ARCHIVE: Big Man on Campus

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Singer, songwriter, scenemaker, studio owner, writer of books, maker of vids, master of ceremony — there’s little that Joe Harvard hasn’t given the old college try in his 51 years, and this Friday at the Lanes, he’ll be getting that bowling-alley birthday party we all desire.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit January 5, 2010)

“Tell me, Sheriff — how did you ever get the name of Honest John?”

Almost nobody quotes W.C. Fields anymore, but the legendarily drinky comic master of stage and screen had a routine (lovingly preserved here) in which he attempts to tell, with endless delays, interruptions, digressions and disasters, just how he came to be called Honest John. The answer is completely anticlimactic, but it’s a hilarious five minutes or so getting to that point.

So how did Joe Incagnola get the name of Joe Harvard? It’s quite a journey, if you’ve got, say, a half hour.

And just how did this local legend of the Boston music scene come to be a mover and a shaker on the Jersey Shore soundscape? Got twenty minutes?

Want to know why this ever-engaging singer-songwriter, author, video artist and impresario probably won’t be returning as host of next year’s Asbury Music Awards? It’s quite a story, one with overtones of everything from Putney Swope to Miller’s Crossing — but at nearly forty minutes in the telling, we’re just not equipped to bring it to you right now. Plus the battery in our phone was about to go dead.

We kid Joe Harvard. Fact is, we’re happy to have him around, as a true character, a real card — or baby even the whole deck — on a scene that’s not always noted for larger-than-life personalities, or even a sense of humor sometime.

You might know this Boston native and Jersey Shore transplant for his Long Weekend series of freeform freakouts; a Monday evening offering that’s hosted presently in the Parthenon Lounge at Synaxis at the Shore and a tradition that originated at the legendary Beantown club Plough & Stars.

Or, if you’ve lived in this neck of the weeds for most of the past decade, you might know him from countless gigs — electric and acoustic, band or solo or just sitting in — where his encyclopedic sense of songcraft and multi-instro mastery found a niche and connected with an audience, often against the sort of overwhelming odds that a working-Joe musician faces down nightly.

Or you might know Joe from several years of hosting the “Azzies” — a gig wherein he and his mate Mallory Massara have tended to fang the feeding fingers with homegrown videos that have skewered every power-that-be from event producerScott Stamper to the LiveNation fun factory. To say that the jestees aren’t always on the same page as the jesters would be an understatement.

This same Joe Harvard is also known internationally as one of the founders and former partners in Fort Apache Studios, the New England recording facility that was to 1980s and 90s alternative rock as Sam Philips‘ old Memphis Recording Service was to country, blues and bastard offspring thereof.

Last but not least, some five years ago the man authored a little book called The Velvet Underground and Nico — one of Continuum’s “33 1/3” series in which musicians and fans examine a classic rock album that changed their life; in this case the beyond-influential debut LP from Lou ReedJohn Cale and their fellow fringe members of Andy Warhol’s extended circle. This alone would be reason enough for us to interview the College Guy; instead we never even touched upon the topic during a conversation of more than two hours.

All this and more delivers us to the doorstep of the Asbury Lanes this Friday, and our prime table-talk topic: the second annual Joe Harvard Birthday Party — in which Mr. Harvard throws himself a party at everyone’s favorite atom-age alterna-arts odditorium; inviting a virtual rolodex of cool scary friends and forever laying claim to the title of Big Man on Campus.

Yes, but precisely how did he come to be known as Joe Harvard? For the answer, you’ll need to read on.

Picture 3RED BANK ORBIT: This might be impolitic of me to ask, Joe, but how many birthdays are we bashing here this weekend?

JOE HARVARD: I’ll be 51 by the time of the party at the Lanes. In the autumn of my age. I’m semi-retired now, for various and sundry reasons, and to be honest I’ve slowed down. For 35 years I never said no to any gig, any chance to sit in with anybody — I played with 70 different acts just in the years since I came to Asbury. But fuckit, you can only do it for so long.

Well, the birthday show is already a two-year tradition and counting. What can we expect to see at the show?

