Visiting The Feelies On Sugar
What if Neil Young had never left home? What if
Neil had never been banished from Sugar Mountain (a teen club he could no longer
frequent after his 20th birthday)? What if Neil had stayed in Winnipeg and
played music with friends? If Neil had stayed home, he'd probably be in a band
playing music for the fun of it. Playing for some personal need. Playing whether
the money and acclaim were there or not. Odds are, Neil would be in a group like
the Feelies. The Feelies, it seems, were never banished from Sugar Mountain.
They stayed home, some members literally and others figuratively. Each one has a
different story, yet each found oneself in a position to continue being in a
band that wasn't exactly raking in the dough. For different reasons, all were
free from the necessity of making a band work financially. This freedom allowed
them to operate on Feelies Time. In a part of New Jersey that stops looking like
NYC-burbia and starts looking like the outskirts of any small, old, decaying
Northern city, the Feelies maintained their own Sugar Mountain. And it's a good
thing for all of US.
Brave New World
In the final years of the '70s, when a decade's
despondency was pulverized by punks, the Feelies became known. They played the
clubs that the first Wave had established as hip, and got themselves signed to a
way-cool label. They released a superb album, and soon thereafter ceased to
function as a band. But the creative core of the original Feelies, Glenn Mercer
and Bill Million, didn't abandon music. Instead, they chose to involve
themselves in a number of musical projects that included electronic
experimentation, a soundtrack, and a couple of peculiar bands. Eventually,
slowly, Mercer and Million re-formed the Feelies, and returned to vinyl with The
Good Earth. Since that time, the Feelies have gone about reestablishing
themselves as a band of great vision and complexity. This is, for the most part,
the story of two guys and their friends, who were stupid enough to believe they
could do it their own way. So far they seem to have gotten away with it.
Glenn and Bill
Glenn Mercer does most of the singing, plays the
impressive guitar stuff and writes nearly all of the lyrics. Bill Million does a
bit of the singing, strums a rich rhythm guitar, and co-writes some of the songs.
The two have been together for a long time, and form the heart of the Feelies.
Bill: We both came from pretty small towns. And
in these towns, way out in the suburbs - far away from the hip scenes that were
happening in the cities - there were very few people that were listening to the
music of The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers. And if you came
across another guy walking down the street who was into that stuff... you know,
that's pretty much how it started.
Glenn was friends with original Feelies drummer
Dave Weckerman even before the band formed in 1977.
Dave would become an on-and-off member,
performing live as a percussionist while a succession of drummers passed through. But he
didn't appear on the band's first album, Crazy Rhythms.
Weckerman joined on as a full-time member during the reformation that eventually
brought in drummer Stanley Demeski and bassist Brenda Sauter.
Dave is the oldest member of the band, and
possesses more charisma than the other four Feelies combined (which is probably
fine with them). He's an animated conversationalist, humorously graphic in his
descriptions; and a touch hard of hearing. He's a beneficent version of Dennis
Hopper, a little "out there". He's just back from his 20th high school
Dave: I didn't really fit in at my reunion. A lot
of them are old and married, and they're real into real estate. I got real out
But Dave, did you fit in even back then ?
As a matter of fact, I was a pretty popular guy in high school. I guess.
Everybody was my friend: the football players, the down-and-out burnouts. I
liked everybody... and (he smiles) they liked me. High school was a very
class-oriented society, and I just went across the board. I saw humor and
adventure in hanging out with everybody.
Weckerman is the leader of Yung Wu, the Feelies
spin-off project that features his lyrics and vocals. Between The Good Earth and
Only Life, Yung Wu experienced its peak of activity, which included a number of
live dates and the release of a wonderful album, Shore Leave. It sounds much
like the Feelies musically (except for the addition of keyboards), but
Weckerman's raw, painfully sincere vocals make all the difference in the world.
What Weckerman clearly lacks in technical proficiency he more than makes up for
with intriguing lyrics and enthusiastic delivery.
Life After Wartime
The first "big break" for the Feelies
came in 1978 when the Village Voice pasted their faces on its cover and
proclaimed them the best underground band in town.
