That’s What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown

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In the spring of 1965, a 32-year-old San Francisco-based documentarian named Lee Mendelson received a call from Coca-Cola corporate headquarters.

Mendelson had two documentaries under his belt at that point: one on legendary center fielder Willie Mays and one on Charles Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” newspaper strip.

Mendelson had showed the Schulz doc to a number of potential corporate benefactors and underwriters, but all of them had taken a pass.

Coca-Cola had passed too. The company wasn’t calling about the documentary, at least not directly.

Time Magazine had run a cover story on Schulz, Mendelson said in a phone interview, and it likely refreshed the memories of one or more Coca-Cola executives about the Schulz bio.

“They said they’d seen the documentary and they’d liked it and wanted to know if I’d ever considered doing a Christmas show,” Mendelson said.

Mendelson’s answer to this question was “Absolutely.” Coca-Cola told him they’d need an outline in two days. Mendelson called Schulz.

“I said, ‘I think I may have just sold a Charlie Brown Christmas show,’” Mendelson recalled. “And (Schulz) said, ‘What in the world is that? And I said, ‘It’s something you’re going to write tomorrow.’”

To the surprise of nearly everyone involved, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a huge success when it debuted less than nine months later on December 9, 1965. So beloved has it become that its 50th anniversary will be commemorated with a new TV special airing at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 30, on ABC.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” broke some ground that few sages of TV animation at the time thought was breakable.

For one thing, its creators decided that actual children should provide the voices of the Peanuts characters. In the ‘60s and before, adolescent characters in television animation were always voiced by adult actors doing their best to sound elfin (and their best usually sounds bogus to modern ears).

Schulz also bucked conventional network wisdom with two non-negotiable requests: He wanted the special to have a religious message and he didn’t want it to have a laugh track.

“The ‘Flintstones’ and others had laugh tracks,” Mendelson recalled, “and I casually said, ‘I guess we’re going to have a laugh track’ and he said, ‘No, we’re not’ and that was the end of it. It was a very brief disagreement. About 8 seconds.”

The involvement in the special of jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi was the result of happenstance.

Mendelson, a jazz aficionado, was listening to a San Francisco jazz station one day while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.

He was editing the Schulz documentary at the time and had been wondering what music he should use for some short animated segments.

“I heard (Guaraldi’s) ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’ for the first time,” Mendelson said. “It had just won a Grammy. And I said to myself, ‘That’s the type of music that would be good for Charlie Brown because it’s both adult-like and kid-like.’”

Mendelson called the jazz critic at the Los Angeles Times and asked if he’d ever heard of Guaraldi. Not only had the critic heard of him; he was having lunch with Guaraldi that very day.

Guaraldi was in the midst of composing music for the documentary on Schulz when he called Mendelson.

“I recall him playing this song for me over the phone and I almost passed out,” he said. “Because it was the first time I’d heard ‘Linus and Lucy.’

“It was so funny,” Mendelson said. “When he played it, I had the weirdest sensation. I said, ‘That’s going to affect all our lives.’ Why I would say that about a song? I have no idea.”

It was Guaraldi who suggesting using a trombone to approximate adult voices in the first special, he said, as no adults had ever appeared in the strip. And animator Bill Melendez, who had previously worked at Disney, found a novel and enduring way to give voice to Snoopy (and, later, Woodstock).

“He would just talk gibberish and speed it up,” Mendelson said.

After “A Charlie Brown Christmas” had been completed but before it had aired, many people involved in its creation thought they had failed, Mendelson said.

“What happened was, we didn’t think the show worked,” he said. “We thought it was too slow. We took it to the network and they thought it was too slow, they thought it was unusual to have jazz music and to have kids doing the acting.

“They didn’t single out any one thing,” Mendelson recalled, “but they said, ‘Well, we’ll run it one time and, you know, it was a good try.’”

The debut of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” garnered a 45 share, Mendelson said, which means nearly half the country was watching.

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Mendelson, Schulz and Melendez subsequently collaborated on more than 40 “Peanuts”-related projects and built a friendship that endured until Schulz’ death from cancer in 2000.

