A personal history
by Jay Ducharme
(Much of the chronology is thanks to Scott Haworth, who kept a meticulous diary during that period.)
|The creative scene in the
Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts exploded in the mid 1980s thru the mid
Because of the Five Colleges (Smith, Amherst, UMass, Hampshire and
Mount Holyoke), there were thousands of students bringing a fresh
energy into what used to be sleepy farm communities. The focal
point of this energy was the Northampton/Amherst area, but it rippled
north to Greenfield and south to Springfield. Especially for
musicians, it was a great place to be. Performers filled the
streets every day, even in the frigid New England winters. Poets
stood on sidewalks and in cafes. There were dozens of "open mic"
nights held at various cafes and churches where practicing performers
could try out their material. Probably the most famous of these
was at the Iron
Horse Music Hall once a month, sponsored by the Pioneer
Valley Folklore Society. For over three hours, a steady
eclectic acts would step onto the hallowed stage and present their
material -- usually limited to a 10 minute set -- to a mostly
My involvement began in 1986. I came back to the area after having gotten my Master's degree in theater in Mississippi. Although all of my education was in theater, I spent more of my time at graduate school writing music and listening to New Wave bands like The Fixx, Thompson Twins, Eurythmics and Squeeze. I had a cheap plywood WalMart guitar that I was struggling to play. I would practice a few hours a day until my fingers bled (probably because of the crappy instrument I was using). But I never dared perform in front of people. That fear dated back to 1976, to my first year at Holyoke Community College, where I first auditioned for a musical, Anything Goes. My audition piece, absurdly, was O Holy Night. It was a terrible choice and I sang it badly. The music director approached me after my audition and said, "Let me give you a piece of advice: never bother auditioning for a musical again. You have no talent and will never get cast." So I assumed that was the end of my aspirations to be a singer. But ironically, after having spent nearly eight years getting my theater degrees, I vowed never to do theater again. So there I was, adrift in the Pioneer Valley with the warning of that music director nothing more than a faint echo. I would listen to current pop singers and think, "If Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart can sell albums, why can't I?" So I began mixing my voice over songs by various bands I liked, trying to imitate the vocalists. My first attempts were cringe-inducing but I kept at it, analyzing my voice and struggling to find out what I was doing wrong. Gradually I began tinkering with writing my own songs.
I stumbled upon a songwriting workshop headed by Pat and Tex LaMountain. Tex played in the popular local country band Clean Living. He and his wife were busy performing as a folk music duo and also running a recording studio out of their home. They were two of the nicest people I've ever met, unassuming and welcoming. In the Greenfield Community Center, they gathered a group of budding songwriters together once a month to play for each other and give constructive criticism. There were no big egos in the room; everyone was attentive and supportive. Most of the writers/performers were folksingers. I was a New Wave band with a plywood guitar. I had written just one song at that point, Eye to Eye. I stood up in front of the group and played it. All those years in theater helped me to present myself with confidence in front of the group, even though I felt just as awkward as I did at my HCC audition. Eye to Eye was definitely not a "folk" song. Its alternating 4/4 and 3/8 rhythm was more common in avant garde classical compositions. But the group listened patiently and applauded politely when I had finished. Most of their feedback was positive. They weren't quite sure what to make of my style; many of them were raised on Pete Seeger, not Gary Numan. And it didn't help that I could hear the orchestration in my head but had only an acoustic guitar that I couldn't play very well.
But each month I returned with more material and wrote down all their feedback. Often I would bring the same song back with revisions to get more feedback; sometimes I'd have a handful of songs to try out. I began writing day in and day out. Over the course of a year, I developed all of the songs that would make it into my first collection, Eye of the Storm, and had begun work on songs that would appear on subsequent recordings.
