Saturday, February 28, 2009

Song Reviews/Covers of the Week

When Buffalo Tom started to take a bit of a hiatus that ended up lasting 7 years or so, one of the things I did was start writing a bit more, mostly song reviews for the site When I say "reviews," they are mainly essays on why I love the songs. I think I did over 300 of them. I sort of forget which ones I did and should link to the ones that I am covering here. But these go back almost 10 years. They were mostly written between 1999-2001. So here are some of them thus far:

Whispering Pines

Till The Next Goodbye

Little Mascara

Agnes, Queen of Sorrow

Boots of Spanish Leather

Straight to Hell

Hardly Getting Over it

Valentines Day

Monday, February 23, 2009

Cover of the Week 17

The Cover of the Week is “Whispering Pines” by The Band.

It seems like, what with all the beard-rock boys out there nowadays (no disparagement; I dig most beard rock and only wish I could grow a beard as well), The Band is undergoing a sort of renaissance. Levon Helm has gone from playing mid-sized clubs to theaters on his last tour. Garth Hudson and Levon have been enlisted to play on records by hipster indie rockers up in Woodstock since the early 1990s. Most American rock & rollers of a certain vintage grew up at least knowing the basic staples of the group on FM radio in the 1970s/early-80s, their famous work with Bob Dylan, and watching The Last Waltz every year or so. But now it seems like 20-something musicians are even cultivating that mustachioed-leather-blazer/vest-with-wide-brimmed-Stetson-and-silk-scarf look. Hey, good for them. If I could grow an ironic mustache I would as well. I, too, agree that the 1970s were the peak of rock & roll. That was the time to be in your 20s, not the goddamned 1980s. What a friggin’ waste of youth that decade was! Yeah, all the underground stuff and whatever -- don’t try and hold it up to the ‘70s.

Since the formation of Crown Victoria in 1999 or 2000 (can’t believe it has been that long), we have always played the Band song, “It Makes No Difference,” which has undergone a rebirth of its own. When Eddie Vedder came down to Toad a couple of years ago, it was one of the songs he sang with us. Pearl Jam had been playing it with their current opener at the time, My Morning Jacket. Here is a clip of Crown Vic doing performing it this past June at Toad. Thanks to Dan and Camille for recording it.

It Makes No Difference (Live at Toad)

(By the way, we just finished up the 3rd of 4 shows this month at the bar and I already miss the residency. I love playing the room. I love the audience that waits on line and packs it for 4 hours. We had a blast this past weekend with our stand-in drummer, Dave Brophy, heroically killing it back there all night. Sarah Borges and Lyle Brewer from Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, as well as Nate Leavitt, Paul Blumenfeld and Josh B. all came up to join us on certain numbers.)

The real tragedy, if indeed there is a renaissance and re-appreciation of The Band’s music underway, is that Rick Danko and Richard Manuel are not still around to reap the benefits. The Band and members went through the 1980s darkly, their principal songwriter and guitarist never looking back after the first break-up, ostensibly the “Last” Waltz. The re-tooled band, minus Robbie Robertson, ended up playing small clubs, with Danko and Manuel battling demons and falling in and out of sobriety. Richard Manuel was by all accounts the gentle, warm, and delicate soul that came across in his music and in his public persona. He hanged himself in the bathroom of a godforsaken Quality Inn in Winter Park, Florida after a gig at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in 1986. He was 42, the same age I am now.

This week’s cover is arguably his signature song. He also credibly sings “You Don’t Know Me” like he owns that one as well, but he apparently wrote most of “Whispering Pines.” I mean, anything the guy sang would wring out your heart and indeed, “Tears of Rage” is his other top-3 song. Of the white guys who were highly influenced by the vocals of Ray Charles, there is only Van, Joe Cocker, and perhaps the master, Manuel, who got it and made Ray’s style their own. But Richard had a devastating, haunting high-end of his range, as demonstrated on the Band’s original recording of “Whispering Pines.” It gets right to you.

Check out the Peter Viney article on the song at the excellent web site for The Band.

I’m not sure how I ended up with this version I have here. I’m not sure what to make of it, if I’m telling the truth. I think it’s good, but the song is so sacred to me and I can in no way sing like Richard. I hope it is something worthwhile. I don’t need no sycophants so feel free to let me know if it doesn’t do it for you. I’m a big boy.

