Saturday, September 3, 2011

How Great Thou Aren't




I love this title. It sums up in 4 words my feelings about organized religion.

The song itself was not on the original cassette release of Le Bonx. It's from the second session - the "Fender Rhodes" session - and, like most of the stuff from that day, was a bit less focused than the songs from the previous year's "Wurlitzer" collection. When we were reviewing the songs for the CD release in '03 I decided that that this one deserved inclusion if only for the title. For the first session we were excited about playing this new music we'd invented, were just the right amount of stoned and drunk and played like wide-eyed explorers entering a strange new land for the first time. By the second session the land was no longer strange and new, we were a little more stoned and drunk and the concept was now almost a year old. The second session songs are quite a bit longer and the overall feeling, owing a lot to the heavier tones of the Rhodes, was darker. The original Le Bonx cassette contained no songs from this session. In retrospect, however, I found them worthy of inclusion. Arlene's playing is amazing. Le Bonx is, in some ways, her album. She demonstrated a passionate creativity in her playing that had never even been hinted at within the constraints of the classical pieces she grew up playing and the tightly-structured  music I gave her to play in the Bonkeenies.
I had always worked under the assumption that Arlene, while technically accomplished on the keys, couldn't improvise her way out of the proverbial paper bag. Le Bonx proved that assumption to be groundless.

I am "officially" Catholic in that I was baptized in the Catholic church and received my religious training there. I went to Sunday school, weekday catechism and bible study. I went to Sunday mass and did whatever else little Catholic boys do to get acquainted God, Jesus and everyone else in the gang. I've read the Bible first (as a child) because I had to a later (as an adult) because I was curious. Although I attended public schools, for a few summers I attended classes at Sacred Heart and had the, at first quite odd, experience of being taught by a nun. Even as a child being indoctrinated into the faith I was thinking: "Why?" I was always in trouble for raising my hand and asking questions like: "Is this stuff true are is it just a story that you want us to believe?"

I am not a religious person. I am, in fact, skeptical and suspicious of organized religion. One of the many great things about being a human (instead of, say, a rock) is that we can think about stuff and have opinions. In my opinion organized religion is a scam - or a series of scams. I don't hold anything against those who believe in whatever they believe in although I don't think that any belief is worth killing over. I say believe whatever the heck you want - just don't judge me (or kill me) because I don't believe the same thing. I will do the same for you. I also feel that religion is no way to govern. Theocracies tend to be repressive. I'm not saying that government officials can't be religious - they just need to leave their religion at home - or at the church - when they go to the office. If they can't do that then they should not govern.

31 years after the fact, Won Out got reviewed in the local paper. Well, actually it's a review of the 30th anniversary CD so it's really only a year after the fact, sort of.:


Sparky Grinstead, Won Out
This album originally came out in 1979, which means it's not a byproduct of the current psychedelic folk-pop revival. Indeed, it has the grainy quality of a 31-year-old relic. Sparky Grinstead is a terrific guitarist and songwriter. He gets extra folksy on the self-pitying love ballad, "Trucks in the Sky," and reveals his lewd sense of humor on "Big Ass." "Whatever You Want" is sweet and forlorn. (Sparlene Records)
At The Stork Club (2330 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) on Saturday, Sept. 10. 9 p.m., $5.
As of this writing, I am performing at Oakland's historic Stork Club in a week with the Backorders. We're not going to be performing Won Out, however. I have written a new album called Grimace (that will be featured in these pages soon enough) and we've been working on those songs for the last couple of months. This will be my first album of new material since FSGBOC  in 1984.

The "Grimace" poster. Notice the resemblance to the "Le Bonx" album art.






 




Friday, September 2, 2011

No Heavy Lifting




This was the closing track of the original cassette from 1981. When we did the CD in 2003 it became the "hidden" track for reasons that were clear to me then but not so much now. While Arlene plays randomly, Steve and I share a joke and I consider breaking out my electric guitar. Although Steve supports the idea, I ultimately decide that it's not worth the effort after (apparently) opening a closet door. It's not really a song - it's just a moment. Le Bonx is an album of moments.

I'm always amused when I see my albums online or in catalogs filed under "Soul". That's always a dead giveaway that the filer looked at the cover picture and made an assumption. "Oh, it's a black guy", I can hear them thinking, "so it's gotta be either blues or soul".

 I was inspired to pick up the guitar by the Beatles and from there I went to Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Neil Young and on down the "white guy with a guitar" highway.  Because I am a black man people don't expect my music to sound like it does and sometimes they unthinkingly point it out: "You don't sound black". I hate that as much as I hate it when people tell me "You don't look black" because I have light skin. I hate it but I understand where it comes from. I'm not going to go all psycho-social here but our society breaks things down along racial lines pretty clearly - especially music. I'm a black man who writes and plays "white" music. One guy even told me, after hearing the Le Bonx tape: "You're like a punk Charlie Pride!" (Charlie Pride was - well, is - a black country singer who was quite popular in the 70's. He's got his own theater Branson now).


