Thursday, December 9, 2010

All Men Are Brothers All Sisters Are Women

The inspiration for Le Bonx goes all the way back the first time I heard The Mothers' Uncle Meat. There's a cut on side one of the first disc that's a long guitar solo accompanied by seemingly random drums, bass and various percussion instruments. Back in '73 while rehearsing for the Mills College show I came up with an instrumental called "Theme from The Man from Bonkeenie" where I played a solo and told everyone else to play whatever came into their heads. There could be a recording of it somewhere, but I doubt it because in the fall '76. I was seized with paranoia and burned nearly all of the cassettes of my own music I'd made up to that point. The few that survived were the ones I either couldn't find or were deemed, for some reason, no threat to me. Life gets weird sometimes.

Arlene at the Wurly  (note Farfisa in foreground!)
All Men are Brothers (All Sisters are Women) is a 30-second sound check. While I was setting up the mics I asked Steve to play the drums so I could get a level. We used it, in the spirit of the project, to lead off the record. The title is Steve's. Steve had that deadly combination: a deeply cynical sense of humor, great intelligence and a good education. He could always be counted on to come up with a zinger. Throughout the recording of Le Bonx, we would record a song and then name it. It was contest between Steve and I to see who could come up the funniest or weirdest title. Arlene may have named a song or two, but she generally stayed out of it.

Le Bonx was recorded in 3 sessions spread over summer '77 and winter '77 - '78 when Steve was home for vacation. The first session, with Arlene palying the Wurlitzer, produced the bulk of the songs used for the cassette release in '81. By the next session we had sold the Wurlitzer (yeah, and I'm still kicking myself) and bought a Fender Rhodes suitcase model. The Rhodes had a completely different feel and sound - much darker and deeper than the Wurly - and nature of the recordings changed. The songs in the second session were longer and, well, darker (and deeper). For the 3rd, and last, session we only recorded two songs, covers of an old 50's ballad and a 60's folk-rock tune. More of that later.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cosmic Anarchy

In 1977 punk music bludgeoned its way into consciousness. That was the year that I finally admitted that there was other music out there worth listening to besides the the Beatles, Dylan, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, Van Dyke Parks, Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Snow and Harry Nilsson (there's few more, but you get the idea). I didn't think much of it musically, but it got me listening again, and when "New Wave", punk's more musical offspring, came along I was ready. I became a big fan of Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Blondie. But that was later. The original concept of the Bonkeenies was basically a punk version of the Mothers of Invention - that is, complicated music played by people who couldn't play their instruments well, if at all. That idea went by the wayside as the group progressed, but it never left my mind. But in '77, when punk was in full flower, Arlene and I were recording "Trucks in the Sky" and similar songs for the still-in-progress Won Out LP.

Steve Hanamura, my only remaining musical cohort, was in New York attending Cornell University and we saw each other when he was home for holiday and summer breaks. I'd been hanging out with my cousin Nick, who'd introduced me to jazz-tinged performers like Michael Franks and Weather Report. Nick was also a big fan of Frank Zappa and had wholeheartedly embraced punk, being especially fond of Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys. We spent many weekend afternoons drinking Coors and listening to records and tapes of our latest favorite bands while having spirited discussions about the relative quality and significance of the music

It was during one of these listening sessions that the term 'punk jazz' came up. A local musician Nick and I both enjoyed (whose name is now lost in the ether of time) had described her (for I do remember that it was a woman) music that way. I don't really even remember what the music sounded like, but I do remember Nick and I arguing over whether the music lived up to the title. We decided that it didn't.

When Steve came home for the summer, the term 'punk jazz' was still in my mind and we had a few conversations about the concept. Ultimately we decided that a band that encompassed the qualities of both Weather Report (skilled musicianship, compositional improvisation) and the Sex Pistols (bad attitude, little musical knowledge and a scorched-earth approach to musical history) would fit the bill nicely. We created a conceptual group called Sex Report and began blueprinting their first 'album'. Arlene got involved and we gave it the provisional title of Hemo Vino Profusely based on the first 3 words that came to our minds.

Things got really interesting when we decided to actually record the album.

Steve and I were great planners and organizers. I still own piles of notebooks full of details outlines of ideas for various crazy projects we came up with during out alcohol and whatever fueled evenings around my kitchen table. Once we concocted a scheme to run Peter Helgeson for mayor of Oakland with the catchphrase "He's H.O.P.!" (which meant "heard of Peter", an area in which his designated opponent, local judge and politician Lionel "Nappy" Wilson, was decidedly deficient. "Nappy" was, of course a nickname bestowed upon him by the Grinstead/Hanamura brain trust). These detailed plans and outlines usually stayed right where they were written and were never acted upon. This was not to be the case with Hemo Vino Profusely.

Steve at the kit: "drum treatments"
One evening in late July of that summer found us gathered around my TEAC A-360-S stereo cassette recorder - the same one we'd recently used to record "Trucks in the Sky", "Big Ass", "You Know Me Blues" and the first take of "No Magic", all intended for Won Out - after ingesting  a smorgasboard of inebriates. Steve sat behind a drum set, I was holding a Fender Jazz bass and Arlene was seated at her Wurlitzer 200A electric piano. Arlene was the only one of us who had more than an elemental grasp of her instrument. Steve had never played drums before and my understanding of the bass was rudimentary at best. But that didn't matter. We had decided that we were the French punk jazz group "Les Bonx" (the "s" was dropped at some point) recording our first album. We'd all taken on assumed names for the evening. Steve and Arlene's have been lost to time, but mine has stayed with me: Norman Famous made his first appearance that evening.

I turned on the tape machine and started playing a simple 2-note motif. Arlene followed along a little tentatively and then Steve came in with what we later called his "drum treatments". We simply played whatever came into our heads for 2 or 3 minutes and then I guided them to a stop. Then we listened to it back - and we all burst out out laughing. It sounded pretty good! Steve then announced the title: "Cosmic Anarchy". The project was off to a great start.

There are no chord charts for the Le Bonx songs because there are no chords!

("Cosmic Anarchy" was released on the Le Bonx cassette in 1981 and the CD of the same name in 2003)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Rollin' Home

I wrote this song while walking home from school in 1969. It was originally part of a medley - the second song was called "I Miss You" but it sounded way too much like Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You" from Nashville Skyline. Back in those days, although I was writing tons of songs, I didn't own (or know how to play) a guitar, so I just kept the melodies in my head. Later when I finally started playing I went back and started picking out those old songs. Some were quite terrible but some, like this one, stayed with me.

After "Wa" I wanted to make a record that was a little more commercial and after going through my songs Arlene and I decided that "Rollin' Home" had potential. I cleaned up the lyrics a bit - and in doing so it officially became a Nancy song - and made it into a (somewhat generic, truth be told) piano ballad. We went into the Bay Records studio in May of 1981 to record it. Arlene played the grand piano that was in the studio and I played Young Neil, my '76 Martin D-35S. We cut the vocal, piano and guitar live and then I overdubbed the simple, but quite effective, drum part. Mike Cogan, who was engineering the session, was unhappy with the ending so we recorded the last part of the song a few more times and he spliced on the best ending. At that same session I overdubbed drums on the recording that became the single's b-sde "Major Networks".

