The important stuff here is the links above. What follows is just some of my typical rambling, in this case recounting my interests in music and the background that got me there.
Ever since I had my first little record player and played the grooves off of a bunch of kiddie singles, I've had a fascination with music. My initial exposure was to Disney stuff (Jungle Book, Winney the Pooh, etc), kiddie records (e.g. the legendary and hideously annoying whistle-cricket-bell records), and whatever I could sneak out of my brothers and sisters records (Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow, Little Deuce Coupe, etc.).
Once I figured out how to use the stereo, I had less interest in the little single record player. As I still didn't have any liquid income at this point, I was forced to listen to my Brothers' and Sister's (and to a lesser extent, parents') albums. That wasn't too bad, as they were into cool stuff like the Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Mamas & the Papas, and The Kingston Trio. Also, my parents liked music and my dad sang in the church choir, so I got some exposure to classical and choral music as well as some other stuff like Harry Belafonte and musicals. But a couple of my favorites were comedy albums; one by Homer & Jethro and the other by Spike Jones.
While I was still in grammar school, I took guitar lessons for about 6 months, but I quit. Playing a lot of baseball seemed like more fun than practicing the guitar, but now I wish I'd kept up the lessons. About the same time, I was actually starting to buy a little bit of music with money from birthdays and Christmas & stuff. At the time, I was into top 40 stuff (93 KHJ), so I was buying singles like The Morning After and One Tin Soldier. Even so, while I was in grammar school I wasn't particularly focused on music; I was more into playing sports and dissing girls (oooooh, cooties).
One exception was when I was in 6th grade. My brother was in high school drama, and they were doing the musical Mame. One of the leads in the show is Young Patrick, a child. Since they were using a high school kid for his grown-up self Older Patrick, they decided to use a real child for Young Patrick. I went and auditioned and got the part. If you're not familiar with the show, Young Patrick is a fairly sizable role that has one solo song and is in two or three other numbers.
I totally dug getting up there and performing. Of course, I couldn't act worth a damn, as most children can't, but I could carry a tune pretty well, so I got good reviews and lots of applause. And besides that, there was the aspect of hanging out backstage with a lot of half dressed high-school girls. (hey, maybe cooties ain't such a bad thing :-). I guess that was when I really started to cultivate a taste for performing.
When I started high school, I signed up for both drama and choir. I could still carry a tune, and harmonize really well, but now I learned abilities like reading sheet music and sight-singing. I discovered that I still couldn't act worth a damn, so I did mostly tech stuff in drama and focused on developing my musical skills. After a year of choir, I got into first the Madrigals group (your typical select classical high school choral group) and then the Mariners (a show choir).
The Mariners did a lot of performing, so I got a lot of stage experience, and both the Mariners and the Madrigals did a concert tour of Europe, which was a lot of fun. Imagine being a teenager and performing (and drinking) your way across Europe with about 30 of your closest friends. If you've never sung multi-part harmonies in a cathdral, then you just ain't lived. :-) The tours were fun, but the performing highlight of every school year was of course, the Musical, and I was always a prominent contributer.
My musical taste for the first couple of years of high school was heavily influenced by the singing groups I was in. Through Madrigals I got an appreciation of both sacred and secular choral music, and I broadened my horizons about harmony. Up till then, the Beatles and Beach Boys was mostly what I knew, now I was singing harmonies from Mozart and Handel and Tchaicovsky and Samuel Barber. Mariners did the more pop stuff, so I also got exposure to a lot of Streisand and Barry Manilow and stuff like that.
My Junior year, someone brought tapes of 52nd Street and The Stranger by Billy Joel on the Europe tour, and the bus had a tape player so we listened to them frequently for three weeks. I think the only other thing we had was Earth Wind and Fire's Greatest hits, but it didn't get played quite as much. That may have been the first time since the Beatles that I realized that albums didn't always just have to be to sell a single, and that the whole album might be listenable, or in some cases even good.
