What’s THAT Supposed to Mean?: Green Day, “Jesus of Suburbia”

And there’s nothing wrong with me, this how I’m supposed to be, in a land of make-believe that don’t believe in me. What’s THAT supposed to mean?

Not all concept albums are created equal.

Some classic songs are dependent on the context of the concept for any deeper meaning. Without the context of Tommy finding his place in the world, Pinball Wizard is just a song about pinball propelled by two classic Townshend riffs. (And the lyrics to We’re Not Gonna Take It would make no sense at all.) Without the context of The Wall as a metaphor for so many of the things that divide us, including socially constructed class structure, Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) might be just something ironically yelled by frustrated college students.

But that’s not to say you have to buy into the whole concept of an album to enjoy the songs. Tommy is a difficult listen all the way through, but if you know the general storyline, you can appreciate the songs. Rush’s Clockwork Angels is one of their best works, but I’m not rushing to buy the book.

And that’s OK. As previous installments make of this series make clear, music gives words more power. (Maybe I should start reading these pieces into my iPhone and adding some loops in GarageBand …) Knowing a bit of the album’s context may or may not add another layer of interest.

So that brings us to the album that proved “punk-rock epic” didn’t have to be an oxymoron — Green Day’s American Idiot and its majestic centerpiece, Jesus of Suburbia.

Maybe if I saw the musical, I’d think more of the overarching American Idiot story. But as it stands, I think the individual songs are stronger without the “Saint Jimmy” plot that loosely ties them together. One article cited (confusingly — is this a book or a magazine) by Wikipedia points to Green Day drawing a link between American family dysfunction and American political dysfunction, and that makes a bit of sense.

The “Saint Jimmy” character is undermined by the song’s misogynistic video — particularly the long version that makes us wonder why we’re supposed to sympathize with this dude who takes out his frustration on the women in his life. Just a bit of male privilege on display here …

So let’s get back to this song and go through it without a whiny hormone- and drug-addled dirtbag wrecking a bathroom like he’s responding to the Rutles’ commentary on sewage systems as civilization.

Certainly not all “suburbia” is the same. Just as downtown Detroit differs from downtown New York, the “suburbia” in this song and video are different from the suburbia where I live. My suburbia is full of hyperachieving professionals who are helicoptering and snowplowing and other-machinery-ing their kids’ paths to be able to afford to buy the house next door one day. Saint Jimmy thinks no one cares; kids in my suburbia feel smothered. The “suburbia” in this case looks more like a small town that gave up on itself long ago, and if Green Day wrote this today, it might be riddled with opioids rather than pot and cocaine.

But it’s relateable. We get it. It’s a powerful portrait that fits perfectly with the mostly major chords and stadium-rock drum fills that propel the song.

At its heart, punk rock is populist — sometimes prey to the same shenanigans that pervade populist politics, but generally grounded in an appeal to the common man. So while this epic mimics the song structure of a Yes or Rush classic, you’re not going to hear a lot of dazzling solos or complex chords. If you can play a C, Am, F and G progression, you can make it through most of this song. An A-flat power chord and a D will get you the rest of the way.

And that makes sense. This song wouldn’t work with Steve Howe noodling away. It might work with Neil Peart — this is a virtual highlight reel for Green Day drummer Tre Cool.

Some of the lyric-analysis sites provide no help here. SongMeanings’ top-rated comment hails Jesus of Suburbia as a “Marter.” But Genius isn’t bad.

Let’s go through it …


An outstanding scene-setter. A child of soda pop, Ritalin and dubious religious undercurrents sits in front of the TV, pondering “a land of make believe that don’t believe in me.” And Billie Joe Armstrong sings “To fall in love and fall in debt” like a patriotic pledge rather than going with the too-easy punk cliche of sneering.

The question to ponder through the rest of the song: Is there really “nothing wrong with me”? Is this “how I’m supposed to be”? In other words, is Jesus’ cynicism inevitable?