I've also been told: "You don't talk black". I remember an incident that happened when I was a telephone operator. A customer called the office manager to complain that an operator had been rude to her. When the manager asked for a description of the offending person's voice the customer replied: "It was a black man". So the manager rounded up all of the black male operators who were on duty when the incident occurred. There were 4 of us - and our voices were not even remotely similar. I asked the manager what a black man sounded like and she of course had no answer for me. It turned out that offender, although black, was actually a woman.


I'm not going to make any profound statements here about racism - it exists and it's everywhere - some members of my own extended family don't speak to me because I married a white woman - but like Popeye says : "I yam what I yam". To some, I'm a musician and songwriter and to others I'm a Black musician and songwriter. Whatever. I will continue to make my music and leave it others to define what they hear.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Punk Jazz Opus One




As I'm sure I've said before, the songs on Le Bonx were titled after the fact, with Arlene, Steve and I taking turns coming up with the names. This is one of Arlene's titles. The song itself is from the first session - the "Wurlitzer" session. It's just a 3 minute blast of punk jazz - one of my favorite tracks. We came out swinging and didn't let up. Arlene really lets loose and plays with uncharacteristic abandon and fervor while Steve manages to move things along rather than throw his usual percussive body blocks to the song's momentum.

I've talked before about my attempts to garner mainstream acceptance - radio stations, record companies, management, etc. - by doing things the "right" way. The truth is I really didn't try all that hard. Fear of rejection? Yeah - it's painful to be told that your stuff "isn't right" or that it "needs work" whether or not it's true. Laziness? I guess my approach to recording could be called lazy. . If I didn't get it right the first time I moved on to something else. Certainly I'm impatient. Ego problems? Sure. Like John Lennon once said "Part of me thinks I'm a loser and another part thinks I'm God Almighty". I always hoped that someone who was in charge of...something....would hear my stuff and say: "This is great. Let's sign this guy and develop this stuff!" Of course that never happened. That almost never happens. Artistic integrity? What the heck is that? I did what felt right. I did what I had the skill to do. The music I made when I made it was the best I could do at the time.

 I was pretty beaten down most of my life and by the time I was in my twenties I felt deep inside that I was pr worthless. I knew, on one hand, that I could do stuff not a lot of people could not do - I could make stuff up. On the other hand I also knew that there were lots and lots of people who were better at it. Even though I was a huge music fan and was writing lyrics and making up melodies even as a child, I didn't learn how to play guitar until I was 18 years old. Why? Because my father ridiculed my musical ambitions and humiliated me every time I brought them up. He'd say: "You'll never play guitar. I bet I could learn guitar before you." When I was 13 or 14 he actually bought me a cheap little steel-string guitar and told me: "Now watch - this will sit in a corner an he'll never learn to play it." I was so crushed that I never touched the instrument. A few years later I gave it to my sister. When I was in my last year of high school he took me to a pawn shop in Oakland and bought me a 12-string acoustic guitar. I wanted a 12-string because Richie Furay played one in the Buffalo Springfield. It's interesting to note that in emulating that group I didn't want to be Neil Young or Steve Stills, the warring guitar heroes, I wanted to be the third guy who didn't get the attention - the guy who was overshadowed and left standing at the curb when the bus to superstardom left the station. I knew I was good - I just didn't think I was worth a shit. Thanks, dad. ( Sometimes he'd get drunk and brag to his friends that I could sing, write and play guitar. Then he'd drag me - and sometimes my sisters - out of bed and make me perform for his drunk friends. Then he'd brag about all of the famous entertainers he knew and how he could help me start a career in music. The next day he'd be hungover and dangerous, his grandiosity of the night before a fading memory. I remember when I'd taught myself a  few chords on my 12-string I went to the kitchen where he was sitting with the current step mom and played a bit for him. When I was done he said: "Yeah, but you'll never be as good as B.B. King". Thanks, dad.

Putting Le Bonx together was a liberating experience. No one could tell me it wasn't any good because how the hell could they know? I invented the music. I created the genre. Le Bonx may very well have been the greatest music ever recorded. Who's to say it isn't? If I hadn't done Le Bonx I don't think I could have ever finished Won Out or any other music project. I learned to stop second-guessing myself. My music was and is my music. The listener is free to love it, hate it or be indifferent to it. It would be great if everyone everywhere loved everything I did. Since I know that's not possible, the best I can do is be true to myself and make music that best reflects who, what and where I am at that moment.. Releasing the album - even as (only) a cassette - was almost anti-climactic. What was important was that I made it. After Le Bonx, I was free.

"Punk Jazz Opus One" has no lyrics although at the end of the recording I say: "Oh, man...".

