By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit August 27, 2009)
While it’s neither a photograph nor a live memory — it’s actually a painting — the image of the great Jersey Shore guitar guy Billy Hector that sums it up best for us is the one that appears on the cover of Hit the Road, an album by his old band The Fairlanes that unfortunately doesn’t seem to have been resurrected on CD.
Sporting what was then his trademark headgear (a fedora that’s since platooned with a beatnik beret), his trusty guitar sitting on the back seat, the jukejoint journeyman bluesmeister speeds out of the city at the wheel of a classic two-toned Ford Fairlane convertible — pointed, we can imagine, “down the Shore” and in the direction of the haunts he’s always called home.
Makes sense to us, as for all the mileage that this regionally followed roadmaster has accrued over the years, all exits continue to lead to his longtime base in Monmouth County, from whence he plies his trade at outdoor summertime festivals and boardwalk eateries; at iconic Manhattan nitespots and the most claustrophobic corners of local taverns.
While he’s remained as important a presence around Asbury Park’s music scene as the weatherbeaten Tillie-head that grins down approvingly from the top of the Wonder Bar, Hector’s musical persona has evolved considerably since his early days in the vintage SOAP band (and Stone Pony house unit) The Shots. There was Hot Romance, a curiously effective stab at marrying guitar-driven powerpop to the biker-bar blues that the band members cut their teeth on. There’s Acoustic Armada, an intermittent project that continues to rear up occasionally (as in a September 16 scheduling at Belmar’s Ragin’ Cajun). And there was The Fairlanes, a solidly satisfying blues-tinged rock band that boasted a fantastic personnel pedigree (including legendary Asbury drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter) and the first professional collaboration of Hector and his longplay companion, the stunningly skilled singer, songwriter and second guitarist Suzan Lastovica.
While her battle with multiple sclerosis eventually forced Suzan to withdraw from most gigging and recording (although there’s not been anything stopping the occasional onstage reunion), the Hector-Lastovica songwriting partnership has continued to drive the guitarist’s new music, as the Fairlanes morphed into the blues-purist power trio of The Billy Hector Band. Stripped down to the sonic essentials and “evolved” right on back to his roots, the affable guitarist has played with a newfound ferocity on such recent releases as Out of Order, Hard Rockin’ Blues and the all new Traveler — pausing to beep and wave at his Hall of Fame heroes before speeding off to a place where the blues is a marvelous makeshift machine that’s patched with pieces of punk and surf and whatever it was that the late Link Wray rumbled in his day.
This Saturday, August 29, Billy Hector marks his latest birthday with a special set or two at the Wonder Bar — a one-night stand in which the core of the Hector band is scheduled to call for reinforcements from longtime session scenester Tommy LaBella and the Midnight Horns. A door charge of ten bucks gets you into the birthday bash, which even if it doesn’t boast a piñata can at least grant access to the Wonder’s famous bar and far-out grille. Quite frankly, there’s no telling who might crash this party, so get a gift table going and join the fun.
Red Bank oRBit spoke to Hector in the middle of an ultra-rare weekend off; an outdoor gig in Toms River having just been canned due to storm jitters. Continue Reading for best results.
RED BANK ORBIT: It’s a little odd finding you home without a show to do all weekend. How often does that happen?
BILLY HECTOR: I know, it’s a little weird. This is the first time in ten years I’ve had Sunday off. I’m gonna try to write, try to squeeze some things in that I’ve been putting off. Actually watch some movies.
So how’s the blues business these days? I know the music biz in general sucks, but now of course everyone’s an expert in living the blues.
This year’s been slower, for just about everybody I’m sure. It’s a little calm, but if I get a few gigs going then I’m doing fine. You have to be a self-starter when you’re a musician — you don’t want to turn down work, because you know what it’ s like not to have work. So I don’t like too much downtime; I like to play, I like to feel things happening around me. That’s the good world. And whenever I had a day job, to me that meant I was failing.
And may I ask, you know, about the birthday show? When’s your actual birthday?
It’s that day exactly! I’m 53 this year. And I’ve been playing one way or another since 1965, although I don’t necessarily have any consciousness of all that time.
So that makes you an elder statesman, should you choose to accept it. I don’t know if you feel like an old timer necessarily, but how old were the guys that you thought of as being old, back when you were starting out? Like how old was Muddy Waters back then?
Muddy Waters? Let’s see, in 1965 he would have been something like my age now (laughs)! Well, there was a generation gap for real in those days. If I played The Animals for my parents they’d throw me out of the house. But I’m sure the first time you heard Green Day you thought it sounded like The Dickies. You grew up with a different point of reference.
Well, if I have to say anything in defense of the Greatest Generation, it’s that things really moved fast in the 60s; faster than anybody could be expected to process it all.
