Saturday, August 27, 2005

August, 1982

The turning point for the San Francisco line-up was our two week East Coast tour in August of 1982. The band had been living and essentially spinning its wheels in San Francisco for a little over a year and half. We had made no real in-roads with the club scene and no allies to speak of among the thousands of bands poised for stardom.

We weren’t punk, we weren’t arty, we had no sartorial sense and none of us had any use for hair care products. This was at a time when men were finding it essential to have perms, use mousse and, as I was to find out, lots of Aqua Net Extra Super Hold.

Our ‘manager’, for lack of a better term, was an English bloke named William who rented rehearsal space to us. He befriended the band and felt close enough to introduce us to his girlfriend, Bluh. Her name, I suppose, was actually Blair, but with his southern English accent it always came out something like “Bluh”. The introduction went something like this:
“Yes, and I’d like you to meet Bluh.”
“No, Bluh!”
and back and forth it went until we gave up. She had died-black hair hiding her eyes and was incapable of speech, so I guess it didn’t matter.

Once at a gig at Le Disque, at the end of Haight Street, William angrily pulled me over to a full length mirror and had me take a good look at myself. I was wearing white jeans that were perhaps too short at the cuff, red low top sneakers that, God forbid, were not Chuck Taylor’s, an un-ironed shirt under some crappy secondhand vest. My hair was over my ears (faux pas in the early 80s) and without discernable style. Then came the lecture:

“What are you trying to say, Phil? Look at yourself! Is this how a self-respecting rock star dresses? Bluh, come and take a look at this man! You’ve got to learn how to dress yourself! It’s a disgrace!”

By the time we arrived in Oswego in the summer of ’82, I was sporting a wicked brush cut, skin tight black twills and crisp ironed t-shirts in yellow, red and of course, black. I wore Converse hi-tops in red, purple, black and was cool enough to wear one color on one foot and a different color on the other. I felt I was returning to my hometown with full San Francisco New Wave creds. I had also learned how to thrash about and jump onto pool tables, jukeboxes, any nearby furniture with the best of them. After all, I had been taking in a steady diet of four bands, five shots of bourbon and one pack of Camel non-filters per night, Wednesday through Saturday each week. This was school…I had to learn something!

The two weeks in Oswego were magical, despite my superficial transformation into new wave icon being on display. Chuck and my sister, Jan, decided to get married. Edward, who had been more or less estranged from the family for several years, came for the occasion. He and I performed Aura Lee, a traditional English ballad that was the source material for Elvis' “Love Me Tender”. It was the first of two duets we ever played together.

We played exactly three gigs on our whirlwind "Upstate New York Tour 1982": Old City Hall in Oswego, followed by the Firehouse in Syracuse, and last, the Water Street Music Hall, right next door to the Old City Hall.

During the gig at WSMH, I accompanied Edward on “Old Man River”. By the time we did the number, the crowd was rowdy and drunk. At first, when Edward, who had positively no stage presence whatsoever, started singing in his low trained basso profundo, there were audible jeers and cat-calls from the audience. If it bothered him, it only made him bare down that much harder. By the time he unleashed his crushing forte on the final “but Old Man River, he just keeps rolling…aaaaAAAAAAA-LONG!” the crowd was going berserk. The applause was deafening. It was the one time our mutually exclusive worlds of classical and pop music converged and it was beautiful.

For me, that August brought back the past in the form of an old flame named Diana. I hadn’t seen her since I had left Oswego and there was a part of me that had hoped I never would. Our relationship was messy and about as painful as it could get, starting innocently enough with letters back and forth while I was in Paris in ’79. But there she was, among the small crowd at the Firehouse. During a break I approached her and we began to talk amiably although cautiously. By the time I left we had exchanged phone numbers.