At the time of this recording I was deeply involved with Dianne but still pining for Nancy, who had managed to disappear. She had moved I had no idea where she lived. I knew she still worked for the phone company but she had changed departments and was now working at another location. When I reworked the lyrics for the recording it was with her in mind.

G                                                Em
Last time we talked you said you loved me
             C                                                                     D
But you couldn't go on that way - not seeing me every day
G                                   Em
It left me just this side of crazy
       C                                                                        D
In a room with an open door and the telephone on the floor

My sister said I must be dreaming
It was much too long ago for anyone else to know
I thought I'd call you in the morning
But I knew if you were home you probably weren't alone


               C              Cmaj7
And now headlights, taillights
That's all I've been seeing these last few nights
                 C                     Cmaj7                             G
I've got a head full of directions and I know what to do
C                                                           G
Don't tell me 'bout your love, I know it's true
                        D      C            G        DC       GDC     GDC  G
That's why I'm rolling home to you

I had a job in Monster City
Where everybody sounds the same - just a voice without a name
And I got lost as I was leaving
You know I didn't have a face but now I think I've found my place

And now back door, front door
All I'm not seeing is you anymore
I guess I did everything you told me that I would do
Don't tell me 'bout your love, I know it's true
That's why I'm rolling home to you

repeat chorus

The "Monster City" verse is clearly referring to my time at the phone company. I worked there for about two years before I literally couldn't take it anymore. Nancy made it her career and worked there for the rest of her life. When I recorded this song I had no idea that she would be back in my life in a little over a year. At that point I thought she was gone for good. I had written a song around this time called "Monster City" that at one point was in the running for the album, but I decided that it was too dark. But I liked the phrase and it turned up in a few other compositions from that time. I think I may even have considered calling the album Monster City.
Rehearsing drum part for "Rollin' Home" at home

I brought the recording of this song to a West Coast Songwriters gathering (I am a member of this association off and on) and played for an "industry representative". He dismissed it right away as an ordinary ballad that didn't go anywhere or do anything new with the genre. Duh. That was the idea. It was designed to be the opposite of  "Wa" - an unchallenging, easy listen. I succeeded all too well.

Recording was finished and the record was ready for release by the summer of 1981, but the record was not released until the following year. I was furious with myself compromising my musical vision for the sake of getting radio airplay (and getting people to buy my records and maybe becoming successful?). I put the recording aside and released the extremely uncompromising Le Bonx instead.

Just before we released the record we took some pictures of me in front of a house that had been chopped up and prepared for moving - it was on a couple of trailers (get it, rollin' home, heh heh) but decided it was too corny. Don't know where those pictures are now.

(The single Rollin' Home / Major Networks was released in July of 1982)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

You Know Me Blues

Denise Evans was my first true love and for a time the Bonkeenies were the house band for the California School for the Deaf.

Denise, a beautiful freckle-faced redhead was officially my girlfriend for about a week back in 1969 when she was in the 9th grade and I was in the 10th. That was back in the days when our after-school hangout was Montclair Park in Oakland. Even though we went to different schools we'd always see each other in the afternoons at the park. She broke up with me...don't remember why. But it broke my heart and I never got over it.

Denise Evans, June 11, 1969 (last day of school)
Life went on, as it has a habit of doing, and a few years later - in 1974 - an aquaintence of mine mentioned that the deaf school, which was then  located in what is now the Clark Kerr campus at U.C. Berkeley, needed a band for a dance - and they paid well. He passed me the contact person's name: Joyce Brochini When I called Joyce I was surprised to discover why her sounded so familiar to me. She was Denise's mom. We arranged to meet at her house to go over the details.

I arrived at Joyce's the house in the Oakland hills with my scrapbook of Bonkeenie pictures and newspaper clippings, parked in the driveway, walked up the steps and knocked on the front door. The house was built into a hillside and the front door was actually downstairs from the main part of the house. I heard footsteps approaching and the door swung open - and Denise herself stood in front of me looking as surprised as I was. She was every bit as beautiful as she was when I'd seen her for what I thought was the last time 5 years ago. I was under the impression that she was away at college and would not be home when I came to talk business with her mom. But here she was in the flesh. We fell into each others arms and kissed - one of the all-time sweetest kisses of my entire life. Finally we separated and she said: "Sparky! What are you doing here?" I was speechless - my head was spinning - I didn't answer right away. Jane yelled from upstairs, apparently having heard my arrival: "He's here to see me".

Denise took my hand and led me upstairs to the living room. I had been to their house a few times and it looked pretty much the same. Joyce, pretty much an older version of Denise, was sitting on the couch looking extremely amused. "Well, I see you two found each other" she said, smiling. Debbie led me to a chair, sat me down and then sat on the arm still holding my hand. "Why didn't you tell me he was coming?" she asked her mom. Jane chuckled. She was obviously enjoying herself. "I wanted it to be a surprise." I was completely overwhelmed. I just stared at Denise, then at her mom. Finally Denise leaned over to me and asked me if I was all right. I looked her and could only say what was on my mind: "I love you..."

(opening riff is played over first 3 lines)
I was on my way to get my business straight

I didn't intend to stay out that late

But when you open up the door

Well, you nearly had to pick me up off the floor
A                    E               A                             E
You were so nice to me - you even kissed me hello
                B                                                 A
I'm gonna hang around your window like an alley cat
B                                                A
Sniff around your doorway like a dog
B                                             A
You might think you know me better than that

Denise, Joyce and I looked through the Bonkeenie scrapbook as I told them stories about the band's adventures. Denise and I reminisced about school days  and caught each other up on the comings and goings of our old friends. Then she stood up and said: "Sparky, let me show you something". Joyce got up and wandered into the kitchen as Debbie led me downstairs to her bedroom.

Denise's room was just off the entry hall where I'd first seen her. We stepped into the dark room and she turned on the light. The was an easel by the bed holding a painting-in-progress. The walls of her room were covered with drawings, paintings and sketches. Most were of people's faces, some were landscapes and all of them were quite good. Denise was proud of her work. "This is what I do" she said, gesturing around the room. I put my arms around her and we kissed. "I had no idea ..." I said. Denise had been frozen in time for me for the last 5 years as the beautiful girl I loved who'd broken my heart. And now here I was with her in her bedroom.

"Who's car is that in the driveway?" came a young girl's voice just outside the door. I recognized it right away as Glendora, Denise's younger sister. Denise went to her doorway and stuck her head out. "You'll never guess..." she started to say, but Glendora saw me over her sister's shoulder. "Sparky"?!" she pushed past Denise and hugged me. Before Denise and I had started going steady Glendora and I had been briefly involved. She had become quite angry with me when she realized that I was in love with her older sister. That seemed to be forgotten now as she held me and kissed me on the cheek. Denise smirked at us. "Just like old times, huh guys?" she said. Glendora shot her sister a look, disengaged herself from me, left the room and ran upstairs, shouting "Good to see you!" at me over her shoulder. The two sisters looked nothing alike. Glendora was short, freckle-free and had curly brown hair.