Bill's Version of Whispering Pines mp3

My review from lo so many years back.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cover of the Week 16

I'm posting next week's cover a few days early, as it is timely: a cover of Steve Earle's aching "Valentine's Day."

Steve has put out so much music over the years that it is difficult to keep up. He is one of those artists whom I feel guilty about not keeping completely up with, as I think he is one of our great songwriter's. But Feel Alright and El Corazon are two mid-career albums to start with.

Steve's travails have been well-documented. He has had a hard paper route, as my wife might say in all of her Southern-Jersey-ness (Jersocity?). He has been married about 32 times. We had a publicist at some point late in the 1990s who had been wife #30, I believe. Either way, when Steve pens lines like, "I know that I swore that I wouldn't forget/I wrote it all down/I lost it I guess," you know he isn't just being cute, clever, taking on a character; he is this guy. And just in case you don't believe it from my rendition, go buy his original recording. Mine only hints at the depth of emotion in the song.

We had the honor to play with Steve as well as Ricki Lee Jones (Whose first few records still kill me) in Austin at SXSW a couple of years back. Steve was just sitting backstage with us talking guitars with Tommy Maginnis. Oh yeah, and another hero, John Doe was back there too. And if you think I'm name dropping, you're damned straight. That and a bunch of songs and some good friends are the most I have gotten from being in a band. A chance to play with Ricki Lee and Steve Earle in Austin while the ever-gracious John Doe sips beer with us? Tell me you wouldn't tell the tale as well. At this point in my life, such is the gravy.

Valentine's Day mp3

My review from years ago

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Elvis and Nick at WBCN 1978

Talkin' 'bout my alma mater. In fact, I saw Elvis solo at UMass in 1983 or '84. He was fantastic.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Cover of the Week 15

See, this is that this Cover of the Week project is good for. Here I am, Sunday night, was out until 3 last night playing at Toad, worked all day today at the day job, home for dinner and a pummeling from my 4 year-old dude (boys are way more punishing than their sisters on old fellas like me), my voice rough from the previous multi-set night, a couple of glasses of wine and the couch. That would usually be the end of it. It was a long week and I have another busy one coming up, so I knew I had to get this week’s installment of my little self-assignment going if I was not going to lose any momentum.

When Buffalo Tom first went on a tour, it was 1989 and it was in Europe. Until we got there, we couldn’t fully comprehend that there were people who listened to our music over there. It actually started to happen for us overseas -- in the UK, Holland, Belgium, and Germany – before we even started being able to headline clubs in Boston. They were gobbling up pre-grunge-era indie label American guitar rock in these countries. We hit the road for a six-week tour that took us all over the continent and England. It was a quick lesson in the extreme highs and lows of being in a band on the road, playing in foreign countries, carousing, having a blast every night, walking the streets of new cities every day. But it was also a long time to be away from home, the longest I had ever been away, and I was homesick and trying to hold together a serious relationship at its early stages with the woman who became my wife. And the band was also dealing with the extreme closeness of each other in the squalid confines of cheap hotels, crowded vans, phallic-graffiti-strewn cold dressing rooms, hangovers, lack of sleep, and basically just learning about our own and each other’s individual personality features and failings in the highly unnatural test-tube rock-tour lab.

But the highs were exhilarating, all experienced for the first time: our first festival set; first time in all these countries; first time headlining in clubs to hundreds of people who knew our songs; and the first time seeing real press attention in anything, never mind big national weeklies like NME, Melody Maker, Spin, and so on. Getting taken seriously in interviews and seeing thoughtful and at-times glowing reviews was extremely encouraging. All the bands that were from our particular era and milieu were going through the same sorts of experiences. We had known about such friends as Dinosaur, Lemonheads and bands we loved like the Pixies and Throwing Muses going overseas and coming back to Fort Apache studio with exciting tales from the road about the level of enthusiasm and how well they were treated.

