Essay: “My Brilliant Non-career” part 4

On the group’s 2004 full-length album release, Sun Greets the Dawn, I used the Roland RD-300s for piano sounds; the Emu Vintage Keys for Farfisa, Mellotron strings, Vox Continental, Hammond B3 and electric piano sounds; the Roland Alpha-Juno for some additional Farfisa sounds, the Ensoniq Mirage for some more electric piano sounds (I think, anyway); and the Theremax for the mayhem that was “Psychedelic Siren.” I’m proud to say that when the engineer dropped the ball, I picked it up, and produced, mixed and mastered the album myself (with input from the rest of the band, of course).

In January 2005 The Echoes of Tyme celebrated our third anniversary. We figured we’d only missed about a dozen weekly practices over the last three years. Pretty consistent, and certainly a record of group longevity for me. Thing is, the same night, our rhythm guitarist gave his notice, effective immediately. No hard feelings, “musical differences” or any of that; he had signed up for some night classes and simply wouldn’t have the time. Two weeks later our bassist split. Seems he’d been frustrated for a long time and wanted to do something different. So the auditions for our seventh bassist would begin in earnest, and in February.

I ran a slight variation on the usual ads, seeking primarily a bassist, but open to the possibility of a rhythm guitarist. If he (or she — Grace Slick, anyone?) could sing then we might fight the temptation to play as a quartet. Details to follow (or so I thought…)

Death and Rebirth
Life is funny. Death, somewhat less so. In April 2005 The Echoes of Tyme were down to a (non-performing) trio: Mike the drummer, Dave the lead guitarist, and me on keys. Not insignificantly, we were the founding trio. Without a bassist — and with auditions going pretty much nowhere — it was nonproductive to try and practice. In any event, I decided one evening to invite Mike and Dave over for dinner and an evening of watching rare music video clips from the 60s. We had a nice evening, and it occurred to me not long thereafter that we really hadn’t done much along the lines of just hanging out.

That evening was the last time Mike or I saw Dave alive.

A coupe days later, a Friday in fact, Dave took a day off from his current job, opting instead to enjoy the beautiful day. He enjoyed a quiet evening, and turned in around 11pm. By 3am he was dead, victim of a massive myocardial infarction (a big ol’ heart attack). Died in his sleep, he did.

The two recently-quit members of the band reunited with Mike and I for a tribute concert, but that marked the end of The Echoes of Tyme. Mike and I decided it would be pointless to continue. Dave’s guitar was too integral a part of our sound. We hoped to continue together musically somehow, but it was too early to think about the details.

At Dave’s tribute show, Dave’s girlfriend Susie asked Mike and I to back her up on a couple numbers. We gamely agreed, and it went well. That planted the seed for an idea: a new group, still focused primarily (though not exclusively) on the 60s, but with a pop-vocal orientation. Susie had been in several groups with her friend Debbie; Deb was not only an excellent harmony vocalist, but adept at creating arrangements. They would needed a third vocalist. On a lark, my (then-) wife Joan sat in with Susie and Deb one evening, with me on acoustic piano and Mike on tambourine. The vocals were great. It was skeletal but obviously full of potential.

By August we had put together a new group, The Poppies, and had amassed a set of more than a dozen songs (with many more in development). My equipment setup was in for a major change.

Kurzweil SP-76. Now we're gettin' serious.
The RD-300s had several (well, three) keys that stuck, causing great consternation. I opened the beast up and poked around to no avail. The D-110, well, I never could make much use of that thing, despite its excellent sounds. The Fatman, well, I never really used it. The Mirage, my gem, I really didn’t make much use of either. The Theremin was pretty much for Halloween. So it was with moderately heavy heart that I decided to sell off all of the above (except the Theremin, of course) and purchase (eBay again) a Kurzweil SP-76. My new setup would be the Kurzweil, the Roland Alpha Juno, the Emu Vintage Keys and the Korg RK-100.Vital Organs
Thanks for the memories...So the Kurzweil SP-76 became the centerpiece of my playing rig. I had some initial trepidation toward the action, but I need not have worried. The “semi-weighted” action is ideal for both piano material and synth/organ parts. As is typical, I make virtually no use of the unit’s infinte MIDI capabilities. I plug it in, I play. I do use it as a controller for the Vintage Keys rackmount. The Alpha Juno got plenty of work, and I used it to control the Mirage…which I ended up keeping. None of my other equipment had a decent Wurlitzer EP200 sound (readers with a good memory may recall I owned a real Wurly a quarter century or so ago). I tried using the RK-100 with The Poppies but this group required a bit more nuance and subtlety (neither being traits for which I am renowned), so its lack of velocity-sensitivity rendered it ineffective. Meantime I also found use for the excellent “horn section” samples in the Mirage; with The Poppies I played much more than just electric piano and organ, and — difficult as it may be — I played more than just chords (though not MUCH more). I also sang lead a lot less, and harmony a lot more.