And when you showed me those pictures you'd drawn
Well, I never thought you had it in ya
It just goes to show that you've been carrying on
While I've been spending my life trying to win ya
You were so nice to me
You even kissed me goodbye
I'm gonna hang around your window like an alley cat
Sniff around your doorway like a dog
You might think you know me better than that

Back upstairs with Joyce, Denise and Glendora, we continued looking at the Bonkeenie scrapbook and chatting about old times. Denise went down to her room and came back with a couple of long-form love letters I'd made for her - they were like visual mixtapes where I'd use pictures, song lyrics, magazines articles, collages and art to express my feelings for her. One was called "On The Way Home" after the Buffalo Springfield song. We laughed about the rainy night I'd shown up out of the blue (well, gray) to deliver it to her. Glendora pointed out that I'd really broken her heart that night.

Joyce explained to me that the kids at the deaf school love loud rock music because they could feel the vibrations. Also some of the kids weren't entirely deaf. I agreed to play at the school Christmas party which was about 2 weeks away. With the contract signed, Denise walked my down to the front door. I glanced at Glendora as I was leaving and our eyes met. I started to say something and she put her finger to her lips in a hushing motion, then waved goodbye. At the doorway, I turned to Denise and kissed her again. "I've never stopped loving you", I said. "It was great to see you," she responded, "but you're  married and I'm engaged..." "Doesn't matter" I said, before bounding down the stairs, "I'll always love you". When I reached my car down in the driveway, I turned around to see Denise standing on the porch looking down at me. "You're still crazy!" she shouted. "About you!" I yelled back before jumping into Little Keenie (my red '69 Bug) and driving away.

By December of 1974 the Bonkeenies consisted of me, Arlene, Steve Hanamura on bass and a revolving cast of drummers. Since Olga and Greg had left the band months before it had been dying a slow death. I was less than a month away from beginning work on what would ultimately be Won Out and stepping away from live performances. The idea of playing for deaf kids appealed to My sense of irony and the absurd. We would literally be 'the best band they never heard'! We found a drummer, Leroy Silva, through the musicians union and set about teaching him our songs. Since there was very little time, we'd just do the loudest simplest longest songs we knew. Fortunately, Leroy turned out to be a very talented drummer and a quick study.

Since the Melissa debacle in '72 I'd been pretty faithful to Arlene. We were at this point living in a cozy little cottage behind a large house in the hills above Mills College (another one of Arlene's amazing finds). It was clearly time for me to make an absolute fool of myself.

I showed up, quite drunk, one evening on Joyce's porch, knocking and ringing the bell. Glendora answered, sized up my condition and pulled me into the house. She tried to look stern and said: "Denise isn't here. She's out with Bill". Bill, I assumed, was the guy she was engaged to. I leaned against the wall and laughed. Joyce came downstairs to see what the fuss was. "Oh, Sparky..." she said, shaking her head, "I'll go make some coffee". She went back upstairs. Glendora's room was right across from Denise's off of the entryway. She pulled me in and sat me down on the bed. Standing in front of me, she folded her arms across her chest and smiled. "You really really hurt me, Sparky" she said, "It took me a long time to get over you. I really fell for you and it broke my heart when you started chasing Denise" I was sobering up fast. I don't know what I was expecting, but was not expecting this. I looked  into the distance just over her left shoulder. "I'm sorry", I said, and I really was. "Well, you're drunk", she said, "and I know you're looking for my sister and you probably won't even remember this...". But she was wrong. I remember every minute of those days.

I went to see you but you weren't home
So I talked to your sister instead
She was really kind to me
She gave me the wall to lean on
She was so nice to me - she didn't make me leave
I'm gonna hang around your window like an alley cat
Sniff around your doorway like a dog
You might think you know me better than that

In Montclair park back in 1969 I got a note from Denise, delivered by a friend of hers. It read: "Sparky I am breaking up with you. We can still be friends. Love, Denise". I remember staring at it, reading it again and again, thinking, this must be wrong...this must be wrong. I then heard that she was going out with a friend of mine. For a while there were rumors that he and I were going to fight. I laughed when I heard that. It was her decision to break up. Beating up (or getting beaten up by) her new boyfriend would accomplish nothing. Denise was my dream girl...I gradually stopped going to Montclair park. I didn't see, hear from or even hear about Denise until I went to her house in December of 1974 to talk to her mom about a gig. But I never stopped thinking about her.

A                 E
Something is wrong
           A                               E
I gotta try my whole life to convince ya
        A                                  B
And nothing's been the same since ya....

Gave me that message about 5 years ago
And you even came to see the show
I didn't see you ';cause I was singing
You were so nice to me
I didn't notice 'cause I had been drinking
But until I hold you in my arms like a vise
Or get into your blood like a disease
I'm gonna hang around your window like an alley cat
Sniff around your doorway like a dog
You might think you know me better than that
But you don't..

The deaf school show was at the Marriot Hotel in Berkeley in a large banquet room. The kids were very well behaved and really enjoyed themselves. It was weirdly silent until we started playing. We learned the signs for 'fast' and 'slow' and would let the kids know what kind of song we were playing so they could dance accordingly. Groups of kids would stand in front of the p.a.speakers and hold their hands out to feel the vibrations. It was a strange, but fun, experience. Greg Reznick came along and played guitar with us. It was great to see him again.

Denise and Glendora were at the dance. Denise was with her fiancĂ©e Bill - I remembered him from high school! - and Glendora was on the arm of a long-haired bearded fellow who I gathered was her current boyfriend. They were not there long - I only caught a glimpse of Denise standing in a doorway. Glendora ran up and kissed me on the cheek, then disappeared.

So, the song "You Know Me Blues" is a literal transcription of those days put to a slightly twisted blues progression. I wrote it during the sessions at Chris' house in January and we recorded it with me playing my Ovation Custom Balladeer. The version that appears on the album was recorded during the "Trucks in the Sky" session in 1977. The song that we are segueing into at the fadeout is Neil Young's "Don't Cry No Tears". How appropriate.

Although I never saw the girls again, the Bonkeenies continued to play dances for the School for the Deaf through the next year. I don't remember why we stopped.

