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?”

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”

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.

Rock & Roll Will Never Die — If The Fabulous Hubcaps Have Anything To Say About It.

hubcaps washington post

My piece on the Fabulous Hubcaps takes over most of the front page of the Washington Post Style section today. The assignment called for 1,200 words. I wound up with nearly 13,000 transcribed words. So I think I undersold the piece. Coulda been a magazine feature, ’cause there was sooo much fascinating, fun, and relevant info that did not make the cut. I will say that I’m glad to be able to use the serial comma again. Also, when will publications stop putting a K in the abbreviation of microphone? It’s mic, not mike. Mike is a person.

But these are personal peeves and not aimed at any of the fine staffers and friends at the Post. Go, newspapers!

Come On, Get Happy

Ken and Jeannie Veltz and their children were a real-life Partridge Family. After the band broke up, Mom and Dad hit the road alone, trying to keep the music alive.

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

[NOTE: A truncated version of this piece ran in the Washington Post, which you may read here. That piece excised two-thirds of the story to focus on the parents. While their journey was certainly the hook, this longer version provides much deeper history, context, and insight, as well as a closer look into the curious machinations of the so-called music business. I had, after all, spent a decade following the story; there was lots to say. Also, I’ve changed the diminutive of microphone back to “mic” from “mike.” There is no K in microphone.]

KEN AND JEANNIE VELTZ ARE DRIVING to an open-mic in Old Town. The couple mapped several such spots into the GPS for this Thursday night. A guitar rides shotgun in the back seat; the trunk is filled with sound and music equipment. The duo are scheduled to perform at Iota on Sunday and, as Ken says, “You can’t roll around with the grandbabies all day.” Playing live will limber the pair up, get them ready for the paying gig.

Unlike most of the plaintive singers on the D.C. open-mic circuit, Ken and Jeannie are in fact grandparents, twice over. Also separating them from the usual six-string strummers: they have a Wikipedia page. As the band Cecilia, the Veltzes were signed to Atlantic Records. It wasn’t just the two, it was the entire family: son Drew on lead guitar, daughters Laura and Allison singing, dad on rhythm guitar and percussion, mom completing the three-part harmonies and shaking the tambourine.

Yes, just like the Partridge Family. But real and with much better music.

And a bus, of course. It didn’t have a multi-colored Mondrian paint job, but the family did tour nationally for most of the previous decade. They were courted by MTV and Hollywood film crews, wined and dined and lived as much of the rock star life as a fairly well-adjusted musical family cared to live.

Before the label deal, when the Veltzes were just a family band from Vienna, Va., this is what The Washington Post had to say about Cecilia in 1999:

“If you care at all for melody, harmony and good songs, you must go see Cecilia. If you want to let music do what it’s supposed to do (fill your heart and soul and make you glad to be alive), you must go see Cecilia.

The family seemed poised to climb to the top of the Top 40. But, like thousands before them, the Veltzes discovered that a set full of catchy tunes and club full of eager fans is not always enough. Unlike thousands before them, Ken and Jeannie refuse to let rejection define them. Even faced with a failing economy, the aging Boomers are betting everything on one more grab at the brass ring. The couple has 37 years together singing happy, upbeat songs—and no apparent intention to stop.

So tonight, 10 years later, the car is home for Jeannie and Ken. And tomorrow, too. And for the foreseeable future. Because Ken and Jeannie sold everything that wouldn’t fit into the trunk, put some sentimental items in storage, and are now, literally, living on the road.

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

It’s a nice car, a spotless white Mercedes 240D they’ve nicknamed “Falkor,” after the flying white dog in the movie The Neverending Story, a family favorite. They used to have an older Benz, and a sporty BMW, too. Plus a 3,000-square-foot house in Vienna. That and more are gone now. Sometimes they sold stuff to pay the rent; this time the liquidation created a small nest egg (“Very small,” says Ken) that left the couple as unencumbered as a pair of teenage hitchhikers off to see the world for the first time. And that’s pretty much the vibe both Veltzes give off.

“There’s no safety net here,” says Ken much more matter-of-factly than you’d expect from someone who is basically homeless. But the diminutive 60-year-old with a graying soul patch has an almost relentlessly upbeat attitude, a positive outlook that sometimes seems hard to believe, but also hard to fake for long. “Kind is the new cool,” he likes to say.

“For a while, it was change in the couches, that’s how tough it got,” says Ken about life after the big time. “But since we made this decision, someone reached down and gave us a great big kiss. It’s amazing the favor that we’ve had.”

Jeannie, a willowy redhead, a bit taller than Ken, who does almost all of the driving while her husband navigates, agrees. “As soon as we made the decision to do this, we weren’t struggling,” she says. “We weren’t swimming against the current anymore. We were going with it.”

“And so far it’s just really worked,” she continues, adding almost merrily, “I have no idea where we’re going, what we’re doing, where we’re going to live—we have no idea. And in the end it’s kinda refreshing, to not have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. It’s a day-to-day life.”

As Ken says later, “A normal wife couldn’t do this.”

Jeannie double-checks the start time for the first open mic. “It’s 8 o’clock,” confirms Ken. “Do you know where your children are?” Jeannie answers wryly. “As a matter of fact,” replies Ken, “no, we don’t.”

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

AFTER SPENDING 10 MORE YEARS living with mom and dad than most children, the kids are now out on their own. Son Drew, is a videographer living in Chesapeake Beach, Md., with his wife and two children. (Grandma and Grandpa are staying with him while in D.C.) Laura and Allison live in Nashville, both independently pursuing songwriting careers. Laura has several songs on the new album by rising country act Edens Edge. Allison was recently signed by Carrie Underwood‘s producer Mark Bright, and scored a No. 1 hit in Japan with her song “Mr. Taxi.” That is, she wrote it; the nine-member girl group Girl’s Generation are singing it on the radio.

