When I moved to Medfield, Massachusetts at the age of 16, it was the dead of summer, from my hometown, the town I grew up in, to a place where I knew no one and had little chance of meeting many people for the rest of the summer — a little town in the woods of outskirts of suburban Boston. I was already bursting with music, hungry for it, for listening and discovering music and playing it. You’re sponge at that age. I was well-versed in classic rock and its antecedents, the British blues and the real old American blues. But I was also discovering punk, reggae, ska, new wave, no wave, art rock, and was open to almost anything. My main mission was to find a band I could join. Making friends would follow. But the only people I met were a couple of kids who lived in this soul-sapping subdivision we moved into, and while they were huge fans of rock and pop, new and old, they were not musicians.
The lifeline, as in so many rock lyrics, was the radio, specifically, the left-of-the-dial college and public radio in Boston. It really was like that Velvet Underground Lou Reed lyric, “…there was nothing happening at all/Then one fine day she turned on the radio, she couldn’t believe what she heard all all/She started dancing to that fine, fine music/You know her life was saved by rock & roll.”
To this day, Boston might be the capital of college radio, which is natural as it is a city with so many colleges that it is difficult to count. WMBR, the MIT station that was later an early-and-often Buffalo Tom supporter; WHRB, the Harvard Station; WERS, the Emerson station; WGBH, the NPR station – these all played the gamut of blues; jazz; punk; garage; reggae; ska; hardcore; classical. It was and is an embarrassment of riches. New York radio was just OK by comparison. I had learned a lot about country blues from the Stony Brook, Long Island station. And WNEW and WLIR were pioneering commercial FM stations. But there was not even close to the amount of fringe music being played on Boston stations. Even the commercial stations in Boston, WBCN, and later WFNX, were better, more daring and free form. Later, when the Replacements song “Left of the Dial” came out, I could not believe at how perfectly it captured this feeling of the importance of those stations to me and what a great metaphor it was for feeling simultaneously like an outsider, but one of a small group onto something special.
One night, one hot summer night, the windows open to the woods behind our house in my lonely new bedroom — lacking all the history and emotional patina of my boyhood bedroom — I had the radio dial set to the left there on my Technics receiver, and this howling, haunting sound comes out of my radio. It was this howling echo-y harmonica all wrapped around this cool, mellifluous, resonant baritone voice singing scary lyrics of imminent violence, though with a wry humor, set over this menacing Chicago swaggering Chess Record blues groove. But it was so “new” sounding. Somehow the sound just seemed to float out of those dark pine tree woods that stretched on for a few miles behind the house, coming down the airwaves from some dusty college radio control room in downtown Boston. I waited until the end of “I Think She Likes Me” to find out it was this band called Treat Her Right. The singer was Mark Sandman, who went on to play around Boston in a number of local bands before knocking out a bunch of music fans worldwide with his beloved band, Morphine.
Now, don’t go checking the release dates against my little myth here. I heard a lot of other stuff that caught my ears that first summer, everything from the long improvised piano workouts of jazz improviser and maestro, Keith Jarrett, to the Gun Club and all kinds of Boston-based music like Mission of Burma, the Neats, the Turbines, etc. I am pretty sure, however, that the Treat Her Right song came out later and I probably did hear it first up in that bedroom, albeit on a visit home from college. And I recall seeing Treat Her Right somewhere during college.
Well, later on, after Buffalo Tom got going, we finally had that chance to get into Fort Apache studio. The place was filled with vintage guitars, amps and all sorts of gear, not to mention kitschy tchotchkes, mid-century collectibles, records, and beer. The original Fort was a dusty old raw industrial warehouse in Roxbury, a rough area of Boston. Leaning on the mixing console during our earliest recording sessions, I looked down and saw this thing that looked like a cool old Fender or Marshall amp head. But the logo was a cool 1950s/’60s script font that read “Premier.” I asked the producer/engineer what it was. They told me it was a little spring reverb tank, a unit to run an instrument through. “It’s Jim’s, from Treat Her Right,” they told me. Whether or not I had it explicitly told to me, I decided that this reverb tank was very one I heard howling and echoing down the airwaves that hot summer night. And here I was in a recording studio with this thing that represented my lifeline for a moment that summer night.