One of, if not the single most important and immediate influence on Buffalo Tom was the band Husker Du. I was still a kid in high school when I first heard them. I had been obsessed with REM, Talking Heads, Clash, Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen and other song-oriented artists. It was a natural progression from my days growing up listening to classic rock and pop. Many of the bands I listened to, even the punk bands like X and the Gun Club, were rooted in traditional American music. I appreciated the continuum and aspired to that. I enjoyed going to see and have a laugh at shows from Flipper and such Cali punk. But very little Boston, D.C. and other sort of suburban hardcore did anything for me. It was really what made me feel closed-minded musically for the first time in my life. I needed some melody. And I also liked soul and this stuff just lacked any semblance of boogie. But I felt like a lot of my friends were hearing something in the fast, loud, non-melodic rat-a-tat of some of these bands. It just wasn’t my thing. I would rather grow out my bangs, put on some flannel and paisley and mumble some impressionistic lyrics over folky electric melodies like Michael Stipe or Boston’s Neats. I guess I was more of a romantic than an anarchist. Not sure where I fall on that spectrum nowadays.

The first band to make sense of hardcore for me was Husker Du. I got Zen Arcade while still in high school. The band had been drifting away from their more straight-up loud-fast-rules hardcore for a few records. This record was a sprawling double-LP set of youthful angst and alienation played through most of the set with a primal urgency and reckless abandon (the record was completed in a few days, I recall). But there were truly pretty moments of almost quietude – a piano vignette here, a meditative feedback squall there. And one of the prettiest melodies on the record is song called “Pink Turns to Blue,” sung by Grant Hart and set to a driving attack from the band. It was the perfect record for a high school kid like me, lyrically and musically. Probably a lot like Born to Run was for kids a little older than me, and how the Hold Steady, another great Minneapolis band, might be for a kid hip to that sort of thing now, songs about fearing life in a dead-end suburb, factory jobs, drug abuse, broken homes, inability to keep young relationships together – in other words, complex emotional subjects that were far different than the didactic coldness of most hardcore.

But of course, this meant that Husker Du was no longer “hardcore.” This was fine for me, even as I went back and delved into their more raw early records. But it was Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Candy Apple Gray, which form one of those classic mid-career trifectas for me and many more like me, including Chris and Tom from Buffalo Tom. Our shared love for these records was one of the main impetuses for bringing us together to form a band.

So you can imagine how excited we were when Grant Hart named our first record as his favorite of the year for NME or one of the British weeklies. “Giddy” might be the word. And you can further understand my thrill when, on one of those late-night post-gig phone calls home from a telephone booth somewhere in the streets of England, my girlfriend told me to guess who called me at out apartment in Boston. Just tell me, I said. Grant Hart, she said. You gottabefuckingkiddingme.

“No, he was very nice,” she said. “We chatted for a long time. He’s a fan of the band and just wanted to talk.”

I don’t really remember much beyond that. I am sure I went back to tell Chris and Tom. I will have to see if they have any recollection. But over the years, we got to meet Grant, saw him play various shows in Boston with the Nova Mob. I still have never met Bob or Greg. We had the honor of having Grant play some solo sets with Buffalo Tom not too, too long ago, in Chicago and at First Ave. in Minneapolis. I think I got him to sing “Diane” with me. I even drove around his home city with him during that little string of dates, in some old bomber of a sedan. He’s a good guy with a big heart, though I can’t pretend to know him much more than that. But if you had told me when I was a senior in Medfield High that I would even have this much to tell you, I would have been dazzled.

One of those major-impact songs on me, as a writer, a singer, a guitarist, in founding a band, and just as a plain old music fan is my Cover of the Week this week, from Candy Apple Gray, “Hardly Getting Over It.” I played this acoustic-driven ballad to death when I got this album. Those suspended folk-rock chords – pretty much the basis of all songs I wrote for Buffalo Tom. Please excuse my gig-worn voice and relative lack of inventiveness with this one. It is simply a lovely song that needs only to be played simply.

Hardly Getting Over It Mp3

My review from the turn of the century.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

T Shirts

Bill Janovitz and Crown Victoria "Part Time Man of Rock" t shirt, as modeled by Lucy. Get 'em while they last. Available at Toad tonight and online. Support the band. God knows the pay ain't much otherwise. AND NO COVER at TOAD!


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Toad Shows -- BillyBillyMattandPhilly

The Rez-din-cee returneth!

