Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Poo Poodles: An interview and retrospective




On the Poo Poodles' 2006 album Here Comes the Future... The Future Is Now! only three of the songs were longer than a minute. The shortest song was five seconds long. 

Short songs aren't what made the Poo Poodles interesting, though; the Poo Poodles were interesting because they were DIY to the max. The Poo Poodles existed in their own twee-punk universe, singing with joyful abandon—about animals and babies and punk rock and absurdities—to music that barely held together for the length of a fragment, all recorded on a thrift-store tape machine. They were like a mashup of Half Japanese and Sesame Street, presented via 30-second audio clips. 

The two members of the Poo Poodles had no names, only initials. P, the boy, sang and played guitar, drums, and keyboards. BP, the girl, showed up occasionally to deliver spontaneous, unrestrained vocal performances that were some of the Poodles' best moments, like on "Punk Rock Fury" and "Bananas." 

The aforementioned Poo Poodles' album, Here Comes the Future... The Future Is Nowwas a compilation of the band's various cassette and CD-R recordings. It was apparently the sole release of the Quiet Life label, which is otherwise a clothing shop or something. The album not only sold out but also charted on the CMJ college radio chart. The band seemed well positioned to become the next.... Well, the next Poo Poodles. But then they abruptly stopped recording. This interview is the result of my own desire, as a fan, to find out what happened. 

Music Weird interviewed P from the Poo Poodles on April 27, 2014. 



Tell me a little bit about the members of the Poo Poodles: Where you're from, any other bands you were in, what kind of music you were into back then, how the band started.

Both BP and I are from Atlanta. We moved to Chicago in the mid-nineties and that is where the Poo Poodles were formed. We loved the city of Chicago itself. We lived there for five years, but the South has this season called "spring" which we could not live without, so we moved back. We lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for while before settling back in Atlanta.

I was in a few garage bands prior to meeting and marrying BP. I play the drums and a little bit of guitar. I can't really "play" the guitar. I know a few chords and can strum rhythm pretty good. But as far as knowing keys and which notes go together for a solo, I'm clueless. But I always had the instruments around. I saw Mike Watt play in Chicago and he was kind of berating a guy in the crowd who was shouting out for him to play a certain song. Mike Watt said, "Form your own band," and I took it to heart. Why not? Everybody should form a band or record songs. I had found a cool old vintage 2-track tape machine at the thrift store and we started laying down tracks.

It was just for fun, especially with BP. She had no interest in being in a band. But she'd sing along and that's where the magic happened. I love her voice and she was uninhibited because she really didn't care.

We both listened to different kinds of music. I listened to a lot of punk rock. But your standards, too: Beatles, Stones, Velvet Underground. Queen is one of my favorite bands. BP doesn't like punk rock at all. She's a great filter in that regard. I couldn't really point to any specifics in regard to directly influencing our style or sound. If you are some type of musicologist, perhaps you could determine I listen to a lot of Devo, the Minutemen, KISS, Butthole Surfers. Although, in the late nineties, we both listened to a lot of Beck, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Luna, Beth Orton, and a lot of reggae. I don't think we sound like anyone though. We'd get feedback that we sounded kind of like LiLiPUT/Kleenex. But I had never heard of them. Although, I am a fan now.

I will confess, some of the times my vocals are me trying to sound like the vocals from "Blockhead" by Devo. Listen to our tune "Chipmunk"—my vocalization is directly from "Blockhead."

We were just DIY and kind of inept, really. As I said, I can't play guitar. Most songs were built around the melody of the vocals. We'd be out in the world and a lyric would pop up, influenced by whatever, and a melody. That would be the song. As we say, "Being in tune isn't what we are about."


I wanted to include a discography, but a lot of your releases are pretty obscure. (Check out the discography on the Poo Poodles website.)

Our discography is kind of an always-evolving entity. Almost everything was DIY. We put it out ourselves. Designed and printed the art. Mixed the recordings. Burned the CDs, etc. Most of it was given away. If you wanted our CD, we would send it to you. And we considered something to be released even if we only made one copy. So we have a pretty vast discography.


Poo Poodles Fan Club/Naysayers Guild info sheet


The Quiet Life put out a compilation CD. It is called Here Comes The Future… The Future Is Now. It had 25 tracks. It was sent to radio and actually charted briefly. To confuse matters, we also have a recording called Here Comes The Future/The Future Is Now. The "Squeaky Little Wheel" single was put out by a skateboard company called Ruby Ropa and has tunes from Punk Rock Fury and Here Comes The Future. We made certain it didn't duplicate anything from the Quiet Life release.

But it started with Nerds On Parade. Originally titled Lollipop. I was trying to coin a term for what we were doing, and I had “lollipop rock.” But BP changed it to Nerds On Parade. That’s more apt. This was our first recording. It was actually a cassette tape. I'm sure we burned discs, too. But after the initial release, we never made this readily available. OOP. It was always special to us, so we considered it OOP. Some of the songs made their way onto the Future Is Now compilation. Maybe one day we will re-release it. I can't recall the total right now, but it was about 30 songs. Our definitive song, "Bananas," is on this.






Next was Punk Rock Fury. We recorded this and Here Comes the Future at the same time. That was a fast and furious time. We were always making songs. It was like Parliament/Funkadelic. I was George Clinton, not sure what song was for which record. We had planned for Punk Rock Fury to be all covers. Basically, I was learning how to use our new Tascam 4-track. Nerds was recorded on 2-track. But songs would come, and I'd think, "This doesn't seem like it should go on Punk Rock Fury." And it'd be slotted for Future Is Now, which ended up with 30-plus tracks. And Punk Rock Fury evolved to include originals.