My vital organ (groan...sorry)
I considered selling off a vintage non-working Electro-Harmonix Memory Man I’d not used in decades, but decided to hold onto it and get it fixed when I could. It would come in handy with the Theremin.Also going unused were the Oberheim Strummer and the PAiA Fatman, and I had managed to break a spring, I think, inside of my Tascam Porta Two cassette four-track recorder. So I did the math and decided to try again to sell off the PAiA, Tascam, and Oberheim and pick up another organ module. After a few unsuccessful bids on Ebay I managed to snag a good deal on a Peavey Spectrum Classic Organ rackmount. It’s full of Hammond, Farfisa and Vox samples. What more does a man need?So the Peavey arrived in good working order, and I hooked it up. Amazing — to me at least — is the Leslie (rotating speaker) effect. On all of my other equipment, the Leslie effect is either off (standard) or on (when the mod wheel is used). There’s no in-between, really. On the Peavey, however, when I dial me up some Leslie, it starts out sloooow, and speeds up to wherever I’ve set it. When I let go, it slooows down and strops. Just like the real thing. And the sounds — 128 of ’em — are great. For example, the organ from Eric Burdon’s “Spill the Wine” is in the box, should I ever need it. As are a dozen Voxes, as many Farfisas and much more.The best part: I sold my Oberheim Strummer for the same price I paid for the Peavey, so it’s “revenue neutral.” A good thing.

The Poppies was really an amazing thing, musically: seven people, six of whom could sing lead or harmony. On one hand we had a solid instrumental section that could rock and/or play with subtlety (guitar, bass, drums, keys). Mike from The Echoes of Tyme covered drums, and enjoyed the opportunity to play pop. As previously mentioned, I “played” more than usual. My rig expanded again. Onstage I used the Kurzweil SP-76 for piano and strings, the Roland Alpha Juno for cheesy organ and odd effects, and all of my rackmounts for everything else. The Mirage finally got a decent workout, especially for the horn section on “More Today Than Yesterday” (listen to the song; link above).

We performed a lot of parties and local clubs, culminating in a glorious show at Bose Headquarters in Boston (they paid us — handsomely — in PA equipment). The band fell apart under circumstances I need not get into here. Suffice to say my marriage fell apart at the same time, and I fired my wife and the bass player from the band. (You do the math.) I corralled some friends to cover the missing parts, and we performed our final gig in September 2006. Then I took a sabbatical from playing. It lasted a good solid year. (Therapy lasted a good bit longer.)

I Was So Much Older Then…
In fall 2007 I auditioned for a band. Technically I was trying out for the part of lead vocalist; they weren’t looking for a keyboard player. The audition went well, but I was hesitant about taking the gig, since they wanted to practice twice weekly. With my new life — single, homeowner, reasonably successful business, thriving music journalism career, dating — I didn’t want to commit to such a regimen. Making that clear and getting a tacit ok from the group’s “leader,” I joined. We started out as a 60s rock band, and I did in fact play keys. But it was all so tentative — with much arguing and whatnot — that I would only bring one keyboard to practice each time, and never left anything there.The leader/drummer would sometimes stop playing mid-song to berate one or more of us for making mistakes. No kidding. Eventually I quit. Then the bassist quit. The drummer planned to replace us, but then both guitarists quit. This left only the drummer. He took his stuff home (practice had been at the lead guitarist’s place) and that was that. But not quite.Short story: we re-formed without him! The rhythm guitarist (and a good one at that) is in fact an even better drummer. So Back Pages came to be, as a four-piece. I started out using the full rig from The Poppies days (plus another recent purchase — more presently) but eventually whittled down to…wait for it…ONE keyboard.

I had better back up.