Mendelson said Schulz had a reputation as a recluse but this was more a result of the nature of his work than any innate inclination.

“It’s just that you have to sit at the drawing board every day and come up with a new idea,” he said. “He said it was like having to write a term paper every day. He did 18,000 strips over a 50-year career and he never missed a deadline.

“It wasn’t really that he was reclusive,” Mendelson said. “He had work to do that kept him at home. You can’t draw a comic strip on an airplane.”

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” gave Mendelson the opportunity to craft lyrics for an eventual jazz standard (he added words to a Guaraldi instrumental called “Christmastime is Here”) and the upcoming 50th anniversary special gave him another: He wrote lyrics for a new Charlie Brown-themed David Benoit song called “Just Like Me.”

 

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Dave Confesses: The Long, Strange, Schizophrenic Trip of the English Beat

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Early next year, Dave Wakeling and his ska band, the English Beat, will head into the studio to put the finish touches on their new album, “Here We Go Love.”

The last time the English Beat put out an album, Ronald Reagan was president, the terrorist menacing France was Carlos the Jackal and Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” was “The Computer” (“Oh sure, Leonid Brezhnev is important and all,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief undoubtedly reasoned at the time. “But does he have 64 kilobytes of RAM?”)

Thirty-three years may seem like an awfully long break between albums, but that’s only because you aren’t aware of the extenuating circumstances — those unpredictable paving stones in a path that will lead to a performance at the Magic Bag in Ferndale, Mich., on Sunday, Nov. 29.

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The original incarnation of the English Beat (called merely the Beat in the United Kingdom, where it formed) splintered in 1983 into two bands: General Public and Fine Young Cannibals.

Both groups scored hits, but neither was particularly long-lived.

Thereafter, Wakeling released a solo record and formed a band called Bang and his co-frontman, Ranking Roger, released a solo record and helped form a band called Special Beat.

At some point, Wakeling and Ranking Roger began a long feud and Wakeling took a break from music to work for Greenpeace.

Eventually, it was Elvis Costello (of all eminences) who successfully entreated Wakeling to return to the musical fold.

Given Wakeling’s relatively low profile in the 21st century, it is easy to forget that he is a songwriter of prodigious gifts, greatly admired by Costello and Pete Townshend and once considered by many their equal.

The version of the English Beat that will perform at the Magic Bag on Sunday is the result of a compromise between Wakeling and Ranking Roger: Wakeling fronts a band by that name that tours the United States and Ranking Roger fronts a band by that name that tours the UK.

Generally, neither man is allowed under the agreement to perform in the other place.

As if this ointment doesn’t already have enough flies, another pest got stuck in the salve when some members of Ranking Roger’s Beat (including the band’s original drummer Everett Morton) broke away and formed a like-minded tribute act called Beat Goes Bang.

“I used to resent it,” Wakeling said in a phone interview. “But now I get a small, warm and private glow from it. I kind of like the fact that there are now two bands in England that are singing my words whilst I am doing the same thing in California, or as is the case today, Florida.”

Wakeling describes it as “a high-handed compliment.”

“I take it as an accomplishment,” he said. “Over and above the personalities involved, I’m really glad my lyrics still mean a lot to people in England.”

At this rate, it probably makes sense to start an English Beat franchise, Wakeling said.

“I could hold an open audition for blond fellows who resemble me in my mid-20s and who are interested in becoming a part of this new franchise,” he said. “I fancy launching it in Holland.”

The new album was made possible by crowdfunding, which was the best method for a number of reasons, Wakeling said.

Wakeling said he’s never been one for putting out new music unless it can be proved that an audience actually exists for that music.

Having fans pay for a record changes the whole artist-audience equation considerably, he said.

“Working with fans’ money rather than a record company’s money makes you treat it a little bit more seriously and have a bit more respect for it,” Wakeling said. “There was something cavalier and blasé about the way everybody acted when it was record company money. You lived under this cloud of denial that it wasn’t your money when, in actuality, it was your money plus 40 percent interest.”

Securing funding directly from fans turns a formerly professional transaction into a personal one, he said.

