Monday, January 14, 2008

Battle of the Bands

It doesn’t feel like it, but it’s already been 10 years since I hung around the Jersey shore quite a bit, seeing two bands who my friend J managed. I’ll give them fake names to avoid too much hassle: Village Green and The Junkyard Cadillacs. In Springsteen lore, a big deal is often made of the Jersey shore bar scene, how it was nowhere from which he sprung, despite its proximity to New York City. Well, in some senses, it was and is nowhere. But it’s also just a scene like any other you’ll find in non-glamorous places in America, bands playing a network of small bars and clubs for gas money, if they’re lucky, most nights playing to sparse crowds, no matter how good or bad they are.

I’m not sure how J came to manage these bands. Knowing his nature and love of music, he was simply seeing these guys play in bars, befriended various band members, they recognized he had some connections with bar owners and such, and it came to pass that he managed them, although he surely lost more money than he made. Managers have a thankless job. Do it right, and you’re a prick, but a prick who gets things done. Do it wrong, and use the previous sentence substituting “doesn’t get things done.” Most bands think their managers are doing it wrong, without realizing the countless minute details that are going right because a manager is quietly making them go right. Managers have a similar ethos to Hell’s Angels: when they do right, no one remembers; when they do wrong, no one forgets.

J’s tenure with both bands was constantly rocky, but apparently rewarding enough that it took a good few years for things to fall apart. The Junkyard Cadillacs were a seasoned rock band with country leanings: think The Georgia Satellites, who seemed like a template for the band’s look and sound: very much 80s roots rock, electric-guitar driven. They had a self-released album out before J managed them which, had it been released in the mid-80s as opposed to a few years into the 90s, would have registered. As it was, roots rock was dead as a doornail by that time. Bands like Uncle Tupelo were being hailed as some new wave of authentic Americana while 80s bands like The Del-Lords and Jason & the Scorchers were being quietly elbowed out of the picture as if they'd never existed. I think the problem was they were too “rock” – the new scene was more about acoustic instruments and some half-assed take on authenticity. (These were college kids, for christ’s sake, aping Carter Family albums. The new sincerity? Fuck's sake, I think that's what it was called. What an awful name and concept for a music scene.)

Still, the Cadillacs weathered on with the their New York Dolls/Steve Earle vibe without a home. They were some real characters, too. The lead singer had an amazing snakeskin jacket among many of his cool stage outfits, and he knew how to be a lead singer in a rock band, just that right attitude and presence. The bass player had a six-figure day job doing some type of scientific research and seemed a bit out of place as he was a sane, rational adult. The lead guitarist could play anything, a big, swarthy Italian in a leather jacket who had that Sopranos’ vibe before the show existed. The rhythm guitarist was a dead ringer for Roger Daltrey; his day job was as a process server in north New Jersey, a nasty job that probably served him well in dealing with drunks in bars. They had a Spinal Tap rotation of drummers who came and went.

On the other hand, Village Green were a bunch of snotty-assed kids who never quite understood how good they were. With the right guidance, which would have implied J getting them to a certain point where someone at a record company with national connections could have taken the flag, they could have easily been a band on the same creative level as Wilco. But, this being the Jersey shore, well, you gather how this thing went, none of it J’s fault. These guys were country rock, too, save their influences were more Gene Clark and Gram Parsons than the rock edge of the Cadillacs. It was unusual for guys their age, in their early 20s, to be so into country acts that were obscure by any standard, much less when you consider all their friends were listening to goony 90s shit like Limp Bizkit. I can still recall making a compilation of Mike Nesmith solo material for the lead singer, as I could see the similarities, and the drummer, who worked in a record store, snobbishly scoffing at the tape, “oh, man, I already got all that stuff,” maybe not realizing all those albums were long out of print and it was a miracle anyone had them. (I found them in a shitty Manhattan record store that routinely dumped out-of-print albums and broken-up box sets in their shit bins for $5.00 a disc. I got Nesmith’s entire catalog like this, while it was selling on Amazon for $40.00 a disc used.)

The lead singer was a long-haired Irish kid, truly talented, not the leader of the band per se, and that was a problem area. There were three singers in the band, but one being the drummer and the other the bass player who only took occasional leads, he was the most obvious focal point. All three wrote and sang their own material, and they were all amazingly good songwriters, especially for first efforts. I have a copy of their only album, which was never released save for home-made CD-Rs sold at shows, and there are still a handful of tracks from the disc I listen to today and think what might have been. The other band member, a gangly, gregarious carpenter from the Philly area, had toured with The Mekons and had many tales to tell about that adventure (most involving drugs). He looked like Buddy Holly and added that sort of jangle to their sound. The drummer came on strong, but the guy was working in a record store and had that sort of “fuck you” attitude about him which was a bit of a front. The bass player was more a pop guy, into The Who, but he fit into their sound. All their influences worked that magical band synergy to make the sum far greater than the parts. For covers, they’d do rockabilly versions of The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” and The Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” – and I mean really good cover versions that sounded like their own songs.