The Poppies sold off the Bose PA equipment (collectively owned — always a bad idea, folks) and with my substantial one-sixth share (the guitarist wisely opted out of the original deal) bought a late-period analog synth, a Roland Juno-6. I bought it more to cheer myself up — this was a rough time — but I did end up using it live, once. In late 2006 (during the “sabbatical”) I scored a one-off gig with some friends, playing a holiday party. In that one evening I made more money playing music than I ever had before. The lineup was guitar/synth/drums. We all sang, and the guitarist would play leads while I plunked out simple bass lines on the Juno. On keyboard-led songs, the guitarist switched to a baritone guitar and played bass parts.

You are...Number Six (and in fact I am a free man!)
So, back to Back Pages. I was finding that all my equipment was A. Bit. Much. The other guys could set up in minutes, but it took me a half hour. Then one day in fall 2008 I got a phone call from our drummer. He told me that had a listing for something called a Kurzweil K2000s. Wow. That’s a legendary board. My former neighbor, the late Bob Moog, designed that thing. Amazing. So I spent the $400 and bought it. By far (BY FAR) the most user-friendly keyboard I have ever owned, the K2000s does nearly everything. Sampling? Check (the Mirage will be going up for sale soon). Mono synth fiddling? Check (I sold the FatMan…well, actually, I traded for something else…more shortly). Piano? Organ? You betcha. So effective October 2008, I used only the K2000s onstage. My tiny house is filled with eleven other machines.

Kurzweil K2000s - the be-all and end-all of keyboards? Perhaps...
So when I traded the Fatman, I got a cool noodly late 70s synth in trade. A Korg Delta. You don’t see those much any more. It’s another “toy” purchase (like the Juno-6) but I like it. Quite a dated piece of machinery, but it works flawlessly.

Korg Delta - another one for the toy box

In mid-December 2008 my band Back Pages did a two-set performance at a local bar. Good turnout. I brought only the Kurzweil K2000s and the Korg RK-100. The Kurzweil performed nicely; special notice should go to the wonderful organ sounds and the “underwater electric piano” sound that served me well when playing the spooky keyboard riff in Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” I played a couple of songs using the RK controller, most notably the synth part on “Bargain” off Who’s Next. It was a delight, too, to set up in under ten minutes.

I wanted the synthesizer sound from Keith Emerson’s solo on “From the Beginning” and didn’t have the time to delve into sculpting the sound using the Kurzweil’s powerful editing system. While I’m sure it would be up for the job, I simply wasn’t. So instead I popped an ELP CD into my computer, ripped the song to WAV, and then edited out a tiny section of the synth solo. Just one note, around the middle range of the solo, the snippet was about a half-second long. (Any longer and I would have gotten some acoustic guitar and/or percussion.) I used tools in CoolEdit to lengthen the snippet to about three seconds, did a quick fade-in and a slightly longer fade-out, and saved it as a stereo WAV. Then I used some nifty shareware developed for the Kurzweil by a guy in Belgium; it converted the WAV file to a native Kurzweil format. Voilá: I had the sound on my keyboard.

I also put together a collection of (what I thought were) funny audio clips from the TV show Family Guy, and interspersed a few of those throughout the set (to mixed reaction, I must admit).

It will be some time before I trot out any of my other equipment to a gig; the K2000s (and the RK for a bit of goofy fun) should cover my needs pretty well.

As if All that Wasn’t Enough…
Stop me if you heard this one before. No, really.

Lately I’ve been perusing my local Craigslist at least once a day. Occasionally something interesting shows up. Well, in late January 2009, something did. A 1952 model Hammond M2 spinet organ. Known as something of a “poor man’s B3”, the M2 is a fine little piece of equipment. “Little” as defined here doesn’t really mean small. This thing is four feet wide, more than two feet deep and weighs in the neighborhood of 250-300 pounds. Still, this is a quite lovely sounding instrument. The stops all work, though several are a bit crackly. The pedals all work. No tubes are blown. The speaker’s not rotten. It’s not been abused; it’s been in the home of a very nice older couple, where it’s rarely been played in the last decade.

I got it moved with the kind assistance of one of my bandmates plus my son and his friend. I locked down the generator/tonewheel board before moving (I read somewhere that should be done to protect the organ). Now it’s set up in my house. It sounds fantastic; I’ve played along with Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets LP and am able to replicate many of the sounds exactly. And I’m learning how to play pedals. Way cool.

