Though we may be the lone strangers on this one, companionless contrarians careless of the compulsory crit-pick of Crazy Rhythms, likely the only thing writer Rick Moody and I have in common is our commitment of needle to the Feelies’ Good Earth vinyl over a thousand times apiece. Easy.
This, the band’s second album–released in 1986, a good half-dozen years after their debut, Crazy Rhythms–served as the soundtrack to Moody’s own novelistic debut, 1992’s Garden State. (No, not that Garden State. This Garden State is set in Hoboken and bereft of anyone remotely resembling Natalie Portman.) Like the book Moody wrote while playing it over and over and over, the Feelies’ sophomore effortthanks to vocals so buried they might’ve reached Chinareeks of the now-removed warehouse-industrial side of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ hometown. Mellifluous, yet murky. As if singing a sprightly shadow. The album (nominally co-produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck) not only bridged the gap from the Velvet Underground to college radio, it also paved the way for Hoboken geek rock (They Might Be Giants, Yo La Tengo, etc.). And while I’m not suggesting this is a good thing, the multi-platinum equation that was the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After is near-equal parts Van Morrison (vocals) and the Feelies (music).
Fittingly then, The Good Earth is also the one record accountable for the Feelies’ classification as a “Hoboken band.” A mislabeling, it seemsdamn near all of them, both past and present, hail from Haledon, a good four stops up New Jersey Transit’s Main Line and much closer to William Carlos Williams’s Paterson than any citified suit and tied.
True, Hoboken provides the entire setting for at least one Feelies video (the Jonathan Demmedirected “Away”); Coyote, the Twin Tone Records subsidiary that unleashed The Good Earth upon the world, received its mail on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. As didand doesthe club Maxwell’s, the band’s musical epicenter. But, says former Feelies frontman Glenn Mercer, “I never lived here.”
And yet here we are: Not only in Hoboken, butafter a well-paced and purposefully strode mile from the train station, with Mercer in the leadat Maxwell’s, the site not only of the Feelies’ last-ever gig, but of Mercer’s next one. For, later this month, he will publicly provide aural glimpses into his very first solo album,
Wheels in Motion. Which, like The Good Earth, offers strummed guitars detailed with picked-through chords, dramatically plodding bass licks, rudimentary percussion (obligatory shout-out to Mo Tucker), and long, lethargic vocal lines delivered so slowly and so obliquely (“Anything at all/Going to be mine/Everything we are/Running out of time,” suggests the title track’s chorus) that any baritoned Southerner could comfortably sing along.
For this singular effort, the professorial indie rocker (think My Aim Is True–era Elvis with a mortgage) prevailed on past bandmates: all four former Feelies drummers and bassist Brenda Sauter (whose group Wild Carnation will open Mercer’s show). “I think, ultimately, the reason I play music is to connect with people,” Mercer says. “All of my friends are musicians. That’s how I’ve made all my friends, really. And kept them. And kept playing.”
Damn right. You’d need some overly fulsome flow chart to track all the amalgamated Feelies associations in which Mercer has participated. Though personnel changed frequently, for convenience’s sake let’s focus on the Good Earth–era Feelies: Sauter on bass, Stanley Demeski on drums, Dave Weckerman on percussion, and Mercer, along with longtime songwriting partner Bill Million, playing the guitars and singing. Besides which, Mercer has always busied himself with well-nigh unquantifiable side projects with one or more of his Feelies friends, before (the Out Kids, the Trypes, the Willies), after (Wake Ooloo, True Wheel, Sunburst, East of Venus), and even during (Yung Wu) his primary band’s best run.
“I try to keep all of my musical relationships, you know, going,” he says.
But after one of alt-rock’s longest games of musical chairs ever, it is the Feelies who are left standing, and largely left out. All four of the band’s discs (after Good Earth came 1988’s Only Life and 1991’s Time for a Witness) are out of print, and whatever current visibility the band enjoys (not a word often utilized in a Feelies piece) comes from exquisite memories and a Volvo ad that utilizes Good Earth‘s “Let’s Go.” (Say what you will about buried vocals costing radio airplay, it does result in a respectable amount of commercials and soundtrack work.)