I had a vivid dream that night that I saw her standing alone in the middle of a street in the strange twilight that always accompanies my dreams. I walked up to her and said “I willed you back into my existence” and pulled her face off. Behind her face was a black hole. Thus began the second chapter of what was to be, yet again, an ultimately excruciating and sorrowful connection.

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Version 1: The San Francisco Line-Ups

There were essentially 4 different versions of the Experience, each one spanning a distinct period in the history of the group. There was the San Francisco version, the Rochester version pre-UK tour, the Rochester touring period and then the post-touring period.
The SF version began with Chuck, Kevin, Gene Tighe and me. Gene Tighe traveled out west us ostensibly to play bass. He had been a member of the original Water Street Boys, Oswego’s first official jugband that also included Chuck, Scott “Kid” Regan, Dirty Jim Sherpa, and Rush Tattered.
Gene had never played bass put he possessed a voice that sent chills down the spine. Chuck, in true 70’s punk fashion, thought Gene would simply learn the bass once we arrived out west. Trouble was, Gene had absolutely no instinct for the bass. His approach was like that of his guitar with the WSBs: he would lock his fingers in a pentatonic scale pattern and just start wandering up and down.
In all fairness, Gene’s heart was not in it. Gene had loved playing with the Water St. boys and he loved playing jugband music in general. He had traveled to New Orleans dozens of times, crashing in pad above the original Tipitina’s and playing on the streets with other jugband musicians. As of this writing, the Water Street Boys still play from time to time and Gene is still providing his Sam Cooke-style tenor and his wandering acoustic lead guitar.
He and I lived together in a house on Potrero Hill for a very brief time during which he booked to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras and remained out-of-touch for a couple of months. By the time he returned to SF, he had been replaced with Oswego native and a high school pal of mine, Thad Iorizzo.
Thaddeus was and is a completely original character and one of the few people capable of pissing you off and leaving you in stitches at the same time. He deserves and will receive his own chapter.
After Thad left the band for the 2nd time, he was replaced by another Oswego native, Danny O’Donnell. Danny stayed with the band until our Upstate New York tour in August of 1982, whereupon he decided to stay east while the group returned to SF.
The final San Francisco version included Dave Fisher on bass and a wild pot-head ‘bone player from Keuka, Iowa named Scott Young. This was the line-up that recorded “Why’d the Boy Throw the Clock Out the Window?” at Peter Miller’s studio. On that recording, the band was also joined by Peter Strauss on alto saxophone. Peter played with the band only for a few months but was present at the legendary Banaan Street Art Gallery gig on March 24th, 1984.
In later years, Chuck referred to the gig often when speaking about genesis of the sound and vibe of the Rochester version. The band included horn players, as he always wanted, and the audience was filled with local artists, poets and kooks who did not display the customary arms-folded stone-faced “prove-yourself” look that we had come to expect with SF club-goers. The people paid attention to the words and the songs and responded with smiles, laughs and dancing. It was really the only gig in SF that felt even remotely like a White Caps gig.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Chuck, the Lord and Me

