I’ll Be Me (For A While)
Like my friend James says, it’s not like you stop spinning you wheels.
I was walking home Thursday night from another twelve hour day reinventing the Network of Fun. The weather had deteriorated from sunny, calm and sixty to cloudy, blustery and thirty in anticipation of Friday’s Nor’easter. I was woefully underdressed in my sweater and sport coat. I felt tired, cold and defeated. A cymbal crash and chunky guitar announced the sluggish and sloppy but sublime arrival of The Replacements’ “I’ll Be You,” and broke me from my malaise.
“A dream,” Westerberg sings, “Too tired to come true.”
I lived with my band, Smokey Junglefrog, during my senior year at college. By then, we’d release two records, established ourselves on campus (and a bit beyond) as the preeminent art/pop/party band (at least in our minds), and even toured a bit beyond Upstate New York.
We lived in a fairly standard colonial on the backside of a park (Thorndon Park) on the hill above campus (the one I sing about in “Summer’s Gone,” as it turns out). The front door was bright red. There was a couch in the backyard. And each of us — Fish (drums), Pablo (bass), Jamie (guitar), and me (vocals) — had our own room. More importantly, though, The Smokehouse (as we came to call it) had a huge basement.
The basement was a key criteria in our housing search. I distinctly recall gingerly explaining to our prospective landlord (a Syracuse Supreme Court judge) that we were a band (albeit a conscientious one) and we needed a large, cement basement with thick walls and no windows.
250 Greenwood had just that. And though it flooded a few times that year, it provided us something we’d never had prior, or since: our own private rehearsal space. With a kitchen. And four bedrooms.
We furnished the basement with scraps and debris from the street. Four heavy, soiled rugs hung from the rafters, our primitive stab at soundproofing. A few bare light bulbs fell from the ceiling. The ground was cold and hard. I often sat in the corner, scribbling lyrics as the band riffed on new ideas. It wasn’t much, but it was ours. And we spent a lot of time there, exploring sounds, experimenting with musical styles, laughing, drinking, and — of course, inevitably — arguing.
The resulting performances were legendary (again, at least in our own minds). Like the frat party at which I created a circuit between the ungrounded microphone and beer-soaked floor. Or the attic party on Ackerman Street at which a drunken, dancing coed fell down a tall, steep set of wooden stairs the returned to the dance floor as if nothing had happened. Or the time Jamie, pickled on Boone’s Farm Grape, fell into the drum set… and finished the song.
Nearly fifteen years later, it doesn’t take much to transport me to that basement. The slightest provocation takes me there: The Replacements (who we frequently covered) blaring over my iPod, rehearse with Chris, Tony and Ryan for a show (like this Sunday’s Rockwood Music Hall performance), or the faint whiff of mold floating past my nose.
And so it was again last night as the four of us began rehearsing at Ultrasound Rehearsal Studios. The rooms are well appointed: a house drums kit, full range of amps, and PA system. They are, like New York City venues, churn and burn. Band’s get two hours flat for sixty bucks.
The result, then, is a certain task orientation. Worse, there’s often lack of exploration and experimentation. My frequent refrain, given one, two-hour rehearsal prior to a gig has been, “Listen, if we just know the changes, I’m fine with that.” The result, though, is that “Milk & Honey” sounds a little bit like “Summer’s Gone,” or “Go Back To Sleep” sounds a little bit like “Cry.”
For Sunday’s show, though, I took a different approach. We’re recording the performance for a potential EP, so we’ve got to sound like we know more than the changes. We have to sound like we’ve explored the songs, even if we end up right back where we started.
So I booked three rehearsals.
I imagine that doesn’t sound like much. Most working bands rehearse all the time, right? Maybe so. If you’re twenty. And live together. And have nothing else to do (like get paid). In a city like Syracuse, or Athens, or Minneapolis, maybe. Not New York. Space is tight here. Time is money.
The upshot, then, is that the band sounds great. We spent forty-five minutes on “Maybe, Maggie.” We spent thirty on “Harder To Believe,” only to bring it home to its straight-ahead, four-on-the floor approach. Moreover, we laughed, and drank, and settled into it. Which I think will be apparent at Sunday’s show (and/or the subsequent EP).
Life is a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Unlike the books, though, you can’t dog-ear the page and try another story arc. I may keep spinning my wheels, and imagining the road not taken. But this is it. This is the path I chose. Raucous, smoky, beer-soaked basements will always hold sway over my nostalgic imagination. But tonight, I’ll take Manhattan.