Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Meet the Band - Miles and the Saga of Skunk Baxter's Bass Players

In a previous post, I introduced you to two band members, Page and Sully.  This post will serve to introduce you to our bass man Miles, and address some history that involves our relationship. 

Where to begin with Miles?  He plays the bass guitar.  He is a big guy, likes hockey.  Very white skin, yet he believed that the best musicians in the world were black (he did, not sure if he still feels that way).  As a younger guy, he was a real musical snob.  Nowadays he is much more mellow and kind to me but he still is the same guy deep down.  Aren't we all?  He loves jazz and actually is fully responsible for my knowledge, and subsequent love, of jazz as an art form.  I have to be honest here because we have not always seen eye-to-eye, particularly in the pre-band-breakup era.  Let me preface this relationship a bit by saying that I am a bass player myself, and I believe that any great band requires a great bass player.  The bass player is critical to making the band sound like you can dance to the beat.  The bass sound makes women want to get on the floor.  I am a student of James Jamerson and Paul McCartney, and I love their music. 

James Jamerson, playing a Fender Precision Bass

I was the first bass player in the band.  I played bass and sang, like my favorite Beatle did.  I still write on the bass occasionally - I often want a certain bass line to interact with my lyric line a certain way, for example.  What happened was that we got to a certain level of ability as a band where my live performance as a singer was being compromised because I had to hold down the bottom end too.  The other factor in this band is that the bass player keeps time, not the drummer.  Our drummer, as mentioned previously, is given to flights of fancy.  So it is the bass player's job in this band to be the metronome - to keep the drummer on the one at all times. 

We added a new bass player that Page knew from work, Chris Ford, who I called "The King" because he reminded me of Elvis.  He was very dedicated and worked hard at his craft, but three things happened that did him in.  First, he loved Guns 'n' Roses, and insisted that we cover "Sweet Child O' Mine" which made me want to throw up.  But I try to be nice, so we did the song.  Second, he played with a graphite bodied bass and used a pick.  Imagine a guy who loves G'n'R playing bass in Phish or DMB.  It just didn't make sense.  But we liked the guy because he was cool and organized.  He learned the songs we liked and tried his best to "get it".  He raced cars on the side too - Mazda RX-7s with the rotary engines, all tricked out.  We were impressed with that fact.  He was fearless. 

The King on bass
The third thing though... this was the straw that broke the camel's back.  I had written this song called "To Give" which to this day I love.  It is a great song, one of my best; and I went up to New York to my friend Kieran's studio and demoed the work.  Kieran played drums, I played guitars and bass, and we had a rough demo which I brought back to the band so they could learn it quickly.  The band went into a local studio with Kieran as producer and we recorded it as part of our first EP.  I thought it was good work.  The King got a little out of hand with delusions of grandeur however, and one day over lunch he announced to me that he thought "To Give" would propel us into super-stardom, and he began demanding from me his "rights" to the song.  He insisted that he had "written" the bass part and that therefore he was entitled to a large chunk of the "rights" associated with the song. 

Now this whole incident blew me away.  I had lived the life that led me to write the song.  It was my baby.  It was me, through and through.  The song still gives me the chills.  Additionally, I had taken the time and effort (and money) to go to NY and lay it down in a studio with my friend Kieran's help.  The bass line the King referred to that he "wrote" was nearly a note-for-note homage of the bass line I played on the demo.  Of course he executed it in a far more polished way, but the IDEA was already there - I had done the work.  Moreover, his whole obsession with this song launching us into some stratosphere of MTV and radio and everything else was just dark and strange.  I thought he was out of his mind and wanted him out of the band then and there.  It was contrary to the whole spirit of what I was trying to accomplish. 

So, we kicked him out of the band.  I knew of a cousin of Kieran's, Brandon Jones, who lived in the area, and he played bass.  He was a really mellow guy, and he seemed to operate within our musical sphere of influence.  Everyone liked him right away - the perfect antidote to "The King".  But his problem was that he had moments of amazing clarity, and then he would turn around and mess things up awfully, like a guy on hard drugs.  Which it turned out he was.  This dude had a seventeen year old heroin-dealer girlfriend who had him wrapped up around her little finger, and he had been trying to "escape" from her for months.  He even called her "the Black Widow".  Once the band discovered what was going on we told him - no hard drugs in our band.  If you do them again, you're out.  No exceptions.  He came to my door one day and said he was leaving for Pittsburgh, where his mother was, to escape from the Black Widow.  I offered to let him move in & hide out with me - but told him if he did drugs one time in my house, he was out.  We tried... and I think Brandon lasted about four days before the Black Widow hunted him down one day while I was at work.  He was honest with me - I give him that - and he knew he had to escape from this evil situation with this girl.  May God have mercy on the guy - I hope he is OK.  Brandon if you're out there I hope you are in a better place.   

Brandon's girlfriend - as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. A fair representation IMHO.
So at this point, we still had this great song "To Give" but were faced with a personnel impasse.  The clock was ticking.  Our manager at the time, Kevin DiBergi, who was quite the character in his own right (more about all that later), had somehow just signed an amazing regional hip-hop star to his stable and wanted to send us out on a national tour supporting him.  He had hooked it up with a record label and had been given $400,000 to develop his stable of artists.  So there was a real Russell Simmons-like vibe to the whole situation - if we could only find a bass player.  The hip-hop star, Charles E, had won a new-artist Grammy a few years earlier with his old group which had been DJ-sample based, in a very Tribe Called Quest kind of way.  He wanted to set things up this time like the Roots, where he rapped over a live band.  He and I met at a gig where we both played up at Elizabethtown College on a flatbed in this big field with hundreds of college kids, and he said to me, "Man, I dig your song.  It is for real.  It's good.  Take good care of it."  For a dude with a Grammy from the streets of West Philly to say that to me - wow.  I didn't know what to make of it entirely, then or now.  But I cherish the memory, and always will. 

