NYC MERCENARIES

In the summer of 1993 I went to New York for the first time and joined a band. One of my first days there I was walking around the village and found Electric Ladyland studios. I tried to “get in” but failed (“Hi, can I come in and look around?” … “No.”). I crossed the street, walked into a record store, and saw an ad looking for a guitar player. I forgot who it said the influences were, but it seemed right to me. I had a dream of being a great songwriter but to that point I only had a handful of songs in my pocket, all bad. So I called the number and by far the best songwriter I’d ever known answered the phone.

“I must have put that ad up 6 months ago” he said, “I forgot all about that”. “Right on…so…do you want to meet?” I took the 7 train out and met Altogether Steve. I don’t remember what we talked about beyond the fact that we both loved Bob Dylan. I remember he looked cool to me. He had a ratty ass rehearsal room under his apartment and we’d go down there with his drummer Steve and play Dylan and Stones songs for hours. He was the only other guy I knew at the time who loved Hard Rain like I did, and we’d jam out the Hard Rain versions of all these Dylan songs. Total fanatics. Then he gave me his cassettes. He already had 5 or 6 complete albums under his belt (all tapes). I took them back home with me to Toronto that summer and fall and listened to them obsessively. He had so many great songs, I couldn’t get over it it. They felt like classics the first time I heard them, with titles like “If I Stay Here All Night”, “Both Sides Of The Ditch”, “Closer To The Light”… I went back and joined his band, The Mercenaries. We recorded a few albums (cassettes), and one or two CD’s. We played a lot of clubs. Once we opened for The Smithereens. We never actually toured because…I guess because we didn’t make any money or have any wheels. We should have thought to. He showed me around New York, took me to all the happening clubs and shitty dive bars. For awhile we lived in the same 12×12 room. Looking back, I don’t know why he sort of took me in like that, but he did.

The point is, all the while I never saw him writing, but he always had these great songs in his pocket. We hung out a lot, and outside of when we’d go out (almost every night) all I’d ever see him do were things like watch Saturday Night Live, read Weekly World News, eat Hungryman dinners, listen to Dylan/Replacements/Guided By Voices/tapes…but I never saw him work on his songs. Then he’d say, “Hey I’ve got 5 new songs for you to learn this week”, and they’d all be fucking great. Like really, really good. And deep. I realized that between the cracks of daily life, that must be all this guy focused on.

I’d say it pushed me to up my game, but the truth is it pushed me to get in the game. I kept trying to write songs even half as good as his. For some reason he’d let me get the odd one into our setlist and he’d play sideman for 3 minutes. Until then I just kind of wrote songs on the side, as if that was somehow going to be good enough. I got depressed. Who was I? Within a couple of years I’d dedicated my life to being a songwriter, regimenting myself to spending hours every day, every goddamn day, working on my songs in the same ratty basement we used to rehearse in. Because how else are you going to give yourself a shot to be great? 7 days a week, year after year. Songs. If I was still depressed, at least I had a ball of fire inside, centering me – an endless one, because there are always more songs to write. Eventually I left The Mercenaries because I needed to do my own thing, but we stayed good friends, and we still are to this day. The Mercenaries had some records out on Brooklyn based Spare Me Records, and Steve still puts out albums to this day…and they’re still full of A1 songs (last time I saw him he gave me a box set!). I never realized *what it took* until I met him and got to know his work.

Anyway, we often don’t get our tributes out for people who influenced our lives in some way until after they’re gone. I just wanted to give a shout out to one who’s still still very much alive and rockin’. My life took a turn in so many ways the day I answered that ad. I guess I have the intercom person at Electric Ladyland to thank.

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