ONE MAN + ONE GUITAR
As the 80’s came to a close, and the 90s began, I was without a band. After nearly eight years each of the Del-Lords went their separate ways. Four albums that received lots of great press, attention, and a live show that never failed, it had become a matter of too little too late. When Eric waved goodbye after the band’s last show in Dallas in 1989, it would mark the last time we would all be in the same room at the same time until 2010.
I had not been without a band since January of 1973 (when I started my first band, The Dictators, with Andy Shernoff and Ross The Boss) and as I looked around, I saw nothing but unfamiliar terrain. But, music remained my true love, not to mention my one marketable skill, so I narrowed my focus, took stock of the couple dozen songs I had written for what I had figured would be a new Del-Lords record, and on the long drive home to NYC from Dallas, I had plenty of time to think about my next move.
There was a record company in NYC that was specializing in (along with an eclectic batch of other stuff, too) reissues of mostly American-style guitar music – they had released two-fers on artists like David Johansen, Graham Parker, Gary US Bonds, Joe Grushecky, and Ian Hunter (I know Ian and Graham were British, but their music certainly fit the musical style of the label nonetheless). The label (yes, they shall remain nameless) had tried unsuccessfully to license the four Del-Lords albums only to be rebuffed (for reasons that remain a mystery) by EMI, who just flat-out refused to let this label license the cds. So, my lawyer and friend, David Wykoff simply asked the label that, seeing as how the Del-Lords records would not be theirs to reissue, and I was presently unaffiliated and free as a bird, if perhaps they would be interested in signing me as a solo artist. As the band’s main writer, and main singer, they were, in essence, being pitched to see if they wanted to sign “Del” himself instead.
So, signing me is exactly what happened. Everything was great at first. The contract was a simple 35-point Letter Of Intent, which we signed while taking a break from a half-court basketball game (I had played B-ball for my high school, BTW, sports fans), gave me a generous advance, and we were off and running.
As I had only ever made music with my friends to that point – from The Dictators to the Del-Lords – I wanted more than anything to try and maintain that same sense of brotherhood and security. I felt it was an important aspect of the songs themselves, and those ideals informed also the songs, and were really as one with the songs.
So, I dropped the dime and called the Del-Lords godfather, mentor, and hero, Lou Whitney, to discuss doing a record with him and his amazing band, The Skeletons, down in Springfield, MO. Those guys were all friends and I knew I would not only be comfortable with them, but I knew they were also among the very best rock’n’roll players in the USA. We struck a deal easily and quickly, and within a few weeks I was on a plane to Springfield, armed with my Strat and a couple dozen songs. Suddenly, the idea of being a solo artist felt a little less daunting and intimidating. We spent about a month recording the record, and it proved to be as smooth, fun, and as loaded with heavy good vibes as I expected it would.
The record that came of all this was released in 1992, and called TENEMENT ANGELS. It was a set of songs, some new, some that had been sitting around for awhile, a cover or two was thrown into the mix, and then there were some that the band had tried, but had proven to be not quite right for us – at least at the time we tried to work them up.
The Skeletons: Lou Whitney – bass and co-producer; Donnie Thompson – guitar; Bobby Lloyd Hicks – drums; Joe Terry – keys; Kelly Brown – keys. They all sang. I mean they all REALLY sang. While Lou probably had the most character in his singing, it was Donnie, Bobby Lloyd, and Joe who were astonishingly amazing singers. They were good enough to sing with anybody. Hell, the Beach Boys, could have called them up and they could have stepped right into those shoes, too! I mean, they could flat-out sing!
One of the most interesting and defining things about the Skeletons was the presence of not one, but two, keyboard players. I had never really worked with keyboards before at all, just guitars, so that was really different. I didn’t think I really had a feel for keyboards, as I was always strictly guitars, guitars, guitars. In a band like the Del-Lords that works fine, but this was a very different animal, and luckily even that problem solved itself quickly and without much fuss. In fact, not only did the two keyboards work out well, but on a song like LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, which had been around for quite awhile, and the Del-Lords didn’t quite own it the way we owned our other songs, and had temporarily gotten put back on the shelf, The Skeletons, with their fully stocked musical arsenal, killed it. It came out beautifully. Yeah, I made full use of the Skeletons, gave away a few extra guitar solos to Donnie (even got him to play through a Marshall for the first time), had some keyboard solos, and just pretty much tried to feature the band as much as I could.
Anyway, what I am trying to convey here is not only how important touring with a band was gonna be to get this record across in a live situation, but how it HAD TO BE The Skeletons. Nobody else on God’s Golf Ball could fill those shoes. I had pretty much intentionally made a record that only the Skeletons could have made, and they were now the only band in the world that could reproduce it in front of an audience. It could be construed as a self-made trap, but I was just so thrilled to have those guys on my record that I wanted to show them off as much, and as often as possible, and that was all that mattered to me at the time.
