Tuesday, December 21, 2010

CoTW -- (Let's Just Call All of Them Number) 96

These old Christmas covers of relatively obscure but great songs are a lot of fun. Please consider downloading them for a great cause.

After 25 years as a professional musician, I never fail to be impressed by the sprit of community of musicians in general and the Boston music community in particular. A further reminder of this occurred this past weekend. Tom Polce, a music producer with whom I used to be in a band but who now lives in LA, tweeted or sent a message on Facebook last Friday that he was back in Boston to work on some music at Q Division studios in Somerville. He and I went back and forth about, "come on man, we have to get together this time," over the various media available to us nowadays. "When are you available?" We often have these situations where he is in for a week of 12-hour days, or my band, Buffalo Tom, might be on LA for one show and we fail to hook up, or only do so for a few minutes on the way in or out of town.

But both of us intrinsically understand the one almost fail-safe way to get musician buddies together: Book a session or a gig. Build it and they will come! So, texting back and forth last Friday night, looping in the selfless Ed Valauskas -- who was at that moment playing a gig in Albany with his band, Jenny Dee and the Delinquents, and who books Q Division sessions -- by the end a couple of the night we had time and a plethora of musicians booked at Q Division for that Sunday, two days later. Sunday was the night of the Boston Music Awards, but the event was starting early. While I was not able to attend, most of the area musicians planned to, so a bunch of people would stumble in later in the night, carried along by the momentum of the event. We had decided to do a couple of holiday tunes and thought, if they turned out OK, maybe we could upload them to the Target Cancer Foundation web site, Righttracktunes.org where musicians have contributed songs in exchange for listeners to donate to the foundation.

Listen, I know most people have had enough of Christmas songs by the week after Thanksgiving. And no one really needs any new recordings. But we felt we had dug up a couple of little-known numbers that should be classics, "Christmas Everyday," by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and "Christmas Must Be Tonight," by The Band.

The core band of Mike Piehl on drums, bassist Joe McMahon, Phil Aiken on piano, Tom on electric, and me on acoustic guitars, set up first and ran through the Band song. We set up in a small room, live, with just a few microphones, no separation, and banged the song out old-school style, arranging it in our own version as we recorded a few takes. Done. Beautiful, if I may say so.

By the time we were ready for the Smokey tune, more musicians started filing in -- singers Kristin Cifelli, Steve Scully and Dave Brophy (both drummers by trade), and my younger brother, Scott Janovitz. And then local saxophone colossus, Paul "The Ostrich" Ahlstrand snuck in and lent a baritone sound. This recording absolutely swings. (play a snippet) I love the idea of sitting in a room together, not worrying to death over separation of sound, arranging on the fly, the way musicians all used to do before the exponential expansion of multi-track recording technology. But here is the trick: you have to start with good musicians.

And not only are these people good, they are tops at what they do. They would be in-demand session players in LA or Nashville. But here in Boston, they are just folks you see around at the clubs. Go out any night in Boston or Cambridge and there is an embarrassment of riches here, mostly musicians with day jobs who can play or sing any current Top 40 artists to shame. But we also have some luminaries who are known for touring or recording with big artists. And most of them would swing on down to such a hootenanny as this on at the drop of a hat.

Because here is an ill-kept secret about musicians: they will play for free. The whole music industry rock star myth was built on this business model. Music is not what they do; it is who they are. We didn't have to tell any of these folks that this was for charity. No one was sitting on their phone asking "how much? Am I getting scale?" They wanted to play. But once you tell them there is good cause, almost every musician I know will rally and make arrangements to show up. I know, because it is part of my role as one of the founding members of Hot Stove Cool Music, which is well known in Boston for benefit concerts for the Foundation to Be Named Later of Red Sox GM, Theo Epstein" and former Baseball Hall of Fame commentator, Peter Gammons. I call and email musicians and they line up to play these shows every January in Boston.

And all one has to is look at FB profiles of musician friends to see them rallying even faster and determinedly when one of our own is in need. I have countless local examples here in Boston, even just in the past year.

Music is about community, a room full of people sharing something otherworldly, soul satisfying. Once you have spent an evening playing music with someone you had might not even met, it is easy to feel a kinship with them, and that is hard to let go. So when my brother Tom Polce is in town, I call up my other bothers and sister literal and figurative. We play music. It was the one sure way to get everyone together for the holidays.

