30 Years in the Pop Music Wilderness

In 1968 New Jersey, a few of my grammar school classmates and I were walking home singing "Hey Jude," a new Beatles single we liked and the first one I can remember hearing as a child. We rushed through the lyrics, eager to get to the "na na" part so we could repeat it endlessly.

I had always enjoyed music but didn't own my first transistor radio until 1970. Consequently, I spent the early and mid-70s learning all about the fascinating 60s music I had mostly missed during the previous decade. The cumulative musical achievements of the 60s stood behind me like a towering giant. I sensed that there was something sizable and impressive there, but I'd only begun to discover its deep and diverse treasures.

I had an ear for catchy musical bits I would later learn were called "hooks" -- strong, memorable melodic passages in songs. I often recorded tunes off the radio and simply paused the tape if the hooks got weak. This resulted in tapes filled with choruses, guitar riffs, and other song fragments that were interesting to me but infuriating to the average listener. I also had other stacks of tapes filled with catchy TV show and commercial themes. I never thought twice about it until years later.

Also during this time, though initially embarrassed, I somehow ended up in Junior High chorus classes. We did appear on stage a few times but I didn't get my first taste of "real" performance until High School.

A girl I knew then had an older brother who had a band. They needed a singer. I guess I expressed interest but, without any previous experience, the notion of singing through a PA system for a strange rock band created considerable apprehension. I tried it and apparently made a favorable impression. They invited me to join but I was far too fearful and uncomfortable to accept. A seed, however, had been planted.

By 1976, the unreliability of teen romances motivated me to redirect that attention towards music which provided a far more solid foundation. Music was reflecting and articulating every emotion I felt and was consistently dependable. My love of music continued to intensify and deepen becoming a primary focus and passion.

Early the following year, after seeing a high school girl play an acoustic guitar with ease, I decided: if she can do it, I can do it. I purchased a $35 acoustic guitar from a friend, was shown three chords, and took it from there. I did have the advantage of one gift: a good ear for picking songs off records.

That fall, I found myself at Boston University surrounded by accomplished guitarists. Between their helpful influence and playing along with records, I managed to develop some rhythm guitar skills. Playing was fun and I eased my fears by thinking there was no need to do more.

Of course, singing soon became necessary so vocals were practiced along with guitar during endless dormitory stairwell sessions, both solo and as part of all kinds of impromptu groups. Occasional coffeehouse performances followed.

Also during this period, I began writing songs. I felt that the real magic of music was more in the songwriting than the singing, playing or production. Mastery of this talent seemed imperative. The melodies had to be strong and the lyrics had to say something substantial. Eventually, after meeting a couple of musicians who became good friends, I joined a forming group called The Runes. We rehearsed now and again but never played out and excessive amounts of college work forced me to leave the band.

In 1981, I graduated college and returned to New Jersey eager to form the definitive band free from annoying distractions. After two years of music paper ads and tedious auditions, The Changes were formed. The 4-piece band rehearsed 60s pop covers and a few new wave gems. We even played half-a-dozen gigs. It was an enjoyable and encouraging experience but limitations motivated me to leave in 1983.

Over the next nine years, I moved from band to band, enjoying some choice gigs but never finding exactly the right elements while continuing what seemed like an endless series of auditions.

During that period, I gained the most valuable live experience with the musically talented band, Bus Stop. I hated the name and many other personal aspects of the group, but we played almost 100 successful gigs (89 to be precise) in Northern Jersey and New York City between June of 1989 and December of 1990. My playing, singing and performance skills were all sharpened nicely by the shows. I even managed to get one of my originals, "Outside Looking In," into the set list for a while where it received favorable comment. Since the other members had no ambition beyond playing covers in local bars, I left when the act had run its course. It had given me all it could.

Next, I accepted an invitation from Bob August (a local singer/songwriter I had performed with on occasion) to play lead guitar (despite my limited ability) and sing in his original group, The Knobodys. This brought some choice gigs in New York, the production of two music videos and two nationwide TV appearances on WOR-TV's long-running camp classic, "The Joe Franklin Show." Though the program's impact on society was the antithesis of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, it was a good time and provided useful experience.

Finally, the time was right to form an original band based solely on my songs without any "safe" covers. The risk was considerable and I'd been complaining about how bad music was for ages but had only then marshaled enough confidence to do something about it.

An acceptable roster was assembled from musicians I knew and rehearsal began. The big night came on Wednesday, March 11, 1992 at a club called The Cove in Roselle, New Jersey. In a sense, my musical past and future depended on how the evening's show turned out. If it was a dismal failure, I might have to reconsider everything. The room was packed with friends and musical peers and, thankfully, The Waysiders' first gig went reasonably well. We played three more that year, giving our last performance on my birthday, June 27th. By then, limitations and obstacles again drove me to disband the group. But a vital milestone had been reached: my original songs were generally well received and my performance was described as good and having potential for more. The dream seemed possible.

It was only with enormous dread that I began running ads and holding auditions again. I hated the process which did nothing but waste time. After another stack of disappointments, I gave up on all auditioning in disgust. It still seemed to be a world of weak hobbyists when I needed polished professionals.

Then, an opportunity came from an unexpected source in late 1993. Joe Ward, a close musical companion who originally replaced me in the Boston-based band, The Runes, and played with me in The Waysiders, received a call from a New York producer who expressed interest in one of his songs. A meeting was set and Joe invited me to tag along with a demo of some of my originals. The producer liked what he heard and wanted to see us play live. Though the worst winter in decades brought 15 consecutive snow storms and caused many rehearsal cancellations, by March of 1994 we were ready to showcase.