The tempo slows and a piano comes in as the protagonist searches for beauty. There’s a bit of nonconformity brought in — “everyone’s heart doesn’t beat the same” — which is, along with other parts of the song, undercut by the video showing a bunch of lookalike kids. The video makes us wonder why our protagonist doesn’t just ditch the punk dress code and try something a little different.

But the lyrics paint a better picture of futility. “The end of another lost highway / signs misleading to nowhere.” Where does one go from here?


From the yearning of Part 2, we get a fast, thrashing section in 3/4 or 6/8 time, a sort of violent waltz repeating the simple phrase “I don’t care if you don’t.”

And then we get the reasons. “Everyone’s so full of shit.” Hypocrites. No one doing the actual emotional labor to build something real beyond being cogs in the machine.


Another part, another rhythmic style — it’s a jaunty, almost vaudevillian movement as he starts it like a religious pronouncement (“Dearly beloved …”) but has far more questions than answers. Can therapy help? Am I seeing things wrong, or are they wrong?


From questions to answers. At least, a temporary answer, which is the confirmation that he’s not going to find what he’s looking for in this town of emotionally and perhaps intellectually stunted people. He has to at least see something else.

I’ve seen the term “nihilism” thrown around a bit in discussing this song. I don’t think so. Nihilism would be accepting that there’s nothing more to life than taking drugs (prescribed or purchased), watching TV and hanging out at the 7/11. Leaving home is actually an act of optimism.

(Shhh … nobody tell him it’s no better in the rest of the country, and he might have to go to Europe.)

I’ve read (and even written) stories about Millennials and Gen Yers going back to their hometowns to try to preserve what’s good about them and bring them into the 21st century where needed. That’s great. But maybe people have to leave first to figure out what’s needed. And maybe we Gen Xers and Boomers should quit filling rundown suburbs with false politics and false religion that even the most addled youth can see through.

Enjoy the live version:


Bodies Of Water don’t have much of a story to reveal, it seems – the basics is that they hail from Los Angeles; this is their 4th overall release and their first in six years and in a roundabout way, Spear In The City is almost a concept album; a travelogue through the stranger side of America.  Which, at this particular time in history, does not surprise me.  There is an air of mystery surrounding Bodies Of Water, which makes this all the more intriguing.  Because the music then does the talking and that’s what it’s about.

So to tackle this album is an interesting prospect – what would this sound like, given what little information I know?  My first thoughts, after listening through to the first few tracks is that it’s a highly ponderous and serious collection; the lyrics have an air of disappointment, curiosity and religiosity mixed with social commentary – case and point, “Here Among You”, which has a spiritual yet voyeuristic feel – like the subjects are being observed and reported on by a soul from on high – it has a somewhat spiritual feel as well, musically speaking.  Also, one of the most noticeable things about this band is that the vocals of lead singer David Metcalf reminds me of Scott Walker (albeit slightly less intense).  The country feel of “I’m Set Free” is no less serious – certainly in the delivery, although the lyrics detect a wryness and the most striking thing about this particular song is the starkness of the music – predominantly rhythm, with the occasional guitar stabs and a quietly subtle keyboard carrying the melody.  “Hold Me Closer” has the vibe of a ’60’s-styled spy themed track but with not-standard time signatures and “Echoes” has a nice groove and a great group vocal – easily my favorite track from this collection.

The great thing about this album is that it was a challenge – not knowing much about the band; the seriousness of the lyrics (at least, I take them seriously) offset by the structure of the melodies.  Which makes this a very good album by my standards.  This is one you may want to check out – you can sink your teeth into it, deeply.


Spear In The City will be released on Friday, August 25th, 2017


The Popdose Interview: Mick Chorba of The Successful Failures

The Successful Failures have been serving up a casserole of power pop, punk, and crunch-Americana for some time now, and they’re not done yet. A new album is coming soon with a lot of extras attached to that. And as ever, the band is ready to play just about anytime, anywhere. Just put up the signal. Band captain Mick Chorba knows the drill. His previous band, The Dipsomaniacs, was one of the hardest working units in New Jersey, although to hear Chorba speak of it, he’s managed to ditch the dread and the drudge out of “work” and just live out this rock and roll dream. Popdose was able to grab him in-between tons of production work to hear about the band, what came before, and what’s on the horizon.