As the car passes Exit 6 on I-395, Jeanne calls out, “Oh, remember Shirlington?”

“That’s the beginning of a story there,” says Ken. “That was the beginning of the end.”

“That was the beginning of the end,” Jeannie agrees, softly.

It was an end to one life and the beginning of another, which led to this current new beginning. Or end. The Veltzes have had plenty of both.

STEPPING INTO TIFFANY TAVERN on King Street, Ken writes his name on the list. He’s No. 5. Brian McMahon, the tie-dye-shirted host for the evening’s music, explains that each act gets 12 minutes, maybe 15 depending on the crowd. So there’s lots of time to kill. The good news is there is a crowd. The bad news is that most of that crowd is a bridesmaid party, which has taken over almost all of the room in the narrow restaurant and the women don’t seem particularly interested in anything outside of loud wedding talk.

The Veltzes repair to the back room for “the best burger in Old Town” and to discuss their journey thus far.

In the big house in Vienna in 1999, the Veltzes were living a pretty good suburban life. Ken was composing music for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and other TV and commercial clients, Jeannie was doing voice-overs, and the kids were playing music together and going to James Madison high school.

Then the Military Channel called. The company licensed one of Ken’s songs for $80,000 and offered a contract to score 28 documentaries for $300,000. The executives took the Veltzes out for a celebratory dinner in Shirlington.

“It was our big ship,” says Ken. “The children are dancing, we are like…”

“We are like in disbelief,” says Jeannie, laughing, “And with good reason!”

Because before Ken got paid for the first program, the Military Channel filed for bankruptcy. Ken admits he “burned a lot of bridges” with other clients so he could grab this brass ring. While he was passing his lower-paying commitments on to other composers in anticipation of the more lucrative job, he also sank nearly 30 grand of his own money into new equipment for work that had now vanished.

“We’re selling assets, I don’t know what to do now,” says Ken. “My brain is numb.”

And then came a call from a veteran’s hospital. Ken’s father was dying.

As the family was trying to deal with the financial blow, they started gathering around grandpa, singing for him. The nurses took notice and the Veltzes started doing little shows of big band songs for the other patients.

At 4 a.m. one night Ken wrote a song expressing his current philosophy: “It Don’t Matter.” Typically, it’s got a brisk beat and you can really dance to it. With sisters Laura and Allison brightly harmonizing over older brother Drew’s melodic electric guitar, Ken’s subtle percussion and Jeannie’s lower-third harmony, the Veltz family started recording in the home studio. As artists from the Andrews Sisters, Ames Brothers, the many Osmonds, and Karen and Richard Carpenter have demonstrated, there is something about sibling harmony that just shimmers more euphoniously than unrelated vocal chords do. Soon, the idea of a family band presented itself.

The children, then 21, 19, and 17, were already playing together at open mics, bringing home some cash. They now decided that adding mom and dad to the act wasn’t entirely uncool and actually sounded pretty good.

“And Jeannie and I are looking at each other going like, Could this be a better Plan A—or Plan B?” says Ken.

They christened the band Cecilia, after the patron saint of musicians, and tested the idea with a weekly gig down Rte. 123 at That’s Amore, part of a local restaurant chain. As would be the story with the group, audiences steadily grew until it was standing room only between the tables full of pasta.

This time the repertoire wasn’t old swing music. Despite beginning his career as a drummer, Ken has a strong sense of melody and a skill for crafting a catchy pop song. In addition to “It Don’t Matter,” he began pumping out other radio-worthy tunes, enough for two home-burned CDs that the band sold at shows. Though the tunes were written by a 47-year-old man, the ear-worms sounded great sung by 19- and 17-year-old girls. That’s because the lyrics were often inspired by the girl’s lives.

Son Drew inherited his father’s sense of melody, evident in his tasteful guitar leads. Likewise, the girls are natural performers. Jeannie describes daughter Laura as a “cheerleader” and indeed the energy she devotes to each song is almost draining to watch. Allison’s strong delivery and Mariah Carey-like range belies her years.

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

On the homemade Kitchen Mix CD, several cuts recorded live at the restaurant reveal a frenzied crowd excitedly singing along. Soon, area music professionals were showing up in the audience. That’s when the Post‘s Eric Brace wrote his wildly enthusiastic paean to Cecilia. Without any corporate street-teaming or marketing, a fan base was growing. People loved Cecilia songs. The family loved playing them.

Gigs at real nightclubs followed: Zig’s in Alexandria and Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington. Stephen Negrey, co-owner of Iota, remembers the band’s fans as “21 to 70, of all creeds and philosophies—all over the map.” Most bands, he notes, cater to a single demographic, but a Cecilia show was, literally, fun for all ages. “That was what was so exciting about them,” Negrey adds, “what could happen, how big they could get.”

But Ken knew that Cecilia could only get so big in Washington. Yes, the RIAA is here, but they’re lobbyists. That’s the business of D.C. In 2000, with a strong local buzz in their ears, the Veltz family chose a new roll of the dice. Allison was taken out of school and Ken sold his beloved BMW to finance a trip to Nashville to record. Within a few weeks, Cecilia the family band had a manager and an offer from Warner/Chappell Music, one of the world’s largest music publishers.

AT TIFFANY TAVERN, THE ORIGINAL SONGS Ken was hoping to hear from the other open-micers are not on the agenda tonight. Instead, there are lots of pleasantly performed classic rock staples: Beatles, Everly Brothers, “These Boots Are Made For Walking”—which is on the Veltz’s songlist, too, so scratch that. When Ken and Jeannie finally step behind the microphones, it’s clear that they have something different to offer. With some practiced patter they launch into a string of original compositions. Ken announces, “We’re an old married couple,” which doesn’t seem to register with the bridesmaids.

