed to keep it simple (and didn’t even need the “stupid”). One example is my song “You Wore It Well.” After writing a string of songs that are country mostly because I say they are, I wanted to write something that came across as “country” all by itself.

Song structure was only one component of the exercise, but I made it work: four-line verses and bridge and, if not three, then four chords all told. And no minor chords! — quite unusual in my catalog. (See Recording Notes, below, for more information on the recordings linked here.)

Something I have learned since 1969 is to carry a songwriting notebook. This provides a place to store ideas, and a place to find ideas when you’re casting about for one. (And a place to revisit past failures and stalemates, but never mind.)

The concept for “You Wore It Well” — a song that uses things applied to the skin to sketch the course of a relationship — lived in the notebook for a while until, in a hotel room in Portsmouth, N.H., in February 2013, I roughed out some words. Four months later, in Cabin No. 19 at the Chautauqua in Boulder, Colo., during the afternoon quiet hours, “You Wore It Well” came together with a minimum of agony, as the better songs seem to do.

Another pretty good country song, despite all the songwriting lessons I hadn’t yet absorbed in 1977, is “Let the Singer.” I say “country song” despite its cryptic and fragmentary title and, even more transgressive, the chord count — seven, including both major- and minor-sevenths.

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

Seven chords and, yes, some truth. It’s not an especially macho howl, yet “Let the Singer” is a howl nonetheless — baying at the moon by a wolf who wants to join the pack. As angsty young guitarslingers will do, in those days I valorized the live fast–die young lifestyle and its practitioners, like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons.

It all seemed very romantic until so many musicians that I liked died young.

Thirty-eight years later I had developed a finer grasp of the effects that time and romance can work on one another. More concretely, in the helpful-advice category, I’d realized that you can plan out your song or skip the plan, but either way, it should sound like you skipped the plan.

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

For a few years I had wanted to write a song about three sounds that catch my heart’s notice: a train horn in the distance, pedal steel guitar playing especially by Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and the voice of my wife and musical partner, Gretchen Schaefer. But a number of writing attempts that hewed close to that literal theme went nowhere. They were too schematic. It was too much plan, not enough song.

Finally, in 2015, again at the Chautauqua, I wrestled the controls away from the conceptual scheme so that the words could go where they wanted. The result was “Just a Moment in the Night.” Gretchen, steel, and the train are all still there, but now as prominent elements in a larger tapestry depicting the pleasures and pains of passing time.

“The pleasures and pains of passing time” — vague much? Well, yes. Because I also learned, pretty early on, some reasons why many songwriters are reluctant to get specific about what their songs mean. That meaning, of course, is ultimately up to you, the listener. Why should I limit your experience of a song or pre-empt your imagination?

See, here’s a way to make truth, in the sense of “three chords and —,” work for you. It’s a lovely thing if the songwriter’s, singer’s and untold throngs of listeners’ truths all chime together as one. But even if only one participant’s bell is rung, that song has earned its wings.

So, just as it’s preferable not to talk too specifically about what your songs mean, it’s better yet when the songs themselves aren’t too prescriptive or obvious. It’s not fair to invite your listener’s imagination inside if there’s no place at the table for it.

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

Don’t tell ’em — don’t even show ’em — just strew the path with images and hints and fragments, and let the listener piece the story together into a truth of their own. (Bob Dylan being the master of this approach.)

I was waiting for an art history class to start in early 1981 when I wrote the line, “The only time you’re happy is when it’s right after sex.” That was the start to “Shortwave Radio,” which I finished on a June evening a few months later, with a gin gimlet sweating greenly on the glossy red table and The Bob Newhart Show, muted, on the television.

Although I do have a short but happy history with shortwave radios, I can’t explain how they came to symbolize something about my character in that song. (And if I could explain, as noted above, I wouldn’t.) But it was true at the time. And I’m just glad it happened because it’s a good song and it came along just as my band at the time, the Fashion Jungle, was scrambling for good originals.

The biggest challenge to Harlan Howard’s truth is the worst kind of schematic song — and country music abounds with them: the ones that get written because someone has been afflicted with a big stiff idea for a gimmick that must be gratified by wrapping a song around it, whether because a paycheck is dangling out in front of them somewhere or they just can’t get over themselves.

(I’d like to offer as evidence “A Boy Named Sue,” but its huge chart success meant that fans were mining a lot of some kind of truth out of it. And they’re digging deeper now. The title was adopted for both a documentary with a transgender protagonist and a 2004 book about the role of gender in American country music. So truth is as truth does.)