Back then we had no way of knowing that the instruments and amplifiers we were using would someday be valuable sought-after "vintage" items. We bought, sold and traded them without concern for their future value. Now, of course, I wish we'd held on to Arlene's Wurlitzer 200 and Fender Rhodes suitcase model electric pianos and the Fender Twin Reverb and Bassman amps that passed through our hands during those years. Even the Taiwanese-made Crest drums that we had for years (and eventually passed on to some kids who were starting a band) show up on Ebay as "vintage" for ridiculous amounts of money. My son Matt owns a "Wurly" that I borrow from time to time. It really takes me back. When Arlene and I broke up she took her amp (a 70's Fender Bassman 10 that had been passed down from Steve) and her electric piano to a local music store and traded them for a grand piano. They gave her almost nothing for them and turned around and sold them for a huge profit. I was disappointed that she didn't give me the opportunity to buy them from her, but then really what did I expect?

Friday, August 26, 2011

There Ain't No Way




Arlene and I worked at a dive in Oakland's Laurel district called Pizon's Pizza. It was a little corner restaurant that served your basic Italian entrees - Ravioli and Spaghetti - and, of course, pizza. I was the cook and Arlene was the waitress. It was 1974. I got my job there through Chris Troelson who would eventually be the original recordist  for the Won Out sessions. Chris moved on to a "real" job and suggested me as his replacement. The gas station I was working at had just closed and I was at loose ends. I still remember the sign outside - now long gone - a gigantic guy with wild blonde hair, sunglasses and 3/4 legth pants doing some kind of weird dance while holding a sickly-looking pizza. The building now houses a nail salon. The dining room was small and musty with booths along two walls and several tables covered with plastic red-and-white checkered tablecloths. There was a bar where patrons could sit and have a beer if they weren't there for dinner. There was a TV mounted in one of the corners but we never turned it on - it may not have worked. There was a little speaker attached to the wall above the door that I hooked up to a little cassette player so the diners could hear my newest Frank Zappa records. It was a funky little place that was very popular with the locals. Needless to say, the place became the hangout spot for the Bonkeenies. In fact we met drummer Rick Johnson there. He wandered in one day for dinner and we started talking about music. Turned out he was a drummer looking for a band and we were a band looking for a drummer. Bass player Jeff Busby would
come in for a free dinner and amaze the patrons with his (actually pretty amazing) card tricks. Steve Hanamura was there a lot and my sister Olga worked the tables with Arlene that summer. The band even practiced there for a while. It was a LOT of fun.

There was a jukebox on the corner that was full of old country and western music - Buck Owens, Ferlin Husky, Patsy Cline and Tom T. Hall were all featured. We had a pile of quarters in the register that had been daubed with red nail polish to use to play records. When we emptied the coin box at the end of the evening we'd just return the marked quarters to the register. This way, when we weren't playing casettes through our jury-rigged sound system we could keep the joint jumpin' with country hits from the 50's and 60's. I specifically remember hearing "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and "She Thinks I Still Care" for the first time on that juk box. I came away from that job a big fan of country music from that era. Mixed in with the country hits were a few  more contemporary tunes, one of which was "There Ain't No Way" a song by a popular country-rock artist who went by the name of Lobo. Lobo (real name: Kent LaVoi. Yeah, I'd change my name, too) had had a few hit singles,  like "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo", "I'd Love You to Want Me" and "How Can I Tell Her" - execrable soft-rock ditties that made Bread sound gritty by comparison (no, not bread, the food. There was an insanely popular soft-rock group in the 70's with that name). I was not a fan. "There Ain't No Way", however, was a good song. It wasn't a big hit - I'd never heard it on the radio - and that was probably a good thing. There was something about the song that appealed to me and the other Bonkeenies.  I remember Greg and I sitting by the jukebox with our guitars, plunking in red quarter after red quarter, playing the song over and over to get the chords (there was no internet - no "A-Z Chords Index" or Lobochords.com or whatever - we had to figure the chord out on our own). The song became part of the band's repertoire. I even considered in for Won Out. I still occasionally bring the song out with the Backorders.

The Bonkeenies pose on the sidewalk in front of Pizon's - February, 1974
l-r Olga, Greg, Sparky, Arlene, Rick, Jeff



4 years later, working on Le Bonx, I had decided that the album would need a cover tune or two - songs by other artists - done punk-jazz style. We could play "There Ain't No Way" with our eyes closed, so that's essentially what we did. When the Bonkeenies were playing the songs we always stuck pretty close to the original arrangement. It was a good, solid country-rock tune that suited that band perfectly. For Le Bonx, however, we took great liberties with tempo, structure, lyrics...well, everything. We essentially took it outside and beat the crap out of it. It's one of my favorite cuts on the album. As with the other "cover" song, the 50's ballad "Silhouettes", Arlene played it pretty straight, Norman's bass is a little loopy, the drums sound like they're being played by a drug-addled chimp and my vocal brings to mind a carnival barker at the county fair of the insane.



