Well, I do now, apparently, starting with Joshua Ketchmark's "The Bittersweet" EP.
I'd always wanted to produce an album......
“Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive....and treat it like it’s all we have.”
-Bruce Springsteen, 2012 SXSW Keynote Address
Wise words, from someone who's made a career of telling the truth, The Boss.
We spend our lives adrift on a sea of variables. Some of us have a more stable existence, and while certain inevitabilities like our own expiration are non-negotiable, these individuals seem to struggle less with where the current is going to take them tomorrow. Maybe they married well, invested wisely, or lucked into an inheritance that'll keep the wheels greased long after they're gone. Whatever the case, I'm pretty sure they're a blissfully aimless minority, while the bulk of us are swinging away daily, hoping and praying to get a piece of whatever curveball, slider, or change-up is in store.
Well, Vegas did not result in the massive financial windfall I had confidentially hoped for, but I did come out ahead by a few bones, and nothing scandalous happened that would precipitate the utterance of what is likely the most tired phrase in tourism history. Yeah, you know it, say it to yourself and save me the trouble of spelling it out. "Whatever happens, etc., etc."
I'm sitting here in my room, on the 6th floor of The Aria Hotel, trying to figure out what to do with the remainder of my first day in Vegas. I've got approximately 2 days left to squander, and I've already located and consumed menu items from Del Taco, witnessed a Hispanic street performer do a Flamenco-tinged take on Prince's "Erotic City", and truly pitied a gentleman who dropped an obviously pricey liquor-filled replica of The Eiffel Tower a few feet to the pavement, thus spilling its contents. Myself, being of sound balance and steady hand, toted a large beer throughout my travels, without incident.
Hey, unless you're U2, it's gonna happen. Life gets in the way, priorities change, injuries leave you benched just long enough to realize you don't really wanna do this anymore, marriages end in divorces as a direct result of your OTHER marriage to the band(or vice versa)...the list of potential reasons is long, and riddled with excuses of varying legitimacy; if such a thing can even be qualified. Suffice it to say, however big or small, reasonable or ridiculous, considered or hip-shot the cause for departure may seem to be, it's still a tough row to hoe when the time comes, whether you're being shown the door, giving the axe, or watching a valuable part of your team take their final bow as a conspirator, by choice.
"She tastes like candy hearts. I'm all the wrong spare parts."
Not exactly Shakespeare, but I was always kinda proud of a line or two here and there, and that one made me smile today as I listened to my very own promo copy of the new Best Of Seven CD "Turn It On Again".
AFFAIRS OF STATE PT. 4 (THE TRAVELS OF A WAYWARD INDEPENDENT MUSICIAN CONTINUED) THE ILLINOIS EDITIO
Since I grew up in Illinois, I'm not entirely sure how to cram my formative years as a musician into a single, brief blog installment, but let me see if I can do this in something of a capsule fashion....
I got in from Birmingham sometime around 5AM this morning, still somewhat under the weather, but safe in the knowledge that we delivered a solid set to a modest but appreciative audience, and I did so without vomiting even a single time during our alloted 50 or so minutes on stage. Little victories, people..little victories.
When we last saw our hero, he was jogging in the Colorado mountains in the dead of night, with a jug of gasoline....
Obviously I lived to tell, 'cause here we are, and as I scroll through my list of traveled territories, it appears that the fine state of Georgia is up next. There has been no shortage of misadventures in the Peach State....Where to begin?
Well, it's Friday, and here I sit, about to push through one last rehearsal with our substitute drummer for tonight's show in Birmingham, Alabama. I'm sick...even sicker than I was when I first realized I was unwell on Sunday, and wondering just where I'm going to come up with the energy to drive 3+ hours, set-up, and play a headlining slot that will most likely start sometime after midnight, when I haven't been able to eat anything and keep it down all day. Oh yeah, AND we're making the drive back to Nashville afterwards, because of early morning commitments that require tending to.
Best Of Seven was my true introduction to the non-retail side of the music industry. I mean, sure, I'd played in bands locally, released my own music, and done everything in my power to squeeze onto bills with whatever up-and-coming or down-and-out national act needed a support band on their way through Central Illinois, but I had never imagined the machine to be even remotely like what it actually was.
I had never been "produced"..
So, back to this matter of mileage logged on land.....I think I'll just run this down alphabetically, and see if there are enough amusing anecdotes I can attach to these destinations to justify submitting this as a blog....
All I wanted was some chips n' salsa.
Well, since I re-printed a not-so-flattering review from a few weeks back, I thought I'd take this opportunity to shed some light on the other side of those tracks, and share with you one we received last week, a distinctly more positive take on our latest offering. No, we did not pay this individual for his kind words. In fact, we've never even made his acquaintance, but he seems to have taken a shine to us nonetheless.
So I was cleaning up the workspace in my studio today. This mostly involved removing dozens of post-it notes, transferring their contents to whatever folder seemed appropriate on my laptop, and disposing of various pieces of mail that I've saved for reasons mysterious even to me at this juncture.
So, just in time for my arrival in Los Angeles, some guy went and got himself dismembered and scattered about the Hollywood Hills in a bunch of plastic bags. Well, it just so happens I was staying with my friends Josh and Jessica at their place AT THE BASE OF THE HOLLYWOOD HILLS. Literally, you walk out of their courtyard, turn right, and look up at the Hollywood sign. The intersection in front of their place is where probably 95% of the the tourists seeking their photo taken with the famous sign over their shoulder choose to stop traffic by standing in the middle of the road to get perfect shot.
