Family Band

Phoenicia, NY. 2006 – 2010 or so.


Lukas Lerner – drums
Edith Lerner – vocals, guitar, glockenspeil
Nancy Howell – vocals, guitar
Mark Lerner – bass, guitar, vocals

How Not to Raise a Pedal Steel Player (or two)

When my twins, Edith and Lukas, were young (in fact even when they were still in utero) my wife, Nancy, and I used to joke about teaching them both to play pedal steel guitar. First off, it’d be a great act: twin pedal steel players, facing each other on stage! Second of all, they’d always have a job. (I’m not sure if this is really true anymore, but in 1994, there weren’t nearly enough pedal steel players in New York City.)

Once they grew up a bit and started listening to music, though, they seemed pretty genuinely creeped out by country music, so our plan was set aside. But the notion of how to pass on a love of music, and possibly musicanship, to our kids still loomed large. We encouraged them to take up any instrument they were drawn to, but we were very wary of pushing them too hard to practice. There followed a series of false starts. In 1st grade, Lukas took up the cello for a couple of tense weeks; Edith took violin and stuck with it for two years or so, somewhat begrudgingly. Then (5th grade or so) they both wanted guitars. Again, Lukas dropped it pretty quickly. Again, Edith stuck with it for a few years.

Edith with her violin, 2002.

Edith with her violin, 2002

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Bill Fink and me (Libertyville, Del Pez, South of Heaven)

New York City, 1985-1987


Bill Fink – guitar, vocals
Mark Lerner – bass, backing vocals
Mike Marubio – drums (Libertyville)
Andy Akers – drums (Del Pez)
Kenny ??? – drums (South of Heaven)


Libertyville band photo

From left: yrs truly, Bill Fink, Mike Marubio.

As 1985 started, I went back to college, this time at NYU, studying film production. In April, I moved from the Upper West Side down to 14th Street and 5th Avenue, sharing a studio apartment (!) with my high school friend Mike Causey, who was now working as an assistant at a publishing house. We were so starved for privacy that we put a futon on the floor of our one closet, along with a glow-in-the-dark poster of the moon on the ceiling; whenever we needed to, either of us could escape to “the Moon Room”  for some alone time.

My sporadic yet strangely detailed journal tells me that on Tuesday, May 28, 1985 (the last day of the NYU spring semester), I turned in a paper on The Grey Fox, saw a Judy Holliday double feature (Born Yesterday and It Should Happen to You) at the Thalia, and then “met with Mike Marubio and Bill Fink to talk about forming a band.” Mike and Bill were both at Columbia University. Mike had been the drummer in my previous NYC band, Hats Without Work, and had also played with Bill in another band, Double Felix (also called Felix). I knew Bill slightly from seeing him play with Felix. The idea was to do Bill’s songs, with a few covers.

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Hats Without Work

Columbia University, NYC, January to May, 1984


Tom Adelman – acoustic guitar, vocals
Mark Lerner – bass, vocals, some keyboards
Mike Marubio – drums
Dave Robinowitz – keyboards at one gig

Folks, I’m diving deep for this entry. Deep into the world of shame.  Join me, won’t you? Let’s begin with a band introduction that sort of says it all:

By the middle of my second year at Columbia University, it became clear to me I wasn’t going to stay there. As I’ve already written, I had big plans with my pal Dan Eilenberg to become the next Difford and Tilbrook (or Taupin and John). My dear friend Tom Adelman was also planning on leaving Columbia. His future plans included a career in the lucrative world of poetry and an early marriage (because those always work out, right?)

So with one semester left, we decided to play some music together. We thought we could take Tom’s LA-punk/glam/poetry mess and combine it with my love for pop music and have something listenable. Tom had no electric guitar at the time, but we figured, hey: Violent Femmes! Turns out that’s hard to do well, and my approach (overplaying the bass, with utterly horrendous tone) didn’t help matters. In our defense, we didn’t have serious or high hopes for the band. It was a way to kill a semester before we both left for what we hoped would be greener pastures.

