Flying Under the Radar

“… at least you’ve been a has-been, not just a never was.”

— “The Home Stretch” by Loudon Wainwright III

“There’s nothing there, just rattle to that buzz

Somebody said something ’bout a never was.”

— “Monkey Dance” by the Tim Lee 3

In 1976, I read Ian Hunter’s excellent book, Diary of a Rock Star, which chronicled Mott the Hoople’s 1973 tour of the United States. In its pages, Hunter’s stated mission was to demystify the rock star thing, to pull back the curtain and show their longtime fans how the machinery of the music biz worked. It’s a fascinating read that I’ve finished several times over the years.

Upon a recent rereading, the thought occurred to me to start a rambling dialogue, whether it be a blog or something less ephemeral, that followed the life of my band, the Tim Lee 3, which consists of myself, my wife Susan Bauer Lee, and our drummer Chris Bratta.

Ours is the story of a hardworking part-time rock n’ roll band, one that makes records and plays regular shows. One that exists on a different plane from famous bands or total part-timers who rarely leave the comfort of their hometown to perform.

It’s not glamorous, but it’s not a downer trip either. It’s just what it is: the story of three people who love to make racket and see various parts of the country through that racket.

So c’mon and have fun with us.

— TL

Vol. 1: Tell Me Why (June 6, 2015)IMG_6205

What makes a grown man climb in a van and drive several hours just for an hour (or less) of being on stage, playing rock n’ roll?

It was the question I asked myself as we pulled onto I-85, headed back toward Knoxville from Charlotte, on a beautiful spring morning. We were on the cusp of summer, and most middle-aged guys were washing their cars, mowing their lawns, or getting ready for a cookout with the family and friends.

I was driving.

My band and I had just fueled up: gas for the stealth van and coffee for the body and spirit. It was time to roll home.

I considered the four-hour drive that we faced, as Susan and Chris checked email and social media on their smart phones. I thought about the question I posed at the opening of this bit of scribbling. I knew the answer, and frankly I was quite comfortable with my choices.

The previous night, our band played a show with two of our “friend bands,” as I call them, at a great little rock club called Snug Harbor. It was probably our fourth show in Charlotte over the past couple years, and it had been the best. We kicked off the evening with a short set. We played well, and the 45-minute affair felt well-paced. The room had a great vibe, a lot of energy, and the three of us had a blast.

TL3, Snug Harbor, 06.05.15, photo by Terry Roberts

TL3, Snug Harbor, 06.05.15, photo by Terry Roberts

The audience of approximately 40 people were quite responsive, and we made some new friends and fans from those who mainly were on hand to see 6 String Drag, a killer roots-rock band from Raleigh, and local rockers the Temperance League.

The ‘League features our long-time pal, Shawn Lynch, who was also kind enough to put us up for the night. We met Shawn several years ago when he was playing bass with Mitch Easter, who made the drive down to Charlotte from his home in Kernersville to see the show and hang out.

I could write volumes about Mitch and his impact on me. My old band, the Windbreakers, first recorded with Mitch at his Drive-In Studio in the early ’80s. Shortly thereafter, he asked me to play with his band, Let’s Active, on their 1984-’85 Cypress tours, giving me my first real taste of playing music on the road. During that period, I made many of the friendships that I carry to this day.

I’ve learned a lot about music and recording from Mitch over the years, having been fortunate enough to spend a goodly amount of time with him, playing shows and making recordings. He’s a unique individual, and I picked up a lot from him about making a life that is your own as well.

It was great to share a few moments with him. He’s a pretty private person, so we enjoyed seeing him out. He’s also a hero to many people, and occasionally our conversations were interrupted so he could pose while people had their picture taken with him.

IMG_6211The miles clicked off as we drove west toward the Smoky Mountains that separate our home in the valley from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, and we listened to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” which is pretty standard fare for us. I followed the program, but thought back to the previous evening and how good it was to see and visit with Mitch. We’ve had a lot of good times with him over the years. Here’s to more.