When BT started to get more popular in Boston, I was asked by the defunct seminal local music publication, Boston Rock — which I had picked up religiously every time I could get into record stores like Newbury Comics in Boston – to come in for a cover photo shoot with Mark Sandman. It was the first time we actually met, though we had mutual friends, mainly Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade at Fort Apache. He was one of the warmest guys I had ever met and way cooler than I could ever hope to be. I was driving back from a family vacation years later, when I turned on one of those local stations once we were back on 128 (“with the radio on”) heard that Mark had died. It was shocking. The guy that was the King of Central Square was gone.
Even later, in the last few years, I have had the great honor and privilege to sit it with the band Session Americana, often right next to the very man who played those wailing lamentations on his harp, the man I heard howling down the summer winds through those lonesome Medfield pines. Well, I got comfortable enough with the guys in Session Americana to suggest, the last time they invited me to sing with them at their recent record release party, that they finally succumb to playing a Grateful Dead cover. They told me this would be breaking a cardinal rule of Session, but relented and we ended up doing “Brown-Eyed Women.”
The need for “cardinal rules” is often that there is a temptation to do something other than the “rule” dictates. In the case of Session Americana, we have a group of guys getting a little longer in the tooth, who spent some times on the edgier side of new music at some points in their careers, but grew up and still very much enjoy old hippy rock & roll. They play rootsy, acoustic versions of obscure traditional songs, country, Gram Parsons, classic soul, and every once in a while, improbable roots versions of pop hits. With mandolin, steel string guitars, a stripped-down drum configuration, bass, pump organ, cello and other string instruments, with a blend of multiple-part harmonies, they play stuff that would not be out of place on the Grateful Dead’s Reckoning sets. I mean, dang, they even have earthy women dancing free-form as only Dead Heads can do. So, I kind of see why they have this cardinal rule, but…come on! Embrace it, says I! And of course, we enjoyed (at least I did) playing “Brown Eyed Women.”
This is a song I grew up with from the Europe ’72 double-live record of mostly unreleased then-new songs. This is one of those records I got in my prime record-buying/music discovery days. I understand why many people have an aversion to the Dead, what with all the noodling and self-indulgence and patchouli-soaked honkydom that was their audience (a watered-down and more collegiate version of which went on to follow – shivers – bands like Phish and Dave Matthews Band). And my biggest beef with the Dead was an essential part of their sound, i.e. that they rarely, if ever, nailed down the rhythm section in a satisfying way; the drums were more often than not floating in some idea of polyrhythmic roto-tom-ness [likened more than once to “like sneakers in a dryer] while Phil Lesh was wandering around the bass neck like a lost child on acid. But when they kept it simple and based in the roots, as they did during their golden stretch from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty through Europe ’72, they were magic and, in many ways, a true distillation of what Graham Parsons conceived of when he coined he term “Cosmic American music” to describe a concept of most of the various American roots, pop, country, soul and jazz idioms coalescing into a brilliant single end product. Some of my favorite records, from adolescence through adulthood , have been those Dead albums. But another great one came later, the acoustic Reckoning record. And the band seems to be a weirdly guilty pleasure for others, like we have to explain why they were so great. But Elvis Costello has always been unabashed in professing his love of the band. Graham Parker (not Parsons) even covered Jerry Garcia’s “Sugaree” in recent years. And I certainly hear a lot of Dead in Wilco and, of course, Ryan (not Brian) Adams.
One of the main pleasures in listening to the band over these years is digging on the lyrics, filled with lyricist Robert Hunters broad knowledge of Americana, allusions to “that weird old America,” as Greil Marcus described the Basement Tapes from Dylan and the Band. In fact, it was that era and maybe even that very record that truly spurred a roots revival in American rock & roll that has never since been abandoned. The Band’s creative success seemed to influence bands like the Dead to leave behind many of their psychedelic inclinations, at least on records and concentrate on embracing and reinventing old folk, country, blues and other roots idioms into something new, and exploring the poetry of the American version of the English language with dense allusions to old events and characters, real and imagined. So in “Brown-Eyed Women” we have the tale of an old bootlegger spanning the decades before and after Prohibition and the Great Depression, but with a very elusive, evocative and personal approach.
Anyway, I just love the melody, the words, and it reminds me of my teenage years.