Glenn: I guess that's the point when we realized
that maybe the band had a chance. When the article happened, we figured that
maybe the band could go on, make records. But now you kind of put it in
perspective. What they meant was the best unsigned band, and there weren't too
many new bands at the time. We were kind of what they called the Second Wave.
The Talking Heads and the Ramones had record deals. We just came after them.
They were playing to packed houses and we were playing to half-empty.
The band that drew this attention replaced
original bassist Jimmy J with the DeNunzio brothers on bass and drums (transferring
Weckerman to percussion). A number of labels made overtures to the band, and an
early single was released on Rough Trade. But the band's first album came from
Stiff. Problems with Stiff began immediately.
Glenn: We were into the idea of a video when
video first started. With Stiff, it was one of the things we talked about before
we even signed a contract. We were not a big touring band. At the time, we only
played maybe five times a year. They said they were really -into video, and they
said that if we did well in a particular market, maybe they'd send us there for
a short tour. And after we signed they said they wanted us to go on a six-month
package tour, and we realized that it would have been the end of the band.
Dave: If the band had toured, done all those
dates that Stiff wanted us to do, the band probably would have broken up forever.
That's all we were offered - to go with the Plasmatics and Joe "King"
Carrasco for like three months. Forget it. Nobody in the band would ever want to
play music again after something like that.
Relations between band and label, which had
started off poorly, just kept getting worse. The result was the eventual
dissolution of the Feelies in 1981. Steve Fallon (Feelies manager, and owner of
Coyote Records and Maxwell's) describes the break-up:
Steve Fallon: They'd gotten this huge advance
from Stiff, so they bought this really sophisticated equipment. They first
played (at Maxwell's) to try out the equipment for the "big European
tour." But when they got over there, their equipment never showed up. So
they were totally bummed and they just freaked out and left. That's when the
band broke up. They were a band that didn't exist anymore. Then came these other
things like the Trypes, the Willies. And then Anton would show up and end up
playing with them. So they started playing out again as the Feelies, and they
were better than they ever were. They were like the hottest band in the world.
But Anton's personality, and their personalities... well, sound checks with the
Feelies used to take eight hours. Anton used to polish his cymbals before sound
checks just to annoy them. I think there was this whole annoyance thing going.
So the band kind of dispersed for a while.
In a separate interview, Million recalled the
Bill: We played with people that weren't able to
grasp what we were saying musically. It was like going up against a wall. That
doesn't occur in this band now. A lot of times, very little has to be said. It
Glenn: Playing with Brenda and Stan in the Trypes
just felt right. They were people that we liked.
Crazy Rhythms is almost dismissed by its
Million describes it as something "that just documents what the band was at
the time". But it's also a great album. Mercer's lyrics were sometimes as
nervous and jerky as David Byrne's. At other times, however, the droning verses
were practically minimalist (back before that word had been milked to death). He
told us he was the boy next door, and he sure looked like him. But none of my
neighbors were listening to music like this. To recreate the zeitgeist of the
time, it's important to remember that folks were going bonkers over Cheap Trick
and the J. Geils Band. The Clash were still relegated mostly to the left of the
dial. The best Lou could do at the time was Growing Up In Public. Ronnie was our
now president (back then it seemed funny, not pathetic), John Lennon released
his last album, and all of the Pretenders were alive. Crazy Rhythms was a minor
release for a label that seemed more intent on selling itself than its bands.
Stiff was long past its original burst of success. The relationship between
Stiff and the Feelies degenerated steadily, helped along by such meetings as the
one in which Stiff execs lectured the band on how to write a hit song, and
offered the work of Lene Lovich as the kind of thing to strive for.