Hip hop wasn't always about gangstas. There was humor, integration, and social consciousness too!
 Somehow DiBergi found Miles.  My first recollection of Miles was that he was cocky.  I had heard through DiBergi's people that he called himself "the best bass player in town" which seemed quite arrogant to me, especially since I knew another bass player in another of DiBergi's bands - Vibes - who was better (they were to be the backing band for Charles E).  We invited him to my basement for a night of practice.  He sounded really good - he played with his fingers and had that right combination of touch and power that I had always searched for in a bass player.  He learned fast and he was clearly a serious student of the instrument.  He did not mess around when it came to music.  He lived in a rented house with four other dedicated jazz musicians who lived crudely but were constantly focused on their own personal musical development, among other diversions

Jaco Pastorius - Miles' favorite bass player

Sometimes I wonder if I had said "no" which was what I was thinking down deep.  I had hesitations about his personality, which seemed aggressive & forceful.  DiBergi's right hand man, a Jamaican Rastafarian named Tuck (imagine Samuel Jackson with an accent & dreds), told me before I made my decision, "Will, the dude is an asshole."  But where were we going to find a bass player with his talent in such a small city?  I was thinking that we either add him and get to play gigs again, or we don't.  He had a musical tone that I really wanted to add to the mix.  So I made the call.  "You're in," I told him after that first practice, to the delight of the other members. 

"Will, the dude is an asshole."

My grand sonic vision had been that we would have blue eyed soul on top, with harmonies and melodic lyrics, coupled with a modern R&B bottom end - a combination of Brian Wilson and hip-hop - to bring back together the fragmented popular music that began breaking apart starting with the King assassination in 1968.  With Miles and with "To Give" I felt we could do that.  We had the ingredients so that I could brew the musical vision I had heard in my head for years. 

Brian Wilson in the studio making "Pet Sounds" - my favorite album
 But the young Miles was so aggressive back then.  He pushed me well out of my comfort zone.  He pushed our musical tastes, he pushed me to quit my job and tour, he pushed all of us to work harder.  It just wasn't fun to play anymore.  And I was struggling to come to grips with the possibilities of a tour.  DiBergi, admittedly, while a wizard at personal relationships, was no businessman.  He spent nearly the entire $400K buying a tour bus.  So instead of putting that money in the bank and spending it slowly & cautiously to leverage it for great opportunities (festivals, regional touring, marketing, etc), and LEASING a bus for a few hundred dollars a month, he got stuck with a $400K luxury tour bus sitting in his driveway after a 3 week national tour was done and there was no money left in the bank.  DiBergi ended up running bus tours to places like Key West, attempting to monetize the asset.  Things got disorganized really fast, and I could foresee (especially with the bus purchase decision) that I would be jumping onto a sinking ship without lifeboats.  Amid this turmoil the band was breaking up anyways.  I think that Miles had less to do with it than I thought at the time.  Because he was the new guy he came to embody to me the frustrations and problems the band was going through. 

MCI Entertainer Bus for Sale picture
The tour bus... it was top of the line.

The real problem was me.  I was being asked to quit my job and three square meals a day, to climb in a van and go all over the country and play gigs for nearly no money.  There would be a free flow of drugs (probably not hard stuff, just grass - but I heard that some of the guys in the other bands were into blow) which did not interest me at all.  I'm a homebody and I felt that I was not made to be a troubadour.  I like good food, hot meals, and my own warm bed.  Going from town to town, shacking up in cheap hotels, going through women in meaningless one-night stands... that was really the opposite of what my song "To Give" was all about!  That song is about longing to find that one special partner in life who you can share with and create life with and be with forever.  And I felt responsible for the other guys in the band too.  Like I had to think for all of us.  Some of them already had girlfriends who are now their wives.  Was I really going to lead these men off on some crazy train

So I quit the band and moved away to the city.  

About three years later, after each of the band members had settled down and married, I was doing a solo album with my friend Kieran in New York (so yes, I have recorded a full album, just not with the band).  I recorded one song called "Charlie's Farm" about my old job which I had sent to a local paper's blogger.  Miles read that blog and listened to the song which was posted there in MP3 format.  Out of nowhere he dropped me an email.  One thing led to another and we got together to discuss playing again.  I'm really glad we did.  He's a good guy deep down, and I didn't give him a fair shake back then.  We both have grown a lot in the years since the band split.  Sometimes you do learn from traumatic experiences and become better for it.  I like to think we both did.  I was going through some serious personal turmoil back then and he was a convenient excuse for me to assign blame where it wasn't really deserved - just because his personality lent itself to my ridicule.  I do regret that and hope the success we've had recently has made up for it somehow, if that is possible. 

I am so proud, actually, that our friendship - and the friendship with all the band members, especially Page and Sully, who went through all that with me too - was strong enough to survive what happened all those years ago.  And the amazing thing was that when we did actually get back together, we were more focused and we sounded better than we ever had back then when we were dreaming big dreams.  We play now for the music; sometimes I think back then we played for the party.  Big difference.  Now I mentioned before that you define success on your own terms as an artist.  You don't let others define it, or money, or anything else.  You decide what success is for you.  For me, now, success is being in a great band that can play music and have a good time to the enjoyment and enrichment of our community.  I'm just glad we can still play after all these years.  It is so much fun to play with these guys.  Thank you Miles for sending me that email and for making amends.  We've never really talked about it, but the fact that we are playing now says enough.  Forgiveness is such a powerful thing. 

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