Spiritually, I don’t call myself anything anymore. For a three year stretch, however, I was a born-again Christian. I “received Christ” when I was 17 and officially “fell away” while I was studying in France at the age of 20. Nothing like a little Parisian existentialism, and the hope of carnal rapture, to steer a kid away from Bible-thumping Christianity.
In other words, though, I was a born-again Christian during the same period I first met and began to play with Chuck the summer of 1978. Chuck was always open about his beliefs and his take on Christianity. He never put me down for my association with Gospel Outreach, the charismatic fellowship I involved myself with.
Chuck recounted how he had been involved with Bible study groups when he was young. He had ultimately been asked to leave when the group leader found out he had written a blasphemous piece of literature entitled “the Book of Oswald”. Chuck always maintained that he counted the Bible, along with Moby Dick, among his favorite books.
While Chuck freely called himself an atheist, he consistently drew upon his Catholic heritage and the Bible for inspiration. Among his songs are “Wedding at Canaan”, “Jonah & the Whale”, “Three of Them and One of Us”, “If Nobody Loves You in Heaven”, “The Four Horseman” and countless others.
Although Chuck referred to himself as an atheist, spirit was very real to him. Spirit was what you saw in a person that made you connect with that person. Spirit was what people displayed in the frenetic dancing at White Caps and Experience gigs. What Chuck once said to me was that he believed “life is God”. I believe that what turned him off about Christianity was its insistence that God and Life were separate and that the former created the latter.
What attracted Chuck to me more than anything was my absolute obsession with the guitar. This was a period where, like a lot of young musicians, I had both the drive and the freedom to practice from sun up to sun down. Chuck always liked weirdoes and outsiders and I think I fit the bill. I think he liked the fact that although I claimed to be a Bible-reading Jesus-loving born-again Christian, anyone could see I loved my guitar more.
The semester before I left for Paris, Fall 1978, was one of huge contradictions and conflicts for me. I studied the works of Camus, Sartre, Genet, Ionesco and others in Dr. Smirnoff’s French Literature class. I lifted up my arms to praise Jesus and attempted to speak in tongues within the fellowship of Gospel Outreach. I drank beer with the Water Street regulars, staggered home drunk and missed class the next day. I smoked pot whenever it was available and I played guitar as often as possible. I prayed on my prayer rug, read verses and spoke in tongues in the privacy of my home. And I really wanted to get laid.
Even the music I played and practiced displayed big contradictions. I was freeing my love of Chuck Berry, BB King and George Harrison with Chuck’s music while at home I was trying to learn to speed through dorian and myxolydian modes faster than Al DiMeola. I would listen to Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions and then Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever. Except for some of Phil Keaggy’s work, I was having a hard time finding any Christian music that was listenable. But I had cut-out LPs by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters that were rawer and harsher than anything I had heard before and I was growing more fond of them with each listening.
Chuck had discovered the punk music and pub rock that was coming out of New York and London right around 1975/76. Because of his collection, I started listening to the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Graham Parker & the Rumour, Ian Dury & the Blockheads and others. Chuck was the first person I ever met who literally had a floor to ceiling wall of record albums.
Chuck’s favorite, and soon to be mine, was Elvis Costello. Chuck had bought 10 copies of “My Aim is True” when it was released and gave them away to his friends. He hitchhiked through a blizzard in '77 to Utica to see Elvis play in a small club where local heroes "the Frogs" opened up for him. Most of the club-goers that evening were there to see the Frogs. "After playing under the glare of bright white lights, Elvis left the stage and on his way out of the club turned to Chuck (or so legend has it) and asked "How was it?"" (quoted from -anonymous)

One evening I made a critical decision to go to a Gospel Outreach prayer meeting instead of a party where everyone would play music together. As Chuck and I were unofficially band-mates, he was furious with me for opting prayer over music: one an exercise in pointless and false fellowship and the other an opportunity to do what you were put on this earth to do. My sister revealed to me some time later that Chuck’s response was an absolute “I’ll never play music with Phil again.” It was not the last time Chuck would speak in absolutes.
For the time being the Lord had won. I played briefly with a Gospel Outreach group that called itself Vessel. With all due respect, the music was as horrible as anything I had heard on 100% Christian vinyl.
My time in Paris the following semester would prove to be the end of my fundamentalist period and the beginning of a time in my life every bit as tumultuous and unsettled, if not more so.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Meanwhile, Back in San Francisco...

