Rock in a Hard Place

Rock ‘n’ roll on the friends-and-family plan

ONE SATURDAY AT AROUND 7 P.M., Colin Hoss is at his bar, the Grog and Tankard. The joint is open for business, but the club is nearly empty as the 36-year-old Hoss steps into a tiny sound booth for a quick double-check of the equipment. In a couple of hours, a band you never heard of will be jumping and sweating and shouting on the wooden stage sticking halfway into the middle of the rectangular room. It wouldn’t do for the eardrum-shattering sound to cut out while the kids are standing around not dancing.

Whoever walks in the Grog’s door later that night will not have read about the show in the Washington Post. Or the Washington City Paper. In the next day’s paper, there’ll be no reviews of the show, no mention of the deer head on the wall, the big cloth butterfly floating over the pool tables, the sweating rock fans crowded into a narrow, smoky room. Word of the performance will have leaked out only through the primitive channels that seem appropriate for the Grog’s throwback look: People will have heard about it from their friends, who will maybe have friends in the band, which will have sent out an e-mail. Maybe the audience will be mostly family.

They’re certainly not the usual “North Georgetown” yuppies who ply the strip of Wisconsin Avenue on which the Grog has squatted for 40 years–the folks who chew upscale pizza at Faccia Luna Trattoria or down margaritas at the Austin Grill next door. And they’re probably not regular patrons of the adjacent strip club, JP’s.

No, the scene at the Grog is its own little bluejeaned world in the middle of pressed-khaki Glover Park, a world that changes ever so slightly from one night to the next, depending on which band has coaxed enough of its mailing list to the show.

The club’s Web site makes much of the fact that there is no built-in audience. Every band must bring its own crowd. Phishy jamheads one Wednesday, aggressive rap-metalers on Thursday, bluesy roots-rockers the next Friday, power-poppers on Saturday.

The Grog draws largely from the nearby colleges: American University, George Washington, Georgetown. Unlike the moody dreamers and self-defined outcasts who populate the Black Cat, Velvet Lounge, or Galaxy Hut, a Grog crowd usually looks to heavily represent the pre-law, pre-med, pre-middle-management aesthetic.

And the Grog has perfected a business plan for catering to that demo. Family entrepreneurs in the time-honored American tradition, the Hossainkhail brothers left Afghanistan to come to, as Colin says, “the greatest country in the world called U.S.A.,” when Colin was about 14. After acquiring the Brit-pub-style club from Englishman Nicky Williams in 1984, the Hossainkhails grafted the same name onto a second club, in Baltimore. The chain grew to include another Baltimore venue and Planet Nova in Virginia. Now the family concentrates on the D.C. Grog. Oldest brother Abdul handles the day-to-day operations, as well as dealing with the D.C. bureaucracy over permits and the like. Middle brother Hammed watches the door. And Colin, né Khaled, has been in charge of the music–both booking the bands and running the sound–since he was an 18-year-old high-schooler.

The fraternal collaboration has brought local rockers five or six nights of live tunes each week–for the past 20 years. That’s 60 to 70 bands a month, upward of 16,000 bands total. Some, such as Hootie and the Blowfish and Vertical Horizon, have used the club as a launching pad. Before their big break, 2 Skinnee Js broke the stage with their enthusiastic pogoing. Others, like Zox, are still waiting, touring relentlessly in support of CDs on infinitesimal independent labels.

It’s a remarkably consistent record of lower-middleness. The Grog is located on lower-middle Wisconsin Avenue. It hosts bands of lower-middle caliber. Its patrons are lower-middlebrow. Its owners are lower-middle-aged.

And they even speak of the place in lower-middle terms. Hoss, for instance, says the grungy, musty Grog qualifies as a “regional showplace.”

“Who are you here to see?” Hammed Hossainkhail asks of everyone who steps in the door. At Hammed’s side is a sheet of paper carrying the names of each act on tonight’s bill, three of them. As people declare their loyalty, Hammed makes a check mark next to the band name. Many fans arriving for their first Grog experience are momentarily stymied by the question.

This system, explains Hoss, ensures that the cover charge is distributed proportionately among the evening’s acts, which together claim half of the door take. “We want to make sure that we pay bands fairly,” he explains. “Because it doesn’t really make any sense if you charge $5 [and] one band draws everybody [and] the other bands don’t. So we can’t really split the money three ways. Because that’s unfair to the band that drew most of the crowd. So what we do to make sure everybody’s happy, we keep track of how many people are here for which bands.”

Not everyone appreciates the system. Kate Belinski stands at the back of the crowd, waiting for her friends’ band, Down to This, to go on. A George Mason University law student and, she says, a historian, she lives in the neighborhood and often finds herself at the Grog.

“I wish there were more nights when you didn’t pay a cover charge,” she says. “Because they definitely haven’t established themselves as a neighborhood place to go. Because every night you come here you have to pay a cover charge, and sometimes the bands are not that great.”

“I understand that bands want to get paid,” Belinski continues, “but some nights, honestly, when there are mediocre bands, they really shouldn’t charge $7 to get in.”

“We’re cheap,” counters Hoss.

However, the club has a flexible policy just for locals like Belinski, who aren’t groupies and who find themselves sauntering down Wisconsin Avenue, thirsty for a drink and a dose of rock. “Actually, we don’t charge the neighbors,” says Abdul. “Neighbors come in for free. If they come to the door and say, ‘Well, we’re here to socialize and get some drinks…'”

THE GROG MANAGEMENT’S ATTEMPT to make patrons and performers happy doesn’t always work as intended. Musician Steve Bowes, for example, has not played the Grog since the mid-’90s, when a gig for his band ended very badly. (To this day, Bowes prefers not mentioning the name of the band, because of “ongoing unpleasantness.”) “The complexity of these calculations for who gets what percentage of the door are amazing,” he says via e-mail. “If Hussein really wanted to develop nukes, he should have rounded up some thick-necked meatballs working the door at rock clubs and put them to the task. They’re mathematical geniuses in too-small Beefy-T’s.”