I became friends with one of the songwriters in the group, Russ Thomas. He was also affiliated with the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society, and hosted the open mic nights at the Iron Horse in rotation with other members of the PVFS. One day he asked if I'd be willing to take his spot hosting, since he was going to be away. I was flattered and eagerly agreed. At that time, the Iron Horse was the venue where every performer wanted to play. It was an intimate setting with a great sound system and superb engineer. It was also notoriously difficult to get booked there. So the open mic nights were as close as most local performers got. There was also the chance that the owner, Jordi Herold, would happen to catch your performance, like what he saw and give you a shot as an opening act. So the place was always packed. My job as the host was to move things along smoothly and get as many acts onto the stage as I could, introducing them and making sure they stuck to the time limit. Those nights at the Iron Horse did more for my reputation in the Valley than any of the songs I wrote. Other performers felt that I must have had some sort of connection with Herold, and thought that I could influence their chances of getting a gig there. In truth, I was there simply out of the kindness of Russ Thomas. And I enjoyed listening to the wide variety of performers each month.
One of the performers who showed up one night was Kevin Keady, a sort of alt-folk guitarist. He mentioned to me that he was going to be hosting open mic nights at Bonducci's, a coffee house down the street. So I stopped by to check out his open mic and play a few tunes. The Bonducci's scene was even more eclectic than the Horse. All types of performers were welcome, from budding rock singers to poetry readers. I eventually helped Kevin out by substituting as host there as well. One of the regular area performers who frequented open mics was Jill Turner. With her archtop jazz guitar, she sang complex Joni Mitchell-style pieces that were unique to the Valley scene. She approached me one night at Bonducci's and said she was starting up her own open mic night called the Fool's Cafe at the Unitarian Society across the street. So I told her I'd stop by.
Eventually, I was performing regularly at most of the various open mics, from the Black Sheep Cafe to the Montague Bookmill to the Homestead Tavern. I also had one regular gig. An old friend of mine from my Mountain Park days, Tim Champagne, ran a small Northampton restaurant, the Soup Kitchen Cafe. He invited me to perform there. So for four hours every Sunday I'd sit in a corner and practice all the pieces I was writing as customers drifted in and out. And I gradually began to host more open mics across the Valley, substituting for the regular hosts. There was never any shortage of performers at any of them, and usually some performers had to be turned away for lack of time.
Late in 1990, Jill Turner formed a band and asked me to play keyboard in it. She was dating a friend of mine and I liked her songs, so I hesitantly agreed. At that time, I felt I was better on guitar than on keyboard. She just wanted to have some background fill for her songs. She also got an electric guitarist and bassist. We played a brief gig at the Iron Horse and and were well-received. The next gig was at a tiny coffeehouse in Schenectady, New York. We had to drive six hours, both ways. There were probably four people in the audience. We each made five bucks. The guitarist quit and that was the end of the Jill Turner Band. She continued with the Fool's Cafe, though, and on July 6 of 1991 she introduced a new band fresh in from St. Louis -- the Dots. The audience gave them a polite welcome, not knowing what to expect. David Gowler, tall, lanky and boyish, stood on the left with his electric guitar and tiny Roland amp that emitted ear-splitting volume. Craig Kurtz, shorter and more dishevelled, stood on the right looking at times introspective and at times distracted, with his Silvertone bass and a bank of effects pedals at his feet. They launched into their set.
It was like getting hit by a truck. I couldn't figure out what the heck they were trying to do beyond being loud. I could barely understand the lyrics that came out of Craig's mouth. And their music made no sense to me. Dave's guitar was screaming out steccato chords. Craig's bass was making sounds I never heard from a string instrument. I definitely noticed the continually changing time signatures in the songs, but there didn't seem to be anything like a melody or theme to latch onto. It came across as a wall of noise. Audience members gradually drifted out, leaving only a few remaining by the end of their twenty minute set. (Even though the set was short, so were Craig's songs; he was able to pack in a lot of them.) I stayed to the end, and not wanting to discourage newcomers I politely kept my opinions to myself.
A few weeks later I got a call from Jill. She wanted me to meet the Dots and wanted them to give me a private concert. I had no idea why she seemed to like them. I thought her request odd. But I told her to bring them up to Mountain Park when I was on duty as the watchman there. So a few days later she drove up with Craig and Dave. They brought their equipment into the musty little workshop under the carousel and set it up. Jill introduced us and we chatted a bit. They talked about making the trek from St. Louis. Craig had a self-made cassette of him and Dave. The cover was pretty funny: the title was Ho Chi Min Goes to Hollywood and it sported a photo of Frank Sinatra with a drawn-on goatee and sunglasses.