Lobo, who hasn't had a hit since the 70's, apparently retired for a couple of decades (kinda like me except he had hit records) but is now recording and performing again (again, kinda like me), mostly in the Far East where he has always been popular (again, oddly enough, kinda like me - I have fans in Japan and Korea!). I doubt he's ever heard my "interpretation" of his song and I doubt he'd appreciate it if he did, but you never know.

At the beginning of 1974 I was working at Pizon's, halfheartedly attending Junior College, living with Arlene in  one of the many little cottages we always managed to find and playing in what I've always considered to be the classic line-up of Bonkeenies. By the end of that year the band was no more, I was working for the phone company (where I met Nancy) and preparing to begin work on what would eventually become Won Out. It was an interesting, crazy year and things were about to get a lot crazier and a heck of a lot more interesting.



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Silhouettes




We had done two fairly lengthy Le Bonx sessions, one with Arlene on the Wurlitzer and later one with a Fender Rhodes. So far all of the songs had been made up pretty much on the spot. By the summer of '78, even though I was still technically working on Won Out, we were seriously (or as seriously as we did anything back then) considering a punk jazz album. I decided that the album would need a couple of cover tunes - songs originally made famous by other artists. My announcement that "we need a 50's style ballad" is still preserved on the original tape at the beginning of the session for this song.

"Silhouettes" was a hit song in 1957 for the group the Rays and again in 1965 for the British Invasion group Herman's Hermit's.  I was very familiar with both versions. We often sang the song at informal musical gatherings - it's one of those songs, like "Happy Together" , that everyone seems to know. It follows the standard doo-wop chord progression and is always fun to sing. Arlene, Steve and I slowed the pace to a crawl and set about utterly dismantling the song. My vocal performance is completely over the top, with shouts, screams, out-of-tune improvisations (I even interject a Tarzan-like yodel at one point) and unintelligible spoken asides. Steve's drumming was, of course, all over the place and the bass and piano - miraculously playing in the same key - were as uncoordinated as a drunk student driver. In other words- a complete success.



At this point my enthusiasm for the Won Out project was waning. I had been "working on it" since early 1975  and had yet to gather enough songs for an album. Progress had been slowed by first ending my friendship with Chris, moving several times and being burglarized.  Arlene and I had tried to interest a couple of local record labels with the tapes that we had - I remember going to Fantasy Records in Berkeley and meeting their A&R guy. We also met with a soul record label called Honey Records that was formed by a couple of ex-Motown people. We were extremely naive about how to approach these companies, but it worked in our favor when it came to getting in the door. We'd just walk in with a tape and say "Hello, we're looking for a recording contract". The answer we usually got was: "Your music isn't right for us". We decided to start our own label. And the first release for that new label was nearly Le Bonx!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Feel Better Now

Up until now I've writing this thing in a fairly straight chronological sequence according to release. My write/release schedule is pretty convoluted. Won Out took 4 years to complete and the album changed stylistic focus as the sessions progressed. Le Bonx was recorded fairly quickly (for me) over the course of 2 years but wasn't released for another 21/2 years. FSGBOC and Rodent to Rodent were recorded simultaneously over the course of 3 years. 2009's Winter Comes and Goes was recorded in a little over a year but was comprised of songs written as far back as 1985. Since I've never been on anyone's schedule but my own - I've never had a record contact - and I'm not a big star with legions of fans waiting breathlessly for my next release, I release music when it suites me (and when I could afford to).

Because of this rather haphazard recording schedule a lot of songs have been left behind. There were nearly 3 albums' worth of songs recorded for Won Out.  I wrote songs far faster than I could record them and once I had my own recording capabilities - from about 1976 on - I was always recording. Many of the recordings were left unfinished. If I wasn't happy with the way a session was going I'd usually just move on to the next song.

"Feel Better Now" was written for the Mills College show. It was inspired by a Flo and Eddie song called "Feel Older Now" and was specifically written to be performed live, with 3 identical verse/choruses and two sections designed for soloing . A simple, straightforward rock tune with lyrics that were virtually nonsense , it has been in my live repertoire from the Bonkeenies to the Backorders. I attempted to record it during the first sessions for Won Out but it didn't work for some reason. I remember getting the basic tracks down but the solo sections proved problematic. I've never been a great soloist (although I've improved over the years) so I tried to get a friend - a guy named Larry - to come in and overdub a couple of guitar solos. I think his solos are on the multitrack tapes. We just never finished the song. Although it's never been properly recorded there are several live performance recordings and videos. The attached video is from 2009. We played an impromptu gig at a bar in San Francisco called The Blackthorne Tavern and my son Matt, who I'd only recently met, sat in on drums. He turned out to be - as you can see - a pretty incredible drummer. I was pretty inspired that night and turned in a couple of pretty respectable solos.

