STILL COOL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS Richard Barone

The Bongos founder replays
his seminal classic
Cool Blue Halo two and a half decades after its live debut.

 

BY
LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Richard
Barone proved himself a pioneer of sorts when, in 1987, he took a momentary
detour away from his former band, the Bongos, and walked into New York’s Bottom
Line armed with a mostly new batch of material and a couple of accompanying
players from outside Rock realms to perform a set of songs that would later be
released as the landmark album Cool
Blue Halo. The
effort would prove a landmark of sorts, a recording that would initiate the
subset known as Chamber Pop and continue to prove its mettle some 25 years
later.

 

The
success of that album would eventually cause Barone to leave the Bongos — a
power pop outfit that helped establish the viability of the Hoboken New Jersey
musical scene, one which also spawned the equally influential dBs and
Smithereens — and carve out a respectable solo career that led to other
individual outings, a prodigious stage and studio producer resume and
currently, a tenure at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. At NYU the
latter assignment came about as a result of a well received 2007 tell-all, Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth,
a definitive guide to understanding how image and allusion tend to permeate Rock
‘n’ Roll realms.

 

Barone’s
currently focused on a pair of projects, the expanded re-release of the
original Cool
Blue Halo, and
perhaps more significantly, a double CD/DVD set that captures
the 25th Anniversary Concert that brought the same cast of musicians together
last May at the City Winery in New
York City. Retracing the original set list — one that
included choice covers (“The Visit” by Marc Bolan, David Bowie’s “The Man Who
Sold the World,” the Beatles “Cry Baby Cry”), a handful of retooled Bongos
songs and, naturally, his first crop of solo entries — the package was
expanded to include other material, a behind the scenes documentary, a book of
essays and some surprising cameos from the Band’s Garth Hudson and renowned
producer/musician Tony Visconti.

BLURT recently took the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Barone, who talked
enthusiastically about the project, the original effort and what’s transpired
in his career ever since.

 

 

 

 

 

BLURT:
It’s really hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since the original release
of Cool
Blue Halo.

BARONE: That’s
why I don’t believe in time. It doesn’t seem possible to me either that it’s
been 25 years. It was really Jay Frank at the record label that brought up the
idea of the 25th anniversary when I was at South By Southwest last year. He
came backstage and asked me what I was doing to mark the anniversary. I really
hadn’t thought of it. In a way, it was a wake-up call to the fact that it had
been that long.

 

Was
this album always special for you?

Yes, and there
were a few reasons why. For one, it was, of all my albums up to that point, the
most spontaneous. I tend to be what you might call a studio geek. I look the
idea of overdubbing in the studio and creating the studio experience. But this
album was done in just one evening, and the mix took place over just one
weekend, so the album took only three days to make, instead of three months. So
that was always special for me in that it had a spontaneity that you can’t get
any other way other than doing it the way we did it. We approached the new
album — The
Cool Blue Halo 25th Anniversary
album — in the same way, because I couldn’t think of any other way to do it
since that’s how the music was made originally. There was a lot of
improvisation on it, a tremendous amount of spontaneity throughout and I wanted
the musicians to play the music how they felt it. Because of that, we only did
a minimum amount of rehearsing before taking it to the stage. That was the same
way we did it 25 years ago.

 

So
did the songs all come back to you?

Yes, they
did for me because I perform quite a lot and these songs have whirled their way
into my sets over the years. So I can do “I Belong to Me” because I’ve done it
over the years and in many different styles. The songs are pretty much in my
blood, so it wasn’t a difficult thing for me. The interesting thing was the
Marc Bolan song that I covered. It’s a love song to an alien from another
planet. That’s why I picked it. (laughs)
I can relate to that in some weird way.

 

How
do you relate to that?

Some
people I meet are very much like aliens… something along those lines.  And we’ll leave it at that (laughs).

 

Are
you referring to a significant other?

Well, all
of my significant others are like aliens to me at some time or another, But
really, I love Marc Bolan and I love his imagery and that’s why I picked that
song. It’s deeply romantic but the setting is extraterrestrial, so I thought
that was unique. I know that was the one song of Marc Bolan that I had never
heard covered by anyone else. As was, at the time, “The Man Who Sold the World”
by David Bowies. I loved that song and the only other time it was covered
before I did it was by Lulu, the British pop girl. She did it in ’71 or ’72. It
had been more than a decade until I did that someone else had touched it. And I
had never heard anyone do the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry” either. On the original
album, I tried to do songs by three of my influences and people I loved, and I
wanted to cover songs that no one had done before. That was my goal.

 

Was
it always your idea to record the original Cool Blue Halo live?

Yes, because
of the musicians I had on that album, Jane Scarpantoni and Valerie Naranjo. The
rest of us were kind of pop rockers, guitar-playing guys. Jane’s capabilities
were more in the classical sense, perhaps more avant-garde. Her playing covered
a lot of ground. Valerie was also more of a jazz musician and she was all about
world music. She was well-versed in African rhythms and so forth, so I wanted
them to just let loose and play and I thought the live stage was the best place
to let that happen, instead of trying to overly analyze it in the studio. It
was always planned as a live performance that we would be record, and a lot of
those songs I never recorded in the studio.