“You get to have a fan send in some money with a lovely message about having all the other records and what it’s meant to them and how excited they are to get a chance to help fund the next project and it puts a different face on it, which I like,” Wakeling said.

The recordings that the English Beat made in the early 1980s sound as fresh today as they did then, and the reason for that is that they never tried to sound fresh.

Wakeling said he can’t take any credit for it.

“That was Bob Sergeant’s production at the time,” he said. “He was a purist. He would only have classic instruments, amps and microphones. And no synthesizers.

“We railed against it a bit at the time,” Wakeling said. “But what you realize listening to those recordings now is that they could have been recorded anytime from the ‘60s to today and it helps. I didn’t realize it at the time when there was a debate, but that made the music more accessible to people after the genre itself had passed.”

Wakeling said his band has been averaging from 160 to 180 shows a year and that means this almost 60-year-old grandfather has to repeatedly sing with sincerity lyrics written by a 20th century incarnation of himself.

This is not at all awkward, he said, because the meaning of the songs has changed for him over the course of 30-plus years.

“If there was 30-year jump from the person I was then to the person I am now, that might be uncomfortable,” Wakeling said. “But it’s been a continuum.”

The lyric that seems truest for him after all this time is from the General Public song, “Faults and All:” “I can’t take my own advice.”

“I would say this after 30 years of reciting my own lyrics,” Wakeling said. “I am really good at spotting the flaws in others, but I have always had a bit of a blind spot about myself.”

Wakeling said he always writes songs when he feels he is “in a position of comparative strength, I think, or determination.”

“Then having to come back to the real world and live up to your own lyrics as a frail, horrible human being,” he said. “That puts a bit of irony into it too as you’re singing them.”

The human frailties of Wakeling and Ranking Roger have kept those two men apart for a long time, but Wakeling said that situation is finally improving.

“You’ve caught me at a good time,” Wakeling said. “We’ve been talking. We’ve talked about doing shows together and doing recordings together.”

The obstacles now are managerial, not adversarial.

“Now we’re just currently having to fight through the wave of management opposition which Roger warned me about at the time,” Wakeling said.

“(Roger) said, ‘You know our people are going to want to stop this,’” Wakeling recalled, laughing. “And they showed up pretty quick. There’s two organizations. There’s two sets of pay to make out at the end of the weekend. When Roger and I start talking about getting back together, it’s natural for some people to worry that they’re not going to be working that weekend.”

Because of this, he said, any reunion would likely lead to a series of special events rather than to some extended musical alliance.

“But, honestly, even if this doesn’t happen, the fact that Roger showed he was interested — that he showed no objections to it happening — that was kind of good enough for me,” Wakeling said.

There is enormous fan interest in a tour that would revive and reunite bands that recorded on the 2-Tone Records label in the ‘80s, he said, but there seems to be no matching interest among the people who organize such tours.

“We need to do Dance Craze 2,” Wakeling said, “while we all still have one good knee left apiece, while we all still have one good leg apiece that we can bounce up and down on and look like we’re dancing.”

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Wakeling said he’s been a California resident for 28 years and now thinks of himself as more Californian than British.

But one aspect of living there has become almost intolerable of late.

“I used to be disappointed when I’d bring my mother over,” he said, “because I’d want to show off how beautiful California was and she’d always say it was too hot — ‘Too hot to go anywhere.’”

“Now I can hear my mom echoing in my head when I find myself sitting on shady patios with a fan,” Wakeling said. “I like looking at the sun. I like knowing that it’s over there — just over there. But I don’t like it beating its radiance down on me.”

He is thinking of moving to a “more temperate” place, but doesn’t know where yet.

“I’m not quite sure,” he said, “Even Portland, although I can’t believe I would live somewhere where it rains a lot on purpose. I believe there is something in my genetic makeup that would prevent me from signing a lease.”

 

Spoiler Wars aka Let Him Who Is Without Sin Attack the First Clone

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You’ve got to hand it to director J.J. Abrams. He has largely kept the details of his forthcoming film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” under wraps.

Actually, you don’t have to hand it to Abrams. For all I know, you might prefer to give him the back of your hand.

