Essay: “My Brilliant Non-career” Part 3

ANYway, I digress. So I bought this thing, more or less expecting it to arrive and require a few hours of plug-and-play assembly. What I found instead was an “unstuffed” printed circuit board and a plastic baggy full of things that looked like little Sputnik satellites the size of Tic-Tacs. Yes, I know, I know… So I roped in a friend to try and help me build this, with a soldering iron I owned (but had no clue how to use). After he burned out (so to speak) on the project, I called in another friend, then another, then a fourth and fifth. Little progress. Quagmire time.

Then a guy I knew only slightly agreed to take it home and work on it in his spare time. Four or five months later I diplomatically asked for the box of untouched circuits to be returned to me. Finally another friend took pity on me and agreed to “finish” the project. At this point it was about 20% complete. He did so within a week or two, and my prized woo-woo machine was ready. I ran it through an Alesis Nanoverb effect unit and got unbelievable sounds from it. As it’s totally analog (hell, it virtually defines analog) it is near impossible to play a tune on it, but for effect is it without compare.

Woo Friggin Woo.

PAiA Theremax Theremin. I'm giving out good vibrations.

I used the Theremin on a recording of my friend Jim Stetson’s “Gremlins.” The song is really about personal demons and self-doubt rather than things that go thump in the night, but the woo-woo machine fit the mood perfectly.

On Halloween 2000 I set up in my front yard and played the Theremin all evening as nearly 300 kids filed through our home to experience my children’s Haunted House. Around that time I had the pleasure (and thrill of a lifetime) to meet a neighbor of mine who owned a local company which built — among other things — Theremins. His name was Dr. Robert Moog. Yes, THAT Moog. My (then-) wife was fond of telling people that my introduction to Bob is the only time in the many years she has know me where I have ever been at a loss for words. Starstruck, I was. A nice, regular guy (well, a nice regular influential genius guy) he was. We did talk about Theremins. I am sure I said dumb stuff.

Oberheim Strummer. I'll fake guitar one way or another.

Going back in time a bit again. In 1999 I started poking around online for cool used stuff for sale. That’s in fact how I found that D-110 several paragraphs ago. So I also found this odd thing called a Strummer, by Oberheim. It’s a MIDI processor that reorders notes on a keyboard, rendering them in the fashion they’d be played on a stringed instrument. This means that if you hit a chord, the notes come out one-after-the-other a la a “strum,” and that certain notes just don’t play at all. Of limited use, but kinda cool. And cheap.

There was this really cheesy home keyboard for sale in the 1970s called the Optigan. It was from Mattel, the toy company. No, I don’t own one of those, but some clever guys developed a “Virtual Optigan” written in Java. I had plans for awhile to find a way to make that part of my setup. Never happened.

PAiA Fatman. Analog meets MIDI.

Another thing I bought online, used, was a PAiA Fatman. Now, PAiA is the company that sells the Theremax, so I knew the stuff would be cool, but there was no way I was going to buy another kit, especially one as complex as this. But somebody had one for sale for $100, far less than the kit. And it was fully built and functional. In basic terms, the Fatman is a rackmount analog monosynth, but with MIDI. So you tweak the 16 or so knobs but play via a remote keyboard. Cool for leads.