You know the thing is we play some songs we know and a lot of songs one of us might know and then there are songs that we have read about but have not actually heard but try to play anyway because they are supposed to be "good" according perhaps to some classic rock magazine one of us might have read and told the other guys about and then we invite others on "stage" to play the songs with us mainly to cover up the fact that we don't know them.

It should be good.

Every Saturday night in February at Toad, a bar in cosmopolitan Porter Sq. Cambridge. We hit the stage at 10. Usually there are some great acts on earlier in the evening.

No admission charge. Very limited seating. Get there early. Don't stare at me longingly from the sidewalk outside of the window. Do not try to call or text me when I am on stage. Just get there early. Or come late, when it thins out a bit and we are at minute 19 of "Whipping Post."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Cover of the Week 14

Since I seemingly have written a book for this post, I will spare you the scrolling and start with the link to the song. but if you have some time, I hope you enjoy my reverie/rant. There is also a video clip in the middle of it.

Cover of the Week -- Straight to Hell mp3

Buffalo Tom were part of a miserable tour in the summer in the mid-1990s opening for some best-left-unmentioned-and-forgotten band, across the soulless empty heart of America’s highway-exit-mall-dominated exurbia, playing the local McBlockbuster Pavilions, staying at the McDays and McHoliday Inns, and eating at the blooming-onion Outbacks and TGIFridays that represent the hospitality and service industry at the hollow core of disposable America. We were opening for this McBand headliner in this same dispiriting setting night after night. We would travel for many hours of redundant eviscerated-wasteland, highway-side scenery only to seemingly arrive at the same exact spot daily, as in some godforsaken Groundhog Day purgatory. At least we maintained a bit more equilibrium than the guys in the band’s crew, who would travel all night, sleeping in the bus, arriving at more of the same in the morning, setting up all day, breaking down the stage and splitting after the show to do the same exact thing for a month or more. They were stinking zombies with fanny-packs and Leathermen holsters . But this is, of course, how the concert industry works.

We would wake up and there would be no place to walk to. I mean, you could see a mall, but trying to get over there was a matter of taking one’s life into one’s hands along the sidewalk-less Route 9 and Route 1 veins of the country, as SUVs full of obese Cracker Barrel denizens ripped out of parking lots and ran up onto curbs and over litter-strewn mud and weed-choked dead wetlands staked out with bent aluminum road signs. So we would all get the assigned departure time from the hotels and we would all be in the bus 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave -- unlike the usual tours that might take us to some interesting cities or college towns where we would usually all scatter and arrive late for departure time.

But while we were in a hurry to get going, it was only a cruel rush to more of the same, more of the same. We would sit around this or that venue until we had a soundcheck, with a mutual polite indifference toward the headliner (who, in this particular case, were not only unrewarding musically but prima donas as people), bored out of our skulls, do the soundcheck, eat some catering and drink too much alcohol to numb the numbness some more, go out and play our 30-minute (at most) set to a ¾ empty house (I’ve always been a ¾-empty, as opposed to ¼-full-guy) as mall-rock fans filtered in slowly. These were the kind of “fans” who barely knew any of the headliner’s music; only the video or two which they were fed on MTV. Then we would try to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. The headliner would not even allow any of the opening acts to view them from the side of the stage and I would be damned if I was going to go out and try to fight for some vantage point to check out a band I could not care less about musically.

From there we would end up rolling into some hotel and hoping there was a bar down there to chat up businessmen/women numbing down their own hells, lived earlier that day in some nameless, windowless conference room filled with stale bagels and watery coffee at a stucco-palace hotel on the side of the highway. To them our lives represented at least some medium-grade rock & roll fantasy. If only they knew.

Or we might drive toward the next destination if it looked to be an interesting one, and try to gain some more free time in the places where we actually wanted to be, locations far and few between. So we would sit in the hotel rooms watching junk TV and drinking and smoking too much bad stuff. We’d bring out books, CDs, try to catch movies; there was no widespread use of laptops, the Internet, and no real cell phones yet. I had a bike with me to roll around neighborhoods around the Pavilions, the others brought out golf clubs. But after a while, there is no fighting it. You start to fall into ennui and mild simmering depression and lose faith in almost everything -- unmoored, I believe, is the term. You realize that this is most of the country. It is like those backdrops in old Flintstone cartoons: a car flashes by boulder, tree, mountain, boulder, tree, mountain, boulder, tree…