Here is one of the ways I lost what innocence I had left in recent years. I found out that many people actually like spoilers, which are leaked or purloined details about unreleased or largely unviewed books, movies and TV shows.

Whatever viewers think about them, spoilers must leave the creators of those books, movies and shows wondering if building suspense is an outdated pastime like building bicycles where the front wheels are four times bigger than the back wheels.

The word “spoiler” might be synonymous “freebie” or “bonus” for many folks, but it didn’t always have a positive connotation.

While there are many things in the world that we want to spoil – cheese, yogurt, kimchi, yogurt-based beverages and kimchi-based beverages – the word “spoiler” as it applies to leaked entertainment intel was meant as an aspersion at first.

In recent years, however, a number of online pundits have claimed that knowing everything about a movie or show before you view it actually improves the experience of viewing it.

This reminds me, for some reason, of a line from Whit Stillman’s movie “Metropolitan,” spoken by Princeton English student Tom Townshend: “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.”

In 1990, this theory was meant to strike viewers as, at best, naive. Today, some viewers might very well conclude, “Hey… that’s a good idea.”

It has become increasingly common for studios to release “spoilers” voluntarily, even eagerly (usually in the form of trailers so packed with plot details that they are like the Cliff’s Notes version of the film).

Thanks to the clout and tenacity of Abrams, I know next to nothing about the plot of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and that’s just the way I like it.

I like mystery. I often wish I knew less going in, which is why I drink so heavily before, during and after events. To maximize the mystery.

Abrams’ stinginess hasn’t stopped cybersleuths from poring over every clue. They’re not just speculating; they’re craving confirmation. “Just tell me I am right,” they seem to be saying, “so I can stop not knowing!!!!!”

The Hollywood Reporter recently posted a column by Graeme McMillan in which the author complains about something related to the new “Star Wars” film, but it’s hard to tell what exactly.

He’s tired of “Star Wars” fans’ fixation on finding out what’s in this latest installment before they see it, but he seems more inclined to admonish Abrams than the fans.

McMillan says “Star Wars” itself is to blame, that the franchise has driven “exhaustive speculative culture to this new height.”

I’m not so sure.

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In one of the most widely shared defenses of spoilers, Esther Inglis-Arkell of the Gawker blog site, io9, writes that her impatience to know “what happened” makes it impossible for her to enjoy anything while it is happening.

“Some readers turn the pages anticipating the next wonderful surprise,” she writes. “I get too frustrated at not knowing the surprise to care what’s happening in the book, or the movie, or the TV show. When I get spoilers, I can sit back and enjoy the story in front of me, not checking my watch and waiting for everyone to get to the point.”

See, now that reads less like a defense of spoilers than a diagnosis of Inglis-Arkell.

At the risk of playing armchair psychologist and armchair sourpuss (which is at least one armchair and one sourpuss too many), I am just going to go ahead and assert that Inglis-Arkell suffers from digitally induced ADHD.

She’s not alone. We’re all impatient to “get to the point” these days because there are so many more points than there ever were that we are expected to get to.

In her defense of spoilers, Christina Vasilevski of Xojane.com admits to reading a lot of plot synopses of TV episodes in advance, or in lieu, of actually watching the shows (shades of the aforementioned Mr. Townshend there).

She claims, among other things, that this practice helps her better “understand storycraft.”

This raises several perplexities.

Why would someone who is too impatient to wait for a story to unfold want to understand storycraft?

Also, I think she is confusing expertise in storycraft with expertise in plotsynopsiscraft.

Lord knows – the Internet sure could use higher degrees of plotsynopsiscraft.

Some of those online synopses read like they were translated from Chinese by an ether addict who is recovering from a concussion.

Vasilevski and others also claim that spoilers spare them the disappointment of plot twists that don’t live up to their expectations.

I don’t know what it says about us that our plot twists now require trigger warnings, but whatever it is, it ain’t good.

Before I dive headlong into spoiler snobbery, however, let me write that it doesn’t really bother me that a lot of people are seeking out spoilers.

What bothers me is that some of them are starting to assume that we all love spoilers as much as they do.

