Friday, June 13, 2014

"Vida Guerra" (with Sonic Boom, with special thanks to Evie Sands)

Vida Guerra (Chris Stroffolino); Whole Wide World (Wreckless Eric); 
with Sonic Boom & Evie Sands (April 21, 2013)

1. Song Selection
 When Sonic Boom (Peter Kember) told me he’d be up for/down with recording a song or two in the “Piano Van,” when he's in LA on tour, he originally suggested a Buddy Holly obscurity: an unreleased demo called “Gone,” and also asked if I’d be down for Evie Sands to come sing with us. Like Pete, I categorically had a fascination with more obscure songs by household names, but I was really excited about the possibility of working with Evie Sands (who I wrote about here:

Evie expressed interest in the project, but didn’t want to sing “Gone;” even though I liked the idea of it conceptually, as an obscurity with the potential of becoming a lost classic, I too was relieved. When I started trying to memorize “Gone,” I had a very difficult time getting around the way the beginning of the song triggered “Red, Red Wine” (which I loathe all versions of). A later song shouldn’t ruin an earlier song for you, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Still, I would have done it had Peter insisted, because I also was also very excited about getting to work with him.

I had a good feeling we would jell. After all, he had been a core member of a band whose music got me through some real rough 3AMS back in the years when I still could afford a stereo; and this recording could be better than the stereo (despite the limits of the piano Van). So I was doubly excited when Peter suggested we film one of Evie Sands’ songs, or perhaps a Wreckless Eric song.

I looked up the chords to Evie’s “I Can’t Let Go,” but the chord sheet was based on the watered-down version by The Hollies (named after Buddy Holly, incidentally). They did it in the key of G, so I asked Evie if that was the key she sung it in. She wrote back and said she preferred A, but wouldn’t rule out G. She also sent a detailed structural analysis of the song which she has sung for over 4 decades; a song she “owns” as much as Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni who wrote it for her when she was a teenager. Still, I was impressed; most musicians I work with would never take the time to write that kind of analysis. She didn’t want to do it, or any of her other repertoire, but she was into Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World.”
Jeff Feuerzeig liked it too, so “Gone” was gone, and we had a song (but I figured I’d keep practicing “I Can’t Let Go” anyway, coz it’s a cool song and the challenge was good for practice sessions (maybe Pete and I could convince her at the session? I know he wanted to).

++++2. The Day Of The Shoot
 The fact that we even managed to arrange this proved a feat. We tried to plan this weekend out a month in advance, but a few days before the scheduled session. Everybody’s schedule started filling up. Evie’s schedule was uncertain because of jury duty. Jeff had just come back from a shoot in another city, and had to leave for another one the next day. And on his one day in town, he now had many domestic duties and didn’t know if he’d be able to steal away for even an hour or two.

As for me, I didn’t have a job (except the hard work of trying to find one), but the van was breaking down, and I couldn’t afford repairs. The weather ended up being scorching; in the high 80s (hotter in the van), and the van was not responding well. The night before the scheduled shoot, two crucial keys broke on the piano. I called three tuners on a Saturday night and Sunday morning and none returned my call. Jeff managed to find one, and pay for it. The tuner performed some triage, but didn’t really fix it. Still, it would work for the session at least; luckily, “Whole Wide World” didn’t use many notes.

Then driving to the location, I had another flat tire (I’d been sold a bum tire). If this wasn’t enough, when Jeff Feuerzeig started setting up his recording equipment in the front seat, he bumped the rearview mirror (just a little), but it fell off the window, breaking the van’s coffee table tray during its fall. Everybody stepped up to fix these things (except for the coffee table). Peter helped me put the FIX-A-FLAT ON and then drove the van around Silverlake (because you’re supposed to drive 2 to 4 miles immediately after applying the fix-a-flat) while I sat in the back playing the piano during the bumpy ride. I’ve always needed a driver! I wish he had filmed this.

The shoot was part of a party; the amazing surrealist cat painter Anthony Augsgang was a great host. After playing some piano-karaoke songs for some of the guests (including Dean Wareham, who I hadn't seen in person since the Silver Jews days), and getting to join them in the other festivities made me almost feel normal again. I had that same bittersweet feeling of actually being part of a working community of musicians (both male and female) that I hadn’t had since the also very bittersweet ad-hoc show in Big Sur with The Greg Ashley Band to celebrate the release of Sylvie Simmons' I'm Your Man on Leonard Cohen’s 78th birthday, just before the piano van sideshow tour began.

I remember fondly how Yea-Ming Chen and Josh Miller picked me up as a tripped and fell repeatedly on our little hike to the Big Sur cove. I just hope these people don’t see me as nothing but a charity case. Especially these days, I’m the kind of guy that can get amazing work done as a musician or teacher, I just need someone (or a community) to help me set things up. And for one brief day, I found it. 

3. The Video Shoot
 The structure of “Whole Wide World” is irregular, both on the micro level (the way lines scan), and the macro-level (verse-chorus structure). As we ran through a couple practice versions, Evie acted the role of musical director. She had obviously studied the structure of this song at least as much as I had, and this was incredibly helpful in terms of coming up with some kind of arrangement on the spot. Of course, we’re not exactly faithful to it, but I love that Pete sings “I comb the whole wide world” and the other changes we made, as we tried to make the necessities of this Piano Van session into a virtue.

Unfortunately, the video didn't live up to anybody's standards. The audio, however, is available on Ken Katkin's "Trash Flow Radio." Luckily, Peter was up for doing an on-the-spot ad hoc one-take improvisation so the day wouldn't be a total wash. I knew he scubscribed to the "3 chords good, 2 chords better, 1 chord best" philosophy, and I welcomed the opportunity to do more of that.. In this case, he wanted to join me for a four-hand piano piece, using nothing but black keys. I decided to use my song "Vida Guerra," which is in in Eb (or D# if you must), and can have a long one chord jam groove in it, on which Pete played lead piano.

Getting to record with Sonic Boom and Evie Sands has been a high point of this otherwise very lonely and aesthetically unfulfilling Piano Van Sideshow Tour. This is the closest the van has come to living up to its potentials as a recording studio (thanks to Jeff Feuerzeig again) and I hope to be able to work with Peter or Evie in a real recording studio if I can get out of this soul destroying thing. In the meantime, you can watch the video here!  (

And check out the version of "Vida Guerra"  with Ned Casual on drums from the Griffith Park sessions

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