Epiphanies are elusive creatures. You can't really go in search of one, they just have to sort of happen. They're those blink-of-an-eye moments where you're instantly enlightened and aware of something you've likely been overlooking for quite some time. These realizations are not always welcome ones, and can actually be rather painful on occasion....like suddenly becoming hip to the fact that you've been wrong all along about someone or something, but as usual are the last to know. This is often due to the fact that we, as a result of human nature, would prefer to avoid sensations like guilt, shame, and embarrassment, some of the emotions commonly associated with being humbled by a heretofore unrecognized truth staring us square in the face.
I was doing some artwork for my official website the other day(shameless plug: www.dennysmithmusic.com), and I found myself overcome with a feeling of pride as I looked back over my creative output from the last 10 years. 10+ releases with 4 different acts since 2000...2 LPs with Best Of Seven, 2 more with Bombshell Crush, 2 EPs & 2 LPs with fORMER, and 3 LPS with The Great Affairs....not bad for a guy who in 1999 had given up on any notion of pursuing music as a career, if I do say so myself.
I thought you all should know that I had to buy a new chair for my office/studio last night. Why? Well, after typing up my last blog, I leaned back to stretch as I declared it complete, and the chair back continued to recline at an angle made to seem all the more unnatural by the oddly pained-sounding creak emanating from just over my shoulders. Fortunately, I was able to will myself upright before it snapped off completely and flung me across the room, a victim of my own momentum. There's no telling what kind of damage I might've done to myself or the various gear littering this space, but had I known blogging was so dangerous, I probably would've declined the offer to over-share twice weekly.
Here I sit, uploading raw video footage that we've been collecting over the last few months, and yet again I'm astounded at the amount of time consumed by this process. I don't know why it is that every single occasion I have to endure this camera-to-harddrive transfer procedure, it's like I've never been here before, and the ensuing tedium is completely unexpected. I'd love to just walk away from the computer, but I have a well-founded phobia that no sooner have I left the room to engage in some other meaningless task, the whole thing will crash, and I'll be left to start the endeavor over again, or worse yet, lose it all in the ether of my technical ineptitude.
In 1999 I joined a band in based in Los Angeles, California, while living in East Peoria, Illinois and owning and operating a record store in Pekin, Illinois. Yeah, I know....crazy, right? Eventually, we signed a management contract with Union Entertainment Group, who manage everyone from Nickelback & Hinder, to Kevin Costner's country band and 80's hair-metal icons Cinderella. Our manager was a great guy named Bryan, who seemed(and I still believe this to be true) to have our best interests at heart, even if certain other folks at the company were keen on dispensing poor advice on a regular basis, usually when Bryan was too wrapped up in Nickelback's ascension to multi-platinum status to tend to his "baby" bands.
I spent New Year's Eve sipping a fine Belgian ale at a pace designed to inhibit a potential hangover, so as to be bright-eyed and on-point for a scheduled 1PM rehearsal on the first day of the twenty-twelve. I was able to maintain my discipline throughout, though other revelers were clearly not adhering to this agenda of moderation. Still, while things remained relatively low-key, there were some spirited debates regarding the validity of Lady Gaga's stardom, some questioning of her actual "abilities", along with the inevitable mouth-agape looks of consternation inspired by confessing a grudging respect for this Justin Bieber character, who has become a media punching bag of late, despite the fact that he is one of the few "artists" keeping the music industry afloat with actual sales.
There are always going to be those days, days when the only news to be had seems to be bad news, when "everything happens for a reason" rings as nothing more than another platitude, those days when your truck won't start, you find a dead mouse in your washing machine, your drummer gets sidelined by a hernia, and someone close to you confesses a serious drug problem. Yeah, everybody's had one. I had mine yesterday.
LET IT NOT SNOW, LET IT NOT SNOW, LET IT NOT SNOW.
Christmas has come and gone, as has my latest attempt at a winter beard( it was pathetic anyway... by Kenny Rogers standards at least) and it has yet to snow here in Nashville. As a matter of fact, I spent the whole week leading up to Christmas in the Peoria, Illinois area, and aside from a brief 5 or so minutes of light dusting(enough to cause school cancellations and mild panic in these parts) on Thursday night in Pekin, I failed to encounter the dreaded, yet anticipated seasonal precipitation there either.
...every time I'm home in Illinois, I find myself falling into the trap. Maybe it's the nostalgia element of driving past all the places I was once paid(and often not) to play covers of songs I couldn't be compensated enough to bother humming today, or the bargain pricing afforded by my position in the dying retail record industry, or perhaps it's just some weird sense of obligation to do my part in keeping resuscitation efforts going on the few remaining brick and mortar shops still peddling those outmoded platters we used to call albums. Whatever the root cause, I inevitably end up purchasing some random 80s CD, even if I've owned (or still own) it in some other long-since abandoned format that has been forced into obsolescence by this digital age, and its greedy but shortsighted gate-keepers.
Since I'm headed out of town in on Sunday, to spend the week before Christmas working at my shop in Pekin, my girlfriend and I exchanged gifts early, in the event my Christmas Eve travels hit the ever-predictable snag they invariably do. This usually means an ill-timed yet abundant snowfall and life-threatening travel conditions that result in what should be a 7 hour drive becoming a 10 hour, white-knuckle marathon, filled with profane outbursts and inappropriate gestures for anyone who I deem deserving of my special brand of highway holiday cheer.
But back to this early gift business....
"Twas the night before Christmas( I CAN still say CHRISTmas, right?), and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, note even a....".....well, maybe a mouse. Yep, that's right, just in time for the holidays, we take on a roommate.
I first spotted the little bugger about a month ago......
