You don't know what you've got until it's gone.
Each time the calendar flips to December, one can count on a parade of year-in-review stories; filling pages and websites with a balance of best-of and in memoriam pieces. With 2016 — the spectacular clustercuss of a year that it was — nearly in our rearview mirror one can expect an uptick in the wistfulness and mourning those stories will hold. Between assorted illnesses and accidents, plus the inevitable passing of time (spoiler alert: more gut punches will be coming sooner rather than later) this year took more than its pound of flesh.
Bowie. Prince. Cohen. Haggard. Phife Dawg. George Michael. It didn’t matter what musical camp you preferred, these last 12 months have had something to disappoint everyone. But in the midst of those losses there were those others who left behind magical musical moments even if their departure wasn’t accompanied by banner headlines.
In the 1990s, thanks to publicists being willing to send stuff to anyone with a URL, I was inundated with music. Some of it was garbage. Most of it was forgettable. But some of it — those glorious gems sparkling in the mud alongside the information superhighway — was stellar. Two of those brightest lights were Kevin Junior and Ross Shapiro. Odds are you have never heard of them and, even if you did, you wouldn’t have heard that those lights have gone out. Which is what brings me to the keyboard today.
I knew Kevin Junior as the frontman of the Chicago-based Chamber Strings. He had previously played with the Mystery Girls and the Rosehips before The Chamber Strings released two albums of melancholy, orchestral-pop beauty. With his Ron Wood hairstyle and suave style he oozed rockstar, but also maintained a Midwest approachability.
I first met Junior in person at Columbus’s Little Brothers when they headlined a show curated by the club’s doorman for his birthday. Many of the details of that night are fuzzy, but I do remember a roving magician doing some amazing sleight-of-hand tricks and what may have been home movies being shown on the wall. I also remember things running late, which could have led to grated nerves. But Junior and his band relaxed, alternately at the bar and backstage, smoking cigarette and buying their time before taking the stage. Once they did, for all you knew, they could have been playing the Fillmore, a basement, or a stadium. It was effortless, it was glamorous, and it was beautiful.
Not much later I travelled up to Cleveland to see The Chamber Strings open for the Pernice Brothers at the Beachland Tavern. Again looking every part the glam rock star with a velvet suit and flowing scarf — and yet somehow still fitting in with the wood paneling on the walls and the Blatz beer sign with one burned-out letter — he nursed his drink and juggled one conversation after another. He was the first person I ever saw woo a woman by stating that George Harrison was his favorite Beatle and actually mean it. Then, again, when it was time he and the band took the stage — which was only a half-step higher than the rest of the floor — and delivered another effortless, glamorous, and beautiful set.
The Chamber Strings were one of those bands that sounded like dozens of others, yet didn't feel derivative. They were fueled by the pop of The Kinks, Beatles, and Big Star as well as the soul and swagger of The Faces, with a dose of Johnny Thunders and David Bowie glam for good measure. Sadly, about the only place today to hear gems like “Cold, Cold Meltdown,” “Make It Through the Summer,” “Telegram,” and “Let Me Live My Own Life” now is on fan-posted YouTube videos.
Also, unfortunately, almost as quickly as The Chamber Strings came into my world, they would also leave it. Junior, shortly after the 2002 release of the second record, fell into drugs. This isn’t the place to recount that part of his story. Besides, it has been fully-covered in a gut-wrenching account by Bob Mehr in the Chicago Reader as well as a separate short video documentary.
As fans waited to hear something from Junior — alternating between hoping for new music and fearing news of an overdose — he eventually would come back to his native Akron (rumor says Chrissie Hynde was once his babysitter) to live with his mother. There he put together a new Chamber Strings line up. I would occasionally see a Facebook post that they were playing an Akron club and it was always on my to-do list to make it back to one of his shows. But I didn’t. And now I can’t. And that is what brings me to the keyboard today.
