The Oswalds

1988 and 1989, New York City

Personnel

Tom Adelman – vocals, acoustic guitar, songwriting
Mark Donato – drums and vocals
Stephen Lewis – guitar and lap steel
Mark Lerner – bass, mandolin, vocals

After Oswald Year One, new folks were added:

Henry Hample – fiddle and banjo
Charlie Shaw – drums (replaced Donato)
Laura Cantrell – vocals

Early on, we had some help from Bill Fink and Frank Randall (guitar).

Earlier band adventures with Tom Adelman (in college) and Stephen Lewis (in junior high and high school) will come up at some point in this blog (why am I doing this out of order? I forget), but suffice it to say that 1988 began with Tom finally arriving back in NYC so we could make the band we’d always talked about. For the prior couple of years, I’d been recording elaborate home 4-track collections with Tom whenever he’d visit. He was a gifted and prolific songwriter, and while we searched for a drummer, we started playing some shows as a duo right away, open mic nights at ABC No Rio and a space called Cafe Bustelo on E. Houston St., in a scene that was more about poetry and the nascent antifolk movement than the rock and roll we wanted to play.

After both reading the novel False Match by Henry Bean (as I recall, we read it because Greil Marcus blurbed it), we came up with the perfect band name: Saving Charlotte. Charlotte being a character who (spoiler alert) dies, largely as a result of the Main Guy’s shittyness. We were sensitive! (Kirkus Reviews describes the book as “Self-dramatizing angst … self-indulgent, student-level work overall, with unappealing characters and smirky pseudo-eroticism.” So there you go.)

Drummer Wanted

I’m not sure I’d really heard a whole lot of actual Woody Guthrie when we made this flyer, but I guess it was code for “We are obsessed with Bob Dylan.” At any rate, we quickly realized Saving Charlotte was actually a terrible name for a band. Swinging from sensitive to goofy/violent, we settled on the Oswalds. And we played our first show under that name at Columbia University’s 1988 Furnald Folkfest. We brought a bottle of whiskey and passed it into the audience at the beginning of our short set. I didn’t play bass at the show; instead I played bass lines on my Cowboy Elfolk guitar and for one of the solos I cut the strings off with wire cutters.

Furnald Flyer

Our first show. Drawing by me.

Shortly after that first show, Tom and I walked into an open mic at Cafe Bustelo to see a prospective drummer. A friend of a friend knew this guy, and he was going to be there, playing his songs on guitar. The fellow, Mark Donato, was just our type: falling apart in front of our eyes. His song seemed really good, but he was having a lot of trouble getting through it. His voice was great: sweet, soulful, and unhinged. We talked him into joining the band, taking his word that he could play. He had some drums, but no snare. We loaned him $100 to buy one.

We started rehearsing at Tu Casa Studio, on E. 6th St and Ave. B, a glorious tiny room that I still think of fondly. It was so small we didn’t even need to step up to the mic to sing backing vocals.  We quickly recorded a very cheap 2-song demo in order to get some shows and then enlisted my oldest friend, Stephen Lewis, to play lead guitar with us.

I was living cheaply on E. 8th St between B and C and working a sort of dream job writing and editing textbooks. I got Tom a job there, too. Nearly everyone who worked there seemed to be in a band or an experimental theater group. Best of all, the job had excellent Xerox machines. Tom and I both liked making flyers.

Eventually our hobby earned us $500 worth of tickets from the sanitation department, delivered to a club we were playing.

5 tickets at $100 a pop, for hanging up flyers, to Downtown Beirut Two “dba The Oswalds.” The club passed the tickets and our contact info on to the cops.

After that, we just hung up flyers with our band name, no gig info or address.

Flyer

We rehearsed about 3 times a week and played any gig we could get. Eventually a sound developed. I played a fretless bass; we wanted to be the Band so bad, and I was doing my best to channel Rick Danko’s bouncing weirdness. At shows that were too small to accommodate a full drumset, Donato would play brushes on snare. I taught myself mandolin. Stephen bought a lap steel guitar. Tom sang the bulk of the songs, and when we really wanted to break everybody’s heart, we’d hand a song off to Mark Donato. I sang lots of harmony, and the occasional lead. Musically we developed a sort of split personality: half quiet country stuff, half heavier rock.

The Oswalds

From left: Mark Donato, Mark Lerner, Stephen Lewis, Tom Adelman. Photo by Kristine Larsen.