It has become increasingly difficult to avoid spoilers because people are much less averse to sharing them.

My only recourse is to do even more drinking.

It is a solution of last resort, but it just goes to show how much I love “Star Wars” (or, as I sometimes pronounce it, “Shtar Warsh”).

(Editor’s note: The author’s drinking is judicious and sporadic)

 

 

 

The Closer They Are To Fine

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In the pre-digital days, especially scrappy musicians would visit record shop owners during their tours and convince them to carry their self-produced albums on consignment.

Then, on subsequent tours, the musicians would revisit these owners and collect their cut of the money.

Amy Ray knows all about this because she did it in the late ’80s as one half of the Indigo Girls, performing Sunday, November 15, at Detroit’s MotorCity Casino Hotel.

Ray said in a phone interview that she and her musical partner, Emily Saliers, worked hard in those days to build a grassroots following.

By the time they were signed to Epic Records, they’d built some leverage, Ray said.

“We knew that if things weren’t going well with the label, we’d leave the label and do it ourselves like we’d been doing,” she said. “I think that when you’re not living in fear all the time, it’s easier.”

Things came full circle for the Indigo Girls in 2007 when they exited a short and desultory stint with Disney and became independent artists again.

A lot had changed in the ensuing decades of course.

Ray said the “deep cut” fans that the duo cultivated in the ’80s – people who were more interested in listening to an album from start to finish than they were in hearing singles – are probably a vanishing breed.

“I think just the way we started helped us have this lifelong career,” she said. “Our approach has always been to try to keep evolving and to really care about our records instead of thinking, ‘Well, we’ve had a couple of hits. Let’s just play those over and over again.’”

It was not at all common in the pre-digital days for a label to leave artists alone and let them make the records they wanted to make, but Ray asserts that Epic and Hollywood Records (a division of Disney) really did leave the Indigo Girls alone.

“At that time we were signed, Epic was really considered a label that would develop bands,” she said. “Bands like Rage Against the Machine, Oasis and Pearl Jam. There were bands on that label that just kind of did their own thing, so we were in good company.

“Now, if it hadn’t worked and we weren’t getting anywhere,” Ray said, “I’m sure they would have come up with a gazillion suggestions for how we could improve ourselves.”

In the ’80s and before, getting signed to a major label was the goal of most dedicated rock and pop musicians because there really was no substitute for a major label’s promotions and distribution capabilities.

These days, it’s the major labels that are scrambling to stay relevant amid the democratization that is digitalization.

Yet, as easy as it is now to get your music out there, it can be hard to make yourself heard above the din (or to get paid within that din).

Certain things never change, Ray said. Like hard work.

“If you want be a songwriter – if you want to develop yourself as a song-oriented artist – you need to spend much time as possible writing,” she said. “You need to spend as much time as possible playing in front of people.

“That’s how you make it,” Ray said. “Tour as much as you can, play as much as you can and write as much as you can. There’s no shortcut.”

Ray loves how the digital age has given power back to the individual, but she said she hates how the corporate radio model has robbed stations of their local quirks.

“The biggest bummer to me,” she said, “is that – I love indie radio and I miss that excitement of a maverick DJ who would break bands. Now what’s breaking bands is very algorithmic. And there’s crowdsourcing too, of course. It’s interesting but it’s not what I’m used to, so I have to get used to it.”

The Indigo Girls have achieved about as much as any folk-pop group could hope to, but Ray talks about songwriting as if she hasn’t mastered it yet.

“It’s an endless pursuit,” she said. “It’s just one of those ‘you’ll know it when it happens’ things. I think it’s good to keep pursuing it. I don’t know where that mark is, but I know that I haven’t met it yet.”

One of the challenges of having such an extensive back catalog and such a devoted fan base is that concertgoers will periodically request songs of Ray’s that she wishes she’d written differently or had not written at all.

“That’s the hard thing because I just don’t want to play it,” she said, laughing. “Because I don’t think it’s a good song. You kind of have to figure out how to have a good, honest show – but also the audience is important.”

“You can’t be like ‘Screw you all. I’m just going to play whatever I want,’” Ray said. “Because that’s not the deal. That’s not really the partnership.”