But sometimes a gimmick can be convincingly cleaned up and dressed in a decent suit. At least once, my weakness for wordplay started me on a song — “Where Was I,” whose cute “inspiration” resulted in a lyric that’s quite good, but not at all cute.

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

One day I got the Grass Roots’ hit “Where Were You When I Needed You” in my head — and “Where was I when you needed me?” seemed like a potentially meaty converse of it. The resulting lyric is cross-listed in the Themes of Country Songs index under both Cheating and Mid-life Crisis. (But the 6/8 rhythm and the melody would have sounded nice with the Stax rhythm section.)

A few guidelines are apparently helpful in songwriting, since here I am offering some, but as a non-professional songwriter I can indulge in the belief that much of songwriting success is out of my hands. I like to think that random combinations of time, place, season, weather, companion, political climate, frame of mind, mode of transport, historical interests, overheard remarks, current reading, prevailing odors, beverages at hand, etc., can, when you least expect it but maybe when you most want it, spontaneously coalesce into a song idea.

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

Which leads me to another lesson for songwriters (even though it somewhat weakens the previous edict about gimmicks): Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Song ideas are rare and precious. If something looks like a song idea (and doesn’t look like “A Boy Named Sue” or “May the Bird of Paradise Fly up Your Nose” or “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”), grab it. (You don’t have to keep it.)

A likely specimen floated my way last summer via the intercom on an Amtrak train. We were stopped on a siding somewhere, not at a station, amidst trees in western Massachusetts.

It was June 2019, the train was Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited and we were headed west on a single-track mainline. A voice on the intercom announced that we were waiting for an eastbound train to clear the track. So we sat and waited, as we have done many times before.

But the rhythm of that announcement — “We’re waiting for an eastbound train” — struck me. I wrote those words in my songwriting notebook in hopes that some actual song idea would come along and keep them company.

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

Sure enough, a few days later, while Gretchen and I were sitting on the back porch of No. 19, back at the Chautauqua, I wrote “(Waiting For A) Westbound Train.” What a gift: A nuisance for an Amtrak conductor and his passengers that sparks a new song for me, my first and last in 2019. I prefer gifts (most of the time) that don’t come at other people’s expense, but when it comes to bolstering my glacier-paced songwriting output, I can’t be fussy.

You will notice the directional change, from eastbound in the conductor’s announcement to westbound in the song. Between the alliteration, which is nothing to be sneezed at in songwriting, and the fraught and many-layered symbolism of East vs. West in the American mythology, I had to bend the facts to suit the reality. “We’re headed back East as we always must be / To the same old and the good old and the old used-to-be.”

Fifty years almost to the month prior to “Westbound Train,” in 1969, I wrote the first song that I thought was any good. Its inspiration was simple: my relief at breaking up with a perfectly nice girl whose only offense was to be around when I was feeling hemmed in.

Well, I was 15 and the song, “Glad to Be Free,” sounds in every way like the product of a 15-year-old. But though I’m not linking to it here, not will I likely ever sing it again (way to clear the room in a hurry!), I still regard it as the start of my credibility as a songwriter.

And what my oldest and my newest song (and some of the good ones in between) have in common is their rootedness in a real and immediate situation — a teenager out of love who’s moving on, riders on a train who’d like to move on. Small realities, way back in 1969 and just last summer, but they’re my realities and that’s what I have to work with.

That’s country songwriting the way I do it: seven chords and some truth.

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

Recording notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howling Turbines: Natty Gloves

The Howling Turbines in an early publicity shot by Jeff Stanton, circa 1998. From left: Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds.

The Howling Turbines looking skeptical in an early publicity shot by Jeff Stanton, circa 1998. From left: Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds. Hubley Archives.

Enjoy the champagne-bubble sounds of Howling Turbines on the Nimbit Internet!


A poster for a 1999 performance. Hubley Archives.

A poster for a 1999 performance. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer and I are Louis Jordan fans.

So we were pleased, if surprised, by Ken Reynolds’ invitation to see the jukebox musical Five Guys Named Moe, based on Jordan’s jumping R&B, at the Ogunquit Playhouse in August 1996.

Ken seemed to take the theme quite seriously in this outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.

Ken seemed to take the theme quite seriously in this outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.

Surprised in part because Gretchen and I almost never go to musicals, but in larger part because the invitation from our longtime friend and former bandmate seemed like some kind of overture. “Is Ken asking us on a date?” we wondered.