This lineup, this sound, is what I have the most tapes of. Some full rock band stuff, some home recordings. It feels like such a sliver of what we actually did. Tom was, as I said, prolific. The pace of new songs and gigs was intense, and I was having a ball.

Listen

For non-Flash enabled (iPad, iPhone, etc), go here.

The Hanging Sycamore
Kitty Hawk Car Crash
McMurty’s (live on WFMU’s Music Faucet)
The Boy I Loved
18 Wheels (Truck Driver’s Disease) (The only actual studio multitrack recording in this bunch)
The Union Way

Musically, we wanted to stretch out, so we went looking for that fabled creature: the multi-instrumentalist. We wanted a Jonathan Segel, like Camper Van Beethoven had (because we wanted to be CVB, too.) Incredibly, a friend at the dream job was going out with Henry Hample, who played fiddle and banjo. He had been in a couple of punk bands in Santa Cruz; that he had a credit on Camper’s Telephone Free Landslide Victory for arranging one of their songs just sealed the deal. We became a 5-piece.

Adding a 5th member

I can’t believe I have this piece of paper. This is beyond pathetic. Anyway, there’s Henry’s name, circled in red.

Live at Maxwell's

Live at Maxwell’s, January 6, 1989. You can’t see Mark Donato, but he’s there. From left: Henry Hample, Tom Adelman, Mark Lerner, Stephen Lewis. (Trivia: The fellow in the foreground is Superbad director Greg Mottola, when he was young and hungry. Or at least thirsty.)

We recorded a 3-song Christmas tape to send to our whole mailing list for free, setting up drums in Stephen’s apartment and trying every hokey trick we could think of (hey, it’s Christmas music!). I was the engineer/producer, armed with a 4-track cassette recorder and 3 mics, one of which literally came from the dollar store. I’m including two from these sessions, one amusing and one really pretty great. The piano in “Santa’s at the End of the Parade” is actually played by Henry on my miniature (and pink) Casio SK-1.

Listen some more

For non-Flash enabled (iPad, iPhone, etc), go here.
Santa’s at the End of the Parade

A Christmas Letter Home

We played a whole set of Christmas music for a Christmas show. We played a whole set of Irish music for a St. Patrick’s day show. We threw the occasional old rock and roll cover into our regular sets, too: “Bad Boy,” “Saved,” “Rip It Up,” “Framed.” After a year in the band, Donato, who had been playing shows on his own (on guitar), sometimes opening for us, decided he wasn’t really going to get his own music underway with a full Oswaldian schedule and regretfully tendered his resignation. We were fortunate to replace him quickly with Charlie Shaw; I can’t recall how he came to us, but he played rhythm guitar in a band called Life in a Blender (much more on them later in this blog) that we’d shared a bill or two with. Charlie helped us typeset the insert card for a cassette-only album we cobbled together from all of our recordings: Oswald This. At some point that spring, Henry took off to work on some of his own stuff.

Tape cover

Our cassette-only 18-song album. Linoleum cut by Stephen Lewis.

A year after our first show as the Oswalds, we returned to the Furnald Folkfest. There we met Laura Cantrell, a DJ on WKCR who knew a lot about country music and seemed to like our songs. Eventually, we asked her to join the band. Tom always likes a reason to write songs, and he rose to the challenge, writing a large batch of songs for Laura to sing. I wish I had tapes of the band at this stage, but it was brief. After an August trip back to his native California, Tom decided to head back for good. I think I may have been feeling a little bitter when I made this flyer.

Final show flyer

Post Mortem

For years, the Oswalds were the band that haunted me the most. I put a tremendous amount of myself into the band and we accomplished a lot in a very short span of time. I wasn’t haunted by any sense that my time was wasted (it wasn’t), or that my best musical experience was behind me (it wasn’t). I think I just knew that I wasn’t ever going to be in a band again with friends as close as Stephen and Tom, wasn’t ever going to devote so much of my time to rehearsing, playing shows, seeing more shows, making elaborate home recordings. In short, I was never going to be 25 again. Of course, I got older, and so many specters now accompany me daily that I no longer find them troubling.

Tom Adelman continued to write songs for a while longer and then stopped. Eventually he returned to the east coast and began writing about music as Camden Joy and about baseball under his own name. He’s recently (as Camden Joy) returned to songwriting and performing with a very strange and funny song cycle about the presidential $1 coin program. With the demise of the Oswalds, Mark Donato inherited most of a band; Stephen Lewis and I began backing him up. Stephen also joined Amy Allison’s band, the Maudlins, on lap steel. Eventually he put down his guitars and got very busy with a successful photography career and a family. (Actually, Amy really cashed in at the Oswalds remaindered table: Donato and I both played with the Maudlins for a bit, and then Charlie Shaw joined them.) Charlie continues to play drums and other instruments with many many groups. Henry Hample formed a jug band called Washboard Jungle that was active for about 8 years; he now plays Cajun fiddle in rural Louisiana. Laura Cantrell went on to became a great DJ on WFMU and a great songwriter and singer (she, too, will pop up again on this blog).