The Successful Failures are now working on new tracks, some of which have filtered out to the public. How far in are you with it?

The album is done. It’s title: Ichor of Nettle. 15 new songs plus a bonus track. We also have a 4 song live in-studio ep recorded in Red Bank, New Jersey (live versions of 4 tunes from the new album). And a plan to release a limited 10” vinyl featuring a song not on the album as well as some other surprises. We also recorded a live video at the studio in Red Bank featuring 3 of the songs from that live EP. The release date is October 20 so all this stuff will be out soon!

How will people be able to get a hold of all the new stuff?

The album will be available for a listen on all streaming sites like Spotify… downloads can be purchased from Amazon, Itunes, and others. The physical CD can be purchased via Amazon or directly from the band at www.thesuccessfulfailures.com Also all download purchases and physical album purchases can be made via my label FDR – www.fdrlabel.com The physical CD will also be for sale at mom pop stores such as Bordentown’s Record Collector and Randy Now’s Man Cave, Princeton Record Exchange, Tunes in Hoboken, as well as many other stores.

What has the process been like in terms of getting new songs/albums off the ground? I know some artists have a bit of a cycle they move through, and on the other side of it, it’s time to get back to writing and recording mode…

I am always writing but the process of getting the material to the band, working arrangements, rehearsing, recording, etc… takes so long that I always feel behind. I also love to play live to keep the band in good shape but we actually stopped playing any shows for a few months to focus on finishing this album. For the past 20 years or so I’ve done at least one album every other year, sometimes more. In the middle of this one our drummer, Rob Martin, messed up his shoulder and needed surgery. So when he was back in action I had a new batch of tunes, so that’s somewhat why this album took longer to come out and also why it is a bit longer in content. 15 songs… and that was pared way down from the material we had to choose from. To get back to your question, we definitely work in a cycle and I love it because each part brings more meaning and relevance to the next part.

The Successful Failures came about after your previous band The Dipsomaniacs. Was there overlap between the two bands initially or just a hard stop and something new?

The two bands overlapped for about three years, and I was not very popular at home! The Dipsomaniacs’ last show was in 2009. SF started as a side project for my extra songs but has stuck around. The Dipsomaniacs played for about fifteen years and things were just winding down.

Do some of your Dipsomaniacs material sneak into the Failures’ sets or do you try to keep the boundaries up between the two?

The Dipsomaniacs, like SF, was a unique entity in which all the band members contributed to the process so I wouldn’t feel right playing any of those songs in a different band. That being said, the song “Goodbye 3 AM” from the Dipso album Whatever Planet is a regular part of SF acoustic sets – so I guess that one song is an exception. I’ve also played some Dipso songs in solo acoustic sets though I’ve been doing less and less of those as SF has a great acoustic configuration.

Like a lot of bands right now, The Successful Failures are doing things for themselves, which can mean a lot of freedom to do as you want. It also means that virtually everything must be accomplished in-house. What’s involved with keeping the band on its feet and moving, especially with that level of responsibility?

It all revolves around our passion for music and love for what we do. Plus, we are always trying something new… trying to keep out of ruts, keep putting ourselves in situations we may or may not be comfortable in. The band has evolved quite a bit and that keeps us from getting rusty.

A couple of examples… a couple of years back we played a special show for a friend’s birthday incognito in which we played only 80s cover songs (it was a fun diversion and the band was named “Members Only”).

About three years ago we started playing a bunch of shows in March featuring classic and modern Irish tunes. Our bass player Ron Bechamps has gotten really good at the mandolin and we are both fans of the Pogues and other Irish artists. This allows us to do something different for one month each year – the crowds are usually big and enthusiastic at these gigs and the pay is good. I play acoustic guitar and harmonica, our drummer plays a Cajun drum. Ron takes over a lot of the lead vocals at these shows. Now a few Irish songs have found their way into our regular sets which add something different too.