There is some applause, but that, as well as most of the music, is lost in the din. An older guy gives the pair a thumbs up sign as he walks past them to the door. The important sign is that he’s out the door. After a couple more songs, the Veltzes wish the crowd a good night.

Walking back to the car, Jeannie offers a positive spin on the boisterously inattentive bridal party. “They were there to party. And the girls were cute. I’m very glad we got to sing for them before the wedding.”

Ken is focused on the next open mic. “If it looks like a big long waiting list, we’ll move on. But you never know.”

Back on the road, Ken suggests that D.C. is “a ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown’ town. For some reason, this area has a preoccupation that precludes listening,” he grumbles. Jeannie is more philosophical. “I think what we went through tonight was a self-administered stress test,” she says, between navigational nudges from her husband. “You have to be injected with some of that stress, then by the time you get up there, you’re not as keyed up.”

The rejection in Old Town still stings. “I’d rather play for seven or eight people and leave a part of us there and take a part of the people with us than a packed house of not-interested people,” Ken says. “Like that first table, those guys—could you talk louder?”

“Where I was coming from as a communicator,” Ken explains, “I thought we could grab the wedding vibe—that we were married for 36 years. For god’s sake, you’re getting married? Listen to somebody!” he says, becoming more animated. “We might just have something to say that can help you here.” He recites lyrics from some of his songs that could offer long-term relationship advice. “That’s what love is all about,” he says, quieter. “Sometimes you want to walk away, but you can’t.”

Jeannie again sees the upside: “You never know. [The bride] could remember the hook, ‘I can’t follow but I can’t walk away.'”

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

GROWING UP THE SON OF A JAZZ DRUMMER in upstate New York, Ken Veltz took to the instrument as well. “He’s still known as the best drummer that Batavia has ever seen,” brags Jeannie. So good, admits Ken after some prompting, that both Paul Revere and the Raiders and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels tried to take him on tour while he was still a teenager. His parents said No.

But by age 13, Ken “was already headlong into drugs,” he says. “By about 14, 15, I was spending most of my nights at other people’s homes.”

After high school, Ken hitchhiked to New York City, losing himself even more to music and drugs. “I had a lot of talent but I didn’t have the foundation of an upbringing,” he says. “Whatever I wanted to do, I did. I made a lot of stupid choices. So I ended up burning out pretty bad.”

In 1971, looking to get away from the caustic New York scene, Ken joined the aptly-named-for-its-time band Country Granola—which also featured the young Tony Trischka—and found his way back to upstate New York.

Meanwhile, 21-year-old Jeannie Eagan was “totally devastated” by the death of her best friend in a car accident. She quit college and moved in with another friend in the same area.

Eventually, the two found their separate ways to a small head shop in Albion, N.Y., that had been converted into a mission. “It was a bunch of former drug addicts and a bunch of people with problems,” explains Ken. “And they were just feeling the love of the Lord. So I said, You know, this is kinda interesting. Maybe this is for me.”

In addition to eyeing each other at the weekly meetings, the two also began bumping into each other around town. “You thought I was 14,” Ken says. “I thought he was 12,” Jeannie corrects. “He looked so young. But he had a continuous smile on his face, and I thought, Well, that’s nice. Because I was very dark and not very happy.”

“We were very opposite,” says Ken. “I was very demonstrative. Jeannie was very shy. I mean she hardly said a word.” But she sang. And, says Ken, Jeannie “had an amazing sense of rhythm. I looked at her foot tapping—and I’m a drummer and I couldn’t take my eyes off her foot!”

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

Both credit the little storefront mission with getting them together, in all senses. The group engaged in lots of community service, visiting prisons, nursing homes. “It was a huge part of the healing for me,” says Ken. “Just to care for other people and not just myself.” The early ’70s, says Jeannie, “was a very spiritual time. There was a lot of peace in the air. And if you have that peace in the air, it’s going to lead you to goodness and God. And a lot of, you know, cults came out of that.”

The little religious clan started becoming more controlling and demanding. The members were moved into communal houses, one for the men, one for the women. And then the group’s leader was arrested for indecent exposure. Ken and Jeannie decided it was time to move on.

EVEN WITH GPS TECHNOLOGY, THE MERCEDES drives up and down Columbia Pike three times before any of its passengers spot the small sign for LA Bar & Grille on the side of a low-rise brick building. The bar is around back, in the basement of the strip mall. Once inside, the place looks even less promising than Tiffany Tavern.

There is no stage, just microphone stands and speakers set on the floor between the dart board and the door. Ringing the low ceiling are more flat screen TVs than seem necessary, each glowing various ESPN channels. There is a lively crowd, but most seem like the Mutt & Jeff pair with severe military haircuts standing right next to the PA system: more interested in their dart game than music.

At the moment, a fellow even older than the Veltzes, 70 if he’s a day, is at the mic. “Marty,” according to the stitching on his wide leather guitar strap, introduces “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” with a story about how it was originally written about Jesus.

“Are we in Nashville?” laughs Jeannie. The scene reminds her of the family’s time in Music City. They had a standing joke about bringing enough Kleenex to the open mics.

Marty finishes and host Jamie Potter points to the Veltzes. “Saw you getting pumped. You got that Eye of the Tiger thing going.”

The Veltzes take their places behind the microphones, and this time the set includes some cover songs. Ken says he learned a humbling lesson about the value of playing other people’s hits on a trip to Ireland. Walking into a pub and announcing that he was a musician got the predictable response: play us a song. He quickly realized that there was “absolutely nothing I could do for a whole house of people who really didn’t want to hear my original songs.” The people wanted something familiar to sing along to.