We went from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix pretty much overnight, so yeah, things moved pretty fast. But to me, there haven’t been any ‘holy shit!’ innovations for a while.
I would say that the real innovation is happening just outside of what we’ve always thought of as the music biz — almost like a new math that looks at the music thing as a subset inside something much larger. I’m interested in your take on Guitar Hero, for one thing. To some guys, it’s the death of guitar playing as they’ve know it, and to others it’s the savior machine…
As an introduction to guitar driven rock and roll, it’s a great thing. But when you pick up the guitar for real you find out how hard it is to play. You spend a lot of hours on it — you need to put in an extreme amount of time just to get four seconds worth of music. But Guitar Hero keeps everyone interested, it’ll keep a song like “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead current.
And how about the School of Rock sort of thing? I’ve seen kids that just have the most astonishing technique; they’re nailing some fairly sophisticated stuff like a young classical musician, but I don’t know if they’re getting the context of how this material came to be. So I’m asking if you think that this sort of training is going to produce some real innovators?
Sure, but it still has to be something you want. These kids that audition have to have 45 minutes of video of them practicing — they can tell which kids aren’t putting in the time it takes. The kids who work it out for themselves are gonna be the ones who succeed, but just like the kids who play on the football team, if you put three hours a day into anything you’re gonna have that skill for the rest of your life.
And unlike the football players, you’re gonna be able to put those skills to work well into your rocking chair years.
Well, I find that it’s actually a little bit harder these days to learn new tricks! But I’ve been working on it for about 30 years; I’ve got my street teams and my website.
I have to detour into the past a bit here, and ask you about your old bandmateJohn Luraschi, who we lost a couple of weeks back.
Luraschi was my man. He was pretty smooth, considering that he didn’t have a storybook life; not the kind of home life that most people had. He was orphaned at 16, and he was raised by his brother, who was a Pagan. He was essentially raised by bikers!
Most people like that would have folded into a pretty hard stance. He knew the streets pretty well, but he wasn’t like some ragamuffin, urchin sort of character. He was passionate about music, and he taught me a lot. I met him at a jam at the old Warehouse — which later became the Fast Lane, and we jammed on “Situation“ byJeff Beck, and he turned to me like ‘you better not be a turkey on this thing!,’ you know, almost fixing to fight, because he cared so much about how it came across onstage. But we became good friends, when he was working in an antiques store in Deal, and I lived in an apartment right above.
With Hot Romance, well, we were trying to be the Beatles like everybody else, but we were coming out of the Asbury R&B bands in our case. We were doing basically what The Commitments were doing in that movie — the drummer’s bangin’ all the girls, the singer’s out of his mind…
But it was hard to keep Hot Romance afloat. After that I had the Fairlanes, and when that was done I said fuck it, I’m just gonna play the blues. I had wanted to play blues when I first saw The Nighthawks — and by that time Stevie Ray Vaughan had hit, and I said wow, he hit it; he got everybody back into it, really stoked the audience. But I actually liked Robert Cray better than Stevie Ray; that for me was the light at the end of the tunnel for the kind of R&B band sound that I was involved with.
How about some non-musical influences? I always ask guys of our, uh, certain age who their favorite New York area TV kiddie show host was.
I liked Soupy Sales of course, but I can take it back further to Andy Devine andMidnight the Cat. I brought that up at a gig and a bunch of people there started singing the theme song to that old show.
But I’ve been a cartoon guy for many years. I’ll watch Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory — Pinocchio’s my religion. When you wish upon a star — that’s the kind of shit I believe in. And before you could find tits and ass on TV, we got our subversive stuff from Bugs Bunny.
And how about a favorite local or regional discount store?
For me it was E. J. Korvette’s, because they actually had musical instruments! When I heard the bass on Sgt. Pepper’s, I thought it was the shit, and I just had to have a new bass guitar they had there. But my parents said, ‘you already have a guitar, play the one you’ve got’ — and so I did, every day, to this day.
Really? You’re still playing your 1960s guitar? The odometer must’ve flipped on that thing a few times. Now, Bobby Bandiera told me he’s got over 90 guitars in his house.
I’ve never had that many at any given time — fourteen years ago I still had only three. Now I have maybe two for every day of the week. I’m not much of a shopper — although I do like blacklight posters — but I’m not really what you’d call an impulse buyer, except when it comes to music.
So what kinds of things might you impulse-buy off the racks at the record store?
Single-handedly keeping the recording industry afloat. And, I imagine, continuing to rack up the birthdays onstage like you rack up the road miles.
Oh yeah. We’ll be working it for as long as we can. It’s good to play; it makes folks happy and it keeps you interested in life. So I’ll be up there showing you some moves I learned on Shindig! I’ll be showing you things I learned from the Powerpuff Girls and Andy Devine!