Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cover of the Week 22

Ain't That Lonely Yet

Buffalo Tom was asked to do a song for a compilation to benefit an artist that I had heard of but had whose music I didn’t really know. But the Sweet Relief benefit record was for a good cause, covering the songs of an artist named Victoria Williams, who was suffering from MS, and like a lot of musicians, didn’t have health insurance coverage. The record was not only to benefit Victoria, but was to go towards a fund established to help musicians in similar predicaments.

We used the opportunity to not only help a struggling musician and take part in a team effort along with a lot of other great artists, but to also try out a potential new production scenario for our upcoming new album, what was to become Big Red Letter Day. This was right on the tail of Let Me Come Over, when the second single Taillights Fade (the first was “Velvet Roof”) was just starting to pick up a little traction at WNEW in NY and WFNX in Boston. LMCO was met with mostly yawns for the first tour in the US. We were pretty depressed until we got on a tour with My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, and Mercury Rev. And then later, we got to Europe, where the momentum managed to survive our own version of the sophomore slump with Birdbrain. LMCO was pretty much greeted with unanimous acclaim in the UK weeklies, Benelux radio, and other media, and this enthusiasm encouraged other territories to take notice. 1992 was, as we later came to learn, was “the year that punk broke.” Our music might have been closer to Van Morrison than Nirvana, I think, but the history of the former had little to do with us while the latter’s success had a trickle-down affect for any of those of us who wore flannel shirts, had been getting lots of play on the CMJ (College Music Journal) charts, and were headlining the Town and Country in London and the Milkweg in Amsterdam, and the Loft in Berlin.

One of the many other contemporary bands with whom we did feel a particular kinship was Boston’s own Lemonheads, who started out around the same time as us. But while we were stuck in western Mass. at college, they were had a leg up on gigging in Boston clubs a bit before us. We eventually played tons of shows together, with some particularly memorable gigs at the Channel, and later in England, Germany, and Japan. Both bands were more pop/strummy-guitar-oriented than some other SST and Taang! acts (the respective labels we started out on). And we could really appreciate how fast Evan Dando was growing as a songwriter and how strongly the band was creating its own identity and sound. So we had taken notice when they went out to Los Angeles to record the great classic It’s a Shame About Ray album.

BT had been arcing toward a more classic sound than one that was “new” or groundbreaking. We were growing more confident in our writing and performance ability. As the year progressed from 1991 into 1992, all sorts of crazy unthinkable things were happening in the wake of Nirvana’s success. It was like a tipping point. Everyone that had been sleeping on each other’s floors suddenly seemed to get big promotions and raises. People that used to have 6 am slots on obscure college radio stations or had started an indie label were getting signed on to major labels as A&R reps or moving up the ladder at commercial radio stations or MTV. Everything seemed to start to get serious, like we could all really break through and make tons of money like the stars who made up our youthful rock & roll fantasies. Even LMCO had a moment in the sun, getting that commercial play. Right before the release of Birdbrain, we had signed to Beggar’s Banquet, a British label that had put out a myriad of our favorite records by bands like Bauhaus, the Fall, Go Betweens, and the Died Pretty. Beggar’s licensed out different acts through various major labels in the States. We had a deal with RCA, who oversaw LCMO and farmed us out to a tiny promo company that RCA had taken under its umbrella. The idea was that if an act achieved a certain level of success, then the grown-ups at RCA would take over the record. I believe this sort of happened with LMCO, but it was half-hearted. I think Beggar’s got pissed that the ball was dropped and were anyway moving on to another deal with WEA. If LMCO had come out 6 months later, or if there had been a sustained effort by a major label promoting it, there is little question that it would have been more successful in breaking us.

Nevertheless, we took that momentum and it kind of felt like the world was our oyster. Tours got bigger; we hired more people; bought more cool guitars and amps; we appeared on various TV shows; got publishing offers; and started playing good slots on huge European festivals. We were at Reading in 1992 (93?) when Nirvana headlined. I think we played the same day as Public Enemy and Pavement. Everything seemed to be pretty set up for us. I was just happy to not have to work a day job anymore. We had a healthy advance to record our next record. So we started chatting with various producers around the same time we had been invited to be a part of the Sweet Relief record. We talked to some truly inspiring people and had heard from Evan how much fun he had working with the Robb Brothers out at their legendary studio, Cherokee, in Hollywood. We loved, absolutely unanimously all loved that Ray record and really dug how it sounded. Up to that point, “going to L.A. to record the next record” meant “selling out,” “compromising with the label heads,” “watering down the sound,” etc. But the Lemons’ record sounded classic, warm, and fresh all at the same time. The growth displayed on that record was off the charts.