When we would finally roll into even just some desolate old town center like Odessa, Texas, our road-numbed senses would be awakened by something like an authentic hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint and a real Salvation Army filled with junk that seemed like precious artifacts of some earlier, more real past…remember when we used to play records like these? Remember when clothes looked sharp? The margaritas at the Mexican joint would seem doubly potent after weeks of 8-hour drives. We would all come alive for an hour and then fall back to the diesel-choked bus to watch some DVD of Spinal Tap, which no longer seemed satirical after a while. Before you go on a tour you romanticize the idea of truck stops. One meal in a circa-1990s truck stop and you realize that gritty glamor is as long gone as the gleaming diners and rhinestone-earring waitresses named Flo of yore, less Tom Waits, and more like Bob Seeger.

It was a soul-sapping summer tour. You see, (cue up some maudlin strings) we came from humble beginnings. Buffalo Tom never intended to be anything other than a band that played small clubs. When we were starting out, it was all hair metal. The Clash and Talking Heads had broken through, and then there were a few post-punk-type artists that made some dents. But even that was pretty mainstream. When REM and the Cure started playing arenas, people that were still playing at the Rat and the Channel in Boston started thinking, well, maybe…

But the immediate reality of the scene in which we operated is most accurately captured in Michael Azeroff’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. It outlines the club-tour circuit and aspirations of the post-punk indie-label bands of the mid-1980s to early 1990s. This is conveyed via chapters on the Replacements, the Minutemen, Dinosaur Jr., Mission of Burma, and other such heroes. There was a built-in support network with clubs to play and couches to crash on that was blazed by early Homestead, Touch and Go, and SST bands like Sonic Youth, X, the Gun Club, Black Flag, and Volcano Suns and extended from Berlin to London to Boston, New York, Chicago, and to Seattle. By the time the little brothers like us got out there, the way had been paved for us. We were meeting friends of friends in Amsterdam; buddies of tour buddies in Glasgow; the promoter in Australia was the same guy who booked our friends in Superchunk. We had great double and triple bills with My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, Pavement, etc.

This earlier indie network is the scene that we aspired to be part of and succeeded in joining. To be mentioned in the same breath as those Homestead, SST, Athens, Minneapolis, and Seattle acts (even if it is my own same breath) is still as thrilling now as it was then. But the goal posts for BT and a lot of these bands started moving back. Indie labels were a labor of love and really were generally not very well-run businesses. Promotion was sketchy, payments to bands almost non-existent. The Huskers signed to Warner Brothers, the Replacements to Sire, the Sonics to Geffen. And then Nevermind came out and everything was dated accordingly – pre-Nevermind and post. All of a sudden this little world exploded into the mainstream, with many of the college radio kids now in positions of power at major labels and MTV and booking tours. For a brief shining moment, good music was everywhere and bands we grew up with were becoming bona fide rock stars. Among the bands that opened (!) for Buffalo Tom were Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, the Goo Goo Dolls, all of whom went on to far higher heights. When I heard the Breeder’s “Cannonball” on the radio, it was like some fulfillment: yeah, a great song I want to hear immediately again…on the radio? And this happened again and again to with our friends: Dinosaur Jr. with “Freak Scene”; Belly with “Feed the Tree”; the Lemonheads.

And yet, just as fast as the promise came, the promise was dashed along the shoals of mediocre and pale representations of those earlier bands. When it all started changing in the mid-1990s and a slew of mall-rocking MOR bands started hitting big, we were repeatedly asked to open for some of them and to start making compromises under the insidious guise of major-label promotion. It was tough to make such decisions back then. We had been making a living from the band and were committed to try to sell more records and reach more people. We said “no” to a lot of bad stuff. But we also said “yes: to some “opportunities,” like this tour I started this post with, if for no other reason than to keep the people at the label faithful in us, to show that we were trying and working with them to try and broaden the base. Some such tours proved to be pretty OK. And certainly we almost always became friendly with the bands we played with. There used to be an acronym, “GGBB,” good guys, bad band. This example I am harping on about was a definite anomaly of BBDB, or “bad band, douche bags.” When a tour brought us out with My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, and Mercury Rev, it was a magical combination of opening for a bigger band, fans that cared about music and were adventurous and also open-mined to the opening bands, and a touring group of really warm and interesting people. I mean, Yo La Tengo even bought us gifts at the end of the tour! This is something that the good guys in Goo Goo Dolls did as well when we went on to open for them when they exploded into rock-stardom. Touring with Superchunk in Australia was like summer camp.