I finally took a deep breath and leveled with them, saying that I just didn't get it. I couldn't follow their songs at the concert and had no idea what they were doing. So Jill suggested they play a couple of tunes. They began, and I immediately asked if they could turn the volume down a bit. Craig smiled and said, "We like it loud." But they complied and launched into Balloon Ride.
I was mezmerized. Now that I could actually hear what they were doing and could understand the lyrics, I could see what Jill saw in them. The lyrics were poetic and evocative. The music was intricate, both hard and delicate at the same time. And I suddenly realized what initially had struck me as so odd: their instruments were being utilized opposite of their normal function in a band. Craig's bass was carrying the melody line and counterpoint, while Dave's guitar was acting as a sort of rhythmic punctuation. Once I understood that, their music seemed revelatory. I had never heard anything like it. Me being me, I gravitated toward Craig's more lyrical pieces, like Gaslight Square. They also played some of their social polemic, like Weirdos on the Street, which showed a clear punk influence. They stayed about an hour and we talked some more. We exchanged cassettes of our music. Then they went on their way.
I heard from Craig a few weeks later. He said he really liked some of my songs and had a new one of his own he was working on and wondered if I'd like to collaborate on it. I told him, sure. So he sent me a cassette of his song 1917, a hard-driving patter song about the creation of communism. It was just Craig and his bass, recorded in mono. I transferred it onto my cassette 4-track machine and began playing with it. His bass and vocals were pretty much non-stop until the break between each verse. I didn't want to clutter up the mix too much, so I added some concussive fills during the breaks (with the stock Fairlight "Orchestral Hit" sound). The end of the piece featured a distorted motif on Craig's bass that went on for about two minutes. I added some treble fills (using "Space Flute" I think), random keyboard strikes followed by a low rumbling string tone. I kept that up until Craig's bass faded out. I held the string tone (which sounded like a fleet of old aircraft in flight) and gradually faded it away. Craig loved the result.
He had another song he wanted to collaborate on. He came over to my room at my parents' house and even brought sheet music with him (not realizing I couldn't read music). The song he was working on was Bicycle Built for Three. He showed me the melody line and the lyrics. He had an unrelated instrumental piece he had written, and he wanted to use part of that for some of the fills on the piece. So sitting on the floor of my room, we gradually built the piece track by track. I figured out the number of bars we would use and then recorded the cheesy percussion built into my Yamaha keyboard. (I think it was a slowed down bossa nova beat.) Then Craig recorded his bass track using the keyboard. Next I played the instrumental fills based on the sheet music Craig brought. I had to first plunk each note out tediously to make sure I had the sequence correct. Once I memorized it, then I played it along with the bass and percussion. Then Craig recorded his vocals and I sang harmony on a few verses. Craig also had brought an old squeeze-bulb car horn that he got at a tag sale. He honked it later in the piece. We listened back to it and he was pleased. I mastered it and gave him a copy. He began sending it off to radio stations.
Johnny Memphis was a DJ on an eclectic radio station up in Greenfield, WRSI. He hosted a weekly music show, Homegrown, that promoted local talent and had a big listening audience. He would occasionally have local performers play live on his show. (I even did a guest spot once, as did my friend Russ Thomas.) He got a big kick out of Bicycle and was the first to give it airplay. Craig's music was so different from anything else on the Valley scene, Memphis was usually happy to play whatever the Dots sent him.
The Green River Cafe was a quiet little restaurant off Federal Street in Greenfield at which I had hosted a couple of open mics. Craig got a gig there for the Dots and asked me to open for them. So on August 17 at 8:30 pm, I walked into the crowded venue and set myself up on the little stage at the back corner of the room. It was heartening to play to a packed house; I was so used to playing to a handful of uninterested listeners. So I began my acoustic set with my original songs. People seemed to treat that as an annoyance, and a few got up and left (even though the entertainment had been clearly advertised on posters outside the cafe). Craig joined on bass for a couple of tunes and then I turned the evening over to them. They plugged in, tuned up and then blasted into Weirdos on the Street. The restaurant staff repeatedly came over to Craig and asked him to turn down his volume. Within five minutes, I was the only audience member (and customer) left. As you might expect, we were never invited back.