...or "The Art Of Sticking Around". PT 1
Last Wednesday I had the honor of being asked to perform at a birthday party for the lovely and talented Ms. Jacky Dustin. Jacky fronts a band in Nashville(by way of Chicago originally) called The August, which happens to feature her boyfriend, and my former drummer in The Great Affairs, Mr. Tim Good.
A day or two prior to the show, I received an email with the evening's proposed set list and other particulars, including the intimation that 80s teen icon Tiffany would be making an appearance. Now, for the record, I was a card-carrying Debbie(now Deborah)Gibson loyalist, but the notion of the queen of mall pop kicking out a jam like "I Think We're Alone Now" at Douglas Corner Cafe on a Wednesday night, regardless of the occasion, seemed a bit far-fetched, and had me intrigued, to say the very least. I mean, yeah, it was quite a coup landing me, THE Denny Smith, to duet on a John Prine song with the band, but TIFFANY?!?!
Still, just before a slightly delayed show time, Jacky handed me a hand-written set, and, there in the middle, was "Tiffany????", leading me to believe that it was still possible, yet highly unlikely as initially supposed, that we would actually lay eyes on the star of "Mega Python Vs. Gatoroid" .
Since I'm sure the suspense is killing you, YES, she did indeed show up, looking well, in excellent voice, and with a shot for the birthday girl. She did her signature number, with The August and Jacky backing her up, and pretty much brought the little house down, but in the middle of this odd nostalgia trip, my phone rings, and I see it's a call from my old drummer Rob Wood. Rob & I played together in Best Of Seven for a few years, and we still see each other when I'm in L.A. or we if both end up home for the holidays in Peoria every couple of years.
These days, Rob works for bands like Motley Crue & Disturbed, on the road as a carpenter or technician, depending on the gig. He has also been playing in a 70s cover/novelty band called Freedom Rock, which also includes Fran Steuber, Paul Stanley's guitar tech, and my buddy Scott Camarota, who works for the KISS warehouse. Rob doesn't call me all that often, but when he does, it's usually for a good reason, so I felt compelled to at least pick up to make sure none of our mutual acquaintances were dead, dying, or in jail, before politely informing him of the surreal scene unfolding in this tiny club, that would clearly take precedence over our conversation and thus necessitate a "call back".
Brief explanation out of the way, Rob simply replied with something to the effect of "Cool, I just got done jamming with Paul Stanley, Steve Stevens, and Billy Duffy....call me later."
WHAT?!?!? (to be continued.....)
A marathon of "To Catch A Predator" episodes, or a remake of a movie that wasn't good the first time it was made??? Looks like crappy movie wins out, and I'm glad it did, because it reminds me of a good point that needs to be made. When casting non-musicians as musicians, regardless of how briefly they may appear on screen faux-performing, couldn't the producers of these films invest in some coaching for their musically inept cast to provide those of us who know the difference with an even remotely convincing simulation?
I won't embarrass myself by divulging the name of this ridiculous "thriller", but the offending mock-drummer in question was in one of the "Twilight" films. Sadly for this feature, he was more believable as a non-existent preternatural being than he is as one half of some lame frat party indie band.
Another sterling example of this all-too-common oversight would be Garrett Hedlund's pathetic impersonation of a troubadour in the recent "Country Strong". Lip-syncing: B- , wanna-be guitar strumming: F. I'm confident that Mr. Hedlund can count to 4, but it was in no way evidenced by his inability to "pretend play" in time with his on-screen band. Now Gwyneth Paltrow sold it. Kudos to Mrs. Chris Martin on her impression of a country star. Guess it's good thing for her, considering she's since signed an actual recording contract and is in the process of readying a bona fide country album for release.
"That Thing You Do" is another one of those rare instances where I bought the band, no questions asked. Tom Hanks knew the value of covering those bases apparently, because even if they only had to mock pretty much just that one song that they played OVER AND OVER throughout the movie, those four impostors nailed it every time. I, for one, really appreciated this attention to detail.
For the record, "Eddie & The Cruisers" gets a pass because the soundtrack killed, otherwise I'd be taking that one to task too. Thank you, John Cafferty and the unfortunately christened Beaver Brown Band for that saving grace.
p.s. On the subject of imitations, I passed on that GNR show.
Let me just preface this installment with the observation that "Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull" is not such a bad flick....so far. I'm sitting here recovering from last night's show and its "after party", with the latest installment of this Harrison Ford franchise running on SyFy Network in the background. Yeah, I know it's been out for a few years now, but I'd avoided it like the plague, mainly because of the consistently negative reviews from everyone I knew that had seen it. If it takes a turn for the worse here shortly, I'll reassess my position in a future post. As it stands, I'm diggin' it.
So, about last night, I'd like to share a brief encounter I had with an interesting character while trying to park our band trailer behind the venue. Now, The Rutledge, one of my favorite places to play in Nashville, has a great staff, and my favorite sound engineer in town. It does not, however, always have the most hospitable parking situation. With only a tiny lot adjacent to the building, you are left with either distant pay-to-park lots, alleyways that are frequently tow-away zones, and the on-street option. Currently, there is a new convention center going up across the way, so most all of these alternatives are relatively compromised. Add to this equation the fact that a Predators game was about to begin mere blocks away just as we were loading our gear in, meaning all neighboring businesses have individuals positioned with signs and flags guiding you to their $5/$10/$15 spaces, and the idea of conveniently depositing an SUV with a 5'x8' trailer attached becomes an unlikely proposition.