C                             Gm
Sittin' underneath the lawn
F                                      C
Thinkin' 'bout the girl who's gone
                               Gm
Sittin' underneath the road
F                                     C
Thinkin' 'bout the girl who goed
D C          D C          D C     DC
She's gone but I don't mind
E                         F
I feel better now, I feel better now
G   C      D
So much better
E                        F
I feel better now, I feel better now
G   C      D
So much better


Sittin' underneath the street
Under all the peoples' feet
Sittin' underneath the grass
Watchin' all the people pass
She's gone but I don't mind
I feel better now, I feel better now
So much better
I feel better now, I feel better now
So much better

solo 1 A Em

Sittin' underneath the ground
Tryin' not to make a sound
Sittin' underneath the sky
Because it costs too much to fly
She's gone but I don't mind
I feel better now, I feel better now
So much better
I feel better now, I feel better now
So much better

solo 2 A Em

I feel better now, etc


It's not fair to say that they lyrics are pure gobbledygook. I was just cranking out a song, but as always in my case there's a deeper meaning. Towards the beginning of my last year of high school I was hired by a neighbor as a sitter for her two young sons. She worked in the UC Berkeley library (with my step-mom at the time, Rene) and was recently divorced. She lived about a half block away from us and I suppose she must have seen me going in and out of the house because she approached Rene and asked her if I was available to help her with some yard work and watching the boys. She identified me as "the one with the car" - I was driving Bonkeeniemobile, my beautiful blue-and-white 1956 Chevy Bel-Air coupe - was available to help were with stuff around the house. She was a little over 10 years older than me - around 30 and was sweet and quite attractive (ironically, or maybe not, she resembled my current wife, Allison) and she could be very businesslike - even bossy. I don't remember how much she was offering to pay me, but I went to work for her totally unaware that I was entering what would turn out to be the defining relationship of my life. I was 17, was about to start my senior year in high school and was living with my dad, little sister, stepmom and stepbrother in a home that always felt like an armed camp during an uneasy truce. I was happy to get out of there. I started to do odd jobs for her like taking care of her yard, doing grocery shopping, small home repairs (I remember climbing up onto her steep roof to adjust the TV antennae - yikes!) and of course, watching her two sons while she worked or went out at night with various gentlemen callers.

Her name was Carol. After a few months of running errands for her I was spending more time at her house than at home. My dad would often crack lewd jokes about her and speculate what was "really going on over there", but that's just how he was, usually drunk and spiteful. But I was pretty happy. Carol and I got along great, her kids liked and trusted me and I was getting paid for my efforts. Carol would also often feed me and buy me school supplies and sometimes even clothes. When she came home from work she liked to sit in the living room with a big glass of white wine and tell me about her day. These were some of the happiest times of my life. My mother passed away when I was ten and I had spent the last 7 or 8 years moving from house to house with various familial combinations, changing schools almost yearly. My father was an abusive alcoholic and I knew my current step-mom would not be around much longer.  Carol's house was an oasis of sanity. I fell in love with her as only a 17-year-old can fall - completely and without reservation.

Carol really liked my car and loved for me to take her - and sometimes the boys - for long rides. She'd buy me a tank of gas and say "Let's hit the road!". We'd drive to Marin County, sometimes out to Martinez where I showed her the places I'd lived back in the 60's. When her ex-husband had the boys on weekends she loved to go to places like Lakeside Park in Oakland or the Berkeley Marina on warm days and just park and talk. It was during one of these "drive and park" excursions that we first kissed. It was the most wonderful kiss of my entire life. I remember she pulled back and said: "We shouldn't have done that" - and kissed me again. We drove back to her house in complete silence. When we pulled into the drive way she turned to me and said: "I hope you don't think any less of me". I just stared at her. I had no idea what she meant and when I tried to speak I almost couldn't. I managed to croak "I love you". I stayed in her bed for the first time that night.

I make no judgments or excuses here - this is simply what happened. Carol had her reasons for doing what she did and I had mine. We became inseparable for the next several months. I was always at her house before and after school and on weekends. I was in heaven. She mothered me, making sure I ate and did my schoolwork. In the bedroom she was a kind and patient teacher. I'm sure my family suspected something was going on, but no one ever said a word to me about it except for an occasional lewd remark from my increasingly hostile and erratic father. Her sons, of course, noticed the change in our behavior towards each other and one of them mentioned to their father that "the babysitter spends the night in mom's room". Then it was "shit, meet fan".

Carol used to joke about adopting me so I could legally be her responsibility and we could live together. The disturbing implications of that "joke" went right over my head. I thought it was a great idea. We talked about how I could move in with her and help me go to college and maybe even get married later. As I write this I realize how insane it sounds, but that's how it was - that's what we talked about. But it all came crashing down one evening.

