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On the inside front cover of the CD, you can read a list of the influences that inspired Harsh Fate: The Grass Roots, The Standells, The Swingin’ Medallions, The Seeds, The Music Explosion, The Human Beinz, The Premiers, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Tommy James and the Shondells, The Beatles, The Zombies, The Hollies, Santana, Junior Walker and the All-Stars, The Four Tops, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King, Carole King, The Kingsmen, South Carolina Beach Music, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Aretha Franklin, Nick Lowe, The Ramones, Bobby Freeman, XTC, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Nazz, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Lee Michaels, The Parliaments, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, The Johnny Burnette Trio, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, The Itals, The Sir Douglas Quintet, Flaco Jimenez, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, Robbie Fulkes, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, John Prine, Jimmy “The Yodelin’ Hobo” Rodgers, Boz Scaggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters, Johnny Rivers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Harry Belafonte, Professor Longhair, Memphis Minnie, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Joan Osborne. They are all in there somewhere.
I thought of our project as garage-band Beatles. A kind of super-group of seasoned, battle-scarred, should-be-famous musicians get together—in Mike Perkin’s basement instead of a garage—and try to do their version of a Beatles album, in other words, a kind of low-rent concept album, an album that runs the gamut of American music genres and yet retains a common thread running throughout, a shared sensibility about how American music ought to be made.
Mike Perkins produced the album in his basement studio, The Lab, on his vintage 16-track tape machine, and played guitar. Noteworthy are Mike’s soaring, transcendent solos on Was It Love or Was It Magic?, Everybody I Know Loves You, and Gardens of Babylon, and his rockabilly stylings on Little Bit and It Was Love. Mike is left-handed, but plays guitar right-handed, his unique slow-hand style adding surprising, uncanny rhythmic intricacies to a song.
Tom Walz was instrumental in recruiting the Ghastly Fops. Like Keith Richards chucking the low E string to play in G-tuning, Tom stuck duct tape on the bass strings of his guitar to get the “chanks” just right on Is It True? and Harder Than You Think. That’s his jet-engine slide guitar revving and lonesome harmonica wailing on Can’t Get a Break, and his Albert King-esque garage-blues stylings on Ain’t That Lovin’ You?, and We Can Rock and Roll.
Virtuoso bassist, Al Guerrero, establishes the soundscape of the whole album. Just how essential he is can be heard best in his wildly walking lines on Little Bit, and his sonorous, singing tones on Is It True?
Scott Balliet’s jackhammer, minimal input/maximal result drumming gives the album its rock-solid undergirding. His bamboo brush-work in Little Bit is a rockabilly ne plus ultra.
That’s Original Sins alumnus Dan McKinney contributing the Hammond to We Can Rock and Roll, Smack Dab, and Gardens of Babylon, and the boogie-woogie piano to Little Bit.
Wayne “Dr. Squeeze” Leibel’s syncopated accordion gives Sweet Dreams its Flaco-style, Tex-Mex groove.
I played keyboards and guitar, sang the vocals, and wrote the songs
I originally imagined the album cover as a black-and-white picture of me standing in the doorway of a darkened bedroom, backlit by a ceiling light in the hall, smoking a cigarette whose tip glows red, head bowed, a pile of nostalgic photos lying on the bed. This did not pan out. For one thing, I don’t smoke. Anyway, though the final version may look Mondrian-esque, I didn’t think of it that way at first. I thought of it as the most minimal way I could depict colors I saw in the sky walking in the park late one rain-squall-filled dusk: magenta sunset, slate-blue clouds. Philip Glass seemed fascinated with the cover when I handed him the CD. I guess that design is just the thing if I want to build an audience of minimalist composers.
Is It True?
This is probably the oldest song I have written that I still play. I wrote it in the midst of one of those Beatles stylistic revivals that used to recur every decade or so. And never will again, apparently, now that the hit parade is all computerize and all. I don’t know where the image of being alone on a lover’s lane came from. I think I dreamed it. My main idea, an idea I suppose I was so young as to think original, was to write a song using all the diatonic chords. A big total of 6, to be precise. In G, in order, that would be G, Am, Bm, C, D7, Em. The influence of Tommy James and the Shondells’ I Think We’re Alone Now is pretty obvious, I guess. Not the same progression or melody, and a different viewpoint, but the same topic, and a similar sensibility. Required, of course, not optional, are the crickets (and guest katydids). One balmy summer night, Tom Walz stuck a tape recorder out in his sister’s rural woodpile and let it run all night, and there they are, immortalized for posterity. A less obvious inspiration is that repeated iii-ii, mediant-supertonic chord change that I am so fond of, famously to be found in Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ Ooh, Baby, Baby. Not to give short shrift to the final, echoing sixth chord of She Loves You and No Reply out of which the crickets emerge at the end. The thing is full of guitars, acoustic and electric, strumming and chanking, I don’t remember how many, a banging piano, and lots of cymbals—in genre-appropriate Ringo fashion. Especially noteworthy is the little sigh that Al Guerrero entices from his bass guitar at the end of each repetition of the intro riff, and the whole new melody that is Tom Walz’s solo.
