Friday, July 24, 2009

Coming Home with the dB's: Reflections on a Journey With a Rock Band of My Youth

By David McGee
© 2009
David McGee

My personal dB's music festival continues at my home in Oakland, CA, just me and my pomeranian dog Max listening to a double CD set Stands for Decibels and Repercussion on a summer's Saturday morning. Tonight I will attend a concert presented by founding dB's members Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey from my hometown Winston-Salem, NC. They're touring to support a new release, Here and Now (Bar/None Records), following on their 1991 well-received outing Mavericks. Peter has said "Mavericks may be our most enduring record together," and described it as a personal project of the two songwriters without the demands of commerical pressures in mind. (Both artists have had major-label backing in the past.) Stamey concurs, saying in the New York Times when Mavericks was released, "I think both of us wanted to do something for musical pleasure rather than for business." Their passion shines through again on "Here and Now" and the musical pleasure continues. The concert takes place at an intimate San Francisco venue on Market Street, Cafe Du Nord. The singer/songwriter crowd aware of these two legends will not be enough to sell out the show. Being a homeboy, I've launched a one-man PR effort and put the word out among my friends and musical associates that this is a "not to be missed" concert. The pioneering work on these first two dB's recordings is unmistakable even years later. I like the artsy Chris Stamey tunes and the more straight-forward Peter Holsapple songs. Chris has remained prolific over the years; his latest solo recording was 2004's Travels in the South recorded at his Chapel Hill, NC, studio Modern Recording. There's always a simple narrative in Peter's story-like songs. The riff comes to mind at the beginning of the song "Amplifier," a humorous take on a suicide, which first appeared on the dB's album Repercussion and then subsequently on Like This, recorded after Chris Stamey had left the group.

The song gets away with it. Jilted by his girlfriend, Danny returns home to find "she's taken everything"--to a back beat so you can't lose it. We get a laundry list of what she's absconded with in revenge, in rhyming couplets. But, "She left his amplifier." The song's bridge adds:

An amplifier's just wood and wire and wire and wood don't do any good, when when your heart's starts beatin' like a wild fire and all you've got to show for it's an amplifier.

"Amplifier" was a moderate hit (Music Television refused to broadcast the dB's video due to the subject matter, preventing it from becoming a full-fledged smash among the teen crowd). It also became a signature song performed at nearly every dB's show. Scott Litt who went on to produce R.E.M., U2, and Marshall Crenshaw recordings made his debut effort with
Repercussion. The early dB's albums reflect that the band was highly original, not derivative like a cover band, though the Beatles' influence is there--the dB's formed eight years after the Beatles busted up in 1970--as is Alex Chilton's, who sang as a rock prodigy the 1960's hit "The Letter" by the Box Tops.

A dB's mentor, Chilton was a founder of Memphis, TN-based Big Star, another band of southern rock lore and critical acclaim. Big Star however suffered from low record sales and creative disputes. Late 1970's, Chris Stamey played bass with Alex Chilton and recorded and performed with him. On this year's tour, Peter and Chris (I would use their names in the same league as Paul and John's) are delving into early dB's songs ("Black and White" and "Nothing is Wrong") in addition to featuring songs from the new recording.
Here and Now's lush harmonies and melodies run the gamut of being joyful, wistful, or reminiscent. The duo's writing has matured greatly over the years. The dB's' original rhythm section Gene Holder and Will Rigby play on Stamey's song "Santa Monica." At Saturday's show Peter played acoustic guitar, and for half the show Chris performed on electric guitar, switching to acoustic for some songs such as the evening's closing Everly Brother's song. Other covers surfaced in concert--Stamey sang "I Am the Cosmos," by Chris Bell from the Big Star era released as a single on Stamey's Car Records label in 1978. Holsapple and Stamey also performed the British group Family's "My Friend the Sun" from Here and Now. Mavericks's "She Was the One" was a highlight of the evening; the song evokes the Beatles' atmospheric "Norwegian Wood," though Holsapple's composition comes across as a more cautionary love story, complete with the "I should have knowns" that haunt us after a love affair ends.

Here and Now testifies to a life-long friendship and mutual musical admiration of two southerners who've returned together to the world's stage. Though they both have long-established solo careers, Stamey and Holsapple collaborate well together whether writing, recording, or performing. Of their partnership that started during childhood Peter says, "We were arty little guys." The Stamey/Holsapple team seems to have eschewed the kind of tensions among Big Star's main songwriters that by many accounts led to a short-lived association.

