When I was about nine or so, I decided I wanted to be a keyboard player. This was the very early 1970s, and other fads were catching the attention of kids, so my parents were quite wary of buying a piano. I mean, who needs that kind of furniture in their house if it's not being used? So they agreed to pay for lessons, with the stipulations that I had to (a) practice like hell, (b) find other pianos in convenient places upon which I could practice and (c) use the Magnus in the meantime. In other words, if I wanted this, I was going to have to make it work.
It worked. Within a year or so Mom and Dad bought me an old 1908 "apartment grand" which is essentially a tall upright piano. The piano, built by the Rudolf Piano Co. of New York City, is still in my proud possession. And while it's not especially impressive to gaze upon, it sounds beautiful, stays in tune for years at a time, and is loud as hell. I still have the sales receipt. $325.00.
My lessons were the typical stuff. Learn the scales, learn the theory, play the classics. Eventually I did well enough that my teacher relented and let me learn some "pop" material alongside my serious stuff. I bought some music books, but was horrified to hear (when she played from them) that these were "arrangements," not the keyboard parts from my favorite LPs. The songs sounded like lounge- or sing-along versions, with the vocal line played by the right hand. I was disgusted, but didn't know how to learn the songs the "right" way.
You Are Entering the Outer Limits
A few years later, my piano teacher of the time decided to move to another state. She gave me a list of other teachers with whom I might continue my education. I threw the list away and convinced my parents to let me spend the $150 I had on a little something.
Click on the player to listen to a cover of The Kinks' "Celluloid Heroes" (piano and vocal), a home recording circa 1984 featuring the Rudolf. No laughing allowed.
My first synthesizer, bought around 1978, was an Elka LX-600. This Italian-made keyboard had something like four sounds and not an especially fat tone, but from my standpoint, it had a couple of really cool features. One, it allowed me to play along with my Pink Floyd albums (DSOTM, WYWH, Animals) and basically re-learn keyboard playing by ear (1970s Pink Floyd music tends to play each chord for several measures, giving the ear-novice plenty of time to fumble onto the correct notes). Two, the unit had an internally-lit on/off rocker switch right next to the highest note: when switched off while playing, the sound would fade out and drop in pitch. Cool (albeit uncontrollable) note-bending effect similar to what analog monosynths of the day could do.
When I bought the Elka, the guy sold me an amp to go with it. It was a pre-CBS Fender Deluxe Reverb (with the single 12" and four inputs). It's a crying shame that I would sell it a few years later because it "didn't have enough inputs." Stupid kid.
The biggest problem (in fact the only problem) I had with the Elka was its lack of action. I had grown very accustomed to the feel of a real piano, and hated the organ-feel of the Elka's keys. Not enough expression in them. I knew from my extensive reading of LP liner notes that there was a hybrid of a piano and a synth called an electric piano. Electric Light Orchestra used a Wurlitzer, and I soon discovered that the instrument had an unmistakable signature sound (think: " Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night and you've nailed it). When I was about fifteen or so I begged and pleaded for a Wurlitzer Electric Piano.
A Horse With No Chops
So this was my rig when I first started playing with other guys circa 1979. The Elka and the Wurlitzer, run through the Deluxe Reverb. Because of the arched top on the Wurlitzer, I couldn't stack the Elka, so it had a separate stand. Wow: two keyboards, one in front and one off to the side. I was a regular Rick Wakeman!
Well, that was pretty much it as far as equipment for several years. I played with some friends during my early high-school years. No real gigs of course, but several Law Enforcement visits to my parents' garage. We played a dozen or so songs (no Beatles; they were sacrosanct) with no vocals. In 1980 I performed my first gig as a member of "Outer Limits." The name came from a TIME magazine cover story on The Who entitled "Rock's Outer Limits." Now outfitted with a Real Live Singer, we played a CYO talent show and performed three songs: "Peter Gunn Theme" a la ELP (sort of), America's "A Horse With No Name" and, since we had said Vocalist, "Back in the USSR" . I have that tape...it's horrible. We won, of course. Listening now, I do recall that it was my first experience singing in front of a crowd (harmonies on the America song). Not bad at all, actually.
