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 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


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
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.