I thought about the set we played, the chemistry we enjoy as a band, and the sheer joy I derive from playing electric guitar with the two other people in the van. I thought about how 6 String Drag had killed it, playing an even higher-energy set than I’d seen them play several months earlier. Great band.

Temperance League played a strong set of their anthemic rockers, despite a meltdown by their other  (i.e. not Shawn) guitarist, who packed up and left during the middle of their show. Apparently, that’s become a relatively regular thing, and honestly, they sounded fine after he left and Shawn and keyboardist Jay Garrigan were able to shine.

Either way, I wish them the best. They’re good folks.

It’s a funny thing, this band thing. You can spend years playing with different people and never find that chemistry that makes a combo special. It’s that undefinable communication that separates a group of musicians from a true band, a living, breathing entity. Some folks find it pretty early. Look at R.E.M. That original group of four individuals found each other early on, and together they became a force of nature. They just had it. Each member’s strengths supported the others’ strengths, and also covered any potential weaknesses.

I’ve played in my share of combos over the years, from various ragtag collections of misfits to well-rehearsed professional outfits. On occasion, I’ve experienced that collective chemistry, but I have to admit that feeling is pretty rare.

As rare as that chemistry is, it is among the most thrilling experiences there is for those who have been fortunate enough to feel it. When it happens, it’s an electricity of sorts, a bond that tugs at the soul, and in the best circumstances, pulls the body along. Time stands still, conscious thought leaves the room, and the groove carries you along.

I experienced it for the first time when I was probably 14. My family lived in a small town in south Mississippi, and a friend of my older sister knew that I was learning to play guitar. He was looking for someone to accompany him so he could crank out some solos, so he invited me over one day.

David Bowling was a skinny red-headed high school student with a Fender Mustang he played through the family stereo in the den of their house. I had an old Kay hollow-body with ridiculously high action, the knowledge of a handful of chords, and a tiny Silvertone transistor amp I’d convinced my folks to buy for $25.

In retrospect, I have no idea how David had the patience to teach me how to play bar chords, and the riffs to “Johnny B. Goode” and “Jumping Jack Flash.” But the moment I could suffer through the pain of pushing down on that old Kay’s strings and follow along while David reeled off solo after solo, I was hooked. It was thrilling to hear (and feel) the meshing of two musical instruments in some sort of synchronicity. I’m sure we were terribly out of tune and time both, but I’ve never forgotten that feeling.

I still chase it every time I pick up a guitar. Like an addict, I can’t get enough of it.

We kept pretty quiet as we rolled down the road, now on the more scenic state route 74, past green fields and older farm homes, not to mention a rare still-functioning drive-in theater, which was showing Poltergeist and Mad Max. We wondered aloud if this was actually 2015 or 1985.

Lengthy drives are often accompanied by long stretches of silence. Occasionally, either Susan or Chris read a post or a tweet out loud, and we all offer our comments on whatever topic. I can’t resist answering the questions during the “Wait, Wait…” rapid-fire sessions out loud and sharing the humor I find in road signs along the highway. Chris is a pretty quite guy, but he’s also known among our lot as the one most likely to offer up the funniest joke of the day. It’s also not unusual for us to engage in long conversations about music and/or musicians, books, movies, or politics. Anything to pass the time.

And anything can set us off on a tangent that lasts as long as the road itself. On a recent trek to Richmond and D.C., our friend Kevin Abernathy came along. He’s a great singer/songwriter and guitar player who we work with on occasion. At the onset of the weekend, he told us about the car he’d seen with the words “I have a awesome life” printed on the window in shoe polish. That led to a running joke about grammar usage, another popular topic in the TL3 stealth van, given my history as an editor, Chris’ English degree, and Susan’s experience with printed media. Maybe grammar and NPR are not as exciting as sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, but like I said, anything to pass the time on the nation’s highways, where the exits are getting more generic everyday.

That’s another thing about a band: you spend a lot of time together. Between travel time and rehearsals, even a part-time band is together for a lot more time off stage than on. It helps to enjoy the company of your companions. I’ve certainly spent more than enough time in vans, dressing rooms, and practice spaces with people who were hard to get along with or just unpleasant on one level or another.