Recently, Peter wrote a series of articles for the
New York Times about songwriting which I found quite insightful and a pleasant distraction from on-going disputes in my Oakland condominium building--I would rather be indulging my musical passions. He's back in North Carolina now, living in Durham, another Tobacco Town (as Winston-Salem is fondly called), after being forced out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina--Here and Now also features Holsapple's "Begin Again," lamenting the tragedy and expressing hope for better days in the Crescent City. These guys move around a lot.

You Had to Leave, But Could Always Come Home

Early on, the dB's songwriters wrote catchy melodies and witty lyrics. They had great rhythmic time, as did
the dB's drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder. And they were all so young. I was even younger by ten years. Stamey's and Holsapple's songwriting came easily it seemed; they've written so many songs over the years. Will Rigby was the youngest son in a family of seven Rigby children who lived down the street from my family, the McGees, also aspiring musicians. Gene I knew from brief chats back-stage. My brother Jim at the time played drums, piano, and guitar and was getting scary good as was Eddie on piano and trumpet--strangely, our father did not approve. I was studying the clarinet. I recall Jim once phoning, on the sly, the Rigby home to ask if Will would be interested in going to a rock concert. "Will's gone," responded the youngest Rigby daughter. Where? For how long? What's he doing? I wondered. Following a youthful urge our father feared would befall his own sons, Will had answered the rock-and-roll muse and had left Winston-Salem (though he would return often for visits), lived many years in New York, and now resides in Cleveland, OH.

The Rigby father was a Mormon and the mother a Presbyterian protestant, as were the McGees, who attended the First Presbyterian Church with the Rigby children and mother. This arrangement seemed to work fine in WASPy Winston where one's religion mattered greatly, unlike on the West Coast where I settled years later. Many of Stamey's and Holsapple's pre-dB's rock bands formed in Winston-Salem and at college in Chapel Hill, NC, before the dB's commenced in New York City after college. The dB's as I recall were ambitious and talented--willing to go anywhere for their music, and they did. Many high-school friends of mine stayed in Winston-Salem rather than move away--that was their choice in life.

For a city its size, in many respects, there was a lot going on with the arts in Winston-Salem which has a regional reputation for launching musical and other artistic careers. There was old money from the R.J. Reynolds tobacco and Hanes textile operations (nearly every municipal building is named Reynolds or Hanes), and so followed long-established patronage for artistic endeavors. Yet, there wasn't much happening in terms of a music business in Winston-Salem in the 1970's. If you wanted a career in rock music, New York City was the place.

Up-Hill Battles in the Early Days

It was an up-hill battle, and sooner or later an aspiring musician had to leave town. Most of the decently paying Winston-Salem gigs (the clubs in those days paid very little for bands or not at all) were sewn up long ago by moonlighting children's piano instructors or high-school band teachers. Few musicians survived there without teaching, as few do anywhere. But there were always living rooms--if you didn't care about being paid to perform--where many people entertained friends and family, a tradition that doesn't seem to exist anymore. I'd scored a saxophone slot in my junior high school jazz stage band run by John "Chick" Shelton--who could play the shit out of any instrument due to a stint touring in a U.S. Army band. I believe he was also a mentor and teacher of Peter Holsapple's, as Peter has mentioned Chick in an album's liner notes. In the classroom, Chick sported a crew cut and gut you wouldn't believe, taught a great class called "Bach to Rock," and ruled his music classes with an iron fist that he also used to play bass drum for the Winston-Salem Symphony. For answering the role call "yo" instead of "yes" one time, he demanded that I stay after school in the band room. The choice was "today or tomorrow. If not, then it's three days and an hour each day," Chick commanded. After school in stage band, once he had released his prisoners, Chick seemed more at ease.

Clarinet fingerings are about the same for tenor sax which the stage band needed badly. Chick drafted me after much encouragement, and the stage band
played many concerts, touring around Winston-Salem in a school bus. Once we were paid a stipend for our efforts--my first professional musical work--for a show backing a touring military chorus at the local coliseum. It was great fun. We didn't have a bass player, if you can imagine, and got chastised at competitions for such an oversight.

