Buffalo Tom was asked to do a song for a compilation to benefit an artist that I had heard of but had whose music I didn’t really know. But the Sweet Relief benefit record was for a good cause, covering the songs of an artist named Victoria Williams, who was suffering from MS, and like a lot of musicians, didn’t have health insurance coverage. The record was not only to benefit Victoria, but was to go towards a fund to help musicians in similar predicaments.
We used the opportunity to not only help a struggling musician and take part in a team effort along with a lot of other great artists, but to also try out a potential new production scenario for our upcoming new album, what was to become Big Red Letter Day. This was right on the tail of Let Me Come Over, when the second single “Taillights Fade” (the first was “Velvet Roof”) was just starting to pick up a little traction at WNEW in NY and WFNX in Boston.
LMCO was met with mostly yawns for the first tour in the US. We were pretty depressed until we got on a tour with My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, and Mercury Rev. And then later, we got to Europe, where the momentum survived our own version of the sophomore slump with Birdbrain. LMCO was pretty much greeted with unanimous acclaim in the UK weeklies, UK and European radio, and other media, and this enthusiasm encouraged other territories to take notice. 1992 was, as we later came to learn, was “the year that punk broke.” Our music might have been closer to Van Morrison than Nirvana, I think, but the latter’s success had a trickle-down affect for any of those of us who wore flannel shirts, had been getting lots of play on the CMJ (College Music Journal) charts, and were headlining the Town and Country in London and the Milkweg in Amsterdam, and the Loft in Berlin.
One of the many other contemporary bands with whom we did feel a particular kinship was Boston’s own Lemonheads, who started out around the same time as us. But while we were stuck in western Mass. at college, they were had a leg up on gigging in Boston clubs a year or two before us. We eventually played tons of shows together, with some particularly memorable gigs at the Channel, and later in England, Germany, and Japan. Both bands were more pop/strummy-guitar-oriented than some other SST and Taang! acts (the respective labels we started out on). And we could really appreciate how fast Evan Dando was growing as a songwriter and how strongly the band was creating its own identity and sound. So we had taken notice when they went out to Los Angeles to record the classic It’s a Shame About Ray album.
BT had been evolving into a more timeless sound than one that was “new” or groundbreaking. We were growing more confident in our writing and performance ability. As the year progressed from 1991 into 1992, all sorts of crazy unthinkable things were happening in the wake of Nirvana’s success. It was like a tipping point. Everyone that had been sleeping on each other’s floors suddenly seemed to get big promotions and raises. People that used to have 6 am slots on obscure college radio stations or had started an indie label were getting signed on to major labels as A&R; reps or moving up the ladder at commercial radio stations or MTV. Everything seemed to start to get serious, like we could all really break through and make tons of money like the stars who made up our youthful rock & roll fantasies.
Even LMCO had a moment in the sun, getting that commercial play. Right before the release of Birdbrain, we had signed to Beggar’s Banquet, a British label that had put out a myriad of our favorite records by bands like Bauhaus, the Fall, Go Betweens, and the Died Pretty. Beggar’s licensed out different acts through various major labels in the States. We had a deal with RCA, who oversaw LCMO and farmed us out to a tiny promo company that RCA had taken under its umbrella. The idea was that if an act achieved a certain level of success, then the grown-ups at RCA would take over the record. I believe this sort of happened with LMCO, but it was half-hearted. Beggar’s were moving on to another deal with WEA. If LMCO had come out 6 months later, or if there had been a sustained effort by a major label promoting it, there is little question that it would have been more successful in breaking us.
Nevertheless, we took that momentum and it kind of felt like the world was our oyster. Tours got bigger; we hired more people; bought more cool guitars and amps; we appeared on various TV shows; got publishing offers; and started playing good slots on huge European festivals. We were at Reading in 1992 and ’94 when Nirvana headlined. I think we played the same day as Public Enemy and Pavement. Everything seemed to be pretty set up for us. I was just happy to not have to work a day job anymore. We had a healthy advance to record our next record. So we started chatting with various producers around the same time we had been invited to be a part of the Sweet Relief record. We talked to some truly inspiring people and had heard from Evan how much fun he had working with the Robb Brothers out at their legendary studio, Cherokee, in Hollywood. We loved, absolutely unanimously all loved that Ray record and really dug how it sounded. Up to that point, “going to L.A. to record the next record” meant “selling out,” “compromising with the label heads,” “watering down the sound,” etc. But the Lemonheads record sounded classic, warm, and fresh all at the same time. The growth displayed on that record was off the charts.
