Photo by Ian Gittler

I remember being a kid and frequently sitting with my single mom and big brother in our VW Bug waiting for a song to end as the car idled in the driveway outside our house in Atlanta, Georgia. This was the early 70s, and in those days of loosely formatted AM radio, one could listen to a single station and hear Elton John followed by Creedence Clearwater Revival, followed by The Ohio Players followed by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show. Pop, soul, rock and roll, and country - one-hit wonders rubbing elbows with established stars, tunes being spun on 45 RPM singles by DJs who seemed like close friends. By the time I started buying vinyl, the same needle that had worn out the grooves on my mom's Beatles, Janis, Dylan and Donovan albums was now etching its way through my Zeppelin, Skynyrd, Heart, and Frampton records.

I picked up a bass at 14, just as the 80s dawned. After seeing the Rocky Horror Picture Show too many times than I recall and discovering Cheap Trick and the Police, I quit my teenage heavy-metal cover band (Ickee Phudj) and subsequently was burned in effigy at a keg party. My headbangin' buddies were upset that I'd “gone new wave.”

 

Wee Wee Pole 1983
l. to r: David Klimchak, RBW, Todd Butler, RuPaul

 

My first band of note was called Wee Wee Pole, and our lead singer was RuPaul who at that point was more of a thrift-store cross dresser than a drag queen. He told anyone who would listen -  and many who would not - that he was a "Superstar In Exile," which turned out to be true. I learned a lot from Ru: he was a fearless showman with soul. We had a drum machine and wrote Prince-influenced songs, toured a bit through the South and even played a couple of dates in New York, where I fell in love with the big city. I left the band soon thereafter. You can read a brief passage about me in RuPaul's autobiography Lettin It All Hang Out (I'm misquoted.)


Go Van Go, Athens, Ga. 1984
l.to r. Vic Varney, Dana Downs, RBW

After a year in Athens, Georgia, where I was bassist in highly influential luminary (ex-Method Actor) Vic Varney's band Go Van Go, I left the antebellum wraparound porches, cheap rents, and sweet tea for Manhattan, where I lived for 16 years.
RBW with the Fleshtones1986
 

 

Not long after landing in New York, I hooked up with garage rock titans The Fleshtones, with whom I stayed on as bass player for almost two years. We toured Europe and the US, and I learned much from them about the blues and many unsung underdogs of rock and roll. Vocalist Peter Zaremba - another fearless showman with soul -   likened playing in the Fleshtones to "rescuing and revivifying the bones rummaged from the musical glue factory." (here's a link to and interview about my time with the band:The Fleshtones Archive)

back to top

( by Jimmy Cohrssen)
RBW, Fleshtone, backstage at 930 Club, Washington D.C. 1987

Upon leaving the Fleshtones I set about becoming a singer-songwriter-bandleader, focusing on incorporating all I'd learned from my many musical endeavors. This was harder than I thought it would be, and after some disappointments I detoured into acting, where I had some success playing bad guys and - who knew? - musicians.


RBW as Buddy Holly 1994

This led to my being cast as the lead in the West End production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story in London, where I performed 17 songs a night, playing a Stratocaster and singing live, and doing a bit of acting.

 

back to top

Great Granddad Josephus
(orig photo circa late 1800s, re-photographed by Dan Howell)


After a year of Buddy, I was more than ready to go home, where, unbeknownst to me, my wife Holly had sent in an old demo of mine to Rosanne Cash in the hope that I would be selected for inclusion in a songwriting workshop she was conducting. I got in, and my life changed.

Through Rosanne's workshop and many solo acoustic gigs, I began to find my voice as a songwriter. My chops as a performer had been honed during my stint as Buddy, and soon I began writing and recording with confidence. With the birth of my son Jackson in 1998, I began to look deeper into the dark and sometimes troubled history of my southern family. After my maternal grandmother opened up to me about her past - not long before she died - I wrote much of what would become my debut ...to this day, which I released on my own label Jackpot Music. I was also finally able to write a song about my estranged and long-deceased father ("Blue Impala") - something I'd been attempting for many years.
I had become a stay-at-home dad to my son and this proved to be another major turning point in my life, the greatest opportunity, the most precious gift I've known. There is a song on ...to this day - "Jacksong" - in which I tried to articulate this gratitude.