Ray said it doesn’t take her long to figure out that a song she may have liked at one time isn’t up to her high standards.

“For me, it’s within a year of the release,” she said. “It’s not like ten years down the road I wake up and go, ‘You know? That’s not a very good song.’

“Sometimes, it’s like you’re really married to a song because it feels good to you,” Ray said, “and then you get out there and start playing it live and you realize it’s just not resonating.”

Becoming a better songwriter is, was and always will be the Holy Grail for both women, Ray said.

Saliers is currently working on her first solo album, Ray said, and she is also co-writing songs for sale to the country music market.

This may come as a shock to most people, but Ray and Saliers are fans of contemporary country music and think that some of the best songwriting today is happening there.

“I hate the production but I love the songwriting,” Ray said. “I have friends who do that and they have such a different thing going – the way they have of turning a phrase. If you strip away production and listen to the cleverness of song, it’s this thing where the craft still exists.”

The artistic space that the Indigo Girls give each other is intuitive, Ray said. They rarely have to have conversations about when it’s time to take a break.

Ray has recorded five solo albums, but she said she’s never harbored any illusions about a solo career eclipsing the Indigo Girls, nor has she had any interest in bringing such an eclipse about.

“We can go off and I can do my solo records but I know that’s my solo records,” she said, “ and it’s not the same as Indigo Girls and it won’t ever be as big. Or not even as big. As magical to me, even.”

Perhaps in her worst nightmares, Ray said she imagines what would happen if Saliers’ forthcoming country-inflected solo album is a Taylor Swift-sized hit.

“But then she’d be so rich she’d probably support me for the rest of my life,” she said. “So, you know, I could just play music and do my little hobbies.”

Ray said that she and Saliers have the sort of relationship where each knows the other will take care of her.

“Our partnership is like: we know that what we do together is not replaceable,” she said.

Lone Star Cenac

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In the summer of 2015, Wyatt Cenac became famous for the wrong reason.

On the podcast of stand-up comic Mark Maron, the former “The Daily Show” writer and performer revealed that he’d once gotten into a shouting match with host Jon Stewart over possible racist undertones in several sketches.

It is not known how many times Stewart has gotten into shouting matches with people who generally share his political views. It may have been just the once.

At any rate, Cenac – who will perform in the Tiger Room of Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits (aka CS3) on Nov. 1 – suddenly found himself at the center of one of those trumped-up Facebook-fueled and Twitter-fired controversies that “The Daily Show” delights in mocking.

“I guess because I’d spent four and a half years working with Jon dissecting the media’s sort of hunger for sensation over actual reportage,” he said in a phone interview, “… I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised about how this got chewed up and (expletive) out.”

Most people declined, of course, to listen to the entire interview to gain context and the assumption was that Cenac and Stewart were still feuding.

“I mean, I think during that interview I kind of said that he and I had spoken,” he said. “We had been emailing up until his final show. One of things I said in the interview was that he and I had been talking, which was nice… it kind of opened a dialogue; a better dialogue.”

In conversation, the soft-spoken Cenac doesn’t sound like someone who would seek out a shouting match with anybody.

Cenac, who lives in Brooklyn but grew up in Texas, said he loves the performing aspect of touring but not the travel.

“Admittedly, I’m a homebody,” he said. “Being on the road definitely takes it out of me…

“It’s tough,” Cenac said. “Especially when you don’t know anybody in a city. You wind up with whole days to kill. You can read a book or wander around. The two places I usually wind up in are museums and record shops…”

Luckily, there’s a great example of the latter just down the road from CS3.

Before he started working on “The Daily Show,” Cenac was a staff writer on a very different but equally significant series: “King of the Hill.”

Cenac was nervous his first day on the job.

The creative staff watched a rough cut of an episode called “New Cowboy on the Block,” about what happens when a former Dallas Cowboys player moves into Hank Hill’s neighborhood, and Cenac was able to tell everybody that the same thing had actually happened to him.

“He was a special teams guy,” Cenac said, “A guy who played one year on special teams for the Cowboys. Then he’d become a trainer – a health pro – at a gym near my house.