I gave a copy of Punk Rock Fury to the dude who worked at my local record shop, Planet of Sound in Chicago, and he told me it was "brutal." As in "horrible." Months later, a fan who had discovered us on Myspace or Garageband contacted us and told us they had bought our record. I was perplexed, as you couldn't really "buy" our records. And when we asked, he told us he found a used copy at a record store. It turns out he bought it at Planet of Sound! I thought it was pretty amazing. If you think about how tiny our fan base was/is, and for this one guy to happen into the ONE RECORD STORE ON EARTH that had ONE COPY of Punk Rock Fury…. Magical, really.

A note about Here Comes the Future: When we first put it out, it had "Rocket Ride" by Ace Frehley/KISS on it. But we later removed that track. So if anyone has it with "Rocket Ride," it's crazy rare!

We have a recording called The Kitten EP that I consider to be officially released. But it is lost—the artwork and the actual original master disc. Someone out there has a copy. I'd love to get it, as I don't have those songs in the original mixes. I have all the original tapes. But I won't be able to mix them the same. I'm in a different place now. I might want to tinker with them. Regardless, some cool tunes. "The Black Squirrel" and the Ramones' "Mama's Boy" are two that stand out. Our first foray into robotic-rock, called "Kitten." Some of the tracks on this were leftovers from Here Comes the Future.

When we moved to Birmingham we had more space so we created the Cul-De-Sac studio. I was able to set up my drums. So the stuff we were recording had a lot of real drums. More guitar. Cowbell. "College" rock. We Are the Greatest Band on the Planet and We Go Jackpot were recorded there.






The "Frusciante" single: Our ode to the Chili Peppers' wacky guitarist. I'd say his first solo record was an influence on me. It is that fine line between being genius and being horrible. I'm not comparing the Poo Poodles to John Frusciante, but we are similar in a way. You either think we are amazing, or you think we are insanely terrible. But, I love that kid.

Next was the Banana Attack EP. By this point, BP had basically stepped away. So I was noodling with remixes. Trying to create tunes with already existing material. It was our first foray into sampling. I think "Bananas Galore" is pretty good until I ruin it with my rap at the end. The remix of "Bananas," called "Monkey Mix," is pretty good.

I was able to convince BP to step behind the mic for "PP Rockers." This is our version of "Clash City Rockers." A little trivia: This was recorded on a Paul Stanley signature guitar I purchased at Target. Afterward I returned it! This is the last thing we've released. It was in 2007.



An advertisement for the actual guitar that is under discussion



We have a few tunes still in the can. One really great BP vocal on a track called "Little Chompers." It's kind of our "You Know You're Right" by Nirvana. It will surface eventually.


What happened to unreleased album The Irony of Being a Reagan Youth Fan

That is still an idea, a concept, for a record. I did start working on it. Actually started recording a few tracks. We have a few songs. But it's an interesting idea. I mean, what is punk? What is punk rock about? To me, to the Poo Poodles, it's DIY. It's pure freedom. It's D. Boon. It's thinking for yourself. Being yourself. The true individual. That's what our song "Freddie Mercury Is Punker Than You, Punk" was all about. But when it comes to "punk" rock, punk has so many dogmatic rules. A uniform. Conforming knuckleheads in Black Flag or Ramones t-shirts. 

Of course, my worldview comes with getting older, and wiser, too. Teenagers are pretty arrogant. Just as I was at that age. I had a Black Flag t-shirt at that age. But now I know what they don't know. What they think they know. What they don't even know that they don't know! That was "Dumb Punk Kids": "You're just a couple of dumb punk kids, you're not doing it for yourselves." That was plainly stated. But as I've gotten older, they seem to get dumber. I don't want to sound like I'm knocking kids. I get it. Find yourself. But having an "open" mind should mean having an open mind. If I try to explain to some young punk rocker in a Misfits t-shirt, "Hey, why not listen to Kelly Clarkson?" I get a blank stare. It boggles their "open" minds. But I was like that, too. Seeing the Minutemen helped me understand things better.

I discovered punk in the '80s. During Reagan. The DKs. The Let Them Eat Jelly Beans LP. "World Destruction" by Afrika Bambaataa and Johnny Lydon. All that. Punk rockers seemed to be anti-government. But now it seems to be the opposite. It's statism. At least, that's my POV. That's how I see it. Most "punk rockers" lean left. That's all good. Social issues, blah blah blah. But now instead of being anti-government they want the government to wrap them up in a Snuggie®. They want the government to control the people they disagree with and tell them what and how to think. Of course, they don't think that. Or see it that way. But I ask, where is the 2014 version of Let Them Eat Jelly Beans? That's what The Irony of Being a Reagan Youth Fan asks. 

Reagan's quote, “Government is not a solution to our problem: government is the problem.” That sounds good to me. Of course, Reagan was a big spender, too. He grew the deficit. Expanded government. I definitely do not align myself with the GOP. They are horrible. All politics, the way Washington works, sickens me. It's like professional wrestling. But I keep up with it. I want to know what's happening. And both parties are full of it. I like to consider myself a libertarian. And in local elections I can vote that way. But if my choice is a conservative or a statist leftist, I'll lean conservative. But, oh no! That's not punk rock! Or is it? I think for myself. So yes it is. "Freddie Mercury is punker than you, punk." 

So, that's The Irony of Being a Reagan Youth Fan. It's a political record. A political record with kittens. What it means to be a punk rocker with a mortgage and a family. Which is not something we've ever done. But I want to finish it. The problem, as always, is BP has no interest in it. She has no interest in any new Poo Poodles recordings. And I can only put so many P vocals on a Poo Poodles record. I mean, “Guns of Brixton” is an amazing tune, but you don’t want an entire Clash record with Paul Simonon vocals.





One of the many fun things about the Poo Poodles is that BP is such an uninhibited vocalist. 

Uninhibited is a good observation. She really didn't care. We were just having fun. It wasn't "real" to her. And the magic came from that. I played all of the instruments. The arranging and "producing." And when she'd record her vocals, it was one take. Maybe two. And that was that.


Is anything easier about writing tons of short songs, compared to writing fewer long songs?

