The weekend before last marked the 21st meeting of my one-day-a-year pseudo-band, the Monkey Power Trio. For those of you who might not be familiar with our origin story, it all began back in 1995 with a promise between old friends one hot, summer afternoon in Brooklyn. On the spur of the moment, we’d decided to make a record. We gave ourselves just one hour. We gathered whatever instruments we could find, and we made our way into an unlocked basement storage room somewhere, where we proceeded to scream and beat on things while an old cassette recorder whirred away, suspended from a string tied to a sewage pipe. The result was a 7″ record, which we decided to call The First Hour, acknowledging the fact that we’d agreed, shortly after finishing, to meet up and do the same exact thing every year until the point when only one of us was left alive. And, surprisingly, we’ve stayed true to our word for 21 years now, despite the fact that, every year, it becomes exponentially more difficult for the five of us to both get away from our real-world obligations and express ourselves creatively… This year, our destination was Cleveland, Ohio.
Why Cleveland? Because it was cheap and relatively central… Given that most of us typically have to fly to our session each year, we try not to spend very much, if anything, on accommodations. Whenever possible, we like to stay in the abandoned or otherwise vacant homes of friends, distant family members and casual acquaintances. Last year, we recorded in a soulless suburban McMansion of a recently divorced couple outside of Atlanta. The year before that, we recorded in some kind of converted grain silo outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming that belonged to the mother of a kid who once took music lessons from an old college friend. And, the year before that, if memory serves, we recorded in a vacation home outside of Lake Tahoe belonging to someone who one of us met while out walking a dog 25 years ago. [note: If you’ve got a place you’d like the Monkey Power Trio to stay in 2016, just let me know.] Well, this year, having finally run out of friends and acquaintances, we chose a place that would be somewhat centrally located for all of us, and then resorted to Airbnb.
According to the Geographic Midpoint Calculator, the best place for the five of us to meet, seeing as how we’d be coming from St. Paul, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Ypsilanti and Portland, would have been Potosi, Wisconsin. [You might know it as “the Catfish Capital of Wisconsin.”] Sadly, though, it’s not near an airport, and there weren’t any rental homes to be had. So we started down a several-month-long quest to find a suitable location in middle America. And, finally, just as we were running out of time before the holidays, we settled on Cleveland, where we found a house within a few blocks of bar that could be had for about $175 a day… Here’s where our 21st day as a band took place – a nice little house full of Winnie the Pooh motivational art, on a quiet street in the Brooklyn section of Cleveland.
Here, to complete the scene is a photo from inside the house. This is the room where Dan and Mike, our guitar players, slept. [The best room in the house usually always goes to Matt, the horn player. The worst room then typically goes to the guitar players, as it should be. And Dave and I split what remains.] If we had the budget for color album covers, I’d love to use this image.
[We recorded just on the other side of that tropical sunset.]
The session itself was relatively uneventful. It was just too damned fast for anything terribly exciting to happen. We were there for just about 60-some hours, a good portion of which was spent trying to come up with ideas for songs. [We give ourselves a 24 hour period each year in which to write, record and mix down a record’s worth of songs, but most of that time is spent eating, sleeping, fighting, laughing at one another, and trying to figure out how to adjust things so that everyone can be heard. This probably leaves us with about 8 hours to actually come up with songs and record them.]
Following, in no particular order, are a few things that stood out about this, our 21st session.
1. It’s weird how it all worked out. This session, for all the months of agonizing over it, and trying to find a date and a location that people could make it to, just kind of suddenly fell into place at the last minute. Dave flew into Michigan from Portland on Thursday night, and we drove to Cleveland together on Friday morning. As my friend Caleb had just died, I think it was good for me to have that time, just staring at the road and talking about stuff with Dave. [I’ve found that cars make a good place for men to have meaningful conversations, as you aren’t expected to make eye contact.] I’d debated not going, and just giving Dave the keys to my car, but I’m glad that I went… Among the many things I’ve realized in the wake of Caleb’s death is that time together with friends is precious… So Dave and I just drove and talked about mortality, our jobs, our kids, and our relationships. And, when things got quiet, as they sometimes do when men talk about serious things not related to sports, we listened to recordings of Phil Hendrie. [Nothing cuts awkward emotional tension like a segment featuring Ted Bell.] It was kind of beautiful and cathartic, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time for me.
2. Speaking of Dave, I asked him what his favorite part of the session was just a few minutes ago and he responded by saying, “My favorite part was that, although we’d decided to record acoustically, you showed up with a bullhorn.” For what it’s worth, it’s a good thing that I did. If I hadn’t, three years from now, when we finally get around to issuing the vinyl from this session, you’d be making up your own lyrics to songs like “Olympus Mons,” which, if you don’t know anything about Martian topography, could be really difficult. [I was inspired to write a song about space exploration by the furnace we were recording next to, which, at times, sounded like a spacecraft disintegrating during reentry.] By the way, I highly recommend just hanging out with a bullhorn around your neck, regardless of whether or not you’re writing songs. I wore it for an entire day and said almost everything through it, and it was really kind of nice. Things like “Pass the chips,” and “Get off the couch,” come across a lot more clearly when said at 5-times normal volume, especially if there’s just a hint of feedback… But, yeah, I now have a reputation for being “the dick who brought a massive bullhorn to an acoustic session.”