Craig asked me to join him for a brief set he would be playing at the Fool's Cafe. He would send me his songs on cassette, just him and his bass, and I'd put together some keyboard embellishments. We rehearsed a few times. I was actually glad to be able to play an instrument without singing and let someone else be the front man. The short set was well received. My synths and strings gave Craig's songs a pop sheen that the audience seemed to like.
On October 27, I went to a concert in my home town of Easthampton. It was at the Majestic Theater, a run-down and long-closed movie house that had been converted into a concert hall. It was a strange renovation. The new owners put a flat floor on top of the raked theater seating. They had ended the floor near the orchestra pit, creating a sudden six-foot drop off. The performers were on the stage about twenty feet away. Without jumping off the raised floor, there was no way to get closer. Maybe the owners wanted the audience to dive into a mosh pit; I have no idea why it was designed that way. The Dots were one of the acts on the bill. I went to support them. But I also went to see my friend Gideon Freudmann, the eclectic cellist I met at gigs in the basement of Northampton's storied Sheehan's Cafe. Also playing was a group with the humorous name Hair Volume and two other local bands, Flower Thief and Zedem Seventy-three. The evening started at six and was supposed to last over four hours. I wasn't sure I wanted to stay for the entire evening, but Gideon was billed last.
The audience was a bit sparse, consisting mostly of the other band members and their friends. Craig and Dave ran through their set list with their usual gusto. Hair Volume really surprised me. Their music was technically mind-warping, with rapid shotgun-style bursts of sound and continual tempo changes. The front man, Joel Paxton, was a sort of mash-up of Gilbert Gottfried and Steven Wright. He didn't sing so much as string amusing rhythmic sentences together that created often-hilarious twisted stories. What impressed me the most was how tight the band was, playing as if they were a single being. After they finished I walked over to their drummer and introduced myself, telling him how impressed I was with the band. He introduced himself as Scott Haworth, and he told me how much he liked the Dots' set.
Craig had begun taking some of my songs and deconstructing them. Prisoners of Industry was one of the first. He also did a version of Liar in the Mirror, completely reinventing that song. I really liked what he did with it. So we decided to have a go at playing it live. I brought my keyboard over to his apartment. I came up with a crunchy synth line. Dave added his trademark guitar work. But we needed a solid backbeat to it. So Craig called Scott.
Naturally, we couldn't rehearse a full band in his apartment, nor would my parents have appreciated it in their house. But I did know of a spot that was isolated: Mountain Park. So a few times each week, Craig, Dave and Scott would drive up to the park and set up in the shop under the merry-go-round. Craig would bring new songs to work with and we'd hash them out. One of the most enjoyable things about those rehearsals was the banter that would ensue between us, as if we were a comedy troupe instead of a band. We'd rehearse for a few hours each time. Craig was incredibly prolific. We'd learn a handful of new songs each week. I spent my free time at the park practicing on my keyboard. I have never been so absorbed in music as I was during that time. The months flew by in a blur. I was not only rehearsing the Dots music, but working on my own songs which would gradually evolve into the two albums Time Machine and Waves.
The first gig Craig lined up for us was at the Worcester Artists Group five days before Christmas. We were on the bill with a lot of other bands and were given a generous 40 minute set. The room was sort of like an old town hall meeting room with columns running along either side of the open space and a small stage at one end. There were hardly any lights, so the room was unsettlingly dark. The place was mostly empty when we got there, and we stood around idly. It was in a run-down part of the city and we didn't want to linger outside. Another band was setting up; I think it was just two guys. I remember nothing about their music. They played their short set and we chatted with them for a bit. Then we set up. Craig had created an intricate set list that reminded me of the beginning of the Talking Heads film "Stop Making Sense": Craig opened the set solo. Then after a few songs Dave joined him. Then I joined in. And finally for the second half of our set, Scott entered. That created an interesting variety to the sound, and it seemed like it should have been interesting for the audience. But we hadn't realized just who the audience would be.