That session was such a blast of impromptu fun and good will, that we rushed to book another one for a few more xmas tunes a few days later. Jenny Dee came in to do a duet with me on a Big Dee & Little Eva number (a Goffin/King-penned ditty); Chris Toppin came to lend some beautiful vocals; and we had Ryan and Freddie from Eli Reed's band; plus Matty Pynn, Steve Scully, Ed V., and more folks. We ended up with three Christmas numbers and a couple of extras that will make their way to release some day soon.

So come Tommy, and Philly, and Mikey and Eddy. Chris Toppin, Steve Scully, Kristen and Joey. Come Scotty, and Dave Brophy, Matt Pynn and Jenny, Paul Ahlstrand and Ryan, and Andrew and Freddie.....Dash away, dash away, dash away all.

There are our three numbers plus a whole slew of new and unreleased Christmas covers from other great artists here:

Right Track Christmas Series

And the regular download series here:

Right Track Tunes

Monday, December 20, 2010

Just an Old Buff Tom Story for Christmas

People have asked We Three Buffalos Tee for stories from the road. We have relatively few good ones worth telling. Certainly none of them are Zeppelin level. No arrests or major property damage. No bans from any hotel chains. So we usually come back to a small handful, and in particular, this one from Paris. It happened so long ago, probably 1990, and that fact in an of itself shows how few stories there are. In fact, I would not be surprised if I have not already told it in this space. How sad would THAT be?

I searched Dan and Camille Speca's site, which documents almost all of the live shows we have played, This particular show seems to be missing. In fact, I do not see any shows in Paris in my quick scan, and even though it was not a hot spot for us, I know we have played at least two or three times there, once opening up for the Gun Club. Anyway, it is just as well, as this show should be expunged from the official record.

It started out just as our previous trip to Paris had. During that first european tour, in 1989, we had a day off or two and figured we would drive down to Paris just for the day, even though we had no shows in France that first year. But we had all our gear and records with us (we sold vinyl as merch' - goes to show how far back this was). When we got to the border on the way in, we were stopped and taken aside by the French customs agents, who took one look at the rock band with a Dutch driver and a van registered in the Netherlands, with boxes full of rock records and t-shirts and decided we were worth a search. The first BT album, some of you may recall, had a series of symbols in a hand-drawn logo designed by yours truly, a semi-arbitrary assemblage of a peace sign , a heart, a yin/yang, a cross, and -- naturally -- a hypodermic needle, for no apparent reason except to invite problems.

The French agents did not need to see anything more to order us out of the van. They brought a dog in to sniff through everything. The van was completely emptied and each section was taken apart, ceiling and door panels removed, and all our bags brought inside the building. Tom's duffel, filled at this point mostly with dirty laundry, was placed in front of us as we watched them search each item, with the dog sniffing all of it. And they strip-searched everyone but me. I was actually a little offended.

We were afraid enough of border crossings to know not to have anything on us and none of us had any sort of drug habits that would require taking such risks. So, after a few hours, they finally and reluctantly let us go on our merry way to enjoy the fair city of Paris as warmly welcomed tourists.

The next year, we came back to actually play a show. We were never very popular in France, but we had been booked at an ad hoc club in an old abandoned hospital campus that was being squatted. With our history at the border, we figured it would be best to get an early start. I believe that this time we were coming from Zurich, with its infamous Needle Park, home to hundreds of junkies. But that might have been the first visit, I forget. Needless to say, we were again held up for hours at the broder, with a similar bienvenue committee. Instead of being early, we had to speed into Paris so as to not arrive horrendously late. Of course, we were stopped by the police again on the highway, who seemed to have a sense of curiosity similar to their countrymen back at the border. "The French police wouldn't give me no peace/They claimed I was a nasty person..."

By the time we pulled into the right location, having circled the serpentine back streets of Paris looking for this squatted club, we were quite tardy, a fact made clear by an otherwise pretty lady running toward the driver-side window of our van, screeching her head off at us in a Gallic tempest of unmitigated fury. Stephen, our tour manager was a young guy from New Zealand, but I think it was Jan, our long-time Dutch soundman who also acted as our tour manager at times, who was driving and received the brunt of this vitriol. The poor guy was often stressed and took the job quite seriously, and, unfortunately, he understood some French. He mostly took it, though he tried here and there, in the milliseconds the mademoiselle paused, to explain what happened. She was having none of it. She started in on us in hilarious broken english that made her sound like an enraged female Inspector Closeau. The day in France was not off to a good start.

We were finally allowed to drive through the gates, past huge security guards dressed in DEA black, cargo pants tucked into boots, each holding German shepherds on short leashes. Yes, this was the "rock club," a walled campus that was like entering a prison.