I don't think it's about ease. Our songs can only get so good. They are what they are. Whenever we have tried to really work on a song, it gets worse. It's all to do with our abilities. Or lack of. We do what we do. The songs are short because that's what they are. We don't ever think, "Oh, let's make short songs." The songs just come to us—at least the ones that work. A good Poo Poodles song just comes to us. I've tried to sit down and "write" songs, and they are never any good. The longer I work on a song, the worse it becomes.


Did you play live much or ever tour outside of your region?

The Poo Poodles played a few live gigs. But it was me alone. I gave it a shot. I could see it in my mind. I had a vision for it. Big ideas. A type of live-performance art, with a backing sound system. But it didn't pan out that way. It was just a terrible guitar player singing along to tapes. I contemplated putting together a Poo Poodles live band. So the "Poo Poodles sound system," as I could see it and hear it and conceived it in my mind, could exist. But it never happened. I wish it had.


What were the best and worst experiences of the Poo Poodles?

Hanging out with BP. She's my best friend and it was fun. Our brief run on the CMJ charts was neat. There aren't any worst experiences.


Talk about your upcoming project.

We have a few things up in the air. First is getting our website back up and running.
The Irony of Being A Reagan Youth Fan—I want to finish it and put it out.

We've also been working on a Christmas record! We have several songs in various stages of completion; some just need to be mixed, some have just the tracks, and some written down in a notebook. But it was started about four years ago. So, I sound like Ace Frehley talking about it: "There's a new record coming out." Believe it when you hear it.

We also have one other kind of top-secret project. It's finished. It was finished years ago but never released. It's called Goody Goody Gumdrops. It started as a kind of Poo Poodles side project, but now I consider it to be Poo Poodles. It's different. It has samples. It has our kids singing on it. The concept was to make a punk rock record for kids. I'm not a fan of Ramones "Kidz Bop" type of stuff. Just play the Ramones, right? But, kids like hearing kids' voices. It happened organically. Like I said, I can only do so much on the guitar. I can only make so many "bleep" and "bloop" sounds on our little keyboard. I felt we had kind of hit a roadblock. So I started playing around with samples. I liken it to being our Big Audio Dynamite record. And as it started coming together, I thought: This is punk rock for my kids. My kids love it because they sing on it. I'll be interested to see if anyone else likes it. But that will come out this year.


What's the deal with "Bananas"? 

"Bananas," to me, is the epitome of the Poo Poodles. It's what we are all about. It was recorded spontaneously. Written spontaneously. The guitar is out of tune. It was one take. Of course it sounds that way. So, to most people, it's horrible. But some are down with it. And if you can get down with "Bananas," you are down with the Poo Poodles.

I've never told the story of how that song came to be. I don't like knowing all the specifics of what a song means, so we don't explain our songs. But here's the story: We had gone to see Astrud Gilberto. And it was funny. She'd tell an anecdote before a song: "Oh, this song is about this…. I was in Japan when I wrote this…, etc." and then she'd sing the song. And all the songs sounded the same. She's singing in Portuguese, of course, but it was a blur. Everything was "doopy doopy do." "And this song is about…" and it'd go "doopy doopy do." It was funny. So we're at home and we were "singing" Astrud Gilberto-style, and "Bananas" started happening. So I picked up my out-of-tune guitar, hit "record," and BP sang it. And that's "Bananas." That's the Poo Poodles.




Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Music Weird interviews Joe Dowell, part 3



This is the third and final part of my interview with Joe Dowell. Part 1 can be found here, and part 2 can be found here

In this part, Dowell talks about the recordings that he made after "Wooden Heart," the end of his contract with Smash Records, and the beginning of his career as a jingle writer. 


After "Wooden Heart," your next single was "Bridge of Love." That seemed like an attempt to tap into the foreign-language motif of "Wooden Heart." 

Yeah, we used French that time. It was obviously a ripoff, trying to take off on the "Wooden Heart" style.



It was a good song, though. It did pretty well.

It was a pretty good record. But it certainly didn't do what "Wooden Heart" did. As we spoke earlier, I wish that I could have worked toward a balladeer [style] like Ed Ames or Andy Williams—more evergreen lasting kinds [of songs]—but, unfortunately, Mercury forced me to do gimmick stuff like "Bobby Blue Loves Linda Lou," "Bringa Branga Brought," some songs that I'm extremely embarrassed about, yet it's the history of what they had me do, and it has its place.  


And "Little Red Rented Rowboat" was your third hit single.

Now that was a pretty good song, in the summer of '63. There's a funny story about that. I was hired to perform for the WLS Barndance. Does that ring a bell?



Yeah, up in Chicago.

Famous station, still going great. But they had a barn dance on WLS, and the people had accepted me to perform "Little Red Rented Rowboat." Well, it was a very family-oriented show, and I had not been real happy about one of the lyrics. Maybe in today's world—forty years later—these lyrics would be absolutely nothing to offend the censors, but then, even this was considered too licentious, too extreme, and I had to rewrite the words before I sang it. The original words are like this: "I saw two pretty girls sunbathing on a pier/they wore bikinis way down to here." That threw the ownership and the head of the radio program into a tizzy, and so they insisted that I rewrite the lyrics that night. So I took the original, "I saw two pretty girls sunbathing on a pier/they wore bikinis way down to here"—I had to change it to something more milquetoast and acceptable. So here's what I wrote and performed that night: "I saw two pretty girls sunbathing on a pier/they could see my rowboat way out here."  [Laughs] They accepted that, and the show went on. But I can never be accused of racy lyrics, because that's not my style. My parents didn't raise me for that kind of blue lyric.  


At some point you were able to convince the label to let you start cutting your own songs?

It was kinda half and half. It was more of an afterthought, because they never really intended to promote the tunes. They were just B-sides. Just in the studio, but they never really gave me a chance, like John Denver, to emphasize my own skill as a singer/songwriter. One tune, "Just Love Me," which everybody loves—in one town, Fargo, North Dakota, it went to #1. I think if we had promoted that instead of the song on the other side....  "Just Love Me" was a B-side of "Bridge of Love." 