Years and years (and years) later I ran into Debbie Pirak, a classmate of Denise's and an old friend of mine (we'd actually gone steady for a few weeks after Denise and I broke up). Her son was going to the same school as my son, Ian (yep, more about him later). We talked for a bit about "what become of..." and finally she said, without any prompting from me: "I'm not in touch with Denise, but last I heard she was married." I didn't reply. We were standing in the schoolyard and young children, among them our own, were running around us having fun, completely oblivious of the two adults and their memories. Suddenly, Debbie's son ran up and threw his arms around her waist. She laughed and nearly fell over. Then she said: "I know you really loved her..". The change in her voice made me look away from the running, laughing children in the play yard. Her eyes had suddenly filled with tears. Her son let go of her and ran to catch up with his friends. "I did," I said, and we embraced, crying together over years of stored up sadness; me for mine and she for hers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Major Networks

<a href="">Major Networks by Sparky Grinstead</a>

I have been trying over the past few nights, with little success, to get through David Lynch's Inland Empire movie from just a few tears back. The movie is like 2 1/2 hours  long and is the most boring, incomprehensible thing I have witnessed since the last state of the union address. I simply cannot stay awake long enough to see what happens at the end - if anything does actually happen at the end. For all I know there is no end.

Don't get me wrong - I am a HUGE fan of Mr. Lynch. He is responsible for one of the best things to ever happen to television - the mighty Twin Peaks - and 2 or 3 (give or take Eraserhead) of the greatest movies ever. What makes his stuff great for me is the weirdness that he incorporates into the stories in his films. The problem with  Inland Empire is that it's all weirdness and no story.. Laura Dern walks around looking concerned and/or confused while lights flash on and off and things are generally spooky. Every now and then someone - usually Ms. Dern, but sometimes one or another of the interchangeable supporting cast - screams and runs around. At one point there was a menacing-looking bald  man with what appeared to be a light bulb in his mouth - Uncle Fester! This movie (for me, at least. I know there's Lynchites out there who are gonna say I'm not "getting it". Fine. I'm not) works better than most sedatives. And that's not all bad. I'm still recovering from back surgery and need the rest!

Recently I cancelled cable television and now I only watch stuff I stream from Netflix. I like this arrangement much better - I watch what I want, when I want and no more "lose weight get a bigger dick buy this lose weight get a bigger dick buy this" commercials. So, I'm catching up on movies I meant to see but didn't get around to....kinda like 1980... (no, not really but I need to connect this to the main part of the blog)....

Toward the end of 1980 it was becoming clear to me that the rather esoteric single "Wa" / "Whatever You Want" was not going to catch on (it wasn't getting played - even on the stations that loved the Won Out album). I decided that the next thing I did needed to be a bit more mainstream if I hoped to regain any career momentum. I had recorded an album's worth of "Wa"-like material (some of which would end up as part of Rodent to Rodent a few years later) and the Le Bonx project was in the can (more about that - much, much more  - later) but I really didn't have anything that could remotely be considered "commercial". Since I'd purchased my own 4-track tape machine after the release of Won Out, my muisc had been moving away from traditional song structures and I needed to find my way back. It was then that I became involved with Dianne, a young lady who would be my muse for years to come.

Arlene and I stayed together despite my frequent affairs. Nancy and I had stopped seeing each other for the time being - we'd had a disagreement at the end of '79 and simply stopped calling each other. I had left the phone company in '76 and by ,79 was working at the Zellerbach Paper Company in South San Francisco. Since Arlene was working at The Gap headquarters in nearby San Bruno it made for a convenient commute. I met Dianne at Zellerbach She worked in customer service and I was on the order desk -  a classic workplace romance.

These were the days before cable television -the days before cell phones (even pagers) were on every belt and in every purse - the days before i-anything. There were the major networks - ABC, CBS and NBC, whatever the goody-two-shoes PBS station was and 1 major local independent.. The UHF band - a new thing then - featured reruns, cartoons, game shows and old movies on stations with a range of 2 or 3 blocks. Slim pickings by today's standards, but back then it seemed like a lot.

"Major Networks" documents the very beginning of my year-long affair with Dianne. It was November of 1980 and I was home sick with my yearly bout of the flu. Dianne, at this point a good friend, took an afternoon off and visited me. The next day she came over in the morning and we spent the day in bed making love and watching cartoons. When she left I sat down in the kitchen and wrote the song, obliquely describing the day's events. I've always thought of this song as my "Norwegian Wood".

About a week later I recorded the vocals and guitars - the 4 track was set up in the living room (at the time we were living in the rear unit of a duplex on MacAuley Street in Oakland). I was in love and I'd started to write pop songs again. I was at the beginning of the most productive songwriting cycle of my life. Throughout its many ups and downs, this would be the most well-documented of my affairs, and although I didn't know it at the time, I'd already begun work on my next album, FSGBOC. "Major Networks", with drums added later at Mike Cogan's Alameda studio, was released in '82 as the b-side to "Rollin' Home". Throughout 1981 I wrote dozens of songs, many of which I still perform with the Backorders: "50 Miles An Hour (in the wrong direction)", "Get In", "As Graceful As She Seems" and many others. Since I had my own home studio I was recording on a regular basis. Any of these songs would have made a fine single a-side and returned me to more commercial music after the decidedly unusual "Wa".  Typically, however, I didn't release any of these songs that year. Instead, I decided to foist upon the world the most uncommercial, musically obtuse piece of work I'd ever committed to tape: it was time for Le Bonx. "Major Networks" and the song that became the single a-side, "Rollin' Home" were recorded and mastered by the summer of '81, but not released until '82 because I wanted to put out Le Bonx first. But that's another story. And another. In fact, several more stories.

D                                                  G
I don't feel like interacting - there's nothing much to do
            Em                    A                     D
Except read about some murders in the news
Life is surely wonderful but sometimes it gets slow

Me and you watching the major networks

Me and you watching the major networks
Me and you watching the major networks

It might have been the weather, it might have been the booze
Sometimes I feel like kickin' off my shoes
Couldn't get to sleep last night - had nowhere to go


Em                                      D
I've got these pictures in my mind
Em                              D
I fall in love fro time to time
Em                                                   G                                              A
I know it sounds silly but I just about fainted when we kissed the first time

So I'll just sit here dreaming and when you do arrive
I'll have the TV tuned to channel 5
Don't get good reception but who cares what's on?


Later I changed the last line of the break to:

I know I ought to be more careful 'cause it's my heart that I'm puttin' on the line

because the part about nearly fainting - while only a slight exaggeration - was a bit embarrassing. Otherwise the lyrics stand the way the were first written down that afternoon. I'm usually pretty meticulous about the grammar in my lyrics - the "me and you" part is a notable exception. But it sings better than "you and I watching..."
Sparky meets Buck

I wrote many songs for and about Dianne over the next few years. She was a beautiful young woman with large, luminous cat-like eyes (her best feature) who was extremely high-strung and given to alarming  emotional outbursts and dramatic mood swings. After a few weeks of cloak-and dagger surreptitiousness, we gave up any pretense of trying to hide our relationship at work. Arlene quickly found out but chose to ignore it, saying later that she knew the affair would burn itself out within the year and it wasn't worth getting excited about.

