On Being a Name-dropping Groupie for a Lesser-known Pop Band with Roots in Philly (Part Two)

(Continued from yesterday.)

Okay, so saying we’re good friends is a bit of an overstatement, but I’m more than just a fan of Scot Sax and the bands he’s led over the years. I’m a disciple, an acolyte, a keeper of the faith. My desk drawers are cluttered with relics from Scot’s past: Wanderlust decals, CDs and tapes documenting long-forgotten live performances, press releases, old publicity shots, and a note Scot scribbled in response to my historic first letter to him. We should get together sometime, he wrote, and talk about the Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks, and how big of a dick Mike Love is. I haven’t gone so far as to laminate this note or seal any of my relics in Mylar just yet, but when the revolution comes and the City of Brotherly Love finally hails Scot as its very own home-grown power-pop answer to Elvis Presley, I’ll be on hand to curate the Philadelphia version of Graceland. The first thing I’ll ask visitors to note, of course, is that Scot has never been a big fan of the “power-pop” label, but once that’s out of the way, I’ll focus on what I consider the heart of the Scot Sax story: regardless of his knowledge or interest in the details of my own life, our destinies are intimately and inextricably intertwined. From my days as an intern to Feel’s latest gig (just five blocks from my home), Scot and his music have been haunting my life and shadowing my every move. Lest you think I’m nothing more than an obsessed fan, I’ve put together a quick rundown of instances where Scot’s story has intersected with my own.

First, there was the phone call. I’ve already gone over that incident, but I’ll take a moment here to note for the record that it occurred on July 18, 1994. I know this because I made a note of it, which reads in its entirety: 7-18-94. Sax, Scott [sic.]. Brian Wilson fan. Plays in a band called Wanderlust. Plays a Rickenbacker guitar. I’d like to say that this note indicates some kind of foresight on my part or a degree of clairvoyance that allowed me to realize that Scot was destined for greatness, but I kept notes on everyone who called me in Studio B and stayed on the line for more than a few seconds that summer. One note I kept explains that a drunken man who called to request a John Mellencamp song had a pregnant girlfriend, and had tried (but failed) to get Elton John to marry them. Another note tells me that a loyal listener from Abington played drums in a hard rock band called the Eyes of Darkness and made money on the side by hustling pool.

After the phone call, there was the letter, to which Scot responded with the aforementioned note about getting together with him and his roommate (bassist Mark Getten) to discuss the Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks and (the perennial favorite) how big of a sellout Mike Love is. I never got around to responding to this invitation, but it left the door open for further communication, so when I ended up at a dead-end job at about the same time “I Walked” was climbing the charts, I was more or less able to turn to Scot for help. Sure he’d moved and changed his phone number without telling me by then, but I really didn’t mind tracking him down for an interview that could lead to bigger and better assignments with a local entertainment magazine. And when the magazine’s publisher hired me not only as a writer but as editor-in-chief of the whole operation, I felt I owed to Scot to cover any and all news related to Wanderlust, so I had no choice but to bug him for free copies of the Wanderlust CD and to put me on the guest list whenever the band came back to town. Even if I was a little disappointed that the interview I’d done with him didn’t end up in the band’s official press packet, I was still willing to see Wanderlust open for Collective Soul at the Electric Factory in November, and then take some friends of mine to meet the band at the same venue when they were playing at the Y-100 New Year’s Eve Party at the end of the year.

Talk about cool—you’re actually telling the truth when you tell some bouncer that you know the band, and he actually lets you go backstage with your admiring little entourage in tow. To be honest, it was the first time I met Scot face-to-face, and he was every inch the rock star—in a good way, of course. Skinny but not too tall, Scot had a Prince vibe about him and would have looked perfectly comfortable in a Jimi Hendrix velvet tuxedo. His wild, black hair was teased out to match the mohair vest he’d found at a thrift shop earlier in the week, and he was telling a story about taking to the stage with a deli tray and tossing cold cuts to the crowd on the last night of the Collective Soul tour. As if this loaves-and-fishes tale of generosity weren’t enough to convince my friends that Scot was indeed worthy of our adoration, he proceeded to take our drink orders and fish a couple of Yuengling Lagers out of the band’s private stash for us. Yeah, his band was headlining the show, but being a rock star never went to Scot’s head. He was just a regular guy who happened to have a song on the radio.

Scot Sax, the people’s rock star.