Bowes claims that after his last Grog show he asked for his “guaranteed $25.” “‘You didn’t make shit–go ask the bartender,'” is how he recalls the conversation. “I figured even if I didn’t really understand the algorithm, that if there was indeed shit collected–and we were supposed to get some percentage of the shit–that we were entitled to at least some measure of said shit.”

Armed with “a bellyful of pure rock fury and crappy domestic beer,” the diminutive Bowes went round and round with the bartender before leaping on the bar and yelling, “Give me my $25, motherfucker!…Give it to me!…Give it to me!”

He soon found himself flat on his back, the bartender’s boot on his chest. Bowes was told he was banned for life from the Grog and Tankard.

Hoss says he has no memory of the incident, and he has no comment other than to restate that the club makes no guarantee of a flat fee and the policy that each band “make their money off their friends and fans.”

“I’m pretty sure I could walk in there just fine, as so much time has passed,” says Bowes today. But he refuses, “until I get that $25 and a private tutoring session in quantum economics from the doorman. I do have principles, after all.”

But not every performer is so quick to anger. Kevin Avery, lead singer with the Fairfax aggro-rock outfit Element, faces the cash question with a philosophical shrug. “You make what you’re worth,” he says. “And what you’re worth is what you bring in the door. So that’s fair enough.”

It’s not hard to figure why the joint has strict rules on cover charges: There aren’t too many revenue streams at this gin mill. The party-room Grog concept offers the basics: microphones, a stage, and big speakers for bands; standard alcohol choices for their fans. The microbrew revolution passed the Grog by. And nobody’s coming for dinner. A handwritten sign over the bar spells out the entire menu:

SNACK FOOD
POTATO CHIPS
CHEESE CRACKERS
$1.00

At 8 p.m. on a miserably cold, snowy Wednesday, the club is rapidly filling up. Of course, there are five acts on tonight’s bill, including MFA (Motion for Alliance), an electro-rock combo from Boulder, Colo., which was passing through and which Hoss agreed to give a last-minute gig.

As much machine as manpower, MFA cranks out amusingly hypnotic sample-based jams. As the set ends, the musicians are basically standing around cheering on their computers. It’s damn entertaining, if not exactly radio-issue programming.

Though now living in Colorado, MFA drummer Jonathan Modell grew up in Arlington and played in some Dischord bands as a teen, along with some hiphop groups, including 3LG. His impression of the Grog when he was growing up was that it was the place for frat rock: “You weren’t really going to see any of the Dischord bands or, like, experimental music.”

But more experimental music is on the bill tonight. As MFA clears its gear off the stage, local percussionist Anthony Allen moves his electronic drum kit into place. Tied onto the rack is an HP laptop. Allen also has a slide projector ready. Tonight, he’s joined by keyboardist Justin Custer, in from Baltimore. They’ve never performed together before and will improvise a short set of spacey sounds and visuals.

“We’re coming through for our first time, and this was the only place that we could get a gig, that would give us a chance,” says Modell. “They don’t know us. We could bring one person in here tonight. They took a chance.”

Fortunately for the owners, MFA has actually brought out a fair number of family members, high-school friends, and fans. Even Modell’s mom and dad are here. Tonight’s crowd is more diverse than usual. The MFA and Allen crowds skew artsy, and tonight there’s even a member of uber-hap’nin’ Thievery Corporation, not usually associated with old-fashioned rock venues. Kristen Putchinski, singer for Baltimore trio Ellen Cherry, is doing a solo acoustic set and has a contingent of Charm City alt-poppers. And Frederick hard-rock band Brother Trouble has brought out the T-shirt-and-jeans crew, though the drummer will be shirtless by the end of the night.

Thievery Corporation representative Rob Myers says the Grog doesn’t feel like the sort of place Vice President Dick Cheney could walk to. “Actually, my girlfriend, Vida, and my friend Steven Albert were just saying they totally felt like they were in a Boston club,” says Myers. “Like, it felt like they were in Boston. Because it does not have a D.C. feel in here. Steven used to live in Boston, and he said he felt like he was 17 years old in Boston, so I think he’s having a bit of a time warp.”

“Yeah, it felt like I’d just stepped back in time,” Albert confirms.

“But, I mean–look at it,” Myers continues. “That’s probably what the D.C. crowd holds against the Grog and Tankard–that it doesn’t have the prototypical D.C. feel.”

If the “prototypical D.C. feel” arises from exclusivity, Myers has it exactly right. “My door is open for all bands,” says Hoss. “We don’t have one generic music, a blues room or a folk club. This place is all about live music. It’s all about bands. Anything from post-punk to punk to folk music to reggae to blues to rootsy bands. That’s how this place was established. And we want to keep that, because we want to make sure that everybody gets a chance.”

Which may explain part of the Grog’s less-than-stellar rep among the hipoisie. A true musical democracy is anathema to the taste-making elite, who prefer to unilaterally confer hipness upon their own discoveries.

Hoss puts it succinctly: “Even if you suck, you know what? We’re not going to tell you. But we wish you good luck.”

THE GROG’S LUST FOR VERY COMMON-MAN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL reaches its maximum expression on Monday nights, when more elite clubs are keeping barbershop hours. Monday is open-mike night at the Wisconsin Avenue standby, which lends its big room and humongous speakers to pretty much anybody who steps in and signs up.

The whole concept of open mike–that is, generally bad musicians playing their favorite tunes in front of other impatient wannabes–takes on a particularly stark feel in the environs of the Grog.

“I gotta tell ya,” says keyboardist Ben Doepke of the Cincinnati-based Homunculus, “the biggest positive with a room like this is the band’s got nothing to hide behind. If you want to come down here and see if the band is really good…[As a musician,] you’ve got nowhere to hide. The stage faces a wall that’s 15 feet away. All you’re doing is looking at that reindeer. And that reindeer’s got no patience for bad music. It sits and looks at you. And I think the feeling’s contagious. ‘Cause when you look in the audience, they kinda got that same look as the deer. It feels like we’re playing Inside the Actors Studio. When you finish you feel like, OK, does anybody have any questions?”