So, poor, sad little tune "Just Love Me" was a hit and they blew it. They could have released that as a third song and put "A-side" on both records.



They didn't see this as a quality song?

No.


They just didn't value it because you'd written it?

That's a part of it. In several markets it was a monster. And I think it's still a very good song. 



You also did a Christmas single ("A Kiss for Christmas").

It didn't have any hit behind it. It didn't make any real noise.



It "bubbled under" the Billboard Top 100.

Yeah. "Kiss for Christmas" was okay, but it didn't become a big hit like "Jingle Bell Rock." That would be a giant record.


So then you did your second LP.

Joe Dowell Sings the German-American Hits. We thought that would be a nice niche.





Whose idea was that?

Again, the label. The people have no names. "The management." I was real happy to do a lot of good German songs. The melodies!



But you were becoming associated with Germany.

Yeah.


You don't have any relationship to Germany, do you?

Only through my parents. My grandparents were born there on both sides. My mother's folks—both sides of the mother's folks, her mom and dad—were born in Germany. So the only claim to Deutschland is one-half, is the maternal side. My grandparents came here though Ellis Island. That's another story. But my dad's side is from, I believe, Wales. The Welsh influence.


Did people start to believe that you were German?

Yeah. They thought that I married a German girl because of "Wooden Heart," and there's no connection whatever.  



Then you recorded "Poor Little Cupid," "Bringa Branga Brought," "Bobby Blue Loves Lindy Lou." Again, these novelty songs that you don't prefer.

And, I wish, you could tell me, maybe—what was my last song? Was it "Rowboat" in '63?



"Bobby Blue"

The closing of that part of the Smash Records then led to a fantastic experience of being radio/television spokesperson all over the country. "Wooden Heart" opened the door to tremendous success as a radio and TV voice. And within three or four years of 1961—let's say that when the door closed to Smash Records, the TV doors opened, and within four years I had commercials on 24 different banks in 24 different cities, from Salt Lake City to Pittsburg. 

And we had some outstanding successes with radio/TV commercials. It was a lot of fun and had some really great achievement in terms of population or sponsor memory. For instance, when I say that, I'm talking about sponsor recollection or the consumer that can remember my commercials.

For example, I went to Peoria, signed a contract with Jefferson Memorial Bank. Within a year, Jefferson Bank people wanted to find out whether my commercial was reaching the populace. They had Bradley University marketing department run a comprehensive survey, and took a hundred people out of the phone book—a hundred families' indiscriminately chosen phone numbers—and of those, people were played a portion of the jingle, and 82.6% could remember my commercial. The national average is down to 15%. So, it shows the power of melody versus the idiocy of rap today, which is to me a cancer against the wonder and the body of true melody and beautiful lyrics and clever use of melody and word. It's really devastatingly awful stuff. You couldn't make a good commercial using rap—that's the proof right there, is that the integrity of beautiful melody and clever lyric can be remembered in a good commercial. Richard Zinser, who was a marketing executive, wrote me a letter and said, "You have conquered Peoria." He couldn't believe the statistics of almost 83% of the whole town of Peoria. That's a big village.  

Over the years, I consistently batted that average, with market statistics of 70% to 80% of the population could come back and remember my commercials.



Talk about your last days at Smash.

"The last days of Smash," like the last days of Pompeii. [Laughs]  



"Wooden Heart" was huge. You'd think they'd experiment with you more.

They didn't. It was like a can of beans thrown in the supermarket, and when that particular equation of gimmicks didn't work, they just dropped me. 

The last days.... It was in summer of '63, I got a phone call from Charles Fash, who rather abruptly said, 'Our distributors are having to eat your records. They're not selling. Goodbye."  And, abruptly, just rather coldly, cut me from the label without even a lunch or a letter, and it was quite disappointing. But then, of course, it threw me back onto my own wiles and my own talents, and that one abrupt drop forced me to go into a very exciting world of radio/TV commercials.



But you did the one single for Monument. [The B-side, "Indian Summer Days," is really great. I'd link to it, but there's no video on YouTube.]

That was my last effort to try to do something. I went to see the owner of Monument Records—this was '66.



Fred Foster.

Fred Foster, the owner, and Bill Justis, the producer, and I convinced them both to give me a try with a tune I wrote about the Vietnam situation, "If I Could Find Out What Is Wrong." We released it in '66. It didn't do anything, but that was my last effort at Top 40 or commercial records. And then that was in the midst of.... I was already having great success with radio/TV commercials, with what I'd call "ad ballads." But that was my last effort to try to do something with hit records.



Do you have any photos of your Thunderbird tour?

No. I wish I did.



Do you have any performance photos?

I don't think so. It just went too fast. I didn't pre-plan to have anyone with a camera. 


Did you appear on American Bandstand?

I just barely missed it. If "Wooden Heart" had been in the charts a few more weeks, I would have been on Dick Clark's show, but, sadly, I didn't make that. I did make radio shows and interview-TV things around the country, but nothing network.  

I did a big show at Gimbels in Milwaukee. It was a big teen thing where I sang and thousands of teenagers came, and I had to have a police escort down the elevator. That was kind of a typical "Johnny Record" deal.  



Well, you were a teen idol.

For about fourteen minutes. There are a lot of fun stories that came out of it. There's a man, Joe Ricky, in Missouri, and he's finding me all over the internet, and recently sent me a CD he made himself of taping different things where my music is in the background. He took about seven or eight of my records and actually recorded a little bit of footage so that I could look at some series of little pictures going on of different things. When he played "Bridge of Love," he took pictures of bridges. It's on a DVD and I haven't even been able to see it yet because we don't have a DVD player. 