Recently Greg wandered into a music store in Pleasant Hill (of all places) and there, hanging on the wall was a battered but original Buck Owens American - the red, white and blue acoustic guitar marketed by Sears in 1970 and '71. Knowing that I'd been on the lookout for one of these guitars for years, he haggled a bit with the owner and bought for a price that I will not repeat here. He brought it over to my house only to find me fast asleep. The next day I called him and said: "I had the weirdest were dancing around in my bedroom with a Buck Owens guitar". I went up to Greg and Olga's later and played it - and the first song I started to strum was "Major Networks".

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Trucks In the Sky

<a href="">Trucks in the Sky by Sparky Grinstead</a>

I'm not sure what year I wrote this song. I've always had the romantic notion that it was the first thing I composed on my new Martin D-35, which I purchased in 1976. But I have a clear recollection of performing it the previous year in the break room at the phone company building where Nancy (Matt's mom) and I worked. The last half of the 70's are kind of a blur, so I really can't be sure. I do know that the version that appeared on the Won Out album was recorded in 1977 during the same session that produced "You Know Me Blues" and, of course, "Big Ass".

Most likely it was written in '75 because it deals with the beginning of my relationship with Nancy. I've always considered "Trucks.." my first real song - the first time I was able to combine a little Bonkeenie silliness, country-pop musical sensibility and still pass the Hanamura lyrical content test. Plus it's got that nifty little riff - the first time I'd written a song around a guitar motif. I can't remember where I came up the idea about the trucks themselves, but the rest of the song is pretty straightforward - it's clearly a "this thing is just starting" song. At he phone company we worked odd hours - graveyard shifts, split shifts, swing shifts, etc. - and further down you were on the seniority totem pole the less say you had in when you worked. For this reason I would sometimes find myself coming to work when she was leaving and vice-versa. That's the complaint at the heart of the song's chorus. The songs also formalizes one of my most prevalent lyrical conceits: "Look at me - the victim of love".

Including this song on  the album was a forgone conclusion the moment it was written even though it was actually recorded a few years later. Arlene and I took another crack at it at the Xandor session with her playing a Fender Rhodes but it didn't work as well as the '77 cassette version (on which she's playing a Wurlitzer 200). In the later, unused version - and pretty much every performance of the song since - the lyrics are slightly altered. On the record in the last verse I sing "I'm not Rumpelstiltskin but I'm still pretty tough", but I always liked Greg Reznick's line: "...but I still know my stuff" better. But that line hadn't been written at the time of the first recording.

(opening riff is played over the first two lines)

I'm really a mess now - she made me that way
                            Am                           G
Sometimes I'm so high and then I'm so down
                              Am                          G
Should I take the next exit or get out of town
I'm feeling so bad


                          G                                          Am                
But she's working nights now and I'm working days
                         G                           Am                          
I don't get to see her but what can I say
                         G                               Am
And I had a vision that the harbor was dry
                                 G   Am                          G
And the ships were all flying like trucks in the sky

I'm feeling so helpless. What if she knows?
Would she understand me if I came out and said
That I really love her or would she just shake her head
And say I'm a fool?


I'm watching a newsreel that shown (sometimes "thrown") through a wall
I smoke and that's dangerous, I drink and that's rough
I'm not Rumpelstiltskin but I'm still pretty tough (or "still know my stuff")
And I'm still a fool

But she's working nights now and I've got the blues
Butterflies in my stomach and rocks in my shoes
Oh, if I could just see her without straining my eyes
When the stars are like headlights of the trucks in the sky

Sparky and Greg perform together in '74
I've always been fond of this song and I still like to perform it. Greg accompanied me recently to a radio interview where we reminisced about the early Bonkeenie days and talked about Won Out and the Backorders. At the end we pulled our guitars out and sang this song.

..and together again in 2008 with the Backorders
Greg and I have been 'guitar brothers' since almost from the moment we met. Olga and Greg met at Stanford and fell in like. I think she brought him over to meet us at the end of  '73 and by the early part of '74 he was officially in the band. The reason he's not more of a presence on Won Out is due to fact that the album was recorded after he and Olga had been Arelene'd out of the band (the first sessions in '75) and then after they had gone their (temporarily, it turned out) separate ways (the later sessions in '78 and '79). He's like my Danny Whitten or Frank Sampedro (and if you don't know there they are I'm not gonna tell ya) - a totally sympatico musical buddy that I just don't have to worry about - I know he'll get it. He knows my stuff so well that when I bring a new song in he pretty much already knows it and what to play on it (it might help that I use the same 5 chords over and over).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Big Ass

<a href="">Big Ass by Sparky Grinstead</a>

When Arlene and I were first living together we were both 19 years old, going to school and working at typical low-paying "first jobs". Arlene worked at the Taco Bell in Oakland's notorious Eastmont Mall (they were robbed at gunpoint at least once a week) and I was working at a self-service gas station around the corner from our first home, a tiny lttle cottage behind an apartment building (Arlene had a rare talent for sniffing out little cottages to rent. During the course of our14 tears together we lived in 5 little cottages). Back then, self-serve was a fairly new concept and customers were constantly coming to my little window and demanding that I check their oil.

The gas station I worked at was owned by a guy named Joe Cockrum. Joe was a small-time entrepeneur who dreamed of owning a string of gas stations up and down the bay area. He had hired me because a high-school friend of mine, Bo Miller, was already working there (I discovered this one day when Arlene and I were exploring our new neighborhood). Bo was a motorcycle enthusiast who still lived with his parents in the Oakland hills. We weren't great friends, but we were friendly enough to be happy to find each other - and for him to recommend me for the job.

A few months after I started working at the self-service station Joe acquired a full-service operation down in Hayward and asked me and Bo if we wanted to work there as real honest-to-goodness pump jockeys. Bo refused, sying that he didn't want to commute, but I happily accepted. It meant more money, more hours and  a uniform shirt with my name on it!

The station turned out to be a run-down little place on Mission Blvd. at the foot of the hill below the state college. There was no shelter over the islands so on rainy days I'd get soaking wet running back and forth from the office to help customers. The asphalt was old and uneven with more than a few large potholes. It was actually pretty crummy. But I loved it because it felt like a real job. The strip of road we were on was full of used car lots, bars, liquor stores and massage parlors. Directly across the street from the station was a storefront with a sign that read "Executive Massage". When business was slow Joe and I would stand in the tiny office and watch the girls from the massage parlor walk back and forth to a nearby liquor store or burger joint on their breaks. We knew they were hookers - they didn't try to hide it.

One afternoon Joe and I were standing at the window when a particularly well-endowed hooker came out of the massage parlor and sauntered down the sidewalk across the street from the station. We watched her for a moment and Joe exclaimed: "Look at the tits on her! Goddamn!" Then after a reflective pause, he continued: "Aw, but she's kinda fat, though...". Then he drew his conclusion: "Yeah, but I bet she fucks like it's goin' outta style!". The hooker continued her journey to the liquor store, blissfully unaware of Joe's devastatingly thorough critique. After a moment, Joe muttered almost to himself: "Big ass, short body, long body, long ass...big ass...". I knew at that moment that he had handed me the chorus to a song. As soon as I got home that evening I grabbed a guitar and wrote "Big Ass".