Yes, about the decor. There is that stuffed dear head mounted opposite the stage. And that huge butterfly hanging from the ceiling, and a bunch of pictures of celebrities ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Einstein. “Very random. Very random,” admits Hoss. He points to a large sculpture of a sort-of-human head hanging on the wall next to a speaker. “The story about that face right there—-this guy had run a tab, right? He didn’t have money to pay his $25 tab. So he goes home, brings me that face. So that took care of his tab.

“Those weird pictures, abstract pictures, paintings we have,” Hoss continues, “I was dating this girl in Baltimore when we had [our place in Baltimore]. She was an artist. So I paid her some money, and she did that.”

“But most of the pictures—-Einstein, Marilyn Monroe–they’ve been here ever since the Grog first opened. Of course, we added a few…”-—he motions to the standard mall-issue sports posters hanging by the pool tables–“a couple TVs for games.”

The butterfly used to hang over the stage at the Baltimore Grog.

“So it’s random. It’s an old building. We didn’t want to do too much about this place as far as fixing it up, because then Grog and Tankard would lose its character. A lot of people would not like it. They come here for the originality of the room itself.”

Against this “random” backdrop, singer and guitarist Bruno De Lima-Campos has run the open-mike show since April 2003. By day, he heads the car-stereo-installation department at the Myer-Emco in Seven Corners. Bruno likes to keep his evening “real open, whatever happens.” None of that “three songs and you’re out” stuff here. Plus, other open mikes are too cliquish, he thinks. Tonight, the guitarist is so loose he has arrived without a pick. Whatever.

Bruno’s laid-back management style is in full effect as he sits onstage riffing through half-finished licks on his Takamine, bantering with buds at the bar, waiting for the club and the sign-up sheet to fill. A couple of pool players–happy-hour types–pay no attention. Bruno does an impressive Segovia-style excursion up and down the neck, tapping out harmonics. He asks Hoss if he wants to sing. “Led Zep,” is the non sequitur reply. There are no other takers.

“I really like Pearl Jam,” says Bruno, after singing one of the band’s hits, “so I hope I didn’t ruin that for everyone.” He then segues into one of the ballads from the songbook of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

One of the waiting open-mikers calls out, “Have you played every song from 1994?”

“Not yet, dude,” laughs Bruno.

“‘Cause all these songs are on a mix tape I listened to on the bus,” responds the heckler.

“Remember this?” asks Bruno, plucking a playful riff. It’s from a movie, he hints. No response. “Top Gun!” reveals Bruno, surprised that nobody has picked up on this obscure incidental music. “That’s the sunrise. The sunrise from Top Gun.”

Aside from the pool players, most of the audience consists of Andrew Dunn, Matt Jacobs, and Kevin Steffen. Dunn is a junior at American, and this is the first club he’s been to since arriving in town from Nashville. “The open-mike scene, the pool tables–this really reminds me of home,” he says.

“Back home,” says Steffen, referring to his Kansas City roots, “you’ve got a lot of people just driving really hard to make a big impact and try to get signed. You come out here, you’re dealing with people like these cats….” Steffen motions to the stage, where Bruno is aimlessly plucking. “They just want to play an instrument and receive acclaim from their peers. That’s satisfaction enough. They don’t really need the recognition that everybody else is looking for. You come here, and it’s an open and honest music scene. People come here because they love music. That’s basically why I come here, for the music.

“To come here on a Saturday night and there’s three bands playing that maybe I’ve never heard of, but who’s to say that five years from now you’re not going to be hearing their music on the radio and buying their albums on the Billboard charts? It’s fun to think of it in that way,” says Steffen.

One doesn’t have to think too hard. Hootie is the obvious example.

“When Hootie and the Blowfish started off,” says Hoss, “they gave me a call about 10, 12 years ago, 14 years ago. Mark [Bryan], the guitar player from Hootie and the Blowfish, he used to come here with his parents when he was still in high school for half-price pizza and beer.”

“So, like three or four years later, he calls me from Chapel Hill. ‘Hey, Colin, do you remember me? I’m in college, I have this really cool band–we wanna play at the Grog.’ So, I’m thinking, Oh, great–another band from out of town. I’ll be lucky if I get 30 friends out of these guys. Sunday night, summertime when school is out, I drive by the Grog, right? I see a line of 400 people on a Sunday at 8 o’clock. I’m like…” Hoss makes a stunned face. “I get in here. I call all my employees, everybody I know. I say, ‘You better get your ass in here right now–otherwise you’re fired!’ I put a crew of, like, six together within, like, half an hour.”

Hootie played the Grog for two years, almost every other Saturday, before getting signed and moving to larger clubs. And, apparently, forgetting the little guys. Repeated calls to Hootie’s management for this story went unanswered.

Not all famous Grog alumni are stricken with amnesia about their roots. Vertical Horizon got its start on the Grog stage, and it’s still accessible. On the phone from Los Angeles, Vertical Horizon singer and guitarist Matt Scannell remembers “walking to the Grog and Tankard from my place in Burleith.”

“The great thing about [the Grog] was that we didn’t have to play someone else’s music. We could go there and perfect our own,” says Scannell.

“The thing that was special about the Grog wasn’t the atmosphere so much as the spirit of the place. You were encouraged to come in and be creative, be an artist. You don’t find that too often. What you find are Jimmy Buffett songs. And that gets old, even for the people listening.”

The Grog, says Scannell, allowed him to take chances. “I have memories of saying, ‘I have a song I wrote this afternoon. If you don’t like it, I’ll probably never play it again. If you like it, I’ll probably put it on the next record.’

“The Grog is a club where you pay your dues, in the truest sense. You’re proving to yourself that you are good enough to make it to the next level. If it’s not happening for you at the Grog,” Scannell says, “you need to reassess.”

