Thursday, October 09, 2014
LOU WHITNEY CHANGED MY LIFE by BEN VAUGHN
In the winter of 1981, I was living a life of quiet desperation as a freelance paste-up artist in South Jersey. I was divorced with a five-year-old son and at the wise old age of twenty-five decided I would never have a career as a musician or songwriter. I liked a zillion styles of music and I was writing songs in those styles but most of the people I played music with were convinced that the only way to make it was to choose one genre and adhere to it right down to the appropriate wardrobe and musical gear. I must have believed it too because I ultimately chose to opt out altogether. To say I was discouraged would be an understatement. I wasn't even showing my songs to anybody anymore. In my mind it was over. The dream was dead. Then I met Lou Whitney...
Lou's band the Symptoms were performing in New York at the old Peppermint Lounge on 45th Street, opening for a popular new wave band. I'd driven two hours to catch their show because Lou wanted to meet me. A friend of mine had released a 45 of the Symptoms’ recording of “Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)” and I cobbled together a picture sleeve for it that Lou really liked. It wasn't much more than a photo of the Viscounts' sax player playing a car transmission instead of a horn but Lou loved it and sent word that I would be on the guest list. Their version of the Swingin' Medallions’ tune sounded great and I had never been on a guest list before so I hopped in my heat-challenged '65 Rambler and made my way up the New Jersey Turnpike.
The place was packed with new wave hipsters. You could feel the electricity. The New York club scene was really happening in the early '80s. After a long wait, the stage lights came on and the most normal band in the world came walking out. They looked like they had just finished working on their cars. There wasn't one single trendy thing about them. These days it's hard to believe how unusual that was but back then it was astounding. Lou kicked off the first song and they were off and running. And run they did.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing. It was a revelation. They played country, blues, rockabilly, swing, garage rock, girl group stuff, surf instrumentals, you name it. And they were smiling! They were (dare I say it?) being themselves.
When I found Lou and introduced myself he shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, "Subaru, right?" It took me aback until I realized he was talking about the car transmission on the record sleeve. "Yep," I replied. "I knew it!" he said, and laughed out loud. I told him how much I loved their show and began rattling off my favorite moments until he stopped me and asked if I was a musician. "Actually, I'm more of a songwriter." "Really?" he said. "Send us a tape. We need songs. We're too lazy to write our own. Right, Donnie?" I looked behind him and D. Clinton Thompson nodded in the affirmative. Just as I was leaving Lou handed me a piece of paper with his address scribbled on it: "I'm serious. Send us your stuff." Wow. I had no trouble staying awake on my drive back down the turnpike that night. The next day I put together a cassette of song demos and mailed it to the address in Springfield, MO.
About a week later I got a phone call from Lou. "We just worked up five of your tunes and the audiences love them. Send more!" To say "and the rest is history" is hackneyed for sure but in my case it's true. I had touched the hem of the garment. Lou had anointed me. Everything changed for me after that. Lou told everyone he knew that I was good and because Lou told them they were ready to hear my songs -- which has led to a long career of doing exactly what I want musically. And it all started that night in 1981 when I met Lou Whitney.
Thanks, Lou, and good night. Wherever you are.