I have known Ken, who is a drummer, since 1975.  We met while working in the stockroom at Jordan Marsh at the Maine Mall, and found that our senses of humor really meshed. Three Stooges and Monty Python seemed very insidery in Portland, Maine, in the mid-1970s. We became good friends.

Gretchen in an outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen in an outtake from the 1998 boxing-poster photo session. Hubley Archives.

Our musical relationship started in 1977 with the Curley Howard Band, and we played together on and off until 1991, when Ken left the Cowlix. In that countryish band, Gretchen played guitar and bass, and I played guitar and accordion.

Doug Hubley strikes a pose that would intimidate even Wally Cox in this outtake from the boxing-poster session. Hubley Archives.

Doug Hubley strikes a pose that would intimidate even Wally Cox in this outtake from the boxing-poster session. Hubley Archives.

Through all the musical comings and goings, our longtime friendship with Ken had remained solid. But Ken’s invitation to drinks, dinner and a show (his family had season tickets at the playhouse) was an order of magnitude or two higher than our crowd’s usual frolics.

Gretchen Schaefer and I were calling ourselves "Howling Turbines" before Ken Reynolds returned as drummer. This song list bridges the two periods; the songs in darker ink, we learned with Ken. The acoustic material of the interrim, such as Leonard Cohen's "The Bells" (listed here as "Take This Longing") didn't make it into the Turbines' repertoire. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer and I were calling ourselves “Howling Turbines” before Ken Reynolds returned as drummer. This song list bridges the two periods; the songs in black ink, we learned with Ken. The acoustic material of the interrim, such as Leonard Cohen’s “The Bells” (listed here as “Take This Longing”) didn’t last into the Turbines. Hubley Archives.

It was a fun occasion on a warm sunny day. We had gin and tonics at Barnacle Billy’s and dinner somewhere nice. Five Guys Named Moe — Gretchen’s and my introduction to the Ogunquit Playhouse — was mostly music with a minimum of contrived plot, so we liked it. (Mop!)

The occasion gave us more time to talk than usual and it was good to get caught up with Ken. I remember sitting in the sun on Barnacle Billy’s patio as Ken told us that he had taken up drums again, performing at a church. He was happy to be playing although the congregation was fractious and, I think, split up either just before or just after Ogunquit.

Speaking of split-ups, this get-together was only a month or so after Jonathan Nichols-Pethick had left Gretchen’s and my band, the Boarders. While Jon’s departure had left us without a drummer, it also left us with ideas for new things to try — notably for Gretchen to sing more and for us to try some harmonies.

An ungloved Gretchen in 1998. Hubley Archives.

An ungloved Gretchen in 1998. Hubley Archives.

In the months after Jonathan and his wife, Nancy, lit out for Indiana, Gretchen and I tried out new material, from the Carter Family to Leonard Cohen, and also set the electric instruments aside and played acoustic guitars — anticipating our current band, Day for Night, by about 10 years.

In between the Boarders and Day for Night, though, there was another electric (and how!) band. I can’t remember the specifics, but sometime between our Ogunquit evening and our first rehearsals in early 1997, the three of us agreed that it would be a good idea for Ken to come back. And the Howling Turbines were born.

Howl

Ken Reynolds in the late 1990s. Photograph by Jeff Stanton.

Ken Reynolds in the late 1990s. Photograph by Jeff Stanton.

Ken hauled his drums back down into the basement in February 1997, 20 years to the month after he and I first started making music together. I remember the distinct pleasure I felt as the three of us got the ball rolling again. We knew each other well, personally and otherwise, and it didn’t take long to find our sound.

Which was not the Boarders’ sound. The two bands shared a format: the classic three-piece lineup of bass, drums and guitar. They shared a certain amount of material, and they shared Gretchen and me. But the sonics were quite different.

Much of the difference, of course, had to do with the drummers. Jonathan and Ken brought clearly
contrasting, if equally effective, approaches to
making the three-piece format work.

Your author in a film selfie, shot in the bedroom mirror in 1999. Notice the Concord Coach schedule tucked in the mirror frame in case we needed to make a quick getaway. Hubley Archives.

Your author in a film selfie, shot in the bedroom mirror in 1999. Notice the Concord Coach schedule tucked in the mirror frame in case we needed to make a quick getaway. Hubley Archives.

Jonathan kept a great beat, but brought a light touch and a lot of ornament and texture to the instrumental fabric.

With perhaps a decade of experience over Jon, by this point Ken was a much sparer stylist. He brought a relentless focus to the beat and an almost mathematical sense to his fills. Interestingly, Ken also worked his tom-toms, especially the floor tom, much harder with the Turbines than with our previous groups.

