Thursday, February 5, 2015

Why Should I Stand up?

Why Should I Stand Up?

Colorblind James: vocals, guitar, vibes, Casio keyboard
John Ebert: trombone
Ken Frank: acoustic bass
Phil Marshall: electric guitar
Dave McIntire: clarinet
Jimmy McAvaney: drums w/ the snare turned off

This is the first track on the Why Should I Stand Up album.  CBJ's sophomore effort. 

I’ve just recently began listening to the Why Should I Stand Up album after leaving it alone for many years.  I’ve left most of the CBJ catalogue alone as it sometimes painful for me to listen to.  I must give credit to my son Roy for rekindling my interest.  Along with Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, the Melvins and a host of other rock bands, Roy discovered and frequently puts on Rockin’ As Fast As I Can.  Most of our listening together is done in the car ride from home to school at 7:30 in the morning.  Occasionally he’ll ask me to “drive around” a bit to squeak out one or two more songs without making him late to his first class.  His playlists can be really amusing and exciting.  

One particular morning I played Why Should I Stand Up for him and I was spellbound.  I was struck by what a great song and a great recording it is.  The Sophisticated/Havoc Theme 45 notwithstanding, this was the first realization of Chuck’s dream of making a place for trombone and clarinet at our musical table.  As the song continued I heard and felt and relived all my years with CBJ: the persistent rumbling drums and insistent bass, my splattering rhythm guitar, and the lines that bounced back and forth from the clarinet to guitar and to the organ.  During the final moments when the music is churning underneath that beautiful repeated melody, I completely welled up.  I hadn’t cried to CBJ in years.  
As I recall we attempted basic tracks several times before deciding to use a click track.  This didn't agree with bassist Ken Frank who cursed the effort and referred to the click as Satan.  I don't remem ber if we ended up using the click track basics or if we abandoned it.  The band does sound relentless and precise IMHO. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Great Northwest

Guitars: Colorblind James, G. Elwyn Meixner, Phil Marshall
Upright bass: Bernie Heveron
Drums: Jimmy Mac
Vocals: Colorblind James

"I'll probably shave my eyebrows and cut off all my hair"

There we were in Edinburgh, Scotland playing a very well received show when, upon hearing those words, a row of about 4 or 5 young chaps promptly lifted off their hats to reveal freshly shaved domes. After the show, the backstage was swamped with fans. The crew of baldies said they'd shaved their heads especially for the show and because of that song. Now THOSE are fans!

There was another fellow at that show who was quite in his cups and he seemed to be particularly interested in whether or not I was Catholic or Protestant. Our tour manager stood behind him and looking at me, shook his head mouthing "NO!" as in "don't get into it with him". Truth be known, I think we were about the most poly-religious-non-religious band around. Chuck would often argue that 'spirit' ws the only thing that mattered at a show. Execution was important, but secondary (i.e. a sloppy but spirited show trumps a note-perfect dull show every time).

This version of Great Northwest sounds so much faster and bouncier than what it evolved into. Not that it changed much notewise, but it developed a deeper groove played at a slightly slower tempo.

The Great Northwest was the official album closer ending w/ the intrepid narrator leaving the mess of civilization behind in search, perhaps, for a new Eden. The cd was extended with the single "Sophisticated/The Havoc Theme". While it being a fun record in its own right, and the first official recording of the new line-up, the fade ending of The Great Northwest is lost as the perfect final statement of the record.

Great Northwest
Words and Music © Chuck Cuminale

Then things get all confused
Then things get all shook up
You lose your sense of balance
And find yourself upside down
Turn on your water faucet
All this green stuff falls out
And when you try to speak
The words will not make sense

I’m not a big disaster
I get my work all done
Sometimes I don’t show up, though
And I don’t even call in
My fellow workers hate me
I know it’s not their fault
I’ve got to hide my paycheck
Or they’ll try to rip it up

I do not save my money
That makes my wife upset
I like to spend my wages
The very first chance I get
Sometimes they cut my power
They turn my phone off too
And sometimes I am threatened
‘Round when the rent is due

But I won’t be ruled by hatred
I will not live in fear
When my burden gets too heavy
I’ll simply disappear
I’ll probably shave my eyebrows
And cut off all my hair
And paint myself to blend in
The Great Northwest somewhere

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dance Critters

Bernie Heveron: upright bass
Colorblind James: vibes
G. Elwyn Meixner: tenor banjo
Jimmy Mac: drums
Phil Marshall: electric guitar

This is actually two songs welded together. The first is, obviously, Dance Critters. The second was to be a spoken word piece called Dance Hall Storm. Chuck never came up with music for it instead opting to sandwich it into Dance Critters. The lyrics dovetail nicely and, along with Rodeo Night, a wonderfully intricate and beautiful spoken word piece the band never got around to recording, it showcases Chuck's wit and originality in blending Western mythology with his own brand of beatnik jazz.