We have Jo Wymer and her Itty Bitty Band — they were killer at the Awards show. We have Mike Black — he’s a funny, creative guy. A band from Boston named Mascara — the singer Chris Mascara is actually the guy who modeled the avatarsfor the Rock Band video game, and he played Jesus in a big production of Jesus Christ Superstar. We’ve got Xylophone of Wrench, the Loose Roosters – and the Joe Harvard Band.

Well, from what I hear your Long Weekend shows are still going strong in Asbury.

The shows at Synaxis have been going great; we’ve been getting a really good house, lots of enthusiasm, and Grant Hart from Hüsker Dü came by a couple of weeks ago — he wound up coming down to our place, down where we live now in Forked River out in the pine barrens, comin’ out in the snowstorm and staying’ to jam at the house on every single instrument we could find layin’ around. The experience inspired the next Long Weekend, which is all acoustic, bring any instrument.

They’re really good people at Synaxis; friendly and honest. We were able to move in there just one week after we played our last show at the Wonder Bar. After they went to football on Mondays and didn’t bother telling us about it. We did 23 weeks there, but I never thought we’d work there — it happened because they closed downO’Toole’s, which is the first place I did Long Weekend around here. Anyway, I had a lot of bad experiences with Live Nation.

But will you be back hosting the Asbury Music Awards or what?

You think I’ll be doin’ that? I dunno if you saw it, when we did our opening video, we made fun of the Asbury Music Company, Live Nation, y’know, awards show kind of humor; roast humor.

So anyway, the attitude after the fact was, ‘you came into the Pony with your hipster wit, and you took a big shit in our house.’

So you and your hipster wit expect to find a more accommodating port of call at the Lanes?

The Lanes is a great room. And Jenn’s a doll; a real straight shooter. I always wanted to do rock in a bowling alley, but when I first came to the Lanes I thought of it as a hangout for the hot rod club…now it’s more of an open sort of clubhouse, with art and films and sideshows. And they’re set up to show videos, which is great. The only flaw for me is that it’s not a place for Candlepin bowling. I just can’t bowl with those big heavy balls.

Think you might screen the Asbury Music Awards video again at the birthday show?

I don’t see why not! That’s a good idea.

So you’re actually living in Ocean County now?

Yeah, since June. I got divorced; my ex Kathy was able to sell the house we had and made enough to buy a house in England. She’s there now with our son Aidan, who’s six; he’s got the coolest mom, who’s very different from me — so ill matched, it’s a shock we were ever together.

I also got the shit beat out of me by three guys in Asbury Park, right on my block; I dunno, it was probably a gang initiation thing. I got sucker punched to the back of the head; they pulled me down by my guitar strap and broke my ribs in six places.

But, y’now, I grew up in a pretty tough place — the north end of Boston; Italian with a capital ‘I’ as opposed to Italian-American. A lotta wise guys came out of there. And then when The Godfather came out, it was like life imitating art imitating life — guys were fuckin’ killing each other over ‘honor’ and ‘loyalty’ and shit like that. I would say that 80 percent of my close friends from the old neighborhood are now deceased.

How does little Joe Incagnola from the north end become Joe Harvard?

I had another nickname; I would get called ‘Joe Shoes’ or ‘Joe Shoemaker’ because my father was a shoemaker; a cobbler.

My father was a legendary tough guy — a badass, little short guy, but sweet, y’know, he loved kids and animals. He was handsome, gregarious — also uneducated, but kind of cool. It was fun being his son; everybody knew him.

My dad built himself up; learned to box — he boxed in the army, and he was in the Army Olympics. He played semi-pro football, this little powerhouse — ‘Park ball,’ they called it; they played in Fenway! Very athletic, but I wasn’t exactly a chip off the old block — I played street hockey on shitty skates. I played a little baseball, but I’d get hit by the ball; fuckin’ strike out all the time — I couldn’t see for shit.