I have a short list of songs that I call my "Woulda shoulda coulda" songs - the ones that, given the right set of circumstances, could have made me rich and famous. Or just rich. Or just famous. Or maybe just comfortably well off and moderately well known. "Big Ass" tops the list. A simple 3-chord rocker with 3 verses and no middle eight, it's one of the simplest things I've ever written. It was 1973 so it was immediately incorporated into the Bonkeenie repertoire. It was one of the few early Bonkeenie songs that survived into the post-Mills Bonkeenies, simply because it was such a crowd pleaser.

I could not decide whether or not to include it on the Won Out album. Chris and I made an attempt to record it during the early '75 sessions, but it didn't work out. The version that would up on the album was recorded in '77 during the same session that produced "Trucks in the Sky" and "You Know Me Blues". I remember Steve Hanamura telling me that if I put it on the album I'd never be taken seriously as a songwriter. Everyone else I spoke to, family, friends and fellow musicians all said "Put it on!" My cousin Nick said it best when he told me: "It's the funniest thing you've ever written. Just put it on last so people won't think that's all you can do." And that's exactly what I did. Thanks, Nick. When I started getting playlists back from the radio station, "Big Ass" was getting the most airplay. I still perform the song with the Backorders.

Well, I saw me a girl walkin' down that street
She just the kinda woman that I wanted to meet
            D                                     C                         G           D
I said "Hey there baby would you like to be mu lady friend?"
She had short little legs and a pretty strut
And hangin' 'round her waist was a mammoth gut
            D                                 C                         G
But the main thing that attracted me was her rear end - she had a

                C          G                       D              C          G
Big ass, short body, long body, long ass, big ass
                  C         G                      D                C         G
She had a big ass, short body, long body, long ass, big ass

She said "Aw, now sonny dontcha waste your time
I got a good thing cookin' at the end of the line."
I said "Oh big mama dontcha know my love is real?
I'll go down to the railyards if you laugh
And let the 5:57 cut me in half
I'm gonna kill myself if you don't let me feel
Let me feel your...


Well, I let her go though it broke my heart
To see that big ass movin' off across the park
And I knew I was gonna have to find me another girl
Well, she's gotta be short and she's gotta be big
I'll break a skinny woman like I break a twig
I gotta find a big momma if I have to search around the world
And she's gotta have a


I've always been conflicted about this song. When we did the first Won Out  CD in 2005 I left it off of the running order (it was replaced with "Lend a Hand") and included it as a hidden track. I rectified that when we did the 30th anniversary version - "Big Ass" was returned to its rightful place.

In the early 70's I was very much influenced by Frank Zappa's early work and a lot of the songs I wrote were clumsy political, religious and sexual satire. "Big Ass" is the last and the best of that era. After that I moved into writing Beatles-influenced pop/rock, like "Fall On Me" before being led by Steve Hanamura into writing more "meaningful' songs.  But I've always been a big fan of British Invasion pop - straightforward no-nonsense 3 minute paeans to love - and even today is my default setting for songwriting.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Breaking Point

"Breaking Point" started off as a poem by Arlene. She would sometimes write poetry - always on Sierra Designs notepaper - I guess it soothed her troubled soul. No, really, I never knew what she was on about in her little poems. They never made any sense to me. They didn't rhyme! The verses weren't always symmetrical! They drove me crazy. When she'd show them to me I'd always say something like "That's great!" or "You should keep doing this!" - you know, bullshit. I'm not really sure how it happened - she may have shown me the first verse and asked me to put music to it, or I may have read it and offered to finish it - but the way it ended up was Arlene wrote the first verse and I took it and ran with it. It's pretty obvious when you read it - I turned it into a "comin' home baby" type love song. The central riff that the guitar and piano play together was loosely based on Frank Zappa's "Willie the Pimp" and the piano riff in the middle eight was lifted from "Speed of Life" from David Bowie's Low album. It's a jaunty tune and was always fun to play. We recorded it at Xandor, but I couldn't get the harmony vocal right. In the end, we took the tape to Mike Cogan at Bay Records and he solved the harmony problems by slowing the tape down a bit. I sang my harmony part to the sl
<a href="">Breaking Point by Sparky Grinstead</a>ower, lower version and when the tape was sped back up to normal I was magically in tune! An interesting side effect was that my harmony vocal, slightly sped up, made me sound not unlike my sister Olga.

When I wrote my part of the lyrics I was thinking about driving back and forth to L.A., which we did quite a lot in those days ('78 - '79). Olga was attending graduate school at U.C.L.A. and we would often hop into one of our Volkswagen bugs (we had two: "L'il Keenie", a red '69 automatic stick shift and "Tony" a brown '68, both of which we kept in tip-top running condition. I'm not kidding. We really doted on those cars) and visit her for a weekend. It was always a big adventure for us. I'm a homebody and not well-traveled so going to L.A. was a big deal for me. I didn't visit Disneyland until I was in my 20's. Arlene and I went with Olga and Greg. I was smoking then. My brand was - get this - "Tramps". There was a picture of dear old Charlie Chaplin on the pack. I remember walking down (up?) Main Street wearing my jeans jacket with a pack of tramps in the chest pocket. I quit smoking in '82.

Arlene and I tried a few times to write together, but it never worked out. Our styles were simply not compatible. She couldn't write melodies - something I simply could not fathom because she played piano and knew all about chords and music theory - and for some reason I could never find a decent melody for her words. And if I had a melody floating around I never liked the lyrics she would write for it. "Breaking Point" - even though it was 80% mine - was the one exception.

guitar capo
G                                     C
Breaking point along the highway
G                                     D
Comin' at you like wild weeds
Am                             G                       Em
On a cold, gray open morning my machine
G               Em
Machinin' clean
          G                    Em
Like you ain't never seen

The first time that I met you
You didn't notice me
But I knew we could have something with style
And you could make me smile
Well it's just a few more miles

F                C             G
What am I doin' in L.A.?
F                 C             G
I ain't seen sun in 14 days
F                    C                             G        Em        
But don't you worry none because I'm okay
         G                   Em
I just had to get away
            G                     Em
But I'm comin' back today

Breaking point along the highway
No time to stop and eat
I've got the 8-track goin' and ah, look at me
I'm as high as I can be
I need you to talk to me

Ah, look at me
I'm as high as I can be
I need you to talk to me

Yeah, I know it's not my greatest set of lyrics, but it sings well. I was intentionally trying to keep it simple - just a sweet little uncomplicated love song. When this was written, 8-track players were already obsolete

Monday, August 23, 2010

Everything They Say

<a href="">Everything They Say by Sparky Grinstead</a>
A lot was happening in 1978. I was more or less happily married. I had 3 or 4 girlfriends (depending on the day of the week). I was working on Won Out and Le Bonx while writing songs hand over fist. I had a cool job driving a delivery truck for a local office supply store which gave me a tremendous amount of discretionary time during the day. Lots of music, lots of women and sex and lots of alcohol and drugs (well, marijuana, anyway. I didn't discover cocaine until 1980). Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It was a fun time. I was young, foolish and kinda happy.

