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

The next time I heard from Scot, I didn’t even realize it. For reasons that are still unclear to me, I had gone to the movies to see American Pie, and as the closing credits finally started to roll, I heard a familiar voice say hello. Or, more accurately, Hello to your mother, your brother, significant other—I am the summertime! They were the opening lines of the best song on the movie’s soundtrack, and although my gut told me that it was Scot singing, I stuck around just to make sure. But as the credits continued to roll, I learned that “I Am the Summertime” was performed not by Wanderlust, but by a band called Bachelor Number One. So, duty-bound by the groupie code, I sprinted home to compose a quick letter to Scot. To wit: There’s a band out there called Bachelor Number One, and they’re stealing your sound! Although Scot had once again moved without informing me, the letter eventually reached him in Los Angeles, where he and bassist Mark Getten had been recording under the Bachelor Number One moniker. Their home-produced debut CD, The Miniseries, presented an understated version of the high-powered pop of the duo’s Wanderlust days and was reminiscent of late-sixties Beach Boys recordings in which the group abandoned Brian Wilson’s studio wizardry in favor of a more modest and homespun sound.

The best way to describe The Miniseries is to say it’s organic. On some tracks, you can hear the soft clunk of the piano keys and the squeaky pedal on the bass drum. On others, you can hear Scot aping David Bowie’s delivery if not his distinctive vocal quirks. Clearly the work of two musicians in love with making music, The Miniseries remains to this day a do-it-yourself classic. Which is to say that the CD didn’t have a lot of commercial appeal. Which is also to say that it didn’t help me a whole lot in the name-dropping department. But American Pie was a big hit, so I could at least get some mileage out of “I Am the Summertime,” and much to my delight, Scot and Mark hired a new drummer and guitarist, rechristened themselves Feel, and were signed to Curb Records in 2002. Their self-titled debut included a remake of “I Am the Summertime” and nine other songs—all of which prove, in my humble estimation, that Scot Sax is the master of the three-minute pop song.

What Wanderlust, Bachelor Number One and Feel all have in common is great songwriting, and Scot is a rare specimen—the singer-songwriter who can craft intelligent pop songs without being pretentious. He’s as comfortable dropping references to Andy Warhol and Alberto Vargas in “Stage Name” as he is with placing himself on an uncharted desert island with Gilligan and the Professor in “Brand New Plan.” His writing is also impressionistic. Instead of musing on the nature of loneliness, he gives you the girl in the raincoat and the stranger longing for her as he passes in a moving car. He peeks through blinds for glimpses of sunshine. He predicts a day when the world will close. There’s a bittersweet tension in all of Scot’s songs, a delicate balance of joy and apprehension that has become more pronounced in the band’s latest CD, Invisible Train. Their first outing since asking to be released from their contract with Curb Records, Invisible Train begins with a paean to life itself (titled “Oh Life”), and as Scot sings “Once in a while, you just gotta smile when you think about it all,” it’s hard not to read his entire career—the ups, the downs, the joys and disappointments, the veritable rollercoaster ride that is the life of the professional songwriter—into the line.

To paraphrase the Ramones, Scot has proven time and again that he has the strength to endure just about anything the music industry can throw at him.  And through it all—or perhaps because of it all—he continues to deliver some of the best songwriting in the industry.

(Pictured: Scot with Sharon Little in an episode of CSI!)

Thanks to D. Thomas Minton!

Big thanks to author D. Thomas Minton for chatting with me about my forthcoming novel, The Grievers, and posting the results on his blog! Over the past few months, I’ve become a big fan of his fiction, so it was an honor to share an advance copy of my novel with him and talk about writing, cheese steaks, and my tragic propensity for impersonating Malcolm Gladwell.

Click here to read the interview!

PS: If you’re a science-fiction fan, check out Minton’s short story “Observations on a Clock” in the current edition of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. It’s a smart, haunting story about faith and doubt that also taps into the zeitgeist 0f 2012 end-of-times hysteria. A great read!

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?