Carol and I were sitting in her living room on a Friday night. The boys were with their father. One of those fake Duraflame logs was burning in the fireplace and she was holding a big glass of wine. She was crying. I was stunned into silence. Her ex-husband had informed her that he would take the boys away from her if she was going to be "sleeping with the babysitter". Carol told me it was over and that we couldn't see each other again. In retrospect, I can understand why she had to end it, but at that moment I was completely shattered. She walked me to the front door, kissed my cheek and said: "Goodbye, Sparky. I'll never forget you." It was raining when I went outside. I went to the sidewalk, turned around and stared at her house for a while. I walked home in a trance, fell into my bed and pretty much stayed there for the next 4 months. I collapsed inside - it felt like my life was over. I kept going over everything that had happened over the last few months. She said she loved me - didn't she? After a few weeks of staying in my room, not eating, not bathing, just alternating between sleeping and staring at the ceiling I somehow came down with mononucleosis. Not for the first time in my life I wanted to die.

Anyway, a few years later here I was living with Arlene, playing in a rock band and writing songs. As nonsense as the lyrics to this song are, there's no one else I could have been thinking about when I wrote them (An interesting sidenote: I learned later that my current wife, Allison, was going to school with Carol's older son while all of this was going on. It's incredible to think that we may have even crossed paths when I was taking the boys to school or picking them up).

Carol's ghost haunts many of my songs. I have spent most of life since then searching the feeling of complete love and trust that I had with her. I know I'll never find it because even when it existed it was an illusion.

Moby Orange




In 1978 while I was working for Kerry's I entered into a brief and unfortunate affair with Melarie, one of my phone company coworkers. Kerry's was on Broadway in downtown Oakland. One morning when I was late getting started on my delivery route, I was standing at the front counter looking through the plate-glass window at passers-by (downtown Oakland was bustling then, not the ghost town that it is now) when I was surprised to see Melarie stroll past. We had been friendly when we were both telephone operators, but never anything more. My affair with Nancy was very public and although Melarie was beautiful and we were attracted to each other nothing had ever happened. I ran out to the sidewalk and greeted her. She was quite pleased to see me and , in our brief conversation, I learned that she was working around the corner at the phone company billing office - like Nancy, she had transferred to a better-paying position - and was on her lunch break. We made plans to meet for lunch the next day.

Melarie was a vegetarian and there was a single restaurant in downtown Oakland that catered to her dietary constraints, a dark and dumpy little establishment a few blocks from Kerry's. I arranged my deliveries so I could meet her there on her lunch hour. This became our regular meeting place for the next several months as our relationship progressed. I called it "the vegetable place" - vegetarianism seemed weird to me and I couldn't fathom why someone would avoid meat - and she even avoided dairy products. Nowadays even Denny's has vegetarian dishes, but back then you couldn't even buy tofu at Safeway. It was a challenging choice to make.

I learned from Melarie that Nancy, who I had not seen a lot of since leaving the phone company, was also working in the building near Kerry's, but in a different office. Within a few days I had tracked her down and we quickly resumed our affair. Nancy had recently purchased her first house, a tiny 3-bedroom bungalow in Richmond, a crime-ridden strip mall of a city just north of Berkeley. It was very much a"first house" but she was rightfully proud of it. Home ownership, like vegetarianism, was a foreign concept to me.

Stan Burger was a little mom-and-pop (Literally. It was owned by a young Chinese couple and named after their infant son, Stan) burger joint across the street from the store A "Moby Orange" was an orange-flavored syrupy drink that was like a foamy Slurpee. Moby Orange cups were emblazoned with the catchphrase "a whale of a drink".  If I wasn't with Melarie or Nancy (or whoever) and not out of the area on my route, I would have lunch there: a greasy burger, a bag of soggy fries and a Moby Orange. Stan Burger is long gone. When downtown Oakland died of mall-itis, the businesses that depended on the local lunch crowd were the first to go. As I write this I'm not sure if Moby Orange itself is still a going concern (I just checked - it's not). When we started this particular Le Bonx improvisation I simply started singing about what I'd done for lunch that day.

Went down to Stan Burger
Had me a Moby Orange
It's a whale of a drink

I went on to write several songs about Melarie. She was an aspiring Ballerina, tall and lithe, with long curly brown hair - really a gorgeous girl. Our relationship was doomed from the start because we'd no sooner started seeing each other when I reconnected with Nancy, with whom I was truly in love and not just in lust. One afternoon I'd arranged to meet Nancy for lunch and while I was waiting for her on the sidewalk outside the phone company building, Melarie came out looking absolutely beautiful. It was a warm sunny day and she was dressed for the weather. I could not take my eyes - or my hands - off her. If Nancy hadn't appeared at that moment I'm sure I would not have been there when she finally did come out. (I make no excuses - that's the way it was, folks). As I write this I am preparing to go into the studio with the Backorders to record some songs. One of them, "Ballerina", is a Melarie song, finally seeing the light of day.