But over the years, a lot of fun things have happened because of "Wooden Heart." Friends on a fishing expedition in Northern Minnesota heard it on a jukebox not so long ago. Once in a while I get a letter from somebody that they heard "Wooden Heart." One amazing thing is, it's still one of the top most-played oldies in the country; it's getting more and more on the playlists, like 93.3 in Peoria, Illinois. Dick Clark played it on Rock, Roll & Remember a few years ago. My optometrist heard that. I've got to get in contact with Dick Clark. Wouldn't it be interesting if he played my new Christmas song, "Holly Hallelujah"? If he would air it on his national radio show?  

So, I'm hoping to get some interest and a label to release what very respected broadcast man Paul Dunn, in Bloomington, Illinois—he's from Pasadena, California, originally, wound up in Bloomington as one of the top radio personalities at a radio station, by the way, nominated as the best small-market radio station in the United States. Now, it ain't that way today, it's—I can say this because I'm in Bloomington today—going down the drain because of the format that they're doing. But Paul Dunn thinks, and this man has written for Paul Harvey, got a great mind, very talented broadcast man—he thinks "Holly Hallelujah" could be a Christmas standard in American music. So I've got great hopes for this new Christmas song, and I plan to start making contacts in Nashville to try to record it, have it ready for a CD single next year for Christmas of 2004. So I haven't given up dreams of recording. We're hoping for some success with "Holly Hallelujah."




Monday, April 21, 2014

Work Drugs and Teen Men at the Underground Lounge, Chicago, 4/18/2014



On Friday, the wife and I drove for four hours to see Philadelphia's Work Drugs and Wilmington, Delaware's Teen Men at the Underground Lounge in Chicago. The trip was a first-world nightmare: We got off to a really late start, hit some crazy traffic, and couldn't find a parking space when we arrived. I was in a state of low-grade panic for about three-and-a-half hours and was exhausted by the time we got to the club. 

"Dude," you might be thinking, "relax. What's the big deal?"

The big deal is that I've been wanting to see Work Drugs live for two years, but they seem to rarely play west of Philadelphia. On their current tour to support their new album, Insurgents, they actually scheduled a few dates in the Midwest, and I didn't want to miss it. We could have seen them in Columbus, Ohio, or Chicago, both of which are approximately equidistant from us, but we chose Chicago. 

I've seen tons of shows in Chicago, but I had never been to the Underground Lounge. It's an interesting little club. Set below street level on West Newport Avenue (hence the "underground" part of its name), the club is small, dingy, and frozen in time. Old arcade games like Ms. Pac-Man and Zaxxon blinked in a small room off to one side, and on the ceiling, textured wallpaper that was supposed to simulate the look of old-fashioned metal ceiling panels threatened to fall down in places. The club had no beers on tap, only 16-ounce cans of Old Style and Miller Lite. Or, if you wanted to pay a premium, crafty stuff like Daisy Cutter Pale Ale (an outstanding APA from Chicago's own Half Acre Beer Company) and Milk Stout Nitro (from Colorado's Left Hand Brewing Company). 

On the drive to Chicago, we listened to the new self-titled EP by the opening band, Teen Men. It's the band's only release so far and you can download it for free on Bandcamp. On the basis of a single listen, I thought that guitarist/vocalist Nick Krill was a good singer and that their percussive grooves reminded me a little bit of Vampire Weekend and Talking Heads. "At least the opening band won't suck," I said. 

When Teen Men took the stage at the Underground Lounge, though, I was really impressed. Teen Men is a side-project of the long-running Spinto Band, and it shows—these guys are polished. The group played along to video footage that was synchronized to their music and projected onto a screen behind them, and they hilariously wove their "teen men" credo into their banter and imagery. I laughed every time they projected their cheesy lightning-bolt "Teen Men" logo onto the screen. Their harmonies were tight, the songs were good, the visuals were interesting. Well played, gentlemen. 




After a short break, Work Drugs appeared in multicolored Risky Business sunglasses, looking kind of like the Sha Na Na of chillwave. This show must have said something about the harsh economic realities of being an indie band today, because even though Work Drugs wages an aggressive social media campaign and has an international following for its prolific output (something like seven albums, an EP, and several singles since 2011), only about 30 people turned out to see them in Chicago on a Friday night. 

From a concertgoing standpoint, I'm not complaining—it was great. We sat five feet from the stage and watched the show in complete comfort without being packed like sardines or jostled by drunken idiots. But it made me wonder how Work Drugs and Teen Men could possibly make money on this tour. Now that physical media is all but dead and bands are supposed to make up for lost album sales with concert revenue (because everyone who downloaded your album for free is supposed to support your live shows), what happens when the fans don't turn out? Probably 99% of bands will end up being hobbyists who subsidize their art with day jobs and create music for others on their own dime as if it's some kind of charity work. 

On record, Work Drugs lays down cool dance beats with puzzling lyrics that invite you to sing along, but onstage, the band banged out full-band renditions of their tunes with a traditional guitar-bass-synth-drums combo. They played a lot of my favorites—"West Coast Slide," "License to Drive," "Rad Racer"—but they didn't play "Daddy Bear" or my absolute favorite Work Drugs song, "Art of Progress" (video link below). 

Work Drugs would be good for dancing, but too few people were in attendance to get any dancing going. The band closed with "License to Drive" and didn't play an encore but hung around to talk to fans for a while. I told the drummer that we drove four hours to see them and he said, "Why would you do that?" 






Friday, April 18, 2014

Music Weird interviews Joe Dowell, part 2

Billboard, July 3, 1961


Here is part 2 of my interview with Joe Dowell, which continues from here. In this segment, he talks about his first hit, "Wooden Heart," and his first album. 

The story of how he came to record "Wooden Heart" is much more involved than he describes here; you can read the full story in my liner notes to Dowell's CD on Bear Family Records. 


What was your first Smash session like? 