But here we found ourselves, stranded in the vast American wasteland, locked into some lame tour. We would come back from these wonderful trips in Europe, where we were treated warmly as artists, traveling through ancient and breathtaking cities. Then we would get on the bus and head to the belt parkways of America and I started to really feel adrift and asking myself the sort of existential questions that are wholly inappropriate for being on a rock tour: “Why are we doing this? Do we even want to try to win over such fair weather fans as those coming to these shows? Is this why we started a band? Why is so much of America depressingly ugly? This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife. Does anyone care about design, pedestrians, decent food, architecture, the environment? Nick Cave wouldn’t do this tour. What would Joe Strummer, with his love/hate relationship with America, say?”

Well, I might not have gotten answers to most of those questions, or I got the dispiriting conclusions I expected. There ain’t much “there” out there. But we did get close to answering that last question. Though I never got to meet Joe, we did get to hang out with – on this very gray tour – Joe’s partner, the legendary Mick Jones and his band of fun guys, Big Audio Dynamite, who joined the tour after another group of great guys, the Catherine Wheel departed. And Mick’s response to this backdrop seemed to be let’s party and have a fucking great time.

Mick Jones, Howe Gelb, and Buffalo Tom circa 1995. I'm the one who looks like Gilligan. Thanks to my brother Scott and also Mike Gent for independently pointing that out.

This was one of the all-time heroes of ours, and here he is (see video clip) in our dressing room outside of Phoenix, jamming on “Brand New Cadillac” and “Little Sister.” I think we were too nervous to actually think up some Mick Jones-sung songs and yet so many of his songs are favorites of mine. But in one simple little 30 minutes (only about 2 of which are captured here), the potentially nervous-breakdown tour of the decade was resuscitated into one of the all-time great reminiscences of our days on the road. Howe Gelb is even in there somewhere. It was a blast. But the juxtaposition, late afternoon in some fluorescently lit antiseptic dressing room in the middle of an asphalt desert, jamming with Mick Jones of “the only band that matters,” a band that was all about the here and the now and the viscerally real -- only to leave this room and travel back out into the empty suburban sprawl -- was a bit jarring even as it was heartwarming. By the time we reached the end of the line, Mick and the boys were literally partying with us at a shindig our label threw for us (on our dime, I would not be surprised) at an LA restaurant/bar. I wish I could say I spent hours chatting it up and jamming with Mick but I think our overlap was pretty fleeting and I don’t recall much more than these few times hanging out. It is one of the few times that I actually felt like a rock star.

And I have been on a mighty Clash jag over the past few months, getting the great new Clash book for Christmas, and catching the Joe Strummer documentary on DVD. The Stones, the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevie Wonder, Creedence, the Eagles…these were the giant bands and artists of my youth. Most of them were from England. But they were older bands, from a slightly different era. When I was 14, my uncle gave me Talking Heads Remain in Light, U2 Boy, and a Nina Hagen 10 inch. I also got the Clash’s Give ‘em Enough Rope, which we would listen to repeatedly, next to a Stones bootleg of the 1972 tour. Some of my friends and I started to find new bands of our own. Growing up on Long Island, we had some pretty good FM radio out of New York (“the City”) in the 1970s. We heard a lot of Elvis Costello, some Patti Smith, a lot of Talking Heads, some Graham Parker and Nick Lowe and stuff like that. But it was still very conservative musically out on the Island. Southern Rock and Frampton still reigned into 1980. There was a daring new wave/punk band in Huntington called the Plastic Device that some of my friends and I -- still playing Neil Young and Stones covers -- looked up to. This band was booed when they kicked off a Huntington High School battle of the bands with their version of “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” It was ridiculous. They were exciting, new and fresh, doing something provocative. It was funny. But the kids in the flannel shirts, Timberland boots, with their feathered hair and pot pipes in their jacket pockets wanted to hear bands like the King’s Realm cover Jethro Tull tunes. But we were soaking it up. We (coincidentally my band was named the Plastic Peach) started taking on newer covers into our repertoire, adding “Psycho Killer” and such.