Tony De Rosa, who launched the bar’s current open-mike night, appears to be reassessing. He’s standing at the bar, staring into the mirror. Lost in thought, or maybe in gin or vodka.

De Rosa is concerned that this area hurts for metal outlets. “It’s very difficult, because most of the venues are coffeeshops and the like. I mean, college rock rules around here,” he says with a sneer. “There’s just no real good venues to play at.” For now, De Rosa concentrates on singing with his band, Three Faces of Eve, in Northern Virginia.

“I think the Grog has the potential to be something more than it is,” De Rosa says, warming slightly to the topic. “And more that it might probably end up being. It’s cool. That’s why I come back. There’s something cool about it, and I don’t think it’ll ever be as cool as it actually is. If that makes any sense. There’s something that’s here, but nobody’s gonna fuckin’ ever see it. None of the right people are ever gonna do the right thing to make this place as cool as it should be. ‘Cause it’s a cool…cool place for music.”

De Rosa pauses.

“It’s a place. And there’s music here. What more do you really need?”

Whose American Theater Is It, Anyway?

THE FALL THEATER SEASON IS getting started, playbills are coming back from the printers, and dozens of local playhouses are promoting their upcoming slate of “theatre.” This raises the question: Why can’t American thespians spell?

Search the American Theater Web, which should be some kind of authority on the subject, and the Anglicized style takes an almost 2-to-1 lead over the hometown kid. Sadly, the more local you get, the less American the theatrics. The roster of the League of Washington Theatres—which notes its allegiance in its name—offers a nearly 5-to-1 ratio of D.C. “theatres” to D.C. “theaters”: Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre, Source Theatre, Round House Theatre, Actors Theatre of Washington, African Continuum Theatre Company, Charter Theatre, Little Theatre of Alexandria, Theatre Alliance, Theatre J, Trumpet Vine Theatre Company, Young Playwrights Theatre, and on and on.

Even Pennsylvania Avenue’s National Theatre, which trumpets itself as “the Theatre of the Presidents,” refuses to call itself the National Theater.

Erin McKean, senior editor of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press and editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, explains that Noah Webster, in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, juggled the “-re” into “-er” to standardize the word “theater.” This was part of his longstanding quest to wrest control of the native language from the dictionary of notorious American-hater Samuel Johnson. Henceforth, Yankees were free of the time-wasting encumbrance of extra letters in “traveller,” “waggon,” and “jeweller,” blessed with streamlined forms of “color,” “jail,” and “ax.”

“British is often assumed to mean ‘better,'” McKean writes via e-mail, “especially when it comes to cultural products—such as plays. So it’s not so much ‘putting on airs’ as it is ‘knowing their customers,’ who probably respond more favorably, if unconsciously, to ‘theatre.'”

Donn B. Murphy, president of the National Theatre and a professor emeritus at Georgetown University—which offers degrees in “theater,” though Murphy lists his field as “theatre”—is unashamed of his playhouse’s spelling habits. The place, he points out, dates from 1835, a mere seven years after Webster published his dictionary.

“I guess Mr. Webster’s fiat hadn’t been sufficiently circulated and popularized,” Murphy says. “Or perhaps the organizers of the National—including Mr. Corcoran of latterly Gallery fame—wanted to continue to be a bit more cosmopolitan or international in tone.”

Either way, D.C. drama supporters have kept rejecting Webster through the years. In 1863, John T. Ford named his little place on 10th Street Ford’s New Theatre. Joyce Patterson, spokesperson for Ford’s, is delighted to check the historical record: “I’m looking at the playbill, a re-creation of the ticket from the night President Lincoln…” Her voice trails off over the phone, even though it’s been 138 years. “We are following in the footsteps of Mr. Ford,” she offers. “I’m sure during that day or time they would have used the British spelling.”

Gail Beach, producer for the Hartke Theatre at the famed drama department of the Catholic University of America, notes that the spelling “goes through phases, and a bunch of theater groups in town were founded by people who came out of this department. So maybe it’s what they were raised with.”

Many proponents of the “theatre” spelling deny that they’re rejecting American spelling. They argue that “-re” relates to plays and “-er” is for movies.

Or they share the view of Ben Cameron, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, the industry association that publishes the New York-based American Theatre magazine. “Technically, ‘-er’ means the building and ‘-re’ means the process.” Hence his magazine spells the word with “-re” not only in its title, but in all uses of the word “theater” in its articles.

Says Oxford’s McKean, “This sounds like a distinction in search of a difference; people love to try to find logic behind word choices that are usually not logical at all. The only difference I am aware of is that ‘the process’ is often referred to as ‘the theater,’ as in ‘What made you want to go into the theater?'”

Cameron also points out that worrying about the spelling means that “half the theaters in America are un-American.” But he’s not bothered. “I think we look at it as classic American diversity.”

Others view it as classic theater-industry pretentiousness. Bruce Burk of the State Theatre in Falls Church says his venue’s owners “wanted to have more of the image of”—he lapses into an imitation of Jon Lovitz‘ Master Thespian character—”the thee-ahh-taaaah!”

Beach notes that when she began her theater career, “They wanted to make me the costumier. And I said, ‘No, costumer is fine. Forget all this effete stuff—that’s not a word we use in this country.’ It was a lot of extra letters that didn’t get me further in this job and didn’t pay me any more.”

The Anglicized spelling reflects “frontier insecurity about theatrical art,” says Jack Marshall, CEO and artistic director of the American Century Theater, which is “dedicated to great, important and neglected American plays and playwrights of the 20th century,” according to its red, white, and blue Web site.

Marshall thinks that the prevalence of “-re” is a recent phenomenon. “Back in the ’60s, when I was in college, I saw ‘-er’ more often. I guess somebody decided that ‘-re’ looked cooler on the page and gradually it became the more common standard. There are regions of the country where nobody uses the ‘-re’ form—the Midwest and the West.”