All the talent, none of the ego.

He mentioned in passing that Wanderlust was working on a second album. He said we should drop by the studio sometime to hear some of their new songs. What he didn’t mention was that the sword of Damocles was hanging over his band’s recording contract and that RCA was so heavily invested in promoting a mediocre guitar-and-fiddle act (whose sales were already through the roof) that Wanderlust was about to fall by the wayside. Although Scot and company had finished recording the follow-up to Prize in early 1997, the record company delayed its release indefinitely (so as not to interfere with the guitar-and-fiddle act’s sales) before dropping Wanderlust altogether. While this development was certainly a blow to the band, no one ever bothered to ask how I was taking the news. I mean, I was their biggest fan, right? More to the point, Scot was the only bona-fide rock star I’d ever met personally. Sure, I was able to take solace in the fact that my inherent distrust of the music industry had once again been validated, but with “I Walked” fading from the airwaves, it was getting harder and harder for me to impress complete strangers with my name dropping.

But Scot soldiered on. In the fall of 1997, he invited me to see Wanderlust open for Robert Hazard (of “Escalator of Life” fame) during that year’s Philadelphia Music Conference. The show was held in a record store, and before the band went on, Scot and I were both drawn to the recently released Pet Sounds boxed set, complete with stereo versions of the classic Brian Wilson songs that had languished for so long in mono. The stereo versions were probably amazing, Scot said. But was it worth the sixty-or-so odd bucks they were asking for the boxed set, I asked? We thought about it for a while, each holding a copy of the set and studying the track listings we already knew by heart before reverently and reluctantly placing the merchandise back on the shelf. The following summer, we finally got around to holding the first and only meeting of our little Beach Boys Appreciation Society at Scot’s house. We watched some rare footage of the Beach Boys performing on the Phil Donahue show, and I tried to act unimpressed when one of Scot’s other guests made a point of noting that Reggie Dunbar, who’s listed as a co-writer on the 1967 Beach Boys flop “Break Away,” was actually the nom de plum of none other than Brian Wilson’s father, Murray. (I mean, really, who doesn’t know that?) Ever the generous host, Scot served soda in paper cups and didn’t let on that the show Wanderlust was giving later that night would be their last-ever performance in Philadelphia.*

(More tomorrow…)

*Or was it?

On Being a Name-dropping Groupie for a Lesser-known Pop Band with Roots in Philly (Part One)

I met Scot Sax by chance. It was the summer of 1994, and I had fooled myself into believing that an unpaid summer internship at a flagging radio station could either get me the contacts I needed to guarantee myself a first-class ticket to rock-n-roll superstardom or, failing that, land me a job as a DJ somewhere down the line. Both plans, however, fell apart that summer as a result of two unrelated events. First, a scathing review of my musical output described me as a cross between Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes and a massive, screeching train-wreck, thus nipping my creative aspirations in the bud. And second, a corporate buyout forced anyone at the station who cared about music more than, say, the invention of reduced-fat Oreos or the impending last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation to start looking elsewhere for employment. This second development resulted in somewhat of a Freudian primal scene for me insofar as every DJ I’d ever idolized was suddenly bad-mouthing the music industry with such vigor that I was seriously beginning to entertain the notion of getting a real job. Music, it seemed, was a harsh mistress, and—unlike Scot—I was a frail suitor.

Despite my decision to abandon music altogether that summer, I stuck with the internship if only to bear witness to the slow trickle of celebrities who dropped into the station from time to time over the course of my tenure—Tony Danza, Joan Jett and Dave Edmunds, to name just three. Or, more accurately, to name the only three. And, to be perfectly candid, I should also note that I didn’t actually “meet” any of these people, except in the sense that I was answering phones and pretending to take requests in Studio B while all the real action was going down in Studio A. And, of course, I say “pretending” not because I refused to answer the phone or was prone to giving the station’s remaining loyal listeners the royal brush-off, but because one of the industry’s best-kept secrets is that if your favorite DJ plays a song you just requested, it’s only because your taste in music is so predictable that the song was already included on the playlist. In fact, even if the DJ dedicates the song to you personally, it’s only because someone like me is in charge of cross-referencing every request that comes over the phone line with a list of songs that a computer generated earlier that morning. Thus when Scot called the station to request “Beach Boy Blood (In My Veins)” by Dave Edmunds, who’d left the building just a few hours earlier, I knew there was no chance in hell that the song was ever going to make it on the air. Even so, I kept Scot on the line because my guiltiest pleasure as a self-avowed hard rocker was that the Beach Boys were one of my favorite bands of all time. As it turned out, they were one of Scot’s favorites as well.

