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

Bethesda, Maryland, 1981-1986

Personnel

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.

Fall of 1981

When I was 17, the lead singer of my high school band The Nitz! had left for college, and I found myself bandless. I started playing with Dan. We were called The Imposters: me, on bass, Stephen Lewis on guitar, Dan on vocals and guitar, Ken “Bidjje” Kavanaugh on drums, and Sam Jannotta on keyboards. We played covers, and we played an original by Dan at a talent show at school.

Dan wasn’t keen on writing lyrics, though, and I had no clue as to how to write music, so we teamed up. Being a songwriting team seemed very cool to me, seemed automatically to make our writing more legitimate.

Lyrics almost always came first: I’d get a few songs together and hand them off to him, typed on yellow legal pad paper. I pretty much gave Dan permission to cut or rearrange anything, because I had read that’s what Bernie Taupin did with Elton John. (Apparently “Daniel” used to make sense until Elton started cutting.) Dan didn’t really cut anything, but I felt very cool telling him he could.

When you’re writing pop lyrics for someone else, it’s particularly hard to know how to make choruses. Because a pop song can have a great chorus that just has one word repeated, or just says “hey” or whatever, but those don’t look very musical on paper. Anyway, I used lots of tricks to make my lyrics easy to set to music. Often I’d just rewrite another song, to copy the rhythms (not the lyrical themes). I would not tell Dan this, of course, and by the time he worked his magic, I sounded original. I think I wrote new lyrics for “Cool for Cats” about 10 times.

Summer of 1982

Here’s one of the very first songs we wrote. For a couple of years, most of my songs involved some sensitive misunderstood guy with a guitar writing in a room upstairs while a party raged on below him and the girl he loves is wooed by various apes.

Kind of a crappy song, but do note:

1) Psychotic organ solo by Dave Robinowitz
2) Duet vocal with Craig Lapine of the Nitz!
3) Backwards guitar by Stephen Lewis

That’s me on bass, Jon Lipson on drums, and Dan on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. This was recorded in July, 1982 at Track Studios in Silver Spring, Maryland, by Jim Crenca. We’d never been to a good studio before, and we were blowing all our money on these sessions. When we went to check out the studio, Fats Domino was there, which seemed like a good sign. Except he was sort of incoherent. He cheerfully mumbled something about how he was “old blood” and we were “new blood.” We then watched in horror/amazement as the engineer cobbled together a song out of various tracks of Fats just making shit up. He’d find two lines that rhymed, splice them together, find two more, voila: a verse.

Fats Domino. "Old Blood."

Fats Domino. “Old Blood.”

Here’s another from that session, seems to be the same sad loser protagonist. But this one sounds better to my ears: pretty melody, pretty piano. Dan is a really versatile and soulful singer, and I am doing my best Bruce Thomas impersonation on the bass. For a long while we thought this was one of our best songs.

Dan went off to the University of Maryland and I went off to Columbia, but songs came along faster and more furiously via long distance. We really wanted quantity and would often make lists of all the songs we wrote and do mathematical year-by-year comparisons to folks like Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook or Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Were we winning? Were we prodigies?

We re-recorded “Pretty Face” for an album of “music from Columbia University,” which we certainly were not, but we got some free studio time by grabbing a couple of Columbia students to play with us. My first New York City studio experience! We recorded at a studio that had done the original MTV jingle. Some guy propositioned me in the waiting room.

cuts-front

back-of-cuts

Summer of 1983

The summer of 1983 saw us back home with a nice pile of new songs and a new band (now called the B-Sides): Billy Simms on lead guitar, a cheerful guy a year younger than us; Sam Jannotta on keyboards and backing vocals; Jon Lipson on drums again. Unfortunately, we had no dough, but our friend Matt Laur somehow had access to a mixing board and some mics and a stage at a nearby all-girls boarding school, the Madeira School, famous mostly because the headmistress there 3 years earlier had murdered Dr. Herman Tarnower, the “Scarsdale diet doctor.” So we rehearsed a lot and recorded live to two-track. It sounds pretty nasty. But some of the songs are good. This one has more energy than smarts (and a stupid obligatory “reggae” bridge), but it’s kind of cool to hear us rock out.

You can really hear the guitar and bass in the verse trying so hard to sound like “Lip Service” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. And that thing I do at 2:27. I like that.

Summer of 1984

After a second year at college, Dan and I decided to make a real go of it. We both dropped out, and spent the summer of 1984 earning as much as we could so we could move to New York in the fall and make it big. As songwriters. I honestly don’t know what that meant. But it was our plan.

So, in between my shifts at a toy store in DC and playing with A Good Hot Enema, I worked with Dan on more songs. We went to a studio in Virginia called Inner Ear, run by Don Zientara, who was sort of the official engineer of D.C. hardcore. The studio then was in Don’s basement, and his kids could occasionally be heard on some tracks. Dan had spent part of the school year in London, and had come back with some songs of his own (his lyrics). We did two of those and four of ours. This time around we were the Rave-Ups: it was just us two and a new drummer, Adam Gibbons. Dan tells me a guy named Jim Levy played keyboards on some of the tracks; I have no recollection of him at all. The recordings are sort of a time capsule: Some songs have distinctive and cringey Yamaha DX7 sounds, and we were quite taken with a little sampling drum pad, which we used to add hand claps. Why we thought this was better than just recording hand claps, I do not know.