The one thing both bands had in common was they both thought J was a flaming asshole, and they were probably right about 80% of the time. I can see that another key point for managers is to serve as a target for the band’s hatred and misgivings about their lot in their life. It’s the manager’s fault. Always. Either he’s not doing enough, or he’s laying it on too thick. A manager is like a piñata for the band to playfully take shots at and scream with glee when they bust him open and the candy flies out. The other 20% of the time, J was working his ass off for both bands. Lining up gigs, trying to make new connections for them, always scouting out ways to increase visibility, building email lists, hustling the door at each show, making sure to talk to everyone entering so they knew his bands were playing, selling CDs after the show, basically serving as an unofficial master of ceremonies. I saw bands without managers simply show up and play. With J, both bands had a promoter working the floor, talking to literally every person, sometimes charming them, sometimes on the verge of getting smacked, but his heart was always in the right place.

And what a shit gig the whole process was. Your average bar featuring music has a brutally honest policy with bands. Someone at the door will take a cover charge, usually something minimal, $5.00 seemed to be the going rate at most places, never more than $10.00. The door person would then ask what band you were there to see and kept a running tally, as there’d often be 3-4 bands playing over the course of a night. At the end of the night, the band would get their percentage of the door. So, if 50 people showed up and 10 mentioned your name at the door at $5.00 a head, you’d go home with $50 for about an hour’s work. Split four ways. Throw in gas money, even buying a drink, and no one in the band takes home any pay. The lucrative bar money is always, and I mean always, kept by the owner, and I’d have no idea how much that would be per night, but figure a minimum of 50 people having three drinks a piece at an average of $5.00 per drink, you’re talking close to $1K a night, which isn’t bad.

There’s nothing particularly shady about this – it was standard issue in most bars where I’d take note of how they operated. The bands got no frills and would be lucky to have a ratty, graffiti-scrawled dressing room backstage. Usually, they’d be by the side of the stage, literally sitting on their equipment, the guitar and drum cases, so that no one would swipe their stuff as they waited to play. No roadies, unless they had musically-inclined friends who knew how to break down a drum set or set up mike stands. There often was no soundboard or monitors, just guys plugged into amps and wailing.

Musicians would pile in, generally with their incredibly beautiful girlfriends (who saw that glimmer of rock-and-roll hope in their broke-ass, sometimes talented boyfriends), sit through the sets, load in their equipment in about 10 minutes, play like a house burning down for an hour, do an encore if they were lucky, break down their equipment in about 10 minutes, get their whopping fee for their services, if any, usually spending that on a beer or two (I rarely saw bar owners front bands free alcohol and if so, they kept count), then pile their shit back into the van and go home. Repeat 3-4 nights a week, in the same bars on the same circuit, throw in an occasional festival or opening slot for a bigger band in a nice venue, maybe even a wedding (which would be rock-star money for them, thousands of dollars for one appearance, laugh at wedding singers all you want, but a good wedding band can make a fortune).

The only pleasure was in playing live music, which would be magical some nights and a turd in the punch bowl on others. I can only imagine how old the routine must get for a touring band driving x number of miles between shows in a cramped van for months on end. It felt old just watching guys who lived in the general area doing the routine and going home at night. You had to like your fellow band members and be operating on some mutual level of respect and maturity. Bands broke up constantly because they recognized each other as childish assholes, often with drug and alcohol issues, which makes a situation that, at best, is hard to endure, virtually impossible to handle on a long-term basis.

Rock and roll! I never got to see it at the level of four-star hotels and tour buses, which must be something else entirely. But when you see it at the level of guys doing it simply because they love the music and believe wholeheartedly in what they’re doing, you recognize that they’ve seen too much to be chasing a myth, that there is no big payback, that this may be all there is, and they may as well rock while they can. Sort of a fitting motto for life itself, where the big payback will be you in a pine box. You learn a lot about why you do things when you do them for free – I can easily make the same comparisons to me writing this now. You do it because it makes sense, and I guess in the back of your mind, you’re always hoping for that big break, but recognizing the only way you’re going to stay sane is to keep doing what you’re doing.

So, a band either feeds off that energy or implodes. I can see that The Graveyard Cadillacs are still doing their thing by their website, with or without J, who bailed on them in a “you can’t fire me/I quit” situation back around 2000. I can’t even recall the exact grievance. I know the lead singer was never happy with J’s efforts, despite sharing a real kinship with him, they really hit it off, but it must have been a love/hate thing. It’s clear the band hasn’t done any better without him, but the simple fact that they’re soldiering on all these years later is a good sign. If you’re a middle-aged guy in a bar band, you no longer give a fuck in a very healthy way, and the world will never break you.