So Ken learned some hits by his musical heroes—the Beatles, Dylan, Tom Rush, Hank Williams—and added them to the setlist. Musicians, he says, are often “too involved in their own creativity” to recognize that “sometimes a house full of people just wants to have some fun. And that’s your job, too—give people some fun.”

“And, again, hindsight’s 20/20,” he says. “Maybe if we’d opened with a Beatles cover we might have done better at Tiffany Tavern.”

These days Ken and Jeannie only sing a few of the songs that were on Cecilia’s setlist. An ode Ken wrote for his wife was charming with his children harmonizing on the sing-song chorus, “You like her, you like her, you know that you do.” Now the song is a heartfelt conversation between old lovers, with Jeannie answering Ken’s litany of reasons why the relationship shouldn’t work with a sly, “You like me.”

Other new songs include Jeannie’s first stab at writing: “I Want to Win the Lotto.” The inspiration for that one seems too obvious for comment. The new material is more reflective than the bouncy Cecilia grooves. Cecilia was a hit-heavy party band. Ken & Jeannie are a mature folk duo.

With the judicious mix of popular favorites and hummable originals, it soon becomes clear to the LA Bar crowd and the other musicians that these newcomers aren’t the usual Thursday night crooners. Though the crowd noise remains high, the applause grows louder and longer with each song. As Ken starts strumming an acoustic version of “A Little Help From My Friends,” a few “Whooos!” erupt around the room.

Marty heads outside and quickly returns with a small fiddle case. Soon he’s sitting in on Patsy Cline‘s “I Fall to Pieces.” Then host Jamie adds his guitar to a rambling group version Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” The impromptu band ends the night with the Eagles‘ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

As they’re packing up, host Jamie invites Ken to play a house concert at his home in Blue Ridge, Virginia. Ken also pockets the business card of a man who says he’s in charge of entertainment for a cruise ship company and is very interested in booking the Veltzes. That’s where the big dollars are, notes Ken happily.

“This was awesome!” Jeannie exclaims on the way to the car. “And Jamie, what a nice kid he was.”

Ken tells her about the house concert invite. “And he said, Stay there, spend the night!”

“Where?”

“At his place!”

“Who did?”

“Jamie Potter!”

“Oh, my gosh, that’s crazy! We bonded with him right away.”

“We bonded with everybody!” says Ken, beaming.

Jeannie compliments Ken on the setlist. “Beatles and Bob Dylan. That was nice. Good call, honey.”

“But I need a guitar, baby doll,” says Ken, quietly. “I need a guitar.”

“I know,” Jeannie whispers back.

Ken’s pricey Martin guitars were sold to help launch the Veltz’s current journey. This guitar doesn’t hold tune as well as a higher-end model, but it is signed by the guy who started the Goya Guitar Company.

IN 2000, THE VELTZ FAMILY LEFT NASHVILLE armed with a manager and publishing deal and headed to New York City. They rented a place in Queens and started playing wherever they could, while knocking on doors at all the record labels.

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

At the trendy Tribeca nightclub Wetlands Preserve, the family found a gig in the basement lounge that people had to walk through on the way to the bathrooms. The Cecilia experience of That’s Amore repeated itself: crowds grew and grew more enthusiastic. This was noticed by people from a small Warner Bros.-affiliated label, Blackbird Records. A recording contract was offered.

But days before the Veltzes could sign their deal, the AOL/Time-Warner deal was approved. In the quest for corporate synergies, Blackbird was no longer in business.

However, Cecilia now had champions inside the biz. A showcase was quickly scheduled for Atlantic Records, another Warner imprint. The legendary S.I.R. Studios were booked, engineers hired, fruit baskets and cheese platters arranged. “The suits start showing up,” remembers Ken. “Attorneys, secretaries, everybody’s there. Of course, the last one to show up is Craig Kallman.”

Kallman was then the head of A&R for Atlantic. He has since become its CEO. Kallman is credited with discovering Missy Elliott, Brandy, T.I., and Death Cab For Cutie, among many others. Not artists that share much in common with Cecilia’s happy pop, but Kallman was and is a big deal in the industry, with a history of chart success.

Cecilia played their full set. Ken says people were shouting for more. He clearly remembers Kallman’s reaction. “This literally happened,” he says. Kallman took the stage and announced, “What we heard tonight is the reason why Atlantic Records is in the record business.” recalls Ken. He quotes Kallman saying, “I look forward to this legacy, a long relationship with Cecilia the band and the day there will be box sets with the Atlantic logo on it.”

Close observers of the music business will note that there are currently no Cecilia box sets available. There was never even one Cecilia album with the Atlantic logo on it. After being wined, dined and signed, the family began a two-year struggle to satisfy both the label’s demands and their own creative instincts.

Surprisingly, after signing the band Atlantic wasn’t interested in any of the songs that audiences has clamored for. “First they said, ‘We don’t hear a hit,'” says Ken. “Then they said, ‘We don’t even hear songs for the record.'”

Even more surprising, when the band would discuss what their fans responded to, Ken says the execs told them, “You’re going to forget all that. Just forget those people.”

Interesting advice, especially considering how rabid Cecilia audiences could be. Iota’s Negrey remembers packed shows at his club. “One thing about Cecilia that always blew my mind,” he recalls, “is that their fans and supporters took that to another level. With all these shows we did, I found their fans were more than supportive.” Negrey remembers fans volunteering to work the merchandise table, making posters. “Just the enthusiasm of everyone wanting to see them blow up,” he says. “It just seemed like the fans were wiling to take three steps closer and do
more.”