Of interest is the dog bark that can be heard right around the 1:20 mark during the chorus. Also, the final verse originally was "When YOU say 'yeah' I'M gonna scream!" which Chuck lifted adoringly from one of the many instances when James Brown uttered that phrase. Trouble was, Chuck never liked to scream. So he inverted the whole thing by say "when I say 'yes', you're gonna shout!" What little voice I have to this day was carved out over the years during that part of the song.

This was also the song Fundamental/Red Rhino chose to release as a 12" dance mix. I kid you not. There is fundamentally little difference between the 'dance mix' and what is heard on the cd. What prompted such an outlandish move on their part is beyond me. The obvious choice for a remix (in my left-of-center brain) would have been Considering A Move To Memphis. And as the witty mash-up of MIA's Bucky Done Gun and Memphis from a few years back demonstrates, it has more dance track potential than Dance Critters.

On its own, Dance Critters is a pretty innocuous ditty. It's the strange imagery Chuck conjurs up in Dance Hall Storm that gives an otherwise fairly lightweight song its magic and depth.

Dance Critters
© Chuck Cuminale

I been watering my horse
Since way before noon
I hope that beast
Gets satisfied soon

I’m a mean old hombre
From a border town
Woke up the sheriff
And gunned him down

Dance critters!
When I say dance
Dance critters!
Dance critters!

I been eating sand
And cactus pie
I’m telling you a feller
Gets mighty dry

My six gun’s loaded
And pointed down
Best keep your feet up
Off the ground

Dance critters!
When I say dance
Dance critters!
Dance critters!

(Dance Hall Storm)
It was a town full of violent men and bad women. Nobody had a heart of gold. Justice was unheard of and mercy, rarer still. In a corner of the barroom some musicians played rowdy dance-hall jive. The piano was shaped like a coffin. The banjo was made from two pie-tins and bailing wire. I said “Hey, I’ve got one like that at home.” Even through all the noise I could hear her spurs jangling down the street. Like alter bells they sounded, and I struck my breast three times. She’d been gone awhile, since I don’t remember when. “I spent a year in Echo Canyon” she said, “just me and my tambourine.” The music stopped…
…and then it started again.
And that is when the dance-hall storm began.

Dance critters!
When I say dance
Dance critters!
Dance critters!

Me and old Andre
The Indian guide
We got three stuffed kittens
And a buffalo hide

Head ‘em up!
Move ‘em out!
When I say dance
You’re gonna shout

Dance critters!
When I say dance
Dance critters!
Dance critters!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fledgling Circus


Colorblind James: acoustic guitar and vocals
Bernie Heveron: upright bass
Jimmy Mac: drums
Phil Marshall: electric guitar

Yet another of the post-G. Elwyn recordings. While G. Elwyn's departure was sad, many fans found the change exhilarating. As a four-piece, we agreed to concentrate on Chuck's songs exclusively. While this brought the band into a much sharper focus, that exclusivity eventually led to Bernie's leaving and, years later, Ken and me signing off.

Fledgling Circus is a great example of Chuck turning his usual song approach on its head. The key to circus rock is this: tragi-comic lyrics over an insanely upbeat and extremely fast polka-beat. Having written well over 100 fast two-beats, here comes this ultra-slow, Dylanesque tale of a guy who may or may not have had something to do with the untimely deaths of a number of circus performers.

In the narrator's tangle with the 'strong man', he beats him so severely that the man commits suicide. How completely crushing and demoralizing for a circus srong man to be pummeled. How could he show his face again?

The lion tamer is eaten by a hungry lion. Apparently the singer was responsible for feeding the beast. With the tragic deaths of the trapeze family, the narrator even laments that it was "all so sad and unnecessary". Why? Because he'd forgotten to mend the nets!

