I have played guitar with Mercury Rev for 30 years.
By 1996, at the age of 30, I’d already spent half of my life working my way through the dark underbelly of the music industry.
Music played an integral part in my life ever since my childhood days when I’d play the clarinet with my Uncle Irvin (he was an accordionist), busting out some mean polka tunes at the Kosciusko Club.
When I was 10 years old I saw Dion DiMucci perform live down in Florida on a family vacation. I remember floating away from the concert thinking that I wanted to play music to make both myself and other people take our minds off the daily grind of this American life that can consist of regimented work schedules and regimented sleep schedules and regimented school schedules – all in the hopes of attaining some sort of internal peace.
My High School marching band from Dunkirk, NY, was invited to play the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., for Ronald Reagan in late 1980. Yes, it was Bedtime for Bonzo for sure! But the man did once say, “Life is one grand sweet song, so start the music.” On that trip to Washington, I got a taste of life on the road as a musician, and I was hooked. The hotels and the road, meeting people with other upbringings, who ate different foods and listened to all kinds of different music; now that was living! Where words fail, music speaks.
In 1982, when I was 17 years old, I joined a punk band called The People’s Front and I played with them all over Western New York for two years until they disbanded in 1984. The punk scene was great, embracing kids from all walks of life, all economic backgrounds, all races, all cultures, all genders; all the way.
“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life that brings peace and abolishes strife.”
After the breakup of The People’s Front, I cut my teeth playing bass around Buffalo in bands like Zippy and the Pinheads, Sunny in Chernobyl, The Joybuzzers and Pokolon. We would play the Continental in Buffalo on Thursday nights, and make enough money to pay our rent for the month (which was $75).
But in 1985, I met Jonathan Donahue, David Baker and Suzanne Thorpe and we all formed Mercury Rev.
The year before, I had seen Lou Reed play a concert at SUNY Fredonia’s King Concert Hall and the guitarist in his band was Robert Quine. Quine was all bathed in cool, wearing a battered Salvation Army suit coat, Levi’s, Ray-Bans and he was playing a Stratocaster. Quine was laying down some mind-bending guitar that was part blues, part bebop, part noise with avant, r&b, doo-wop, harmolodics and no wave all mixed in. I went out and bought a red Harmony Rocket guitar the next day and tuned it to an open E. I played it and it played me, so in 1985, when I met Jonathan who also had a red Harmony Rocket, we connected forever.
One afternoon, in 1988, I came home to the Mercury Rev Minnesota Avenue apartment in the SUNY Buffalo student ghetto, all bleary eyed after watching films by Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, Stan Brakage and Hollis Frampton in the old Media Studies Department on the Main Street campus. I decided maybe it was time to just forget about music for a while and start making films.
When I was done ranting to Jonathan about how maybe film was a better path to achieving the “American Dream” than making music, Jonathan informed me that while I was out, the legendary London record label Jungle Records, known for releasing albums by punk legends such as Johnny Thunders and Suicide, phoned him and informed him they liked our recordings that we sent them and Jungle were going to pony up some cash for us to finish mixing our first album, Yerself Is Steam, which they wanted to release under their MINT imprint. In that cinematic moment, music and film melded into one, and yup, they both had rhythm and soul.
I’ve been recording albums and making music for films and touring all over the world with Mercury Rev ever since.
The late great Charlie Watts once said something to the effect of: “I spend all my time at home wishing I was on the road, and I spend all of my time on the road wishing I was at home…”
But every time Jonathan Donahue and I hit the stage with Mercury Rev, we crawl up there and say, “Wow, can you believe we get to do this again night after night?”
And when we look at each other and smile, we know that when it seems that everything is crashing down, music holds everything together.