Fortunately, we don’t have that problem.

With Susan, there is the obvious chemistry that has kept us together as a couple for more than 30 years through thick and thin, and we’ve experienced plenty of both. She started playing about 12 years, and came into her own as a singer and songwriter at the onset of this particular band some nine years back.

When she got more serious about music, I wondered what it would be like to be in a traveling band with her. Sure, we’d covered many miles together a lot over the years, but there is a difference between being half of a couple and being part of a larger contingent, even if it is only three people. Fortunately, she’s a serious trooper, just wants to go places and play. She calls herself “one of the guys” on the road. Sure, she appreciates a clean place to change clothes and “be a girl,” but she rarely complains about the accommodations, unless they’re bad enough that we all grouse.

Chris shares her passion for going places and playing music, so as the de facto ringleader my job is pretty easy. The only downside is that they are happy to leave me to make most of the decisions. I don’t mind, but I do feel the burden of thinking for three people sometime.

I’ll ask if they’re ready to stop and eat, and they’ll generally answer with, “Sure.” So I ask what they feel like eating, and the answer is usually, “Whatever’s fine with me.” Chris and I joked recently that I just needed to start pulling into restaurant parking lots and announcing that place as our dining destination rather than even asking.

“We’re here,” I’ll announce in our fictitious scenario. “Captain Carl’s Seafood. Pile in and belly up to the salad bar!”

“Yeah, that’s the way that conversation always goes,” Chris agreed with a chuckle.

At some point, one of us mentioned the previous night’s show at Snug Harbor, and we all agreed again that it was a high point, recounting various reactions from people. I find this is a necessary thing within our band. We’re not downer people at all, but it doesn’t hurt to remind yourselves, collectively, of the positive aspects of this crazy lifestyle.

It gets back to that reason for climbing in the van in the first place. If you love the buzz that you get from playing music with your friends, it’s worth all the hours on the highway, the lack of sleep, the crappy truck stop coffee, and occasional inconveniences. It just is.

This is our fun. It’s our version of fishing trips, family vacations, beach visits, and golfing excursions all rolled up into one. And we do it more weekends than not. It is a joy, not a labor.

Is it work, though? That’s a good question. My best answer is that it shouldn’t feel like it.

Our band exists in a funny spot. We play music because we love the experience, the travel, the buzz of our own chemistry, the fellowship with other bands, the fun, and the element of the unknown that awaits you every time your tires hit the pavement.

Susan and I have always had full-time jobs, but that has changed recently. The company we were both working for (doing magazine production out of our home) bit the dust a couple months ago and left us hanging. We’re nothing if not resourceful, though, and we’ve so far managed to eke out an existence that works for us financially. There are long-term questions that must be answered in time, but for now I’m doing light construction work for a friend and Susan’s taking on more freelance graphic work, and we’re pulling the ends together.

That change also means the band is now an important part of our income. Previously, we never thought about the money aspect of it, and frankly the finances usually just took care of themselves. We’d hit the road for a three-gig weekend without negotiating a penny ahead of time, and more often than not, we came home with dough in our pockets. Maybe not much, but usually something.

So far, we’ve not changed the way we operate much. We’ve played some shows recently that were pretty profitable, mostly festival-type things, which helps. Our band overhead is low too, and that helps.

We also have a side project band called Bark, which features Susan on drums and me on Bass VI, which is like a regular six-string guitar tuned an octave lower. The two of us have started doing shows as an acoustic duo as well, which gives us even more flexibility, and we’ve been averaging close to eight gigs a month lately between the three setups.

Normally, on a weekend like this one, we’d play more than one show. But I never came up with anything to go with the Charlotte show, so it was an overnight trip. I handle the booking and can manage to keep us pretty busy. We played 50-something shows in 2014, going as far west as St. Louis, as far south as Hattiesburg, Miss., and as far northeast as Boston. We jokingly refer to ourselves as “the world’s busiest part-time band.”

