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)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Autumn 1999 to Spring 2000
John Linnell – vocals, keyboards, accordion
Dan Miller – guitar, keyboards, vocals
Mark Donato – drums, harmonica, vocals
Mark Lerner – bass, vocals
Joined on Conan show by:
Jay Sherman-Godfrey – guitar
Joined at Bowery Ballroom show by:
Wurlitzer 103 Band Organ (Bob Stuhmer, operator)
1. Back Story
This story starts out in late 1989. I took Nancy Howell on our first date, to see the Maudlins. I loved the band, and my friend and fellow former Oswalds member Stephen Lewis had just started playing lap steel with them, so it seemed like a good date idea. The show was at a little secret club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called the Quiet Life, located on the ground floor of a former funeral home. It was run by WFMU DJ Nick Hill and musician and artist Brian Dewan.
The opener was John Linnell from They Might Be Giants (the keyboard-playing half of what was then a duo), doing a set of his State Songs; he’d been engaged for many years in a project to write a song for every one of the fifty states.
You can see the Quiet Life in the They Might Be Giants video for “The Guitar” (featuring Laura Cantrell on vocals).
That first date went well, and over the next years, a few things happened:
Nancy and I got married (in a ceremony presided over by Nick Hill). The Quiet Life closed (it didn’t last long), and Nancy and I moved into the ground floor space. Our housemates were Nick and his wife, Alex, and Brian Dewan and John Linnell. When Nancy and I had our children, the former Quiet Life—basically one large room—now housed our bed, two cribs, and my printing press. The freaky taxidermy forms you can see in the photo up there were still on the walls, painted in glow-in-the-dark paint.
Almost 10 years (!) after that first date (we had moved out of Brooklyn to Manhattan), Linnell called me to see if I could play bass on a few songs for a solo record he was making of his State Songs. Mark Donato was tapped to play drums on the recordings, which comprised 4 of the 16 songs on the album. We were both a little confused as to why Linnell wanted us, since he’d really only heard us as a rhythm section in Flat Old World, a rather non-rock, non-pop project. I was intimidated because even though we were pals, Linnell had played with some pretty serious bassists: Graham Maby, Tony Maimone, Danny Weinkaupf. But the recordings went well, and the record came out on Rounder.
I’m not uploading any songs from the actual record here, just live recordings; it’s for sale at the usual places and is well worth your money. It can also be sampled in its entirety via Spotify or Grooveshark. I love this record; it’s so weird, so varied, and yet so cohesive. Linnell’s songwriting is even cleverer when you get inside it as a player: musical themes suddenly fit under one another halfway through a song, narratives unfold elliptically. It’s really fun as a bassist, too. “Oregon” has a bass line that climbs chromatically (and slowly) through all 12 tones. “Idaho” has a big fat pedal tone; certainly on a per-note basis, it’s the most I’ve ever been paid for a recording.