Glenn: One of the things Stiff said when they
first approached us about signing was, "Hey great, a band with people who
wear glasses". They made more money from T-shirts than they did from
The music on Crazy Rhythms was a hodgepodge of
seemingly contradictory influences. Imperceptibly building Eno-esque passages
connected a series of high-adrenalin compositions, all tied together with a
healthy dose of percussion. In most songs there were extensive instrumental
passages, punctuated by sharp, staccato outbursts and droned choruses. "Raised
Eyebrows" featured some impressive ensemble playing, embellished, simply
with Million's repeated observation: "You get old." Elsewhere, Mercer
was wordier, but similarly succinct. The production was strictly low-budget,
which itself has become part of the album's appeal a decade later. Most current
indie releases far surpass Crazy Rhythms' sonic fidelity, but few can match its
intensity and sincerity. A 1980 review of the album in The New York Times paired
it with Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. The two bands certainly followed
different paths after that time - the Feelies' retreat and gentle re-emergence
was much safer than Joy Division's jolting climax - yet both works have remained
impressive while many of the releases by their contemporaries have grown
superfluous with time. Both albums still rip away the pretenses. Both albums
Back in the Crazy Rhythms days, the Feelies
developed a reputation for playing on holidays. Veteran's Day. Fourth of July.
Christmas in Hoboken.
Glenn: It was really a coincidence. We played a
few holiday shows, and then some writer picked up on it. He wrote about it, and
then other writers would write about it. And then the clubs would start to
request us on holidays. It kind of perpetuated itself.
Dave: It was more fun to
play on holidays. They were special events. It was a holiday, and the Feelies
were playing. We'd decorate the stage, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
Anton Fier played drums on Crazy Rhythms. He's
since played with a host of celebs, and it's his permanent departure that marks,
for some, the end of the "first Feelies". Fier is a powerful drummer
whose leadership of the Golden Palominos brought cohesiveness to a pretty
strange assemblage of folks. His shows with the Palominos have featured some of
the best drumming to ever rattle Maxwell's walls.
Steve Fallon: I always thought that there could
never be a Feelies without Anton. Anton used to bleed. The only time Anton's
ever bled was with the Feelies. From his lips and his hands. Because it was so
hard to play. The stuff from Crazy Rhythms was so intense. He always felt the
Feelies were important, and he felt that it should work. But when it didn't, he
got this negative attitude, like, "Oh man, the Feelies suck. Oh man, they
can't write songs". Now I play him the tape and he's like, "Oh, it's
not bad, but they still can't write songs". I think he almost regrets not
being in the band.
As Fallon spoke, Fier was several tables away,
vaguely aware of the abuse he was receiving. "Hey Anton, c'm'ere",
Fallon shouted. "We're talking about the Feelies". "No, it would
be better if I didn't", demurred the drummer. For various reasons, the
Mercer-Million partnership was not willing to expand into a triumvirate. As
Fier's ability to control a star-studded affair such as the Golden Palominos has
indicated he too has strong ideas about how a band should operate. That the
three could not coexist peacefully is understandable. But that doesn't make it
any less disappointing.
Soundtrack From The Mountain
Glenn: Personally, I felt frustrated with playing
the guitar. I reached a point where I was kind of bored with it. So I'd heard
about this band that lived in town, in Haledon, that were just starting out.
They were friends of friends. I met them and offered to play drums. I'd played
some percussion on Crazy Rhythms and I kind of wanted to explore percussion and
drums. I was using my sister's drum kit while she was away at college, and when
she came back I had to give her her drum kit back. That was the Trypes.
In addition, Mercer and Million collaborated on
experimental, electronic music. As The Willies, they entered the avant arena,
playing minimalist guitar with pre-recorded sounds through a variety of
experimental speaker arrangements.
Glenn: We had a lot of marginal shows, and a lot
of good ones. Some that didn't really work. The idea was to incorporate tapes,
try to get a real 3-D kind of mixing going, with speakers set up in the back of
the room, or placed throughout the room. Some songs we would actually accompany
a tape rather than have the tape embellish what we were performing - actually
play along with the tape. It was very difficult to coordinate something like
that. We had one show where the tape started the set, and we kind of faded in
under the tape. And the guy who was working the machine had it on the wrong
speed. So it started, and rather than fade it down he actually hit the speed
button, and you could bear it slowing down. One time a set of speakers became
unplugged. There were a lot of technical things that went wrong.
Bill: We did a lot of outdoor recordings, a lot
of stuff on "When Company Comes" (from the Willies' repertoire, and
later reworked for The Good Earth) in particular. Just, like neighborhood sounds.