The gig at Snug was based on a door deal, meaning a percentage of the collected cover charges goes to the bands to split. It’s rarely a super-lucrative arrangement, but it can work out. Last night, we received a reasonable amount, considering it was three acts. Not quite enough to break even on the trip, but we also sold a handful of CDs, LPs, and coozies, which put us over the top. We were able to pay Chris, cover gas and food, have our dogs boarded overnight, and Susan and I managed to take home a few bucks.

Nothing great, but honestly, I’d have gladly paid for the experience. Playing a fun show, seeing good bands, meeting new people, collecting a few stories to tell, and spending time with old pals … you can’t put a price on that kind of thing.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a large element of hard work that goes into this: rehearsals, songwriting, booking, planning, coordinating schedules, figuring out logistics all take up a fair amount of your time. Plus all of that happens during the time that you aren’t working a job, having normal relationships, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, taking care of pets, and all the requirements of everyday living.

Sure, we miss out on a lot of events that we’d like to attend because we’re gone a lot, but being out in the world, experiencing new things, making memories, and interacting with different people is a life-affirming activity, one that some of us just crave, I suppose.

Eventually, we lost the NPR station signal and being in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t find another one so Susan hooked up her iPad and “put on some jams” as she says. Her iTunes holds a few thousand songs, so she just puts it on shuffle and we listen to whatever comes up.

This morning, it’s the usual blend of old and new. Howling Wolf follows Thin Lizzy, which follows Wussy (our favorite current band). Soul singer Howard Tate bumps up against Sleep Kitty, a guitar-and-bass duo I saw at the Pilot Light one night on a whim. A song from our friend Dan Montgomery, a singer-songwriter in Memphis who has a shit-hot band and new record, pops up. I’m happy to hear an old friend doing his best work. The recent African band Tinarewin meets British punkers the Buzzcocks. R.L. Burnside, Cheri Knight, the Dirtbombs, Buck Owens, the dB’s, Big Chief Monk Beaudreaux, and Jimi Hendrix all take their turn in the cue.

I listened quietly, taking in the various musics, feeling the road buzzing beneath my feet, working through the traffic that moved with and away from us. I prefer driving to riding, due to my generally fidgety nature, so the steering wheel is no stranger to me.

Sometimes the digital listening device seems to sense your mood and provide the proper playlist. I’m not a particularly sentimental or nostalgic person, but what’s left of my mind is packed with good memories from all the years I’ve done this music thing.

Picking up on my musing, the iPad offered up “Don’t Go Away” by the Primitons, a band that came out of Birmingham in the ’80s who were close friends of mine. We played many shows together, often arguing good-naturedly over who had to play last at the notoriously late Nick in their hometown, or who would play first at W.C. Don’s in our town, and we worked together in the studio on occasion. They stayed at mine and Susan’s house many times.

Primitons principal Mats Roden was a lovable bear of a Swede, a massive gay guy with the voice of an angel and a melodic sense that produced “more hooks than a tackle box,” as Susan would say. Sadly, Mats passed away just over a year ago. He’d suffered a stroke and had some rough times in recent years. I regret not seeing him during that time, but we did communicate through the internet, and his spirits seemed to be good.

Such a sweet soul, such a killer talent.

I thought about his longtime bandmate, drummer Leif Bondarenko, a ridiculously handsome guy of Russian decent, who’d played drums on a tour with me once. I considered him the Southern Max Weinberg, solid as a rock with the “open style” of stick handling, completely instinctive. One of the best I ever heard. I hope he’s doing well.

Songs by Game Theory and Let’s Active followed, reminding me of more friends who have left us in recent years. Both GT’s Scott Miller and LA’s Faye Hunter took their own lives just a couple summers ago, devastating us, their friends and families. I knew Scott from playing shows together on the road and the time Game Theory stayed at our house. Faye was a closer friend, someone I’d collaborated with on record and played with on the Let’s Active tours. We last saw her just a few weeks prior to her death, when she and her friend Ricky came out to see us play in Winston-Salem.

She and Susan had a long conversation that night, and Faye looked well. It was no secret that she was having a tough time as care-giver to her aging mother, but she seemed to be doing better. When she and Ricky were ready to leave, she gave me a hug, one that lasted noticeably longer than the usual hugs between friends.