“I was very interesting,” he said. “That whole episode is about how Hank and guys treat that football player like a god because he’d played on the Cowboys and that’s exactly what happened when this guy moved into our neighborhood. Even the adults were saying, “Ooooh this neighborhood is on the rise…’”

Texas is “a different place,” Cenac said.

“I remember, on a fairly regular basis, hearing talk of Texas secession,” he said. “I don’t remember when I learned it, but it was something that was instilled in me at a young age.”

Cenac was taught to believe that Texas was special.

“It was the only state that was a country and it agreed to be a part of the United States,” he said. “So there was this idea that anytime Texas wanted to, it could grab the ball, go home and be a country again.”

This skewed perspective resulted in a strange sense of pride that was often counter-productive, Cenac said.

“You wind up seeing people acting against their best interests sometimes,” he said, “trying to keep up this idea.”

After his first visit to New York City as a young man, Cenac said he knew he’d found home and Texas wasn’t it.

“Maybe that’s also why I say I am a homebody,” He said. “I think at some level I just want get back there. I tell people it’s because I have stuff to do but I don ‘t really have stuff to do. I just want to walk around and make sure everything’s ok.”

Trying to make it as a writer and performer in the TV and movie industries means working on many projects that never see the light of day.

The hardest part of this, Cenac said, is that he creates a lot of work he is proud of that no one but the people who helped out in various ways will ever see.

“It is a horrible, frustrating thing because you’ve spent all this time and you’ve thought about the casting of it in your brain,” he said. “Even if it never went to series, on some level it feels like, ‘Let me at least just make this one thing. Let me at least see it through just so, that way, it exists.’”

That’s why Cenac said he would never give up on stand-up because the work is 100 percent his and he gets an immediate response to it.

“In a weird way, it’s kind of a drug in that the high I get from it is so unique to it,” he said.

He likens stepping in front of a new audience every night to “going on a blind date with a couple hundred people.”

“You’re sitting there across the table and they all have their plates and you’ve got yours,” he said. “It’s like, ‘If this goes well, who knows where this night could take us? If it doesn’t, let’s go Dutch on this and we don’t ever have to see each other again.”

Cenac’s ultimate career dream involves nothing more specific than creative autonomy.

“As a kid I enjoyed being able go into my room and just make things,” he said. “I think on some level that’s the thing I’m still chasing: the ability go off into my basement and make something and there will be an audience for it and the resources to do it and the freedom to do it.”

 

 

Rambling On…And On

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Roughly a year after the Legendary Trainhoppers performed its last gig, the band’s bassist, Damian Miller, got into trouble with the law.

He and his brother were sentenced to prison for robbing a Walgreens pharmacy in Indianapolis.

Offers for the band to perform came in thereafter, but Matt Kelley — one of the band’s string players and the current owner of One Lucky Guitar — resisted the urge to reunite.

“I felt that the Trainhoppers just don’t play without Damian,” he said. “Even going down the bad path that he did, he was the spiritual center of the band.”

Miller was eventually released from prison in early 2013.

The following winter, Kelley was in Austin, Texas, on a photo shoot when he got a call from his former bandmate Chris Dodd.

“He doesn’t call that often,” Kelley said. “I saw him on my phone and thought, ‘What happened?’”

Dodd told Kelley that Miller was dead — killed in an early-morning altercation outside a bar.

This incomprehensible incident only steeled Kelley’s resolve that the words “The Legendary Trainhoppers” would never again appear on a marquis.

2014 turned out to be a difficult year for Kelley beyond what had happened to Miller. His father suffered a stroke and his friend, Denise DeMarchis, fought and ultimately succumbed to cancer.

“I started feeling these feelings, especially being around my dad,” he said. “I started feeling like, ‘I don’t want to be in his situation and have regret.’”

Just before last Christmas, Kelley shared a stage at an annual holiday show with several ex-Trainhoppers and was reminded of how much he enjoys their musical company.

“It was kind of a celebratory thing, that show,” he said.