As the set began, there were maybe a handful of people milling about. More people drifted in as the set progressed. But it was so dark in the hall, we couldn't see anything but shadowy figures moving about. We were basically playing to a void. When Scott entered and we started into the more rocking set, we could make out a lot of movement in the hall. People were whooping it up, and we assumed they were getting into our music. It felt good. We got to the middle of the song 1917 and suddenly something flew over from the audience and landed at Craig's feet. It was the head of a black woman. I had never seen Craig freeze onstage before; I had always thought he was unflappable. But the song just sort of stuttered to a halt at that point. A group of skinheads with baseball bats came rushing up to the stage gleefully, grabbed the head and batted it back out into the dark hall. At that point we realized that it was a mannequin head. Scott kept bashing away on the drums to keep us moving, so we finished the song and barreled through the rest of the set as quickly as we could. After a quick huddle we decided to quietly make our escape. The one hold-up was that the guy running the event was nowhere to be seen, and he was supposed to give Craig our cut of the money. We stood together at the far edge of the hall near the door waiting as we stared at the skinheads, who were still going at it with their bats. The guy finally appeared and gave us our cash (which I think was all of thirty bucks) and we made a beeline back to Dave's car.
This was the grim reality of "touring", much as the Beatles found at the start of their career: playing tough out-of-the-way places where the patrons didn't care who you were or what you were doing. Some bands grabbed the audience by the throat and got them to party. That wasn't the Dots specialty. We wanted people to listen. We were playing the wrong clubs. Heck, I don't know if there ever was a right club for what we were doing, beyond our small local appreciation society at the Fool's Cafe.
Sheehan's was a beautiful old Irish pub with a mahogany and crystal bar. In the basement was a small stage and cavernous hall where all sorts of acts performed. It too held an open mic night, where I also hosted occasionally. That's where I first met Gideon. The sound engineer was an old college friend of mine, Tom Schieding, who six years later would be my co-worker at Holyoke Community College. The 4-piece Dots played their second set there on January 8, four quick songs. Audience reaction was lukewarm. Three days after that I had a solo gig at the Fool's Cafe, and I asked the Dots to join me for a few numbers at the end. As usual, that audience there was friendly and appreciative.
Craig arranged for someone to take publicity photos of the Dots at the Mountain Park. We were an odd-looking bunch, dressed in suits and ties but looking decidedly scruffy. The abandoned amusement park was a perfect backdrop. Craig used the photos for the packets he was sending around to clubs, newspapers and radio stations. He designed all the promotional materials and posters, and was a really good graphic artist. The Dots played at the Fool's Cafe again in early February of 1992, this time as a four piece. We were packed tightly onto the tiny stage. There was a good crowd present, most of them already familiar with the Dots and accepting of the band's eccentricities. They seemed to love our music. Bouyed by that success, we felt a little more confident that we might be on to something good, that the band might actually have a chance of becoming popular.
Two weeks later, we were back at Sheehan's to open for Free Press, one of the most popular Valley bands at the time. They always attracted huge crowds. In many ways, they were the antithesis of the Dots. Free Press was a party band, doing anything to please the audience (even performing nude). The Dots was an art band with a punk attitude. When we began our set, there were hardly any people in that dark basement. When we finished a half-hour later, the room was densely packed. It was a nice reversal of what happened at the Green River Cafe ... except that the crowd hadn't come to see us. They politely applauded at the end of our set, eager for us to leave so that the real party could start. We packed up our gear and left. The experience was a corrective to the euphoria we felt at the Fool's Cafe.
Craig wrote some tunes that tried to turn us into Free Press. "Have Some Fun Tonight" was the most egregious. But those songs always had an edge to them. They came across as sarcastic and bitter, songs about what we wished we were but could never be. Audience response to those songs was expectedly flat. As with any art, it's successful only if you remain true to your own vision. But what exactly was the Dots' "vision"? I'm not sure that even Craig knew. He loved exploring music, but he never seemed comfortable staying just one style. I was the same way, actually. My album Feel Like Fire explored no less than eight different musical styles. That was one of my problems as a singer/songwriter: I wasn't folk; I wasn't rock; I wasn't blues. I just played whatever style was appropriate for the song I wrote. Audiences couldn't peg me into any one genre. And it was the same with the Dots.