We kind of heard our music as fitting into a lot of different sounds that were
going on, like, in the neighborhood. They just worked well together, like dogs
barking, the woman who lived next door to me talking... One sound in particular
that we used with the Willits was the sound of these crows that went on tape so
well. We actually stuck the mike out the window, and we had another mike out
another window. And the relationship, how the sound went on tape, it was such
that if you put your ear right next to the speaker you still would be convinced
that it wasn't coming out of the speaker, that it was real. There was a show in
New York that we did, where the club had speakers around the room, which is what
the Willies were trying to do at the time - have a more three-dimensional sound.
We had our sound man playing percussion. And these crows started. And they
actually went around the room and people were looking all over the place,
looking for the birds. It's just one of those things you couldn't duplicate in a
The Willies led Mercer and Million to their next
recording project, which was the soundtrack for the film "Smithereens".
Richard Hell played someone you imagined was a lot like Richard Hell, and Susan
Seidelman directed the flick (this was before she got kinda known and then
forgotten for "Desperately Seeking Susan".)
Bill: We had a lot of fun putting that together.
Arranging it. Laughing. Finding amusement in a lot of situations, things that
might end up working in songs, even if you're just doing something on three or
four tracks for a film... fooling around with speeds. The music that was used
for the horror movie sequence was real fun for us to fool around with on a
four-track in my basement in the middle of winter. Ten degrees, big heavy
overcoats. It was really comical. And the director would keep calling, "Is
the music ready? Is the music ready?" And we'd be down there freezing our
asses off until we just couldn't take it anymore, an then we just do it again
the next night.
In the meantime, the Trypes were metamorphosing,
and Dave was fronting Yung Wu. Mercer and Million were emerging from a phase of
experimentation. "I think it was just a diversion that played itself
out", said Mercer. "We became interested in other kinds of
music". In the process, they began laying tracks for the reformation of the
Feelies. Glenn recounts what happened with the Trypes after his sister reclaimed
her drum kit:
Glenn: I switched to guitar, and we needed a
drummer. So we asked Dave to play, but he didn't fit in, so we asked Stan to
play. And then the singer left, so we decided that it would be good to have a
bass player that could also sing, so we got Brenda. And then we decided we
wanted a percussionist, so Bill joined. So it wasn't like the Feelies at all.
Eventually it would become all the people that would become the Feelies, but it
wasn't at all like we assembled a band. I guess that's almost what prompted the
Feelies to get back together. We really got along on a social level and a
musical level. We really felt Brenda and Stan were people we could play with.
Brenda: Sometimes when you look back at something
there seems to have been some sort of plan. You don't realize it at the time,
but when you look back and see how things evolved, it almost seems like they
kind of took a natural course. Next thing you know, you've got something solid
and it seems like it was meant to be.
Stanley: I auditioned, and I thought it was going
to be the Feelies, because we rehearsed Feelies songs and we started working on
stuff like "The Obedient Atom" and "Thundering Heard". We
rehearsed like eight times, and then I didn't hear from them for a few months
when Bill's wife had a baby.
Stanley Demeski sat in on a handful of Feelies
and Willies dates, but became a permanent member of the Trypes first. He would
also become the drummer for Yung Wu, and finally a full-time Feelie. Stanley
plays a simple kit and his style is rather spare, leaving the accents to Dave's
percussive garnishes and Mercer's crashing guitar work. He's established himself
as the coordinator of logistics for the band, whether it be setting up
interviews or taking care of business on the tours. He's the keeper of what Bill
calls "the archives" of Feelies articles and historical documents, and
probably is the least inclined toward touring. "I don't hang out too much
anymore, we stay home and watch videos," Stanley says of himself and his
fiance Janice, sister of Yung Wu/Trypes/Speed the Plough member John Baumgartner.
My talk with the percussive Feelies - Stanley and
Dave - is the only interview which actually took place in Haledon. Stan's
directions brought me past the renamed Peanut Gallery and other historic Feelies
landmarks. It introduced me to a town past West Patterson, with lots of
two-family houses giving way to more rural and equally unspectacular
developments. Haledon, it turns out, is no bargain. Sugar Mountain is clearly a
state of mind.