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Uncle Rock and the Playthings

(Adventures in the Kindie Trade, part 1)

Phoenicia, NY, 2008-ish – present


Robert Burke Warren aka Uncle Rock – guitar, vocals
Josh Roy Brown – lead guitar
Eric Parker – drums
Katie Legnini – vocals
Martin Keith – bass
Jack Warren, Lucia Legnini – backing vocals, until they grew up
Lukas Lerner – drums (subbing for Eric)
Mark Lerner – bass (subbing for Martin)


My kids never listened to a lot of children’s music. We got them some, and some was given to them as presents, but not much of it really stuck. Raffi’s Baby Beluga album got a lot of play, but I think that was mostly because my wife liked it. They Might Be Giants first kids album, “No,” was a hit with my daughter, but not my son. I remember a really bad reggae kids music cassette and some Sesame Street thing with Aerosmith doing Oscar the Grouch’s “I Love Trash,” both of which pretty much got ignored. A David Grisman and Jerry Garcia kids record was much more of a hit with me than my children.

We certainly never went out to see kids music. That was unthinkable back then. But then the TMBG kids albums happened, and Dan Zanes happened, and soon (too late for my kids) there was a whole “kindie rock” movement, which persists to this day. People take their kids out to see rock and roll, live. I think it’s mostly a good thing.

A Temporary Plaything

My friend Robert Burke Warren has worn a lot of hats (and still does): bassist (with the Fleshtones and RuPaul, among others), actor, songwriter, teacher, writer. But right around the time I moved to Phoenicia, NY (where he lives), he started writing and playing kids music as Uncle Rock (and the Playthings, whenever the venue size and paycheck would support a full band). His regular bass player, Martin Keith, is a busy guy, so eventually I got a call to come sub for him. The band members are all friends and neighbors of mine, and I play in various other groups with them. And, most fun of all for me, my son Lukas has frequently subbed for the drummer, so we’ve gotten to play gigs together. (I’ve also designed two Uncle ROCK CDs and a DVD.)

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Dan Eilenberg and Me (the B-Sides, the Rave-Ups, the Imposters, etc)

Bethesda, Maryland, 1981-1986


Dan Eilenberg – guitar, vocals
Mark Lerner – bass
Ken “Bidjje” Kavanaugh – drums
Jonathan Lipson – drums
Adam Gibbons – drums
Stephen Lewis – guitar
Billy Simms – guitar
Sam Jannotta – keyboards
Dave Robinowitz – keyboards
Jim Levy – keyboards

I’m going to get so much wrong here. For a variety of reasons many of the details in this entry are very foggy for me. So let me get a few things right, here at the beginning.

Dan Eilenberg taught me more about listening to and playing music than anyone else I’ve ever known. It’s like he’s the imaginary listener for just about any piece of music I write or record. Listening back now to the music we made together as kids I hear a frightening amount of what I think of as me, and realize it came from him. He pushed tons of classic sixties pop music on me (anyone who knows Dan will know that “pushed” is an apt description): The Kinks, the Beatles, the Band, the Byrds, the Temptations, the Supremes, Creedence Clearwater Revival. All stuff that’s pretty much the basis of my musical vocabulary now.

This entry covers 3 or 4 “bands,” but I honestly can’t tell the difference between them. Dan and I started writing songs together in 11th or 12th grade, and we’d play and record them with various folks. None of the bands really played many shows. We just wanted to be world-famous songwriters. So this entry is about our songwriting partnership more than any band.

yearbook photo

Tilbrook and Difford in high school. Dan’s inscription in my yearbook. Between us, standing, is Dave Robinowitz. Adam Gibbons is next to him. Between us and below us is Sam Jannotta. Second from left is Billy Simms.

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The New York Mandolin Orchestra

September – June 2001, New York City

In October 1999, I saw a listing somewhere for a concert by the New York Mandolin Orchestra. On a whim, I went, with my wife and two children. I’ve loved the mandolin since I was a kid and had been playing sporadically since I bought one while I was in the Oswalds. The concert was sort of cool, if rather sparsely attended (my family comprised about half of the audience in the Washington Irving High School auditorium).


The auditorium at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan.

The New York Mandolin Orchestra has been around since 1924 (it was originally named the New York Freiheit Mandolin Orchestra). In the Twenties, there was something of a mandolin orchestra craze. I think it’s safe to say the craze has subsided, but the NYMO persists to this day.

New York Mandolin Orchestra, 1924

The early days.