I never really knew how Melarie felt about me. One tearful night she told me she loved me. There was a storm raging outside and rain was spattering on her apartment windows while the wind howled. She sat cross-legged on the floor with her face in her hands and I stood behind her like an inquisitor. It was over soon after that. Two years later while driving home from Dianne's I saw Melarie on the freeway in her old Honda Civic. I honked my horn and waved, but she didn't look. Another year later when I was working at Schwabacher/Frey, I ran into her in the company's lobby. She was a repair person for the phone company, wearing the traditional helmet and utility belt laden with wires and clips. She had gained a substantial amount of weight and her lustrous hair was much shorter. I smiled at her but she looked right through me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Anson Williams Reality




The titles for the songs on the Le Bonx album were pulled out of the air by either me or Steve, usually immediately after recording them. Steve came up with the deathless "All Men Are Brothers (All Sisters Are Women), "Cosmic Anarchy" and "Punk Jazz Opus One" and I was responsible for "How Great Thou Aren't" - my favorite -  "Have You Seen the Seen" and "The Anson Williams Reality". Some of the titles were nonsense but some, like this one, have an actual story.

In '77, '78 and most of '79 I was employed as a delivery driver for Kerry's Stationers, an office supply retailer in downtown Oakland. These days everything is mega super huge discount and there's only one or two suppliers of whatever you're looking for but back then there were lots of little businesses specializing in various retail endeavors. When I worked at Kerry's there were at least 3 other office supply stores in walking distance. If Kerry's didn't have the particular pen you wanted you could simply walk around the corner to Flapdoodles or whatever and get it there. Kerry's was the only one that delivered. A lot of the local law firms bought from us - there were TONS of them - because if they ordered early enough in the morning they'd get their stuff that same afternoon. (Those were the days before the big discount warehouses and profit margins were huge. Most people paid list price for stuff. Kerry's biggest customers got a 20% discount!).

I've written about this before - I had a lot of freedom when I delivered for Kerry's. No one knew exactly how long it took to make my rounds and some days, if I played my cards right, I could have 2 or 3 hours of free time in the middle of the day to do whatever - or as it was usually in my case, whoever - I wanted to.  Nothing was electronic. There were no computers. The only way they kept track of me was with a list I made up each morning of the day's deliveries - and I had fun with that. It didn't take me long to get bored with writing out the names of the companies I was delivering to and I soon started to amuse myself by altering them. The law firm Crosby, Heafey, Roach and May became Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Gifted and Black. Stuff like that. I got away with it because no one ever checked my list. There was a realtor's office in Castro Valley that was something-something Williams Realty and it morphed into The Anson Williams Reality on my list. Anson Williams was the actor who portrayed the character "Potsie" on the (quite undeservedly) hugely popular TV show Happy Days - the show responsible for giving the world "The Fonz". I think he went on to be a producer or director or something - his name always seemed slightly absurd to me. Who names their kid "Anson"? Anyway, when it came time to name this particular improvisation his name popped into my head.

As I've said, there were 3 sessions for Le Bonx. The original cassette release contained recordings from the first session in the summer of '77 when Arlene was playing the Wurlitzer and the last (the "covers" session - more about that later). For the second and third sessions - Winter '77 and early '78, the Wurly had been replaced with a Fender Rhodes. When the time came to put the final sequence together for the release I didn't feel that the material in the second session was as inspired as the first and third. Interestingly enough, when Mike Cogan and I were remastering the tapes for the CD release in '04, I completely changed my mind. The second session had a different feel - the songs were longer, slower and had a darker feel but they were just as interesting. That's why the Le Bonx CD has several extra songs, among them "The Anson Williams Reality".

("The Anson Williams Reality" was released on the CD Le Bonx in 2003)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Have You Seen the Seen



In keeping with the original idea that "Le(s) Bonx" was a French punk jazz band, this song was to be titled "Have You Seen the Seine?" but I couldn't spell the name of the river so I changed it to the more esoteric "Seen" and removed the question mark.

Le Bonx may never have been released in any form had it not been for Bill Bergstrom. In 1981 Arlene and I moved into an old apartment complex in Oakland that we dubbed "Weedhaven" - not for the obvious reason, although there was a lot of that going on, but because the front yard was overrun with gigantic weeds. We had a cozy little one bedroom on the second floor in the back of the building. Bill and his wife, Andrea, were our downstairs neighbors. At the time we were working on songs for the album that became FSGBOC a couple of years later. We were working during the day and playing music until late at night. One night we were working on a song and there was a knock at the door. When we answered it, there stood Bill with a guitar and bottle of wine. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em", he said. That was the birth of The Rummies (more about that later).

