Sunday, December 5, 2010

'Twas the Winter of '86

How do I write music? I am never sure how to answer that question. However, I do remember the first time I realized that I can write music. 'Twas the Winter of '86, when we started rocking the house...

My first attempt at writing music occurred sometime in the Spring of '81. It happened late one Saturday afternoon, during my post bowling league ritual, where I would retreat to the cool confines of the basement and watch Grizzly Adams on the TV (a ritual that still persists today minus the bowling and Grizzly Adams). During this time, I would often monkey around with my first real acoustic guitar; a $10 model purchased by my father at a flea market. Classic. Without knowing how to play at all, I figured out how to tune the strings to an open chord. I could strum them without placing any fingers on the fretboard and a sweet sound would ring out. Technically, I suppose, this was also my first foray into the world of alternate tunings (fellow guitarists know what I am talking about). Soon, I strung together a few chords - by fretting couple fingers at a time - and spun out some lyrics with a mountainous, all around nature based, theme (it should be noted that John Denver was a big influence on me at the time). I have no idea how many verses I wrote, if there was a proper chorus, or what, but I know that I recorded the tune on our portable cassette player and played it for a neighbor friend. I think she told me that I was bragging, so, that was the end of my songwriting career for the time being. God, what I would give to find those lyrics, that guitar, and that tape.  

Winter in Minnesota is when life begins. The onset of long dark nights, short days, and a two week break from high school. This was December, 1986. And I fell into a new ritual: afternoon band practice, eating Little Debbie Star Crunch snacks, and my paper route. I had joined up with two other local musicians, Marc and Rick, to form a kind of side power trio. Our mission: to write original music. We had come to know each other around the periphery of what was the music scene of Rochester, MN. Marc and I played together for one gig, in a punk band, a year or so prior, and I knew of Rick as a consummate drummer who played with various groups around the area. After some holiday party, followed by a cruise down Broadway, I ended up sitting next to Marc in someone's car. "Hey man, how's it going?" "Good. You still playing?" "Yeah." "Me too. We should get together and jam sometime."  "Cool. You know any good drummers?" "Yeah, I know this guy named Rick." "Oh yeah, I know who he is." The following week, we assembled in Rick's bedroom, and thus began our musical odyssey.

Over the course of two solid weeks, working almost everyday, we crafted more than a half dozen original tunes. Marc had come to the table with almost all of the completed song structures - basic chords, melodies, lyrics - and they were all amazing. Collectively, we polished them and added our own parts and personalities. There was quite a diverse mix of musical styles and influences at work, but we were united as a creative force. We clicked, and for the first time, I understood chemistry. We were a band. Even this early in our development, our roles within were defining themselves, at least in my mind: Marc (lead vocals, guitar) was the raw talent, spontaneous, a funny brooder, the soul, and the bringer of ideas. Rick (drums) was pure energy, literate, a studied musician, and the fire. Me (bass, vocals)? I was also the studied musician and the arranger of ideas. I was the guy who would help mold Marc's songs into a tighter framework, you know, the verse - chorus effect, maybe flesh out the instrumental ideas, etc. Basically adding a level headed smoothness to his more erratic approach. I was the boring guy. Taking credit from no one, and giving credit to all, this was a truly collaborative approach - all souls being equal. We formed a deep, yet volatile bond, and an enduring friendship.

For the most part, as I stated, I was acting as an arranger; adding where needed, reducing where needed, but I had yet to arrive with a song of my own. Save for my Grizzly Adams era, I had never really completed an original piece of music. Contributing as a component of the band setting was an important step in gaining confidence to do so however. Marc had a book of WH Auden poems, and, (not being unable to write lyrics at the time) one particular entry, entitled But I Can't, grabbed me, so, I set out to adapt it to a piece of music. That evening, I strung together all of the coolest sounding chords I knew on the guitar, hummed a barely  intelligible melody over the top, conformed the poem to a lyrical rhythm, and there it was, my first (second) tune. I played it for the guys, shaky with much hesitation, but, they loved it (though, Rick did refer to one of my vocal cadences as sounding like Barry Manilow, not exactly a compliment given the context). At least, that is how I remember it. In fact, the song was actually well liked by many who heard it thereafter. I never liked it though (a continuing theme to this day). Finishing that tune was a key moment in my development. As self-deprecating as I can be, I acquired an odd confidence in my ability. I could write music. 

The culmination of our two week effort was a cassette recording of our masterworks (I do have this one!) and we decided to call ourselves, Canadian North. A very cool name in hindsight. I think it was Rick's idea? We continued on from there - eventually changing our name to Watercolor Sky -  for a couple of years, wrote many more songs, enjoyed some success, but ultimately fizzled out due to the onslaught of real life and the demands that go along with it. You could call it a microcosmic implosion. A typical ending.

When I reminisce, the soundtrack I often conjure up in my mind's ear is the Bryan Adams tune, The Summer of '69. Our version, of course, is The Winter of '86. When I look back now, that Winter did seem to last forever. Were those the best days of my life? No way, but there is no escaping the reverie of such days gone by, and it cannot be replaced or lost. Life has taken many sweet turns since then, but, that encapsulated moment, on the cusp, before the real world began, we were on top of it, and, for two weeks, we ruled.
That year, I learned that I can write music. 'Twas the Winter of '86.


  1. I think you did it justice with that bit of prose. Reverie seems a bit of a deep word for that crazy time in my room. The best part was my mom telling me she couldn't understand the words at all but she loved hearing us give it a go. Canadian North was my idea as I was too big a Rush head at the time and probably wished I was Canadian, although in hindsight Minnesota was close enough. Thanks for your memory. It jibes a lot with mine. If only those other two weren't so quick to go to college.

  2. Funny you should say that about the word reverie. As I was completing my final revision, I started to wonder if I had ENOUGH words in the mix like reverie. I guess I didn't need any more. I am so glad you like the piece though and have the same fond memories as me. Those were great times...and important times too. Thanks Rick!

  3. Wow! - You have the same memory of this time as I do. We did rule. Collaboration and Chemistry sum it up the best. I just recently found the pictures of us in front of the Train Depot. I know those lights went off. Right? You can't imagine how honored I am that I am included in any part of your music. I have a recording of the 1st Ave show.....Cheers!

  4. Beth Jarrett (Schneider)March 27, 2014 at 6:28 PM

    As the sister in the next room, I can say that I have a very different memory of those times. However, I clearly remember the difference when Watercolor Sky stepped into Rick's bedroom after years of wishing that all that "noise" would just STOP, thinking, "wow, that isn't half bad" And, wondering, what if....
    I, for one, though then that "Watercolor Sky" was the coolest name for a band...
    Wonder if Rick has any of the original album cover artwork...
    I,too, thank you for the memory.