Brenda, the first female Feelie (say that five
times fast), has had to get used to playing with a bunch of guys. She's had to
get used to "those men conversations". She's learned to take less
offense at Dave's tasteless (yet funny) remarks, and to suffer the rigors of the
Brenda: It used to take until the end of the tour
for it to get to the point where Stan would have to say, "Enough, Dave".
Now it seems to start five minutes onto the road. The minute we hit Route 80 the
little stories and sayings start coming out. They're not inhibited.
Sauter's bass playing for the Feelies is alluring
yet elusive. With two percussionists and a pair of guitarists who themselves pay
a lot of attention to developing the tempo, Brenda is free to depart from the
style of most rock bassists. Her lines can complement Stanley's steady backbeat,
or work off of it to create the secondary rhythms that are the hallmark of the
Feelies' complex arrangements. From the sound of things, Brenda has ventured the
furthest from Sugar Mountain. A veteran of Manhattan publishing and her own
free-lance enterprises, she appears to have more pursuits outside of music than
the other Feelies.
Stanley: Brenda comes from a different field. She
doesn't come from the same background. She was from a folk and classical type
background. She didn't know "Roadrunner". She'd never heard that
before, but everyone else did. We were going to do it one night, as an encore,
the first time we'd gone to Europe. It was a couple of nights after she'd broken
a bone in her back. And Glenn's like, "Let's go out and play it, let's go
out and play it". And everybody says OK, but Brenda wasn't saying anything.
And finally she just flipped out and said, "I don't know it". So we
went out without her. (She's since learned the chords.)
Brenda, it turns out, is particularly
appreciative of being interviewed for this article. She seems tired of being
cropped out by a variety of media, or relegated to a quick "other
Feelies" mention. In her home town of Oakland, however, she's turning into
a real celeb. The cover of Only Life was taken in her home town, in front of one
of George Washington's bona fide sleeping stops. Once the tour is over, Brenda
hopes to visit one of the monthly Historic Society meetings across the street
with a copy of the album. The ladies'll love it! Since Brenda's the one sharing
lead vocals on the tasty flexi that accompanies this issue of The Bob, it seems
fitting to get her thoughts on the song.
Brenda: The first time we actually did
"Dancing Barefoot" was in the Trypes. Everyone keeps in mind
cover-songs, and I'm pretty sure it was Glenn who suggested it. I think we only
did it once or twice before the band... dissolved. And then, not long ago, we
were going to be playing Maxwell's, and it was brought up as a possible Feelies
cover song. So we started doing it again, the difference being that Bill was now
on guitar. I didn't know too much about what was going on in underground music
until I started playing with these guys, but I did know who Patty Smith was. I
went to see Patty a couple of times, and as far as "Dancing Barefoot"
was concerned, I knew the song from having her album. She's been growing on me
lately, especially the older stuff. I seem to like it more and more.
When the Feelies felt confident enough in their
new line-up to return to the studio, they brought R.E.M.'s Peter Buck along with
Glenn: Peter was a big fan of Crazy Rhythms and
he approached me with the idea of working together. He has a good perspective.
We knew that the association (with R.E.M.) could have its drawbacks, but it
didn't bother us. The one thing we had going for us was that we'd had a record
out long before they did.
Bill: I didn't really see it as a problem or a drag.
We worked for Peter for a number of reasons, but it wasn't like there was any
attempt at commercial gain. We always like to work with people we have a sense
of community with. The good thing about making a record for Coyote was that we
were friends with Steve (Fallon) long before we became involved in a business
relationship. It was perfect for us. To me, it's the best way to work.
Mercer and Million obviously knew what they were
doing, because the result was not just an indie gem, but arguably the best album
of 1986. Like the Replacements' Let It Be, the album seemed to capture a point
in a band's evolution at which everything was coming together. The Willies'
spaced instrumentals were giving way to more standard song forms, but dragging
their heels just enough to delay the development of too much standard song
structure. The Good Earth paid homage to Mercer's own version of Sugar Mountain.
The songs address, in a surprisingly straightforward way, the inner peace of
having a comfortable place to sit and watch the world go by. To visit with
friends, ponder the mysteries of life, or just sit around doing nothing special.