Another way our “internal dynamics” have changed is we brought on a new guitar player for this latest album. Our long time guitar player, John Williams, left 3 years ago and I played all the guitar parts on our last album, Captains of Industry. For our live shows, Pete Smith, from Pine Hill – a life long pro guitar player who has done it all – joined us and he stayed on to be an integral part of this new recording. It’s been a joy working with him.

Lastly, at least once or twice a year the band ventures out for small tours. We’ve been up to Madison, WI; and Chicago, out to Tennessee, down to DC, Virginia, and North Carolina, lots of places in between. Getting out of just your local scene is really helpful in breaking up the monotony and is really good for the band’s attitude and morale. We’ve been really lucky to play a Rhythm and Roots festival in Bristol Virginia/Tennessee each of the last three years. During these shows, we’ve played with Steve Earle, Buddy Guy, Jeff Tweedy, Emmylou Harris, Dr. Dog, Houndmouth, and so many other amazing artists. One of our goals for the upcoming years is to play more festivals – best way to make new fans and play to receptive crowds.

A lot of independent bands are pretty hamstrung when it comes to their degrees of promotion. They’ll record and play out, and that’s about it. To be fair, most members of such bands are not at a place where the work is life-sustainable so they have day jobs and night jobs. But The Successful Failures is fairly consistent in getting out in the NJ/PA/DE circuit. It always seems the band is pushing forward. What’s required to make that happen?

What’s going on here is a commitment to each other and pride in our craft. If it gets to be something that is not fun we better figure out pretty quick what’s going wrong and make some changes.

If someone is coming to the band with absolutely no ideas or preconceptions, where would you advise they start? What is the clearest example of “This is who we are”?

The blessing and the curse for this band are that we are hard to categorize… we’re not just one thing. So to answer this question I would direct listeners to three songs from our new album: “Misguiding Light” – a melodic rock song that has a total proggy mid section and just ballistic drumming. The song goes on close to five minutes and just rocks. Then I would ask them to listen to “Tennessee Boy” which features our bass player, Ron Bechamps on mandolin and our guitar player Pete Smith on bass. The tune is folky, twangy, and has no chorus but is a proud moment for me from a songwriter’s point of view because it captures the main idea from the novel The Grapes of Wrath and does it in under three minutes. The idea is that no matter how low down bad the economy is, no matter how bad politicians try to suck the life out of you, people will always find joy in music. You can’t hold us down! The last song I would direct people to is the super power poppy tune “All Wrapped Up.” It’s hooky and melodic and I got the idea for the harmony guitar part from the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing”.

Thanks again to Mick Chorba for taking the time to discuss The Successful Failures. You can learn more at their website, www.thesuccessfulfailures.com

The Vinyl Diaries: Goodbye, Tina

Ah, Tina, what became of us? Incarcerated together in Christian school … lovers of music that was forbidden us by those nattering fools … for a while there, we’d talk every night, then we stopped … then you left school, got married, had kids … when was the last time I talked to you? I called you a few times from college, once or twice from Mom and Dad’s place … when I needed to hear an old friend, and/or a southern accent … When your dad died, I had it in my mind to call you … would’ve been easy; Mom had the number … but I was too busy and forgot … I regretted that … then, what, two, three, four months ago, got word that you were sick … had it in my mind to call you again, but didn’t … you were in and out of the hospital; you had other things to contend with; didn’t need an old voice that only materialized when things looked bad …

You used to say, “I swanee,” when you meant “I swear” … we both said “Oh Lord,” because saying “Oh, God” would’ve gotten us into trouble …

I don’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I remember February 25, 1984 … your Sweet Sixteen birthday party … a bunch of us Christian school kids in your parents’ basement, lights low, slow dancing … Air Supply’s Greatest Hits, Billy Joel’s “This Night,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (the long album cut) and “Tears” off that Bonnie Tyler record … whoever was closest to the record player when they ended had the duty of lifting the needle and playing them again …

Adolescence teaches us all things that are vital to our future lives as adults … damned if I can remember most of it, but the earliest things that stumbled across my consciousness did so while we were friends, good friends, maybe best friends for a while …