The Peach was rocking along and after years of not really finding my place in sports, I had found my calling. Musicians were my people. The band became our mutual obsession. We were organizing gigs, learning how to deal with teammates much like kids playing sports, but we did it all without adult supervision, influence, or most importantly, adult rules. As we moved from junior high into the early years of high school, my father felt I should be involved in more school-related extra-curricular activities to make myself look more interesting for the eventual college applications, but I never learned more about life from any other activity/organization than I did being in bands. By the time Buffalo Tom came around, I already knew how to help unite disparate personalities into a group that a shared goal, even if it was only to have fun at practice sessions. We were self-motivated and started to figure out promotion, getting ourselves noticed. But back then, rock band tenure wasn’t exactly college-application material. Even after we ran a business, Buffalo Tom, traveling internationally, with crew members employed and insured by us, learning sales and marketing, it was a tough sell when it came time to find a day job after a 10-years on the road. Resume: 1989 graduate college. 1989-91: assistant manager at print/copy shop. 1991-2001: rock band.

Just when I was feeling the Plastic Peach was rolling along, my father got a new job in Providence. We moved to a tiny little town southwest of Boston. At 16 I was ripped from a almost idyllic little adolescence, part of a band in the town in which I grew up, a town with beaches, a downtown village with record stores, ice cream shops, musical instrument stores, pizza places, a bowling alley with an enviable collection of video games, a great park with an art museum and performance stage, and a movie theater. Oh, and a greasy-spoon burger grill called Hamburger Choo Choo, which had a lunch counter and booths, a neon sign with a train on it, and a model train railroad that wound its way around tracks to every seat at the counter, delivering your burgers, fries, and Pepsi on flatbed train cars. Tow or three of my buddies had little Boston Whaler boats, dingys with outboards, before we could get our drivers licenses. I remember summers tooling around the harbor and bay with boomboxes cranking out the Specials and the Kinks’ new live album, getting sunburns as red as lobsters, in between lawn-mowing gigs. Everything was walking or hitchhiking distance – an important feature before we could drive. And when we got bored and our parents allowed us, the train took us into New York City, where we would comb Bleeker Street for more records and the guitar shops of 48th.

We left at the end of the school year to move into the house my parents bought. The last night in Huntington was a gig night for us, some party at a beach club on the bay. We were all of 15 or 16 and all got blasted at some party afterwards and a house where someone’s parents were absent. I drank so much I got deathly ill, wrapped myself in a bathroom rug to cut down on my shivering and woke up wearing it, in a corner of the bathroom people were still using throughout the night. I could barely bring myself to my feet and tried to sneak out of the house mid-morning. The summer sun was blazing and I was sick as a dog. I made it out and to about the next house down the cul de sac before I heard some friends yelling out to me, “Hey Bill, where you going? Come on back! Say goodbye!” This was the day we were driving to Massachusetts. I couldn’t face my friends, not because of the emotion of it, but because I felt like I was on the edge of throwing up at every turn. I made it home, where movers were emptying the house and my family was running around frantically. My friend, Larry, called and was confirming a farewell lunch date we had at the Mediterranean Snack Bar, a greasy gyro and Greek hole in the wall downtown. I could barely even hold it together to tell Larry that I couldn’t make it. I kept feeling my body trying to evacuate what was no longer there. I was dry heaving, sweating, and my parents only needed to take one disgusted look at me, like, “this is all we need right now.” They holed me up at a neighbor’s house. The neighbor, who happened to be a nurse, gave me something that eventually stopped my nausea. I was in a bad, bad way. I am certain I had alcohol poisoning. To this day, I cannot drink Irish Whisky, Pina Colada Mix, Tanqueray, and Gallo Chablis all together as I did in a span of a few hours that night. Go figure. By late afternoon or evening, my family came to get me and I took a 4-hour ride of shame out of town and toward New England. I swear that the Squeeze tune “Tempted” came on the car radio, with the lines “I said to my reflection let’s get out of this place/Past the church and the steeple, the laundry on the hill/The billboards and the buildings/The memories of it still keep calling and calling/But forget it all, I know I will.” We drove up past our church and just next door, just up the hill was the laundry, the dry cleaners we went to a million times over those 15 years. It was the longest drive of my life.