Scuse me while I kiss the sky.
Over the years I bought a couple guitars. I do have a couple strikes against me, guitarwise, though. One, I am left-handed. Two, I have no aptitude for stringed instruments. Three, I am disinclined to work at improving. Anyway, I have a Fender left-handed acoustic and a Yamaha Pacifica. Mostly I whang on the whammy bar and lean in front of the amp for feedback. I’m sorry; what did you say? I can’t hear very well, you see.Welcome to the FutureSo in 2001 I started hunting for a remote keyboard, one of those strap-on deals where I could run around a bit. I found a Korg RK-100, which is very cool. It’s made of wood(!) so it’s fairly heavy (about 13 lbs.) and is the size and dimensions of a bass guitar. But it is very easy to play, is balanced nicely and just plain feels right. And it’s wild to look at. I understand it was once owned by one of the members of George Thorogood’s Destroyers. So I suppose when I play it I am b-b-b-bad to the…oh, nevermind.
Korg RK-100. Look ma, no piano stool!
In the Summer of 2001 I started playing again. The group was named “Third Wind” or “Third Wind and the Hip Replacements,” but I thought those names sucked. I’d have called us The Rolling Blackouts. At nearly 38 I was the baby of the group, and by far the musician with the weakest chops. I had to struggle to keep up, and they cut me little slack. Lots of fun, though. It ended after two gigs. Too bad we never recorded. But I am richer for the experience and the fifty bucks. Everybody in the band (except me) re-joined their previous band, which — to me, anyway — sounds like Loggins & Messina backed by Phish and the Grateful Dead. I’ll just leave it at that. In a manner of speaking.
Korg DSS-1. A swing and a miss.
I am not a gambler. When I went to Vegas years ago I blew, like, $35. So it was with some hesitation that I bid on ebay for a Korg DSS-1 sampling synthesizer. Long story short, it was sold as-is and did not work. So I promptly boxed it back up and offered it for sale (or trade) on another online list. Within days I had a firm offer from a guy who had once owned a Mirage (see above) and who now had a stack of 150 sound disks plus a service manual. He was willing to trade even. So off it went. The Present Day Rocker Refuses to Quit
(Apologies to Edgar Varese for that mangling). Fed up with trying to assimilate into an existing group, in January 2002 I decided to take the plunge and see if I couldn’t put a group together myself. The last time I did this was back in 1996 with Elementary Penguin. Come to think of it, that went fairly well (great group, lots of potential, broke up after two gigs). So who knows what this might bring? The ad I ran asked for people willing to play, basically, all the tunes from the Nuggets and Nuggets II box sets.February 2002. Things started happening. We were, briefly, six, then five. Me on keys and vocals. On drums, Mike, who answered the ad. He grew up in L.A. and saw many of the Nuggets groups in their heyday. Legend has it that he auditioned for the Standells at some point. On guitar and vocals, Davy, with quite a collection of 60s and 70s axes, and a genuine fuzz box. He “auditioned” for me by playing the complete solo from the Amboy Dukes‘ “Journey to the Center of the Mind” over the phone…on an acoustic! Note-perfect. The remaining lineup shifted and shook until late 2003. But I found myself more excited about this musical endeavor than anything I’d done in nearly 20 years.In early 2003 we settled on our REAL name: The Echoes of Tyme. Rejected names included Acid Reflux, The Mushroom Cloud, The Flashback Machine…stuff like that. We went by the name The Buzztones for awhile but too many other groups were using that.

Ninety-eight keys equals Ninety-six Tears (groan)

Forward Into the Past
The following description (but NOT the photo) is lifted from Anglicus’ Farfisa Site (now defunct):

“The VIP 233 has two 49 key manuals. The drawbars for the top are Flute, Sharp and Percussion, each in values of 16, 8, 5 1/3 and 4. Each section also has its own volume drawbar, and percussion has a three-position decay selector. Lower manual has Flute 8 and Clarinet 8. This model also features manual bass, with drawbars for Bass 16, Bass String 16, attack on/off and attack soft/sharp […] Finally, there is vibrato with a four speed selector.”

Dave (our lead guitarist) was an electronics whiz, and so with his help this gem was restored to 82% working order. (Why 82, you ask? The “G” notes don’t make any sound. In any event, it sounded good. Two of the VIP233’s most famous players include John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and, um, eh, well…Shirley Jones (Partridge Family). So sue me. In truth the VIP sounds a lot like the older Compact Deluxe, which for my money is best heard on early (just-post-Syd-era) Pink Floyd. Rick Wright goes to town.

Anyway, as of Summer 2003 my live setup was expanded to the Mirage (for electric piano, sitar/tabla and assorted oddments), Roland Alpha Juno (mostly organ presets 43/trashy organ and 41/percussive organ), the Theremax Theremin (in a cut-down case; I didn’t end up using the too-big sewing machine case) the big Roland RD-300s and the pesky D-110. The Fatman sees limited use (analog synths weren’t around in 1967 so I have little use for their sound in my current situation). The Farfy was quite heavy, and a lot of our songs did in fact require the playing of the note “G.”

Depending on the gig I sometimes used just the Roland Alpha Juno. the whole “wall of keyboards” doesn’t exactly engender the sixties garage rock vibe. On top of that I was the lead vocalist, so some bracing chords is about the extent of my playing (ok, so that’s always been the case).

Casting call for 'Average Joe?' AARP Meeting? No! It's everyone's favorite mid-80s cover band, Remote Control, at a 2003 reunion. Your humble author at left.