Another band I got into via the European trips was a German rock band called The Nina Hagen Band. My first exposure to them was from a tape bought by my friend Bob Godes, who bought it in the airport as we were leaving for home. The next year several of us bought the band's first two albums. Nina later moved to the US, but without her band. Since then, I've seen her in concert here in LA on several occasions, and she puts on a wild show.
So I started buying up albums, mostly rock & roll. I was into stuff like ELO, Queen, Cheap Trick, Elton John, Genesis, Blondie (who we considered punk at the time, imagine that), and other stuff like that. About that time, I went to see my first rock concert. My friend Kathe Morton's uncle was in a band called Blind Owl, so we packed 5 or 6 of us into a car and went to the Troubador to see them play. I didn't have a car, so I didn't get to go to many rock shows for a couple of years, but even such a modest show as this one gave me a taste for the rock scene that I've never really lost.
That same year, my friend Chris Morse and I started actually writing songs to do for some of the showcase shows. Out of those days came songs like Saturday Morning Mariner Madrigal Pizza Sale Blues, and Just Another Night. We also formed a band with another friend, Kieth Miller. I played bass, and Kieth and Chris played guitars. We were the Bad Mariners, and we played cover songs like Freebird and Stairway. We also played a lot of UFO, `cause Kieth was really into them and he was the best musician of the three of us at the time. We were terrible, but we had fun anyway. Chris and I also started writing rock songs, stuff like The Neutron Boogie and Socialization. I think the only one that has survived from that era is I Hate the Beach, a punk classic.
My senior year, New Wave took over, and I started getting interested in bands like Devo, The B-52's, Elvis Costello, and Joe Jackson. I think the most listened tape on that year's Europe tour was Look Sharp. I also started listening to X and Black Flag and learned that maybe Blondie wasn't so punk after all. I still didn't have a car, so I didn't go to many concerts, but since I was performing and working on shows so much with my friends (not to mention studying), I didn't mind too much.
The musical my senior year was Once Upon A Matress, and being a senior who was very active in both music and drama, I got one of the leads, as the minstrel. This was actually a fairly sizeable role, with a solo number to open the show and two duet songs done with the jester (played by Chris). Frankly, I had as much fun just being in the chorus the previous two years, but it was nice to get singled out for some recognition. In the picture to the left, I'm singing the opening song, Many Moons Ago. The striking thing to notice is that I'm holding an autoharp, an instrument that's nigh impossible to play standing up. Nowadays, I would have found a lute or a mandolin and learned to play the song on it, but back then I wasn't nearly as resourceful, so I quietly bore the indignance of carrying an unlikely instrument that I couldn't possibly play in the role. The other two songs were Normandy and The Minstrel, The Jester & I.
While I was still in high school, I started to tinker with playing the piano. I didn't take any formal lessons or anything, but Chris taught me that if you could learn about a half dozen chords, you could play most rock and roll songs by reading the guitar chords in the music books. I started futzing around on the piano, mostly with stuff by Elton John, Billy Joel, and Genesis.
When I started college, I got my first car. It was my parents old car; a 1962 baby blue Lincoln Continental with suicide doors. It was a total boat, but a great makeout car, and a rock-n-roll mo-sheen. It was constantly breaking down, so I didn't drive it to LA much, but it was fine for the local gigs, mainly at The Golden Bear
The Golden Bear was a little brick building right across the street from the Huntington Beach pier, and it was great. It only seated about 150 people, so there were no bad seats. I saw a lot of great bands there, including Robert Palmer, The Motels, Oingo Boingo, Jose Feliciano, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The sound was good, the intimacy couldn't be beat. It's curse was that it was built on prime real estate. It was eventually torn down to build a mini-mall & movie theater.