We drove in and started to unload our gear, trying our best to ignore the ongoing stream of abuse from Fifi, who we soon deduced was the promoter. While Bob -- who was our graphic designer and was out selling merch for us -- unloaded the van, Jan, who did not see Bob, slid the van door shut on his head. Bob was woozy and eventually had to be taken to the hotel to rest. He may have gone to the doctor. I know he did eventually, I just don't recall this detail. It turned out that he got a concussion of some degree which made him nauseous.

Soldiering on, we completed a soundcheck in one of the many euro venues that resemble an airplane hangar, with a tin barrel ceiling, clearly the optimal conditions for the sort of hi-fi sound that warms the heart an exacting Dutch sound engineer with frazzled nerves and guilt compounded by arriving late and slamming his friend's head in a van door. But as you can tell, we were not so egregiously late as to miss a soundcheck; just enough to summon the blackest stuff from the bowels of a demonic French chick's damned soul.

As we made our way out for a quick bite, the bassist from the opening band asked Chris if he could borrow Chris' P-Bass. Chris, generous soul he is, sort of shrugged and said, sure, I guess so. When we got back in after dinner, the band was finishing up their set. I was first in the club. There was a rowdy audience watching and listening to the cacophonous racket, as the bassist repeatedly threw Chris' P-Bass up in the air, the strap holding it to his body, and letting it slam and bounce against his upraised thigh. I turned around to grab Chris, "look at what this guy is doing. You'll want to see this."

Chris came in and stood, mouth agape. He confronted the kid backstage afterward. "What the fuck? Why did you do that?"

The kid was very blase -- there's a nice French word for you. "Hey c'mon," he said. "Eet eese poonk rock, men."

Chris replied something like, "where's your bass? What happened to it, and why did you need mine?"

The guy just shrugged his shoulders. There was nothing wrong with his bass. He just wanted to use Chris's and got overexuberant. Chris simply did not know how to respond. But he let the kid have it.

Finally, the moment we were all waiting for, the time that we get to play; it is all about the music, man; the hour or so that makes it all worthwhile. We started our set to a packed crowd in this little room. The kids had paid around the equivalent of $20, which back then, for a band our size, was a lot of dough. I was actually starting to feel good. The crowd was definitely boisterous. And as a song or two went by, I felt myself getting beer spilled/thrown at me. Cups seemed to be flying. And one hit my right at the top of my guitar and drenched my torso.

Sort of half laughing, in my slowest, clearest speech, to try to convey my message to the French crowd, I said something like, "OK, I know it is a rock club and you all paid a lot of money to come and have fun, I have to politely ask whoever it is throwing beer up here to please stop." I heard a lot of yelling and jeering, people pointing fingers, and so on.

We started into the next song, "Mineral," which starts slowly, quietly, and with just me playing the guitar. The screaming continued and I saw a bustle in the crowd, just behind the first few rows of people, who started to look over their shoulders at those behind them fighting someone off, pushing around, trying to get out of the way, as this other insane-looking girl with a shaved head made her way forward, literally clawing her way up to the front. By the time it came for me to sing the first lines, she was in front of me yelling at me.

Mistake number one: I stopped playing and made eye contact with her, allowing her to engage me. She was still trying to gain ground and people were pushing her back. "What are you saying?" I asked. Mistake number two.

She yelled something to me in French or gibberish, or some combination of the two. Either way, I had no idea what she was saying. Mistake number three: I say, "hold on, hold on, what is she saying? Let her talk."

She wrestled her way right in front of me and yelled, "I thought eet would be refreshing to you! I thought you wanted to be refreshed!" She had been the one throwing the beers at me.

"No, ha ha, no that's fine," I said. I don't need...."

Splat! She spit right in my face before I could get my sentence out. Hawked a loogy right in my face.

Mistake number four comes next. Instead of walking away, which is something I am not too good at generally, and starting the music again, I instantly and instinctively spit right back in her cute little face. Well, before I could even straighten up, the skinhead chick was ON me, grabbing a hold of my guitar strings and my face, her nails slashing as she clawed up onto stage, kicking slapping, pulling my hair, my guitar clanging away. I looked to the side and saw Chris, again with mouth agape, but just standing there, along with Stephen, our guitar tech, stock still, the both of them. My face must have been in a panicked expression of, "a little help here?"