Below are links so that the reckless, unwary or adventurous can listen to (a) a (mercifully brief) clip of Outer Limits butchering "See Me, Feel Me" from The Who masterwork Tommy, included here only to demonstrate the sound of the Elka; and (b) the legendary live version of "Peter Gunn Theme". Both from 1980, presented here in truly awful no-fi.
Fast forward to 1982. In college and working in the camera department at the local JCPenney, I made friends with one of the maintenance guys, an African American fellow named (ironically, I thought at the time) Wade White. Wade had a group that played R&B hits of the day (Kool and the Gang and such) and seemed to think I'd fit in nicely, being that I was (a) caucasian and (b) hated all music that was not rock and roll. So of course at 18 years of age I joined, and added a whole new set of experiences to my life.
First off, there was the practice venue. See, I had never set foot in a working-class black neighborhood before this, so I was surprised my much of what I found there. The concrete-block building we played in was a community center with a big, thick steel door and bars on the (broken) windows. I was not about to leave my equipment (worth at the time about $600 or more) in that place, so I had to schlepp it all to and fro every time we practiced. The place had few electrical outlets, and we popped fuses all the time.
The group, "Phoenix," was fairly large. As I recall, there was a drummer, a funk-poppin' bassist, two guitarists, two or three horn players, a female vocalist/percussionist and me. All on a 4x8 piece of plywood. Well, almost. We played a number of gigs, all at which we were very well-received. The most surreal experience of all with them was on our way to a show at the American Legion in Buford GA. We got lost and stopped to ask directions. Picture us: a car overstuffed with black people and one white guy, in rural Georgia. I was elected Spokesman.
"Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the American Legion Post?"
"Um, what do you mean, 'which one?'"
"The black one or the white one?"
It was a great show. As always, the crowd called out for us to play "that white song." By this they meant the Brooker/Reid composition "A Whiter Shade of Pale." My spotlight number. Naturally.
Click the player to listen to Phoenix cover Jeffrey Osborne's "Stay With Me Tonight" from a 1982 performance.
Wade introduced me to the wonderful world of Pawn Shops. I had never been in one prior to that time, as their barred windows and signage with GUNS in huge lettering scared me off. But I found them to be chock full of used musical instruments, at bargain prices. Wade and I found a Moog Rogue, a great little totally analog monophonic synth. I never fully realized the potential of this little instrument, though I did put it to good use for effects and such. It remained part of my equipment list for many years. I paid about $125 for it.
Those Crazy Eighties
Of passing interest was the keyboard I was loaned for gigs. It was a Roland JX-3P with an amazing array of synthy sounds. The serial number had been scratched off, and part of the thing had been painted over. Hmm. It was offered for sale to me but I declined. Anyway, as far as the group, I don't recall how or why I stopped playing with them. But I did get a lot of performance experience.
Summer 1984 I met a fellow student in one of my classes at GSU. He was in a new band that was looking for a keyboard player. Was I interested? I certainly was.
A couple weeks later I was a member of the group that eventually became "Remote Control." As an aside, I should mention that I've named every group I was ever in, except Phoenix. This time the name came from the 1978 Tubes album produced by Todd Rundgren. My idea for a slogan, "Put yourself on Remote Control," was, however, not well received. Something about pandering to groupies. Worked for me (this was '84 after all).
The story of the band is worth a book in itself, but I'll just hit a few high spots relating to my equipment.
The group had an Italian Crumar DS-2 which I used in practice. It had some nice (for its time) brass and string sounds, which I used a great deal. I think I used this board live on some early RC gigs, but at this late date I can't be sure. No idea who owned it or what happened to it.
We were fortunate to have permanent rehearsal space, in the back room of an audio/visual equipment rental company's space. The space was formerly a recording studio, so we had a soundproofed room with high ceilings and plenty of electrical outlets. There was an adjacent room that had formerly been the control room; now, with the console pulled out, it was just a room with a big glass window. But it felt like a studio.