So we went out there to record this Victoria Williams song with the Robbs, to see how it went. And it went really well. We all hit it off and had a blast. There were three of them (the oldest, Dee, has recently passed away). They were madmen, albeit fantastic older guys who had lived the fast life in the ‘60s into the 80’s and were pretty done with it by the time we reached them – except for the stories; the stories remained. It had started for them as a backing band for Dick Clark on an old television show called "Where the Action Is," continued through backing Richie Nelson, Del Shannon, and up into the Manson-era, during which time they started the original Cherokee out on a ranch very close to the Spahn ranch where the Manson girls lived with Charlie. Later on, the Robbs bought the old MGM studio on Fairfax where Sinatra and other legends had recorded. At one point, during the peak of 1970s rock decadence, they had a studio built into a yacht.

In we roll, three young “college rockers” to record with these great older dudes in unbelievable shag hair-dos that they had held over from 1977. They were like a comedy team. Remember the Hudson Brothers TV show on Saturday mornings in the late-‘70s? It was three whacky brothers who were in a rock band but also did slapstick comedy. One of them was married to Goldie Hawn and they spawned the lovely Kate Hudson. Not only were the Robbs a little like them, but they knew them of course. That’s one of the things we learned from living in Hollywood for the next two months; it is more like a big town than a large city. When we first started going out there in 1989, the surrealism of seeing celebrities we hadn’t even thought of in decades set in fast and was hard to shake after subsequent stops we had made there on our tours. But living there for a couple of months, and especially working with the Robbs in the studio, we got a big dose that was like being on one of those MTV reality shows with faded stars all living together.

When the Robbs first started telling stories, they just seemed too far out to be true. I mean, there one about their dad in the late-‘70s, a recently retired and divorced Ford executive coming out to stay with them and partaking in the lifestyle for an indefinite stay, a lifestyle that shocked even the Robbs when one of them walked into the studio lounge to see dad freebasing with Ringo and Ron Wood. But as the next couple of months unfolded, we had our own taste of just how strange life can get in a music studio in Hollywood. Rick James was a constant presence. He was working on a record in one of the other two rooms while he was awaiting trial, I believe on kidnapping and torture related to crack binging. We became quite friendly with him, to the point that he felt comfortable coming in and stealing our beers from the fridge in our control room. I remember the music fading out and one of the Robbs shouting out, “Hey, Rick!” at which point Rick, startled, lifted his head quickly and whacked it bad on the top shelf of the fridge.

Lita Ford was also there most of the time, recording. She seemingly became quite smitten with Chris Colbourn, who would fawn over her collection of dachshunds. A couple of the guys from the recently broken-up Jane’s Addiction were there as well, Dave Navarro and another dude. Dave was a quiet, pretty nice guy the few times we talked. Ice Cube was in and out. And I had heard Hank Shocklee was in producing some younger, new act. I was a huge, huge fan of the Public Enemy records he had put together. One day in the lounge I was sitting a booth table chatting with who I thought was one of the kids he was producing, just making small talk for a long time, watching a game or something. I eventually steered the topic to music. “So,” I said, “you guys in there working with Hank Shocklee?” He looked at me and smiled, “Yeah, that’s me.” I was confused. “It’s your record?” I asked. “No. That’s ME,” he said. “I’m Hank.” “Oh! You’re Hank? Wow, pleasure to meet you. Big fan.” I guess I was expecting one of the dudes that looked like the entourage I had seen traveling with PE, or someone like Chuck D.” But Hank seemed so young to me at the time.

One day, while we were mixing “I’m Allowed,” we had Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Gene Simmons, And David Lynch all stopped in for visits. It was like a Fellini talk show in there. To illustrate some point he was making in a story, I think about how great a singer Gene Pitney was, at one point Simmons was right in my face singing “Town Without Pity.” I mean, it felt like the whole song. “Gene Simmons, ladies and gentleman,” we said after he left. And sure enough, like that talk show I envisioned, in walked David Lynch later on. He told me this great story about moving to Los Angeles, a story that I had once read about, involving the Denny’s on Sunset. He was telling us how broke he was and said “and I reached into my pocket and I only had one penny, one greasy little penny with a hair attached to it.” I just kept thinking, “how fucking great is this that David Lynch, who made some of my all-time favorite movies, TV, and even music, is telling me this story.” David Lynch, ladies and gentlemen, David Lynch!