One afternoon in San Francisco, during a period when the band was “on hiatus”, Chuck invited me down to his basement, our rehearsal room, to preview a piece he had been working on. He had been fairly obsessed with first his set of bells and later with his vibraphone which he had purchased from Tower of Power’s David Garibaldi.
Up to that point, it had never been like Chuck to actually practice an instrument. His guitar had always served a utilitarian function once Chuck had a few chords together and his famous double time strumming pattern. “My guitar’s a drum with strings” he said often enough. But the vibes were different and Chuck worked out melodies and arpeggios that he practiced over and over.
Once we were based out of San Francisco, the first big change in Chuck’s songwriting was the frequent use of composed riffs. Prior to that, G. Elwyn would often plug in Chuck Berry-style licks that Chuck would soon regard as integral to the song.
The first song I remember Chuck writing with a composed riff was called “Go Away, Marie” which exists on a very early demo tape somewhere. That was soon followed by a pair of classic songs “Kojak Chair” and “Talk to Me”. Kojak Chair was also the first instance where Chuck devoted a portion of the song to spoken words.
He expanded on that with the song “Solid! Behind the Times”. Having come up with the guitar riff based on Chuck’s glottal-stop vocal suggestions, “Solid!” was the only instance where Chuck gave me co-writing credit. “Solid!” included a reference to “cream-of-the-only-hat-that-ever-fit-me soup” which came from an exchange Chuck had had with Brad Fox. At the time, Brad was never seen without this ugly brown knitted cap of his. One day Chuck snatched it off his head and refused to give it back.
Brad: Hey! That’s the only hat that ever fit me!
Chuck: I’m gonna make cream-of-the-only-hat-that-ever-fit-me soup out of it…
Back in the basement, Chuck began to play a funny riff over and over on the vibes. He explained that the riff was the entire song and that everyone would play it. Over it, he would recite pages of words. The song was called “I’m Considering a Move to Memphis”. The first time Chuck was able to get everyone together to play the song, he received less than unanimous support from his bandmates. We all thought he was crazy. This had to be just some odd ball phase of his.
Little did we know this would be the song that roughly five years later would catch the ear of John Peel on BBC1 and begin our three tour relationship with the England.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A Modest Reunion

Uncle Phil, Jimmy Mac & Ken, Saturday, August 6, 2005 at the Daily Perks Coffee House. Photo courtesy of Kracke Photography.

Reims, France 1966-1968: Cum'on, Let's Go Back...

