Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hobo, You Can't Ride This Train

Editor's Note: Portions of this post appeared previously in Jeff Regensburger's Google+ account.

It turns out that I've got something of a dilettante's appreciation for hobos. By that I mean that while I find myself intrigued by hobos and their place in the pantheon of American archetypes, I haven't actually taken the time to really, well, learn anything about them. As a result, my understanding of hobos has been shaped more or less by their depictions in popular culture. My Man Godfrey, Emperor of the North, and countless cartoons featuring threadbare vagabonds percolate in my memory alongside odd bits like John Hodgman's zenish list of 700 hobo names.

Oh, I tried reading William Vollman's "Riding Toward Everywhere", but honestly it sort of bogged down. That failed attempt at a more academic appreciation of the subject notwithstanding, I'm left pretty much with the cartoon version of hobos that most of us likely share. Still, the idea of hobos persists.

Part of my interest is bound up in the variety of hobo signs; those esoteric scribbles and pictographs that hobos purportedly use to share information and communicate with each other. I think it's fascinating that a written language could develop so spontaneously and around such an otherwise loose-knit group of individuals. Those simple signs got me to thinking, what if I were a hobo? What would I communicate about this area, my neighborhood?

Well, if I were a hobo, the first thing I'd need would be a hobo name. Given that I've never hopped a train, and given that my most intimate encounter with railroad tracks involves walking across them to attend soccer matches at Crew Stadium, I settled on the accurate (if cumbersome) Not on a Boxcar Jeff, the Crosser of Railroad Tracks (Jeff for short) .

As for the pictographs, they're pretty self-explanatory. Our neighborhood has been muddling along for as long as we've lived here. It never seems to live up to it's potential as an historic neighborhood, and somehow never seems to sink too far toward blight either. (That the neighborhood could "go either way" is an oft-repeated observation in our household). There's college students, young homeowners, retirees, and working class families all living side-by-side. It's a transitional neighborhood; one where small charms and small crimes mostly balance out. It's not always perfect, but it hasn't sent me packing either.

So, without further delay, Not on a Boxcar Jeff presents: Some Hobo Signs for the Neighborhood (Would-be Hobos Take Note):

Expect to have your snow shovel stolen

Throw your trash anywhere. It's cool

Good spot for beer pong

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Great Hidden Lost Gaunt Track

...or, Why I Can't Write About the Past.

The Preamble
This is really hard. See, there's this thing from the past (a song actually). On the face of it, it's nothing more than semi-obscurist musical footnote; an unreleased track from a third-tier act that might or might not matter. It's the kind of cultural ephemera that, in another era, would have passed quietly into history, inviting neither comment nor reflection.

Clearly though this is not another era. It's the age of Web 2.0; the age where everything can be digitized, shared, and commented on. No shred of information is too small, and no piece of the information puzzle is too trivial.

So, there's this song. I've been considering sharing it, but I just couldn't pull the trigger. First of all, I'm not quite sure how to do it without coming off as wistful, misty-eyed, or nostalgic. I'm also not sure, in some larger sense, if it's even important enough to share. I mean, I think it's important, but who else will? What if I've stumbled upon the one thing that's too trivial even for the web? There's also the issue of my personal connection to the song. I was in the aforementioned third-tier act. I played on the recording. That's my friends and I that you hear in that minute and a half of audio. This knot of reservations left me reluctant to share.

On the other hand, I'm aware too of what I'll call (for lack of a better phrase), an obligation to share. Let me explain. I work in a library. A large part of what I do involves helping people answer questions. This often means sifting through lots of different resources in pursuit of a very specific thing. As such, I understand the value of finding the exact right piece of information. If you've ever seen the show History Detectives, you'll have some idea what it's like. From that perspective, all information has value (and ought to be shared) simply because it represents something that someone might eventually find useful.

Ultimately though it's probably much simpler than that. I decided to share this song because after 18 or so years it still makes me happy. I hope it will make you happy too.

The Post
It was probably 1993. I played drums in a band from Columbus, Ohio called Gaunt. It seemed like we were always writing songs and always going different places to record them. Jerry Wick wrote most of our songs. He was prolific like that. A lot of times Jerry's music came out faster than his words. Song structures would be practiced, but the final lyrics wouldn't materialize until much later. I remember occasions when Jerry would be working on lyrics in the studio; scribbling out his revisions in a notebook while someone else worked on overdubs.

It was around that time that we booked time at a small studio in Columbus called Magnetic Planet. We had a few new songs we wanted to record. Magnetic Planet was a cooperative artspace of sorts that had a stage, studio, and other creative amenities. I'm terrible with names so I don't remember everyone who was involved in the project, but I believe Craig Dunson was our engineer when we recorded there.

We did two or three tracks (again I can't remember), and I don't believe any were ever officially released. One track involved wheeling my 1965 Vespa 150 into the studio and recording the engine as it was revved up. This served as the intro to our cover of "Second Best" by The Mice.

The track that always stuck with me though was one called "Can't Hear You". Understand first that the title is approximate. One of the interesting things I noticed during my career in rock is that song titles are often the last thing that's decided on. Our songs were usually assigned a working title. This ensured they could be identified during practice or when playing live (you have to write something on the set list). The working title usually ended up being something that either described the song (i.e. pop song) or a notable line from the song. "Can't Hear You" probably never got an official name. I call it that because it's an easy way to identify it.

Which leads back to my previous observation about Jerry and lyrics. The words for "Can't Hear You" aren't exactly Jerry's lyrics. Well, they are in as much as he chose to sing them, but they're actually lifted from the jacket of "1969: The Velvet Underground Live". Specifically, they're a rough approximation of the track listing for sides 1, 2, and 4. The line, "can't hear you" was obviously Jerry's addition to the song, but the bulk of what's being sung is courtesy of the album.

I always liked "Can't Hear You", though that obviously wasn't enough to get it properly released and into the official Gaunt discography. Songs came and went, and "Can't Hear You" was pushed aside in favor of others. Since then, and not knowing Jerry's exact intentions, "Can't Hear You" remains an enigma to me. Was it a lazy joke? Were the words just placeholders that would eventually be replaced with Jerry's "real" lyrics? Was the whole exercise a case of Velvet's hero-worship or a nod to REM's Michael Stipe (who famously recited the liner notes to "The Joy of Knowing Jesus" for the backing track of "7 Chinese Brothers" (and later "Voice of Harold"))?

We'll probably never know. Truth be told I'm not entirely sure Jerry ever gave it much thought. He moved pretty quickly; and while he had his reflective moments, he wasn't exactly what I'd call reflective. Still, the song makes me happy. It reminds me of Jerry, his appreciation of rock history, and his belief that it was our band and we could do anything we wanted to.

Special thanks to Nick at Minimum Tillage Farming for securing a copy of this track. Nick is a treasure trove of information about Columbus music. You can follow his blog here: Minimum Tillage Farming.

Thanks also to my wife for teaching me how to write about the past.