Hammond M2 organ, circa 1952 -- my Roland Juno 6 on top.

Hmm…I Forgot to Mention One!
This piece has been in my collection since 1987, but I never thought to include it. A quick back story will elucidate.

In spring 1987 I started dating a girl to whom I had been giving piano lessons. By the Christmas holidays of that year we were engaged. Being as I was only 24 years old, I still had this idea that the world revolved around music, and that everyone would agree. (Come to think of it, I still pretty much feel that way, which explains a few things.) So I decided that a wonderful gift for my fianceé would be…a bass guitar. Makes perfect sense, right? Only to the single and/or divorced among you, I’ll bet.

So I trundled off to my local pawn shop — those things were all over Atlanta in those days; probably still are — and found a bass in pretty rough shape. It was an Epiphone of unknown vintage. The strings on it were literally rusted, and the fretboard was all gunked up; your fingers would almost stick to it if you touched it. And the electronics were dodgy. But they were willing to take $50 for it, so I bought.

I took it home, cut the strings off with metal snips, removed the cover and used a can of compressed air to blow out the dust from inside the electronics cavity. I took a piece of steel wool and used it to scrub the gunk off the fretboard. (I know that will make some readers cringe; but remember that this was only a $50 instrument.) I picked up some aftermarket volume and tone knobs for about $2 each and put them on, along with a fresh set of strings. I polished the wood with Lemon Pledge or something like that, and it was done.

On Christmas day — in front of my future (and now ex-) in-laws — I presented it to my (then-) wife-to-be, and she mumbled something along the lines of “oh…hmm…nice.” She never played it, and in retrospect it was a stupid idea of me to think she would. I kept it around for many years in my music room, occasionally picking it up and plunking on it. I hadn’t bought an amp for it either.

In 2003 or so, during the period of The Echoes of Tyme (see waaaay above), we found ourselves with a succession of bass players. I think we went through five. And two of them didn’t even own bass guitars! So I let them use the Epi, and it sounded pretty good. One of them opened it up and resoldered some frayed electronic wiring, so it became a pretty reliable instrument.

When my wife and I divorced in 2006, she suggested I take the bass. It remains in my collection today. I only recently identified it and found out its age. The best info I could find about this Japanese instrument suggests it’s an Embassy from 1973 a Newport from the early 1970s. It’s pretty groovy.

It would be even groovier if I knew how to play it.

1973 Epiphone Embassy Bass Guitar

One of these days I’ll write a bit about my left-handed Fender acoustic guitar. I’ve had it since 1998.

Wurlitzer Tone Cabinet ('Leslie') Model 301. Epiphone Embassy bass shown to illustrate size. My Name is Bill, and I’m a Craigslist Addict
So I continued to check Craigslist daily to see if anything interesting popped up. In April 2009 something did. A guy had a full-size Wurlitzer organ. Full range of pedals, built-in bench. The sort of thing you might see in a huge church. Of course I had neither need, inclination nor space for such a behemoth, however wonderful. But the package included a “tone cabinet.” I asked if he’d part with just the cabinet. He said yes.

Did I mention the whole thing was free? And this tone cabinet…well, it’s a Wurlitzer brand, but is more often known by the generic term of “Leslie.” It’s not a Leslie-brand “Leslie,” but it is a rotating speaker cabinet. An essential component of any organ setup. this particular beast is quite large. 19″ deep x 29″ wide and — wait for it — five feet tall. It looks like a wooden phone booth or an upended coffin.

Does it work? Who knows! I will have to get it modified, replace the six-pin connection with a 1/4″ jack and whatnot. And none of that will happen soon. For now it’s a very cool conversation piece. But conversations are getting harder to have: my tiny house is nearly filled with musical arcana now. Such is the life of a middle-aged man with his toys.

What of the organ? The guy couldn’t get anyone to take it. People were interested but asked if he could deliver it! It’s free, fer frak’s sake! Tragically, as of this writing he’s planning to take it to the landfill.

The Early Bird Gets the Wurlitzer
I must admit that my Craigslist additcion remains in full flower. And this time the results were something very special. In early May 2009 I happened across a Wurlitzer 206A Electronic Piano. That’s the “student model” of the venerable 200A. You may recall how the 200A figures into this man’s saga: I owned one of the things, and like a fool (well, not like a fool — more as a fool) I sold it in 1985. It’s become the virtual White Whale in my own personal mythology: The One That Got Away.