In the early 80’s, while everyone was listening to the likes of the Police, Flock of Seagulls, Public Image, Talking Heads, etc. I, under the tutelage of one Chuck Cuminale, was discovering and absorbing records by the Band, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Graham Parker, Patti Smith and a host of other 60’s, 70’s and early new wave/punk bands. During the 70’s, while I was growing up in Oswego, my listening comprised primarily of the Beatles, their solo LPs, Chuck Berry, B.B. King and John Mayall. I bought John Mayall albums because a) it was blues and b) they were mostly .99c cut-outs. But whether I indulged myself in Wishbone Ash, discovered Randy Newman while watching a tribute to Jim Croce on the Midnight Special or tried to learn “I’m Going Home” by Ten Years After note-for-note, the Beatles remained unshakeable at the top of my tower of song.
Like a lot of people my age I remember watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964. I was 6. I watched with my brother Ted, my sister Jan, my parents as well as my maternal grandparents, Grampy and Nana. I don’t recall everyone else’s reactions but as for me, I’ve spent the rest of my life coming to terms with that moment. Suddenly the world was a more exciting place to be; a place where you could choose to do that sort of thing. To be more precise, the world of grown-ups was more interesting. Up to that point, grown-ups fed me, clothed me, taught me, got after me, told me stories and sang lullabies. No grown-up had ever instructed me to “twist and shout” or yelled “yeah! Yeah! YEAH!” or made such a loud racket. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many electric guitars at once.
But the path musicians take isn’t solely dependent on the music listened to. There have always been people along the way who have helped bring the path into focus. Seeing the Beatles on TV was a planting of the seed perhaps, but the water for the fertile soil came from an unexpected source: a student of my father’s by the name of Norman Pearlman.
My father is a retired French professor who, from 1952 to 1969, taught at the University of Oregon in Eugene, my birth city. By the time I was 6 I had been to France twice as well as the U.K. and other parts of Europe. Through contacts made at a conference in New York City, my father was offered a chance to head the Queen’s College program in France. When I was 7, in the summer of 1966, my family sailed out of New York on a tiny ship, the Aurelia, bound for Le Havre on what would be a two-year stay in the city of Reims, the capitol of the Champagne region.
The Aurelia was a retired U-boat supply ship from World War II whose final trip to the scrapyard was delayed when it was transformed into a “less expensive” ocean liner. It was no Queen Elizabeth. I remember vividly looking out our porthole and seeing the hull of a lifeboat the ropes of which secured it to the boat were painted securely onto the their respective pulleys.
It was packed with college students from the program and the ship offered music and dancing in the evenings. I had made friends with a kid named Bernard and our parents would let us stay up until 10pm (!) at the little nightclub where we would watch and listen, drink coke and imagine upending boxes of marbles onto the dance floor. The one song I clearly remember hearing the band play was “Love is Blue” which I thought had a pretty cool melody. The little keyboard hook in-between verses was very catchy too.
Once we got established in Reims, my parents often had parties with students and faculty over at our place. Quite a few students felt very comfortable coming over just to hang out. This was especially true the second year when we had an apartment on La Cour L’Anglais. This was where one student, Norman Pearlman, who took notice of my interest in music, began to bring over stacks of English and American rock’n’roll singles for me listen to. Each week he would bring over a new stack and take back the last one.
In all fairness to my father, the reason Norman new of my interest in music was due to my father’s long standing friendship with Bernard Durant and his family. Monsieur Durand had a little “tabac” in Paris where, along with the daily papers, cigarettes and what-not, he sold the latest singles and EP’s by the French pop stars of the day. On his trips to Paris, my father would stop at the tabac and always leave with a stack of records for us.
When I was 8-years-old my music idols were Claude Francois, Adamo, Hugues Aufrais, Sheila, Jacques Dutronc, Antoine, a very bad-ass Johnny Hallyday and the underrated Michelle Polnareff. For a year this was the music I knew and listened to. It would be years before I realized that “J’Attendrais” by Claude Francois was a re-written “I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops…and not the other way around! I imagine when Norman heard what I was listening to, he took pity and decided to take it upon himself to school Ted, Jan and me in rock’n’roll. And with all due respect to Ted and Jan, I was the one for whom this stuff mattered the most.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Rochester, NY 1985

When I arrived in Rochester, NY in February of ’85, the Colorblind James Experience had already begun to establish itself on the local music scene. Chuck phoned me several times from Rochester to tell me how excited he was about the line-up: Jim MacAvaney on drums, Bernie Heveron on upright bass and G. Elwyn Meixner, formerly of the White Caps, back on guitar. Several times he would say that if and when I moved back east I would have a guaranteed place in the band.
The Rochester scene was exciting in 1985. The club scene featured Scorgie’s on Andrews St., Shatzee’s on Richmond St. (now called Richmond’s, cleverly enough), Shnozz's in the Village Gate Square, Snake Sister’s at 666 South Ave. (now Lux) and most importantly for the band, Jazzberry’s on Monroe Ave.
At the top of the band scene was Personal Effects (whose members are currently found playing in the morphine haze film-noir soundtrack ensemble Margaret Explosion). Personal Effects routinely packed Scorgie’s offering their fans sophisticated and moody stage lighting and tight, danceable sets. They looked and sounded very current with throbbing rhythm from drummer Paul Dodd and bassist Robin Mills and metal crunch from guitarist Bob Martin. The most unique element of the band, however, was the sheer presence, mysterious voice and ethereal saxophone of Peggy Fournier. To this day, Peggy’s haunting saxophone is one of my favorite sounds in music. I strongly suggest a visit to them at and never mind that I’m featured on their first CD “Happy Hour”.
Personal Effects helped Colorblind James Experience immensely. First off, Paul and Chuck had known each other since childhood, both families living on the same street in Webster. Secondly, before Robin, Bernie Heveron was PE’s bassist. For about a year, Robin was my housemate over on Hamilton St in the South Wedge. There was a time when the bands were very tight and familial. One Saturday night, in fact, Colorblind James was playing at Jazzberry’s and PE was playing at Scorgie’s. We decided without hesitation to be each other’s opening bands! The shows started at 10:30 and right around 11:30 or so both bands raced across town to headline their own gig!
There is a tape floating around that Susan Plunkett of Jazzberry’s financed called Live at Jazzberry’s which features Personal Effects on one side and the Colorblind James Experience on the other.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Arrriving in SF, 1980