At that first show I attended, there were perhaps 20 mandolin, mandola, and mandocello players,  They alternated ensemble pieces with solos and duets, but the ensemble stuff was what was coolest. Even though the playing was more than a little spotty (the orchestra is open to anyone who’s willing to come to rehearsals), the sound was really neat. I was without a project of my very own at the time, and was in the middle of listening to and writing more chamber music-ish sort of material. I was eager to try the mandolin orchestra as a way to bone up on my mandolin and reading skills. But as it happened, it was nearly two years before I finally got up the combination of nerve and free time to show up and join the group.

Once a week I’d trudge over to East 15th Street and rehearse. The conductor, a woman named Jennifer Ruffalo, and a few of the players were very good professional musicians. The other players were, well, enthusiastic. I was pretty new to reading music (I hadn’t read treble clef since I was 13), but I found the pace was manageable. There were a lot of little old ladies in the group. I sat between two women with hearing aids. All of the mandocello players reminded me of Walter Matthau.

Consulting some of my notes from back then, I see we did pieces by Scarlatti and Hummel, chamber pieces that had been adapted for mandolin orchestra. We also did an adaption of Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, and an arrangement of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”

In addition to the mandolin family, there was a woman who played various flutes and recorders and, incredibly, a pair of smoking hot identical twin young women who both played bassoon.

We played 2 concerts I can recall, both in the same auditorium where we rehearsed. The group breaks in June for the summer, and I didn’t return in September.

NY Mandolin Orchestra

This may or may not be a photo of the group from when I was in it (I’m not in the photo, but I recognize the conductor’s white suit).

Hey, go see them. Or better yet, join.

Mark Donato

1989 – present, New York City and Ulster County, NY


Mark Donato – vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, songwriting, (sometimes drums on records)
Mark Lerner – bass, backing vocals, etc, off and on 1989 – present
Pete Erchick – bass from 1994-ish to 1996?
Stephen Lewis – electric guitar, 1989-1991
Dan Fassett – electric guitar, for a few months in 1991-1992
G. Doug Pierson – electric guitar from 1994-ish to to 2006-ish
Dave Wilkes – drums for a few months of 1990
Allison Horn – drums, 1990-1991
Seth Warnock – drums, 1991 – 2006-ish
Eric Parker – drums, 2008 – present
Diane Stockwell – violin, 1991? to 1994?
Rebecca Weiner Tompkins – violin, 1994
Rob Meador – mandolin from 1996-ish to 2006-ish
John Burdick and Dean Jones – (guitar and piano) working on our new record even as we speak

And various other guests on recordings, including Jim Barbaro (guitar), Al Houghton (guitar and organ), Mike Ralff and Scott McKuen (acoustic bass), Bob Hofnar and Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel), Robin Goldwasser (vocals), and Philippa Thompson (accordion and vocals).


Mark Donato

I think this is from 2000 or so. MD is one of those eerily ageless people, though, so it sort of doesn’t matter.

I’ve played music with this Donato fellow for 25 years. There’s a strong temptation when writing these things, to pitch the music to you, dear reader. That is, to select the very best stuff and to order the post so as to take maximum advantage of your understandably short attention span, and leave you thinking, “Whoa, that band was great! Mark is cool!”  Nowhere is this temptation stronger than in writing about Mark Donato, whose singular talents as a songwriter and singer have gone, in my opinion, criminally underappreciated, at least insofar as appreciation can be measured by album sales and crowds at gigs. (Though there have been plenty of both at times.)

But my job here (I guess I’m my own boss) is not to promote music. As a musician, I have to spend far too much time doing that anyway; my task here is more narrative in nature. So this will be a typical Every Band story: embarrassing videos, clip-art xeroxed flyers, wobbly demos, and faulty memories. Readers unfamiliar with Mark Donato’s music will of course find some here; I encourage you to seek out more.

Canoeful of Strangers

Mark Donato was the first drummer for the Oswalds, but from the day we met him, he was also playing guitar and singing his own songs. I was a big fan immediately, and throughout 1988 and 1989, Mark would often come over to my apartment and record his songs. The tapes are a testament to Donato’s patience. I was always trying to do something weird with my small home recording setup, so the recordings have all kinds of backwards reverb and phase-shifted dulcimer and whatever other nonsense I could conjure. Watching Donato record his vocals became a sort of spectator sport for my roommate Bill Fink and my neighbor Frank Randall (Donato with headphones on, eyes closed, hands writhing in a gentle spastic dance, Keith Jarrett-like vocalizations emerging unbidden between lines). Mark would also sometimes open Oswalds shows with a set of his own songs, especially after he left the band to work more on his own music.

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