Was It Love or Was It Magic?
The haunting atmosphere of this one is created by over-dubbing and double-tracking even more chiming and clanging and jingling guitars than in Is It True? 6 at least (not including Al’s on-the-money bass), all played by Mike Perkin. Outstanding amongst them is Mike’s soaring solo. I have heard it compared to something out of Disraeli Gears. I think it more like something out of Abraxas. Mike is the master of the perfect arc, the climactic curve. His solo builds steadily, each part feeding into the next, an intensifying conversation among different registers of his instrument, to climax, and conclude, by sinking low and then bending to its highest note. As in Is It True?, I used all the diatonic chords. This time without planning to. I think my original idea was just to write a song in a minor key. I think the Zombies were playing away somewhere in my subconscious at the time. I only realized later on that the song is “through-composed.” No melodic phrases or chord sequences repeat or mirror each other in either verse or bridge, though the antitheses of the lyrics hold it together, I think.
All the concentration on music having awoken a snoozing songwriting gremlin in me, I wrote this one on my late, lamented Yamaha electronic weighted-key piano in the midst of our recording sessions. And promptly added it to the list. I figured we desperately needed a South Carolina Beach Music shuffle kind of song with a Marvin Gaye kind of piano riff in it to shag to. I guess I was feeling happy to be recording, because the song is about someone wondering how he ever got so lucky. On the other hand, it is also a paean to laziness, to a “lovely waste of time,” and so maybe I was just as much feeling eager for the whole thing to be over with. Logistics could get nightmarish of occasion. Keyboards predominate. Dan McKinney layers his estimable Booker T. Hammond over my E-Z Johnny Griffith piano to yeomanly effect. Not to overlook that eerily apt George Harrison-ized guitar arpeggio Mike Perkin comes up with for the chorus. How he came up with that I do not know. I suppose now only God knows.
Ain’t That Lovin’ You?
I collect 45s of early, pre-psychedelic garage-band, foremost among which is a pristine early pressing of Louie, Louie, and so I deliberately wrote Ain’t That Lovin’ You? to be a garage band song, complete with that pre-written unison guitar/bass riff thing, a junko-blues-with-a-bridge progression, and what the academics call “floating lyrics,” familiar lines and phrases that crop up in a hundred songs, sometimes cohering into a complete story, sometimes not. But then, in the studio, Tom Walz’s guitars inject a little funk and a lot of blues, Scott Balliet’s drums turn the customary rave-up fadeout at the end from backbeat polka to driving monad and we got ourselves a whole nother song, Houston.
Everybody I Know Loves You
I have only noticed in retrospect how I often start out to write a song with nothing but a chord progression in mind. In this case, I was determined to spawn another “begat” for the list known as “Louie, Louie’s Bastard Children,” a I-IV-V song. I kept to the program pretty much, with a few digressions. After we start rehearsing it, though, I realize the song isn’t garage band at all—it’s punkabilly. But none of the guitarists, it seems, know how to (or want to) play that simplest rhythm-guitar strum of all, punk/metal 16th-note “num-nums.” So I take one of Mike Perkin’s Les Pauls down off the wall and num-num like a house afire until I get the sound I want, and then Mike dubs in this Duane Allman-esque solo that kicks the beat even harder and into overdrive. The lyrics had a real-life inspiration, a sad young woman I knew once who was oblivious to the fact that everybody in her ambit was hopelessly in love with her.
Harder Than You Think
Like Smack Dab, this one was written on my Yamaha keyboard in the midst of recording (all the other songs, I think, were written on guitar, and long before the sessions), and promptly added it to the list. I had Motown on my mind: the Heat Wave-ish progression, the My Girl-ish intro riff, the Just My Imagination-ish chorus. (Steal only from the best, they say.) I put a lot of effort into the lyrics, the ridiculous rhymes, the allusions to things that mean something to me personally, like after-hours clubs and church choirs, and the old-fashioned things, like private eyes and Aqua Velva. (I thought Aqua Velva long defunct, but it turns out they still make it. Here’s hoping for some royalties.) This song has elicited some internet interest because its title is the same as a song at this writing on the hit parade. Surprisingly, since the two songs are not at all alike, some who clicked on it seeking the hit seem to have stayed on to listen to the obscurity and even express a modicum of approval. I guess that’s a good thing. The internet is a strangely literal place.