There was no e-mail, no cell phones, no GPS, cable TV, satellite radio...really, it was a very free time. If you were out, you were out. Nobody had to know where you were. There weren't CCTV cameras everywhere to make you a liar. I didn't even have a gas card, much less a Visa or anything like that. Everything was cash or check - usually cash because even though I had proper ID, some places were reluctant to accept a check from a guy with an afro. 

I wrote "Everything They Say" sometime in '78 and for once I had a song that wasn't about how I wanted someone or how she had gone and broken my poor heart. It's one of my favorite compositions and recordings. Lyrically it's all over the place. In the first verse I'm admitting to a little jealousy - my baby sister Olga was now the star of the family (rightfully so - she'd been accepted to Stanford and was on a very positive life path. She was so ant and I was so very grasshopper) and she was stealing my thunder. The second verse is four of the warmest, most tender lines I ever wrote about Arlene. The chorus is from something Matt's mom, Nancy, said to me after she discovered that I'd done the dirty with one of her friends. I still remember sitting down to write it - I had a capo on my guitar, which I hardly ever used, and it gave the chords a different feel (I'd been fooling around with that type of chord progression for a while) and the words just spilled out. The only change I made when we went to record was I dropped the words "...isn't wrong" from the last line of the chorus. This was recorded at Xandor in Orinda with me playing my Martin and Arlene plonking out that cute little piano part on a grand piano that was in the studio. The backing vocals were a last-minute idea. Peter Helgeson was present in the studio, sitting on the floor reading a book. In fact just as the song begins you can hear him knocking over a guitar stand!

C               F                  G          C 
I see your name on the old marquee
                     F                   C
Right where mine used to be
                 F               G              C            
I see your face in the upcoming show
                     F                   C
Right where mine used to go

Dm               G                    C        F
You've been picking up on all my friends
Dm                G                   C        F
What kind of stories are you telling them?
                           Am    C       G
Everything they say...          (piano riff)

I remember your blue nightgown
The one you wore when it got cold
I kept a fire in a lonely place
Til you were warm enough to hold

(repeat chorus twice)

The Backorders (my current band) did a very nice version of this at the Won Out 30th anniversary show, which you can watch above left! The Backorders are like an older, more professional version of the best Bonkeenies line-up from 1974. Jim Usher plays drums. Jim's daughter is one of my daughter's bestest  friends, and Jim and I got aquainted via the "our kids hang out so we'd better get to know each other" route. We'd actually been friends for a number of years before I found out that he played drums. More about that later. Mark Bluestein is the bass guy. He walked up to me after I'd performed at the local elementary school (helping out my youngest son's class) and introduced himself. Mark, Jim and I started getting together in my basement soon after that. I hadn't had my own band in over 10 years. Eric Kampman plays keys. Eric's son went to school with my youngest son and we met when he came to pick him up after a birthday party at my house. Our conversation went something like this: Me: "I understand you play keyboards" Eric:"I understand you have a band". Eric and I made Winter Comes and Goes together (yep, more about that later). My sister Olga (going by the name Robin Famous) and her husband Greg sing and play guitar. They were both in that classic Bonkeenie lineup with me - and that's a long, long story that deserves its own entry. So....more about that later, too.....

Saturday, August 21, 2010


<a href="">Wa by Sparky Grinstead</a>

Won Out was released in 1979. Our intention was to release it in 1978 but due to some typical last-minute change-my-minds it was held up. Arlene and I did all of the mailing and marketing ourselves. I remember buying the LP mailers from Tharco, writing the letters to disc jockeys around the country - each one was typewritten by Arlene on our IBM Selectric and hand-signed by me. We aimed mainly at college stations because back in those days college stations were free-willed creatures that would, could and did play anything that struck their fancy. The big-time commercial radio station were pretty snooty and for the most part would have nothing to do with us even though most were still locally-owned and operated. These were the days before some fat rich guy bought all the stations and made them all play the same 3 songs over and over again between commercials for the other companies that the fat rich guy owned. We got a lot of positive feedback from the station managers and the jockeys themselves - each album went out with a stamped return envelope for comments. I wish I still had those letters! We were working pretty much without a blueprint because there were almost no other independent (indie? Did I invent indie?) artists/labels out there doing their own footwork. It was frustrating sometimes because we'd ask someone to play us or carry us in their store (yes, there were many independent record stores then, too! Not like now when some fat rich know), and it would go something like this:
Q: What label are you with?
A:  The label is Sparlene.
Q:  Sparlene? I've never heard of that label.
A:  It's my own label.
Q:  Your own label? You have your own record company?
A:  Well, it's not really a record company. I just put my own record out under my own name.
Q:  Sparlene, huh? What does it mean?
A:  What we'd really like you to do is play/stock my album.
Q:  Who does your distro? Your publicity?
A:  We do everything ourselves
Q:  Are you getting any airplay?
A:  Yes, they're playing it on (local college station).
Q:  Wow, man, I dunno...that sounds cool, but we/I don't usually deal with the artist directly....
A:  Well, I can let you talk to my wife....

Sometimes they'd buy them directly from us, sometimes they'd take them on consignment and sometimes they'd insist on a bunch of free copies for "promotion" (which we couldn't afford to do). I remember the manager of Tower Records in Berkeley being very sympathetic to my cause. He was the first to stock Won Out and even sold out of his first batch (of 5)! It kind of went sour when Arlene and I went there to look at my name in the record bins and discovered that I was "Sparky Grimstead" - a very common misspelling of my last name but disappointing nonetheless. I suggested we bring it up with the manager but Arlene went ballistic and got into a shouting match with the cashier, demanding that they change the card immediately. The cashier marched up the aisle and removed all of my albums, thereby ending my relationship with that particular Tower Records store.

As I said in an earlier post, we were planning to issue "Fall On Me" as a single, backed by a newly recorded version of "Ten Years".

At the tail end of '79, after all of the initial work on the album was done, we had purchased a TEAC A-3440-S, a gigantic 4-track reel-to-reel machine. It was similar to the Sony machine that Chris Troelson had used to record the initial sessions back in '75. I remember how exciting it was to bring it home, open the box and set it up in the living room (by this time we were living in the rear unit of a duplex on MacAuley Street in Oakland, just down the street from the headquarters of the music magazine BAM) I could now do my own multi-track recording. At first I rather over-ambitiously planned to record everything I'd ever written, but soon made the more realistic decision to record whatever I felt like recording. Arlene and I used the TEAC, which we dubbed "Milton the Monster" to work on a new, more straightforward version of "Ten Years" for the single.