As luck would have it, there was a fine spot available behind the club, next to a church, that I had used a time or two before, and I began the often tense procedure of backing around several other inconveniently located vehicles and into place. As I'm doing so, I hear someone I guess to be one of the aforementioned "attendants" barking what I assume to be a warning, so I hit the brakes and begin to double-check my surroundings. It would appear I am perfectly on course, but still I hear this guy bellowing at me, so I roll down my window to see what his issue with my operation is. Low and behold, he is not speaking any familiar tongue, but rather some from of drunken vagrant linguistics that involved a few unintelligible syllables and a healthy sprinkle of profanity that was the only part of our exchange that linked this unique dialect to the English language.
Mission accomplished, and hoofing it around the block to soundcheck, I was then privileged to hear this gentlemen attempt to "compliment" a young lady walking to the game, via similarly incomprehensible yowling, again peppered with very clear swearing. Ah yes, another beautiful night in Nashville, Tennessee, and a textbook example of that famous Southern hospitality.
p.s. Yeah, the ending of that Indiana Jones movie WAS kinda weak.
So, last night I found myself engaged in a discussion(via Facebook, of course, where 75% of all modern social interaction occurs these days) with an an old friend and former neighbor from Morton, Mr. Brad Klypchak. Nowadays, Brad teaches at Texas A&M University, when not listening to Nordic Metal and composing reviews of his latest finds in Haiku form here:
Having perused my recent Top 10 albums list, he had noticed it was little short on contributions from growling Vikings, and wondered if maybe he should give Anthrax's new album, the lone Metal entry on my list, a second listen, since it apparently hadn't captivated him the way it had me. (Note: He also owns Thor's "Thunder On The Tundra" proudly, so you can see where our opinions might diverge.) We shared our thoughts on the soap opera that Anthrax has been in recent years, with their revolving-door of singers, and I admitted that I may have just been relieved to finally see a new record from the band, after 8 years without one, and that it may not stand the test of time once the shine wore off. He then posted the following challenge to me:
"That "stick over time" bit really matters to me. There's something pretty powerful about being part of the rotation long past novelty of new release. .... Makes me wonder - gimme a top 5 releases which are not debuts nor most recent efforts which make the way to the player. (And making it more grrr than pop would be preferable)."
So, without the constriction of calendar year, but with the above criteria applied(I think), here are my Top 5 Hard Rock/Metal albums of all time(as far as today is concerned...tomorrow it may be a different story)......
1) Skid Row "Slave To The Grind" The first Metal album to debut atop the Billboard Charts, just prior to the onset of the Grunge revolution...too many good songs to tackle in this space, and, so far as I can tell, no bad ones....Sebastian's voice was at its peak here, and the band were able to craft an able on their own terms, unhampered by the ghost-writing contributions of Jon Bon Jovi & Richie Sambora that had watered down their debut...a true classic..
2)Backyard Babies "Total 13" Motorhead meets Social Distortion...one of the baddest records I've ever owned...purchased at a grossly inflated import price with no regrets...I saw these guys live on the "Total 13" tour in a tiny club in Chicago, and it broke my heart to realize that America would never "get it"...Several albums later, they're still a sleeper stateside, but elsewhere they've been commemorated by a box set, 2 documentaries, and a Swedish Grammy....
3)Monster Magnet "Powertrip"...this one was tough..."Monolithic Baby", their 2004 release, nearly snuffed this one from its prestigious appointment as their sonic apex(so sayeth me)...but it has managed to hold on over the years, with a collection of tunes so trippy and gnarly, that even though I have not a clue what Dave Wyndorf is singing about most of the time, I don't care...
4) The Wildhearts "Earth Vs. The Wildhearts" Their first domestic release(but not their actual debut...there are rules here, after all)....this should've seen them blowing up in the U.S., just as they did in Europe, but they were ahead of their time with the whole punk meets metal meets pop thing....in fact, no one has ever really done it well, so I guess they're STILL ahead of their time...whatever the case, this album is chock full of classics that have endured for going-on 20 years...numerous lineup changes/breakups & makeups have plagued the band throughout their career(they're currently on hiatus), but there is no act out there that has ever even dared attempt merging the sounds & spirit of Metallica, KISS, and Cheap Trick....let alone succeeded so masterfully.....all hail The Wildhearts....wherever they are.
5) Accept "Metal Heart"...little guy in camo fatigues howling "Screaming For A Love Bite"....need I say more?
So there you have it, Smokey B., my Top 10....and here are a few I feel bad about leaving out.....
Danko Jones "We Sweat Blood"
Shotgun Messiah "Violent New Breed"
Metallica "Ride The Lightning"..they're famous enough.
Valentine Saloon "Super Duper"
The Hellacopters "By The Grace Of God"
Warrior Soul "The Space Age Playboys"
OK, NOW I'm done.
I've had a busy week, a house full of friends & family visiting for Thanksgiving, an acoustic show on Black Friday, a pair of birthday dinners for a buddy(one of which involved drinking a dog bowl full of beer), and; when I could sneak away, a handful of hours in the studio finishing up some new material......
SO, in lieu of my usual pointed commentary, I offer instead a handful of recent reflections and quandaries.
1) Why is it, that when on stage performing acoustically, even if projected by a sizable sound system, every detail of each conversation taking place in the audience is crystal clear to the entertainer? What cruel trick of acoustics causes this unfortunate distraction?
2)Was Ace Frehley's latest solo album "Anomaly" supposed to be funny? If not, it is at the very least quite sad....particularly seeing as it took him roughly 20 years to write and record.
3)The band calling itself Guns N' Roses is playing here in Nashville on Sunday. Cheap seats are $39(before Live Nation gets to rummaging through your wallet for their additional fees), and there appear to be plenty left to go around. To go or not to go, that is the question? Do I betray the GNR of my youth, and attend this sham edition, featuring W. Axl Rose as the sole original member on display? Do I help finance this gang of ringers? OR, do I boycott, and foolishly assume that by withholding my meager contribution, I will somehow play a part in forcing the issue of the classic lineup's inevitable reunion?