I went to the studio to my manager's office first, and while I was looking at my four songs, three of which I had written and one by Jodi Bancino called "Little Bo Peep," somebody came in the door with Elvis' album G.I. Blues. I thought that it could be a chance for a giant record because ["Wooden Heart"] was big overseas, big in England, around the world, but for some unknown reason, RCA Victor never released [it as] a single by Elvis in the United States.  

My managers got word of this, knowing of "Wooden Heart"'s already-great mileage for great success. They convinced me to do it that day, for we got the song on Elvis' G.I. Blues album just a few hours before the recording session. So I immediately began to learn "Wooden Heart" from Elvis Presley's movie track G.I. Blues, and they even hired a German teacher, Eddie Wilson, to tutor me the German. We were in the back seat of the taxi cab going to Bradley's Barn, working on the German in the taxi on the way to the microphone.  

Well, I got it down enough that I recorded it that day. Everybody liked it, but some unique things about the music: Whereas Elvis had an actual accordion, a real accordion, playing the certain German accordion-type licks, Ray Stevens was imitating the chintsy little accordion sound on an electric organ. So Ray Stevens, the famous guy with "Ahab the Arab" and "The Streak," before he was even known, he was playing the accordion—aping it—on an organ for "Wooden Heart." We had another, Jerry Kennedy, playing bass, whereas Elvis had an actual tuba going. Jerry Kennedy played the bass and imitated the tuba with his bass guitar. If I'm not mistaken, I think the Anita Kerr Singers and Jordanaires were in some of the background on that record.  

Nevertheless, we got a pretty unique sound. It was released in June of '61. Ninety days later, my single "Wooden Heart" found its way to #1 in the nation on the record charts.  So I was quite astounded, amazed. One person said that many people have to pay their dues, record five or ten years before they get a #1 record. This was my very first 45 I had ever even put out.  

But there is a funny story that maybe I'm not so proud of this, that I did a little bragging, like Joe Namath and the New York Jets. He said, "I know we're going to win the Superbowl."  Well, I said the same thing: I know my first record is going to go to #1. I just feel it. I know it will! Well, it did. But before I even recorded it, I had told a few people around Music City that my first record is going to go to #1, and I was ridiculed for that. They laughed at me, they tore me down behind my back, but then the story came from Red Sovine, and Red Sovine was a famous country singer, and I learned this from his son Roger Sovine—Red Sovine's son Roger. So, Roger told me one day that his dad revealed something quite funny, that when I first came to Nashville I was a little braggadocio, telling everybody my first record was going to be #1, and that was when the controversy, all the bad press—people were talking about and ridiculing that I had said, "Oh, I just feel that my first record is going to go to #1," and then Red Sovine told Roger that when it went to #1, all the backstabbing stopped on Music Row. They didn't say anything anymore. 


You said you recorded a few cuts before "Wooden Heart"?

Nothing. No records whatsoever.



You mentioned "Little Bo Peep."

Oh, that was on the same session.  



You did a four-song session?

Four-song session.



Who played the saxophone break on "Little Bo Peep?"

I think it was Boots Randolph.



It's amazing. It's really ferocious. That the hardest rocking performance of your career.

Yeah.



But that's not what you wanted to do.

No, it isn't.



It's a great performance!

I think it was Boots. Nobody could play sax [like him] and still, he's playing around, and he's a great, great musician.


You probably thought that you had it made after you immediately reached #1 with "Wooden Heart."

I was too obsessed with—and I know many others have been—I thought that would be a way to find inner fulfillment. Why do we.... Why are we driven? Maybe it's more than the fun of a little singing. Maybe it's more than just picking a little guitar. Maybe it is like the movie Fame. Maybe these life incidents cause certain things to happen where we are driven to try to make up for a vacuum or some kind of an emptiness. And I know, without question, that the motivation driving me was the tragic childhood and a lot of other things that happened too.

I was taught by culture that I was nothing and I had to make up for this sense of void, and if I get stage lights and fame and money then I would be happy. Nevertheless, I found that fifteen—maybe mine was fourteen and a half—minutes of fame.... Maybe it wasn't totally fifteen, but the phone began to ring as a kind of stamp of approval, kind of a little confirmation of fame. The phone began to ring, and lo and behold, one day it was Jimmy Dean. And he had a lot of fame at that time from "Big Bad John."


And his TV show.

Right. And Jimmy Dean wanted me to travel Canada with him. Patsy Cline was there on the stage, and George Hamilton IV again, and Jimmy Dean, and a little guy named Joe Dowell. I was only 21. And I had the privilege of traveling Canada with these famous stars.

For example, at the Calgary Stampede [Corral] rodeo arena, there were over 50,000 to 75,000 people that saw me sing, and I walked out with a guitar, and "Wooden Heart" had gotten to #4 in Canada.

And then I got to sing with Bobby Vinton, Minnesota State Fair, Tony Orlando & Dawn—did a show with them in New York. And I'll never forget, Tony walked up with my album and he commented that he loved it and a lot of his friends did.

And I sang with Phyllis Diller and Dennis Day, the great singer from Jack Benny's comedy show. This was the Milwaukee Spectacle of Music in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And, interestingly, "Wooden Heart" sold more records in this German city of Milwaukee than any other city in America because of the German in it. And as a result, I was honored to be on the stage with Phyllis Diller and Jack Benny. Bing Crosby's band, Bob Crosby & the Bobcats, were the backup artists, the backup singers and band, that time.  


Milwaukee Sentinel, July 16, 1961


There were other opportunities to sing with some stars: Bobby Rydell in the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. A lot of doors opened to sing with Sheb Wooley at another state fair somewhere.



Did you make television appearances?