Finally, somehow, we were separated. Shaken, I left the stage and exited out the back door. In this setup, the dressing rooms were in another building up a flight of stairs. I was shaking and scratched up. We had only played maybe three songs. Fifi the promoter lady comes in, now all gooey sweet, begging us to go back on, telling us how the people loved the music and it was only one bad apple and so on. I told her to fuck off, that we had been badly treated this whole day, and that they have this heavy security presence and yet no one there to stop this one petite Tasmanian devil from nearly taking me out? She begged us, but my adrenaline was pumping and wanted to make her sweat, maybe a small riot from the outraged kids in the offing, so we refused to go back on for a while. She kept begging and we relented, telling her it was "for the kids, man!"

We were escorted back down the steps toward the entry to the stage. But we had to pass back through a courtyard between the two buildings. There, in a doorway, was the skinhead girl and two of the huge security guys and she was pummeling them while they tried to restrain her. They sort of seemed like they didn't want to hurt her, but she was trying their patience.

We played our set, which was good for a few laughs. People in the front were apologizing for her, telling me she was clearly on bad drugs. We wrapped up an otherwise uneventful and fun set.

Afterward, we were up in the dressing room again. enjoying a few drinks with some folks. I was discussing the bizarro incident with a French guy.

"Oh yeah, man," he said. "She was very high on something. She had been making problems all night."

"She was insane," I told him. "I mean, she really hurt me. And then we saw her outside going nuts on some big security guys."

"Yes, yes!" he replied. "You know, they had to shock her," illustrating some sort of movement with his hands."

"Huh? They had to shock her? What do you mean?"

He kept up the prodding motion. "Yes, oui. They had to give her electreek shock."

"What?! Like a cattle prod? A stun gun?" I asked (I don't think the word "Taser" had yet entered the lexicon -- english or french).

"Yes, yes, 'stun gun!.' Can you believe it, man?"

Here is the kind of place we played: huge SWAT team security guys patrolling a prison-like campus with German shepherds and stun guns, waiting for an opportunity to send high voltage into an out-of-control skinhead chick, and yet not being able to rise to the occasion when they were actually needed.

Merry Christmas kids!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

CoTW 95 -- Beautiful Boy

I have seen and heard much about John Lennon today, the 30th anniversary of his murder. I was a teenager, 14, living in suburban New York when I heard the news. I don't recall the details of that night, aside from watching the news. But I recall sitting in a barber chair getting my hair cut (at a "unisex salon," not barbershop by that point) as they talked and played his music on the then-still-relevant FM radio stations. I vividly recall watching in the mirrors, the stylists crying, the diagonal rough-hewn pine paneling framing the sad view.

We grew up with the Beatles. For those of us now in our 40s, they were always there. John's life in New York was part of the whole tale of the band The story is so well known by now, and yet, I was compelled to watch the PBS documentary that artfully focused on that era of his life. And it was beautiful. There was nothing new to learn, really. But to hear the voices and see the aging faces of those closely associated with him during that period, and to hear all the chatter in-between takes during his return to the recording studio in the late 1970s, added some visceral "you are there" reality to what has sort of become part of the pop culture mythology. It was a moving portrait and well edited and assembled.

It is too easy and tempting to boil public figures -- especially one as outspoken as Lennon -- to caricatures. To wit: Lennon was a snide arrogant rocker with lefty political views who abandoned one wife and son as he selfishly pursued worldwide fame and fortune; John, the working-class orphan; John the would-be revolutionary and/or avant garde art scenester; or Saint John of NYC, the icon in Central Park in the New York City t-shirt who, after being lost in the sin of his own exile in the desert, got wise (found?), gained perspective and served as stay-at-home nuturer to young son Sean in a scene of domestic bliss upset only -- but finally - at the end by the gun violence so endemic of the culture in his new home, citizenship he fought hard to gain.

All of this is true, likely. So many contradictions when seen as a whole. And that's the point that so many have been making, finally. A more complicated and slightly more nuanced picture has emerged over the years. Such snapshots make up a whole portrait, like a Chuck Close work, but those micro shots are difficult to come by. Here is a nice one from Yoko in today's Times. John Lennon, as hard as it is to believe sometimes, was not a demi-god; he was a human being, with all the baggage that comes with it. An artist tries to control what the public views, both with his/her art and, also, of his/her life. Generally, these more intimate moments are kept private, sometimes forgotten, good, bad, or indifferent. Of course, what remains -- and maybe what is most important -- is the art.

I am not religious, but at times like this holiday season, I like hearing songs about Jesus ("I don't want to walk and talk about Jesus, I just wanna see his face") and enjoy the whole nativity story as a beautiful allegory about rebirth, the cycle of life, light in the darkest of winter nights, and, as Rick Danko sang, "how a little baby boy brings the people so much joy."*

And it brings me a lot of confort to believe in John Lennon the artist, as a demi-god, the life he presented to us as maybe part of the art, but no less real. He was showing a version of how to age and become a father to a generation. It brings me great comfort to think of John as a softening man and a nurturing father to a baby and then young boy. And it therefore brings me great pain to think of his murder and the loss of a father who can write a song such as this for his son.