Ross Shapiro had much in common with Junior. They shared the reputation as a musician’s musician, indie-label disappointments, and a musical career under the radar. In other ways, though, Shapiro lived at the other end of the indie-rock spectrum. While Junior gravitated to the spotlight, Shapiro kept in the shadows. Many of the accounts of his life written after he passed painted him as Athens, Georgia’s, curmudgeonly hermit; a perfectionist who put together his bands and recordings in secret and a record store clerk who quietly judged each customer for their Schoolkids Records purchase. He had t-shirts printed that read “I Love (What Used to Be) Athens.”
This depiction surprised me because I don’t hear any of that cynicism in his songs. It’s not there on the first record, Double Thriller, (named so because it was recorded using the same mixing board as Michael Jackson’s smash). It was a local hit and harbinger of what was to come.
Their second record was self-titled and was released in 2000. Well, “released” may be a bit of an overstatement as (depending on what source you look at) either Capricorn Records or the short-lived Velocette Records stumbled out of the gate, meaning few heard it. But those who did hear it fell in love with it. Due to geography and at least some shared musical attitude, it benefitted from the excitement around the Elephant 6 musical collective, but certainly earned its own accolades. SPIN magazine, if my memory serves, gave it a 9 out of 10. NPR heralded it as one of their “Songs We Love.” Through its 14 tracks, the album alternated between dreamy, jazzy, poppy, rocky, funky, and folky. Some were driven by electric guitar riffs. Other by chunky keyboard chords. The constant was Shapiro’s slightly nasally drawl, delivering seemingly free-associative lyrics. As I listened to it again this week, over and over again, I would be hard-pressed to find a single wasted note.
The tour for that record brought The Glands to Athens, Ohio, and I excitedly made my way to The Union bar to see the show and interview Shapiro. While the opening act prepared the stage (again, memories are fuzzy, but I remember a line of musicians standing in boxes to produce a “Dorf On Golf” effect while playing songs like David Seville’s “Witch Doctor”), we chatted easily as he smoked and drank cup after cup of coffee. There was none of the reticence I would later read about. He seemed to love talking about music. The exchange I still remember was when I asked him how he balanced the jangly, off-kilter nature of many of the songs (think Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, and fellow Athenians REM) with the blistering guitar solos in the middle of songs like “When I Laugh” or “Work It Out.” He just smiled, took a draw on his cigarette and said, “Well, we all wanted to be in Aerosmith when we were growing up.”
In the following years, when other bands from the Georgia area came through Columbus, our talk would inevitably work their away around to mutual admiration for The Glands. Rumors of a new record would come and go with each conversation, but nothing materialized.
Then, in 2004 Shapiro was lured back out on the road by his friends in The Shins. This time the tour came to Columbus and they played to a full Newport Music Hall. While the band lineup had changed, Shapiro and the songs were still there. As they finished their all-too-short set, Shapiro smiled and waved. He looked happy. They had played some new songs. “They will be back,” I optimistically believed. Then they virtually disappeared for a decade before briefly popping up to play some gigs in Athens or spot shows with other bands. But now that chance is gone as well. Which brings me to my keyboard today.
There is nothing I can add to what will be written about Bowie, Prince, et al. They were more monument than mortal, which is what made their passing such a shock. They were something for us all to look up to. But let’s not forget those that we could see across a bar or a record counter. Those that shared their art on stages that are six-inches high, rather than coliseum alters. Those that were more lightning-in-a-bottle than legend.
The truth of the matter is that, in this century, I am sure that I have spent more time with Kevin Junior’s and Ross Shapiro’s records than I have with Bowie and Prince. That’s not said as some sort of ranking or judgement, but merely an observation that hit me with each obit.
So, as we move into a new year, let’s hold close to our heroes and all that they have brought us. But let’s also resolve to keep our eyes, ears, hearts, and souls open to those new (at least to us) voices and their contributions. Buy a shirt. Bend the ear of a friend. Make a convert or two. Head to your keyboard today. Because nobody knows how many more tomorrows there will be.