Craig booked us into the Slaughterhouse, a hip recording studio next to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It got its name from its history -- it actually was a slaughterhouse. That fact alone attracted a lot of the Valley's bands. Although I had recorded and mixed a few tunes with Joe Podlesny, a terrific engineer, they were done at his home. This was the first time I had ever been in a "real" studio. We were all put in separate areas, Scott in the largest room because of his drum kit. I was set up with my little keyboard next to the control booth. We all were given headphones. We did a few sound checks and we were off. We ripped through seven songs, nailing mostly all of them on the first take. A few hours later we had them mixed down. The engineer was impressed with how quick and efficient we were.
An important lesson I learned that day was to get out of the way. Craig wanted to record three of my songs. The one I was most protective of was Time Machine. I had already recorded it at home and liked how it came out. I was trying to recreate that sound at Slaughterhouse. So I lectured Dave on how to play his guitar riffs and showed Scott how to sing his backing vocals and told Craig how I wanted the bass line. When it came time to mix it, I was telling the engineer how I wanted the equalization. (He finally threw up his hands and said, "Do whatever you want.") And the song came out terrible. My vocals were strained. The whole production had a case of rigor mortis. I had choked it to death. From then on I vowed that if I work with people on a project like that, I'd let them truly contribute. It might not turn out exactly how I envisioned it, but at least it will breathe and have some life to it.
That session wasn't cheap, and Craig bore the entire cost. But there were still several songs we hadn't recorded. I suggested to Craig that instead of going back into the studio, I could engineer the remaining songs at Mountain Park. Craig was skeptical but decided to let me give it a try. Unfortunately, because of my lo-tech cassette four-track machine, I couldn't record us playing together; I had to record each part separately or the sound would end up a congealed mess. Craig and Dave didn't enjoy that process. Dave in particular was very meticulous about his playing and required take after take until he could get it the way he wanted. I recorded Scott's drums first, then Craig's bass and then Dave's guitar. Lastly, I added Craig's vocals. We recorded just four songs over two sessions; we had planned to do more. But I figured I'd mix those down first and make sure they liked the quality. Craig wanted a good-sounding cassette to send to radio stations and prospective clubs.
I added my keyboard parts and backing vocals at home. I also added various sound effects to the songs. Then I gathered together representative recordings of the variety of the material the Dots performed, some from live performances and some from the Slaughterhouse sessions. I designed a colorful tongue-in-cheek cover and insert for it, cutting out bits and pieces of photos and colored pieces of paper, even adding glitter. The cover was designed to echo a box of Dots candies. I brought that to Paradise Copies in Northampton and had some color copies made. I put it all together onto a mastered cassette and brought it to Craig's apartment one night. Dave and Scott were there and we put it on Craig's stereo system. They liked how it came out and were surprised at how good the four-track songs sounded. Craig began making copies and sending it out. We also placed copies for sale in Main Street Records and other area stores.
Our rehearsals began veering in a more psychelelic direction. I'm not sure if Craig thought that's where I was heading based on my lunatic mix of Pastel Suntan and the seemingly acid-induced cassette insert, but he was pushing us toward more abstract and formless pieces. He wanted us to play a cover of Pink Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive. Having never heard the song, I had no clue where to start with my keyboard arrangement. All I had to go on was his bass line. Then he brought out a new original piece, Fantasy. He said he wanted me to sing it. It was one of the more mellow and prettier songs he had written and fit my voice well. When we rehearsed it, we got past the first two verses and Craig said, "Okay -- jam!" He began eliciting all sorts of odd noises from his bass. Dave improvised chords on his guitar, bending strings and grinding away. Scott had a small wind chime set that he brushed. I just stood there dumbfounded and pecked out random notes on my keyboard.