In the corner was a big, bulky, garishly painted yellow something. Eventually I moved all the stuff off of it and uncovered it to see what it was. A Mellotron M-400 in fair shape! The owner of the place offered it to me for, I think, a few hundred dollars. I didn't have the money, and so it went somewhere else. I never got to play it, which is a real shame. From a listening standpoint, the impossibly rare Mellotron is my hands-down favorite keyboard instrument.
Since I was in college, I started getting offers in the mail for credit cards. Like most fools of that era, in 1984 I accepted and got my first VISA, with an APR of 21% or more. Of course I ran right out to Rhythm City and bought a "real" keyboard, my Korg Poly-800 Mk I. I think I paid $600, not counting the interest, and eventually paid the card off sometime in the mid 1990s.
The Poly 800 had lots of sounds, was relatively easy to reprogram with different sounds, allowed saving of the sounds, and weighed about 15 pounds. It had pegs at either end, so of course I had to buy a strap and go all 80s on it. Sometime around this time I let go of the Elka and the Deluxe Reverb, and got a new (used) small low-powered P.A. with a bunch of inputs for my equipment. I also bought a nice microphone, which held up until around 2004.
I remember the night it happened. We were playing downtown Atlanta at a place called Margaritaville, and in the midst of one of the songs the crowd began cheering wildly. I was surprised to find the applause was directed at me. More surprised because I wasn't doing a solo or anything special at all. Even more surprised to see that smoke was pouring from my amplifier head. The punters thought it was for effect. It wasn't. My Univox P.A. with the name of the band that owned it before me -- "Early Stone," -- stenciled on it, R.I.P.
Those speakers always reminded me of the rocks at Stonehenge anyway.
Regular gigging was hard on my Wurlitzer. The way it works is through a series of tuning-fork-like things, which are actually hammered when one hits the keys. This gave a great, piano-like action, but it also meant lots of fragile parts. Moving the instrument around, coupled with my aggressive playing style, put wear and tear on the Wurlitzer. Replacing broken forks was a big project. First I had to find the correct forks: the store would have all forks thrown into a little cardboard box, and I'd have to sort through each time. Then I had to open the board up, socket-wrench the old fork out, put in the new one, and then file it down to the correct pitch. No kidding. File too far and either (a) it breaks or (b) it's flat. Either way, back to the store. Eventually I needed something more "reliable" so I sold it. Incredibly stupid in retrospect, but at the time I needed a keyboard I could throw in the trunk of my '66 Mustang and not worry about.
I got a Hohner Pianet to replace the Wurlitzer. Similar sound, but no moving parts and horrible action. It served me for a number of years, though. I eventually sold it at a garage sale in the mid-1990s.
Remote Control played a lot of gigs, and my equipment met my needs in nearly all cases. I did buy a guitar, too. It was an Aria copy of a Gibson ES-335, blonde lacquered and beautiful. I strung it left-handed so I could play it, and used it in performance whenever the other band members would let me. I couldn't play; still can't. I eventually sold it, years later, around 1998.
One gig we had was supposed to be a big deal: the Atlanta part of the Labor Day Telethon. This was 1985. The Hohner simply wasn't going to be suitable, so I rented an amplified piano. I don't recall the name, but it was a big, horrible thing with lots of moving parts and some sort of ribbon pickup inside of it. When the show began I was mortified to find it completely out of tune. Quick, back to the Pianet.
Click the players below to hear some studio tracks (original compositions! Though not by me!) by Remote Control from 1986.
Towards the end of my time with Remote Control (this was early 1986) I bought a Yamaha CP-30. The keyboard player for another local band, The Surf, had one, and I thought it was cool in look and sound. It had good action; not quite like the Wurlitzer, but far superior to the Hohner. And nothing at all like its big brother the CP-70. It also had some cool electric and acoustic piano sounds, harpsichord, and chorus and vibrato. All the selections were rocker switches like on an old organ, and I could combine them in all different ways. A bit like the Magnus Chord Organ in that fashion. It was noisy, but it was cool. Stereo output, too.