It's about roads leading home, away from external threats and internal
questioning. "Out there" is a dangerous place where cars bum along the
roadside and people cry for help. "Out there" is a state of mind where
the questions have no answers, just unsettling implications. But home is
comfortable. Home is where friends are. In some songs, home is a place (or a
state of mind) that can't be returned to. But even then it's the subject of
desire. The album's peak, and possibly the Feelies' finest moment to date, is
"Slipping (Into Something)", a song tucked comfortably into the middle
of side one. It meanders into one's consciousness and builds slowly, inexorably,
to a burst of fury that belies the simplicity of most of the song, investing
those mellower passages with a greater profundity in the process. The song gives
way to "When Company Comes", which invites the listener to stay a
while and listen to the sounds of the neighborhood. From its evocative cover art
to Mercer's meditative vocals, there's a quality about The Good Earth that lets
you know they're serious about what they have to say, even if you're not real
positive about what it is they're saying. Simple, primary emotions and desires
serve as the basis for the lyrics, whose austere delivery prevents them from
sounding like trite rock rhymes. Beneath the simplicity is a wealth of detail.
Bill: The photo on the cover was taken during a
tour two years previous to making the album. It's from Illinois. We stopped
along the side of the road, driving between dates, and the sky was real blue.
The cornfield was real yellow and it looked like a real neat place to take a
picture. A memento of the tour.
The cover of The Good Earth, one should note, ran
in black and white.
People warned me that Mercer could be a pain in
the ass to interview. One-word answers. Inside jokes. He smirked a lot, and used
his tinted glasses to advantage. Worst of all, I discovered, he'd let you dig
your own grave. He's a quiet guy, and not real good at the kind of bullshit most
of us rely on daily. So the more crap he hears, the quieter he gets. And in the
end, the one who craps feels like an ass.
Fallon: Everyone thinks that they're hard to deal
with, but that's not it. They're shy. They're bashful. They don't know why they're
so popular. They don't know why people adore their band. They're amazed. They're
Glenn: I find it really hard to talk about lyrics.
I don't sit down with a preconceived notion of what this song will be about or
what I want to write about. I don't think it's really a good thing to spell out
what a song is about, because it's really a lot of different levels. It could be
something different to different people. I'm trying to share a feeling. I don't
think it's necessary to put it into words. You either get a feeling from it or
you don't. It's not necessary for people who listen to it, who get something
from it, to verbalize what it is they're getting from it.
Such an "outburst" from Mercer is
hard-earned. Even in declining to interpret his work, Mercer seems uncomfortable
about even explaining why. He keeps close guard over his internal dialogues, and
neither nosey writers nor an anxious public seems to enter into his
Stanley: Glenn doesn't write until the mood hits
him. He can't just sit down and crank out songs. He has to be inspired. And the
thing is, he'll go through years when he's not inspired too much.
Mercer turned out to be an enjoyable and
challenging interview, responding to real questions and smirking when my
interpretations of his life's work sounded either far-fetched or dead on. He
preferred to meet at Maxwell's than anywhere in the Haledon area, but seemed
more than willing to allow the interview to ramble along. And as I dropped him
off afterwards he seemed genuinely concerned that I thought he'd tried to wrap
things up and give me the brush. Though he'd probably prefer if the word didn't
get out, it seems Glenn Mercer's a nice guy. A little weird maybe, but a nice
guy. He may try to hide behind those rose-tinted glasses (they may be closer to
red, but let's call it rose), but a valuable thought or insightful query can get
the eyebrows arched, and the glasses don't cover that up. Perhaps Mercer and
Million give the impression, as the New York Times "reported" a few
years ago, that they "live largely in a world of their own". But if
that's the case, it would appear to be just a short commute away. Just one zone
on Jersey Transit.
Another One? So Soon?
Which, finally, brings us to Only Life, the
Feelies' newest release. It's their second for Coyote, but this time it's being
distributed by A&M. For the Feelies, it's another peek at the big time.
Another opportunity to spread their sound. An opportunity to make this band
Steve: Everyone's tired of doing this part-time.