Clint Alley was one such fan who, after hearing the band at Zig’s, signed on to become the group’s driver and tour manager. He recalls fan reaction as “simply remarkable.” Working the merch table, he says he heard “literally thousands of comments like ‘best I’ve ever heard,’ ‘most amazing show I’ve ever seen,’ ‘they make you glad to be alive.'”

These were the people Atlantic Records wanted to forget?

Alley thinks the label “squandered the musical opportunity of the decade.” Maybe so, but Alley is a retired engineer, not a record exec.

Which raises the question, of course: why did Atlantic sign Cecilia in the first place?

And that prompts another question: What makes a hit song? Short answer: nobody knows. If they did, the Top 40 would be the Top 40 Billion-to-the-10th-Power. A slightly longer answer might paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart‘s famous quote about pornography: “I know it when I hear it.” While nearly everyone who heard Cecilia play expected to someday hear those songs on the radio, actually getting them there has never been, outside of payola, much of a science. The current process for second-guessing popular taste involves hooking multiple musicians up on a “co-write,” hoping that enough chefs will stir up a good-sounding broth.

Ken was flown hither and yon for such meetups, but fought the process. “I’ve been writing since I was 13. I’m an older, seasoned guy and they’re sending me to meet with the team of 34 writers that wrote ‘Torn,'” he scoffs, adding quickly that he was exaggerating about the number of co-writers. A bit. He says he met with the man who wrote Lee Ann Womack‘s Grammy-winning Song of the Year, “I Hope You Dance.”

“And I said, let me guess, there’s no mother, there’s no daughter, there’s no mother that once danced and there’s no daughter she hopes will dance. He said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. It was a concept for a song.'” Again, Ken is quick to say he respects the craft, but reiterates his need for a personal story to hang his music on.

Cecilia also was at a stalemate in finding a producer for the hoped-for album, should any hits be found. Ken wanted to work with Frank Filipetti, who had recently won a Best Pop Album Grammy for his work with James Taylor. Ken remembers Kallman nixing the idea with the comment, “I want hits. I don’t want Grammies.” Never mind that Grammies only go to hits.

Ken and Jeannie suggest that the executives were more interested in promoting their two attractive young daughters as the next Britney Spears than in trying to market a modern Partridge Family. “The industry constantly tried to push us out,” says Ken.

“It bewildered us,” adds Jeannie. “They signed something unique and they want to change it into cookie-cutter.”

(Neither Kallman nor Atlantic Records responded to repeated requests for comment about the band’s time with the label. For her part, daughter Allison completely disagrees with this assessment of the situation, but doesn’t wish to speak about the Atlantic deal.)

Still, even now, with all that they own in the trunk of their car, the Veltzes accentuate the positive. “No sour grapes,” says Ken and Jeannie immediately agrees.

“Even Craig,” says Ken. “I like Craig. We all liked Craig. Craig wasn’t the problem.”

“He was a victim, too,” says Jeannie.

Ken theorizes that the AOL merger put pressure on executives to meet steep financial objectives instead of artistic ones. Shortly after signing Cecilia, Kallman was promoted to president of Atlantic. “Rather than nurturing this little family band, now he’s got a chopping block over him.” says Ken, by way of absolution.

Insisting that he has “no enemies in the industry” that failed him, Ken does offer one sad lament: in the two years Cecilia was signed to Atlantic, no one from the company ever came to any of their shows.

After head-butting for two years, the parties agreed to go their separate ways in 2002. The newly re-christened Veltz Family Band “took our story to the streets,” as Ken puts it, playing in subways, parks, and continuing to tour nationally for the next five years.

But there was other industry interest. Producers from Carsey-Warner, makers of The Cosby Show and Roseanne, shot a TV pilot starring the Veltzes as themselves, or rather, as some kind of millennial Partridge Family. The promo even begins with the animated logo from the ’70s show. But, again, the professionals had one idea and the family another. The producers suggested contrived scenarios that the family gamely improvised. “They would have done better to just have things happen like they happen,” says Jeannie today. The actual ups and downs of the family were far more interesting, she says. “There were fights and that’s OK. I mean, the Kardashians—that’s why they stay up in the charts, because of all the fights and disagreeing.”

She adds with a laugh, “It’s like we’re the most functional dysfunctional family. But aren’t we all?”

written by dave nuttycombe for the washington post

AS ANY TOURING MUSICIAN WILL TELL YOU, life on the road can become a blur. And so the boundaries between the Veltz family and the Veltz Family Band were growing fuzzy. While she loved the freedom of highway life, Jeannie often found herself wondering, “Am I a bandmember? Or am I a mom?” As a mother, she’d be tempted to, say, nudge a stray tag back inside a shirt collar. But, she notes, “a bandmember wouldn’t do that.” Making those distinctions was not always clear. “Sometimes I was mom when I should have been band and band when I should have been mom.”

But the band was facing pressure from the inside, as well. In between gigs, both Laura and Drew had found partners and got married. Soon thereafter, Drew’s first child showed up, which slowed things down, but only a little. Still, Jeannie would sometimes sit in the back of the van looking at her brood and think, “I don’t know how much longer we can do this.” She could see that her children were eager to start their own lives.

Then Drew’s second child was born with severe health issues, ultimately requiring four surgeries. The family would be in and out of hospitals for the next three-and-a-half years. Life for the band outside of the ER became more tentative. Jeannie is still struck by the memory of driving four hours to a show in Connecticut but having to turn back and head for the emergency room when the infant became suddenly ill. “It was an eight-hour driving day of insanity,” she says now with a shudder in her voice.

Even after recounting such horrific stories, Ken opts for the upside: “It did wonderful things for us,” he says. “It brought us down to the bone of reality. No more complaining that I don’t have the five-razor Gillette because I only have the three-blade. All that stuff just falls by the wayside.”