So when this one showed up, I called immediately. The woman — whom I knew vaguely from around town — was selling it on behalf of her son; he was raising money to attend Bonnaroo. I told her I was calling about the Wurly. She laughed. I asked why. She said that in the 30 minutes since she listed it, mine was the third call.

Were the other two on their way to look at it? I asked. She said no. Well, then I was. A few hours later it was in my bedroom. It’s the standard student model, which means that it’s a regular 200A minus the internal speakers at keyboard level, less the steel legs, plus two larger (8″) speakers and a solid base. And instead of the classic black, it’s a contents-of-Linda-Blair’s-stomach-in-The-Exorcist beige. And it sounds like nothing else in the world.

Getting this Wurly is a huge deal for me. I had never gotten over the stupidity of selling my Wurlitzer 200A. Until now.

Wurlitzer EP 206A. The White (ok, beige) Whale.

In summer 2009 I scored a great deal on a Kurzweil K2000rs. That’s a rackmount version of the venerable K2000, less a keyboard but with a hard drive added. It’s pretty much for home use and to serve as a backup if the K2000 ever gives me trouble.

Kurtzweil K2000RS. Rack-up Backup of the best machine I've ever owned.

The Only Constant is Change
In early September 2009 I reached the limits of my patience with the erratic and unreasonable behavior of one of my band mates (who really needed to make friends with another guy named Bill, last initial “W” if you catch my drift) and I quit the band. If there’s an object lesson here, it’s perhaps that if a situation seems unhealthy, it almost certainly is. At this stage of my life — a stage this problem individual hasn’t yet reached — I was unwilling to put up with that kind of nonsense. Life’s too damn short. The last straw was the desire of two of the members to add more “southern rock” to the set. No, thank you. I’m not that desperate to play out.

I’ll miss playing music with the other two guys.

Back From the Grave?
As is my general approach in life, I wasted little time. Within a week of quitting the cover band, I had run an ad on Craigslist offering up my services as a sideman. My thought was this: find a band where one person — not me — makes all the tie-breaker decisions as to what songs to do, how to do them, etc. I figured I’d find an interesting singer/songwriter who wanted band backing. And I made my own technical limitations clear, so no one would expect Keith Emerson to show up for an audition.

I got lots and lots of replies. Many (most) of these were from cover bands; to me, this fact suggested that people weren’t reading the ad too closely. No matter. I got some interesting inquiries, and followed up with several. In the end (well, sorta the end) I lined up two auditions. But well before the scheduled meetings, I began to harbor doubts. Was this really what I wanted to do?

So I hedged my bets. I wrote another ad (also anonymous) and led off with this line: “This is a real long shot, I know. But here goes.” And then I explained my idea of starting a new band. A group to play that Nuggets stuff. Again. Because, you know, that music is really my first love. And while I wasn’t out to put to rest some unresolved issues, some unfinished business, I did look back on my years with The Echoes of Tyme (2002-2005; see above) with great fondness.

To my shock, surprise and delight, I got a number of replies. So I cancelled my auditions and put my focus into this. In mid-September 2009 I gathered along with three other guys (guitar, bass, drums) over a few pitchers of beer to discuss the proposed project. As of this writing, I’ve auditioned (and auditioned for) a couple of guys who sound really good. And they “got” the concept.

As I started learning the songs (some Paul Revere & the Raiders, Standells, Litter etc.) I took a quick inventory of what instruments I’d need for this band, should it get off the ground. Since we’d likely be trading in garage/psych obscurities mostly (or completely) from the 1965-68 era, the synthesizers were out. I’d need to recreate five categories of instruments, really: Wurlitzer electric piano, Vox organs (Jaguar and Continental) Farfisa organs (Compact Duo etc.), Hammond organs, and the occasional acoustic piano. The Kurzweil can handle all of that and more.

Who knows? I might even drag out the Theremin again, eventually.

So for now I have what I need. No shopping spree for me. Thank goodness.

(Okay…that was a long time ago. A lot’s happened since then but I haven’t taken the time to write about it yet. Suffice to say, that band came and went — as did several others — and I’m still playing. I’ll update this one day. )