The narrator never sounds honestly malicious and even a little bewildered that fingers may be pointing at him. He's a shlubb with responsibilities and his failure to meet those responsibilities causes 'accidents' to happen. This is real tragic/comedy stuff.

There's an existential streak that runs through Chuck's best material. Existential in terms of Sartre or Camus? I think Chuck would deny it emphatically writing them off as pompous intellectuals. Then again, I could be wrong.

Some points of interest: Chuck was sitting on a drummer's throne while strumming his big Guild acoustic. Listen closely and you can hear his seat squeeking!

On our first European tour, we were accompanied by a young English band called Yeah, Jazz! Kev, the band's lead singer and songwriter, was completely mad about Fledgling Circus. He asked Chuck to show him the chords. After that, any time he had to just sit around and play guitar, he was heard playing the chords to Fledgling Circus.

Fledgling Circus
Words and music © Chuck Cuminale

Woah, cum’on and fight my battles
Woah, cum’on and plead my case
Woah, cum’on, do something to show me
I’m not alone in this place

Fortune has not smiled upon me
It’s not even bothered to learn my name
Should never have joined this Fledgling Circus
When it fell they singled me for blame

One night I picked a fight with the strong man
I beat him within an inch of his life
He borrowed a rope from a tight rope walker
When home and hung himself that night

Next it was the lion tamer
Lost his head in the lion’s jaws
They say that beast was extra hungry
Coz I’d last fed him three days before

An entire famous trapeze family
Last week all plunged to their deaths
It was all so sad and unnecessary
Coz I’d forgot to mend the nets


I got a date with the woman with two heads
She’s the only left who’ll talk to me
At dinner she makes good conversation
One head talks while the other one eats

Woah, cum’on and fight my battles
Woah, cum’on and plead my case
Woah, cum’on, do something to show me
I’m not alone in this place

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Considering A Move To Memphis


Colorblind James: Vibes and vocals
Bernie Heveron: Upright bass
G. Elwyn Meixner: Banjo and Telecaster
Jimmy Mac: Drums
Phil Marshall: Modulus Graphite Blacknife

Well, here it is: the big one. The one that got that got things going for us. The one Chuck instinctively knew would get attention.

Considering a Move to Memphis was written in San Francisco before the 'hiatus' when the line-up include Dave Fischer, Scott Young and Kevin McDevitt. When Chuck first introduced the piece to the band, I think we were all a bit shocked. Dave downright hated it. The rest of us to one degree or another figured he must be kidding around. He wanted us to play this riff over and over with no change up except every so often the riff would stop and we would chant "I'm Considering, I'm Considering..." completely out of time. Right...I thought he was mad.

But actually, it was a logical follow-up to Solid! Behind The Times: another persistent riff underscoring trippy nonsense lyrics and a spoken word interlude. While the song did nothing to change the band's non-reputation in a 1983 peroxide-blond San Francisco, I think it did to a certain degree steer the band towards its inevitable 'vacation'. Dave was becoming frustrated with the amount of rehearsing we would do, working loveingly on all the details of the songs, only to have them trashed by Kevin and me. Casting aside any sense of subtlety and nuance, he and I favored pounding drums and a cranked Les Paul in a joint display of youthful machismo. Couple those frustrations with no audience to speak of, a landmark change in Chuck's songwriting and Dave announced his departure.

Needless to say, the song didn't really find its voice until Rochester. And unlike S.F., Rochester audiences seemed to love it right off the bat. The song really benefited from the lighter approach we were all giving it. Although I still would often (and to the end of my days in the band) be too loud for Chuck, I'd begun to play considerably quieter. I'd also begun to favor the clean single coil sounds of my Blacknife Strat style guitar over my big throaty Les Paul.

While I make no assertions that I became a student of African guitar styles, I was honestly influenced by some of the more bell like tones and chording I had been soaking in from LPs like the Sounds Of Soweto and Nairobi Guitars. My approach to 'Memphis' was a direct result of that influence. Jimmy Mac was also a much more subtle drummer than Kevin and the song became lighter, bouncier and the riff popped more than pummeled. Bernie Heveron's upright bass added a cool jazz edge to the song while G. Elwyn's guitar and banjo kept the song rooted in pure Americana.

And of course, there's Chuck's vibes without which the song would never have come into existence. Chuck first acquired a set of bells in S.F. which got the ball rolling for him. He then purchased a said of Mussers from Tower Of Power's own David Garibaldi.

Considering A Move To Memphis was another of the the songs recorded at Marcus Glodell Studios and while the performance was flawed in many ways, it again benefited from the polish the engineer gave it. As the vocals were overdubbed, one of the first problems we encountered was in the amount of time we left in the 'hole' where the chanting would occur. Again, mind you, this recording was fast and on the fly. While there are obviously many ways to get around it, I believe we just stopped playing, waited, and then resumed. I can't remember if Chuck chanted to himself or if Jimmy counted us back in, but instead of allowing for a scratch chant track, we left a big pause of silence. When the chant was later overdubbed, the band seems to kick in at different times, more often while the chant is still in progress.

In the second set of solos, Jimmy Mac lost his place and ended up leaving twelve bars open for G. Elwyn's overdubbed banjo and only four bars for himself. G. Elwyn filled in the space very well and the overall effect is not that of a mistake but of a loose, improvisational excursion, which is difficult to suggest when overdubbing is part of the game.

The mistake that freaked us out most of all didn't occur during the recording. Chuck and I drove up to Toronto to pick up our 1000 copies of the LP. We drove back in a thunderstorm the likes of which I'd never experienced. It really looked the dark skies were opening up and revealing swatches of the universe no one should ever be allowed to see. When we finally got home, we lugged the boxes into Chuck's living room, cracked one open, took out a record and put it on. All was well and good until we got to Considering A Move. The song started and immediately Chuck and I looked at each other in horror. It seemed the opening downbeat was missing. Another LP was opened and was missing there too.

We thought we were the proud owners of 1000 copies of a ruined record. While the missing downbeat is on both the original Earring and Fundamental/Red Rhino LPs, it mysteriously reappeared on the CD version. Actually I remember Chuck being quite happy to learn that in the mastering for the CD, the downbeat would be saved.

But that, along with the performance problems, begs the question: what is a mistake? What is a flaw? It was the LP that John Peel played and it was Considering A Move To Memphis that made his 1987 Festive Fifty list. The song sounds like nothing before it or since. It's funny, poignant and catchy as hell. And for those who were or perhaps still are inclined to criticize it as completely annoying, I direct you to the closing line: "It's OK to disturb me, that's what I came here for." I think the folks who gravitated to what is arguably Chuck's masterpiece, understood that on a deep level.

It's the song that didn't change a damn thing, yet it's there for those of us who will always embrace the hope that change for the better, especially in pop music, will occur one day.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Gravel Road


Colorblind James: Acoustic guitar
Jimmy Mac: Drums
Bernie Heveron: Upright Bass
Phil Marshall: Electric Guitar

This is one I'd love to go back and remix. I think it's a really lively, bare bones recording of a classic Chuck Cuminale uptempo twelve-bar blues. It was clearly recorded after G. Elwyn had departed the band. Given the line up of drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitars, it's the closest thing in the catalog to the Beatles '65 LP, one of my favorite U.S. Beatles albums.

Given the classic form of the song, I believe what it holds over most other examples is that it has such a strong melody. This more readily connects it to the 12-bar excursions of Hank Williams Sr. than Chuck Berry (believe me, I am not taking away anything from Mr. Berry!)

I'm pretty sure I was in the control room and probably going direct into the board. My sound is thin and toneless, like my guitar was strung with rubber bands. Too bad, 'cause I love everything I'm doing on the song. The chunky rhythm fills, the Chuck Berry riffing on the solo, all typify the loose approach I'd developed with Chuck's songs. Over the years, I'd worked on jumping into a song without trying to second-guess too much.

Gravel Road is also the only song I recorded on my 1941 Gibson ES-100 before I traded it. Beautiful guitar, it just wasn't right for any of the goose-neck riffing I was doing. After one show during which I was playing pretty loud (not uncommon for awhile there), the whole guitar began to vibrate and the binding started to peel away. There was something about treating an old guitar thay way that just didn't sit right with me. It eventually led to my getting a '59 Gibson ES-175 however,'s all good, as they say.