I started working at a movie theater and I got into Frank Zappa's music. I saw two of the best concerts I've ever seen: Zappa (circa You Are What You Is) and Devo, both at the Santa Monica Civic. Occasionally, I'd go to shows in LA with friends who had better cars. I was doing serious college studying, so I wasn't taking a lot of theater and music courses, but I did take a couple of synthesizer classes, and a couple of semesters of piano. This added a bit to my keyboard skills, mostly because it forced me to practice, but it also gave me a bit more ability to pick out a melody from sheet music. Fortuitously, a friend of my mom's was moving to England and needed to sell her piano, so I bought it for a mere $250.
My first piano was an old 1905 Boyd-London birdcage mechanism. It looked gorgeous, but like a set piece from the saloon of an old western. It had a very sing-songy feel, like Elton John's piano in the song Honky Cat. The action was pretty light, which makes learning and playing a bit easier, but is a negative when you try to take those skills to a real piano with real action. Anyway, I kept buying more and more books of rock music and figuring out how to play them and I improved up to a level where I could accompany myself while singing. In March of 1999, I sold the piano to a guy who makes shooting galleries. It's now (as far as I know) in a Buster & Daves in Atlanta. If you shoot the piano player, he'll wake up and play a tune on my old piano.
The only real performing I did my first two years of College was in the musical Oklahoma, which I had a lot of fun working on. It was then that I realized how good a choral director I had in high school, as the music director for the musical wasn't nearly as good. About a month and a half before the show was to open, I tore cartilege in my knee while skiing. I had arthroscopic surgery and recovered in time to do the show. It was a little rough dancing around in cowboy boots, and I had to skip the lifts for the first week of the show, but after that it worked out fine.
My third year of college I got a better car, a Honda Civic, which freed me up to go to more concerts in LA, so I did. I saw a lot of different bands, but I would go anywhere in the LA/Orange County area to see the Motels, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Oingo Boingo, The Tubes, or X. Since only Joe and Elvis were big name artists at that time, I was seeing the other groups in nightclubs. Not only did this allow greater intimacy, but seeing some of the opening bands, it became clear that not every performance was a polished, well-thought out, well-rehearsed thing. In fact most new material, even by the established artists, started out kinda rough and then got better as they figured out what worked on it.
Chris' brother Scott started playing in a band called The Means, and they were pretty cool. We used to go run the sound board (and sometimes lights) for them so we'd get to see `em even in clubs that were over-21 only. The Means were good, but sometimes the other bands playing with them weren't very good. I started getting in my head that I could do better than half the trash that was passing for music, and I think Chris was thinking the same thing, though we didn't form another band for another 3 or 4 years.
Working at the movie theater wasn't all work. We had a cool manager and even the district manager was pretty laid back about use of the theater, so we had frequent after-close parties. It was at some of those that some friends of mine (Rob Buswell, Steve Cormack, Scott Hall, Greg Guzzetta, Dave Crowley & some others - different people at different times) started playing as a group called the Reem. They did pornographic rock well before Spinal Tap came out, and they had as much of a story surrounding it as well. Eventually, they convinced Wally George that they were a real band and Rob went on the show and got kicked off in riotous fashion ("You can't kick us off, Wally! We're rock and roll stars!"). I occasionally played keyboards with the Reem, which was probably the first times I jammed with a group containing a drummer.
I started getting season ticket packages from the Greek Theater. Back then the seasons were a fixed set of concerts (as opposed to the "you choose 6 concerts" way they do it nowadays) and you had the same seats for all 5 or 6 concerts. The first year, I was in row R, so I was about 18 rows back for Peter Gabriel (another of the best concerts I've ever seen), Dexy's Midnight Runners, and several other bands.
As my musical taste broadened, my record collection grew. From Zappa, I had acquired a taste for Jazz, so I started listening to stuff like Pat Metheny, Jean-Luc Ponty, Spyro Gyra, The Yellowjackets and Chick Corea. (I was mostly interested in bands that I could see in concert, so it wasn't till later after seeing Miles that I went back and got into Bird and Diz and Coltrane and people like that) I also dug vocal jazz, so I was into the Manhattan Transfer and the Bobs. Mellower folky-rock was moving into the mainstream, and I adopted Rickie Lee Jones, Joan Armatrading and Tom Waits from that genre. Basically, I was branching out in all directions musically.
