(an unconvential biography)
Julie first knocked at my door a few days ago. She had obviously just rolled out of bed and thrown on some jeans and a T-shirt but she looked completely amazing nonetheless. It was after midnight and she was very irate about the fact that I was playing this new band, Mr. Brown's Talent Show, repeatedly and loudly.
I explained, rather matter of fact, that I was a music writer and was paying my bills by reviewing said record for a music fanzine. I don't know what came over me but I invited her in to eat some just-delivered Chinese food. I don't know what possessed her but she accepted. My simple plan of seduction was this: to have her help me finish the review and then slowly fall in love with my taste in music and thus my irreverent view of society. I figured that it had worked before, why not now. Problem being, I was stuck: "Urban vignettes and melodic irony... soaring Pete Townsend guitars...Elton John meets Neil Young piano...pure, soulful vocals...cinematic lyrics... Stories of New York interiors...where people live, languish, love blah blah." I droned on.
As we devoured General Tao's Chicken, we talked about my recent move into the building. Julie said that she was pissed because although the CD playing was keeping her awake, she really liked the songs. Moreover, the fact that she liked the songs got in the way of her hating me, which pissed her off even more.
I tried to disarm the situation by asking her to describe what she heard. "It reminds me of a bunch of things. She explained. The singer's voice is like Lenny Kravitz sometimes. Or like a Paul McCartney/Smokey Robinson lovechild. I think that it's kind of cool that these songs are like little stories. Not folk songs in the poo-faced precious way, but folk songs in the Sweet Jane / Every Picture tells a story kind of way. I hear a little Wilco or Tom Petty. Hey, I figure that the millions of people who bought that David Gray record would run out to discover this disc. Horns, violin, piano, and that voice, it's all very catchy, classic stuff."
She talked, I typed.
Julie took a sip of wine, lingered for a moment, and then shot the proverbial arrow through my open heart. "If Ray Davies and The Kinks brought to life their version of '60s London through three-minute pop stories on Waterloo Sunset, then it seems some thirty years later these Mr. Brown guys update the concept, change the setting to New York City, and tell their version. At least that's how it hits me off the top of my head."
I sat speechless. I was both inspired and intimidated.
What followed was one of those nights that defy sleep in order to keep the possibilities and the exploration alive. At about 4:00am we both had revealed a lot about ourselves. First kiss, first boyfriend and girlfriend, her parents divorce, and the fact that my parents should have divorced. I told her about my growing up in Queens and spending many days and nights exploring Times Square as a kid.
When Julie asked me who Mr. Browns Talent Show was I didn't have much of an answer. The only biography that I was sent was a short story about this cliché couple brought together because of...
Shut up, she said. They are just trying to be clever. And then she opened her mouth and kissed me.
Q and A with Mr. Brown
Q: Where is the band from?
A: Mr. Brown's Talent Show is from the apartments on New York City's Lower East Side, Harlem, Greenwich Village, Hoboken, and Brooklyn.
We have gutted an old turn-of- the-century leather tannery and created a funky little studio where we can order in Cuban sandwiches, Egyptian chicken, and warm bread from a one- hundred -year-old brick oven bakery named Marie's . Generally we record and play between the hours of midnight and 7:00 am. The cops are cool, and it is not uncommon to walk outside at about 2:00am and have a group of skater punks hanging out smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, chillin' with some of the Spanish home-boys creating their own little scene while listening through cinder blocks to the music. We have couches, a TV, and a coffee machine, and even an old Asteroids arcade game to play between late night / early morning sessions. Come on by... the coffee is warm, and the mozzarella is fresh.
Q: What is the history of Mr. Brown? How did you all meet?
A:Sit right back and you'll hear a tale...
A boy stood on stage... in the back...out of the spotlight. He played the bass. Soon he found himself in a band. The group fulfilled the street gang fantasy of his youth... a van, recording studios, CD's, magazines, radio, and miles and miles of tour roads from Maine to Texas. There were hundreds of stages and thousands of stories and always the family of his friends. He was the little brother "baby pop", never the most talent, but he always had heart.