“I don’t think Andrew necessarily ever thought the band would break up,” adds Jeannie, “but the responsibilities of being a father—he had to be there.”

Drew moved his family to Maryland to concentrate on caring for his daughter. Today, she’s a healthy child. Laura and her husband moved to Nashville to focus on her own songwriting, followed shortly by Allison. Though the sisters are in touch and sometimes collaborate, mostly they pursue separate careers.

The Veltz Family Band unplugged.

Now the parents were faced with another decision—how to reinvent themselves once more at an age when their peers are thinking of retirement. Ken jokes about applying for a job at Mr. Donut. “‘What’s your past experience?’ I’m the father of a family band and I…”

“I ate donuts on the road,” Jeannie laughs.

The couple moved once again to upstate New York, this time to the artsy town of Cold Springs. They created a weekly music showcase called SongNest that featured regional singer/songwriters playing in the Veltz’s apartment. Ken posted videos of the living room sessions online, hoping to create a buzz, maybe sell the concept to a TV syndicator or radio network, like Mountain Stage or Austin City Limits. The couple also played for tourists from the comfort of their porch, singing songs, telling stories, passing the hat, morning, noon, and night.

Christian Livermore, a reporter for the local Times Herald-Record who lived above the Veltzes in Cold Spring, remembers, “I would go to sleep every night listening to the Veltzes play,” she says. “It was wonderful.”

For two years, the couple kept at it, “working 60, 70, 80 hours a week to not make ends meet,” says Ken. One day on the porch, he had an epiphany: When he and Jeannie met 37 years ago they toured around, a singer/songwriter couple with little more than each other and a desire to see the world and play their songs. Now their parents were gone and their children and grandchildren were healthy, happy, and living their own lives. There was nothing tying them to any place in particular. Another roll of the dice.

“We’re just gonna go out and see where the wind blows us,” Ken says with renewed excitement in his voice. “It’s kinda like the same feeling of getting out of high school.”

Livermore calls the Veltz’s decision to hit the road “extraordinarily brave. They faced the option of staying here, where it just wasn’t working, where people say they’ll support you, but they don’t support you—because, you know, nobody’s got money, nobody’s got time, everybody’s tired—or, you know, taking a leap of faith. And they took the leap of faith.”

For some people in this economy, the leap was more of a push. The Veltzes, at least, made the choice their own.

The couple left Cold Springs in June. They drove from gig to gig, town to town, some shows scheduled in advance, more often finding a place to play on the spot. Using contacts from years of touring and Craigslist, the Veltzes have stayed with and played for friends and fans in horse-country mansions and rural crab shacks—and once on the patio of a strip club.

“So far we’ve been able to eat off the top of the barrel,” says Ken, meaning that the trip is paying for itself.

The kids are supportive. “I think that it’s awesome that they’re going out and doing this,” says Allison over the phone from Nashville. “It’s a fearless journey and I’m really proud of them.”

photo by bill o'leary for the washington post

SUNDAY NIGHT IN ARLINGTON, it’s an hour or so before showtime at Iota. “A lot of great memories in this place,” says Ken as he calmly finishes a bowl of gazpacho. Jeannie sits to the side of the stage autographing CDs for sale. Opening act Jim Dugan does his soundcheck. Dugan is a friend of son Drew, who is staying home tonight, minding the grandkids. Dugan’s wife and a few of his fans are here. The Veltzes have brought in a couple tables of old friends and fans. The people from LA Bar & Grille who said they’d make the show will not be here tonight. In fact, this will be the smallest crowd the Veltzes have played to all week. It’s a sharp contrast with the packed houses that Cecilia drew to this same venue.

Still, Ken and Jeannie perform as if it were standing room only. For this show, they’ve brought out the full rig. Ken has adapted a middle eastern dumbek as a bass drum, with a tambourine he can play with his foot, one-man-band style. It’s surprisingly effective in creating a fuller sound for the songs.

Undaunted by the turnout, Ken has got his wish to play for a small crowd of enthusiastic supporters rather than an uninterested packed house.

There’s a new song on one of the CDs that won’t be played tonight because it requires a full band. “Something Out There” was recorded with all the modern bells and whistles that pop hits require. Though grandma Jeannie sings it, you’d be forgiven thinking it was one of her daughters, or any number of current chanteuses. It’s a solid toe-tapper that could definitely be a hit. Maybe even in Japan. Ken has not given up on making a mark on the charts.

“Life’s still good to us,” he insists. “And I think the best of our family story is yet to come.”

The benefit to not being a large family band is that the load-out at the end of the night is pretty simple. A guitar case, the small drum, and a couple bags of chords and such. Everything fits snugly, “like Tetris,” into Falkor’s trunk.

It’s after midnight when the Veltzes are finally in the car. Tonight they’ll stay with their son. Then it’s back on the road by Tuesday, maybe heading to Nashville, maybe north.

“We’re still making it up as we go,” says Ken. The car disappears up Wilson Boulevard.

Photos by Bill O’Leary, the Washington Post, and courtesy of the Veltz family and the Nuttycombe Archives.

They’re Playing Our Song (to Death)

Who Killed the Jingle? How a Unique American Art Form Disappeared

By Steve Karmen

Hal Leonard, 184 pp., $22.95

STEVE KARMEN’S TITLE ASKS A FAIR QUESTION: How did the once ubiquitous advertising jingle come to die? And, as the People-proclaimed “King of the Jingle,” he brings an informed perspective to the quest for an answer. Now retired, Karmen is fiercely proud to be responsible for such instantly recognizable tunes as “I Love New York,” “This Bud’s for You,” “Nationwide Is on Your Side,” and many dozens more pieces of musical Americana. If he doesn’t name a particular murderous “who,” his book is yet another chapter in the “why everything is going wrong” casebook.