Their kits sounded quite different, too. Jon was playing a Yamaha set that had a mid-weight sound. Ken, meanwhile, had left his original Ringo Starr-model Ludwigs behind and brought in a massive set of silver-gray Pearls that fairly bristled with chrome pipes and mysterious fittings. That was a kit that invited heavy whacking.

Vocals made the other big difference between the Boarders and the Turbines. Where Gretchen had one vocal number with the earlier group, she did lead or harmony vocals on much of the Turbines’ repertoire, including through-harmonies on songs like “Matty Groves,” which we had worked out prior to Ken’s return.

Ken later picked up some lead vocals, too. The simple fact of additional voices added a welcome new dimension to the Turbines’ sound.

The Howling Turbines repertoire in November 1997. Ten of the 23 songs were new to the Turbines. Hubley Archives.

The Howling Turbines repertoire in November 1997. Ten of the 23 songs were new to the Turbines. Hubley Archives.

There was one other sonic supplement that is ridiculous to mention except for the fact that it had such a big effect. Actually, it was a big effect: a Danelectro “Daddy O” overdrive box that opened up a whole new world of noisemaking to me. I had been using a compressor for the big big sounds — and now the Daddy O enabled me to be not just loud, but abrasive!

Heavy drums, more vocals, metal guitar. Gretchen and I had been playing around with the name “Howling Turbines” before Ken came back (it was that or “The Lager-Rhythms”).

But these Turbines really did howl.


Another slice of the Turbines team. From left, photographer and longtime friend Jeff Stanton, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds. Photo by Doug Hubley.

Another slice of the Turbines team. From left, photographer and longtime friend Jeff Stanton, Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds. Photo by Doug Hubley.

Early Howling Turbines rehearsal recordings on Nimbit and Bandcamp:

  • Just a Word From You, Sir (Hubley) One of two songs I wrote for the Howling Turbines, this was an attempt to capitalize on what I perceived as our heavy-rock potential. Generally about my relationship with authority, it’s specifically about Stalin, Leonard Cohen and God. Go figure. A rehearsal recording from March 1998. Copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • 1,000 Pounds of Rain (Hubley) The title was inspired by a 1990 Cowlix performance at the Drydock, for which — so as not to disturb the fried-clam scarfing multitudes — we had to carry 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. This is one of a number of tunes that we carried over from the Boarders to the Turbines. A rehearsal recording from June 1, 1997. Copyright © 1995 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Shortwave Radio (Hubley) Leonard Cohen once told an interviewer something to the effect that performing “Bird on a Wire” reminded him of his duties somehow. “Shortwave Radio” plays a similar role for me. I started writing the lyrics in an art history class at USM in 1981, and finished the song up over a gin gimlet in my sister’s living room on a summer evening, Bob Newhart on the TV, volume muted. This stayed in the repertoire for more than 20 years, from the Fashion Jungle to the Boarders to the Turbines. A rehearsal recording from May 1998. Copyright © 1982 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Groping for the Perfect Song (Hubley) Like “Shortwave Radio,” “Why This Passion” and others, this early Fashion Jungle number seemed primed for a comeback when drummer Ken Reynolds rejoined bassist Gretchen Schaefer and me to form the Turbines. In this rough rehearsal recording I manage to goof up some lyrics including the signature opening line (hence the discount on this track on the Bandcamp and Nimbit stores). I derived some sort of early inspiration for this from David Byrne, but that didn’t last. A rehearsal recording from March 1998. Copyright © 1983 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Matty Groves (Traditional) Howling Turbines bassist Gretchen Schaefer and I devoted one of our first through-harmony efforts to this very old British folk song. It’s such a country tune! The success of this early HT staple encouraged us to try a few other folk songs like “John Riley” and “Pretty Polly,” but this was always the best of the lot. A rehearsal recording from June 1, 1997.

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

 

Tomorrow Maybe, Tomorrow I Might

The Curley Howard Band.

Andy Ingalls (behind speaker), Ken Reynolds, Mike Piscopo, Doug Hubley: The Curley Howard Band. Hubley Archives.

I persist in regarding myself as a songwriter despite having written relatively few songs — maybe 60 since 1968, written or co-written, that I wouldn’t be ashamed to play for discerning listeners.

Nowadays I’m cranking the hits out at the rate of about one per year — which sounds pathetic, but I wrote no whole songs at all, just some lyrics, from 1999 till 2010. (Hear “Bittersweet” and “The Ceiling,” my 21st-century songwriting catalog to date, performed by Day for Night.)

