New York City, from 1987 or so, off and on for a few years
Amy Allison – vocals, melodica
Rob Meador – acoustic guitar
Simon Heathcote – nylon-string guitar, melodica
At some point, they added
Mark Donato – drums
Mark Lerner – bass
Which didn’t stick long. Then they added
Charlie Shaw – drums
Mark Amft – bass
Stephen Lewis – lap steel
And various other folks trickled in and out. I know Artie Baguer played bass for a while, I subbed on bass now and then, as did Reuben Radding and John Frierson.
The early Maudlins
Amy Allison is, in a low-key, still-needs-a-day-job sort of way, well-known. She’s made quite a few records, had songs covered by other artists, been praised by critics, duetted with Dave Alvin and Elvis Costello (a big fan), and generally enjoyed a lot of respect for her songwriting and her evocative voice.
But when I first met Amy, she was (as a performer) pretty weird. It was 1987. I was living on East 8th Street between Avenues B and C with my roommate and frequent bandmate Bill Fink. I was working at my first job out of college, as an assistant to a horrible boss at a literary agency. I struck up a friendship with another lowly assistant named Frank Randall. He said he played guitar; we both liked Robyn Hitchcock. We made plans to get together and play music. Frank lived on 11th between B and C. Three blocks way, but much nastier. My block was mostly burnt out and abandoned, but strangely safe. His was actively filled with crack dealers.
1976-1979, Bethesda, Maryland
When I was in 3rd grade, my parents informed me that I was going to take up a musical instrument. I asked to play drums but was encouraged to try something quieter. I took up the trumpet. I took private lessons at a local music studio from a glum youngish man named Mr. Brimmer. I remember having to fill out a little orange practice log book.
In about 6th grade I switched to instruction from a much more jovial guy whose name I’ve completely forgotten. The jolly fellow came to our house. He actually played the euphonium, not the trumpet, and he’d often accompany my playing with oom-pah bass parts. He indulged my love of Monty Python by getting me music for Sousa’s Liberty Bell March. The only other thing I remember about him was that for some reason he gave me a photocopy of a pidgin English translation of Little Red Riding Hood called “Lik Lik Retpela Hat.”
I slayed the mothers in the audience at the 5th and 6th grade talent shows with solo trumpet renditions of “Speak Softly Love” (Nino Rota’s love theme from The Godfather) and Barry Manilow’s hit “Mandy.” But in truth, I was not a very good trumpet player. I practiced indifferently and would blast as loudly as possible in frustration when a passage gave me trouble.
When I got to junior high in 1976, I was able to join the school band. This is particularly momentous for readers of this blog, because it’s the first band I was ever in.
New York City, 1990–1996
Mark Lerner – six-string bass, banjo, melodica, vocals
Nancy Lynn Howell – guitar, vocals
Diane Stockwell – violin, mandolin, melodica, vocals
Mark Donato – drums, harmonica, vocals
Bill Fink – guitar, vocals
G. Doug Pierson – tuba, euphonium, concertina, guitar, vocals
Todd Weeks – trumpet, harmonica (until 1992)
Robin Goldwasser – cello, ukulele, melodica, vocals (1992 on)
This one looms large for me (and large for you, dear reader: this post is LONG). Flat Old World was the first band of my very own. Prior to it, I was a sideman or one of a few writers. I am a pretty bossy guy, really, so even when a band isn’t “mine,” I tend to assert myself a lot as an arranger and general loudmouth. Partly this is due to my musical role. Bass: come on. Four strings. Play the root. Duh. But when a song is well arranged, that simple task—playing a simple, grounding part in a groove—sounds really great. So I’ve always tended to offer lots of arrangement advice in any band I play with.
Attentive readers will recall that in 1989, the band I’d been playing with for 2 years, the Oswalds, split up. I found myself wondering if maybe it was time to stop playing music (I was 26). I had always felt that songwriting was the center of a band, but I wasn’t all that keen on it at the time. I could do it, but I knew (and played with) so many writers who were better than me. I’m also not really a virtuosic bassist, but I have my own quirky strengths, I suppose. I started to think that somehow, by basically subtracting songwriting—subtracting pop and rock, really—and focusing on my personal playing style and arranging, I might have some sort of band of my own to offer. I was also eager to play with my new girlfriend, Nancy, who was a great singer.
So I started writing some instrumentals and digging up some old folk songs to mess with. I pictured a very serious, meditative mix of ultra-slow country music like Souled American, chamber jazz like Red Norvo’s band, and the idiosyncratic guitar techniques of Joseph Spence and John Fahey. It was to be my new project. Luckily, reality intervened, and my theories were soon filtered through the sensibilities of a motley assortment of bandmates into something much more musical and fun than my Grand Plan.