I made a few. There was a lot of interviews. Of course, when "Wooden Heart" was making it, what was fascinating was to help the label—I should have brought this in earlier, but it's still time. Just about the beginning of the release of "Wooden Heart," this was around June, I was sent with a very, very large man named Danny in a low-slung Thunderbird. We went on a one-month barnstorming tour to promote "Wooden Heart," and we traveled by car for one solid month to every major city east of the Mississippi to promote this little 45, "Wooden Heart": Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlantic City, St. Louis, and all the major record-breaking towns in between. And one of the fascinating things to realize is there were about five other cuts of "Wooden Heart" that were sent to the radio stations I had to compete with. Well, fascinating—when I went to a town, the disc jockeys hadn't yet decided which version of "Wooden Heart" play. But because I went in with Danny and offered myself to go to interviews, to record hops, TV shows, they began to play my version.  So they went on the Smash Joe Dowell version of "Wooden Heart" and none of the others.  

Back at Mercury headquarters in Chicago, they observed a rather phenomenal thing. Every time I would go to a town—let's say Cleveland—and the radio stations would start playing my version, record sales would skyrocket, and they could follow my trajectory of promotion by the sales. Like little forest fires would start there, and then another forest fire would burst out there, and they could follow my journey of record promotion by the tremendous increase of record sales in those towns. For one simple reason: the disc jockeys would begin playing our version of "Wooden Heart." So there was some interesting things like that that took place in the early years of promoting "Wooden Heart."



Did the album follow then?

Within a few weeks.  



They rushed you into the studio.

Yeah, and did Joe Dowell Sings the Number One Hits, something like that.  And I recorded ten of the best top hit records, like "Lonely Boy" and "Dream Lover."


"A Hundred Pounds of Clay."

Yeah.  



Who selected those songs?

The executives at Mercury, Shelby Singleton, and a few others.



Then you had to learn these songs.

Crash course. Just learn them in a day or two.  



Your phrasing is very similar to the hit versions.

I was somewhat familiar with them and then played them again when I was in Nashville, rehearsing for the recording sessions. But I have to say, it was assembly-line recording, because these were ten songs I had never really done before. You don't have much time to be married, to get really familiar with the music and the lyrics, but it was a fun session. And I get ridiculed quite a bit for my haircut and the sweater look on the front of that album.  




It's kind of a Bobby Rydell sweater.

Yeah. And that hair looks like a mini airport or a swimming pool, my daughters say.  



Did the label do that too, or was that your hairstyle?

Oh, I guess that was how I began to comb it for teenage record hops. Just kind of on my own. You get influenced by the looks of all the Bobbys of the world.

(Go to part 3.)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Music Weird interviews Joe Dowell, part 1



Joe Dowell topped the pop chart in 1961 with his recording of "Wooden Heart" from the Elvis Presley film G.I. Blues. Dowell was born in Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, and is one of two artists from Bloomington who topped the Billboard charts. (The other is Bobby Helms, who had #1 country hits with "Fraulein" and "My Special Angel" in 1957.)

Dowell's recordings, which also included the hits "Bridge of Love" and "Little Red Rented Rowboat," had never been anthologized, so I pestered Bear Family Records in Germany for two years to reissue them. I thought that Bear Family would be a good candidate to reissue these recordings, because "Wooden Heart" was based on a German folk song, and Bear Family was one of the only labels in the world that regularly licensed recordings from Universal Records, who owned Dowell's Smash masters. Universal was notoriously expensive and difficult to work with, so most reissue labels didn't bother with Universal-owned masters. 

Eventually, Bear Family said that they'd do it, and I started working on the liner notes. Dowell lived in Bloomington, Illinois, so he and I met at the Beef House in Covington, Indiana, on a Sunday afternoon for an interview.  

The whole experience was surreal. About 15 minutes before I reached the Beef House, my car's engine started roaring like it was about to explode, so during the entire interview, I was worrying about how I'd get home afterward, and how I could get my car fixed on a Sunday in Covington, Indiana. 

Dowell walked into the Beef House like a movie star with his hair, his big sunglasses, and his booming voice. He spoke in elaborate sentences and attracted a lot of attention from the people in the restaurant, who could tell that he was someone famous but didn't know who he was. At one point in the interview, I told Joe that he should record "Ebb Tide," and he burst into an a cappella rendition right there in the restaurant. 

Dowell had brought a friend with him, WJBC disc jockey Paul Dunn, who tried to stump me with oldies trivia throughout the interview. 

I recorded the interview with Dowell on a MiniDisc player that was loaned to me by Zach Downey, aka Zeke Durden, who later became internet famous as the "MulletMan" and the basis of the internet meme "Almost Politically Correct Redneck." 

Because of the length of the interview, I'm splitting it into parts. Here's the first part, in which Dowell talks about his early family life and how he was discovered. The interview was recorded on November 1, 2003. 



Talk about your family. 

My mother was a high school English teacher, but not only English. She taught advanced Latin, she was a librarian, and also was the play director. So she was all four things at Hayworth High School: play director, English teacher, Latin teacher, and she ran the library.

My dad, Harry F. Dowell, met my mother in Terre Haute, Indiana, and dad was a teacher of physics, French, taught the orchestra, led the orchestra, was also basketball and swimming coach, and he married one of his students: my mother. He quit teaching. [Teaching was] very bad financially, wasn't very much of a paycheck, and he got into Boy Scouting and moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he was an assistant scout executive. And then he was offered a great position in Bloomington, Illinois. In 1941, the year after I was born, my parents moved to Bloomington in Illinois, where he was given a position of chief or head scout executive of the whole council area.  

We continued to stay there until he died in 1950 when he was only 47, and mother began then to take charge and run the household and teaching, roughly [from] 1950 until she retired in the early '70s. 

So both my mom and dad were very skilled leaders, and after mother retired, she exhibited a tremendous skill, great with leadership in being chairman of this, and head of the history club, head of the Association of Retired People. She was a program chairman for seven years of AARP and was quite well-known for getting outstanding programs for the retirement clubs and things of that sort. So my sister and I, Suzy, were very blessed with a noble and gracious mother and dad.


When did you start playing guitar? 