Perhaps there are, but searching an online database for Madison, Wis., theatrical venues finds 21 “theatres” to 15 “theaters,” including—Marshall may be sorry to learn—the “American Players Theatre.” In Nebraska there is Theatre West; Illinois has the Cadillac Palace Theatre, Indiana the Paramount Theatre. Then there are the Fargo Theatre in North Dakota, the State and Orpheum Historic Theatres in Minnesota, and the Ariel, Victoria, and Sandusky State Theatres in Ohio. Thank god for Wisconsin’s Pabst Theater.

Still, a few institutions reject the British spelling altogether. “The New York Times will only spell it ‘-er,'” says Cameron. After a recent story on the magazine, Cameron tried to shake the paper’s ironclad standard. “I went back to them and they said, ‘I’m sorry, our policy is to spell it “-er.”‘ I said, ‘You’re printing a typo of my organization in your paper,’ and they still wouldn’t do it.”

And some theaters have a right to their Anglophilia. It would be churlish to demand that the Shakespeare Theatre change its name. The Theater of the First Amendment, on the other hand, had no choice but to embrace Americanism. Or did it?

Managing Director Kevin Murray explains that when he and Artistic Director Rick Davis were hired at the end of the theater’s first season in 1991, “the previous theater director was using ‘-re.’ And the first thing Rick says was, ‘Theater’s spelled with an ‘-er’ in this country.’ And so, since we were still young, we went ahead and made that switch.”

“I grew up in this town surrounded by theaters that used ‘-re,'” Murray says. “But when you went to a theater, a venue, a room, it was often an ‘-er.’ Then a strange thing happened. I think movie theaters, drive-in theaters, everything started using ‘-re.’ It’s kinda like the ‘e’ on the end of ‘Olde Town.’ Some people think it adds class. I don’t think it necessarily does, but sometimes the sway is held by the vast majority out there.”

Also fighting against the vast sway is the American Century Theater. But that company, too, nearly used the 18th-century spelling, Marshall confesses. When Marshall and his partners originally set their mission to paper, they spelled the name with “-re.” “And my wife said, ‘That makes no sense whatsoever. Why would you ever use the British form of the word?'”

Marshall reveals that this all-American policy has had its costs.

“It’s opened the way to millions of misprints. On a regular basis, a printer will use the British form. We’ve had to throw out business cards.” Marshall even has to “harangue” board members for improper usage.

Marshall says that the order of the two little letters has “actually been something of a mission in and of itself, and a crusade. As often happens, you come by your passion accidentally, more by happenstance than intent.”

Compounding the difficulty of his crusade is the fact that the company performs in Theatre II at the Gunston Arts Center. “We’re carrying on our own rear-guard action here,” says Marshall.

But in the District, it seems to be a losing fight. Even among movie houses: PG Theatres, the new operator of the Avalon Theatre, opted to go Anglo when it reopened the facility. Why? PG owner Paul Sanchez is stumped by the question: “Why did we do that? I guess it was me. They let me do some of these major decisions.” The decision matches the company name, about which Sanchez passes the buck to his late business partner, who made the choice around 1970. “I said ‘OK, we’ll go with that. They both sound the same—what the hell.'”

Pondering, Sanchez comes up with another explanation: “One of the other reasons is my late partner liked to drink a lot. It might be one of those situations. Maybe he’d had a snoot-full. Maybe he picked up the dictionary and picked the wrong one.”

Reprinted from Washington City Paper

Special to the Washington Post, again

watchful eye by bradley stevens

My profile of artist Bradley Stevens is in today’s Washington Post.

I was completely charmed by his paintings of the insides of various museums, many familiar but all having a sense of deja vu. I wanted to write about Stevens’ work because I felt it was the kind of serious-but-not-fashionable art that goes mostly unmentioned. For one thing, Stevens is a representational painter, a style that’s been losing credibility with critics since photography came along. But Stevens has been making his living with his brushes for a long time, and I felt that effort deserved some notice. I fully expected someone at the Post to pooh-pooh the idea. Perhaps the pooh-bahs weren’t looking.

There may be some unsold paintings from his “Museum Studies” series available at the charming Warm Springs Gallery in also-charming Charlottesville, Va. And, Brad has an upcoming show beginning April 10 at the Buchanan Partners Gallery, part of the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. While that show features other Stevens works, some of the “Museum Studies” works will be on display as well.

Hot Hot Hot

Passion: The Music of Love
Various Artists
Intersound

Passion: Music for Guitar
Various Artists
Narada Lotus

Romance: Music for Piano
Various Artists
Narada Lotus

THE CONCEPT OF MAKE-OUT MUSIC is probably as old as music itself. Surely Pythagoras developed his notion about the “Music of the Spheres” after a particularly hot toga party. Beats there a modern heart so cold that it can’t be turned to mush at the first strains of some radio hit from the puberty years? The song that first stirred your loins may be embarrassing twaddle in the full light of maturity, but that’s beside the point. The point is, music hath many charms, one of which is to fan the flames of desire.

The average 45 rpm record lasts barely three minutes. Granted, that’s longer than most anxious teen-age males need, but it’s still problematic. The old long-playing vinyl album was only good for 20 minutes, at most, before someone had to get up and replace the tone-arm. But with the advent of compact disc technology, modern swingles can program hours and hours of sensual sounds for uninterrupted rapture. For the multi-orgasmic and slow-to-ignite, this would seem a near necessity.

After the mad vault-cleaning rush of best-ofs and box sets, enterprising record companies have realized they can target acquisitive consumers with theme releases. And since nothing sells like sex, it’s hardly surprising that a near glut of prepackaged boudoir soundtracks should appear. In addition to the discs here, Cyborgasm 2 is out, and Rhino will shortly release Smooth Grooves: A Sensual Collection, four volumes of “Quiet Storm” music.