I did have my one moment of triumph in sports, in a minor league baseball game. Fate brought me up to the plate with the bases loaded, and somehow I hit a triple. Drove in the winning run. I don’t know what would have happened in my life if I swung and missed, but on that high note I said ‘let me hang up my fuckin’ cleats.’ I was always under a lot of pressure and I hated it; it was getting to me.

And this makes you Joe Harvard why? Because you gave up athletics for school?

I went to Harvard — to the business college. My mom worked food service jobs to put me there. I had a teacher who knew I was one of those kids who was smart but bored with the classroom; she said you live eight minutes away from Harvard, I’m taking you over there myself. I had no money but I lucked out with the interview; I got a local guy who liked me, and who got me a scholarship for poor but promising Boston area students.

But I wasn’t Joe Harvard then. In fact, Harvard came along just when the music thing came along, and it wasn’t until I flunked out that I got the name. I had got in an accident — I crushed my foot in a construction accident — and then my brother died. He had gone to Vietnam and got hooked, then came home and cleaned up, but wound up OD’ing. I was the one who found him, and I went crazy after that — I kind of stepped into his life, with the sex drugs and rock and roll. It was around that time they started calling me Joe Harvard.

And this was your entree into the Boston music scene?

I started workin’ at the Record Garage and met most of the crew — Billy Cole, from the Real Kids. There’s a great documentary on them — great because I’m all over it. And I met Jonathan Richman there — he came in one day while I’m doing some yoga exercises I invented. I was really into martial arts back then, and he saw me doin’ this stretch and said, what is that? We became friends; I didn’t even know he was this legendary musician when I first met him. We’d work out together. I taught him how to climb a tree.

And years later, he shows up In A Tree in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. He played the Wonder Bar a couple of years ago; another fine Asbury gig, and one just loaded with surprises.

I was the one who brought him in there! I keep in touch with him — we talked on the phone just last night. He sang me a new song he’d written, and I read him something from this book of hermetic texts from the third century.

He’s such an eternal optimist — of course, he looks great; his music is stronger than ever, and he’s got money now. And he’s a legend! People worship him. Me, I’m in my fifties; my health is shot from injuries and drugs, and I’m a lower-level legend if that. He told me something recently, he said ‘there are two kinds of people in this world — those who are depressed, and those who are lying about it.’ Which, when you think of it, is kind of surprising coming from him.

Alright, so how did you, the total Boston music guy, come to emigrate down to the Jersey Shore in the first place?

My ex Kathy and I lived for a short time in New York before coming to Jersey. Asbury Park at that time was someplace, well, you didn’t wanna live there; you just wanted to visit. A friend of ours said you wanna see the Pony — I came down, and it looked like Beirut.

A year later, though, it was obvious that if we were gonna get a place of our own, it was gonna be in Jersey. We needed to find a place like Williamsburg or Red Hook was — only get there first. The confidence level was up in Asbury; a lot of old places were being fixed up. We found a Victorian house that was beaten to death by the previous owners; they used the stairwells as indoor dumpsters. We’d knock down a wall and find a space filled with trash piled three stories high. So I did the whole journey — renovated a Victorian; married; kid; divorced.

And the journey continues, at least as it looks from here. You might be playing out a lot less these days, but the gigs count; they get attention.

It’s like when you’re 17 and tryin’ desperately to get laid and nothing’s happening, then when you’re 50 it starts fallin’ in your lap. I was letting it get to me personally, the frustrations of being a musician — it’s easy to get ego-confused. Twice a year musicians around here are called upon to play free shows, for the promotion of what’s supposed to be this communal spirit, and you wind up making no progress, while the motherfucks will motherfuck you every time.

So yeah, now that I’m semi-retired I’m doing stuff, just in the past few days I played onstage with Andy Shernoff from The Dictators — and on New Year’s I did the Southside Johnny afterparty in Red Bank. There were very few people there, but at the Oyster Point they do the afterparties with the people who appear at the Basie — Steve Winwood and others — and it’s a lot of fun. We got the call at the last minute and got it all together just as they were doin’ the countdown.

And I’m enervated about the Long Weekend shows. I’ll keep pushin’ it, ’til I break down the wall between the audience and the source of the music.