A final note: When the band was done, Laura and I realized we’d probably not get to see each other much without Oswalds rehearsals, so about a month after our last show, we decided to go out and do something. We headed to the Bottom Line, where there was something called the Marlboro Country Music Talent Roundup Semifinals, which sounded like it would be awful, but maybe good for a laugh. After we sat through lots of really sad crap (I think one band had a song called “Concrete Cowboy”), an amazing band called Clovis Noches came on. I was absolutely smitten with their lead singer, and with some encouragement from Laura I introduced myself after their set.

And that’s how I met my wife, Nancy.

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14 Comments on “The Oswalds”

  1. “Of course, I got older, and so many specters now accompany me daily that I no longer find them troubling.”

    THAT is the phrase of the day.

    “Santa’s At The End Of The Parade” is DEFINITELY gonna be on Express Your Elf Too. Preferably re-recorded on cassette 4-track with Casio.

    Loving this. Taking mental notes on the eschewing of sentimentality, one of many admirable Lerner traits.

  2. CJ says:

    Was that the same Casio on which we composed “Have a Nice Day” with a bottle of Black Label at your place in NYC? We used to meet every Friday or something and kill a 5th together if I remember correctly.

    The Post Mortem makes this a truly beautiful story.

    • Mark Lerner says:

      It is the same Casio. I still have it. I knew I’d found the right gal when Nancy and I discovered we both owned Casio SK-1s.

      It was some weeknight; your school schedule made it convenient and wise for you to stay at my place on whatever night it was. And apparently a half-bottle of whiskey was part of the whole convenience and wisdom. “Have a Nice Day” hahahahaha. Oh dear.

  3. Tom A says:

    Truly one of the happiest times of my life, NYC 1988-9. I appreciate your diligence in detailing this story. It was an intense period, challenging, romantic. I realize now that most every day you and I worked in the office together, lunched and dined together, quite often saw shows and films together… in addition to making music together almost every night. Never had such a friendship before or since. Yes, it haunts me.

  4. Craig Lapine says:

    In addition to the great music and the great people, I recall the Oswalds as having perhaps the best rock band tag line of all time: “Everyone remembers the first time they heard the Oswalds.”

  5. Mark Lerner says:

    So these Soundcloud tracks have this commenting feature, but it takes a good amount of digging around to find the comments. Some are “timed,” like one I put in “The Hanging Sycamore.” Others are “untimed,” and those don’t seem to show up here, only at Soundcloud.

    Anyway, Tom A. has added a couple of those, and they’re worth a read, so hie thee to http://snd.sc/wL0ji6 and take a look.

  6. Dan Eilenberg says:

    Who is this “Stephen” you speak of? … Can’t get used to that. Never thought of him as anything but “Steve.” When I do think of Steve Lewis I think three things: 1) a phenomenal guitar player, never overplayed, always played the right part; 2) lots and lots of uncontrollable laughter; and 3) Gibson SGs. (So, why, in the live picture is he playing a Fender? So disillusioning. Can’t get used to that either.)

    I think, Mark, if the drummer for GHE was one of the worst—sorry, *the* worst—drummer you’ve ever played with, Steve L had to be one of the best guitarists. The undisputed king of the queen-ditty-queen-ditty, and the sqwoncha-sqwoncha.

  7. Tom A says:

    Stefan was certainly the best guitarist I ever played with. As a songwriter, I especially loved his sincere devotion to “the song.” He’d craft his parts slowly and carefully, taking longer I’m sure to develop them than I had taken to write the lyrics/melody. He’d practice and practice until they sounded quite easy and natural. The three of us-Esteban, Marco, y yo-shared a certain “self-effacing nerd” personality that really informed our occasionally Smothers Brothers-like performances, made us always way more awkward and less cool than any band we played with. A young producer (working at the time with The unknown Pixies) heard one of our cassettes and said, “I just can’t tell if they’re serious.” Ummm… Compared to Black Francis? Well, maybe not. But it was a period of dense invaluable learning nonetheless.

  8. […] 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 […]


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