The discs at hand contain no triple-X, Donna Summer “Love to Love You Baby”-style explicitness. Rather, they take a Hallmark-card approach, with the packaging including many poems to set the appropriate tone. No Bukowski. No Ginsberg. Strictly the high-school sentimentalists: Byron, Yeats, Shelley.

Passion: The Music of Love offers four discs, arranged under the titles A Time for Love (pop symphonic), Classics for Lovers (classical hits), Sensual Interludes (solo piano), and Forbidden Pleasure, which is defined here as soft AOR pop.

A cavorting couple adorns the box, as well as each jewel case and the discs themselves; the man and woman affect that bored, vacant manner of the professional model, illustrating the collection’s lascivious theme like the “serving suggestion” on a box of Rice-a-Roni. Liner notes helpfully identify the pair as Shelly Jones and Brad Cooper. Also credited is a hair and makeup artist. What makeup? They’re nearly nude!

As the discs played, I found myself becoming ever fonder of the distant Shelly. Her sepia-toned cheeks, her pouting lips, piqued my imagination. I pictured myself in Brad’s place, holding her close. I imagined myself with Brad’s body. I imagined calling the makeup artist over for a quick touch-up. Eventually, I grew to despise them both. These collections reach me at a moment when I am—how to phrase it?—between tragically doomed affairs, and the languid couple’s feigned infatuation mocks me.

To fully test the passion-producing prowess of these recordings, I dug deep in my phone book, seeking a listening partner. When the enticement, “Just you, me, some Asti Spumanti, and the shuffle/repeat key,” yielded only threats of fresh injunctions, I swallowed my pride and a hefty slug of Chianti and pressed on, unaccompanied.

Fully one-third of the songs on Passion are identified as theme songs from movies, and most of the rest often appear on soundtracks or commercials. Fine—cinema has long defined what is romantic. But conspicuously absent is that famous film song, Ravel’s “Bolero,” from the Bo Derek flick 10. It is widely regarded as the most erotically charged piece of music ever written (after, of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “That Smell”). It’s omission here seriously dampens the collection’s usefulness.

Also missing is Wagner‘s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which could have been identified as the Apocalypse Now tune. Maybe this is too personal a complaint, but I say there’s nothing like a little Viking foreplay to get the pheromones racing.

AS SEDUCTIVELY STIMULATING AS A POP SONG MAY BE, it is but a peck on the cheek compared to the deep, sustained soul kiss that is classical music. Classics for Lovers runs through those “hits” most people are familiar with, as performed by the London Festival Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and others, from the pastoral Trois Gymnopédies by Erik Satie (performed here on piano) and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” to the “hook” portions of Madame Butterfly and Pagliacci. I prefer Malcolm McLaren‘s funkified version of Butterfly—he disguised the fact that this is actually opera. But for evoking a screamingly pre-orgasmic atmosphere, it’s not bad.

I find little titillating about Tchaikovsky‘s Swan Lake suite. Rather, its minor-key woodwinds just reduce me to great heaving sobs of self-pity. This, I have found, is rarely an aphrodisiac. Conversely, Rodrigo‘s “Adagio” from Concierto de Aranjuez always inflames my Latin blood (surely somewhere). Its dancing guitars, alternately toying, taunting, tempting, roil me into a state of insane frenzy. I think of hot summer nights and a dark-haired beauty I could never tame. She had lived with Gypsies—what chance had I? Damn, is the wine all gone?

Several steps down the orchestral hierarchy is A Time for Love—more movie tracks that the London Symphony Orchestra, Rochester Pops, and others make sound like outtakes from a Liza Minelli special. This is “Pops”-style sensuality, which is to say it’s as arousing as Arthur Fiedler in a Speedo. The exception is the “Love Theme From The Godfather.” The haunting, luxurious strings remain evocative of all the loved ones who were ever blown to bits. Or should have been.

Two of the songs on Time come from James Bond films, “Diamonds Are Forever” (worst Connery Bond) and “Casino Royale” (1967, no Connery). While men rightly find 007 the pinnacle of studliness, Bond babes routinely perish après amour. Discretion is advised in programming these two. Hearing such limp attempts at suaveness only reminds me that too often my encounters with women have left them shaken, not stirred. Feeling like the George Lazenby of lovers, I freshen my rum and Coke and move, hopefully, to Forbidden Pleasure.

If you consider Janet Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Michael Bolton covers at all pleasurable, then you’ll enjoy these dozen attempts at Kenny G-spot, soprano-saxuality by a group known as Spectrum. Among the songs is a Yanni cover (think about that). But it is the two Spectrum “originals” that most effectively approximate a seductive mood. Environmental, airy synth excursions to nowhere, “While She Sleeps” and “Ricky’s Prayer” would prove complementary to a mutual massage session (no tipping). I rub my aching head.

Sensual Interludes features older standards like “Star Dust” and “My Funny Valentine” performed on solo piano by Van Craven. Craven does a fair George Winston impression, only slower, if that’s possible. So slow that at times it sounds as if he’s playing one-handed. Which is probably appropriate.

Similarly, the Narada piano sampler, Romance, favors the same high-register, minimalist, plinkety-plink style that makes it almost impossible to discern Michael Whalen from David Arkenstone. Most new age is meaningless on first listen, generally being merely a pleasant assemblage of notes rather than an identifiable song. But it can subliminally sneak up on you and is most effective when nearly ignored in the background, lost amid the clinking glasses. Drink up.

But this piano is too cerebral, the sound of very dry white wine. It is the guitar—a robust burgundy—that reaches closer to the heart. Letting Music for Guitar play continuously while waiting for the telephone repairman to arrive (to fix the phone, I hasten to add), I found the sinuous riffs by Nando Lauria, Simon Wynberg, Randy Roos, and others getting under my skin. This is music to writhe by. Thank god the phone man didn’t catch me.

Ultimately, most of this music is white-bread, Merchant/Ivory eroticism, polite and restrained for Chablis sensibilities. There’s no throbbing electronic bass and percussion, kids, so most of the real sweaty work will have to be done by you.