We Can Rock and Roll
Another song that started out as more or less a garage-band song. At first, all I had was the intro riff, with its suspended tonic. The verse uses that tried and true modal After Midnight, Green Onions, I Don’t Need No Doctor, Knock on Wood I-bIII-IV progression, but the hook is a little more non-standard-ish, especially in the suspension of the dominant over the bVI chord that creates a genre-inappropriate major seventh. Isn’t jargon wonderful? The song doesn’t sound half as complicated when you listen to it. The lyrics are once more more or less floating lyrics, unrequited street-side love subject matter well-traversed in innumerable songs, among them Silhouettes and No Reply, but less innocently traversed in this case, I think, thanks to the double entendre of the hook. Rhyming “can” with “and” is a joke, I think, although I don’t remember if on purpose or not.
This song originated sitting around waiting for a woman who was always late named Mary (whom I no longer remember), in the company of my rockabilly friend, stage name Johnny Jam, and Mary’s roommate, a Welshman and artist’s model, named Hugh, of course. I think I indulged in a little word painting there when I extended the basic blues form from 12 to 24 bars to reflect the idea of “waiting.” Not that I knew what I was doing at the time. I often find myself like the farmer who went to school only to find out he had been speaking prose all his life. I think Johnny stole that intro riff from somewhere good, but I never did figure out from where. I do my Elvis thing on vocals in there somewhere, Dan McKinney does his Johnnie Johnson thing on piano, and Scott Balliet outdoes himself with his bamboo brushes, having paid his dues playing in Johnny Jam’s rockabilly aggregation for a long time.
Gardens of Babylon
The initial inspiration for this song was an Itals concert. I don’t remember much. A chaos of swaying bodies and undulating lights and a slow-drag minor-key reggae song going on and on and on. It was great. I wanted Gardens to have the same lost-in-eternity feel, and so we arranged to leave a lot of space for Mike Perkin to stretch out in in this recording. (On some cassette tape buried away in some box somewhere, though, is Mike’s ultimate Gardens of Babylon guitar solo take. Maybe someday we’ll find it.) I am afraid I took the Jimmy Cliff-ish Biblical captivity lyrics rather seriously. I imagined a literate court slave, enjoying a beverage, lying on a couch under a palm tree, high on some ziggurat in ancient Babylon, looking down on his kinsmen toiling in the hot sun, while he is cooled by the gentle fanning of ostrich plumes, and then I imagined a privileged IT professional, sipping designer water and staring in air-conditioned cool out of a skyscraper window at a crew of his former neighbors at work in the hot sun spreading tar on the roof of a nearby tenement.
It Was Love
I meant this song to be almost proto-rockabilly, a cross between country and rock ‘n’ roll, as the contrast between Tom Walz’s finger-picking and Mike Perkin’s electric implies. The old-fashioned, or should I say “the timeless,” makes an appearance in this song, too, with its night trains and its air-mail letters and Rover. Rover is my favorite dog’s name. Some people call the name cliched, but for the life of me I don’t know why, because nobody, and I mean nobody, ever names his dog Rover. (If I ever get a dog, I’ll name it Rover and devil take the hindmost.) I think Johnny Burnette inspired the well-a, well-a, well-a’s. And Midland, Texas (which I seem to have pronounced in the plural), had to be in it, I am not sure why. My second favorite dog’s name is Fido. Fido is not in this song.
Sweet Dreams was originally meant to be an Everly Brothers style song, but somehow it mutated into Tex-Mex. When I am out west, I generally put the top down and cruise around blaring the Tex-Mex station as loud as I can from dawn to dusk. Not precisely—and yet, when we found Wayne “Mr. Squeeze” Leibel to play the accordion part for Sweet Dreams, I felt an inexplicable desire to drive. I retained the Everly Brothers flavor by over-dubbing a harmony part on the vocal, and Wayne’s Flaco Jimenez-style syncopation adds just the right spice. The song’s subject is rather chaste: a phone call after a date, in which the caller wishes the callee sweet dreams. Someday I would like to translate it into Spanish. Que Tengas Dulces Sueños or something.
Can’t Get a Break
Ripped direct from the daily headlines, Can’t Get a Break is a straight-ahead John Lee Hooker boogie. Tom Walz gets to cut loose on this one, on harmonica as well as slide guitar. The lyrics are right out of the floating verses phrase-book, telling the age-old blues story of a working man not being treated right at home.