By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit June 25, 2009)
The singer and songwriter best known for his cover of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (which he took just to the edge of the Top 20 in 2001) makes his home these days in Philadelphia, a genuine Music City — or at least it was about fifty years ago, when they used to literally pluck kids off stoops and streetcorners to make them into the next teen singing sensation.
Ask the man himself, however, and he’ll indicate that home is really a series of adopted cities around America; hotspots of fervent fanbases where concerts always draw and an artist doesn’t need to reintroduce himself every six months — a list that has to include a little wide spot in the road called Red Bank, NJ.
Gaines has been making himself very much at home in Red Bank and the greater RB orbit since his 1992 recording debut; showing up with some frequency at the Stone Pony and Monmouth U and (the now defunct) Harry’s Roadhouse and as a featured attraction in Brookdale Radio’s Songwriters in the Park series at Riverside Gardens. Last May he co-starred with Josh Kelley and Ryan Cabrera in the Band Together For Survival Concert at the Count Basie — and this Sunday, June 28, he comes to The Downtown duplex on West Front Street for a special 8pm show that can be found about in great detail right here.
Red Bank oRBit spoke to Jeffrey Gaines about a whole lot of places — about Red Bank, Harrisburg, Philadelphia; even those intangible places in the public consciousness that don’t show up on Google Earth. Read on.
RED BANK ORBIT: So, welcome back to Red Bank once more. It’s been, what, three weeks since you were last here? You appeared at a big fundraiser concert at the Count Basie…
JEFFREY GAINES: That was cool — anytime you get to play the Basie is a nice thing. I do like Red Bank a lot; it’s a beautiful town. And if the town likes you, it makes it easy to enjoy your time there, and to keep coming back.
You’ve been based out of Philly for a number of years now, but you do show up around the Jersey Shore pretty regularly. Any chance you’ll make the move this way? You’ll still be able to get your cheesesteaks at Willy’s…
Yeah, Philly can be a little tough sometimes. The streets can be rough for people. And when you speak to a Phillie fan, well, they’re a tough bunch to cross. You get into a discussion about something, you’re gonna hear about it — you might even feel it!
But you know, I’m never home anyway. There are places I’d probably like better — when I go on the computer, I keep LA’s weather displayed along with Philly’s weather, just to remind myself what I’m missing — but once you get into the system; you know, I pay my taxes here, my car’s registered here — it gets hard to leave.
Well, you didn’t have a problem leaving Harrisburg. Now, I’ve never actually been there, but my father’s whole side of the family is from around there — and it seems to me that musicians usually come from two kinds of towns; either they’re from a very supportive, artistic-incubator kind of environment, or they’re from a place that inspires them in that it forces them to look beyond the place where they grew up.
Well, Harrisburg is definitely playing the part of Liverpool in this story (laughs)! It was a great place to develop your imagination — you immediately begin to imagine the bigger world beyond your neighborhood.
It was actually kind of a rural area where I grew up. Every house, including ours, had a van outside with the owner’s name painted on it — plumbers, electricians, painters, all the trades. You would look at that and say to yourself, ‘Man, this cannotbe it! Can it? So I’m just gonna take over the family business and stay here?!’
And if you did, you’d probably be hurtin’ even more than the average struggling musician these days.
It was really a better deal for my dad’s generation; you could raise a family, make it work with self-employment in the trades. My dad’s business was JG Carpet Service. When he started in the 1970s, it was a good time — everybody wanted shag carpeting! I helped out a little when I was younger, and on the weekends my bands would be playing.
Was there anything resembling a band scene around town, or did it mostly come from listening to records and the radio?
The cool thing about the Harrisburg scene was that there’d be bands playing a lot of UK, new wave, punk stuff. I would go to a place called Little Joe’s and see this group called Friction. They were a band who played songs by people whose records you should have in your collection. I first got introduced to Iggy and the Stooges from hearing this band Friction.
It occurs to me that you were there when the whole Three Mile Island thing hit.
Yeah, that was a pretty interesting time — a very serious situation when you look back at it, although at the time it was just an excuse to get out of school for the day. You know, wow! Cool! No school! Later on, when I went to Europe in 1992, whenever anyone learned where I was from, that’s all they’d talk about. That’s how they’d identify the place. Either that or Hershey’s kisses.
Well, at least you don’t need to spend three hours explaining where it is you’re from. Now, you’ve always struck me as a performer who’s obviously kept his ears open to a lot of different music; somebody who uses influences from some unexpected places in the service of your own material.
Yeah, when it comes to your own music, you start studying each part of a recording that interests you, and then sometimes you surprise yourself when it comes out in something that you’ve written. I have influences that are not apparent to even my best fans.
A good example of that is the song ‘Hero In Me‘ — it has nothing to do with Black Sabbath, right? But when I listen to the bass pattern, the part that I’ve worked out for my bass player, it sounds to me a lot like ‘Electric Funeral!’ In fact, if you distort my songs a little, add a little more guitar, it begins to rock very hard.
And then this other song from my first album, ‘Love Disappears,’ we could have done as a more straightforward rock song, but we wound up doing it with an accordion solo! Garth Hudson, from The Band, came in and played the accordion on my first record.
A lot of heavy-duty history walked into that room when he came to the studio. But what you’re telling me kind of feeds into the question of whether you had any conflict, any back-and-forth with the record company about how you were marketed and presented to the public. If you don’t mind my saying so, it seems to me they didn’t have a real clear idea of what to do with you sometimes.
I didn’t really have much back and forth about marketing — although I remember not really being comfortable with my marketing sometimes. With one of my albums, the record company sent out the disc to press and radio people with a bottle of wine! I thought that it added an elitist classism to the whole thing.
I guess that depends on what kind of wine it was! Listen, forty or fifty years ago the boss of the record label would be paying YOU that bottle of wine, then go taking the rights to your song for himself. But it seemed to me that, at the time, you were being presented as kind of cerebral and serious; they wouldn’t show you smiling or jumping around on stage…
There are a lot of young folk and rock songwriters now who are very comfortable with that whole intellectual image, but I’ve never been a salesman, you know, and I guess that kind of extended to my music — I never think anything through that way, because I’ve never tried to sell things to people.
My talent, that feeling I have inside, is never tied in to that sort of thing — the things that I need to do, to get me where I want to go! So I focus on what I know, which is playing in front of people, in all sorts of places — from theaters to little places that don’t even have a stage.
You can find yourself playing some nights between two swinging doors of a kitchen; trying to sing while dodging servers coming through with hot steaming entrees. One night can make you feel so proud, and the next night can make you so mad. But this is what I do, and it’s a great thing to be able to live this kind of a life.