I slept in this morning … got out of bed at 10:30 … at that moment, five hundred miles from here, you slipped away in your sleep, with your mother and sons around your bed … no more suffering …

It’s cliche, but I think part of me went with you … part of me that grew up a little at 13 or 14 … part of me that still drifts off to a basement in Raleigh when I hear a Bonnie Tyler song …

I’m sorry I never called you … you were on my mind, though … I guess I didn’t learn enough …

I love you, Tina … my old friend … rest easy …


Popdose is pleased to premiere “Whole Lotta Lows,” the first track from Arrica Rose & the …’s latest full-length release, Low as the Moon (available September 8th). This new album is a collection of 13 originals that nod to the past, while sounding thoroughly rooted in the present.  It doesn’t neatly fit into one specific genre and it’s difficult to draw a direct comparison, but that’s precisely what has come to define the sound of Arrica Rose. As the songs flow from delicate Americana balladry to rock ‘n’ roll to retro-tinged pop, the dreaminess of the instrumentation, the sultry vocals, and the artful songwriting allow one track to cohesively weave into the next. The album has a core sound quality and it’s a warmth and fidelity we associate with old records – but with the addition of omnichord, ambient synths and textures, it makes Low as the Moon more than a nod to the classics. The album also has a unifying perspective driven by Rose’s imaginative lyrics; lyrics that paint vivid cinematic imagery. Picture the dark lit by a persistent optimism, a hope that balances the despair and calls into focus the silver-lining.   You’ll see – or hear, actually.  

So listen now to “Whole Lotta Lows”



The Dead Daisies Cover ‘We’re an American Band,’ Kill It

Like the Christmas season kicks off mid-September (ugh), July has begun to extend Independence Day all month. Don’t believe me? Come to my apartment and listen to the gunshot-like fireworks still waking me up and scaring my cat. Yeah. So it’s apropos that we have some sort of tunes to celebrate America n’at — y’know, other than the George M. Cohen standards and Lee Greenwood.

Luckily, the Dead Daisies have unleashed a live cover of one of the most overlooked USA-centric anthems particularly relevant to us music lovers. I have to admit; my first encounter with Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band” was when I was literally in one — my high school marching band. But after getting a little older and refining my palate, I’ve grown really fond of this out-and-proud rocker.

In a video that’s shot-for-shot similar to anything you see on MTV Classic (or on MTV in the good ol’ days), the band rocks out with their long hair out while on the road all over the country, capturing footage at iconic ‘Murrca pit stops like Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and… Universal Studios. Lead singer John Corabi gives former GFR frontman Mark Farner a run for his money with his powerful vocal performance, and the rest of the band rocks just as hard as the originals did in 1973.

If you’re still feeling the patriotic spirit, or if you need a new tune to add to your summer BBQ playlist, take a listen to Dead Daisies’ version of “We’re an American Band” below!

R&B Master Drew Vision’s Idea of Little Pink Houses Probably Slightly Differs From Yours

Hang with me, because I’m about to hit you with something that’s kinda outside my usual wheelhouse. The best way I can describe Drew Vision‘s sound is modern R&B with a drum-machine backbeat, a hooky chorus, and simplicity without being boring. His track, “I Want ‘Em All” is so easygoing that you really might miss hypersexual lyrics like “you can make my banana split / I wanna see you try.”

One of the most intriguing pieces of Vision’s indie-music journey is his collaboration with producer Bryan Michael Cox. If you don’t recognize his name, don’t worry — you’re sure to know his tunes. Cox has produced everyone from Mariah Carey to Drake to, yes, Justin Bieber. In fact, he surpassed my boys, the Beatles, for the Guinness World Record of longest running chart success. With that musical pedigree and Vision’s slate of accolades, including a video premiere on BET Soul and write-ups in Billboard and Vibe, it’s no surprise the two somehow found each other within the industry.

