The Fruits of Happenstance part two:
Jeff Graham was a different sort of musician from the type that I was used to; he had short hair that was slightly gelled, he had good teeth, no tattoos and he drove a large Land Rover. This was in stark contrast to most of the musicians I had known, even the ones who I got to know through my being a middling promoter of smallish proportions. I was quite skeptical of Jeff, my biases towards others that did not co-habitat the insular world of which I flourished tended to have an adverse effect on my willingness to venture into any sort of semblance towards mainstream culture. An attitude for which I still cling to at times with a measured tone of sanity; I will not venture into a mall today nor have I ever watched a “reality” television show. Jeff was perhaps the first “professional” engineer I had ever met, in fact of all the artists I had dealt with over the years I can only think of a few who came across as treating their craft as a professional: Dave Thomas of Pere Ubu, John Cale, Walter Salas-Humera (of the Silos) and the saxophonist Charles Gayle. The rest of the people I bumped into in the confined indie-rock world seemed cut from the same cloth as me, somewhat surprised and nonchalant about building a career out of music and always willing to sit for a drink.
Getting to know Jeff was a joy, he was good humored but serious and he was able to help Jenny not to be lazy in the studio and with her music. She was able to adhere to Jeff’s direction and he could coax her with humor and an ever flowing storage of Dewar’s. The fact that she was playing with Dan Spurgeon, whose songwriting talent could be devastatingly powerful, provided her some of the needed self-confidence she may have lacked in her earlier endeavors. Like many of us, Jenny did not like to challenge herself, at times life is easier to take when the emotional muscles of intrinsic effort may take one of kilter. We grounded ourselves in alcohol, sex and music and to challenge one of these was a risk many of us were frightened to take. Jenny had learned from Bob Pollard that a song can be perfect when written as a whole that is all at once. She would write the melody and add lyrics later, usually just snippets of something she heard or at times she would borrow some of my poetry and use some of these.
On “Don’t Wait Up for Me” she started working a bit harder on her lyrics but at times she was still hesitant to make the songs longer or to try to fully tell a story. Jeff helped her with this and my own implorations always fell on deaf ears with her. We had too much history to be able to discuss her music. I had started dating my future wife shortly before the making of this record, and I would drag her to the studio and we would huddle around the large console that took up a large part of the basement studio. Drinking beer and doing shots as Jeff played back the songs, my wife must have thought that my life was much more exotic than it really was. Boy, was she in for a wake-up call.
As the songs started to evolve I sent a few off to my friend James Hunter who was a freelance writer and worked as a scout for several record companies. James is a thin man, whose family provided him with an impeccable taste in music, fashion and the arts, his tastes run to the far end of sophistication but he is discerning enough to understand the loveliness of a Patty Loveless or Pet Shop Boy song over the annoyance of standard pop fair. I had met James several years prior as he introduced himself to me at Used Kids, he would venture up from West Virginia periodically to the bright lights of Columbus as it is often said in Kentucky and West Virginia: “readin, writin, and route 23”. As many of from the southern border states would make the exodus up Route 23 to the hopeful jobs of Franklin County. Jim introduced himself and we hit it off, he was an early supporter of Guided by Voices and he later interviewed me for a story on the underground scene for the New York Times. We hit if off over our joint fondness of classic pop and country music, with our ears perking up to the refined sounds of country stars such as Dwight Yoakum and Merle Haggard to mutual appreciation of the euro-beat sounds of Erasure and New Order to the epic vocalizing of Scott Walker and Dusty Springfield. Jim did not have the fondness of punk rock that I did nor did he embrace the DIY aesthetic of the independent scene that I so readily embraced. The Smashing Pumpkins (whom he adored) were the yin to my yang (Mudhoney) whom he did not appreciate as I did.
Upon receiving the initial tapes I sent him, James called me almost immediately, with a hurried voice full of excitement he exclaimed “this is the best demo I have heard since Basehead and Matthew Sweet.” He could not wrap his mind around the fact that this was Jenny singing, he had met her a few times at some of shows we attended. With her western-southern Ohio drawl, a propensity of saying whatever arouses in her gin-soaked brain, Jenny did not always make the best first or fourth impression. She was liable to snicker in your face with an inside joke that she barely understood herself that could be off putting, but here she was on tape, summoning the sounds of emotional profoundness as she dredged up forlorn darkness into a perfect three minute song.
James was working closely with EMI records at the time, with Davitt Sigerson, a long-time music producer (David & David, The Bangles, Tori Amos) who just took over the failing American branch of EMI Records. He asked me to send a few of the tracks Jenny was recording to Davitt and in a few weeks Davitt asked if Jenny could come and play New York. Jenny and her band had not yet played out, in fact she had not played with a stable backing band in nearly five years, and her live band always consisted of generous souls such as Wil Foster, Jovan Karcic and Derrick DeCinzo. Davitt seemed serious, and I assume that he thought I would be more experienced than I was having run a label for nearly half a decade and working with various labels and bands over the years. I was a novice, in over my head as I was from the day I was birthed.