Thomas Wolfe Be Damned: You CAN Go Back (Albeit Briefly)

So in Summer 2003 the unlikely happened. My group circa 1984-86, Remote Control, managed to put together a reunion. The most amazing thing. While we all had aged nearly twenty years (imagine that!), we sounded exactly the same. I kid you not. The bitter memories if the late-stage band receded into memory, replaced by nostalgia and good feelings for all that we had musically. We sang the old originals (oddly, I remembered the words better than lead singer Michael Meyer, so I sang a bit), and banged through the old favorites. Hits and near-misses by The Plimsouls, REM, XTC, INXS, The Producers, Tom Petty, on and on. And just to make things perfectly magical, we did NOT record the session. That way we could all return home full of stories about just how grand it was.

And indeed it was. Lenny played the same guitar, with the same pedal (same battery? probably not). These days he plays in his church’s “praise” band, so he didn’t sell his soul for rock and roll. Michael is still at the music thing full time, having recorded a few albums with various groups. He found himself on a sixties trip much as I have (though his was more conventionally –and deservedly –“successful”). Scott H. brought out his old Univox copy of my favorite bass, the Rickenbacker 4001. Turns out he hadn’t played a note in nearly ten years. You’d never know it: rock solid. Original drummer Scott F. opted not to participate; in his stead was Scott H’s “kid” brother (now in his late 30s). Turns out Mark was a big fan of the old group, and saw us countless times. He knew all the arrangements.

I hope we do this again sometime.

In February 2004 I sold the Farfisa to a musician who will doubtless have better luck with it than I. He lives near a tech who knows how to work on the things. Me, I’m sure I’ll always have a twinge of regret in letting it go (much like I do with the Wurlitzer, the Moog, the Fender amp, the Aria guitar, the Yamaha CP30, the Korg Poly 800 and the missed-it-by-that-much Mellotron).

EMU Vintage Keys. Niiiiice.
Within twelve hours of the sale of the Farfisa, I had purchased an E-mu Vintage Keys module off Ebay.Less is More
So by 2004, since I finally had what I considered an ideal setup, my musical purchases pretty much stopped. I finally had a setup that worked as needed. In fact I had a few things I wasn’t even using.The Echoes of Tyme album SUN GREETS THE DAWN.The Emu Vintage Keys is an amazing piece of equipment. With top-notch samples of the sounds a garage/psych rock maven like myself needs, I was pretty much good to go. The VK gave me several excellent Hammond B3 sounds, replete with oh-so-gospelish Leslie effects on demand via the controller’s mod wheel. A bright Vox Continental patch relieved me of the desire to contend with the real thing. The Farfisa patch was very good, too, but I tended to like the way the Continental sound cut through the buzz/fuzz wall of guitars. And then of course there were the Mellotron samples par excellence. The Echoes of Tyme did a neat version of Ten Years After‘s “I’d Love to Change the World,” and it features a nice bed of ‘Tron strings. And if we ever do The Yardbirds‘ “Still I’m Sad,” the Mellotron vocals will take care of the Gregorian chants quite nicely, thank you.

Hauling equipment to each live setup can be of course somewhat of a hassle, and in Summer 2004 the group picked up a number of gigs. As such I was keen to find a way to get the sounds I needed with as little hardware as possible. I found that between the Emu Vintage Keys and the little Roland Alpha Juno, I could get something on the order of 90% of the sounds I wanted/needed. The only drawbacks were that the VK lacked a really good vibraphone sound (needed for our cover of Los Bravos‘ “Black is Black,”) and that I missed the weighted-keys response of my big bad Roland RD-300s. But with that 88-key monster weighing in at 70-plus pounds, it was hard to justify lugging it along. Especially for “showcase” type gigs where we only played an hour or so. I suppose the perfect controller would be a small, lightweight, four-and-a-half octave keyboard with weighted keys. There’s no such animal (or if there is, it’s beyond my budget).

Oh yes. The VK also lacks a good harpsichord. I seem to recall that the Roland D-110 rackmount has one of those, as well as (perhaps) some vibes. But my D-110 is a fairly erratic piece of equipment. The Mirage and and PAiA Fatman are in the same rackmount, but neither of them got much use those days either (the exception being when I had the presence of mind to throw some James Brown vocal samples into our rendition of “I’ll Go Crazy.”

The Theremax, well, I still dragged it out on occasion, for a mean version of “Psychedelic Siren,” but it’s sort of the synth version of an MG automobile. It required a good half hour of internal tweaking before each use, and its performance is unduly affected by the weather (specifically humidity, I believe). That said, on Halloween 2004 I got several trouble-free hours of use from it.

To be continued…