After several more delays, the presentation was finally scheduled for Sunday April 10, 1994 in New York City. A producer with a 25-year industry track record showed up, listened attentively, and complimented our songwriting and musicianship. He then requested an audio tape of the group playing live. The next step, he suggested, would be to record a few demos in his studio which he would play for some friends at Warner Brothers Records. As the tape neared completion, we experienced a mixture of excitement, cautious optimism and fear.

We sent the producer the tape and dug in for what we thought might be a long wait. We were surprised to hear back almost immediately. He liked the tape, had a few criticisms, but thought he heard "a couple of hits" on it. We later learned that two of my songs, "You" and "Lost & Found," were among those he thought had commercial potential. Aside from feeling thrilled and excited, this represented the first vindication for 15 years of songwriting efforts. Now, even if the project went no further, a 25-year veteran of the music industry still thought I could write hit songs!

Next, the producer requested home demos of my two songs; he wanted to hear fuller productions. That tape was supplied and again the wait for word began. Though favorable comments continued, instead of progress, several large projects took priority over our little project and we grew a bit impatient and suspicious of motives.  If this guy thought I had hits, others would too and I wanted as few fingers in the songwriting pie as possible.  Putting that project on the shelf, I turned to other interests.

One such attraction was meeting Kathy and Sharyn. While hosting an open mic at the Common Ground Cafe in Summit, NJ, I approached the two girls who had been performing as a folky duo for several months. Sharyn suggested the three of us "do something" and I agreed. Surely it would just be a little side project that would not distract from my primary ambition to form a superior pop/rock band and move forward with it.

Gradually though, the more we worked, sang and played together, the more I was drawn to the their strong voices and the appealing chemistry developing between us . Suddenly, amidst all this, forming the next Beatles seemed less important than forming the next Mamas and the Papas. Sharyn named the group "The Eiffels," we added Mark on bass, Tom on drums and enjoyed a series of successful and well-received gigs throughout New Jersey.

The band following was growing all the time, the group increasingly looked like something special that might get somewhere and it had now become my primary musical focus. Unfortunately, a proposal by me to operate the band as a democracy and take it to the next level met resistance from Sharyn and Kathy. Not surprisingly, I was deeply disappointed. Their decision seemed short-sighted but it was too late. The magic was gone and the future seemed limited so I had no choice but to leave the most promising band I'd played in yet after a very satisfying year and a half.

I was still active in the latest version of the 60s covers band, by then renamed Carnaby Street, but soon I lost interest in that too as an increasing depression robbed all experiences of enjoyment.

It took almost two years for me to bounce back enough to even consider music again. Thankfully, in early 1997, my interests returned. I was invited back into the latest version of the 60s covers band, this time renamed The Clarke Bar Five (but not by me). A year and a half of enjoyable gigs with the most professional line-up yet followed, including a couple of exciting shows at a packed midtown Manhattan club, Le Bar Bat.

Also at this time, with the appreciated assistance of Gary Gold, Joe Ward and I each released a song to be included on a CD compilation Gary was putting together with another musician, Shane. While mostly a "hobby" project designed to give us all a CD to use for promotional purposes, it was also intended to get some homespun pop music out to the world. For the first formal release of one of my original songs, I chose to include "Outside Looking In."

Over the year that followed the release, the CD garnered very favorable press reviews from around the world, most prominently in the British music magazine Mojo which even mentioned my name (courtesy of writer friend Dawn).

Also during that year, I formed the 4-piece pop/rock group "Heyday" with Joe, Mark and Tom, the latter two of Eiffels fame. Though still light on vocals, the enjoyable originals group played several good gigs and received favorable comment. The most impressive of these was the band's final appearance at the 800-seat Club Bene in Sayreville, NJ, on Friday, April 10, 1998. Heyday was the best received band on the bill and we were invited to do two encores. There was even talk from the management about opening for national acts in the future. Soon thereafter, however, Tom, merely a hobbyist drummer, elected to leave the band to enjoy his summer vacation, get married and have children. Heyday was officially history.

By this time, the members of the CB5 had grown weary of the depressing and far from lucrative club scene. In addition, cranking out the same 60s gems for too many years had also gotten old. The group collectively agreed to call it a day, remaining open to playing occasional future gigs for fun.

A few months prior to the end of the CB5, in January of 1998, I auditioned a strong singer/guitarist named Lovella, intending to possibly work with her as one of the three singers desired for the next line-up of "Heyday." Preferring a less pop-oriented direction, she suggested forming a separate group with guitarist Eric and later drummer Lenny.

Koga, as the band was named, embarked on a year of gigs primarily at New Jersey shore clubs with the occasional Hoboken appearance.  Very recently, a three-song demo was recorded in a 24-track studio in Red Bank, NJ, for promotional purposes.  Though the sessions focused on Lovella originals, my tunes "Outside Looking In" and "Stranger Behind Your Eyes" were being performed regularly at gigs. During what would otherwise have been downtime, the group seemed like a good way to remain active musically. The band lost momentum and focus after the bass player was fired in mid 1999, effectively breaking up.

Since then, occasional solo, duo and trio performances of my original pop songs have kept me active on the local music scene though the pressures of time and the absence of appropriate musicians limited my enjoyment considerably.

All during this period, the seemingly endless musician auditions continued, now aided by many ads scattered across Internet musician sites. After 20 years, more than 1,200 musicians had been seen but the "right" ones remained frustratingly elusive.

One female friend, in active husband-seeking mode, was puzzled over why I couldn't find appropriate players after so many years. She finally understood when I explained, "Think of how difficult it will be for you to find a man you'll eagerly want to marry without reservation and then multiply that by three."

While the definitive version of "The Aysides," as the new pop band will tentatively be called, still remains only a dream held back by the persistent absence of suitable singing pop/rock instrumentalists, the quest continues...

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