Though many occupations and products have disappeared because of technology, we can’t blame the Internet or digitalization for the loss of “Oh-oh, Spaghetti-Os.” The real culprit in the case of the vanishing jingle and its replacement with rearranged or simply appropriated popular music is that, as one composer told Karmen, “No one thinks anymore. Imitation is the sincerest form of not having an original idea.” And no one wants to stick his neck out.

Underpinning the unoriginality, of course, is fear. Karmen spoke with many people in the biz for his book, and nearly everyone reflexively declined to speak on the record, no matter how inoffensive the quote. Fear grips ad people from inside and out, because they’re at the mercy of forces they can’t control: Advertising is neither art nor science, though it pretends to both. Despite the fact that Ridley Scott directed it, that 30-second minimovie fails as art because the product is always the star. And if you want to talk market research, I have two words for you: New Coke.

Coca-Cola’s CEO in 1984, Roberto Goizueta—one of the smartest businessmen of the time, with untold millions to spend—made the decision to change the formula of the beloved soft drink because he read the numbers wrong. And he read the numbers wrong because he and his marketing team erroneously believed that numbers held an answer to the question of why people enjoy sugar water. Karmen doesn’t talk about this case, loaded as it is with irony: Part of the reason people had bought oceans of the drink over a century was jingles—which the marketing teams of the world were by then rejecting—from “It’s the Real Thing” to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

So copywriters and art directors who fancy themselves artistes must live with the knowledge that they are frauds. (Yet in no other field is the term “creative”—as in “He’s in creative” and “She’s a creative”—heard more frequently.) And data-oriented ad reps must realize that their dazzling presentations are smoke and mirrors built on housing developments of cards. And all because they can’t say no to a client. Refuse to put a talking dog in the commercial and the client just goes next door, where the new agency will gladly take his money and produce the all-too-common least-common-denominator piece of junk.

So it is an old anxiety that has driven a media-saturated new generation of ad whizzes to seek refuge in the prepackaged popularity of hit songs over the unpredictability of original compositions. And this easy way out is also, of course, a failure of creative nerve. Why wrack your brain composing a fresh jingle when you can just swipe from your iPod and edit out-of-focus footage around the tune? The desired result, as too many addies told Karmen, is a spot that’s “cutting-edge.” Edge-cutting is what the highly compensated creatives are concerned with; damn the product.

“In their quest to be perceived as art, and not commerce, Madison Avenue succeeds in just being bad commerce,” writes Karmen. Bad commerce is spending millions to promote a product without telling people what that product is. Didn’t someone at HQ notice that the mopey Britpopper mumbling in the car commercial never actually mentions a car?

The trend away from product-specific jingles is so heedless, so underthought that the song “My Way” has already been used to hype eBay, Mercedes-Benz autos, and an insurance company. Karmen quotes an ad exec dismissing any concern about any dilution of branding engendered by duplication by saying that as long as his client was happy, it didn’t matter. Another name-withholding ad man justifies his company’s use of catchy but vague tunes with a dazzling piece of illogic: “What we’re doing is original in its own way, and it’s what everyone’s doing.”

And so instead of having earworms such as “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” and “My bologna has a first name…” fill their brains, today’s TV and radio consumers are treated to the experience of hearing their onetime favorite song splattered with the muck of SUV ads.

But the intended customers aren’t quite the suckers that self-satisfied marketers imagine. They know that the Zep lyrics Cadillac’s agency cut out of the commercial speak of a “lonely, lonely, lonely time.” They understand that, no matter how many flags wave in the Wrangler-jeans ad, Creedence‘s “Fortunate Son” is the antithesis of a patriotic anthem. Possibly the stupidest match is Iggy‘s drug-debauched “Lust for Life” with a luxury cruise line. The inevitable line running through the heads of TV watchers is not Damn, I’d like to travel on a Royal Caribbean ship but How stupid do they think we are?

Yet another reason that songs have replaced jingles, of course, is that they represent found money for avaricious copyright holders. “When pop-music publishers and the newly conjoined record company conglomerates realized that they could offer their songs at a competitive price with custom-made tracks—and still make a fortune—the advertising industry had finally become the marketing arm of the record business,” Karmen perceptively writes. And, yes, you can buy CD compilations of pop music from commercials. Songs in the key of commerce, let’s call them.

Of course, Karmen would not have minded grabbing some of that found money. He recounts his nearly 20-year losing battle with ASCAP to get jingle writers royalties comparable to those of pop songwriters. Part of the reason he fought so long and so hard is that he conducted research that found that jingles were 41 percent of the music heard on TV and 12 percent of the music heard on radio, but paid a measly 1 percent royalty rate from ASCAP—peanuts compared with pop-song cash. Karmen, a sought-after freelancer, had the audacity and the clout to rework the standard contract so that he kept the rights to his own music. Because he owned the notes to the Budweiser Clydesdale Christmas spot, he got paid every year, whether the score was re-orchestrated or not. This arrangement proved lucrative, but it would have been much more lucrative had he been paid at the level of Paul Simon or Hoagy Carmichael. (In a rather sad epilogue, Karmen reveals that he’s still battling corporations that want to use his music without paying.)

Of course, arguing for back-catalog integrity among pop stars (or the owners of their copyrights) when the near-death Rolling Stones are back on tour and the hope-I-die-before-I-get-old Who are licensing their songs for TV themes is futile. Just as futile as pointing out the irony of heroin-chic anthems’ being used to sell luxuries. Or arguing for the creativity of the jingles of yore. Your raft of an argument will only be obliterated in the deluge of repurposed rock.