These are the things currently keeping me up at night.....
1. THE BELLE BRIGADE "THE BELLE BRIGADE"...like a 21st century Fleetwood Mac...unbelievable harmonies from this brother & sister duo..
2. WILL HOGE "NUMBER IIV"...Will's follow-up to "The Wreckage" keeps the bar set high in his Springsteen-by-way-of-Nashville tradition...
3. GILLIAN WELCH "THE HARROW AND THE HARVEST"..stark but undeniably beautiful, this album has haunted me since the first spin...might be my #1 for the year if I had to pin it down...absolutely gorgeous....
4. FOO FIGHTERS "WASTING LIGHT"....one foray into acoustic stuff aside, Dave Grohl & co. have never let me down...I'd rank this one as getting as close to their watershed moment "The Colour and the Shape" as they've been since..."Back and Forth", the documentary filmed during its making, is pretty remarkable as well...
5. JASON ISBELL "HERE WE REST"...ex-Drive-By Truckers vocalist/guitarist hooked me with a number briefly featured in their "The Secret To A Happy Ending" documentary called "Razor Town"...I picked up his latest and couldn't put it down....reminds me of a young, more tuneful Steve Earle...
6. THE DAMNWELLS "NO ONE LISTENS TO THE BAND ANYMORE"...see my last blog for more on these guys(really ONE guy, Alex Dezen)...everything great about Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, and The Replacements, all rolled into one...
7.ANTHRAX "WORSHIP MUSIC"...Joey Belladonna is back...'nuff said.
8.DAWES "NOTHING IS WRONG"...these kids are making the Jackson Browne records Jackson Browne has apparently lost the urge to make..."Time Spent In Los Angeles" is one of the best songs of the year...says me.
9. MATTHEW RYAN "I RECALL STANDING AS THOUGH NOTHING COULD FALL"...another home run for this guy...part Dylan, part Steve Earle, part Springsteen....but totally unique, if that makes any sense...He seems to crank out at least one record a year, and I probably own around a dozen of them, each a treasure...sadly overlooked by the general population..
10. THE CIVIL WARS "BARTON HOLLOW"...2011's runaway success, with no leg-up from the big machine....a testament to the fact that sincerely rendered and superbly crafted music can still mop the floor with the cut n' paste drivel that ear-gouges us daily...amen.
Honorable mentions...and ones that might've been up there if I'd fallen for them sooner:
Butch Walker & The Black Widows "The Spade"
The Twilight Singers "Dynamite Steps"
John Hiatt "Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns"
Wicked Jester "Royalty Sux"
...and then I started meeting people that once were, reading books by people claiming to be, and buying used gear from guys that could no longer afford to....so I kinda gave up.
A few months back, I caught a show here in Nashville at a little club known as The End, from a band called The Damnwells. You've most likely never heard of them, and that's a shame, because they could very well have been a household name. Instead, they've toiled under the radar for the last few years, building a fan base the old fashioned way, through tireless road work. It doesn't hurt their modest legend any that they have released a handful of the best records the last decade has to offer either. The most recent of these, "No One Listens To The Band Anymore" and "One Last Century" are textbook examples of smart lyrics married to perfect melodies and delivered in just such a way that, even if you don't exactly know what singer Alex Dezen is talking about, you still FEEL where he's coming from.
If you can imagine Ryan Adams fronting The Replacements(yeah, I know he kinda tried that himself with the "Rock N' Roll" record), you might have some idea of what these guys sound like....maybe. I'm probably selling it short, but only because they're not an easy band to pigeonhole. This genre-defying tendency might be exactly what did them in at the commercial level...that, and an independent streak that didn't seem to sit well with their A&R man at Sony Records, the place their career began and nearly ended all in one.
This unfortunate debacle and its resulting fallout are the subject of an amazing documentary called "Golden Days"(check Netflix). From their inception and early years performing in and around Brooklyn, to an eventual bidding war by several major labels in the wake of The Strokes' chart takeover(when it was assumed that every indie band in the greater NY area were destined to duplicate that success), to the suspiciously protracted recording process of their intended debut "Air Stereo" and its imminent swan dive, this film is heart-breaking in that it's an all-too-common tale that simply never seems to get told.
The Damnwells were signed at nearly the same time, to the same label as both The Fray, and Augustana, but dropped before their record ever hit the shelves. Sony's logic for letting them go, explained in some detail, is utterly shocking....a computer program designed to project a band's sales potential, based on certain (unspecified) criteria, had deemed them unlikely to hit a sales plateau warranting further investment of label resources. Apparently The Fray and Augustana passed muster, and in an odd, and somewhat cruel twist of fate, The Damnwells soon found themselves on tour supporting both of their now-successful former label-mates, who they could also count as some of their biggest fans.
Sure, the band rebounded...sort of....but watching their dream be handed to them, only to be snatched away before they could ever reap the spoils of their labor, is utterly deflating.
There's been a happy ending of sorts for The Damnwells (www.thedamnwells.com), long after the cameras stopped rolling, but this time capsule is a powerful reminder of how hard some folks work to be little more than a footnote, while others have kissed the right babies and shaken the right hands all the way to the top, marginally talented or not.
Yeah, I used to wanna be somebody....