He listened and learned...The Boy grew up.
One night on Mott Street in Chinatown, The Boy was sitting in a dimly lit tea house, the only white face in a sea of Cantonese eyes. He was reading an article in a British fanzine about an American producer named Pledge. Pledge was making quite a name for himself overseas scoring some indie films and producing these aural landscapes.
The Band meets John Barry is what the description read.
The Boy thought that this could to be the Martin Scorsese to his Paul Schrader. The movie that had been living in his ears might have a chance to be realized.
Pledge and The Boy met after New Year's Eve. They sequestered themselves in an abandoned factory on the outskirts of town. The factory was next to the old Conrail train tracks, and at night you could hear the local kids stealing tires, setting them on fire, and throwing them in front of the first car. When the train stopped the boys would jimmy open the doors and form a line to hand off the TV's and stereos being shipped from from california to the east coast. The local cops knew all about this and just let it happen. Legally the train tracks were not under their jurisdiction, and what the hell... they'd all done it when they were kids. In addition, the pay-off money always helped supliment a street cops pay.
The two watched this nightly occurrence and laid down the demos from which Mr. Brown's Talent Show would derive.
In February Pledge and The Boy were at a party at a new Irish bar... the kind that recently had been popping up all over Manhattan , financed with loads of stock market cash to make it seem old and decrepit. "A pitiful waste of capital," thought The Boy. A pain in the ass music promoter was having her birthday party, and they were invited. They went because...well they needed to get out...and the fumes from the tires were starting to affect their central nervous systems.
Frazier was standing in a corner smiling and taking it all in. He was a well-known musician around the city and the kind of guy who seemed to attract attention without ever raising his voice. Cool is the kind of thing that cannot be manufactured ...and this guy had it.
The Boy knew that this was the man who could make it all come together. He had the God-given voice and vibe to make a good thing great. However, Frazier Raye had been and still was part of some well-known groups. He was constantly booked with sessions, and his current band had just finished playing to tens of thousands of people per night while touring the country in one of the summer's biggest music festivals. What could he possibly want with a dollar and a dream lotto project like this?
The Boy approached. To his surprise Frazier knew of him and was nothing but receptive. In the wood- paneled bar on Greenwich Street they talked about life, the road, and music. The Boy's confidence grew, and soon he swallowed his fear and invited Frazier to the factory to sing some songs. There was a silence...and then a smile. "Here's my number , give me a call." The Boy was elated.
He walked back to Pledge who was chatting up some English girl who smelled of cigarettes. "What did he say?" Pledge asked.
" He's in!" said The Boy.
The night turned to dawn.
Dan The Man
He had just driven in from Indiana with his drums packed tight in the back of his Saturn. " I don't really care what anybody says. The Saturn rocks. I need wheels that will never break down. I need a vehicle that is good on gas, and has room for my drums. I am a working man, and if someone knows about a car that better fits the bill, why I'll buy it. "
The Boy thought that with an attitude like that, as long as he could keep a beat, he had the job. Dan The Man set up his drums and perfectly counted off the first tune that was on the tape that had been sent to him.
He asked,"Do you want it more like Ringo or Charlie Watts?"
The boy stared at Pledge who glanced at Frazier who peeped at Dan who stared back at the three of them.
"What's the problem fellas?" asked Dan.
"No problem...want a job?"
As the sun rose above the Hudson River, and the garbage trucks headed over the train tracks back to the Jersey City Dump... the group was still playing. Later, over eggs and coffee at the old diner down the block, Dan The Man asked what they should call themselves.
The Boy spoke up. "When I was kid, there was a seventh-grade teacher in my school. He believed that if a student felt he had a talent to share with the world and the guts enough to get up in front of a crowd, then he should have the forum to do just that...it was kind of like a talent show. That was my first gig."
"What was his name?" asked Frazier.
"Mr. Brown," said The Boy.
And they ordered another cup of coffee and ate the last of the toast