In the mid-nineties as the underground scene became above ground commodity there were odd marriages as major labels realized that there was something happening that they did not quite understand. As the business model they were used to shifted under the weight of Nirvana, Pavement, The Smashing Pumpkins and Helmet there were shot-gun marriages of authentically independent labels such as Matador with Atlantic then with Capital, Caroline with Virgin, Amphetamine Reptile with Atlantic and the labels were on the constant hunt for the next independent cash-cow. A readymade band for the masses to swallow without much work or planning. This very rarely succeeded and when it did the results usually ended in disaster such as the case of Nirvana and end the ruined musical careers of countless vital bands. In Ohio the amount of failed experiments could be found in every town: Gaunt, Scrawl, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Big Back 40 and V-3 (Columbus), Ass Ponys (Cincinnati), Snapdragons (Athens), Gem & Bill Fox (Cleveland).
Moviola were starting to record their follow-up to “The Year You Were Born” and were interested in recording in a studio that couldn’t fit into a shoe box and started to record a few songs with James at Diamond Mine. This was not a good marriage but it did garner the interest of Davitt who became interested in signing Anyway to EMI with Jenny Mae and Moviola the two flagship artists. To me this was akin to betting on any Cleveland sports team to win any championship, but I was willing to listen as I took every day as something to beholden. Nothing appeared to phase me, with the exception of the endless stream of precarious romantic relationships I found myself in. I desired nothing more than to feel comfortable with a woman who felt comfortable with me and the way I lived my life. Davitt was working as a consultant on the Blondie comeback record (“No Exit”) and told me that Deborah Harry was interested in recording one of Jenny’s songs called “Hey Baby”. Much of this would hinge in the New York show. With a handful of practices we left for New York, I had been able to secure a show at Brownies which had always been kind to Columbus bands. Jenny would play an earlier show at nine pm and then would have to leave.
We arrived early and headed to a western themed bar just down the block that I had drank in on previous trips, I quickly met up with my friend Ron who would end up putting out the next Moviola record. His lawyer was a bartender at the bar. Jenny walked in and stumbled out after an hour. Wearing my scraggly clothes, a thread bared SST t-shirt and frayed jeans, unshaven and with an eight hour car ride chased by two hours in a Manhattan country bar I met the President of EMI records. Davitt was a large man, he smoked a cigar that was as large as my wrist and seemed unmoved by my offer of drink as I explained in the most Midwestern manner that I could fathom “we were drinking free”. James was there, he appeared a bit nervous while I was quite content with the way my world was functioning the prospect of teaming of EMI did not move me either way. I would have been relieved if the larger label would just as soon Jenny and Moviola and leave me to lurk in a record store abode, content as a cat in a sunbeam.
Davitt and James sat at table off to the side of the stage, and I huddled at the bar, not knowing what to say to the ambassador of music professionalism. It was not apathy that enveloped my life it was more of being completely unskilled in any sort of communication outside of what was familiar. Choosing the underbelly of life is a pragmatic choice, one made in increments and in short life decisions, dropping a class followed by dropping out of school. Exemplified by staying out too late on a Tuesday night followed next by the Wednesday and Thursday nights, choosing a job that allows extremely casual clothes and times that are congruent with week-night drinking and dancing. When this world is as welcoming as an impassioned lover the disdain for the other side of life grows up and around the philosophy of skepticism of all things conformist. My pod was just fine, thank you but at the same time I yearned for Jenny and Moviola to have large-scale success as I did for all of my friends. I was happy to be a conduit to their success, although I did not necessarily want a piece of it.
The club was half filled when Jenny played, a few fans were there, James McNew from Yo La Tengo and Lisa Carver were present and I was pleased an old girlfriend of mine showed up perhaps I thought, she will invite me home. Jenny played a ragged set, the band was dressed in suits and this was their first live show together, she was visibly drunk her nervousness showed like a pimple on an otherwise clear face. Any sophistication that was evident on the recordings was displaced by too many glasses of Dewar’s and Iron Horse beer. After the show, Jenny stumbled up and met Davitt; she grinned and patted his large belly. That sealed the deal, he was no longer interested. Not only that but any talk of Deborah Harry recording one her songs went out the window with the ill-fated tap upon the stomach of the President of EMI. Shortly thereafter, the recordings that Moviola were making with James disintegrated into infighting and apprehension made it evident that neither Moviola nor EMI were interested in one another. Jenny would continue to record “Don’t Wait Up For Me” not concerned about the brief flirtation with a major label, as we scurried back to Ohio filled with one night of free booze and the pleasure of seeing old friends. I made it back to that ex-girlfriend’s apartment only to throw up and pass out before I could display any of my refined cuddling tools. The puking a perfect metaphor for the trip.