“I Want ‘Em All,” as you might have guessed, is about how he wants all the laydays, and the video doesn’t disappoint. Taking place within the confines of a pink house (basically my dream home), he courts a bevy of lovely women, covering one in sprinkles in the bathtub. It sugary sweet, but the interspersed shots caught on VHS tape (complete with date and timestamp, of course) give it a provocative, voyeuristic feel, which complements the song’s innate sensuality perfectly.

Check out the video for Drew Vision’s “I Want ‘Em All” below!


The Americana supergroup, The Yayhoos, will be heading out on tour for the first time in almost a decade. Eric Ambel (Del-Lords, Steve Earle, Joan Jett & The Blackheards), Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites, Homemade Sin), and Terry Anderson (The Woods, Olympic A$$ Kicking Team) will be joined on bass by Robert Kearns for this return to the road. Original bass player Keith Christopher (Shaver, Paul Westerberg, Todd Snider and many others) will be on tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd, so he won’t be joining the band for this August run.

The Yayhoos, often referred to as the Harlem Globetrotters of Rock and Roll, originally grew out of an informal 1993 songwriting get-together, which inspired the longtime compadres to channel their musical and personal rapport into a more concrete direction. In 1996, they got together and wrote and recorded a batch of songs in Anderson’s dad’s barn. By the time Bloodshot Records released Fear Not the Obvious in 2001, the album had become something of an underground legend in roots-rock circles. Bob Dylan recited the lyrics to “Bottle And A Bible” before playing it on his “Theme Time Radio Hour” and Ambel’s song “Baby I Love You” was featured as the closing credits song in the 2006 James Gunn film, “SLiTHER”. The album also made a lot of friends with their cover of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

While the four Yayhoos continue to maintain their individual careers, the potency of their collective chemistry is evident throughout their 2006 release Put the Hammer Down. The material ranges from the delirious raunch of “Where’s Your Boyfriend At,” and “Everything/Anything,” to the boozy introspection of “All Dressed Up” and “Never Give An Inch,” to the brutal pop of “Hurtin’ Thing” and the bittersweet balladry of “Between You and Me.” Keith Christopher steps up to the mic to deliver a rare lead vocal on the heart-tugging “Over the Top,” which he co-wrote with Tony Colton (of ’70s U.K. cult heroes Heads, Hands and Feet) and which was previously recorded by Ray Charles. The Yayhoos’ knack for inspired choices in cover material is represented here by a timely revival of the O’Jays’ ’70s soul classic “Love Train” and an exuberant reading of “Roam,” by noted Southern rockers the B-52’s.

As the band trades songs and instruments, you never know what will happen at a Yayhoos gig – but they have been known to turn any night into Saturday night and Saturday night into New Year’s Eve…

Catch The Yayhoos on tour this August:
8/15 Atlanta, GA, Eddie’s Attic
8/16 Lexington, KY, Willie’s Locally Known
8/17 Chicago, IL, FitzGeralds
8/18 Wapakoneta, OH, Rt 33 Rhythm & Brews
8/19 Maumee, OH, Village Idiot
8/20 East Aurora, NY, 198 Public House
8/22 Cleveland, OH, Beachland Tavern
8/23 Columbus, OH, Rumba Café
8/24 Washington DC, Hill Country BBQ
8/25 New York, NY, Hill Country BBQ
8/26 Bovina, NY, Livestock Music Festival


Join Pop Songstress Alexa Friedman on a Steampunk Treasure Hunt in New Video

Are you ready for the dance battle to end all dance battles? In Alexa Friedman‘s new video for “Enraptured,” a pop-palooza with a nod to Latin rhythms and female powerhouses of the ’90s, she loses custody of a mysterious treasure chest, but holds onto the key. Later, she and her posse show up to claim what’s rightfully theirs and much moves ensue. Who wins? You’ll have to watch the video below to find out.

As for Alexa, the fiery 14-year-old (!!) has been making the pipes since she was a wee lass, working the LA circuit and appearing in productions like School of Rock and The Middle. Her skills are clearly that of someone with a few more years of experience under her belt. Her advanced musical prowess combines with director Spencer D. Evans’ vision to paint a lifelike dystopian landscape in “Enraptured.” Fans of Mad Max will feel right at home here.