We would leave after a long day to stay up at the luxurious Fairfax Suites (I forget if that’s the name or not). In my Aretha post, the most immediate before this one, I make a joke about macramé. The Suites, on Hollywood and Fairfax, really did have some dusty-ass macramé wall hangings, brown shag carpeting, and everything else in shades of burnt umber. It was between this and the Oakwood apartments, which is where the Pixies were staying. We got to visit and have fun with them one night during our stay. But Oakwood seemed just too far out, located in the Valley somewhere. We would rather rough it a bit and be central to everything. We could walk down to the studio, which is just a bizarre thing for people to do in LA, just as the stereotype has it.

We ended up having some fun nights at the Fairfax, including a night when we returned while on tour later on and had a great time rocking it all night by the pool with a band from Mexico, drinking until my eyes crossed. But for the most part, it was kind of a sad old place. John Waters’ inspiration, Divine had died there, which Chris was reminded to every day as one of those morose “deaths of the stars” tours in a hearse would roll underneath his window and announce the details to the tourists. It definitely had that sad Night of the Locusts-like sniff of the Hollywood underbelly, the at-best-faded glamour of Hollywood that Ray Davies sang about in his lines, “you can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard/Some that you recognize, some that you’ve never even heard of.” That song ran through my head the entire time I was out there. I started to re-read John Fante during this time. City of Quartz is another, though non-fiction book about LA that made me examine the environment with a greater scrutiny.

Most of the time, however, was spent just clocking in and out of the studio like going to any other job. I like to work mostly at night, but the Robbs had long settled out of the rock and roll life, had kids to get off to school and wanted to see at night and were just generally more regimented about the job. I wanted to rock and roll all night and party every day, but we were pretty much just a working class band with a job to do. We would come home fairly early and decompress, try to let the ear ringing subside, read some books, call home, (no real internet yet) and watch some television. I recall a few things I watched on TV out there.

One was the ongoing "Nightline" coverage of the horrific war in Bosnia and the Balkans. I get pretty raw playing music every night, recording all day like that. At least on tour, we had a change of scenery and other people around us. In the studio, though, it is just the three guys and the studio people – producers, engineers, etc. We were with each other the better part of 5 or 6 days a week, day and night, studio and apartment, for 2 months. And we were trying to collaborate artistically, which anyone knows can create a highly charged atmosphere. We would get lonely for those back home. Emotions start to run high. Not that one would need this context to feel deeply for the situation in the Balkans, but I remember once just sitting in my room and watching this tragedy on television and falling apart for the rest of the night, not getting any sleep. I honestly felt at the time like I might be having a nervous breakdown. It should have leant perspective to the insignificance of what we were doing and therefore make me feel less affected by my daily drama and myopic worldview. I think it indeed did lend perspective to that insignificance, but far from making me feel more balanced, it just served to tip me in the other direction, made me feel more hopeless about our detachment from real life and despondent that so much of our efforts would have so little real effect on the world. I realize that this is something a lot of people go through in their 20s and one feels that sense of self-importance that they need to be shaken from every now and again, to experience that existential dread and insignificance. This sort of personal emotional struggle probably did serve the emotional depth of the performances on the record. I don't mean to say that X led to Y, that "Bill watches bad shit on Nightline and goes on to sing well on BRLD;" I guess I mean that all that strife that we deal with as young adults gets channeled in a general way into the music/art. Thank God I didn't try to write a political anthem.

