Out of My Way
By J.R. Jones
One never knows what to make of reports that a musician has quit a group because of "musical differences." The expression has become rock 'n' roll boilerplate: it can mean that the musician is spending too much time with the lead singer's girlfriend, or that he feels compelled to strangle the drummer on sight, or that he's flying to Switzerland for a blood change.
Or it can mean that he's leaving because of musical differences. The past decade alone offers numerous examples of groundbreaking bands coming apart at the seams over such issues (Husker Du, the Pixies, Uncle Tupelo). The Beatles established the norm for a band thriving on the creative tension between competing talents, but even a band driven by a single personality (the Doors or the Talking Heads) requires something of a shared vision. A good band, like a good marriage, requires a delicate balance between one's own wants and the demands of the larger entity.
Peter Holsapple knows from experience the stresses and rewards of walking that tightrope. In the early 80s, his power-pop combo the dB's crackled with the musical tension between him and fellow songwriter Chris Stamey. When Stamey left to pursue his own ideas in 1983, the dB's became a vehicle for Holsapple's brand of roots pop, but his command of the group took its toll: personnel changes and dwindling artistic returns collapsed the dB's in 1988. Since then, Holsapple has divided his time between anonymous but lucrative session work and a potentially even more challenging collaboration than the dB's, the Continental Drifters. His new band, which he describes as a musical family, features no fewer than five songwriters, including Vicki Peterson (formerly of the Bangles), Mark Walton (formerly of the Dream Syndicate), and Holsapple's wife, Susan Cowsill (who got her start in a band that literally was a family, the Cowsills).
All the while, it turns out, Holsapple was cooking up his first solo record. Out of My Way borrows its title from one of the songs, but it's also a puckish reference to what he candidly calls his megalomania. "My wife has generously referred to me as Hitler from time to time in the studio," he admits, speaking from his home in New Orleans. "I guess it's sort of true. I tend to feel as though I know what's best for my songs."
In Tolstoy's famous adage, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Rock history offers countless examples of bands that exploited the volatile chemistry between their players, from Lou Reed and John Cale in the Velvet Underground to Joe Strummer and Mick Jones in the Clash to Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo. With the original dB's, Holsapple had to rein in his ego amid a wealth of individual talent. Bassist Gene Holder and drummer Will Rigby were driven, hyperactive players, and guitarist Stamey, the original leader, was a clear match for Holsapple with his idiosyncratic songs and novel production ideas.
Holsapple and Stamey, both raised in Winston-Salem, had played music together in high school, releasing a do-it-yourself album in 1972 under the name Rittenhouse Square. "Chris Stamey & the dB's" had already released a single in 1978 when Stamey drafted Holsapple to play keyboards and magnanimously truncated the band's name. By the time the dB's signed with the British label Albion, Holsapple had switched to guitar, and with him and Stamey splitting the songwriting down the middle, the band recorded a pair of brilliant albums, Stands for Decibels (1981) and Repercussion (1983).
The tension between Holsapple's sweetly melodic hooks and Stamey's spiky, fragmented constructions prompted numerous comparisons to McCartney & Lennon, an analogy Holsapple dismisses. For him, the tug-of-war was between formal training (Stamey had studied composition and music theory) and musical intuition (Holsapple was completely self-taught). Even when they met, Stamey was drawn to art rock like Yes and the Moody Blues, while Holsapple was listening to bluesmen like Albert King and Johnny Winter. They found common ground in the Move and Big Star, and like the latter's #1 Record, the first and second dB's albums show two distinctive writers coloring each other's songs, playing a stunning game of musical one-upmanship.
On Stands for Decibels, the scales seemed to tip in Stamey's favor. Even Holsapple's straight-ahead rocker "Bad Reputation" featured intricate bass-drum patterns and weird sonic effects, and Stamey's "Cycles per Second" pushed the power-pop envelope with its patina of electronic blips, discordant piano, and dollops of bass guitar. On Repercussion, Holsapple appeared to dominate: his brassy "Living a Lie" and bluesy "Amplifier" became college radio favorites, and Stamey's contributions were more melodious, less aggressive. Shortly after the band scored an American record deal, Stamey walked, flippantly telling Holsapple that he no longer wanted to play in a band with a high hat. Though the two remained close friends (and collaborated on the excellent Mavericks in 1991), Stamey's next release, the bizarre, avant-pop It's a Wonderful Life, amply illustrated the reason for his departure.