Obviously, there’s much more to be seen from Alexa Friedman, but to get a taste of her pop sensibilities and an idea of what’s to come in the future, take a peek at this beautifully shot video.

Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll #7: Get Happy!


Friday, June 3, 2016

Here we are, folks — the dream we all dream of. Man versus butterflies. Prince is dead, and I’m not feeling so well myself. It’s showtime.

There’s a phrase that’s been running through my head in the weeks leading up to this gig — a two-set “Happy Hour” at Rochester’s renowned dive the Bug Jar — and that phrase is: proof of concept.

It’s a term borrowed from engineering, defined as evidence derived from an experiment or pilot project showing that a concept or design element has practical potential. It’s my way of managing expectations for the show, I suppose. “Proof of concept” means that the show doesn’t have to be great, or even necessarily good. It just has to demonstrate that this incarnation of Roscoe’s Basement is a viable group. A band plays shows. Some will be better than others, but they will all fulfill the requirements for a rock show: a list of songs that all the performers know, performed competently to completion, with talking in between, and an audience of some kind who must be entertained — or at least not actively hostile.

If you can make it through a show — even a mediocre one — then you can, with hard work and experience, ramp up to a good one. You may not be there yet, but you’re on the right track. If you can’t make it through the first gig, though, there will be no second gig. So there’s our goal. Proof of concept. Demonstrate potential.

Potential energy becomes kinetic energy. Photo by Janice Hanson.

Engineers typically construct proof-of-concept experiments as small, low-stakes scenarios. And this gig is certainly that. The Bug Jar is — and I say this after careful consideration — a pestilential shambles, a rinky-dink corner bar of the type that They Just Don’t Make ‘Em Like Anymore, presumably because They belatedly suffered a sudden and life-changing attack of good sense.

There are two rooms. In the back, there’s a stage — small, but quite high up — plus a sound booth, lights, and full PA. Four or five nights a week, there’s music back there. Occasionally you’ll get a DJ set, but usually it’s live bands, both local and touring acts, all original music. It’s a great bargain — three or four bands for just $10 — and that draws the college kids and the scenesters.

The front room is for the serious drinkers. The afternoon sun cuts in slantwise through the glass front. There’s no stage as such; the room is sort of a split level, with a raised area for a couple of booths and a pool table. The walls are a gaudy red and green, hung with bric-a-brac and work by local artists. Rococo as hell. Lurid sculpted houseflies adorn the two blades of a ceiling fan spinning slowly over the bar. Everything is grimy and faintly sticky. This is where we will play, soundtracking discounted well drinks and free pizza for two hours in the early evening, 5:00 to 7:00 PM on a Friday, two hours of (mostly) covers for tips for a homeward-bound post-work crowd; then we’ll pack up our shit and clear out before the real bands get there for a 9:00 quadruple bill in the back.

The stakes could not be lower. So I’m free to worry about stupid stuff, like my hat.

See, I’m a big guy — thick in the middle, thin on top — and I sweat something fierce when I exert myself. I almost always wear a hat, just to keep the sweat out of my eyes. A ballcap is fine for everyday, but it looks dumb onstage; it’s too hot for my tweed scally; a pirate-style bandanna only works if you commit to the whole biker look, and it’s far too late in the game for me to be getting tattooed. So I slap on my Cuban-style straw fedora with a button-up shirt — short sleeves, but dressy — and head out, still with very little idea of what kind of frontman I want to be.

Mike digs in and makes it greasy. Photo by Janice Hanson.

I remember one time — I was in college, I think — a stranger told me I could never be a rock star because I smile too much. And it’s true. You look at pictures of most rock ‘n’ roll dudes onstage, and they’re all so intense. I have fun onstage; I can’t do a scary glower to save my life. But a good frontman needs a commanding presence. I don’t think in terms of a persona — I have no interest in playing make-believe or doing a “character” — but whereas a solo performer can pitch himself to a human scale because he and his solo guitar are making only a small-scaled noise, a man in front of a roaring five-piece band must perforce himself be larger than life to compensate.