So we went out there to record this Victoria Williams song with the Robbs, to see how it went. And it went really well. We all hit it off and had a blast. There were three of them (the oldest, Dee, has recently passed away). They were madmen, fantastic older guys who had lived the fast life in the ’60s into the 80’s and were pretty done with it by the time we reached them – except for the stories; the stories remained. It had started for them as a backing band for Dick Clark on an old television show called “Where the Action Is,” continued through backing Richie Nelson, Del Shannon, and up into the end of the ’60s, during which time they started the original Cherokee studio out on a ranch very close to the Spahn ranch where the Manson girls lived with Charlie. Later on, the Robbs bought the old MGM studio on Fairfax where Sinatra and other legends had recorded. At one point, during the peak of 1970s rock decadence, they had a studio built into a yacht. [Added 2019: So when the whole Yacht Rock thing started, it hit the nail on the head for me.]
In we roll, three young “college rockers” to record with these great older guys in unbelievable shag hair-dos that they had held over from 1977. They were like a comedy team. Remember the Hudson Brothers TV show on Saturday mornings in the late-’70s? It was three whacky brothers who were in a rock band but also did slapstick comedy. One of them was married to Goldie Hawn and they spawned the lovely Kate Hudson. Not only were the Robbs a little like them, but they knew them of course. That’s one of the things we learned from living in Hollywood for the next two months; it was more like a big town than a large city. When we first started going out there in 1989, the surrealism of seeing celebrities we hadn’t even thought of in decades set in fast and was hard to shake after subsequent stops we had made there on our tours. But living there for a couple of months, and especially working with the Robbs in the studio, we got a big dose that was like being on one of those MTV reality shows with faded stars all living together.
When the Robbs first started telling stories, they just seemed too far out to be true. I mean, there one about their dad in the late-’70s, a recently retired and divorced Ford Motors executive coming out to stay with them and partaking in the lifestyle for an indefinite stay, a lifestyle that shocked even the Robbs when one of them walked into the studio lounge to see Dad freebasing with Ringo and Ron Wood. But as the next couple of months unfolded, we had our own taste of just how strange life can get in a music studio in Hollywood. Rick James was a constant presence. He was working on a record in one of the other two rooms while he was awaiting trial, I believe on kidnapping and torture related to crack binging. We became quite friendly with him, to the point that he felt comfortable coming in and stealing our beers from the fridge in our control room. I remember the music fading out and one of the Robbs shouting out, “Hey, Rick!” at which point Rick, startled, lifted his head quickly and whacked it bad on the top shelf of the fridge.
Lita Ford was also there most of the time, recording. She seemingly became quite smitten with Chris Colbourn, who would fawn over her collection of dachshunds. A couple of the guys from the recently broken-up Jane’s Addiction were there as well, Dave Navarro and another dude. Dave was a quiet, pretty nice guy the few times we talked. Ice Cube was in and out. And I had heard Hank Shocklee was in producing some younger, new act. I was a huge, huge fan of the Public Enemy records he had put together. One day in the lounge I was sitting a booth table chatting with who I thought was one of the kids he was producing, just making small talk for a long time, watching a game or something. I eventually steered the topic to music. “So,” I said, “you guys in there working with Hank Shocklee?” He looked at me and smiled, “Yeah, that’s me.” I was confused. “It’s your record?” I asked. “No. That’s ME,” he said. “I’m Hank.” “Oh! You’re Hank? Wow, pleasure to meet you. Big fan.” I guess I was expecting one of the guys that looked like the entourage I had seen traveling with PE, or someone like Chuck D.” But Hank seemed so young to me at the time.
One day, while we were mixing “I’m Allowed,” we had Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Gene Simmons, And David Lynch all stopped in for visits. It was like a Fellini-directed talk show in there. To illustrate some point he was making in a story bout how great a singer Gene Pitney was, at one point Simmons was right in my face singing “Town Without Pity.” I mean, it felt like the whole song. “Gene Simmons, ladies and gentleman,” we said after he left. And sure enough, like that talk show I envisioned, in walked David Lynch within the hour. He told me this great story about moving to Los Angeles, a story that I had once read about, involving the Denny’s on Sunset. He was telling us how broke he was and said “and I reached into my pocket and I only had one penny, one greasy little penny with a hair attached to it.” I just kept thinking, “how fucking great is this that David Lynch, who made some of my all-time favorite movies, TV, and even music, is telling me this story.” David Lynch, ladies and gentlemen, David Lynch!
We would leave after a long day to stay up at the luxurious Fairfax Suites (I forget if that’s the name or not). In my Aretha post, the most immediate before this one, I make a joke about macramé. The Suites, on Hollywood and Fairfax, really did have some dusty-ass macramé wall hangings, brown shag carpeting, and everything else in shades of burnt umber. It was between this and the Oakwood apartments, which is where the Pixies were staying. We got to visit with them one night during our stay. But Oakwood seemed just too far out, located in the Valley somewhere. We would rather rough it a bit and be central to everything. We could walk down to the studio, which is just a bizarre thing for people to do in LA, just as the stereotype has it.