So my girlfriend walks in after work last night, and hands me a package from California. Now, I could lie and say I wasn't expecting it, but the truth is, I'd been quietly composing an ugly email message for the good folks at deadclubs.com concerning the Thirsty Whale t-shirt I'd ordered AND PAID FOR over a month ago. I had nearly drafted and fired my initial salvo of consumer frustration the previous day, but found myself tied up in more pressing matters. Thankfully that detour sidelined any heated correspondence, because those swell kids; presumably wracked with guilt over their inability to ship my wares in a timely fashion, threw in a size medium Madame Wong's shirt, free of charge. Patience is indeed a virtue....or whatever.
Most of you reading this are probably wondering what a "Thirsty Whale" is. Well, in my younger days, when hair was bigger, pants were tighter, and my wallet lighter, a select group of associates I called a band would trek to Chicago's "Wrigleyville" AKA "boys town", where we would shop for stage clothes made of exotic fabrics like crushed velvet & pleather. We would also get a crash course in pan-handling and out-and-proud gay culture, two things we didn't see on our rural streets back home.
I can remember parking my girlfriend's(same one mentioned above....don't ask about marriage, please...I only have so much space at my disposal.) overheating Ford Tempo behind an apartment complex, while the four of us ran into a joint called The 99th Floor to grab a faux suede jacket I'd been eyeing for months. Upon our return(jacketless, mind you...sold out....never did get one), our borrowed wheels were gone! Assuming our ride had been purloined by local hoodlums, it wasn't until one of us glanced up at the sign hanging above the empty space it had just occupied....you know, the one declaring the lot "private parking. violators towed at owner's expense"??...Yeah, that one. Let me tell you something, you haven't lived until you've see 4 guys looking like they just got off the road with Firehouse, jogging a dozen blocks in cowboy boots and skinny jeans, to the nearest police station, so they can get a heads-up as to which impound yard might be harboring their beater. A few more swift strides through what I'm pretty sure was the same neighborhood "Judgement Night" was filmed in, and 80 borrowed dollars later, we had wheels.
Now, where does The Thirsty Whale fit into this? The Thirsty Whale was a rock club on Grand Ave., way out in River Grove, IL. It was the place we REALLY wanted to(and eventually would, in the most disappointing fashion) play. It had been around since the 70s(it's now a BP/McDonald's), and several of our heroes had played there over the years. They'd host 2 shows a night on the weekends, one all ages, the other 21 & up, so we were able to get in to the early show, take notes on everything from which pointy head-stocked guitar was coolest to which pose we should employ in our next promo shot(train tracks or brick wall covered in graffiti?).
We'd generally coordinate our journeys based around someone like Lillian Axe or Enuff Z'Nuff playing there, someone we just HAD to see,...but once....the choice made itself.
Now, remember those cowboy boots?(like Nancy Sinatra said "made for walkin' ", but definitely not for running) Well, I had bought myself a pretty sweet pair, (which looked especially good worn on the OUTSIDE of my jeans, as was the fashion at the time....or so I was lead to believe.) but I only tried on the left boot, mainly because it was the only one displayed, but also because both of my feet are conveniently pretty much the same size. I had the clerk grab a pair from the back, paid for my purchase, and back to Central Illinois we went.
250 miles later, I discovered I had been sold TWO LEFT BOOTS! To this day, my old boss Bob Long calls me "Lefty"!
I had no choice but to saddle up, enlist my buddy Josh to ride shotgun, and head back to Chicago the following weekend, to procure my right kick.
Mission accomplished and already in the vicinity, we decided to head out to The Thirsty Whale, where we caught a set by metal C-listers TUFF, a set complete with a meltdown and near fisticuffs between the drummer and an impossibly mammoth-coifed guitarist.
TUFF's frontman, Stevie Rachelle, would go on to form the infamous website Metal Sludge, where I would eventually do an interview some 15 years later, promoting my band at the time, Bombshell Crush's appearance at the New Years Eve event he was hosting in Cleveland, OH. I made sure to mention to him that night that I had once travelled all the way to Chicago, and the Thirsty Whale, JUST TO SEE TUFF!
I left out the bit about the boot.
Well, I spent the better part of this drizzly Nashville morning both recovering from the too many Heinekens and not enough Bloody Marys I enjoyed at the studio yesterday afternoon/evening, and cleaning house on my Facebook account. Why? The answer to this(excuse me, I have to go throw some laundry in the dryer...yeah, it's 12:41PM, and I'm sitting here in a robe until my jeans are dry. THAT, my friends, is a life of leisure.)....OK, the answer to this is catching wind of one too many posts by folks crying about their invaded privacy(Uh, didn't YOU take that picture of yourself in the bathroom mirror..the one with your shirt off? Yeah, you're obviously not inviting people into your world.), and yet another conversation with peers about "so-and-so exhibit A" using their internet pulpit to skewer "so-and-so exhibit B" for making a necessary career move, that apparently also involved some form of perceived treason.
Whatever happened to just calling somebody up and hashing it out, or better yet, discussing it face to face....you know, like, in person? Facebook hasn't brought us closer together, it's simply made it easier to know what everyone else is up to without having to actually participate socially to keep up. It's turning us all into World Of Warcraft kids, unable to drag our flabby selves out into the light long enough to touch an actual human being. Instead, we sit around searching for clues and conjuring implied sleights from the most innocuous exchanges, fully convinced that we're being targeted in conversations that in no way involve us. Facebook, fostering latent paranoia since 2004. There's your tag line. Get over yourselves, people....shake a hand, bum a smoke, help an old lady across the street...anything, just stop worrying about what everybody else is doing right now.
On a somewhat less cynical note, I did have the distinct pleasure of catching a studio session for my buddy Joshua Ketchmark's new project. Joshua's originally from Pekin, IL, but moved to Los Angeles some 10 years ago to play rhythm guitar in my band at the time, Best Of Seven. One divorce and several cool jobs later, he's now kinda important at Schecter Guitars, and makes independent records on the side.