3. This session may have been our fastest ever. Aside from going out to eat lunch on Saturday and dinner on Sunday, all we really did was hit one bar for a few drinks, and make our way through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where we posed for this photo.
[Dave, who is standing next to me in the above shot, shared this photo with his significant other, who immediately responded by way of text, telling him that he looked like our “case manager.” Dave thought that was hilariously funny. Dave, I should add, is a professional bass player. The rest of us play our instruments one day a year. So it’s kind of fitting that he would be referred to as our case manager. His role in the band is to set everything up, record everything, and answer our childlike questions, which are endless.]
4. The bad thing about limiting our creative time to just a 24-hour window is that we can’t do some things we’d like to. For instance, we can never do a live show in front of an audience, or perform on the radio. There’s just not time left in the 24-hour window after writing and recording our annual songs. And, this year, I found this particularly painful, as I had what I thought was a pretty great idea. I wanted to record a song in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bathroom. I think it could have been awesome. And we had a song that would have been perfect, called Hello Cleveland, which you can hear in a few years. [It always takes us a few years to get records out. Our most recent record is from 2010, although we have a 3-year compilation hitting stores soon, which will bring us up through 2013.]
5. Speaking of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I liked it. Yeah, it’s pretty much just a bigger, better lit Hard Rock Cafe without booze, but there was some good stuff, like the CBGB’s awning and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit. My favorite artifact was Howlin’ Wolf’s “money case”. According to the accompanying note, he carried everything he owned of value in it, as he didn’t trust banks. [Here it is, along with his porkpie hat.] According to the signage, “He even carried the case with him on stage during performances.”
6. I mentioned earlier that there was a small neighborhood bar down the block from where we stayed. Well, it was called the Steelyard Tavern, and it was pretty lovely. There was an extremely diverse group of folks on the Friday night we stopped in… older black women, younger white guys. I was struck by how beautiful it was. I guess that’s what happens when it’s cold as hell outside and there’s only one bar in the neighborhood within walking distance. There’s a lot to be said for that, I think.
7. The house smelled aggressively of Fabreeze and potpourri. For the first few minutes after walking through the door, you’d swear that you’d never make it. Somehow, though, you’d acclimate… It’s amazing what the human body can withstand and adjust to if it has to.
8. Upon getting to town, before the other guys landed, Dave and I went shopping at the West Side Cleveland Market, which was awesome. I’d forgotten what it was like to shop in a market where vendors were aggressively trying to sell their wares, as most folks these days seem to be content to just wait until potential customers approach them. This place, however, was totally old school. People were at the top of their game, dragging you to their stalls, wheeling and dealing. Dave and I bought an entire crate of mangos for just $5. They turned out to be rotten, but it was worth it for the time we spent with the woman who sold them to us, who, although from Italy, was yelling a lot of Arabic at the other merchants surrounding her. It was nice to be reminded that sales, if done right, can be an art form… Oh, and we got some really good home-made smoked sausages from J & J Czuchraj Meats. [As we would discover, their “smokies” are delicious cut into small pieces and eaten between Cheez-Its.]
9. We watched an episode of Sanford and Son. Thankfully, it was an episode in which Aunt Esther featured prominently. This in turn led to an exploration of Redd Foxx’s standup work, which was considerably more strange than I’d anticipated. [I knew he worked blue, so I was ready for the graphic sex, but I wasn’t prepared for the tangents which seeded to come out of left field, like his extended riff on his violent hatred of midgets.]
10. This year, since I didn’t have to buy a plane ticket, I bought a good bottle of scotch. And, while Dave took my car to the airport to pick up the rest of the guys, I made dinner for everyone. I’d had this vision in my head that we’d sit around the table and have a “State of Monkey Power” meeting, like a grown-up board meeting, where we’d all report in on what we’d done for the band over the past year, etc. As it turns out, though, Matt’s flight was late, so I opened the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban myself and proceeded to eat almost all of the food.
There was more, but it seems to me that 10 items are probably enough for the casual Monkey Power fan. [I’ll save my other 20 or so items for the real fans who visit our pay site. So, if you want to hear about how Mike pissed all over my shoes, you’ll have to pony up your $7.95.]
One last thing… Even though it’s harder every year, not just to find the time to meet up, but to come up with ideas for songs, I’m still convinced that it’s worth it. It’s hard in this world to find collaborators who you love like brothers, and, when you’ve got that, you should fight like hell to keep it, even if you’re just meeting in a suburban basement to churn out what are essentially good ideas for songs, and not actually songs themselves. [That’s what MPT is, by the way. We create the beginnings of songs. Our hope is that, one day, others realize that, and start helping us realize the potential of the ideas we’ve sketched out in verse.]
Oh, and here’s couch from Jimi Hendrix’s childhood home, which, in case it’s not clear, was not in the house that we rented, but on display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was not impressed in the least by Joan Jett’s Jaguar, which was nearby, but I could have looked at the cigarette burns on Hendrix’s couch for hours. In fact, I’d love a whole museum of the well-worn childhood couches of people who achieved fame or notoriety. And I mean that in all seriousness. There’s something about worn fabric that conveys history like nothing else. [For what it’s worth, I also like carpet.]