Sure, even at their best jingles are simplistic and cynical. And by definition, they’re tainted with the intrinsic BS of adspeak. But ask yourself which is worse: sitting through another chorus of “I’m Chiquita Banana” or hearing the song that was playing during your first kiss now selling you toilet paper? Yeah, thought so.

Tiki Tiki Boom Boom

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Boink

Space Age Bachelor Pad Music
Esquivel!
Bar None

In considering the work of Mexican arranger/composer/bandleader Juan Garcia Esquivel, one is reminded of the words of Edd “Kookie” Burns, who said it best when he remarked: “Wowsville, daddy-o!”

Simplemente Esquivel

Of course, he was speaking in an entirely different context, but the sentiment remains apt. The 14 tracks on Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, a reissue of some of Esquivel’s most distinctive recordings, are stubbornly resistant to categorization. Even Esquivel has trouble describing Esquivel! music; one of his three originals is titled “Whatchamacallit.”

It is appropriate during this so-called “easy listening revival” that Esquivel’s genius should be finally recognized. While such trend-spotters as Newsweek have proclaimed that a “cocktail nation” is bubbling away among disaffected grungers, most of the bands comprising it seem to be under the misapprehension that merely donning evening dress and turning down the amps is all that’s required to be considered a happening sophisticate. Even a cursory listen to Bachelor Pad should reveal that being “easy” isn’t that easy.

A contemporary of that avatar of exotica, Martin Denny (whose 1957 hit, “Quiet Village,” with its human-produced jungle animal noises and Polynesian instrumentation, began the craze for hypnotic “tiki” sounds), Esquivel released a series of instrumental albums beginning in 1957 and continuing through 1968. While this era coincides with rock ‘n’ roll’s wildest pre-teen years, you wouldn’t know it from listening to this record.

Most of the songs on Bachelor Pad were familiar middle-of-the-road standards long before Esquivel got to them. His versions, however, are at once familiar and utterly foreign. In Esquivel’s hands, “Harlem Nocturne” sounds as if the arranger took the A train uptown via Saturn — for some reason, he thought to add Star Trek-style female vocalizing to the mix. The Glenn Miller chestnut “Sentimental Journey” boasts a merry whistler amid blaring brass. Surely the Beguine was never begun like Esquivel begins it. Throughout Bachelor Pad, incongruous choruses of “cha-cha-cha” ‘s, “zu-zu-zu” ‘s, and similarly unorthodox instrumental flourishes jump from the speakers.

And though Connie Francis‘ tearfully over-the-top “Who’s Sorry Now?” remains the definitive version, Esquivel’s rendition must be considered a model of elegant weirdness. In extracting most of the lyrics and replacing them with occasional phrases and choruses of “boink-boink” over minimalist, low-register piano, he has deconstructed the tune to the point where only the “duh?” remains.

Mixing howling swing band horn charts with jew’s-harps, sci-fi theremin’s, and the odd, harpsichordish Ondioline, in arrangements that constantly fluctuate over sudden dynamic extremes, Esquivel gets your toe tapping even as your head shakes in disbelief.

While it may be useless to try to explain or even describe the Esquivel touch, the key lies in the fact that he is first and foremost an arranger.

It’s a job title nearly extinct in today’s music industry, but prior to rock’s takeover, arrangers wielded considerable clout. Many versions of the same song might hit the market simultaneously; it fell to savvy arrangers to figure out the most compelling orchestrations and pair them with the appropriate singers. Think of Nelson Riddle‘s work with Frank Sinatra. Or the swing era’s Fletcher Henderson, who was probably more renowned for his arrangements than his band-leading.

Arranging is largely an intellectual process, done with no musicians in sight. Working with a pencil and blank sheets of staff paper, the arranger draws in trumpet notes at the sixth measure, eases violins out by the twelfth: It can be as passionless as a mathematics problem. As his unorthodox sonic combinations reflect, Esquivel clearly brought intensity to the task.

In his excellent book, Elevator Music, Joseph Lanza defends — nay, passionately proselytizes — the much maligned Muzak and its historical kin. He dismisses any easy dismissal of easy listening as the result of knee-jerk cultural prejudice, laying particular blame on the snooty music press for encouraging an unjustified superior attitude. He writes that “[a]fter decades of rock, rhythm and blues, folk, heavy metal, and rap, a desensitized population seems to assume that if music is not hot, heavy, bubbling with jackhammer rhythms and steaming with emotion or anger, it is somehow less than good or (worse) less than art. Not every artist should be obliged to reassure us that we are not zombies. There is also a place for music that is subdued, unobtrusive, even remote or alien.”

Lanza, who can see similarities between Mantovani and Philip Glass, must appreciate the cocktail nation movement. As our increasingly distressing and dangerous information age hammers us with nonstop nihilism, it is perhaps not surprising that a mood music renaissance has arisen. New age and trance are part of it, as are retro-visionary bands like Combustible Edison.

Lanza speaks glowingly of mood music’s utilitarian function, calling it “perhaps the twentieth century’s most authentic music, tailored exclusively for the electronic revolution.” The rise of postwar suburbanization and its attendant consumerism, the advent of stereophonic sound, along with the American public’s desire to put the hard years of Depression and war behind them, created a climate for recordings designed to “fully exploit the intended use of the hi-fi and stereo as domestic appliances with all of the environmental controls of thermostats, air-conditioners, and security systems.” Esquivel grasped the concept early and eagerly, filtering his songs through echoplex machines and other sound-bending technology — the mood Esquivel most often captures is otherworldly rapture.

Says Lanza, “[Mood music] can enchant us with exaggerated dreamscapes of order and happiness.” Esquivel’s exaggerations verge on the absurd while still managing to conform to easy listening standards. Muzak likes to bill itself as “more than music” — that’s also a fitting description of the Esquivel! experience.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper.