Essay: “Don’t Fret,” or, “I Write the Songs” Garage Style
For several years starting in 2002, I led a little ol’ cover band. We played much-loved and little-known garage-psych classics in reasonably faithful arrangements. Songs like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by the 13th Floor Elevators, “Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and the Choir’s “It’s Cold Outside.” Those were the well-known ones. No originals. Our thought was: until we can write songs as good as these, why bother trying to.
In the group’s early days, we had some difficulty holding on to bass players. There wasn’t some underlying reason; it was just bad luck. So we often found ourselves in the position of running ads in the local altweekly, and then scheduling auditions with likely candidates. I did my best to pre-screen people on the phone. What we were doing was a pretty specific, narrow style, and I had no illusions that it was for everyone.
Some people would answer the ad, and quickly reveal themselves to be what I’d call “musical mercenaries.” Sure, I’ll play that, they’d say. For cash, I will. Well, that wouldn’t do; we wanted people who had a “feel” for the music. They perhaps didn’t have to love it, and I wouldn’t expect them to feel about garage/psych the way I do (my love for the genre borders on the obsessive), but they had to at least understand it. Plus, in our little city there wasn’t a huge market for what we were doing, so gig opportunities — though they did exist — would be sporadic.
I could write volumes chronicling the funny-in-retrospect epsidodes we endured during our many bassist auditions (we did finally find one, and he was fantastic). And perhaps someday I will get all those stories down in words. But for now, here’s a short episode that ranks as one of my personal favorites.
This guy sounded ok on the phone. I guess I had fielded quite a few respondents that day, so I didn’t fully vet him: in later years you might say I almost “pulled a McCain” in not doing so. At least my lack of oversight didn’t endanger the country.
The guy showed up, and he was a sight. A human tattoo canvas, he was. Now, of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but if I may stereotype just a bit, guys covered in tattoos are usually into, well, other kinds of music. They don’t usually want to play Vanilla Fudge’s arrangement of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” But, whatever; let’s give the guy a chance.
He got his amp all set up, and then opened his instrument case to reveal a fretless bass. What? I thought. Again I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance. Yes, some great rock bassists played fretless: Colin Moulding from XTC, John Munson (then of Semisonic, now of The Twilight Hours), and that guy from the Firm, Jimmy Page’s post-Led Zeppelin group.
Attentive readers might notice the above list of examples doesn’t include groups with names like Bubble Puppy, Electric Prunes or the Sonics. But the guy was here, and he was set up. So let’s play and see how it goes, I thought. At this point, why not?
So we played for a bit. It wasn’t terrible or anything, but neither was it a transcendent experience, or even a really good fit. I’ve always half-joked that when a band is deciding on a bass player, everybody gets one vote except the drummer. The drummer gets two, since he hears and feels things about the bass player’s style and ability that the rest of us might miss.
Anyway, we never got to that stage. Even though I had clearly outlined what our band’s approach and goal was, after playing with us for about forty-five minutes, this guy stopped and spoke to us.
“Well, I really want to be in a band that plays originals,” he announced.
I was perplexed. I had made it clear beyond question that we were a cover band, pure and simple. But I figured I had nothing to lose in trying to draw him out a bit. So I asked him, “Okay, so do you write songs yourself, then?”
“No, I don’t,” he replied.
“Well,” I continued, “have you ever heard any of these songs that we’ve been playing here this evening?”
“Nope. I’ve never heard any of them,” he admitted.
I grinned. “Well, I wrote them all. Are you happy now?”
As I say, we eventually found a bass player who was nearly as big a fanatic about obscure 60s music as I am. He laughed when I shared this tale with him. Maybe you did too.