Still, it has its uses. After ruminating at length and alone, I offer this prescription: Candlelight dinner to the pianos, move to the sofa for extended groping with the guitars, then get serious with select classical tracks. I suggest Beethoven to Bach, up the ante with the Rodrigo, get her singing along with Madame Butterfly, answer her with Pagliacci, then linger in the afterglow with Albinoni‘s “Adagio for Strings and Organ”—the aural equivalent of le petit mort.

Well, it works for me. Stepping out of a very cold shower, I finish the bourbon, turn off the stereo, turn off the lights, and weep heavy tears of remorse. And so, to bed.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper

Mellow Christian Disco Country — I’ll Play Anything

Hal Blaine has always been an inspiration to me. He calls himself the most recorded drummer of all time, and the evidence seems to support him. And his quality matches his quantity. In addition to pounding the definitive Phil Spector beat on “Be My Baby,” the skins man provided precise stick- and footwork on “Return to Sender,” “Good Vibrations,” and even Dino’s “Everybody Loves Somebody,” as well as hundreds of chart-toppers through the late ’70s.

All of which is to say I’m no Hal Blaine. But these tracks display a certain versatility, if nothing else. First up is a disco song. I think disco was already dead when we recorded this at Omega Studios in Kensington. I am unashamed to say that the beat is fun to play and if asked, I would play it again. So there.

“Another Eight Hours”

My only entry into the world of Christian Rock came via an intense young man named David Coggeshall. Producer Caltrick Simone (ne Stein) was unafraid to put his money into a work of unabashed Godliness. And, miracle of miracles, the tune was pick-hit-of-the-week on WINX-AM radio in Rockville. (Or WPGC. I’ll fact-check this later.) Not sure what happened to Mr. Coggeshall. Hope he’s not in Hell.

“Give Your Life to Him”

I remember this session, but not the names of anybody involved. It was the ’70s, make your own joke. I recall that a couple Georgetown or GW students, or grad students, had a bunch of songs they wanted recorded and I got the call. One guy’s tunes were wacky folky things that he presented with more enthusiasm than authority. But the other guy was more serious and his song has an Andy Williams vibe that I kinda dig. If Andy Williams has any vibe.

“Carrie’s Plane Is Leaving”

Another Dan Pasley session. I think this was supposed to be part of a musical, or something. Dan’s commercial work was always trying to be theatrical, and his theatrical work hoped to be commercial. Recorded this in the basement of a tract house in PG County. Again, can’t recall the singer, a spunky little gal with a big voice.

“Nashville Women”


A sports writer, TV writer, music writer, and a drummer walk into a recording studio. Here’s music recorded in this century, recorded at the fabtabulous Scary Clown Studios, in fact, by the equally splenderiffic Philip Stevenson.

The first session, we got right down to recording the theme song for the music writer’s radio show. Which had been canceled some weeks previous. Still, there was a need for closure. I’m sure the three people who listened to the program are retroactively delighted to finally have a tune to hum along to while not waiting to dial in.

“The Theme From the (Canceled) Music Show”


The second tune was inspired by an interview with Don Kirshner, he of the fabled ABC show In Concert, the show that introduced Alice Cooper to much of America. Don also introduced us to the music of the Monkees, a fact the Monkees themselves are still not too happy about.

Anyway, we did the song, then stuck in real and imagined quotes from the interview. It’s not Don, of course, saying these things. But it’s certainly the spirit of Don. And the spirit of Don is what’s kept this country free.

“Plump Little Fingers, “The Chocolate Thing”

The Soundtrack Remains the Same

Ludwig Super Classic at Track Studios

While I wait for Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer to call, here’s some music I recorded for a couple of industrial films.

Until the early ’80s, Washington, D.C., was a hotbed of taxpayer-supported documentaries, training films, and informational filmmaking. Almost none of it was necessary. Like everyone else, I was happy to take the cash.

Tragically, I never got a copy of any of the tunes from my greatest session, a song cycle for the film School Bus Safety and You. I did keep the sheet music, and the lyrics stick with me these many decades later:

Be at your bus stop on time
Always wait by the yellow line
Be careful, courteous, and kind
And ride the bus that your assigned

If you can imagine the cloying sing-songiness, you are only halfway to imagining the extremely cloying sing-songiness. Barney would be proud.

Anyway, the first tune is from a film created to explain the wacky new “European-style” road signs that the government was forcing on unsuspecting Americans. You know, the red circle-and-slash? Whose meaning is pretty close to obvious. Yes, there was a time when the U.S. didn’t take its marching orders — and don’t-walk orders — from France. Of the dozen or so cuts, I think this track states the theme nicely, don’t you?

The European Way…

UPDATE: After listening to this again, I do believe that Tommy Hannum is playing the pedal steel on the track. Tommy’s big in Nashville these days, but back then he was a member of the Rosslyn Mountain Boys.

The 1970s were dangerous time. For one thing, Al Gore was preoccupied with courting Tipper, leaving the country in the grip of the greatest menace since fluoridation. From the stirring documentary Drinking Water Alert, this song helped win the Vietnam war.

Watch what you drink…

Jingly Jangly Jingles

dave oyster drums

I write elsewhere about the death of the jingle, and these samples may better explain why it died.

You cannot have listened to the radio in the past, oh, 30 years, and not heard this ditty. Me, bass player Gary Fallwell, and guitar player Chopper spent a whole day at Track Studios in Silver Spring jamming around on various ideas before settling on four notes in a descending pattern repeated over and over. And over. Horns and vocals were added sometime later. Got $25 for the effort. If I’d asked for a five-cent royalty, I’d be rich today. Not a week went by without the Jerry’s Ford jingle playing somewhere. It was syndicated, so I even heard late one night it as I drove into Dallas.

In fact, the jingle was played so much that the master tape wore out. They re-did it with synthesizers some time in the early 2000s. When I heard the new version, I called Jerry himself, looking to get in touch with the original producer, whose name has escaped me. I was going to write an article. When I mentioned that, Jerry got real squirrely and defensive.

