Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the tag “The Mirrors”

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)

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, 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 Right Coast 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.

We’ll Be Your Mirrors

The Mirrors at the Downtown Lounge, 1980.

The Mirrors at the Downtown Lounge, 1980. From left: Jim Sullivan, Mike Piscopo, Chris Hanson, Doug Hubley. Concealed by Chris is drummer Ken Reynolds. Photographer unknown.

In music, as in so many other things, I can’t make up my mind.

In virtually every style* of music I hear, I hear something to like**.

And because I want to play music that I want to hear, my stylistic promiscuity has been a problem over the years. Not all listeners, or bandmates, are as restless as I am. And in any case, extreme eclecticism is difficult to pull off. It requires strong chops, discerning taste and the kind of musical personality that can unify disparate influences. (Well, one out of three is better than none: I have pretty good taste.)

My current band, Day for Night, plays only country — but when we were starting out, in the mid-2000s, we had a country set and a bossa nova set. Because it took me about two months, on average, to work out a new bossa nova song (lacking the strong chops, you see) the set became stale and we got realistic and bagged it. I don’t know where we ever could have performed a night of bossa nova and country, anyway.

But back in the day I wasn’t so sensible. The Mirrors, my first somewhat professional band, had the eclecticism problem about as bad as could be. The arc of a typical Mirrors performance was reasonable enough, starting out blue and quiet, ending red and electric. But in between we veered all over the map.

A Mirrors set list from 1980, handwritten by Ken Reynolds (click to embiggen). Hubley Archives.

The set list at right, from 1980, will give you some idea. It includes:

  • Country songs by Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris and the Flying Burrito Bros., Hank Williams, George Jones, Don Williams, Patsy Cline, Asleep at the Wheel
  • Blues and R&B by Bonnie Raitt, Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, the Clovers, Otis Redding
  • Vintage pop and rock by Presley, the Searchers, Carl Perkins, the Rolling Stones, ? and the Mysterians, the Ventures, the Monkees, Bobby Troupe, Johnny Rivers, the Rascals, Bo Diddley
  • Then-contemporary rock by the Fabulous Poodles (their interpretation of the Everly Brothers’ “Man With Money”), Elvis Costello, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, the Specials, the English Beat (their version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”), Madness, Pat Benatar, Graham Parker
  • And songs by the Velvet Underground, Richard Thompson, Jimmy Cliff and Frank Sinatra.

All that jumping around, in addition to a penchant for instrument-swapping that seriously slowed the pace, must have made some early Mirrors performances exasperating. I still cringe at the memory of taking long minutes to retune the guitars to the Farfisa rock organ for the sake of one or two songs. I also remember someone’s graffiti in the men’s room of the original Downtown Lounge, in the Plaza Hotel: “The Mirrors suck.”

I guess I can see why someone would say that, in view of one or two of our DTL performances: an anti-nuclear-power benefit where I had laryngitis but tried to sing anyway, or the 1980 Corner Night where we were fine, but just hopelessly tame compared to the Foreign Students and the Pathetix. And we had other issues in addition to the stylistic indecisiveness.

A 1980 Mirrors set list handwritten by Chris Hanson (click to embiggen). Hubley Archives.

But in spite of sucking, which we really didn’t most of the time, the Mirrors always got work. In 1980, our last year together, working for Maine country impresario Slim Andrews as well as getting our own dates, we were gigging all the time, from Kittery, in southern Maine, to Guilford, 182 miles away. Venues ranged from the punkish DTL (located in the Plaza, which stood where the Portland Public Market building is now) to York Animal Kingdom.

And, as will happen, we learned a lot and got a lot better, not only musically but professionally (even if we did ignore Slim’s injunctions against drinking and wearing sneakers on stage).

So, yes, looking back, I see things we could have done differently. But overall I don’t regret the way it played out. In the greater perspective, in fact, the Mirrors served me, and I hope some of my bandmates, the way your first big failed affair serves the remainder of your love life. It teaches you how to do what’s right and how not to do what isn’t, all on the stage of a grand romantic fantasy that gradually becomes your reality.

And in the short term, the Mirrors led directly to the Fashion Jungle. Among the things we learned were the facts that we wanted to concentrate on rock — and on our own material. About which, more next time.


Here are two of the three original songs the Mirrors ever performed, all by yours truly. Someday, when I am in a mood to give the Harry Fox Agency large dollars to license other peoples’ music, I will post a few Mirrors covers as well.

  • You Know How It Is (Hubley) Here’s a lament about the working life drawn from my own experiences as a sensitive young artiste destroying my soul as a “materials handler” (stockboy) at the South Portland branch of Jordan Marsh. Jordan Marsh is gone, and I am still here. The Mirrors at the Hourglass, Free Street, Portland, August 1979.
  • Maine State Pier Blues (Hubley) Ken Reynolds and I somehow got the impression that all the street alcoholics hung out on Maine State Pier.  This naive narrative, which Chris Hanson once called “preachy,” presages my current dissipation, but is uncorrected for the salubrious effects of self-consciousness and affluence. Note the Silvertone with Barcus-Berry pickup. The Mirrors at Friendship III, Dec. 30, 1979.

“You Know How It Is” and “Maine State Pier Blues” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

The Mirrors*, 1979-1981

Christine Hanson, vocals and percussion
Doug Hubley, guitar, bass, organ and vocals
Mike Piscopo, bass, guitar, organ and vocals
Ken Reynolds, drums and vocals
Jim Sullivan, fiddle, guitar, bass, organ, saxophone and vocals

*In our last months, we were known as the Karl Rossmann Band, after the protagonist in Kafka’s Amerika. We were sick of the name “Mirrors” and used a ranked-ballot system to select a new one. The other contenders included “Goats of the Trapezoid,” Ken’s tribute to Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, and “Cadence.”


* Chainsaw metal, ragtime and pop a cappella being towering exceptions.
** People who know me well may be laughing at this point, having heard me mutter “I hate this song” or “I hate this group” repeatedly anywhere music can be heard. Yes, I’m annoyingly picky about specific songs and musicians, and in fact dislike most of them. But here I’m talking about musical styles.

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

The Mirrors, 1979: Jim Sullivan, Chris Hanson, Doug Hubley, Mike Piscopo, Ken Reynolds. Photo by Nancy Hubley.

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