On a lighter note (this is a horrible transition, but it is time to move this blog post along), I also recall tuning in to the "Tonight Show" and catching this guy I had not heard much of. While I had heard his name, I’m ashamed to say that at that point, in 1992/3, I had not recalled having heard any of Dwight Yoakam’s music yet. His name had been stored away in the “contemporary country” closet in my mind. I had no interest in that newer Nashville stuff, as it was so formulaic, over-produced, and written with bumper-sticker sloganeering. But Dwight came out and sang this song “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” which was the new single from his hit record This Time. The song hit me deeply. I just thought it was so damn catchy and classic sounding. And Dwight’s enigmatic performance totally convinced me to run out and by the CD the next day. The irony is that the song is Dwight’s big attempt and success at crossing over into mainstream country and pop radio. The rest of the stuff on the record --- and most of his other records, for that part (which I eventually started collecting) – is based in that classic Bakersfield, California sound pioneered by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who were two of my heroes. And he had also been rooted in the LA post-punk roots scene that had hatched Los Lobos, and all those Slash bands like the Blasters, X, Gun Club, the Long Ryders, and Rank and File. I went on to catch Dwight in concert a bunch of times, all cool in his tight-ass jeans and cowboy hat brim down over his eyes. He rarely said a word.

I might have listened to This Time more than any other record while we were recording Big Red Letter Day, though I doubt it comes through on the record. In the end, we felt we made a worthy follow-up to Let Me Come Over. The half-sarcastic title – inspired by the film It’s a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey bitterly proclaims, “another red letter day for the Bailey family” -- reflected our sentiment about living in California, the sun, the optimism that is supposed to be with you living the semi-rock-star life in Hollywood and the idea that we were being pegged as destined to break though in a bigger way than we had before. Of course we were working hard for that greater success, but deep down, we knew it was pretty unlikely for guys like us and maybe deep down we weren’t sure if we wanted or deserved greater success or how much more we had in us. The cycle that began with recording that record and rolled over a year of touring, brought us some of our greatest highs but also almost brought me to my knees with excruciating lows.


Ain't That Lonely Yet

10 comments:

jesselun said...

Great stories.
Hey, I was listening to THis TIme and BRLD pretty much at the same times. Solid, baby

Bill Janovitz said...

I made some edits, added/subtracted/clarified/corrected. That post was done hastily. Thanks for reading.

Rob said...

LMCO and BRLD are both classics. Great stories from the 92/93 days. Really puts those years into context. Also, thanks for the good times at TOAD on Feb 28. We came from Chicago. Cheers !

Kevin said...

Bill-
I haven't done one of those "albums that changed my life" in Facebook because I know whatever I write about BRLD would drown out whatever came after it. "Zeppelin IV?, yeah, I guess that was good too.."

This album is my favorite of all time and is a ticket to be transported back to some smokey night and sticky floor at Lupos just as much as it transports me back to the feelings of some 22 year old on the cusp of something and nothing at the same time.

I would spend my nights bartending and my days worrying that I had let down the people that had just paid for my newly minted college diploma. Wondering what I could do or wanted to do about it and if I was letting myself down too. Wondering why that girl broke up with me. Wondering if things with this new girl could turn out as good as I hoped. Such was 93. BRLD was what was playing in the background throughout.

One of my favorite wistful memories is getting home from the bar a 3am on cold december nights, pouring a gigantic bowl of cereal and settling in on the couch to watch It's a Wonderful Life. At the time it could be found at any hour on like 5 different cable stations. I would watch it like 3-4 times a week in that drafty 3rd floor attic/apartment in Somerville. Every time it got to the big red letter day line I'd hear Torch Singer playing in my head.

Now the movie only is shown once a year, because of some copyright issue they suddenly found in the mid-90s , a fact which always makes me feel sorry for the next generation of bartenders. But each time it's on, I watch. When it's a big red letter day for the Baileys I turn to Shannon and sing that part of Torch Singer, which prompts her to roll her eyes without fail. I'll turn back to the show and usually still be eating a big bowl of cereal; some things never change. Except this time it's around 9 at night and I don't have a bunch of questions running around in my head.

Thanks for the post.

Scott Ellington said...

I feel the same way about It's a shame about ray. Lots of really good music in boston around that time...

Ciaran said...

As always an interesting read Bill.
LMCO just about trumps BRLD though as my favourite BT album (and hence my favourite album of all time!)
How about a cover of one of your contempories from the 90’s alternative scene, say Yo La Tengo, Dinosaur Jr or even a Galaxie 500?

Paul Daddario said...