“Jerry’s Ford jingle”

I do know the producer’s name for these Blank Pontiac spots: Dan Pasley. Most of my commercial recording work was with Dan, and it was (almost) always a pleasure. Mostly because Dan ran a, shall we say, loose session. Often he’d show up, late, open his briefcase, pull out a bottle, and declare, “Let’s get started.” It was then apparent that whatever we would be recording would be made up on the spot between now and whenever everyone passed out. Good times.

In this session, we cut a bunch of variations on the theme, for the different radio stations. Here’s the WGAY, i.e., white people, version. And this is the WOL downtown black people version. Same damn Pontiacs, of course.

“Blank Pontiac “Wide Tracking” (Smooth)”

“Blank Pontiac “Wide Tracking” (Funky)”

Did a whole bunch of work for the Britches of Georgetown organization thanks to Dan. This is one of my faves, for the chain’s country branch. The Eagles were popular at the time. Guess they still are.

“Britches Western”

NPR Commentaries

First off, I never liked that they called these “commentaries.” Like I’m Daniel Frickin’ Schorr. (Who, I’m surprised to say, my sister-in-law has the hots for. Strange world.)

I prefer to think of these as humorous essays, if anything. But such is the power of All Things Considered, that based on hearing my snide voice on the radio a producer called me to do voiceover work — a task for which I was utterly miscast. I mean, I became the spokesman for the Washington Area Oldsmobile Dealers and I can’t even pronounce Oldsmobile correctly. Don’t believe me? Listen here:

“Big Deal — The Washington Area Oldsmobile Dealers”

Perhaps an insight into why the car is no longer manufactured.

I always offered to do character voices, but the ad geniuses kept demanding Lettermanesque snark or Tom Bodet “sincerity.” One of the directions I got was to sound more like one of the guys on Friends. I never watched Friends. Maybe I was supposed to sound like one of the women on Friends.

Anywhoo…these tracks are me being me. And a little bit Bob Edwards.

“NPR: Bond, James Bond:”

“NPR: Bad Vinyl:”

“NPR: Death of the Hardy Boys?”

“NPR: Hollywood Sequels:”

Very Special to the Washington Post

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

Following closely on my piece about 99-year-old chanteuse Marianne Arden, the Washington Post published two articles I wrote, one about local musician and entrepreneur Marcus Johnson and the other on the future, and past, of film processing business Colorlab.

Shortly after the Colorlab story ran, Landmark Theaters converted local E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas to all-digital. (Here’s a nice write-up in Washington City Paper by Ian Buckwalter.) As someone once said, the future sneaks up on you.

And as the current future allows any and everyone to comment on any and everything they see, hear, and read on the Internet, I must note some of the more amusing notions that Post readers felt necessary to scribble into the aether.

An insightful person going by the nom de net “remember1007” wrote:

“Too bad that, once again, the WashPost has assigned a writer who knows nothing about jazz to write a piece about jazz. Would they send someone to write about a Redskins game who has seen one or two NFL games in his/her life? It’s a great music with a long and distinguished history in DC (Duke Ellington, Shirley Horn, et al), but as usual the Post confines it to these types of uninformed pieces by neophyte writers. I could tell from the first line that, while perhaps well-intentioned, the author knows not of what he speaks.”

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

At first I thought remember1007 was mocking my obvious lack of knowledge of the jazz idiom. As just the night before the Post piece ran I had performed, for pay, with a jazz combo that featured a couple members of the august Navy Band the Commodores, and that I’ve been playing jazz and jazz-ish music since age 12, well, he may be on to something.

Then I thought perhaps remember1007 objects to my calling Marcus Johnson a jazz player. True, Johnson himself admits cheerfully to the “smooth jazz” label, a sound scorned by many as bogus and utterly unhip. But my definition of jazz is pretty broad and inclusive. The dictionary (and Wikipedia) definition is that jazz is improvisational, and if remember1007 had witnessed Johnson and his band wailing at Blues Alley, he might have held his typing fingers at bay.

Fortunately, “ReneldaMoorehead” came to my “defense,” writing:

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

“Dave Nuttycombe is not a jazz aficionado, granted. But he wrote an outstanding article as a profile of Marcus Johnson.”

OK, granted.

On the Colorlab story, a pedantic former employee of the National Archives takes me to task for ignoring the nuts-and-bolts policies of the Archives and failing to mention Bono Labs, which in fact I mentioned in the first paragraph. And with which I have a personal history, as Joe Bono was the saint who processed and put up with most of Travesty Film‘s tragic film output — even letting us pay over time. Often a long period of time. But that wasn’t the story.

Colorlab’s Russ Suniewick lead me through a vigorous six-hour tour of the elaborate facilities and indeed did discuss Mr. Pedant’s cherished “vendor program” that requires producers to pay for making duplicates that future researchers may access. But there was no room to add all that. I even had to cut some great quotes by Russ’ wife Nancy. (Sorry!)

As with all newspaper articles, what is printed is nowhere near the full or final story.

The Last Chanteuse

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

Had the delight to interview Marianne Arden Cook for the Washington Post. Marianne is 99-years-young, as they say, and with her it’s true. I could hardly keep her hands off me! (Not really lying.)

The occasion was because the one-time traveling chanteuse is putting out an album of her original songs. She’s written 130, she says. She sang some for me.

Here is the link to the article.

An added delight on this assignment was that the photos were taken by my dear old friend Bill O’Leary. A gallery of his images is here.

Also cool is that I shared the page with Molly Ringwald! Well, a review of her new novel. Which is apparently quite good. Yay for Molly! I’m gonna buy it.

I sent the Post some MP3s of Marianne’s tunes, which they chose not to run, for some reason. So I will include one here. Maybe my favorite, “I Remember (Boom Boom).” It’s so very of its time and place and I find it rather haunting. Enjoy.