The Greek season tickets thing was a good deal for a while, as they biased the quality of the seats they gave you by how many years you had been a season ticket holder. Thus over a few years, I had really good seats for David Byrne, REM, Dire Straits, The Go-Gos, X, Rickie Lee Jones & Lyle Lovett, and lots of other excellent bands. Occasionally there was a lemon (e.g. Pia Zadora), but that problem was solved when they switched to allowing you to choose the concerts in your series. Unfortunately, they also changed it so that you didn't get the same seats all the time, and now I was pushed back into the B section for some of the more popular concerts, so it wasn't quite as nice.
After I graduated from college, I got a real job and I was making decent money. I went totally overboard on concerts. I had season tickets for the Greek, The Universal Amphitheater, Pacific Amphitheater, and Irvine Meadows. I wouldn't go to the Forum or the Sports Arena for concerts anymore, as the sound sucks and you only rarely got good seats, but I also went to nightclub shows whenever possible. During the summer, I averaged about 2 concerts a week, and on a good week I might see 4.
I moved in with some friends of mine, who were living in a house in Placentia. It was on Spahn lane, so we called it the Spahning grounds, and it was a perpetual party palace. Rob (from the Reem group) played some guitar and drums, and we had a drum kit in the garage, so he and I would jam quite a bit. We'd play some Reem stuff (which was mostly cover tunes with reworked lyrics) or Genesis or Clapton or whatever. Sometimes we'd have other people over and jam, and I think we both improved as musicians over that time.
OK, so now it's 1986. Chris and I are at a party at a mutual friend's house (Cynthia Corley), and we start jamming around, with Chris on guitar and me on a little tiny synth with a bad tinny drum machine that he had. We wrote the chorus and the initial chord structure for Suburban Death. It sounded pretty good, so I took it home and finished up the lyrics and we got together a couple of days later and jammed on it, and we also started working on some other musical ideas the Chris had. I went out and bought a DX-7 and our new band was formed.
At the time, we were both out of college and starting to make money, so our political views had shifted a bit. In high school, we were the save the earth and all rich people suck kinda radicals, but now we we're starting to realize that maybe it's not such a bad thing to have some money (and the products they can buy). This idea was espoused in our fictional political party, The Liberal Materialists, which we adopted for the name of our band. The Liberal Materialist motto was "Save the World! (but not with our money)"
So we wrote two or three more songs and went into a studio to record them. Chris played guitar and bass. I played synthesizer and did fills on the drum machine (one owned by the studio, so it was a little better quality and less tinny). Shortly after that, Cynthia introduced us to her new boyfriend, Ross Elbling, who happened to play the bass. We invited him to come jam with us, and he turned out to be very good (much better than us at the time, but we're slowly narrowing the gap). After Ross joined the band, I still occasionally jammed with Rob or Steve or some of my other friends, but mostly I've played with the LibMats since then.
In this configuration (Chris on guitar, John on synth, Ross on bass, and drum machine), we played a few gigs, including the rock garden (as in "rock the rock garden") at UC Irvine. Since we were all working and all going to school, we never pursued the "band as a profession" route, but we kept on jamming, and kept on writing newer and better songs. Our second time in the studio, we recorded and mixed down 17 songs in two marathon 12-hour sessions.
Of course, through all of this I kept listening to new bands, and new music by my old favorite bands. I started listening to funk and rap and reggae and roots rock, and you'd hear a little bit of influence of some band occassionaly in a new song. I could keep mentioning bands that I got into, but you can just check out my CD list and you'll get the idea (and it doesn't even list my records).