Now Holsapple had the dB's to himself, and on Like This (1984) he made the most of it, following his various muses with a blend of soul, bluegrass, and power pop. The rocking "Love Is for Lovers" won the band AOR exposure, and Holsapple played pedal steel on "White Train" and mandolin on "A Spy in the House of Love." But The Sound of Music (1987) was less consistent, and the loss of Stamey's edge began to show. Holder had switched from bass to lead guitar when Stamey left, and a succession of lineup changes further depleted the band's personality. The demand for material had bankrupted Holsapple by the time the dB's recorded their dismal last set, a collection of demos later released as Paris Avenue (1994).
Holsapple isn't the first talented bandleader to hang himself when given enough rope. With each change in personnel, Ray Davies tightened his grip on the Kinks, dictating parts note-for-note and demanding endless takes of the same song until their records became hopelessly sterile. After retiring from the road, Andy Partridge smothered XTC with his autocratic behavior in the studio. Having elbowed Lou Barlow aside, J. Mascis turned Dinosaur Jr. into a one-man band, and his tightly scripted guitar solos degenerated into classic-rock noodling. Without the critical feedback of a true peer, without a compelling vision to react against, even the most gifted songwriter can find himself sliding into mediocrity.
Exhausted and disillusioned, Holsapple submerged himself in session work (he plays 15 instruments, including drums, banjo, pedal steel, harmonica, accordion, and flute). After navigating the dB's for four years, he relished the chance to turn himself into a blank slate. "I really enjoy a kind of chameleonlike part of it," he insists. "Because when people buy the record, they're buying somebody else's record. They're not buying it because Holsapple played kazoo on it. So I want to make sure that my contribution, while audible, is not something that's distracting." He contributed guitar and organ to R.E.M.'s Out of Time album and tour, and has since recorded with such lesser talents as Juliana Hatfield, Indigo Girls, and Better Than Ezra. His lengthy gig with roots-rock ciphers Hootie & the Blowfish seems the ultimate ignominy for an artist who, in a creative if not a commercial sense, had the world on a string in the early 80s.
If such faceless hack work chafes his ego, Holsapple won't admit it, but when his own writing has surfaced it's been sharper and more inspired than ever. The reunion album with Stamey, Mavericks, brought out the best in both of them, and with Out of My Way Holsapple takes a fresh crack at the formula that served him so well in the past, mixing soulful acoustic numbers with roiling guitar pop. "I Been There," the lead track, swaggers like an outtake from Like This, and "Don't Worry About John" lays a howling blues lick and Holsapple's menacing vocal against a thumping Bo Diddley beat. On the quieter tunes, regret and longing shape some of Holsapple's most elegant melodic lines, though they're tempered by his sardonic wordplay ("Away With Love," "Pretty, Damned, Smart"). As a lyricist, he can be vague and unfocused, but "I Am a Tree" shows him at his best, reaching past the certain bathos of an environmental sermon for something much colder: "I am a tree / You underestimate me / I will live 100 years / And if I don't / I know you won't either / So kindly spare me all the tears." The overwrought dirge "Couldn't Stop Lying to You" is the only real dud on a record that ranks with his best.
After he finishes touring with Hootie in April, Holsapple will return to his main focus of the past three years, the Continental Drifters. Like the original dB's, the Drifters can't seem to get arrested despite their extravagant collection of talent; they released a strong debut on Monkey Hill in 1994 but are still chasing major labels. And if Holsapple's collaboration with Stamey was a balancing act, the Drifters defy gravity altogether. The band has never had a leader; on record and onstage, they hand the baton back and forth, from Holsapple to Cowsill to Peterson to Carlo Nuccio, the band's irrepressible drummer. Holsapple concedes that, like any group of musicians, the Drifters have their artistic conflicts, but they've evolved into a relatively harmonious unit, a fact he attributes to their age, their experience, and their mutual respect. "We've all been in bands," he points out. "We've all had to lead groups, we've all had to be members of groups. We've all had a certain amount of success in music, we've all had a certain amount of failure in music....I think we do a very sincere and beautiful job doing the right thing by people's songs, especially people in the group."
Still, like any family, they have their squabbles. Recently the band learned one of Holsapple's solo tracks, the grooving "Meet Me in the Middle," but not before Holsapple found himself butting heads with Peterson over the harmonies. Ironically, the song itself might serve as a dictum for the Drifters' musical equilibrium: "Give a little credit where it's due / You know that I would always do the same for you / And all I wanted was to hear it said / I wasn't going to let it go to my head / Don't go to extremes / Just meet me in the middle." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Pamela Royal.