Woodwinds were not my calling I soon learned, and after a hiatus, I started with guitar after college, gravitating to jazz and blues music when I moved to the West Coast in 1989. I recorded a jazz CD of standards in 2000 The Gentle Rain. Jazz was my calling. I've never played much rock music, just at weddings, for a variety of reasons--deafening volume, for one. For weddings, the clients pay you to perform a variety of music, so rock is often on the menu. I've remained active on the West Coast's San Francisco Bay Area jazz scene ever since, touring throughout the West and playing in cafes, churches, concert halls, jam sessions, wineries, festivals, you name it. I would not trade that for anything. See "My Musical Journeys" photo album:

The School of the Arts

Back in Winston-Salem, in the 1970's the arts scene revolved around North Carolina School of the Arts, weirdo-central some of my less enlightened friends called it, located on the campus of an abandoned high school on "the other side of town." I would go there to see the emerging crop of future Broadway performers present plays, dances, and concerts for free. The students were young, good looking, and hungry for it and you could feel them bursting with energy. Many were looking for someone to get them high between rehearsals.

At the School of the Arts, jazz musicians, dancers, and actors and expatriates hung out and also at the Rose and Thistle restaurant where the Baptist Hospital nurses' finished their late-night shifts and stared blankly into their coffee, the rings of cigarette smoke blending in with the rising steam from the cups. From another room, the sounds of folk music drifted in. These performers worked for dinner, tips, and perhaps a couch to crash on afterwards. It was 1986, I was out of college and busing the nurses' tables. A philosophy major was cooking pizza. Yes, R&T was one of a series of short-term employers before I busted out of Winston-Salem for Atlanta, GA, where I lived two and a half years before moving to San Francisco Bay Area.

I recall Peter Holsapple stopping in Atlanta as he was relocating to Los Angeles circa 1988. Chris Stamey played at an Atlanta club on a Friday night that same year (his
It's Alright album had been released), and I chatted with a Winston-Salem friend of his and drummer Ted Lyons who rotated in the dB's orbit. Ted had become a fine artist of some renown. He played on many of Chris Stamey's recordings, at Chris's small-club gigs, and on a dB's Christmas album Christmastime which I play every year to remind me of home. Ted was interesting to talk with; he and Chris were headed to the West Coast for a tour. I would follow about a year later. He was going to rent a car and drive the Pacific Coast highway, which I wound up doing myself many times.

Wanderlust of Youth Calls

In terms of other potential destinations, there was Charlotte, NC, near where I attended college at Davidson. After graduation, many Davidson graduates pursued ambitions as career bankers and headed to Charlotte where they settled down in the sprawling suburbs. I didn't feel the urge to settle quite yet, but what would I do? Where would I live? What would be my mark on the world? These questions weighed in heavily when I worked for the college in a good year as a writer after graduating in 1985.

Having decided not to continue with an academic career after college, I had varieties of role models provided by Davidson alumni. Writer William Styron (Sophie's Choice) attended for a time but graduated later from Duke University after World War II. Davidson alumna and forensic fiction writer Patricia Cornwell had struck gold with her Scarpetta Series of novels after a long haul in obscurity. While I'm name-dropping, there were alumni politicians--President Woodrow Wilson and Dean Rusk, Secretary of State in the Johnson and Kennedy eras. In the musical realm, I had met Joe Robinson, principal oboist for the New York Philharmonic for 27 years, 1978 to 2005, who gave master classes during his Davidson visits. In the world of academe, Rhodes Scholar Elizabeth Kiss, class of 1983, was named president of Agnes Scott College and was the founding director of Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics.

Friends from my class of 1985 would find success in the arts world and as writers. Craig Detweiler made movies in Hollywood, a Disney film
The Duke and a teen road trip Extreme Days. 60 Minutes producer John Marks wrote a novel Fangland, a retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula vampire story. I remember Craig and John being passionate popular music fans and likely they still are. My freshman-year roommate John Syme (he liked Pink Floyd and Prince) worked as a journalist for the Winston-Salem Journal, for broadcast media, and now writes and "internet blogs" for Davidson's College Relations Office. David Resnick, who also co-edited the student newspaper the year before me, went on to a peripatetic academic career and wrote many books on ethics. An alumna Laura MacDonald, who played great classical piano, became musical director of a church in High Point, NC. There were many others; these are the ones I recall. As a student, I had written witty, long-winded term papers (the grades varied depending on who read them) and had co-edited and wrote for the school's student newspaper The Davidsonian to some acclaim, though that work is largely forgotten now. I'm most proud of a story I authored for the college alumni magazine--people still remember it--about a Vietnam War pilot Porter Halyburton, a Davidson resident and 1963 alumnus, who spent seven years as a POW in North Vietnam.