So I’m sweating this stuff as we set up; and then it’s go time, and Tom lays into the backbeat of our opener, “10 AM Automatic,” and it’s just me and the drums. And I open my mouth and say something like:

Good evening, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors; the name of this organization is Roscoe’s Basement — we are the rock ‘n’ roll band that practices underneath a dog. And we are here tonight for your dining and dancing pleasure, playing the songs you know and love, the closet classics from deep in the underground, and all your favorite songs you’ve never heard. So get comfortable, buy me a drink, and make yourself ready to rock — steady — because we’re about to kick it off.

Fellas, uh, don’t leave me standin’ up here all by myself — I feel like I’m sellin’ something…

It all tumbles out of me in a singsong drawl, this stream of doubletalk and catchphrases, with a cadence somewhere between that of a soap box preacher and of a boardwalk pitchman who’s been huffing ether.

And then Mike comes in with those shattering opening chords, and we’re off to the races.

We head into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” like a house afire, tambourine jangling like my nerves. I’m singing hard. Not too hard, not yet. The sound of “Surrender,” and that long triumphant ending spiraling upwards, actually draws a random pedestrian in from the street. (“I had no idea anybody covered Cheap Trick these days,” he marvels to me later.) And on. The Who, the Ramones, the Pixies. I hit it too hard; I’m short of breath on the Beatles tune, and the notes get away from me. Suck it up.

We’re up on the little rise, set up right in front of the can. Guys are literally walking between me and Mike to get the men’s room. I don’t care. Chuck plays a hot solo on “Summertime Blues,” and I fan myself theatrically with my fedora. Danielle stops in, though she can’t stay long; I wave from the stage. I do a long freestyle on “Roadhouse Blues,” introducing the band one by one. The carnival-barker flimflam rolls easily: this is me now, the Jack o’ Diamonds, emcee and ringmaster of this rock ‘n’ roll circus. And then we’re into “Friction,” and at some point a voice from the back of the room screams, “Who even DOES that?!?

Things get rocky as we wind down the first set, though. “Starry Eyes” starts off at a crawling tempo; I windmill my fist and glare daggers at Tom, but the pace never picks up to a satisfactory degree, and the song — and the set — limp to a close. Hit the head, down some water — my shirt is soaked already — get buttonholed by the Cheap Trick guy (who is REALLY into Cheap Trick, and would happily spend all night telling me so), say goodbye to Danielle. Then it’s back in the ring to take another swing.

We make a strong start, but things start going south mid-set. I flub a bunch of words; the false ending of “Destroyer” gets away from us, abruptly turning into a real ending; the mix slowly becomes unbalanced as various parties turn up incrementally. We close with “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”, played at a breakneck clip. Too fast. Everything’s a blur. I don’t handle it well. I let my exasperation show.

And then it’s over. We have proof of concept.

We start the teardown. Tom apologizes profusely for various little fuck-ups. I shrug it off — what’s done is done. That’s the way my temper operates: a swift flare-up of annoyance, an outburst, and then I’m fine, all forgiven as far as I’m concerned.

But it’s not forgiven. Deanna takes me aside and tactfully tells me I acted like a dick up there. And, y’know, I did. The looks I was giving Tom — Jesus Christ, he must’ve thought I wanted to kill him. I am blowing this, blowing it.

I go back to Tom and apologize for, basically, calling him out in front the crowd. It was stupid and cruel and pointless. It didn’t help matters; it only made them worse. I promise — not aloud — that I will do better in future gigs. Because there will be future gigs; after all, we have proof of concept.

Craig’s wife calls us outside so she can get a group photo. I’m bent slightly forward, as if about to double over with laughter, although I forget the joke. I look nothing at all like a rock star; I am smiling far, far too much.

The classic brick wall shot. L–R: Mike Mann, the author, Chuck Romano, Craig Hanson, Tom Finn, Deanna Finn. Photo by Janice Hanson. Special thanks to Deanna for Photoshopping the worst of the sweat stains out of my shirt.

Next month: The Woodshed