So I came to this town, Medfield. I knew no one. The house was in one of those boring suburban developments. We were not even hitchhiking distance to one of those mall-strewn Route 9’s mentioned at the beginning of this rant. The first guy I met was a great kid with a nutty, unique personality named Andre, who lived a few houses up the road. I figured I moved from erudite and cutting edge NY, to this rural little town with one stoplight, farms with cows, and horrible pizza and so no one would be anywhere as hip as I am. But Andre had a great record collection. So he and I hit it off for the summer. And by the time I got to tiny little Medfield High, to finish up my last two years of high school, I met a handful of really cool kids with open minds and great taste in music and they all remain my close core of friends today. All the stuff I had dug in Huntington was fully represented among these kids. Back in Huntington, though, it was only a handful of kids open enough to new music. (One such “kid,” an old and steady buddy of mine, Chris Campion, has written a memoir that will include his own version of some of these formative days, as well as later struggles, called Escape From Bellevue, which was based on a successful off-Broadway show he wrote and then performed with his long-time NYC band, the Knockout Drops. Chris’ brother was also in a well-known band called the Bogmen). But here in tiny East Bumfuck Medfield, even though it took me a depressing whole year to adapt and meet some more kids, football players listened to Flipper and Mission of Burma. The Lyres, the Neats and Big Dipper were local Boston bands that I would listen to on local college radio. Husker Du graffiti peppered some road signs eventually. My friend Jay, introduced me to other outcasts and we would listen to the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms ad infinitum. Again, it was music that linked me to others.

By the time I was a senior, many of my friends were in college, a year ahead of me. We used to take our friend Joe’s van up to visit our buddies at UMass. Joe graduated high school and went to work for his father installing carpet, so he had this brown van with no seats in the back. We used to pile beer, some pillows, and anywhere from 4-10 guys in the back. And he cranked, over the heavy van stereo, the Buzzcocks, Iggy and the Stooges, Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Stiff Little Fingers, the Cure, Violent Femmes, Gang of Four, and the seminal compilation of Boston hardcore, This is Boston, Not LA. Joe had one rule that, when he bellowed it at us sounded like more of a suggestion than a ban, “NO SLAMMING (slam dancing, as it had been known early on) IN THE VAN!!”

Joe was one of those that didn’t make it. He had his demons. He turned into an artist, a photographer who ended up working with some influentiall friends in Provincetown. He struggled with all sorts of stuff as he got a little older. He got straight. He fell off the wagon. He moved away. He got straight again. He came back. He died. But back in the old days, we rolled down the Mass Pike in his van, making each other laugh hysterically, stopping off in Brattleboro Vermont, where the drinking age was still 18, looking forward to keg parties with college girls. And it was on some of these trips during my senior year, where I met the older dudes (OK, only by a year or two), Chris and Tom. Chris also spent junior high and high school in Medfield, but had graduated and went of to UMass before I moved there. Tom was one of a few guys from a different town, Andover, whom the Medfield dudes befriended. Tom also played bass at the time in this band I idolized called Plate of Mutton, who wrote their own songs and had a really compelling frontman singing, Tom's cousin, Phil.

We would get to Amherst and pour out of the van and out to a great show with the Del Fuegos, Link Wray, or the Fleshtones out at the Rusty Nail, a roadhouse shack in the middle of a field in Sunderland. Or REM and the DBs at the Fine Arts Center. Or Black Flag at the Student Union Ballroom. But more commonly we would end up at a dorm party with a great 1983/84 soundtrack: X; Killing Joke; Echo and the Bunnymen; Gun Club; Bauhaus; the Specials; Elvis Costello; Joe Jackson; and the Clash, always, the Clash.

So I have to take on a Clash tune. Not many of their songs jump immediately to mind when considering tackling an acoustic-based cover version, but I have played “Straight to Hell” solo acoustic before and I have long loved this song. It is a damning song. Late in their career, they pull out an almost Dylan-like indictment. I take it on at the risk of not being able to ably interpret Strummer’s idiosyncratic wordplay, as he is almost a rock & roll Kerouac, But it is a challenge I take on gladly.

A review of the song I did some years back on