We ended up doing around a couple dozen gigs or so, most with my old friend, Dave Alvin. Up and down the West Coast as well as a bunch in Scandinavia. Like an old-fashioned revue, The Skeletons would play, Then they would back me up, then they would back up Brother Dave, then we would all let it hang out together and blast away until there was nothing left. The shows were great. Loved them all. Loved playing with The Skeletons, and with Brother Dave, as well.
Then the label ran out of money. The whole idea (and tour) came grinding to a halt. There was suddenly no more money to pay the band. It was a particularly shitty fucking feeling! Embarrassing, infuriating, heartbreaking, and confounding. I had made this particular album because the Skeletons were the band. There were guitar parts Donnie had played that I had not the slightest hope or prayer of duplicating. Not to mention all the vocals.
From there on, I was to go it alone. One man, one beat-up acoustic guitar, and a batch of songs. I had not done this a lot. This was gonna be new, scary and intimidating. I had done the solo guy thing once or twice, here or there, a benefit for this, that, or the other, and there were even a coupe of full band acoustic shows, but not the solo trip.
I had been very moved and excited by Springsteen’s ability to break his songs down, and reconstruct them to tell another story than the one they told back on record when they were first released. I looked forward to those moments at his shows, and of course, Dylan and Woody were also gigantic in my life. So, I clenched my teeth, straightened my back and set sail.
In the end, I embraced the idea, went through every song I had at that point – probably 100 or so – and started to think along the lines I imagined Bruce did when he was inspired to take something familiar and make it unfamiliar on the spot. It was a tall order for me, but I really had no other choice. I was hoping to be able to do what he did. A tall order, indeed!
I was booked on a tour with Kate Jacobs and Jim McMillan (who accompanied Kate). They were great, sweet and genteel folks, and excellent players and singers. Kate, who is also a childrens’ book author, and her songs were terrific. The tour was about thirty shows, and off we went in a rented car. The shows were just getting going when this one here came up on the itinerary. St. Louis loomed large in Del-Lords history, our professional and personal lives having been changed there in the Summer of 1983. It remained a special place.
I was really excited, and looked forward to the St. Louis show. I expected to see some old faces, new faces brought there by old faces, and who else I could only guess.But, I knew it would feel familiar, and I would be comfortable. Listening to this now, I am a little surprised I was quite this comfortable. But, it was a fun night. There are some rough spots to be sure, but lots of good stuff, too. Some songs I never released (Listening To Elvis), some that were too new to have been recorded yet (Saving Grace), and some that had been around on which Eric had sung lead and totally owned those songs by this point, so this was also a chance for me to give them a shot myself for the first time (Livin’ On Love, Judas Kiss) and some that had been around but hardly, if ever, played live (A Lifetime Of Trouble, About You).The whole thing comes off as much as a party as a concert, and I think it brings another dimension to many of the songs. The more raucous ones get that kind of response, and the more intimate ones elicit a more personal and intimate engagement with the audience. I have nothing but great memories of this night and show. And, St. Louis.
It was Gary Borress, he of GB Music (the label that also released the latest Del-Lords record, ELVIS CLUB, as well as the reissue of TENEMENT ANGELS who discovered this recording one day killing time online, and saw it on some bootleg site. Yes, this was not knowingly, nor was there any intention of it being recorded, at the time. But, there it was. Gary said it was pretty good, and I should hear it. I am always leery of things like this. I knew I will judge it harshly, and would probably find many things to cringe at in the performances. Or something. But, it turned out Gary was right. I did like it. I loved the spirit of it, and the performances were not too bad at all. And, I felt there were the requisite amounts of high points that, for me, justify the existence of any record.
So, our friend Hirsh Gardner mastered it, and it suddenly sounded even better. It was then time for the great Christopher Bryson to make it look cool. I have always loved 50s and 60s Jazz LP covers, their colors, the composition, the lettering, and the vibe. That was my suggestion to Chris, and he did the rest. We used some of Kelly Hadden’s excellent live photos from the first official Del-Lords NYC gig in nearly quarter century, and this is the result.
About the title. The club at which this was recorded is actually called Cicero’s, and is located underneath Blueberry Hill in St Louis. Blueberry Hill has been up and running for a very long time, even had their own beer line, booked great shows, including an annual one by Rock’n’Roll’s Godfather, and St. Louis native and resident, Chuck Berry. I couldn’t resist using Blueberry Hill in the title. On Blueberry Hill just has such a beautiful ring to it. I’m not even sure if Cicero’s is still in existence anyway.
So, there it is and here you go. Dig!