In 1989 I started grad school at UCLA, and shortly thereafter I joined the choir. They had a very good choral director, Don Weiss, who has since retired. He tended to choose a lot of challenging music (stuff like Poulenc and Rorem), so it kept it interesting. I got a couple of solos, but always in the folk music stuff, never in the hard classical stuff. (I have a good voice, but it's not as well trained as most of the music majors) One of the nicest things about being in choir was getting to perform in Royce Hall, which has excellent acoustics.
Another benefit of UCLA is that they have a lot of concerts, both free stuff in the quad (where I've seen bands like Poi Dog Pondering and Mudhoney) and ticketed concerts at Royce Hall (The Bobs & ISO, Rickie Lee Jones, Laurie Anderson, etc.) or the Wadsworth Theater (Rickie Lee Jones, Zvuki Mu, etc.). They also occasionally have concerts in Pauley Pavillion, but the only two shows I've seen there were The Pretenders/Bow Wow Wow and the MTV Music Awards. For the MTV awards, a friend of my roommate's worked for MTV, so I was lucky enough to get a backstage pass.
Over the last ten years or so, I've started digging deeper into roots rock, and some country music. This has led me both to modern artists like John Hiatt, John Prine, John Doe (basically just anybody named John with a guitar in his hand), Peter Case, Lucinda Williams, and Bonnie Raitt, but also to much older artists like Robert Johnson, Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, and Jimmie Rodgers.
The LibMats went through several drummers, though not in a Spinal Tap sort of way. Basically, they all sucked, so we just stopped asking them to come jam with us. In 1992, we found a drummer who didn't suck, Adam Perlstein, and he played with the LibMats for a couple of years, and then dropped out to join a grunge band that was actually playing gigs and stuff. Then, as always, the LibMats were mostly about art for art's sake. We like to perform, but we've never actively pursued playing a lot of gigs or selling the music we record.
A bit after Adam quit, we put an ad in BAM, auditioned a couple of drummers, and chose Frank DeMarzo, who's been the LibMats drummer ever since. As usual we've played sporadic gigs at coffee houses and stuff like that. Most recently (as of this writing), we played last June at the Huntington Beach Pier Plaza grand opening. We've also done some studio recording, and jammed fairly regularly. Check out the LibMats web site if you want to find out more us and hear some sample tracks.
Chris has always been a better and more prolific song writer than I have, and I think both of us have improved over time (like a fine whine). I find that I do some most of my best songwriting after I've recently been dumped by a girlfriend, but I often get a song inspiration just out of the blue. I'll be driving along in my car and I'll just have to pull over and write down some lyrics or a melody line or something so I won't forget it.
In `95 and `96, I did two more musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Pippin. As usual, I had a lot of fun performing and hanging out with the casts. I'm sure I'll do more community theater over time, thought I'll probably stick to musicals, since I still can't act worth a damn. For one of the songs in Pippin (Simple Joys) I got to play the guitar in a sort of onstage minstrel capacity. That made up for the embarassment of lugging an autoharp onstage (but not actually playing it) when I played the minstrel in Once Upon a Matress in high school.
Lately I'm on a low budget, as I'm only working part time while I'm finishing my PhD. With big theater ticket prices soaring, this has pushed me back to going to nightclub concerts. As it turns out, this is a happy circumstance, as I'm once again seeing bands in their formative years, while their musical ideas are still new and their energy level is high. At the moment, I'd say my favorite band (other than the Liberal Materialists, of course) is the Negro Problem. Some of my old favorites seem so jaded when I see them in concert now, perhaps that's the price of success. Also, my timing is good, as the bad heavy metal grunge band phase has mostly passed in LA and there's a resurgence of bands that are trying something new (or at least re-framing something old in a new style).
I hope some of the local bands that I'm seeing now get a chance to be jaded some day, `cause they're a lot of fun to watch now. Who knows, maybe I'll even drag the LibMats out to play a few more nightclub gigs some day soon. :-)