I'm not a patient man when it comes to recording. If I don't get a usable take in the first few tries I tend to move on to the next thing. "Ten Years" was, for some reason, difficult to nail down and after a few tries we put it aside. Then inspiration struck - and the result was "Wa".

I started playing an A chord (my guitar at this time was a natural-finish Telecaster that I'd found at Subway guitars in Berkeley. The Fender Telecaster is my second-favorite guitar after the big red semi-hollow and , with a few notable exceptions, those are the electric guitar you'll most likely see me playing.) and began improvising lyrics, switching to a Dm when it seemed appropriate. It started out as a call-and-response kinda thing: "Gimme a W, Gimme and A" but then I didn't know where I was going with that so I just said "What that spell?" and suddenly I knew. I made up a few verses and then let it ride on the A chord for a while. Then I overdubbed the bass part, which is actually the Telecaster with the tone knob turned all the way to the bass, and just jammed away. The percussion is the Telecaster again - I just laid in down and played the strings like bongos. The tag at the end was added a few nights later. Arlene, Steve Hanamura, Peter Helgeson and I sat around the kitchen table and chanted "What that spell?" while I stomped out the beat.

"Wa" was going to be the single. I took the tape to Mike Cogan and Bay Records in Alameda to mix, splice the two parts together and master. For the b side I reached back and pulled out the "Whatever You Want" from the original '75 sessions (detailed in another blog). We put it out in the summer of 1980 and followed pretty much the same marketing scheme that we'd used with Won Out. Stores wouldn't stock it, so we had to sell it ourselves.

A (vamp)
Gimme a W, gimme an A

What that spell? That spells Wa

What that spell? That spells Wa
Wa is what that spell

Wa is what that spell

Why do I say Wa?
Why do I say Wa?
Why do I say Wa?
I say Wa 'cause I say Wa
I say Wa 'cause I say Wa

What does it mean?
What does it mean?
What does it mean?
I say Wa means Wa
Wa means Wa

(repeat first verse)

What that spell?
What that spell?
What that spell?

(bass improv to fade)

What that spell?

"Wa" is still one of my favorite pieces. To this day I believe that in the right circumstances - the right chain of events - it could very well have been massive. It is a very unusual song, kinda nursery rhyme-ish but at the same time subtly subversive. Kids loved it. Adults would admit that it was catchy but for the most part just raise their eyebrows and back away. The radio stations that happily played songs from the Won Out album, despite letters and phone calls from the Sparlene Records publicity machine, generally ignored it. I was surprised and disappointed. I knew "Wa" was unusual, but I thought that the independent-minded program directors and disc jockeys of college radio stations would like it for its uniqueness (it was only later that I learned that "Wa" means "harmony" in Japanese). Boy, was I wrong!

("Wa" was released in July of 1980 as a single a-side)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lend A Hand

<a href="">Lend A Hand by Sparky Grinstead</a>
Recorded in January of '75, probably right after "Fall On Me" (it uses the same instrumentation had has a similar feel), this song, like "Whatever You Want", was completed but did not make the Won Out album.To this day I don't know why. It's a good recording of an energetic performance - and it's an actual message song, full of pithy observations like: "People change so much once you've known them / And feelings change so much once you've shown them" (In fact, looking back on the lyrics now, I'm amazed at how fatalistic they are!).This song was written too late for the Mills College show, but not by much - I remember teaching it to Dennis in my (and Arlene's) new apartment in a security building near Lake Merritt in Oakland (after the first burglary we decided to move up in the world) in December of '73.
After the Mills show I had continued to write - in fact, it was like I had turned on a tap and couldn't turn it off. Songs were pouring out of me - good, bad and indifferent. I can't even remember a lot of them now. Sometimes I'll be going through an old notebook and a song will jump out at me: "Oh my god! I remember this! This is terrible!".

Mills College was, as I mentioned, a women's school with nothing but college-age females all over the place - in classes, on the sports fields and socializing in the campus coffee shop. Since my own class schedule at the J.C. was minimal I spent a lot of time on the Mills campus waiting for Arlene, dropping her off and picking her up.

Arlene's best friend at school was girl named Melissa, who came from a wealthy family in Menlo Park. A trained singer with a fine voice, she was briefly attached to the Bonkeenies (along with another Mills student name Mary who couldn't sing at all ) as a back-up singer. Melissa and I were briefly involved (ditto Mary, but that's another story. Mary was crazy about Tom Jones and used to go to his concerts with her mother and actually throw their underwear in the general direction of the I said, another story...) and "Lend A Hand deals, however obliquely, with the rapid deterioration of that affair.

In 2003, when I took the Won Out tapes to Mike Cogan (the first time we'd seen each other in 25 years!) for digital remastering, we found the original mix of "Lend A Hand" from 1975 and, after a little spiffing up, went ahead and used it for the CD as a bonus track. In fact, the CD features all of the original mixes from the album. Here's a picture of the first CD version of  Won Out. In 2009, we did a special 30th anniversary version that more closely resembled the original artwork (thanks, Ian!).

Mike had moved the Bay Records studio from the old Times-Star building in Alameda to a larger, more luxurious space behind a storefront on the Oakland/Berkeley border. It was a real pleasure to work with him again. During the remastering process I was able to hear the music in much finer detail. For example, "Lend A Hand" was recorded on an intermittently rainy day - just as we finished the drum track it started pouring outside and the storm is just audible at the end of the track.

E                            A                                E
I was born with the promise that I'm gonna die
E                            A                                 E        D
I was raised understanding that I'd have to get by
                                                           E                D
But Life changes so much while you're living it
                                                            E                          B
And love changes so much once you've given it - so come on
       E        A     E         A       E        A
And lend a hand, lend a hand, lend a hand
 B                   A                  E
And life won't be so hard to understand

I was taught that the future's not ours to decide
I was taught that we'll never return once we've died
But people change so much once you've known them
And feelings change so much once you've shown them - so come on
And lend a hand, lend a hand, lend a hand
And life won't be so hard to understand

A                                          E
It seems like yesterday I was crying
A                                                    E                                  B
And now I'm trying to find a way to deny it and it makes me sad

Because I'm too scared to decide
Just what I've got left that I'll be able to hide
And love still stands so tall next to worship
And freedom costs so much it's not worth it - so come on
And lend a hand, lend a hand, lend a hand
And life won't be so hard to understand
B                   A                      E
And life won't be so hard to understand

Around the time I wrote "Lend A Hand" the Bonkeenies ever-changing line-up took a big step towards solidifying when I asked my sister Olga to sing with me. At this point - '73 was ending and the great adventure that would be 1974 was dawning - the band consisted of me, Arlene and Dennis. Drummer Don Whitworth from the Mills show had vanished (although we found out later that he was telling his wife he was off to Bonkeenie rehearsals every Sunday). I remember telling Dennis that I was bringing my sister in as lead singer. Dennis looked up from his beer and said: "Can she shake it?". Now we just needed to find a drummer.

("Lend A Hand" was released in 2004 as a bonus track on the CD version of Won Out)