Bill was a construction contractor and a very skilled graphic artist. His musical tastes were more left-of-center than mine and he introduced me to a lot of musicians and groups that I would otherwise have never picked up on. He was a fan of Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson and other more obscure oddballs who I came to appreciate. In fact, my musical partnership with Bill was the catalyst for Rodent to Rodent.


It was Arlene who suggested that Bill might like Le Bonx, which I had compiled on to a cassette and stored away. We were sitting around talking about music and Bill was extolling the virtues of this or that experimental ensemble and Arlene said: "Sparky did something like that a couple of years ago..." I made a copy for him and he took it downstairs for  listen.

Bill and Sparky collaborate at Weedhaven
As I've said before - probably repeatedly - I'm a big fan of the tightly arranged 3 minute pop song. Bill's tastes ran in the other direction and this led to a lot of spirited discussions about the relative merits of our favorite styles and artists. We learned a lot from each in the 2 or 3 years that we were friends. By this time we'd started playing guitar together - Bill had a quirky, completely original way of playing that suited my songs perfectly....but I'm getting ahead of myself.

A few days later Bill came up and told us that he really enjoyed the Le Bonx tape. He got the joke, but insisted that the fact that it was done in fun did not detract from its artistic value. He related an amusing story: some friend of his came over while he was listening to Le Bonx and , having no idea what they were listening to, thought it was a recording by an obscure group of jazz virtuosos. We were all quite amused by that, but Bill was serious when he suggested that I should incorporate more of the free-form spirit of Le Bonx into my music. Again, this is where the idea for Rodent to Rodent born. It was also around this time that one of our neighbors, an eccentric named Robbie (who at this point in time had decided that he was rat-pack era Frank Sinatra) stopped by to tell us that he'd been listening through the wall to Le Bonx. He was very enthusiastic about it although he said: "I feel your drummer's pain".

("Have You Seen the Seen" was released in 1981 on the Le Bonx cassette and again in 2003 on the CD version)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Them Injuns



Matt came by the other day with a turntable for me. I was complaining on Christmas morning that I hadn't owned a working turntable for years and Matt promised to find me one - he has a way of getting stuff like that. So I've been playing a lot of vinyl. I started off with my old Tom T. Hall albums. I had dozens of his albums when Arlene and I were together but when we separated she kept them. I have never understood why she wanted them - probably because she knew I did. Tom T. Hall used to make an album a year back in the 70's and 80's, each with 10 songs that all sounded pretty much the same. When CDs came around his albums were quickly deleted and only his greatest hits packages crossed the digital divide. I had to go to Ebay to find the ones I remembered. It was a nice stroll down memory lane. I also listened to Pete Townshend's White City and the first  album by The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie.

After the first Le Bonx session in the summer of '77, I wanted to issue "Them Injuns" as a single or at least include it on the still-in-progress Won Out album. Arlene, who had enthusiastically participated in the recording, was dead set against it ever seeing the light of day so she voted an emphatic "no". Steve, like me, thought we were on to something but he was all for making an entire punk jazz album.

For most of the Le Bonx material I would introduce a theme or motif on the bass and the others would follow along and we'd let the song develop until it reached a logical conclusion or I figured it had gone on long enough. For "Them Injuns" I grabbed a pair of maracas that were lying around and improvised the break. Originally I was planning to recite a story about a battle between cowboys and Indians while Steve thumped away in the background, but, very much in the tradition of "Wa", I cut it short and kept it simple. The result is,  I think, one of the best songs on the album. When I pulled the song "Whatever You Want" out of mothballs for theb "Wa" single, I mixed "Them Injuns" into the track. You can hear it faintly in the background between verses.

My new turntable - it's a Dual and it's coo-al, heh heh
Matt found a box of letters I'd written to his mother, Nancy, and was kind enough to let me read them. In 1977 I was working at the Gingerbread House in Oakland. At the time it was a fledgling greeting card company - it morphed into the famous restaurant a few years later.  As the office manager, it was my job to organize the place and fend off sales reps from different suppliers. Many of the letters to Nancy are written on Gingerbread House stationary. My biggest weakness (and strength?) as a songwriter is that I can only rarely write about anything but me. My songs read like a diary of my many romantic missteps. The songs on Le Bonx gave me an opportunity to climb out of that rut - or get out of that groove. There's not a single lyric about love and no references, however obscure, to matters of the heart. The letters make it very clear that I was still very much in love with Nancy although it appears that at that particular time we were not seeing a lot of each other.

"Them Injuns" was one of the first handful of songs we recorded for Le Bonx. It's got a lot of energy - we'd just discovered this great new way of expressing ourselves and it was pretty exciting. Arlene in particular came up with some amazing stuff. Her playing up to that point had been efficient but not terribly interesting. It always amazed me that someone with as much musical training as she had could have a hard time improvising. Her parts on the records were usually dictated by me. But on Le Bonx she really cut loose - especially on the earlier tracks.