Since J managed both bands, it was often easier for him to book both bands as a package for a club on a given night. Thus, Village Green and The Graveyard Cadillacs got to be in the same bars at the same time, yet you’d be hard-pressed to see them hang out together or even exchange glances. The Cadillacs though the Green were a bunch of arrogant kids in the shallow end of a bar scene they had spent years traversing. The Green thought the Cadillacs were a bunch of cheesy, over-the-hill weirdoes who should have thrown in the towel years earlier. Of course, both bands were right about each other to a small degree, save that their vision of each other was reduced to a worst-case scenario as opposed to recognizing each other’s strengths.

They routinely ignored each other when one band was onstage and the other waiting to go, finding an excuse to go smoke a jay in the parking lot. I probably saw at least half a dozen shows with both bands present and rarely did any guy from either band exchange words. The only intra-band recognition I saw was the Cadillacs’ bass player, the normal guy, stopping to watch the Green’s show, simply because he thought they were a great band. “Jesus Christ,” I remember him telling me once at one of the Green’s better shows, “if these guys stick together, they’re going to be huge.”

In that gritty Jersey bar-band scene, his admitting that and openly encouraging the Green was one of the finer acts of humility I’ve ever seen in a bar. It wasn’t just those two. I never got a “we’re all in this together” sense from any bands in that scene. You often read about these mythical music scenes, like Springsteen’s scene in early 70s Asbury Park, and the key is a bunch of guys pulling for each other, floating in and out of each other’s bands, a sense of community. I never saw that, if it was there. The guys in Village Green, much as I liked each individual personally, really could be a bunch of arrogant pricks who thought the world was spinning around them and about to lay down at their feet.

Unlike with the Cadillacs, Village Green broke up on J before they got a chance to fire him. I can’t recall what it was – probably a simple, inevitable clash of egos. The band routinely fought like cats and dogs, so I guess one of those fights mushroomed into the end. Simply underlying that the guys never understood what they had, but probably do now. I’ve been around talent a few times before it hit, sometimes without even knowing it. I remember seeing Beck way back when, at the Pyramid Club in the East Village, long before his first album came out, playing folk tunes … and I thought he wasn’t that good. By the time I heard “Loser” on the radio a few years later, man, something had happened with the guy.

But Village Green had it, and I felt like I was watching the start of something big. I imagine every band is a volatile mix of personalities that could torpedo their cause at any given moment. The Cadillacs no doubt laughed at their ineptitude, having weathered all the usual garbage any long-term band endures, especially one that never quite got there. It was a shame that they never got their chance to move to the next level, because as a band of fully-grown men who understood each other on some important, unspoken level, they surely would have handled any situation with aplomb. I think it was because the Cadillacs all had clearly defined roles in the band, set in stone from years of playing together and knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Village Green never figured that out, and were too young and full of themselves to stop and ponder what each member meant to the whole, what made each good, when each would be better taking a backseat and letting someone else drive.

The lead signer put out a few songs on his myspace page, both good, basically him in his Village Green style, save he was now working with a small string section which added a nice twist to his country background. The drummer’s living down south somewhere, although I understand he and the lead singer stay in touch. Bass player put out some more poppy solo material that wasn’t bad at all and seems to bounce from band to band in the scene. Buddy Holly just disappeared, probably working on a house in Cherry Hill as I write this. Scattered to the wind, like ex-Beatles putting out half-assed solo albums for the rest of their days.

And the bar scene must go on, although I haven’t been to a bar show in years down there. J stopped managing after awhile, puts on a few “twangfest” shows every other year and generally takes a bath money-wise, despite the constant low rumor that Springsteen will show up at one of these things one day and hoards of people will pour through the door. (Springsteen associates often make a fortune playing Jersey shore clubs with the understanding when they’re booked that it’s always a possibility that Bruce will show and jam on a few songs towards the end.) After awhile, he got sick of it and got himself involved with the local Little League as a manager, no doubt finding 12-year-old boys easier to manage than grown musicians. This story would really be his to tell, from the bands to the club owners he regularly haggled and drank with. I’d wager the Jersey shore bar scene is even more of a “nowhere” place now than it was 35 years ago when Springsteen exploded from it. And if you haven’t already guessed with music, nowhere is where things tend to happen.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

"The lead guitarist could play anything, a big, swarthy Italian in a leather jacket who had that Sopranos’ vibe before the show existed."

Isn't it remarkable that David Chase was able to invent New Jersey pretty much out of whole cloth, as if it had never existed before he came along?