The song itself is of such a high standard: three simple verses tell the story of a young girl who is struck down and killed by an aging motorist who'd thought he'd struck a mailbox post. The story, sadly, is true and describes a female friend of Chuck's when they were both in early adolescence. According to Chuck, the death of this girl was a critically defining moment for him. She turns up in other songs, most notably Purple & Gold (recorded but never released) although Gravel Road is a more literal casting, especially the 2nd verse, of the terrible accident.

For having stated on an earlier post that Chuck rarely wrote about actual people or events, with this song and Why'd The Boy, the first album contained two stories about friends he'd lost. As life and death are clearly themes that run through a good percentage of Chuck's songs, he might very well argue that the girl in Gravel Road is somewhere to be found in most of them.

Gravel Road
Words & music © Chuck Cuminale

I went down to Gravel Road
I went to have my fortune told
The fortune teller robbed me blind
Now I can’t get her out of my mind
I don’t know where I’ve been since then
I’ll never go down Gravel Road again

Gonna visit the place, gonna stand in the spot
Where her young life was blotted out
Some old codger, white as a ghost,
Thought he’d hit a mailbox post
I don’t know where I’ve been since then
I’ll never go down Gravel Road again

I went to sleep with a smile on my face
But I woke up in a different place
I never did scream, I never did shout
But I gave up trying to figure it out
I don’t know where I’ve been since then
I’ll never go down Gravel Road again

Monday, July 7, 2008

Walkin' My Camel Home


Bernie Heveron: Upright bass
Colorblind James: Vibes, vocals
Phillip Marshall: Guitar
James McAvaney: Drums
G. Elwyn Meixner: Guitar

I've got to start off by saying that Walkin' My Camel Home has to be one of the most underrated and overlooked gems in Chuck Cuminale's songbook. While this was always a lot of fun to play, more importantly it really represents the best qualities of the early Rochester line-up.

The instrumental section has G. Elwyn and me talking back and forth with little pseudo-Middle Eastern riffs. It also features great lines from Bernie's upright, tight punchy drumming from Jimmy Mac, and of course Chuck's vibes which cap off each section with a long sustained final note hanging like a star above a midnight desert.

Being one of the few non-two beat songs in Chuck's catalog, up to that point, he really pushed Jimmy Mac to find a rhythm pattern that complemented the main riff, rather than merely keeping time. Also, while many of Chuck's riffs were based around the mixolydian scale (my apologies to Chuck: he would hate that I'm using high falutin' terms like that), WMCH's riff is based around a minor pentatonic scale.

Chuck didn't care much for music theory or any displays on a musician's part to show how much musical 'knowledge' he had. While he occasionaly played 9th chords on his guitar, he didn't show much interest in harmonic embellishments to basic major and minor chords. In typical fashion, after getting worked up about something and hearing me strum a C Major 7 chord, he declared emphatically "That chord is a lie!" It's sole purpose was to make people feel a certain emotion that didn't really exist.

Chuck's harmonic world included major and minor chords, dominant 7th chords, the occasional diminished chord (they seemed to pop up in old jug band songs or Bessie Smith blues numbers) and the ubiquitous major 6th barre-chord. But stating that he had a limited palette of harmonic colors is not a put down. What he may have lacked in harmonic sophistication, he more than made up for in imagination. His story telling continued to develop and expand and the role his musicians played in supplying other colors and other voices was extremely important.

I don't recall ever playing this song in Europe although I'm sure we must have. Somewhere along the line it just seemed to get dropped from the repertoire. Perhaps for that reason, it will remain for me a kind of peak in his post-SF, pre-UK period.

Recorded at Saxon Studios, it's also one of the few Colorblind James Experience recordings that features a fade ending.

Walkin' My Camel Home
Words and music Chuck Cuminale

The sheik's men they snuck up behind me
And stole the air I planned to breath
It left me reelin' 'round light-headed
I knew that it was time to leave
But I felt much better out in the moonlight
Walkin' my camel home

Last time I came out here at night
Well, let's just say it was a big mistake
I got drunk and I knocked a tent down
I almost smothered in my own heartache
But it gave me something to think about while
Walkin' my camel home

Well, I got responsibilities
Lotta things I'm supposed to do
But for me the hardest part
Is to make it look like that's not true
That's how come I wear these shades while
Walkin' my camel home

Well, I was sittin' in my favorite chair
Staring at my favorite floor
When the doorbell rang I said "I'll get it"
40 thieves were at the door
Well, it's true I've made some strange connections
Walkin' my camel home