Around that same time, I had gradually become aware of a persistent ringing in my ears. Scott always wore earplugs to the rehearsals and performances. I thought it was just because he was sitting behind the drum kit all the time. But of course, I was right in front of him all the time and also getting the full brunt of Dave's deafening amp. I discovered that I had developed tinnitus. At that point there wasn't much I could do about it, so I began wearing earplugs like Scott to prevent any further damage. And I began wondering if this was really the road I wanted to be traveling.
The band had a pretty extensive set list by that time. We could probably have played for a full hour-and-a-half straight without repeating ourselves -- and given how short most of Craig's songs were, that was pretty impressive. Craig got us another gig, this time at Holyoke's Waterfront Tavern. I went down there ahead of time to check it out, and it seemed like a cozy place. This was the latest-night gig so far, though; we wouldn't begin until 10 pm. I didn't know how busy the place would be at that time of night, since I didn't make a habit of hanging around bars at that hour. On March 12 we met there and set up in their small area set aside for performers. We launched into our first number and within a few minutes one of the customers came over and asked us to turn it down. I could see Craig tense up, but we all obliged and continued with our set. A few minutes later the bartender approached and told us to turn it down because customers were trying to watch the TV. Eventually we had turned down our volume so much, we could barely hear ourselves over the TV. Nobody there was listening to us; nobody cared. We played for about an hour and stopped for a break. We debated what to do. We decided to play a few more songs and then leave.
As we packed up I hesitantly approached Craig and told him I really didn't think that this was working out for me. I felt I was holding the band back and that it would be stronger as a three piece. Really, though, I simply wanted to re-focus on my own music. The intense work with the Dots made that impossible, and most of the songs I was writing weren't in a style that fit with where Craig seemed to be heading. So I told him regrettably that I was leaving the band. Craig was silent. I think he knew that eventually I would bow out. So I went back to focusing on my solo work. The Dots would continue on as a three-piece. There was an upcoming gig at the People's Institute in Northampton, but Craig cancelled it when I left.
As a three-piece, the band seemed to blossom. There were numerous write-ups in the local press. Craig had new publicity photos taken. He also released a 45 rpm record of five songs. Two of them (Daytona Beach and How to Write a Pop Song) were from the four-piece Slaughterhouse sessions; Craig went back to the studio and had my parts removed. The newly recorded songs (I Love Show Biz, Weirdos on the Street and Interstellar Overdrive) were tighter and more confident. When most other area bands were putting out cassettes, printing a 45 was a bold move. It garnered good reviews, but Craig was about to take the band in yet another direction.
The Dots name was left behind, and the group morphed into Analog Pus. Craig went into his William Burroughs phase, reading stream-of-consciousness poetry. Dave and Scott, with Joel Paxton from Hair Volume on bass, punctuated his vocals with free-form jazz fills. Craig released a cassette of that session. It had a cover depicting surgery. The most memorable piece was Spectacle Island, an homage to the New York dump that was basically an exhaustive list of detritus you could find there, along with the year it was deposited. Analog Pus didn't last too long. Scott left the group and Craig, Dave and Joel re-formed as Zsa Zsa 7. This was Craig's journey into techno. It too didn't last long either.
I went to a concert at Northampton's Baystate Hotel. (Like I said, music was everywhere!) It was held in the hotel's "living room" area, with the stage against the curving bay windows and overlooking a parking lot. The Dots were on the bill with other area bands, including Hair Volume. The Dots were back with Scott and the set was full of energy and good spirits. There was also a gig at the Northampton Center for the Arts. Gideon was supposed to have been there as well, but didn't appear. The opening "act", oddly, was a video accompanied by pre-recorded Zsa Zsa 7 music. The three-piece Dots played another energetic set for a small audience.
Another song they recorded but never released was Fantasy, the song we had rehearsed as a four-piece. Scott was given the vocal duties for the recording. It ranks as one of the most evocative and beautiful songs I've ever heard. It also featured atmospheric production that helped reinforce the dreamy relaxing quality of the music. The break in the middle of the song (the part where, during rehearsals, Craig told us to jam) worked wonderfully in the studio and I could understand then what he was aiming for.