Dan and Mark

Dan and your humble narrator, at Inner Ear Studio, 1986.

Adam Gibbons, 1984.

Adam Gibbons.

dan

Dan, 1986.

Don Zientara.

Don Zientara.

Yrs trly.

Yrs trly.

On “Hot Hot Afternoon” I had always intended to change the line about lunches spoiling in the heat, but by the time we were ready to record it, it had grown on me.

This next one remains my favorite song from this partnership. I don’t much care for the recording, but it’s a lyric and melody that I like. I don’t even mind that I was shamelessly trying to write a Randy Newman song.

Fall of 1984

So, armed with our latest recordings, off we went to NYC in the fall, staying on my friend Ben’s floor at Columbia while we looked for a cheap place to live. We went to some music publishers’ offices on 57th St and in the Brill Building, but didn’t really get anywhere (surprise). Again, I don’t quite know what our game plan was. At some point, however, Dan decided it was not working and he was going home to Maryland. I was a bit lost, but I was definitely not going home. I got a room in an apartment on 110th St and a job at FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue, and I tried to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

Eventually I started playing with some other bands, and transferred to the film school at NYU.

Summer of 1986

Over the next year and a half, Dan and I kept writing songs, but it was harder and harder in the wake of the NYC debacle. We tried reversing our technique: he’d hand me tapes of melodies and I’d write lyrics to them. These never really met with any success. And I had some sets of lyrics that just didn’t really move Dan to set them to music. I was playing a lot with a band in NYC, and starting to write music on my own. Dan was writing lyrics, too. And we were both falling under the spell of lots of other influences; I vividly remember one argument we had where Dan was praising the Smiths, and I said that the singer bugged me. “Well who do you like?” he challenged. “Bob Dylan. He’s my favorite singer.” I think steam may have come out of Dan’s ears.

Anyway, for reasons that aren’t clear to me now, we ventured into the studio (Inner Ear again) in the summer of 1986, just Dan, Adam, and me, and we recorded three songs. Tellingly, one very good song was completely by Dan, and one had an intro that I’d written the music for; we were starting to not need each other. Here’s a rather lush production from that session called Good Goodbye, which brings us nicely to our epilogue.

Epilogue

Dan wrote more songs with other folks and by himself. He went back and finished up school. (He also popped up for a guest spot at an Oswalds show.) He’s played in various bands, though not much in recent years. At some point in the mid-1990s, we got pissed off at each other and didn’t speak for about 10 years. One of the best things that ever happened to me was putting that behind me, and we’ve had the chance to play music together a couple of times in the past few years. Dan lives near Rochester, NY, now. We played  loads of covers at our 30th high school reunion, and  a set of Beatles songs at his niece and nephew’s B’nai Mitzvah. I don’t know how it sounded, but it felt very very good to sing “Two of Us” together.

Ken “Bidjje” Kavanaugh still plays drums, he lives in or near DC. Sam Jannotta plays piano and lives in West Virginia. Both of them played with Dan on more recordings. No word on Billy Simms. Most of the others have been mentioned in other blog posts here.

My partnership with Dan Eilenberg was singular: I’ve never written lyrics for anybody else (besides myself). I don’t really like writing lyrics much anymore, and in fact lean towards instrumental music in my own writing.

de-ml2

Postscript

Okay, okay, I can never seem to stop when I should: Here’s one more song. If you’re still reading/listening, this is your reward/punishment.

A nice apartment recording of one of our better songs. Dan and me with Bill Fink on guitar. I took the title from a line in Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable, the sort of thing you can really only do with a straight face when you’re 19.

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10 Comments on “Dan Eilenberg and Me (the B-Sides, the Rave-Ups, the Imposters, etc)”

  1. Dan Eilenberg says:

    Cool!

    Look forward to reading it. I may need to do it with some sort of stimulant in hand later in the day.

  2. Ben says:

    Wow. Those songs are still pretty great.

  3. Tim says:

    I used to bump into Billy Simms when he was at Peabody in Baltimore. Apparently now he is digging “early music” and I think it means something even before than Robert Johnson.
    http://www.hood.edu/Academics/Departments/Music/Faculty/William-Simms.html

  4. Martha says:

    These are great! Why wasn’t I paying better attention when you shared some of these years ago? OTOH, don’t answer that.

    learning that you worked at FAO Schwarz is definitely a highlight of this entry.

  5. Michael says:

    I like these songs. I remember one aspect of this part of your life. . . You were just scraping by, money wise. I saw you on the street in 85 . . Maybe 86. And you gave me the recipe for how you were making ends meet . . 1) go to any diner. 2) order a cup of coffee. 3) keep pouring sugar and cream in until you had enough calories for the day.

    I immediately bought you a slice of pizza.

    I also remember admiring your passion.

  6. Paul Robbins says:

    So happy to have stumbled across this post…a wonderful reminder of great experiences and the enormous talents and musicality of Dan, Mark and this group of friends.


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