My band fORMER recently backed him on the first 4 tunes he & I co-wrote for his upcoming release, and this latest batch features the guys from a killer Nashville-based outfit called Bonepony, the ex-bassist of Sugarland, and Lynyrd Skynyrd's keyboardist. It never gets old watching a great song come together, especially when witnessing seasoned players, who have only been acquainted with the material for a matter of hours, pulling parts out of thin air that seem to have been expressly made for the track and delivered on some divine wavelength....truly inspiring.
Speaking of my band. Our tune "Blue Divide" will be featured on Fuel TV's "Punk Payback" episode 3 this week. Check it out. This has been an on again, off again affair with the network, but it appears we've made the cut this week, after a little bit of haggling on our behalf by the shows star AND producer, so catch us while you can.
Some folks remember him from his stint as guitarist in the late 90's hair-metal posse SouthGang, more would be familiar with him from his lone hit single, 1998's "Freak Of The Week" by his then-band Marvelous 3(3/4s of SouthGang, by the way), but most everyone with ears has undoubtedly(however unknowingly) been subjected to one of the many pop hits he has written and/or produced for the likes of Pink, Avril Lavigne, Simple Plan, Tommy Lee, Sevendust, etc., etc., etc.....Ladies & gentlemen, I give you Butch Walker.
These days Butch is well into the prime of his solo career, enjoying life as a "mid-level artist", releasing solo albums and touring when his schedule as a producer permits him the leisure, and enjoying his status as a "1 1/2 hit wonder" that plays neither the 1 nor the half in his live shows. Why? Simply because he doesn't want or really need to. He's developed a fan base so rabid that; while not exactly massive in numbers, he can please with 2 hours worth of obscure material, because they hang on EVERY syllable of EVERY word he has EVER written. Truth be told, he could probably sing the first line of any song, step away from the mic for a smoke break, and folks in the cheap seats wouldn't know the difference because his audiences insist on singing along throughout, unless otherwise prompted to silence by Mr. Walker himself. I've witnessed it...hell, I might've joined in.
I mention this rare phenomenon, because in addition to his already hectic schedule of making music for both his band and a slew of others, Butch has somehow found the time to pen an autobiography(along with assistance from journalist Matt Diehl). Entitled "Drinking With Strangers, Music Lessons From A Teenage Bullet Belt", it's 253 pages that trace his life as a social misfit from the redneck hills of Georgia, to his earliest brushes with fame in late 80's Los Angeles, and back to ground zero, Atlanta, where he would eventually dust himself off and start over not once, but twice.
His insights into recent work with such pop mega-stars as Pink & Avril Lavigne are particularly revealing, of both the remarkable come-from-behind triumphs he has experienced as a result of these associations, as well as the utter disappointments suffered at the hands of unscrupulous counterparts. His perspective on the seedier elements of the music business are almost Zen, especially in light of the fact that he's had more major label record deals in his career than there are actual major labels in 2011.
His candor in detailing his involvement with the reality TV fiasco known as RockStar: Supernova is endearing for it's honest accounting of how one gets sucked into such an "opportunity", in spite of every gut instinct telling him to run screaming from the imminent wreckage.
Perhaps the most simultaneously tragic yet hilarious segment of "Drinking With Strangers" involves his detailing the failure of what he refers to as a "social experiment", one which entailed him grudgingly accepting an offer to "produce" Lindsey Lohan. In light of her recent legal drama, I didn't expect to be the least bit shocked, and yet I was.....re-reading a passage or two just to be certain my comprehension skills weren't fading on me.
You don't have to be a fan of Butch's work to find merit in this tome...you could probably treat it as a work of fiction if you like, but if you are a fan, you'll wanna grab this from Amazon.com, or wherever else they may be stocking it. It's a quick read, and for anyone that grew up playing air-guitar to Motley Crue & Van Halen, you may feel like you're reading a diary you forgot you wrote.
So yeah, I got a job at a record store(remember those?), and have since owned and worked at a few others, which makes me one of the "all-knowing"...or so those like me; the underpaid peddlers of recorded media and literature, would have you believe. We're really just nerds battling our insecurities by bundling ourselves in what is essentially trivial knowledge about people we've never actually KNOWN, but feel we do via their "art".
The worst of us are the patented "indie snobs", who; like wine connosisseurs, bask in their pretense and delight at deriding your humble tastes for say, Switchfoot. I use this example, because I witnessed firsthand the loss of 3 sales of their last album, due solely to a guy (who was probably making no more than the kid that just sold me my Crunchwrap Supreme at Taco Bell) telling some college kids that "We don't carry Switchfoot"...as opposed to actually looking to see if he might be able to get them copies(or even if they may have had them in stock, indie god forbid).
Now, let's utilize that Taco Bell kid again...do you think he gets to just say "We don't have Nachos Bell Grande" with a sneer and a dismissive wave because HE doesn't like Nachos Bell Grande?? Not at any Taco Bell he doesn't OWN. Hey, I think Nickelback is pretty much the most hilarious crap to infiltrate our collective consciousness in recent memory, and I'm certain; almost to the point of being a conspiracy theorist, that it's some form of mind control devised and implemented by the Canadian government to stunt our progress as a nation, BUT I like money, and it's not my place to judge their singer's silly haircut, ridiculous lyrics, and macho posturing WHILE sporting said Golden Girls coif...so I sell each copy with a smile. Now, take Theory Of A Dead Man...wash/rinse/repeat..and you have commerce without prejudice, something a TRUE "indie snob" would not dream of "selling out" to.