I’ll never forget that hug. It’s haunts me still.

It’s a drag to know we’re getting older and that we’re losing some of our contemporaries. For me, though, that’s just impetus to keep moving forward. No time to rest on one’s flimsy laurels; not enough hours in the day to slack off. Rock n’ roll ain’t gonna make itself, you know?

More songs came up, featuring more old friends like Lynn Blakey, the angel-voiced singer/songwriter who I met in the 1980s when she played with cool bands like Oh OK and Holiday. More recently she’s been in the equally excellent Glory Fountain (whose one full-length is an overlooked classic in my not-so-humble opinion) and Tres Chicas. She plays duo shows with her German husband, fiddler Ecki Heins, too. Another sweetheart and a monster talent. She gave me a black sweatshirt at the 9:30 Club in D.C. sometime in the late ’80s. I wore it for a long time.

A recent Dan Stuart song played, and I thought about my old pal, who I’ve known since Susan and I booked Green on Red in Jackson, Miss., about 4,000 eons ago. They stayed at our house for a couple days, and we stayed friends for years. Recently, we’ve been fortunate to reconnect with Dan and play a few shows together. He’s pretty much lived in Mexico since his divorce several years ago, but it’s always a pleasure to see him when he ventures north of the border.

Much of his new work is heartbreakingly beautiful. I can’t get enough of it. He published a book last year, a “fake memoir” about the GoR days. It’s called “The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings” (the same name of his last full-length solo LP). Go buy it and read it. It’s great fun.

I recalled a week maybe four years ago, when a bunch of us gathered in Tucson to play the HoCo Fest and raise money for our mutual friend Craig Schumacher, who was fighting head-and-neck cancer and trying to keep his WaveLab studio open during his lengthy bouts with radiation and chemo. Susan and Dan and I closed down the bar at the Hotel Congress for several nights in a row with bassist/producer J.D. Foster and singer-songwriter Richard Buckner. It was a helluva time, one of those memories that sticks with you.

I sometimes pinch myself and wonder if I really get to do the things I do.

Buckner played a killer set that weekend, backed by most of Calexico along with J.D. and steel guitar wizard Jon Rauhouse. Susan and I played a set with our Tucson pal Winston Watson on the skins, and we ended up joining Dan and J.D. and Green on Red bassist Jack Waterson (on drums) to play a set of GoR songs. I sat in with Saint Maybe, which featured Craig on keys, former Patti Smith guitarist Oliver Ray (lead vocals and guitar), and Winston.

It was a good time. A real good time.

That’s why we do what we do.

At some point, Susan mentioned that we’d been quieter than usual on this trip. I quipped that the preceding time had been one of “somber reflection” or something like that. She laughed so hard, she nearly snorted.

It’s not that she doesn’t take me seriously, it’s just that making a statement such as that is pretty out-of-character for me. After all these years, we get each other.

We drove I-40 through the mountains, me still behind the wheel, as usual, keeping the left-front tire glued to the yellow line that marked the outside of my lane. Large semis crowded every lane, but we slipped through the twisting, winding section of highway that leads you out of North Carolina and into eastern Tennessee, where the temperature was hovering around the 90s in the mid-afternoon.

In time, the three of us snapped out of our individual ennui one by one, and the usual van conversations carried us on home into Knoxville, where we eventually landed, unloaded gear, and got Chris on his way home.

Arrangements were made to pick up the dogs, and we settled back into our daily lives at home, carrying with us the knowledge that we’d once again gone out and done ourselves proud. Carrying the rock n’ roll torch isn’t the easiest thing in the modern world, where the latest technologies capture most imaginations, or in a part of the world that carries a much greater appreciation for the various incarnations of Americana, which apparently no longer refers to American music as a whole, but only a small cross-section of it. But this is what we do. We wouldn’t be comfortable with anything else.

So now we live life and prepare for the coming weekend, which will include a rehearsal and a couple nights in Ohio with our pal Kevin in tow.

Hope to see you out there somewhere.