Bill,
The L.A. stories are really great. I knew that BT had fame associated with BRLD- TV show themes, talk shows, etc, but the level of celebrity and music superstar interaction was to a higher level than I imagined.
Personally I first heard your music, it was LMCO, summer 1992 on a boombox on Nauset Beach- I hastily traded the owner a copy of the Pogues,, if I Should Fall From Grace with God for our album. I got the earlier stuff and never looked back- There is a spontaneity with LMCO- the way the songs move from one to another, that has a classic feel, much like a great Husker Du record, or any of the great albums you can think of- plus its packed with great songs, thats why I feel people give it the “your best album” and “classic” status. If BRLD has any faults perhaps the production quality took some of the rollingly spontaneous feel, but of course the songwriting was just stellar- the seasoning and soul was drawn out and we get, imho, probably some of your best musical-lyrical efforts culminating with “treehouse.”

Sorry for the ramble.

Randy Reichardt said...

.: Bill, this post reads like a short story that you can't put down until the end. I just took time in my office at work to finally read it in its entirety. I wonder if you realize that as you provide us more and more backstories about the musical and creative history of Buffalo Tom, they serve to enhance our enjoyment of the music. I will never listen to BRLD or LMCO the same way again. I'll hear these tunes and imagine the drive and sweat and tension and determination to make a worthwhile product, and how the band worked as a team to accomplish that.

I hope you have long ago come to accept that your feelings, at the time, that "so much of our efforts would have so little real effect on the world" isn't true in the larger picture, but that back then, I can understand why you may have felt that way. I've repeated myself too many times on your blog about the permanent impact that your and your bands' music has had on me for almost two decades. I've come to believe that if a person can have a positive impact on one other person, then there indeed has been "real effect on the world", just a tiny part of it.

Please continue with these great stories. Perhaps you can publish a collection of these blog posts someday. :-)

Oh, and thanks for CotW 22, too.

Andy Cof said...

Wow, that's is a great post. I can't believe you met Gene Simmons. He's a marketing genius. He's made Kiss into one of the strongest brands ever. Some tongue in cheek BUT amazing ideas he's thought up are the 'Kiss Caskett' and Kiss aftershave (ingredients: bergamot, fir balsam, black cumin, white pepper, moss, sandalwood, anise...nice.) and the Kiss Comic that was printed with drops of each member of Kiss' blood!

Also Alive 2 has one of the best centre spreads on a vinyl LP I have ever seen, in 300 years time people will think Kiss are gods when they look at that photo.

This video is pretty funny as well 'you can't hide the hook!'
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oT7MS0GxKoQ

But yes, back to the point. Let Me Come Over is an absolute classic to me and contains one of my favourite songs ever 'Larry'. When I first listened to that album I barely noticed the song was there but after many listens it seeped into my mind and it just gets better with every year. There's a certain sound on Let Me Come Over, a creamyness to the production that ties together the sound of the whole album.

Around the time the it came out I was just starting my first band and it was an amazing and exciting time. I think it was summer or coming into summer and we used to drive around in an old Renault. The eject button on the stereo in the car was broken and had the cassette of LMCO stuck in it so it was all we could listen to. I also remember there being a big hole in the floor of the passenger seat so have memories of listening to Mineral while watching the road zoom by through the hole.

Anyway we needed somewhere to practice so we went to the bassists house up in Reigate, UK. He lived on a farm and we set up the drums and amps in a small Chicken Barn. We were so hyped to be playing real instruments and it felt like an adventure.

Tony who was the Bassist worked in the local supermarket in the nearest town and he managed to get hold of hundreds of egg boxes. We spent an afternoon sticking them to the walls of the Chicken barn to sound proof it. Even though we were in the middle of nowhere Tony's Step Dad had no patience with Rock music so we had to make sure it was properly soundproofed.

Anyway we played everyday for a week covering Buffalo Tom, Dinosaur Jr and Cure covers with Egg boxes falling around us from the volume. It was great. We finished the week off by having a party and playing a gig in Tony's front room in front of aload of mates. There was an attractive older girl that liked me but she just ended up looking after me while I was sick in the toilet from my inexperience with drinking cider.

It’s weird since then I’ve played in more bands than I can remember and played hundreds of gigs but that was probably the most fun gig I ever played. And although I’ve discovered better albums since then (sorry Bill, but I’d never even heard a Beatles album up to that point) there are few albums I love more than Let Me Come Over.

Earthdog70 said...

Great post-cool stories. I think you may be getting closer to covering "Dirty Water" here? I heard it on satellite radio today and thought of Jano solo!