I was about 13 when I bought my first guitar, and that was already now three years after my father's death. And my sister Jo Ann, my oldest sister, died of sleeping sickness when she was seven, so I'd been severely thrown into upheaval by all this death in our family. And by the time I was 13, unable to really grasp the depth of all of this and the tragedy, I began to turn to music as a kind of a way to resolve, to handle, some of the anguish.  

So, at that age, 13, with a guitar in hand, I found it was a way to soften some of the anguish and some of the hurt I was going through, and became very familiar then with guitar playing at age 13, showing a heart that was pretty shattered. I wrote my first song, the lyrics of which are pretty telling. I felt as is I were being abandoned by the world. There was a lot of anguish that was tormenting me. And the first song lyric I ever wrote with a guitar was "tell me why you don't love me anymore." Obviously, expressing a sense of sorrow and loneliness, because it was not written to a girl or to a broken boy-girl relationship. It was a statement of psychology to the world in general: tell me why I'm unloved.  

And mother was suffering her own great tribulation of having lost her oldest daughter, beautiful young girl, through encephalitis, and then her husband just a few years later, and mother was dealing with her own emotions and could not be expected to be phenomenal child psychologist, God, teacher, homemaker, cook, and all that. So she really did not know what I was going through.  

By the time I turned 18 I was really writing songs, and that same year, 1958—three years before "Wooden Heart" was a smash—I wrote four songs called "The Quartet of Torment."  And these four songs were as dark, as black, as bleak as any songs could be. And I'm 18 now and began to have a hunger for approval, for attention, for fame. But those four songs—I won't give you the lyrics to now but I can give you the titles: One was on suicide, "The Song of the Morning Dove." The second was called "The Lonely Forest," which is a severe, dark song about excruciating loneliness. Third one, the song "What Ever Happened to Mr. Farrow," was a song on murder—a song that described how Mr. Farrow, with a killer bull, murdered his daughter and her boyfriend Damon because he did not want his daughter Sally to be married to Damon. And the fourth one was rather astounding; it's called "The Devil's in the Saw Blade," and it's an unconscious cry of what happened, why did the encephalitis have to burn up my darling sister's body? And "The Devil's in the Saw Blade" is a metaphor of the sleeping sickness that was ravaging, cutting through, slicing through my sister's brain. I was completely unaware of the subject of this song until I was 27. I'm writing a book on this, called The Unconscious Unleashed, and when I was 27, the hidden meaning of these songs came into my consciousness.  

But back to '58 and that "Quartet of Torment." That area was kind of a motivational factor to drive me to Nashville. Three years later, I'm a junior at college, and I think, "If I could just get a number one record I'd be happy. If I could become famous, this desolation of mind and soul, this shadow that had fallen over me, would vanish with the light, the applause, the excitement." Which really didn't work. But it drove me to go to Nashville at age 21.


Talk about how you were discovered.

In January of 1961, and it was during final exams and I had some time to borrow the Volkswagen of a friend's parents—his name was Bill Keyes—and we two went to Sparta, Illinois, picked up the Volkswagen of his parents, and drove to Music City, and that was January.  

But if you go back about a year, around 1960, a friend—John Coleman—who had a Dick Clark/Bandstand kind of show called At the Hop in central Illinois, Channel 3 in Champaign. 

John liked my singing. I met him through another TV show on the channel, and he asked me to travel around doing record hops. But he said I could not get on his TV show until I had a hit record. Well, fortunately, he introduced my to Don Merrill, who owned a theater—the Lorraine Theater, an old-fashioned kind of show theater in Hoopeston, Illinois. Don put on the Sweet Corn Festival every year. The annual Hoopeston Sweet Corn Festival. And he invited me to come sing when George Hamilton IV and Billy Grammer were on the stage that night.

And Don Merrill was right. He thought if these guys—George Hamilton IV and Billy Grammar—could hear me sing, they might be willing to give me some key people to meet in Music City, Nashville. So I entertained that evening, was well received, and George Hamilton and Billy Grammer gave me a bunch of key names, like Bill Denny, and other major publishing producers, record people in Nashville. Buddy Killen, who was a bass player and owned Tree Publishing, I sang for him.


What kind of music were you doing at this point?

Well, it was folk music. Not commercial, so to speak. The kind I was doing was minor, kind of an art song. So I went to Nashville with a bunch of names, thanks to George Hamilton IV and Billy Grammer, and it's about a year later, I'm ready to go: Guitar, briefcase full of songs, and I knock on the pavement of Music City for a week. I sing for all the people that these country stars told me to sing for. I was getting more and more disappointed because now it was Friday. It had been five days in a row, nobody interested in my stuff because it was too artsy. 

Finally, on Friday, I met the Wilburn Brothers, Teddy and Doyle Wilburn, and they liked my singing immediately, called Shelby Singleton, who had an office at Mercury across the street, and Shelby came over right away, and I sang for him "The One I Left for You."  Shelby loved it and said, "I will record him."  

Of course I was elated, and drove back to Champaign-Urbana, to the campus, very excited.  Some days later I got a phone call from one of the Wilburn Brothers, and they said, "Got great news—Mercury is establishing a brand new label called Smash, and they would like for you to be one of the singers to help this new label make a go." 

At first, I was very angry, because I wanted to be on Mercury. I thought of the names of so many big ones: Brook Benton, "How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?" 


Patti Page.

Patti Page was on the label. And I thought there would be so much more prestige and professional influence if I could be on a big-name label. But they convinced me that I could get lost in the pack, just be one more little pebble in this giant place of big stars. So, I had to say yes anyway, and was very fortunate that I did because I came out with "Wooden Heart" on Smash, which was really astounding because they used thousands of dollars to establish the label, promoting me and "Wooden Heart," and I was like on the crest of a wave. And the wave was really the publicity to establish "Wooden Heart"—not so much me. So I was caught up like a piece of driftwood in this tremendous flood of publicity to help establish the label.  

(Go to part 2.)