My interest in listening to music had never waned and had blossomed at college. In those days, we saw many shows at the Milestone rock venue where the dB's and Let's Active (Winston-Salem producer and guitarist Mitch Easter's band) often performed. My sophomore year I paid $5 to see a fledgeling rock band that was attracting a lot of buzz called R.E.M. in the college's 900 Room. Davidson had gained a reputation among rock acts (Let's Active among them; the dB's did not play at Davidson while I was there) as a great place to play with good equipment and treatment. Another alumnus, a booking agent, had record-label connections and would arrange for his client artists to perform at the school. Feeling my youthful wanderlust, I quickly grew restless with small-town southern life in Davidson and Winston-Salem, though the towns had enriched my life in many ways. Prospero says in William Shakespeare's
The Tempest, "My library was dukedom enough." I'd had enough of libraries for the time being. A lyric from a song the spirit Ariel sings in The Tempest best describes my sentiments at the time. I'd "suffered a sea change into something rich and strange."

In The Internet Age, The Music Lives On

I'm now hearing from many Reynolds High School and Davidson classmates, via the Facebook internet website, whom I haven't been in contact for so long. There are Facebook pages for Stamey's and Holsapple's activities. I log on often. Will Rigby I've learned is an in-demand touring rock and country drummer and does his own recording projects. His former wife Amy Rigby tours often and performs in San Francisco on occasion. Peter freelances frequently in the music world--R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish, and others and was in a Los Angeles band The Continental Drifters who drifted to New Orleans after gigging and recording in LA. Chris returned to North Carolina in 1993, to open a recording studio
in Chapel Hill (Here and Now was recorded there) after a solo career in New York, London, and Paris. Gene Holder has produced recordings and played in a number of rock bands in the New York area. Stamey has also produced many independent rock bands' recordings. Complacency doesn't seem to be in the dB's alumni vocabulary.

Mitch Easter pursued the same path with his Drive-In recording studio in Winston-Salem where R.E.M. years ago recorded its first single "Radio Free Europe," an independent college radio hit (B-side "Sitting Still"). Both songs later appeared on R.E.M's first album 1983's Murmur whose songs comprised most of the 900 Room show I mentioned. The band had just finished recording the album in Charlotte for the I.R.S. label, with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon co-producing. Reckoning followed a year later. R.E.M. proved to be an emerging force on the southern (subsequently national and international) rock scene, with cross pollination with members of the dB's which had also toured America and internationally.

The dB's seldom compromised as artists, and artists they've remained. In 20-20 overly critical hindsight, they've admitted in print to questionable business decisions from long ago. By all measures, R.E.M. received superior business and legal advice and promotion than the dB's did. This made all the difference in the bands' respective careers. In my view R.E.M. and the dB's were equally talented with many of the same influences. I met an attorney of
the dB's, Russell Carter, in Atlanta back-stage at a dB's show (okay, so I'm a groupie). Also a Davidson graduate, Carter represents singer Matthew Sweet, secured Atlanta's the Indigo Girls' first record deal, and manages a who's who list of American popular musical artists. Over the years, he carved out a lucrative niche as an entertainment attorney and had made a reputation for spot-on management of musicians. Russell explained something critical to me over lunch. If a band signs a bad record deal, its career can stall badly and may never recover. As Russell talked, I thought about what Jerry Garcia once said, "The music business has very little to do with music."

There's Music and the Business of Music

Case in point, prior to Carter representing the dB's, the band had signed with Bearsville Records for a third album
Like This, early-1980s. To be specific, they were under contract to Bearsville's owner. Bad timing ensued--the owner died suddenly without a will. The dB's negotiated to be released from a label in limbo, which did very little to promote Like This, despite heavy concert touring and press garnered by the dB's. When someone dies without a will, care and disbursement of assets typically fall to a probate court. It took a couple of years for the label owner's estate to settle; with no will, no executor had been named. Bearsville would release the dB's eventually after a period during which the band could not record for another label and could only generate income from live performances. Peter describes these events in a New York Times article "Anatomy of a Flop" about the hit song that never was, "Love is for Lovers" from Like This. Replete with classic dB's hooks and fiery guitar solos, "Love is for Lovers" certainly deserved better. It was live and learn for the dB's, who should be commended for not letting setbacks derail their passion for the music they believe in.