They're serious. They don't want to be part-time, they want to be a real live
band. They don't need to have Coliseum-type shit. There's a following out there
that can make it happen for them.
Mercer, and practically every other member of the
band, when first asked about the new album, talks about the Power Station, where
basic tracks were recorded. ("The sound is a lot different," Mercer
says. "A lot more live".) Financially able to step up to a better
facility, the Feelies took full advantage, of the equipment. Only Life sounds
much sharper than its predecessor, with vocals and drums mixed higher than on
The Good Earth. As a result, many of the lyrics are more easily deciphered. Both
the sound and the scope of this album are bigger. Whereas The Good Earth, as its
title implies, grew organically over the course of several years and a couple of
bands, Only Life sounds more specifically like a Feelies album. It's more
accessible, and much crisper. The meditative nature of Mercer's earlier vocals
has given way to something closer to singing occasionally allowing some of the
new compositions to sound less lyrically intense. In a way, Mercer's vocal
development is similar to Ira Kaplan's in Yo La Tengo, evolving from Reed-like,
nearly spoken voice-overs to more melodic deliveries. The album begins slowly,
and builds gradually upward.
Brenda: It's sort of that rave-up that we're
noted for. It starts a little bit lighter, and then, by the album's second half,
each song flows into the next one. And as it does, it gets a little bit wilder.
A little bit faster.
Only Life's last three tracks represent its peak,
offering up one of the first vinyl hints of this band's five capabilities.
"Too Far Gone", composed on an off-day on the "Something
Wild" set, is a rocker. It came out about a month before the LP on the
soundtrack to Demme's newest flick, "Married to the Mob". And it's
probably the best Mercer-Million composition on the album. It is followed by
"Away", the album's single and video subject. And to cap things off,
there's a great interpretation of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes
On". The Feelies have always applied a healthy dose of adrenaline to their
covers, but this one turns out to be the best Velvets cover I've ever heard, and
it's scary how many that might be. The version is respectful of the original,
but unmistakably stamped with the Feelies touch.
Bill Million's got a kid in grade school, and he
sounds a bit precocious. Turns out the tykes at school are allowed to bring
tapes in to be played by teacher, and young Million offered up some Husker Du.
He's not quite as fond of Dad's band.
Bill: My son thinks the Feelies are plain. And I've
kind of asked him to define that, and he says that it isn't enough like rock 'n'
roll. He really prefers Yung Wu. He really doesn't listen to the Feelies, but he
likes "Strange Little Man", "Big Day" and "Powderfinger",
and listens to those songs endlessly .
Dad's got a second kid on the way, which is why
the band's tour to support the album will wrap up in November. He seems like the
kind of guy who'd make a cool father: low-key, understanding, good guitar player.
Though he and Mercer both exhibit the kind of social uncertainty that
occasionally does make them seem shy or awkward, there's also something very
cunning about them. Both have changed their names, and it seems likely it was
done together, toward the creation of a songwriting team that really sounds like
a songwriting team. Lerner and Lowe. McCartney and Lennon. Mercer and Million.
Bill: I think a lot of that started out tongue in
cheek. It started out without having any aspirations or goals whatsoever. It was
basically just for the fun of doing it. We didn't ever plan on the ban getting
even this far, so it wasn't any big deal.
Past Tense, Future Perfect
Bill: Dave's said in the past that he can't
imagine doing anything else besides playing in the Feelies. Like, in any other
band there are struggles that do occur, but everyone's pretty strong in this
group, and these problems are put aside.
Brenda: Once in a while I wonder what will happen
five years from now. I know nothing can go on forever. I mean, look at Frank
Sinatra. I'm just trying to soak up what I can now, so that ten years from now I
won't say "What was it like?"
Glenn: Nothing scares me anymore. We've had
record companies totally dislike the music. Had a record company where we
couldn't serve as our own producers. We've been through every possible thing you
can imagine. It seems like each tour we get more people coming to see us, and it
It'll be interesting to see if the dance floor at
Sugar Mountain gets too crowded; if the Feelies willingness to work harder at
making the band a success doesn't also turn it into a job. For now that doesn't
seem to be the case. And as long as they're still having fun, I'll be lined up
outside the door wanting in.