If you only knew how closely most every scene in High Fidelity mirrors the existence of the lowly record store clerk, and my own life as the proprietor of my own "Championship Vinyl" AKA Co-Op Records of Pekin, you would be floored. We've even had our very own "indie snob" a time or two...had a few "metal-or-die" guys too...it's unavoidable. I'd like to think I fall somewhere in the middle, and since my "gig" here in blog land is to share my thoughts on current releases and whatever lost gems I feel were unjustly overlooked in their time, hopefully I'll be able to turn you on to something.
I will begin the business of pontificating on this subject directly.....next time.
OK, so this business of growing up in Morton, IL....well, it went something like this....My dad was in the military, a military police officer; to be specific, and when he finished his time in the service, we migrated eastward, and back to The Midwest. We landed first in East Peoria, in a tiny apartment complex at the epicenter of the now-infamous Cohomo (short for Cole Hollow Monster) craze. Look it up, youngsters, or ask the old folks. It was big news in "the hood" for a while there....our very own "Bigfoot". While none of the sightings were ever substantiated with anything even remotely credible, like a grainy photograph, I'd like to go on record as saying I'm fairly certain "Cohomo"; or a not-so-distant relative, purchased a Creedence Clearwater Revival "Chronicles Volume 1" cassette tape from me at the old Evergreen Square Co-Op Records location in 1996.
From East Peoria, we relocated to a house in Sunnyland, where my oldest sister Kilee arrived home from the hospital, and where we adopted our first family dog, Moonie. Moonie didn't stay long, probably because he liked to drag me around the yard by my head, but we kept my sister, who I honestly found considerably less interesting at the time. We also acquired an upright piano while at this address, which my Mom still has in her basement. It was at that piano that I would later be introduced to the rare things about music I DON'T like for the first time, like being told how to play it "correctly".
My parents eventually bought our first house in Morton, on Dunne St., and I soon began my scholastic life, after several hysterical fits brought on by obvious separation anxiety. I had somehow managed to skip the rite of "nursery school", bypassing the much-needed social conditioning it may have provided, and was thus wholly unprepared when thrown to the sharks of kindergarten. Clearly I survived, but I've never been "right", in my opinion.
So, inept as I may have been in what passes for grade school society, I reluctantly made friends(& enemies), and foolishly assumed that these were the hardest days of my life. This notion would follow me into adolescence, when the true quest for cool would begin.
Fall is here..Fall isn't here. The calendar says it IS...the weather says it's NOT. We finally get something of a chill,(and a great excuse to drag out a cool jacket) and Indian Summer sets in on Nashville. Oh well, here's to crossing fingers for a mild Winter too.
Anyway, where was I last? Oh yeah, blathering about KISS...something I could once do all day, every day, much to the dismay of most every one of my friends growing up. Tim Slack(sorry, man), in particular, was forced to listen to my endless dissertations on the validity of their non-makeup output in an era dominated by the youthful-by-comparison Bon Jovi & Ratt. KISS had by then taken to imitating these types of bands, in the hopes of attracting a younger fan base. Apparently, such endeavors were successful at least once, because I was sold. My friends, on the other hand, were not so taken.
I remember delivering a pizza to a guy once, and having him comment on the KISS button on my jacket with something to the effect of "What ever happened to those guys? I used to love 'em." I proceeded to inform him that I had seen them at The Peoria Civic Center 2 weeks earlier, in front of about 6000 people. I'm pretty sure he thought I was lying to him. Eventually that 6000 people became 5000, and then 4000(maybe?) at The Prairie Capitol Convention Center, and finally just a few hundred loyal folks(myself included) who were willing to shell out 100 bones and drive to St. Louis, MO to attend a stop on the first "official" KISS convention tour, AKA the "let's gauge the interest in us putting the makeup back on"/ "make a quick buck to recoup for our last bomb of a tour" tour.
It was at this event in St. Louis that the sleight of hand employed by my long-time heroes first became painfully apparent to me, and the inevitable slide from loyal fan to cynical observer/reluctant consumer began. Once again, I had no idea how close I would get, and how much I would eventually see that would shatter the illusions of my childhood.
Speaking of childhood, I thought I was going to start THERE...?? This "blogging" business is harder than I thought it would be. I guess maybe I'm not used to following guidelines. I'll work on that for next time.
Well, it looks like I'm going to be here periodically, musing on my experiences as a working musician, songwriter, record store owner, and fellow media consumer. But before I get down to sharing my previously-unsolicited-but-always-insightful opinions, I suppose a little background information would be in order.
May 20, 1971...the day I was born Dennis W. Smith Jr., in Salinas, California, in what I'd been told was one of the world's first earthquake-proof hospitals(it wasn't, Mom...thanks, internet).
I share my birthday with several celebrities including Cher, Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Gos, Busta Rhymes, & Joe Cocker, as well as a slew of other people who are more famous than me, and since I was 15, when my Mom bought me my first electric guitar, I've been trying to join the club.
That Lotus Les Paul copy, purchased for the low, low price of $100 at the long-defunct Morton Music Studio, across from the old 84 Lumber, on Jefferson Street in Morton.....well, it turned things upside down.
You see, after a handful of lessons designed to set me down the "right" path, and likely away from music and it's "rules" forever, I talked my guitar teacher, Jim White, OUT of "Kumbaya" and INto "Detroit Rock City", ditching the fundamentals for KISS. Goodbye music theory, hello power chords.
Little did I know, that years down the road, I'd be collecting a paycheck from KISS, for dressing mannequins in vintage wardrobe, and(apparently) taking abuse from future Ace Frehley impersonator Tommy Thayer....but that's a story for another time. Let's start at the beginning....(to be continued)