Rockin’ On The Horse-Sized Pills

June 18th, 2007

Steve Feldman and I met in Syracuse, New York, right around the time when my band, Smokey Junglefrog, was nominated for an inaugural Syracuse Area Music Award. We lost.

But Steve won Producer of the Year. Smokey and Steve recorded to albums together, “Au Gratin” and “She’s My Niece” (don’t look for ’em, they’re long out of print).

I graduated Syracuse in the summer of 1993 and immediately began recording my solo debut with him, a limited edition cassette (this is well before CD replication was remotely affordable) called “Always Almost There.”

Five of those songs (“Crossing To Safety,” “Wax & Feathers,” “Rebecca,” “Flood,” and “Keelhauling”) kick of my two-cd, twenty-five song “Besides” compilation which is conveniently available now on iTunes.

Steve’s Penguin Studio was a converted garage behind his brother’s house out on the pastoral, grayish edges of The Salt City. His control room was state of the art, more rock ‘n roll than anything I’d ever seen: two inch analogue reel to reel, 32 Channel Mackie mixing console with Atari automation, and all the outboard gear a guy with nothing but a beat up Takamine and stolen Shure mic could want.

Recording my first album with Steve was an adventure. Some days, I’d arrive before he’d even woken up. I’d climb the stairs to his bedroom above the studio to find him tangled in sheets with some underage groupie he’s picked up playing guitar for one of his many side projects. He’d wipe his long hair out of his eyes, squint into the daylight, and groan through a thin smile, “Can we take today off?”

One morning, after I’d managed to coax him downstairs, he asked, “Do you have any pills or anything?” When I responded to the negative, he disappeared upstairs. Moments later, he reappeared with a pair of horse-sized pills and a bottle of Maker’s Mark.

“What are they?” I asked.

“I’m not sure.”

I swallowed ’em anyway.

It’s difficult to remember now, but I was still young enough to think I had a real shot in the music business. This is, of course, in the age well before the Internet, mp3s, online distribution. Back then, it was all about “getting signed.” It was one in a million. Still, I thought I could. So naive.

Nonetheless, it was an exciting time. SAMMY-winning producer Steve Feldman was a major player in the (in retrospect minor) Syracuse alternative scene. When we needed a French horn (and we did, unbelievably, for “Keelhauling”), Steve picked up the phone and Bedouine AJ Mann showed up. When we needed a female vocalist (as we did for “Rebecca”), Steve picked up the phone and Karen Savoca walked in (with, it should be noted, a strangely percussive beaded gourd under her arm which was later put to good use on “Wax & Feathers”).

I spent an inordiate amount of time at the Syracuse University library that summer, which is odd given that prior to graduation, I’d spent little time there at all. In the waning days of college, though, I sought the endless rows and columns of books like air to an asmatic.

In those days before the Internet, bands send postcards to promote shows. In those days before Photoshop, we cobbled those postcards together at Kinkos with text book art and a glue stick. In that summer of limbo between college and the working world, I felt aimless, lost, and confused.

Little surprise, then, that a randomly discovered 18th Century illustration of The Four Winds — literally, clouds with faces blowing on the Earth — came to visually represent how I felt.

Little surprise, also, that I filled the liner notes with writings unearthed in my summer at the library.

I released “Always Almost There” in October 1993, at Sophie’s Coffee Shop on the corner of South Crouse and East Adams. Allen Czelusniak of The Syracuse New Times described it thusly:

From the quotations pulled from Coleridge, Dickinson, Eliot and Ovid in the liner notes, it’s safe bet that Benjamin Wagner’s “Always Almost There” is a record better suited for serious listening than background music at a keg party. The material here is highly personal, well-crafted and features some of the finest local talent ranging from the tempered guitar work of Steve Feldman to the sweet singing of The Mind’s Eye’s Karen Savoca.

The introspective nature and acoustic foundation of the songs put the album in the Toad the Wet Sprocket or R.E.M. vein, but this is not a sound-alike record, but rather Wagner on display. Over soft-strumming, airy guitars, Wagner sings with strength, clarity and passion.

It seems as if this record is an artistic release for Wagner, something he may not have been able to do in his former band, the SAMMY-nominated (for best new artist) Smokey Junglefrog.

Recorded at Penguin Studios and produced by Wagner and Feldman, the quality of this recording surpasses most on the local scene. From the fat guitar feedback of “Flood,” to the perfectly mixed trumpet fills of AJ Mann on “Keelhauling,” “Always Almost There” is as much a sonic statement as a personal one from Wagner.

In fact, the release — despite the summer-long effort behind it — was comprised of fifty cassette copies. When those fifty cassettes sold out, “Always Almost There” went out of print.

Until now.

It may surprise you to learn that I don’t spend much time listening to myself. Or it may surprise you to learn that I do, in fact, listen to myself. Listening to “Crossing To Safety” — a title ripped from author Wallace Stegner — I am neither nostalgic nor dispassionate. Something stirs in me, sure. The pictures fade, but the memories last. Still, they shape shift, growing more nebulous, and less tangible every day.

“Fiction,” Stegner writes, “Is the art of making truth out of faked materials.”

In all of its ernestness, guilelessness, and hope, “Always Almost There” sounds like the work of a fictional boy. In retrospect, I could not possibly have believed any of those things to be true, let alone thought that a French horn would sound good in a pop song.

It’s not fiction, though. I know this for sure because it’s there forever set to tape, then made into ones and zeros. Reissued, remastered, and repackaged, it’s the sound of growing up set to guitars — horse-sized pills and all.