So, with seemingly every other group with even a taste of college-rock cool (the Pixies, Bad Brains, Dinosaur Jr., the Jesus and Mary Chain, etc.) now regrouping, the time seems more than right for a reunion. And with Mercer’s Wheels in Motion packed with guest Feelies literally picking up where his former band left off, we’re really and truly almost there. And if it looks like the Feelies (check), sounds like the Feelies (absolutely), and plays where the Feelies used to play (thank you, sir, may I have another?), it must be the Feelies, right?
Well, no. Not so much.
For, even though most of us would cheerfully cash the chip that provided our claim to fame (assuming we ever had one), Mercer defers to something akin to that which kept him playing in all those many bands: friendship. “I wanted it to be a Feelies record,” he says. “All along I would sing a background part and think, ‘Man, it sounds like Bill.’ It was eerie.”
Bill, of course, is the aforementioned Million, Mercer’s longtime, long-ago songwriting partner, the man who, in fact,
formulated the band’s Aldous Huxley–inspired name (for the record, Mercer’s never even read Brave New World–nor Moody’s Garden State, for that matter). “I had been in touch with Bill,” Mercer says. “And he said, ‘I’d love to do it.’ You know, it was kind of like what he had said back before he left for Florida: ‘I’d love to do it, but the timing’s not right now.'”
Oh, by the way, Bill Million is also a bona fide icon in the admittedly narrow category of great postpunk disappearing acts.
As the story goes, Million triggered the Feelies’ (evidently still) final breakup in 1991 by moving to Florida. Granted, a gazillion grandparents relocate their garish lawn ornaments and golf clubs to the Sunshine State each and every year, but the thing is, Million headed south without telling any of his soon-to-be-former bandmates. Or leaving so much as a forwarding address.
But pay attention, amateur rock historian. “We actually broke up before he moved to Florida,” Mercer clarifies. “We were at that pivotal point, you know, being on a major label [A&M], where we kind of had a lot of pressure on us to go to that next step, the next level. It just seemed like a lot pressure. It just didn’t seem to be as much fun.”
Which explains the parting of ways. But what about Million’s move? “I think within maybe a couple months after our last show [at Maxwell’s, in fact], Stanley called me and said he had spoken to Bill, and Bill had expressed a desire to play again,” Mercer says. “So Dave and I went to where he worked and we, you know, talked to him about it, and he said, ‘Yeah, I do, but the time’s not quite right.’ We said, ‘Well, you know, when the time is right, just let us know.’ And then I called maybe a month after that, I called where he worked, and the guy who answered said, ‘No, you didn’t hear? Bill moved to Florida.’ So it was pretty abrupt.
“He had two kids at that point,” Mercer explains. “And one of the things on his mind, if they ever get sick, you know, was to have health insurance.”
But even before Million’s Disney World disappearing act, there was a fissure, at least in terms of songwriting, between Mercer and his longtime partner.
“On Crazy Rhythms, we really wrote a lot more together,” he says. “Also, I felt like the arrangements of the songs played such an important part of the songs that we always arranged together, but on The Good Earth there were some songs that I really have to admit I wrote myself.”
Though all 10 tracks on that album are credited to Mercer-Million, the group’s final two discs consist of a more or less 50/50 split on songwriting credits: one half to Mercer-Million, and one halfthe bigger half, as they sayto Mercer alone. Which, along with the proof that is
Wheels in Motion, goes to show that Mercer can and could pen a Feelies record solo.
Rumor suggests that, having just escaped a family health scarea realization of the very reason (health insurance, through a steady job offered down there) that guided him south initiallysomewhere in central Florida, Bill Million is once again playing guitar. Mercer’s a family man himself nowadays, a wife and two children. And since the Feelies have always tilted toward Haledon homebodies, a full-scale reunion tour would, at the very least, be problematic. But though the Feelies may lack Pixies-esque appeal outside of their home state, Mercer realizes that the potential audience for a record release of reuniteds dwarfs the crowd he’ll draw solo at Maxwell’s. So, with five current former bandmates in tow and a batch of new but still somehow familiar songs, why not stick a beloved label on the thing and sell some discs?
“I really can’t explain it other than the fact that it wouldn’t seem right,” Mercer says of his geographically departed partner. “If either one of us isn’t involved, it wouldn’t be the Feelies.”
Glenn Mercer plays Maxwell’s in Hoboken June 23, maxwellsnj.com.