Beautiful Boy mp3

* speaking of The Band song, "Chistmas Must Be Tonight," stay tuned for news next week of a download of that song and the Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' number, "Christmas Every Day," to benefit Target Cancer. We recorded these on Sunday night with a bunch of musician friends at Q Division -- all live in a small room together. They sound tremendous, if I may say so myself. I am eager to share them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

CoTW 94 -- A Little Bit of Soap

A few things have occurred recently, conspiring to bring the memory of my Uncle Vince back to the forefront of my mind. To be truthful, though, he has never been far out of my immediate consciousness since his murder (if you are new to the site, you can refer to CoTW 53 and 54) just over a year ago.

As I write, the United States Senate is holding the first of two days of hearings about the repeal of the shameful "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law banning openly homosexual Americans from serving in the military.

Any reasonable American should be ashamed and embarrassed that this is even a topic of discussion, especially at this point in our history. I'm not here in this space to argue it; there is no argument. Such a law is, at minimum, a disrespectful insult to men and women who have and continue to serve, fight, and die for their country. Vincent Pravata served his country overseas during Vietnam while in the Navy. And he was a gay man. As his nephew, godson, and executor of his estate, I feel obligated to add his name and face to the context of this pathetic debate, during which Sen. John McCain continues the downward spiral that is the unspooling of his own reputation as a once reasonable senator.

There have been other reminders, mainly his birthday, the one-year anniversary date of the murder, trial updates (the killer is in a jail cell awaiting a trial that is unlikely to happen until late 2011 at earliest), and some small things, like the song I wrote borne from the experience, “The Big Light,” about to be released on the upcoming new Buffalo Tom record.

In many ways, Vince fit a stereotype of a gay man -- interior designer; antiques importer; health nut who did everything he could do to slow the signs of age (not afraid of a bit of Botox either); had a penchant for Amy and David Sedaris, Maria Callas, and Eva Cassidy; he drove a sky-blue Audi convertible; and so on. He got a little kick out of an email friendship he had with the author Augusten Burroughs. I loved spending time with him, especially in his house, picking up on design tips, trends (63 year-old man more up on trends than his nephew 20 years younger), eating well, and using his myriad grooming sundries. He gave me travel candles to bring on tour that would make any shitty motel room feel like a room at the Four Seasons. Well, almost.

And the soaps, oh, the collection of soaps! This was a man who took orders for friends and ordered wholesale quantities of imported Italian and Scandinavian olive and lemon soaps. I remember from the time of my adolescence the fine smells that made me feel like I was in a spa. He was my personal Queer Eye for this Straight Guy. Though, to be truthful, I think he thought I was mostly beyond any help he could provide. We still turned each other on to music, books, and movies, though.

Adding salt to the wound of his death was the fact that at the time of his murder, he had just finished a spectacular master suite addition to his modest South Miami three-bedroom house. The master bath was a truly spa-like Zen masterpiece. He did not have more than a couple of weeks, if that, to enjoy it. It was where I spent my time there while I attended to the estate and selling the house itself. I went through the drawers using grooming tools, creams for every imaginable part of the body, and would linger in the five-head shower with a big window overlooking a lush tropical garden.

As we emptied out his house, we saved most of his special items, many of which were specifically bequeathed in his will. We sold some other things to the buyers of the house. And we donated bedding, clothes, appliances, and housewares to charity. I loaded up by luggage with many things I could fit into my luggage, mostly things of sentimental value. I brought home is iPod Touch and a vintage 1950s glamour statuette bust of a starlet with eyelashes flickering for my daughter. And I grabbed his and his father’s service medals and colors for my son and Navy dog tags for my brother. I packed away crates of stuff to ship home. And I made sure to clear out the bathroom closet all the bars of soap my bag could hold.

We only ran out of the last sliver of the last bar of that soap earlier this autumn. As I scrubbed and watched the last fragment turn to lather and the suds disappear down the drain in our own newly remodeled bath (funded in part from a bit of an inheritance he left), I was pretty sure it was a tear running down my face in the shower.

A Little Bit Of Soap mp3

I have been boring people with my cover of this old Bert Berns-penned song for years. I remember playing it live on a short solo acoustic run down the east coast about 10 years ago with my co-pilot, Mike O'Malley riding shotgun. The refrain has been running through my head for the whole year, for obvious reasons.