Monday, June 06, 2005

The Colorblind James Trio, part I

Chuck was more than excited to hear that not only did I play guitar, I had a housemate who played upright bass. Thad was more than happy to join in, and the first rehearsal took place in the living room of Chuck & Jan's cold-water flat. I think what struck me most about the first batch of songs I heard was the levity, the fun of the music and the lyrics: their deceptive simplicity that made me smile a worried smile. As quite a few people who consider themselves songwriters have believed, I too thought the songs were easy, fun and I could just as well write like that. The first song Chuck taught me was Purple & Gold:

Purple & Gold, Purple & Gold
I got the blues for my baby wearin' Purple & Gold
Purple & Gold, Purple & Gold
She never liked no colors 'cept for Purple & Gold

The song is a fast polka in vein similar to Chuck Berry's car songs: Maybellene, Jaguar & Thunderbird, You Can't Catch Me, etc. The heroine's car in this fable was "a '57 Chevy with the 4-on-the-floor" and it was painted purple & gold. By the middle of the song, like the great tragedy songs of the early 60's, things took a deadly turn:

Drivin' on a Sunday, she was drivin' too fast
The car pulled off the highway, it flipped over and crashed
Purple & Gold, Purple & Gold
Everywhere was scattered bits of Purple & Gold

that's followed by the funeral (which appears in more than a few of Chuck's songs):

The day of the funeral it was rainy and cold
The people at the service wore purple and gold...

Finally, the flowers for the grave:

I'm goin' to the store where the flowers are sold
I'm buyin' one dozen roses, six purple six gold
Purple & Gold, Purple & Gold
She never liked no colors 'cept for Purple and Gold.

It would be years before I would put together a lyric that, matched with the appropriate rhythm, would even approach the wit, irony and pathos of Purple & Gold.

From the start, Chuck's vision was to have fast, danceable music that embraced lyrics that dealt with pain & suffering. Pain & suffering were the realities of life, the music was hope. The hope was seen in the reckless abandon with which the fans would dance to songs of sadness, loneliness, about common folk who got dealt a bad hand. Reckless abandon was spirit, and spirit, to Chuck, was bigger than pain & suffering.

I discovered much later in life the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. I didn't realize at the time that Chuck was attempting to transform his own sorrow & suffering into joy & happiness through his writing.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The first meeting: 1978

Before the trip out west, before the Appletons or the White Caps, there was an odd little trio named appropriately the Colorblind James Rock 'n' Roll Trio. Before the RnR Trio there was the Water Street Boys and going back further still, Mike Goldstein's Cold Water Revue. The WSBs can still be heard to this day with most of the original members intact.
However, my own history with CbJ began in the summer of 1978. I was 19 and had just returned home from SUNY @ Buffalo where I had finished my sophomore year. I was transferring to SUNY @ Oswego because Buffalo was too big, too unfriendly and I really didn't know what I was trying to do majoring in music there.
My sister, Janet, had been traveling out west for the past 6 months with some mysterious guy. My brother, Edward, was also living in San Francisco, killing himself handing out communist propaganda and chauffeuring big shot party leaders while he lived in filth, ate in soup kitchens, and struggled to incorporate his only other passion into this all consuming political life. My brother was a singer and his passion was opera.
Meanwhile, my parents were once again in France (Paris, to be exact) where my father was heading an exchange program. My plan was to go abroad in the spring of '79 and study at the Sorbonne. In the meantime, however, I was without family in Oswego and feeling, as I said before, directionless.
I was living in a house kitty-corner from OHS, Oswego High School, with my longtime friend Thad Iorizzo and some guy who never stopped jumping rope. Really. His quest was to get every American jumping rope. He tried to get me jumping rope but I found it much easier to simply walk.
I had known Thad since my first drunk the eve before my 13th birthday at David Sterlicht's bar mitzvah. Along with being one of the funniest guys I've ever known he was also astonishingly mediocre on both electric and upright bass. In all fairness, I was positively mediocre myself.
When Jan arrived back in Rochester, she called me up and invited me over to the cold-water flat she moved into with her, at this point, very serious boyfriend. When I got there, I was greeted at the door by a dark-eyed, curly haired man with a huge black beard that engulfed most of his face. I remember my initial thought was “who the hell are you and why are you answering the door to my sister’s apartment?” He introduced himself as Chuck and invited me in. Little did I know that within 48 hours Chuck, Thad and I would play our first gig together at the now expanded Lowlife CafĂ©.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Colorblind James and the...Appletons?

In 1980, at the height of the White Caps popularity, Chuck and his girlfriend, my sister, decided to move west to San Francisco. As I usually tell it, he invited the members of the White Caps to join them and initially everyone declined.
Oswego, for a lot of folks, mostly young, was a very odd sort of mecca. Some found paradise on the little street that ran next to the river, off of Bridge St. That was Water Street, memorialized in Chuck's song "Water Street Stomp":

Tell all the troops up in the hills
Tell the folks down in the swamp
We're gonna meet on Water Street
So we can do that Water Street Stomp

If your crossing the bridge heading east, Water Street is the first right before East 1st Street. No more than an alley, it was initially home to the Ferris Wheel, an old sailors bar that became an old college student's hangout and more than likely remains a college bar to this day. More importantly, though, in terms of Oswego's musical heritage and the history of CbJ, across the street and closer to the corner opened a new hangout, the Lowlife Cafe. Gone now, this was one of the first places where Chuck started to perform under the name Colorblind James.

Chuck had been writing his oddball folk songs for a few years and as he used to tell it, he wanted a name that sounded like his old country blues heros from the late 20s and early 30s like Blind Willie McTell (who remained Chuck's favorite), Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, etc. Chuck was in fact colorblind and his first name was actually James, James Charles Cuminale. So, thinking it a humorous tribute, he became Colorblind James.

The summer of 1980, making preparations to leave for San Francisco in the fall, Chuck began to search for a new line-up. I had just graduated from SUNY@Oswego with a BA in music (later to become an issue) and I had no idea what I was going to do. Being a good guitarist as well as his girlfriend's brother and a fan of the music, I asked him if he wanted me to join him out west and he agreed.

Chuck, now needing a drummer and a bassist, called his friend Brad (living in SF at the time) and asked if he would be interested in playing with the band. Brad jumped at the chance. Next, Chuck did the punk thing and told a guy named Gene, a fair guitarist and really good singer, to get a bass and join the trip. Gene, too, agreed. With the new line-up determined, the first hitch occurred when White Caps drummer Kevin McDevitt decided he wanted to go. Let's just say that while Brad remained friends with Chuck, I don't believe he ever really forgave him for pulling him off the drummer's throne. Chuck suggested Brad stay on as a marimba player (did Brad know anything about marimba?) but Brad declined.

Now the line-up was Chuck on rhythm guitar, Gene on bass, Kevin on drums and me on lead guitar. Chuck, always one to dig in his heels as a blue-collar spokesman, was always amused with his girlfriend's English heritage and mannerisms (afternoon tea is still important at my sister's) and our family's embrace of French culture, due in large part to my father's francophilia. Basically, Chuck was from a large Italian-American working class family and he viewed us, the Marshalls, as, well, comical in our own non-blue-collar ways. Long story short, before heading out west, Chuck began to kick around names for the new band. Inspired by one of my story's about my grandfather, he thought that he could dress in worn-out overalls while the rest of the band dressed up as English butlers. In this guise, we would become Colorblind James and the Appletons.