Scot and I talked for about ten minutes before the afternoon DJ gave me the signal to clear the phone lines so he could give away a pair of tickets to an upcoming Billy Joel/Elton John concert, but we covered a lot of ground for two people who’d never met. I mentioned that I had read Brian Wilson’s autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice?, so many times that the binding was coming undone, and Scot said that nothing compared to listening to Pet Sounds through a pair of headphones. What really sealed our mutual respect for each other as true Beach Boys fans, however, was that we both agreed that Mike Love, Brian’s cousin and the band’s hopelessly cheesy front man, was a total dick. (Not that we’d ever met the man. It was just a sense that we got.) Having reached this accord, we moved on to talking about other bands we liked, and Scot let it slip that he was in a band called Wanderlust—two Rickenbacker guitars (a la the Byrds), a bass and drums. The band had been playing in and around Philly for a while, Scot said, and they’d been to New York to play at CBGB’s—which was where the Ramones got their start, I made a point of noting because I didn’t want Scot to think my musical tastes were limited to California surf-pop. But the DJ was going into his Billy Joel/Elton John shtick, and the phone lines were already lighting up with contestants, so I got Scot’s mailing address and said goodbye. Then I counted off ninety-two callers and told the ninety-third caller that he’d won.

The letter I wrote to Scot was probably fairly patronizing. I distinctly remember saying that it sounded like his band really had its act together. Given my own musical failings and the inflated sense of ego that being an intern at a flagging classic rock station carried, I probably tried to give him some advice about trying to get a record deal and how to get air time once he’d made a demo. What I didn’t realize was that Wanderlust had already inked a deal with RCA records, and their debut album, Prize, was due out in just a few months. I was driving around late at night in New Jersey when I heard the first single, “I Walked,” on the radio. My best friend, Dan, was in the car with me, and I told him I knew the singer. The song was good, he said, basking in the second-hand glow of my brush with the potentially rich and famous.

That was in the winter of 1995. Since then, I must have prefaced thousands of conversations with complete strangers by asking if they remembered “I Walked.” The trouble comes when they ask me to sing a few lines. Scot’s voice is so perfectly-pitched and crystal clear, that I can never do the song justice. Either I try to ape his melodic falsetto with my own screeching train-wreck of a Lindsey Buckingham impersonation, or I cut right to the song’s grumbling bridge where Scot dives into the snarling, ominous “Till I made up my mind” that brings the song to a smoldering halt before catapulting it back into the buoyant chorus. Since I can never do the song justice, people tend to nod politely and tell me that, yeah, they think they know the song I’m talking about. It was big about ten years ago, they say, repeating the information I’ve already given them. It was recorded by that band from Philly.

“Wanderlust,” I say, the point already lost. “But then they broke up, and the singer started a new band called Bachelor Number One, and they had a song on the American Pie soundtrack called ‘I Am the Summertime,’ which they re-recorded when they changed their name to Feel and signed with Curb Records in 2002. I’m a good friend of theirs.”

In other words, “Listen to me! I know somebody famous!”

Please! Somebody! Anybody! Listen to me!

(More tomorrow…)

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life

I just finished reading Steve Almond’s collection of essays, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and I loved it… It’s all about the author’s love for music and the ways in which being what he terms a drooling fanatic has affected his life for better or for worse (but mostly for better!). Among the more hilarious passages in the book is Almond’s description of the Macarena:

  • The dancer extends his arms forward, palms down, then flips his arms over on the beat.
  • The dancer sets his hands on his shoulders, the back of his head, and his hips.
  • The dancer executes a pelvic rotation in time with the line “Ehhh, Macarena!” simultaneously executing a 90-degree jump-and-turn maneuver so as to repeat the same routine all over again.
  • Steve shoots himself in the skull.

It’s a fun book for anyone who’s ever fallen head-over-heels in love with a band — especially one that no one else ever seems to have heard of. And in that spirit, I offer the following series of posts, On Being a Name-dropping Groupie for a Lesser-known Pop Band with Roots in Philly. A much shorter version of this essay appeared in Origivation magazine in 2005 or thereabouts. This is the extended dance remix…

Click here to read on…