My songwriting career started as the wanna-be disease, as I went chasing after idols like Neil Young and the Beatles. But it gradually dawned on me that I had much better results expressing my emotions with a guitar and mic than through anything as prosaic as sharing my feelings with the people who were involved in them.

One of the many dysjunctions in my highly dysjunctive musical career is the fact that during the 1970s, when I was a regular Irving Berlin compared to later decades, I wasn’t that assertive about playing my seven or eight original songs with my bands. And at this distance of time, I can’t explain it.

I did feature my own material on the rare occasions when I performed as a solo, so it wasn’t that I felt insecure about it.

On the other hand, it’s certainly true that other people have written so many good songs that, if you approach the question with any objectivity at all, it’s hard to make a case for one’s own little musical handicrafts when you could be channeling the excellent songs, plus the coolness-by-association, of any number of fabulous songwriters. (Of whom I just now tried to come up with merely a few examples, but I could name a hundred and I’d still be only getting started.)

Whatever was holding me back, I finally managed to get over it for 1977’s “Let the Singer,” presented here. Yes, it’s a paean to the live fast–die young lifestyle, which seems like a very good idea when one is 23, idolizes Gram Parsons and enjoys the robust constitution of youth.

In addition to which, to be honest, when it came to living hard I was a lightweight. I was close to people who actually were doing the dangerous things, and it wasn’t that pretty at all. But, dysjunctive as ever, I didn’t make the connection till sometime later.

In short, singing a high and lonesome song about burning the candle at both ends seemed right and romantic, even as big-name musicians like Parsons continued to helpfully offer object lessons in why it isn’t such a good idea.

“Let the Singer” was the one original song that the Curley Howard Band ever played. CHB began one afternoon in the winter of 1977 in my parents’ basement when a few of us — I can’t recall exactly who — played something, for two hours, that was supposed to be “Green Onions.” We went on from there to become a hard-working, hard-drinking, hardly ever-performing foursome that somehow tried to blend country music, Sixties hits, California stars and British pub rock.

Differences in tastes, abilities and life plans put paid to CHB within a year, but this short-lived outfit had a long tail. CHB begat the Mirrors, which begat the Fashion Jungle, which begat the Cowlix, which begat the Boarders, which begat Howling Turbines, which begat my current band, Day for Night. So, a musical lineage spanning 35 years, and still counting. (More about these later bands, including plenty of music, in later posts.)

Clean-cut me with my brand-new Telecaster in 1976. I used this guitar with the Curley Howard Band. Hubley Family photo.

Three CHB members endured into the Fashion Jungle: drummer Ken Reynolds and bassist-guitarist-keyboardist Mike Piscopo, in addition to me. (Albeit with some hiatuses, Ken was around right through the Howling Turbines.) The fourth member of CHB was Andrew Ingalls, who played bass while Mike played rhythm guitar.

I’m pretty sure that my country leanings, coupled with my role as bandleader, was one of the more divisive sources of tension within CHB. (I vividly recall “I Fall to Pieces,” which admittedly was a really bad idea, dying a slow death by lack of enthusiasm.)

And I don’t know what Ken, Mike and Andy thought about “Let the Singer,” but I do know that we pulled it off as well as anything else in our overstuffed closet of a repertoire, for which I’m still grateful.

It was an important song to me at the time — still is. It wasn’t much of a philosophy of life, but in those days it was my philosophy of life. It was profoundly gratifying to get to sing about it, even if I couldn’t quite live it.


Hear “Let the Singer” in three versions, which vary only in the details, over three years:

  • By three members of the Curley Howard Band: Andy Ingalls, bass; Mike Piscopo, guitar; Doug, lead guitar and vocal. Absent from the session was drummer Ken Reynolds. Recorded in June 1977.
  • By the Mirrors, which followed CHB by two years. Mike, guitar; Doug, lead guitar and vocal; Ken Reynolds, drums. Also in the band was singer Chris Hanson, who didn’t perform on this song. (Multi-instrumentalist Jim Sullivan joined the following month.) Recorded at Jim’s Night Club, Portland, Maine, March 3, 1979, early in the Mirrors’ run. I had a cheap piezo pickup plastered onto the Silvertone with putty, hence the distinctive guitar timbre.
  • In a 1978 solo performance by Doug Hubley, recorded for a submission to a WBLM-FM songwriting contest. (How could I not have won?!?) I also submitted “Oh, What a Feeling,” available on the Notes Jukebox.

“Let the Singer” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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

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