Cover of the Week 34 Wendell Gee
I almost thought I would not be able to get to this week’s cover. Two Buffalo Tom shows, a rehearsal, and a night in the studio earlier in the week, a crazy day job week and, last time I checked, a family to spend a few minutes with. Thanks to all who came to cheer us on through our shows this weekend. We had a great time. My ears are shot, so I have no idea if this week’s recording sounds any good.
An inordinate amount of space here has been devoted to moving to Boston, an event that happened 27 years ago. A psychologist could have a field day with this, I suppose.
Nevertheless, one of the defining events of my life was heading into Boston University’s Walter Brown hockey arena in 1983, clad in a home-made English Beat t-shirt that one of my new friends had made for the group of us going to the show. The Beat were at the height of their powers, having just released Special Beat Service, headlining hockey arenas when they weren’t on such double bills as the one they played with Squeeze in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island that same year, after I had left for Massachusetts.
We were all pumped up and excited to see the Beat. On my way into the seats, I passed by a few guys that were in a band in a neighboring town I auditioned for who played everything I liked from John Mayall and all that classic Brit blues stuff to this ska that was making a resurgence. I guess I wasn’t good enough because they never called me back. Since I was not yet driving, I had wait for my mom to come pick me up as I sat in one of their parents’ basement while they ignored me and made plans for that night. It was merely an awkward speed bump.
We took our seats ready to get through the opening band on our way to skanking heaven. But before the uptempo and highly energetic Beat came on, there was this shadowy, murky, enigmatic jangly neo-Byrds-like band that took the stage and captivated me for the whole set. It was like some new interpretation of jangle-pop, ’60s garage pop, less angular Television/Talking Heads-meets-Paper Sun-era-psychedelic-Traffic. They reminded me of all these Left Banke and other 1960s melancholy 45s I had as a kid. But there was something fresh about these guys. The enigmatic lead singer in his baggy flannel shirt rarely moved from his haphazard leaning embrace of the mic stand and said nothing between songs. The guitarist slashed away at his black-and-white Rickenbacker, matching his ensemble of long-sleeved white shirt and black vest. The bass player sang all these interesting counter melodies to the lead singer’s main parts, which were rarely discernible lyrically. When words popped out, they were evocative but meaning was elusive.
I was taken away, mesmerized. Here I was ready to party and dance to the pastel-colored ska-pop/blue-eyed soul of the Beat and I was broadsided by the profoundly affecting and recondite opening band, R.E.M. I knew nothing about them. The night went on and I really did have a great time with the Beat, who were just amazing. But through all that good-time party music, I could not shake that sublime opening music and went right out to Newbury Comics to buy Murmur and Chronic Town (I believe they were both available by that time). I felt like I had discovered a new band that very few people knew about.
For the next six years I bought every R.E.M. record and went to every show of theirs that I could make. They were one of the main cornerstones of my musical development and ushered me into a whole new realm of new music, going on to discover their influences and peers like Mission of Burma and the Neats (both from Boston), Miracle Legion, Dream Syndicate, Wiretrain, etc. I grew out my hair into my face (long front, short sides and back) and started to write my own songs filled with inscrutable lyrics and vague lilting melodies, trying to find others to convert to the cause of this new “Paisley Underground.” I sold my Peavey tube amp and bought an ultra-clean Roland JC-120 jangle amp. Thank God that only lasted a couple of years.
R.E.M. was one of the bonding forces between my new buddy, Chris Colbourn and me. We enjoyed and shared a deep mutual love of everything from the Stones to these new acts like X, Gun Club, and Echo and the Bunnymen. We went to see a bunch of these shows together before Buff Tom even formed.
Needless to say, when Buffalo Tom finally did form and head out on the road in 1988 or so, that date marked “Athens, GA” was one of our red letter days on the first (second?) U.S. tour itinerary. We had seen the documentary Athens, GA Inside Out, which spotlighted the college town’s post-punk musical acts. We played the legendary 40 Watt Club. We knew darn well that Peter Buck’s wife owned part (or all) of the club. We had a great show. She invited us back to stay at their house. I am still jittery writing this now. We were greeted at the house by none other that Mr. Buck himself, in a bathrobe. He played us selections from his amazing record collection all night. I don’t even have to tell you how we felt; you know how we felt. All I have to do is relate the events. The record Out of Time had just been recorded but not yet released. Peter played us tracks from it. Her showed us a picture he had taken with Al and Tipper Gore. He said he had been all ramped up to let Tipper have a piece of his mind regarding her then-recent PMRC efforts. But he had been knocked out by the flu and she was so nice so all he could manage was a sort of weak, “I think what you are doing is wrong.”
Peter and his wife were extremely gracious to us, and from what I gather, to many other bands who came through town — one of the good guys of rock. I have met him a few other times over the years but have not met the other guys.
I have read that Buck is not a fan of this week’s choice for a cover, so perhaps I should have chosen better. But Fables of the Reconstruction is just one of those records for me. I remember seeing the band on this tour out at the Worcester Centrum and them opening with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” It was highly dramatic. “Wendell Gee” is a song that has a beautiful melody and haunting, mythical lyric that compelled me to play it repeatedly.