After the performance, Kelley said the Trainhoppers’ former guitarist Phil Potts grabbed him by the shoulder and whispered in his ear, “It’s time we made the second Trainhoppers album.”

Despite his earlier reluctance, Kelley said, “I was excited immediately…I was suddenly obsessed with the second Trainhoppers album.”

And so it came to pass that the members of the Legendary Trainhoppers, one of Fort Wayne’s few genuine supergroups, started batting around musical ideas again after the better part of a decade had passed.

A much-delayed and presumed-mothballed follow-up to the Trainhoppers’ debut, “Ramble On,” should be ready for download and phonograph needle early next year.

And the band will perform new and old material the day after Christmas at the B-Side, One Lucky Guitar’s intimate concert venue.

More live dates will follow.

The creation of album number two has been quite a bit different from the creation of album number one, Kelley said.

The band members hadn’t actually written any songs together before now, he said.

“It didn’t necessarily end very well for the Trainhoppers,” Kelley said. “That album we made: everybody had kind of brought finished songs to it and then we recorded them.”

“Ramble On” was produced in California by Grammy-winner Scott Mathews, a contribution that was as flashy as it was troublesome.

“Working with Scott Mathews was a wonderful experience,” Kelley said. “But his hero was Brian Wilson. It probably would have been neat if we’d had somebody whose hero is Keith Richards.”
Kelley said the Trainhoppers could not subsequently agree on what artistic direction the band should go in.

“We were trying to come up with songs together and people had differing ideas,” he said. “They ranged from very arty to the notion that the second album should be our ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.’ It was a large band and very democratic and it was like, ‘Wow. THIS is why there aren’t large bands.’”

Supergroups — which is to say, groups fashioned out of musicians who are already part of other successful groups — aren’t built to last.

The storied participants usually find many more reasons to swiftly depart than to remain together.

The reenlisted members of the Legendary Trainhoppers (who have largely decommissioned their other bands: Go Dog Go, The Brown Bottle Band, The Matthew Sturm Band and Definitely Gary) have grown up a lot, Kelley said.

“We’ll just record ideas on our phones,” he said. “We have a website and we’ll just throw them up on there. What people are doing is saying, ‘Here’s a melody idea’ or ‘Here’s some lyrics. Somebody take them and do something with them.’

“That never would have happened before,” Kelley said. “It’s been much more collaborative.”

This time around, the Trainhoppers have been intentionally not finishing songs, he said.

“It’s been, ‘Let’s beat ‘em up,’” Kelley said. “‘Let’s be tough enough that some songs must die, some ideas must die.’”

The band has been trying to infuse writing sessions with Miller’s spirit, he said.

“He was creative and fun,” Kelley said. “He would like to move things forward. He wouldn’t get mired. That spirit is in the room, that attitude of ‘Let’s make sure we’re all having fun doing this and let’s do things that are important but also enjoyable for all of us and for the people we eventually play to.’”

He said the Trainhoppers are building a new song out of a snippet that Miller recorded long ago at Monastic Chambers Recording Studio in New Haven.

When the band listened to the snippet together for the first time in almost a decade, guitarist Dan Smith apparently had the same reaction to Miller’s flubs that he’d had during the original session, Kelley said.

“On (Miller’s) third attempt, he says, ‘Dan, quit smugging at me,’” Kelley said.

It was perfectly timed, he said, to make it seem as if Miller was responding to what Smith was doing nine years later.

Kelley said that the band is currently looking for a bass player to replace Miller in the live setting.

Sturm, who now works for Apple Computer in California, will contribute ideas to the new album and may put in a guest appearance or two, Kelley said, but it is not logistically possible for him to return as a full member.

“We will, however, have a Matt Sturm hologram,” Potts said.

The re-formed band has no intention, Kelley said, of becoming a staple of the live music scene.

“We want to keep it special, keep it something you can’t see all the time,” he said.

Kelley believes they could “build a little cottage industry where you can buy a recording of the show you were at.”

Smith said the men have aged long past the stage where a musician dreams of “getting discovered,” whatever that means in the digital age.

“You give up a lot for that big paycheck,” he said. “And even then, maybe the big paycheck might not be so big after you pay them back.”