The band broke up in June 1986 (on the day of my graduation from GSU) and endured a very messy divorce. But a year later I was at it again, with friends and new acquaintances, playing in Elementary Penguin. Named, of course, after a line in "I Am the Walrus." At this point my equipment lineup was the CP-30, the Poly-800, the Moog Rogue and the Aria. We played something on the order of two gigs, and that was it for performance (and playing with other musicians) for ten years.
Years in the Wilderness
I got married in 1988. I had my '66 Mustang towed to our new home(!) but eventually my wife prevailed upon me to sell it. With the meager proceeds I bought a four-track recorder and some other goodies. Click on the player to listen to a cover of Traffic's "Paper Sun", a home multitrack recording circa 1988-92 (can't be more specific than that at this late date).
A Gift From the Prophets to Me
1993 was a simpler, more innocent time. So it was that I found myself at a garage sale a few blocks from my home. A man was selling a keyboard that I had never seen before. It seemed to have some problems, so he let it go for $10. That's right, ten dollars. I got it home and found that the internal sounds were fried, but that it worked great as a MIDI controller. So now I owned something nearly as rare as that Mellotron I passed up: a Sequential Circuits Prophet VS.
In 1996 I started my own business and needed more space at home. I sold the CP-30, plus a Korg P-3 Piano Module I had bought around 1988. I also sold the Moog Rogue and traded the Poly-800 for a Kawai X-140D, which was essentially one of those consumer-grade synthesizer things, what with built-in drums and such. Even so, the X-140 would become my main keyboard for a few years. I also sold the Aria guitar. At this point, all I had left was the Prophet, the new X-140, a Tascam Porta Two deck and a Roland TR-505 drum machine.
That same year I decided it was time to get rid of the Prophet. I didn't know, really, what I had, but I wasn't playing music and it was taking up space. Plus it didn't really work, it ran hot (when it was on, you'd scorch your hand if you touched the case) and Sequential Circuits was long out of business. I posted an ad offering it for parts, best offer. To my amazement, I got offers from all around the world. I sold it to a guy in Dresden Germany. He had offered to wire-transfer several hundred dollars to my account, and would have his freight company pick the board up from my home. So off it went to der Fatherland, and I had some mad money.
Around 1997 some neighbors of mine invited me over to play music. I hadn't been near my equipment in some time, so I brushed up a few days and then went. It was a disaster, mainly because they were all smokers (which I despise) and some of their hangers-on showed up strung out on crack. Plus they played music I hated.
One positive outcome was my getting the spark to play again. Two friends of mine had an acoustic duo and hosted a monthly coffeehouse. Long story short, I joined their group.
Over the next few years, the group grew into a more rocking sort of outfit, with regular (monthly) gigs. I played mostly acoustic piano, as the venue had a very nice one, and added some mostly organ sounds on the Kawai. As we added a drummer and bassist, it was again time for some real equipment. At a December 1998 gig we did a couple Holiday standards. See immediately below for live recordings of the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" and ELP's "I Believe in Father Christmas". On "Nick" that's me doing faux-falsetto and the low-low "run run reindeer" parts, and I'm the one who stops the tune when it's in 3/4. On the ELP cover, that's me singing lead and playing the all-thumbs bell-synth part.
Over the course of a couple years, I acquired some new stuff. I went into Guitar Center and bought a cheap little interim P.A. which said "great for karaoke" on the box. It was actually pretty nice, what with plenty of inputs and all. It lacked power, though, so eventually I sold it to the drummer. I replaced it with a Peavey KB-100 keyboard amp, the first amplifier I'd ever owned that was made for keyboards. It was one of the first times I'd bought something from someone over the internet. The guy I bought it from actually lived about 5 miles from my dad in Florida, so Dad was kind enough to pick it up and bring it to me on one of his visits. Not long after I got it, something came loose and I got it fixed for a few bucks. The KB-100 is still part of my rig.
It's the End of the Century and We Feel...Old
When I started playing again, I was convinced I needed some more "realistic" sounds. I used that Kawai X-140D, which is sort of a home keyboard, but with MIDI and so forth. I would forego the cheesy drum parts and the bozo sequencer, but the sounds and touch-sensitivity were pretty OK. Those internal speakers and the stereo out jack gave it away as a family model, though; sort of the minivan of the keyboard world. But I kept it and occasionally still use it at home.