Night had fallen by the time our van began crossing the 4.35 miles of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The traffic was fast and crowded. The whole time across I kept thinking “Please, God, not another blowout”. Kevin had manfully maneuvered the van off the road each harrowing time we had gotten a blowout. With these conditions, it would certainly have been disastrous.
The city was lit up, though, and it looked spectacular, electric and inviting. Kevin got the van to the other side without incident except that a) we were on E and b) we had no idea how to get to Chuck and Jan’s place. We took the first exit we could off the bridge and wound up somewhere in the Mission District.
The Mission is fine but if it’s your first time there and it’s dark outside and you’re lost, it can seem pretty intimidating. But we managed to find a gas station and a phone booth. Soon Jan was giving us directions to their apartment on Walter Street off of Duboce Park.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Drive West, 1980

I made the trek out west with drummer Kevin McDevitt, his girlfriend Caroline and a ’71 Chevy Beauville with all the band’s equipment. We left Oswego, NY on Saturday, November 22nd, 1980 and spent the first night near a garage in Toledo, Ohio having suffered the first of three blowouts. By the time we reached San Francisco I was certain we would call ourselves Colorblind James and the Blowouts. Fortunately, the choice was quickly rejected.
From Toledo we made started heading southwest through St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Phoenix, and then Albuquerque. We hit Albuquerque on Thanksgiving eve and started looking for a place to park and sleep. We couldn’t afford hotels so the three of us hunkered down in the van each night, usually me in the front seat and Kevin and Caroline in the back. By the time we hit New Mexico we were smelling up the joint something awful. Someone in a gas station suggested we pull around back for the night and maybe later they’d stop by and party with us. As young and as stupid as we were, there was something wrong with the deal so we kept on driving. We wound up on the west side of Albuquerque high up on a hill overlooking the city.
It was the Angel’s View truck stop. When night fell we knew why it was called that. Albuquerque lit up like the mothership in Close Encounters. It was absolutely beautiful. We smoked Kevin’s Marlboro’s long into the evening before turning in. There was something about the evening that was magical even though nothing extraordinary happened. We were all just feeling upbeat and recharged about our move west. We were filled with hope and my head played the same fantasy over and over of our quick rise to the top of the San Francisco scene.
The following day within minutes of waking up we all began to choke on the stench. I remember windows being rolled down quickly and random socks and underwear being tossed from the van. Kevin took his seat behind the wheel, lit a cigarette and we were off once again.
Within an hour we had our second blowout of the trip. Shortly before nightfall and just outside Kingman, Arizona we had our third. We managed to get into Kingman and get the van going again but it was Thanksgiving and we were frazzled. I was the only one who had any kind of money with me so I treated Kevin and Caroline to a Thanksgiving dinner at the local Sambo’s. Compared to the exhilaration we all felt the night before, there was something sad and lonely about being at a crummy restaurant in Kingman on Thanksgiving Day.
I wasn’t that savvy about old rocknroll hits at the time so I couldn’t even savor the fact that we were tracing all the cities laid out in Route 66. Old Route 66 was pretty much abandoned by that point but the interstate stayed true to the lyric. And yes, the following day we went through Barstow and San Bernardino before making our way up to Frisco.