The dB's rebounded with a subsequent album
The Sound of Music and signed with the I.R.S. record label as had R.E.M years earlier. In many respects, it's said the dB's paved the way for R.E.M.--they often toured together. R.E.M. had shrewdly remained based in Athens, GA, and toured the colleges on the East Coast and many other venues there, building their following.

Davidson College contributed in many ways to this success with alumni connected to the band as attorneys and agents and by the school furnishing concert venues. Sound legal and business strategies, encouraged by attorneys like Russell Carter, made all the difference to musicians navigating a precarious entertainment world. The campus radio station WDAV-FM in the 1980's had a late-evening show featuring alternative rock music and played R.E.M. and the dB's albums in heavy rotation. R.E.M. meanwhile began branching out from college campuses. With its theatrical savvy on display now in large arenas, R.E.M. made a fortune, releasing album after album and doing world tour after world tour. Former students, it seemed, established careers and incomes and still bought records and went to concerts after college and graduate school. An Athens, GA, scene sprouted and young musicians from across the country flocked there, with R.E.M. as king of the hill of a thriving music business in a niche hard to establish in a hard-scrabble New York City. R.E.M. went on to seal what was said at that point in time to be the most lucrative recording and distribution contract ever with Warner Brothers (before most record labels went into a decline).
Previously, R.E.M. had made no secret of its interest to produce and distribute--independent of a record label--the band's recordings, DVDs, and tours in order to have more creative and financial control over its work. With this deal, Warner Brothers successfully kept R.E.M. in the record label's roster of artists.

You 'Can' Go Home Again

The dB's over the years returned often to Winston-Salem to perform at area clubs and high school benefits. Many of their associates relocated to their hometown and did whatever as they pursued their music. Life is music and music is life. The dB's broke up officially in 1988. A collection of unvarnished demos called
Paris Avenue appeared in 1994 which was to be their next recording. In a song called "Girlfriend" Peter cryptically chastised a musical colleague and fellow songwriter for having an affair with his girlfriend. But who was it? Peter hints but declines to be more specific, as that would end the intrigue.

I like you, your band too, bought all your records since '82. Some of your songs are in my personal top ten, but you slept with my girlfriend, so we can't be friends.

She blanches when I mention your name

And everything has changed so I, I gotta ask you

Why did you sleep with my girlfriend?

Why would she sleep with you?

The song had hit potential, but a lyric,
defying FCC obscenity guidelines, would appear to have knocked "Girlfriend" out of the running. Was this intentional? Would it have been edited in the mix? Once again, Holsapple's irreverent humor was infectious. Something about Paris Avenue bothered me though, granted these were demos and not polished studio recordings. The dB's confirmed my suspicions in their website's biography discussing their break up. Perhaps it was time to move on to solo careers, freelancing (Peter was hired by R.E.M. for the Green album tour), and other pursuits like raising families. An interesting and gratifying thing happened with the dB's in the years to come. Its following remained intensely loyal, despite periods of the band's inactivity. Magically over time, the influence and reputation of the dB's grew, renewing my hopes that there's some kind of justice in this world and the band's efforts had been vindicated.

Another recording from the vaults was published,
The dB's Ride the Wild Tom Tom, a lengthy collection of early demos from the original members' nascent days in New York, including Stamey's compositions. Live recordings surfaced along with websites, blogs, and concert videos. Strangely, the dB's were not invited to perform on a Big Star tribute recording. In early 2009, the dB's appeared at a "Music of R.E.M." concert held at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall. Here and there, there've been other reunion shows, and the dB's are said to be recording a new album with the original line up of Winston-Salem natives. They're on the prowl for a record deal.

An Asheville, NC, writer Thomas Wolfe (often confused with Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities' fame) once wrote a novel, You Can't Go Home Again. Peter Holsapple, fronting the dB's at a Reynolds High School auditorium benefit in 1986, said "Well, that isn't true" to raucous applause. It struck a chord with me. Once again, I will be in the audience Saturday July 18, 2009 at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco years later, waiting for the frisson of the opening song, hoping to make it home.