We ended up having some fun nights at the Fairfax, including a night when we returned while on tour later on and had a great time rocking it all night by the pool with a band from Mexico, drinking until my eyes crossed. But for the most part, it was kind of a sad old place. John Waters’ muse, Divine had died there, which Chris was reminded to every day as one of those morose “deaths of the stars” tours in a hearse would roll underneath his window and announce the details to the tourists. It definitely had that sad Night of the Locusts-like hint of the Hollywood underbelly, the at-best-faded glamour of Hollywood that Ray Davies sang about in his lines, “you can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard/Some that you recognize, some that you’ve never even heard of.” That song ran through my head the entire time I was out there. I started to re-read John Fante during this time. City of Quartz is another, though non-fiction book about LA that made me examine the built environment with a greater scrutiny.
Most of the time, however, was spent just clocking in and out of the studio like going to any other job. I like to work mostly at night, but the Robbs had long settled out of the rock and roll life, had kids to get off to school, wanted to see at night, and were just generally more regimented about the job. I wanted to rock and roll all night and party every day, but we were pretty much just a working class band with a job to do. We would come home fairly early and decompress, try to let the ear ringing subside, read, call home, (no real internet yet) and watch television. I recall a few things I watched on TV out there.
One was the ongoing “Nightline” coverage of the horrific war in Bosnia and the Balkans. I get pretty raw playing music every night, recording all day like that. At least on tour, we had a change of scenery and other people around us. In the studio, though, it is just the three guys and the studio people – producers, engineers, etc. We were with each other the better part of five or six days a week, day and night, studio and apartment, for two months. And we were trying to collaborate artistically, which anyone knows can create a highly charged atmosphere. We would get lonely for those back home. Emotions start to run high. Not that one would need this context to feel deeply for the situation in the Balkans, but I remember once just sitting in my room and watching this tragedy on television and falling apart for the rest of the night, not getting enough sleep.
I honestly felt at the time like I might be having a nervous breakdown. It should have leant perspective to the insignificance of what we were doing and therefore make me feel less affected by my daily drama and myopic worldview. I think it did indeed lend perspective to that insignificance, but far from making me feel more balanced, it just served to tip me in the other direction, made me feel more hopeless about our detachment from real life and despondent that so much of our efforts would have so little real effect on the world. I realize that this is something a lot of people go through in their 20s and one feels that sense of self-importance that they need to be shaken from every now and again, to experience that existential dread and insignificance. This sort of personal emotional struggle probably did serve the emotional depth of the performances on the record. I don’t mean to say that X led to Y, that “Bill watches bad shit on Nightline and goes on to sing well on BRLD;” I guess I mean that all that strife that we deal with as young adults gets channeled in a general way into the music/art. Thank God I didn’t try to write a political anthem.
On a lighter note [this is a horrible transition, but it is time to move this post along], I also recall tuning in to the “Tonight Show” and catching this guy I had not heard much of. While I had heard his name, I’m mildly ashamed to say that at that point, in 1992/3, I had not recalled having heard any of Dwight Yoakam’s music yet. His name had been stored away in the “contemporary country” closet in my mind. I had no interest in that newer Nashville stuff, as it was so formulaic, over-produced, and written with bumper-sticker sloganeering. But Dwight came out and sang this song “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” which was the new single from his hit record This Time. The song hit me deeply. I just thought it was so damn catchy and classic sounding. And Dwight’s enigmatic performance totally convinced me to run out and buy the CD the next day. The irony is that the song was Dwight’s big attempt and success at crossing over into mainstream country and pop radio. The rest of the stuff on the record — and most of his other records, for that part (which I eventually started collecting) – is based in that classic Bakersfield, California sound pioneered by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who were two of my heroes. And he had also been rooted in the LA post-punk roots scene that had hatched Los Lobos, and all those Slash bands like the Blasters, X, Gun Club, the Long Ryders, and Rank and File. I went on to catch Dwight in concert a bunch of times, all cool in his tight-ass jeans and cowboy hat brim down over his eyes. He rarely said a word.
I might have listened to This Time more than any other record while we were recording Big Red Letter Day, though I doubt it comes through on the record. In the end, we felt we made a worthy follow-up to Let Me Come Over. The half-sarcastic title – inspired by the film It’s a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey bitterly proclaims, “another red letter day for the Bailey family” — reflected our sentiment about living in California, the sun, the optimism that is supposed to be with you living the semi-rock-star life in Hollywood and the idea that we were being pegged as destined to break though in a bigger way than we had before. Of course we were working hard for that greater success, but deep down, we knew it was pretty unlikely for guys like us and maybe deep down we weren’t sure if we wanted or deserved greater success or how much more we had in us. The cycle that began with recording that record and rolled over a year of touring, brought us some of our greatest highs but also almost brought me to my knees with excruciating lows.