Craig re-grouped with Dave and Scott one more time in January of 1993 and went back to Slaughterhouse. The Model was a mellow piece by the German group Kraftwerk. It was amped up into a techno nightmare, with Scott rasping out truly frightening vocals. It was released as another 45 rpm. The flip side was the same song, but with the vocals removed and more effects added. It was one of the final pieces in the Zsa Zsa 7 faze. Around that same time, a popular local magazine, The Valley Advocate, held its annual "Best of the Valley" competition. The Dots won as the write-in candidate for best area alternative band.
The Dots had one last gasp after that accolade. Craig had managed to get booked into New York's legendary CBGB's. He drove there with Dave. It would be a return to the original two-piece Dots. When they arrived in Manhattan, they were broadsided at an intersection. Their car was totaled. Undaunted, the two of them grabbed their equipment and staggered on to the club. They managed to get there for their 9:00 slot. They set up and performed to perhaps 20 uninterested people. A short time later, Craig recorded a session in New York with well-known producer Kramer, but Craig was underwhelmed with the result.
The Dots did play one final gig at the Baystate, this time as headliners, in September of 1993. It was again just Craig and David, and according to Craig it was one of the most satisfying performances they ever gave to an audience that, though drunk, actually seemed to appreciate their music. And with that, Craig allowed the Dots to fade away on a high note. He moved on, got married and had a kid. Dave helped organize the Northampton Food Coop. Scott continued playing with various Valley bands.
And as for me, I did eventually release two more albums. Time Machine became my most successful. On June 26, 1992, I had an album release party for it at Northampton's Green Street Cafe. I had previously played there on a few occasions to mostly empty seats. But like The Dots, I too went out on a high note: the Time Machine gig had standing room only. I always tried to be supportive of local groups, and attended a lot of their concerts. It was heartening to see so many of those band members show up.
A year later, I sort of backed myself into a corner with Waves; it was so heavily produced that I couldn't play the songs live and get the same effect. So I asked Dave and Scott if they wanted to work up some of the songs as a three-piece. I called our group The Abstractions, a pretty terrible name. We rehearsed at Mountain Park a few times and by chance got a gig at Westfest, a craft fair at Stanley Park in Westfield. We were playing at 1:00 in the afternoon, sandwiched between several local folk acts (including Russ Thomas). As you might expect, our more rocking set went down like a lead balloon. Since Dave was on guitar and I didn't want to lug a keyboard around, I invented my own instrument. I wanted to play bass but didn't know how. So I gutted an old electric 12-string guitar that I had lying around. I routered out the body and implanted a small MIDI keyboard. I ran wires through the neck and placed buttons along the fretboard. Then I mounted the portamento and pitch controllers to the head. I connected the MIDI cable to a Kawai K1-M synth module, into which I had programmed about a dozen different bass sounds. With a pedal MIDI controller, I could switch sounds on the fly. I called the gizmo a Synthitar. (I had based it on Future Man Wooten's Drumitar, which fascinated me when I saw it at a Bela Fleck concert.) The Synthitar was a hit; the performance was not. That was the end of the Abstractions.
In 1993, my dream job at Mountain Park came to an end. I actually had to work to support myself, taking on three different jobs. I no longer had eight hours a day to write, practice and record music. I began dabbling in digital recording with my primitive computer, focusing on instrumental music. I released my first completely synthetic recording, Piano Works. And shortly after that, I met Karen.
I'm still amazed at the amount of talent I had the pleasure of encountering during those years. We flourished during that time because there was a real sense of community, a sense that all of us were partners in a common goal -- music. Musicians encouraged each other; there were very few big egos. It was as if we all wanted to succeed together. Even more amazing to me is how quickly that all vanished. By the mid 1990s, there was only one open mic night left in Northampton, and it lasted just a few years before folding. The Iron Horse was sold to two local performers. They struggled with the business for a few years before they sold it to local entrepreneur Eric Suher. Clubs, radio stations and the press were no longer paying attention to cassette recordings, and that made it more difficult for struggling local artists to get heard. The scene became a commercial one, not an artistic one.
Craig was never one to fit into a particular mold and neither was I. We didn't fit a music industry that increasingly valued predictablility and conformity. But although that may have limited our audience, it never stopped us from making the kind of music we believed in ... even when we extolled a crowd to "have some fun tonight."