The response to ...to this day was deeply satisfying. The CD got good-
to-great reviews in Billboard, Performing Songwriter, The New York Times, No Depression, and many other publications. I gigged a lot in the New York area and beyond, and was the featured artist on National Public Radio’s nationally syndicated “World Cafe” where host David Dye called ...to this day "a gem of an album." I hooked up with international distributor Redeye and sold a few thousand copies.
(by Ebet Roberts)
RBW and Wanda Jackson 1997

While promoting ...to this day, I came in contact with sexagenarian rockabilly legend  Wanda Jackson, who had started to book shows in the New York area and needed a band. I put one together for her which she christened The New York Party Timers. This band, in which I held down bass duties, would go on to record a live album with her entitled
Live and Still Kickin'.

 

back to top

 

(by Dan Howell)
RBW, NYC 1997

The year 2001 brought some major shifts for my family and myself. In addition to watching from our rooftop as the World Trade Center came down on 9-11, we lost our apartment in the East Village of Manhattan after a long legal battle with our landlord. Plus Holly and I were dealt some severe blows in our personal lives. We decided to head for the hills, ending up in Phoenicia, in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, a couple of hours north of The Big Apple, trading life in a tenement apartment for rolling hills and an actual house. The change did us good.

Meanwhile, a demo of a new song I'd written entitled "Sudden Strangers" got placed in the WB series Felicity, and I got my first royalty check. Also, Rosanne Cash - with whom I'd become friends after the workshop - called and asked if I would help her finish a song she'd been working on with her husband and producer John Leventhal. It was entitled "44 Stories" and I jumped at the chance to collaborate with them. It would go on to be cut number two on her Grammy nominated Rules of Travel, an album included in many critics' year-end "best of" lists.

The Catskill region has been haven to many music legends over the years. The Band lived here, as did Bob Dylan and Todd Rundgren, and the area still is home to NRBQ, : Kate Pierson from the B-52's, Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw, legendary drummer Jerry Marotta and, most recently, David Bowie. Jerry  - who I met in the parking lot of my son's preschool - and Kate both agreed to perform on what would become Lazyeye- my most recent release.

(by Stephanie Chernikowski)
RBW, Lazyeye 2004

My friend Ralph Legnini recorded, engineered and produced Lazyeye at his own E Boy Music Studio in West Shokan, NY. After producing my debut myself, I was ready to let go and incorporate someone else's perspectives into my songs and Ralph was perfect. With a real pop sensibility - honed from years of working with Rundgren -  and impeccable taste, he added a depth to my tunes that still surprises me when I listen to the versions we captured for Lazyeye.

 

back to top

As it took shape, I realized Lazyeye would be quite different from ...to this day. My debut had more southern gothic elements, as well as a mixture of organic and synthetic instruments, and without a core band, I ended up playing a lot of stuff and overdubbing. This time out I used more musicians, so Lazyeye has much more of a live band feel to it, with a couple of songs having been tracked with few or no overdubs. It rocks more than ...to this day,  but it does have its share of intimate ballads. There are some co-writes as well - three with my friend Josh Roy Brown, who also graces much of Lazyeye with his stellar dobro, lap steel, and six-string guit-slingin'.


The songs on Lazyeye have an arc to them. The recurring theme is love through loss, through mistakes, through the shifting tides of time. Love when it ain't so pretty. I found I'd written a batch of love songs for my wife of 15 years, and they're gritty, edgy love songs, which is why I'm not embarrassed to play them. She and I have been through a lot. "You Look Good In The Rain" is about experiencing how adversity can deepen one's feelings for one's mate, and "Build Better Wings" is a song of hope. The title for the latter came from an obit for Stanley Kubrick, who said he interpreted the Icarus myth not as "fly the middle way" but "build better wings." (Do a Google search on "Icarus" if you don't know what I'm talking about.) I was thrilled when Rosanne Cash agreed to sing harmonies on this one, and then it got even better: John Leventhal added a great electric guitar part and a gorgeous lead.

"Vintage Valentine" works similar terrain as "You Look Good In The Rain" and contains one of my favorite sets of lyrics: "I'm a vintage valentine, I got creases and coffee stains/Half empty bottle of wine, half full glass of champagne". "Vertigo Blues" is a look at the darker side of surrendering to attachment to another.

"My Dear Friend" is a song about having to "divorce" a friend when the bond cannot withstand diverging lifestyles. "All Souls Day" takes its title and theme from the oft-overlooked (in this culture) Catholic holiday where death is reflected upon not in a solemn way, but in an accepting, humble way - to give perspective to those of us sifting through the ashes.

The title Lazyeye comes from the fact that I have a lazy eye. I was born with it and at long last I am not embarrassed by it. Because this group of songs frequently touches on acceptance of imperfections, even deep regard for things frayed, torn, scarred and bruised, I thought Lazyeye would fit. And it does.

As Leonard Cohen says in "Anthem": "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in”.

 

back to top