I spent a lot of time looking in the Atlanta Advertiser, a weekly classified magazine full of guns, furniture, cars and such for sale by owner. It wasn't unusual to find a great deal on used keyboards. I found a pawnshop listing for a big-boy Roland keyboard. A Roland RD-300s digital piano / MIDI controller. Finally. 88 keys and good action. Eight or so built-in sounds, MIDI control in/out/through, and me with a bit of knowledge to make the MIDI work. I must be the last keyboard player on Earth to discover MIDI. Getting it was interesting. I went to the pawnshop and found the thing. The place was full of (again) guns. Nobody there knew anything about musical instruments. I found a sticking key in the upper register and stated to pound on it. Of course it only made sound every third or fourth try. I found that one of the stereo outputs was dirty, so naturally I plugged into it. So here I was, playing a sticky key through a crackly output, pulling all kinds of mock-disappointed faces. I offered them a lot less than they were asking, and they said yes. They threw in the heavy-duty stand (this thing weighs a ton) and included sales tax. The RD remained the central piece of my setup for several years.
Next I picked up A Roland D-110 sound module. $90 from a guy on the Internet. A real pain in the ass to get to work, but the sounds are stellar. With my newfound MIDI knowledge, rack-mounts seemed to be the way to go. They didn't give the banks-of-boards look, but they got the job done and actually made playing easier and more centralized.
I had been in touch with another drummer friend of mine who had come into possession of a Roland Alpha Juno 1 synthesizer. He got it in some sort of trade, and didn't play it. The previous owner had put sticky-tape on the keys to indicate A, B, C etc. The tape was long gone but the stickies remained. Now, with the surrendering of my Moog, I needed something for blips, bleeps and squawks. So I got it, with a gig bag, for I think $150. I used a solvent to get the goo off; it looks a bit rough (the gloss is off the keys) but plays great and is easy to tweak.
Back in the 80s the Ensoniq Mirage digital sampler came out. It was billed as the first "affordable" sampler, selling for only $1795. Well, prices drop over the years. In 1999 I got one from a used shop in Atlanta for $100, including a big stack of sounds on floppy disk. Since I let that Mellotron slip by, I got this to try and duplicate its sound. I also have my old Wurlitzer on a floppy-disk. Isn't technology wonderful?
Around 1997 I got this crazy idea: I would buy a kit and build myself a Theremin. Yeah, you know the thing: (a) the "woo-woo machine" used in 1950s sci-fi movies, and (b) the otherworldly sound on the Beach Boys' 1966 hit, "Good Vibrations." Well, if you thought that, you'd be half right. The BBs did NOT use a Theremin, despite what certain recovering acid casualty geniuses might lead you to believe.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Welcome to the Future
So 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.
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.
We got way better and did a proper demo. Click the player to hear The Echoes of Tyme cover Vanilla Fudge's cover of The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On".
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 use just the Roland Alpha Juno. the whole "wall of keyboards" doesn't exactly engender the sixties garage rock vibe. On top of that I'm the lead vocalist, so some bracing chords is about the extent of my playing (ok, so that's always been the case).
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).
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 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 gets much use these days either (the exception being when I have the presence of mind to throw some James Brown vocal samples into our rendition of "I'll Go Crazy."
The Theremax, well, I still drag it out on occasion, for a mean version of "Psychedelic Siren," but it's sort of the synth version of an MG automobile. It requires 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.
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 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.
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.
Here's some studio-quality stuff from The Poppies.
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.
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 craigslist.org 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.
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.
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.
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 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. It's pretty groovy.
It would be even groovier if I knew how to play it.
One of these days I'll write a bit about my left-handed Fender acoustic guitar. I've had it since 1998.
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.
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.
So to recap, for those keeping score, here's what was in my arsenal as of Fall 2009:
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. WE started rehearsing
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 hapend since then but I haven't taken the time to write about it yet. Suffice to say, that band came and went -- and did some great gigs and reordings -- and a new one is forming. More soon.)
As ever, to be continued. If you've endured it this far and care to drop me a line, feel welcome to do so.