 

It’s
funny, because one never really thinks of Cool Blue Halo as a live album per se.

And we
mixed it that way, especially on the original. This new one has a little more
of a live flavor because the audience knew the songs. When we first did it, you
could here a pin drop while the songs were playing, because people had never
heard them before. On the new recording, the audience knew the songs and they
knew when the solos came in and they applauded. So we left that in. We decided
to let the audience be heard because they were great, and they become part of
the song.

 

How
did you bill that original performance 25 years ago? Was it like, “Richard
Barone performs his new album?

One of my
friends is New York
radio personality Vin Scelsa, and he presented me in a show at the Bottom Line.
He’d do live performances for his radio show and he’d have two or three artists
on the bill, so that night it was just Richard Barone on Vin Scelsa’s show. That’s
how it was recorded originally.

 

So
there was no particular set-up?

Nope. Just
a lot of new material. There were Bongos songs, but they didn’t sound like
Bongos songs… Like “The Bulrushes.” It’s pretty primitive. There’s no
backbeat, not even on the entire album.

 

Were
people prepared for that? Because they knew you from the Bongos, were they
expecting to hear more of the band’s music?

Absolutely.
That was the late ‘80s and the Bongos were still active. We were still playing
large venues around the time I made this album. So I think people were
surprised. I don’t think they had any idea about this album. But I also think
they were thrilled afterwards. I write about that in the book that comes with
the box set. I wouldn’t say writing my essay was agonising, but I really had to
think about what it was like to make this album and I was trying to remember
all the elements about how it came together. There were a lot of surprise
elements. And I think that helped a lot because it was so different than what
people expected from me. There was no Rickenbacker guitar, there was no snare drum,
no bass, and it wasn’t really a pop rock concert. It felt more like a chamber
concert.

 

And
it kind of set a standard for some things that came after… the whole chamber
rock genre for example.

That
phrase was coined in the review of that album for Rolling Stone. That was the first time that
phrase was used. Chamber Rock in quotation marks.

 

Were
these songs written specifically for this album, and did you always have these
arrangements in mind?

Thank you
for asking! At that point I had been writing songs for the Bongos for almost
seven years and I always wrote those songs knowing it was a point of view of a
group of guys. The views and emotions that in those songs had to cross lines, and
they had to represent all the guys, not just me. It was very rare in the Bongos
albums that I was able to get very personal. So when I did “I Belong to Me,” it
was a starting point. All of them were. “I Belong to Me” wasn’t just about
independence in a relationship, but independence in a band, specifically the
band I was in. So these songs had a lot of meaning for me on different levels.
The Bongos songs I chose also had meaning — like “The Bulrushes” — because I
thought, let’s get back to Biblical times here. That was a good starting point
on the timeline for me. And ending the album with “Numbers with Wings” was a
really good way to end the album because it was really spiritual. And in the
middle, it’s the journey. I had a dream where Marc Bolan asked me if I was
making an album or just a collection of songs, and I woke up and remembered
that. He had already been dead for ten years, but he was always on my mind, and
one of my favorite rock personas. So that stayed with me. And that’s when I got
very specific. I had the benchmarks in those three covers and in the three
Bongos songs. And the new songs I had were sort of dispersed between those
pillars. I wrote them from my own point of view without the filter of the band.
That’s what those songs were about for me and that’s what that album was about
over-all. Getting to the heart of the songwriter. When you’re in a rock band,
there are so many ways to get lost. One way is in your writing, because you’re
writing for the audience or for the band and not from your own point of view.
And that’s what this was all about. It was on an indie label and the Bongos
were still signed to RCA. So it was also a freedom from the corporate scenario.
Everything sort of went through the filter of RCA records. So this was not
through that filter. I could write in “Flew a Falcon” about kissing a guy
without anyone telling me I couldn’t or shouldn’t.

 

Is
that what led to the Bongos’ demise?

We were
still doing concerts for many months throughout the release of Cool Blue Halo, large scale shows too.
But then this sort of took off internationally, so I went to Europe
to promote it and that’s when the schedule became impossible. I was touring
with Suzanne Vega, and I was on the road for two years with this album, and
during that time, all the guys in the group started doing different things. It
was a very gentle parting. There was no arguing or disastrous scenes or embarrassments.
We’re all friends. We’ve done a few benefits. When it’s right, we’ll get
together for a special occasion.

 

Any
talk of making a reunion album, like the dBs did recently?

Anything
is possible. We’ve never had a problem with that if the time is right. Actually
there are several unreleased Bongos albums, so putting them out could very well
happen. That wouldn’t be a problem. One was a concert that was recorded for RCA
in 1985 and it’s a great album.

 

How
did you meet Tony Visconti?

Well, we
met many times over the years. I met him when I did a 12 inch version of a T
Rex song called “Mambo Sun” in ’80 or something. Tony heard it and called me
from England.
I wanted him to produce the Bongos when we got signed to RCA. Tony wanted us to
record at his Good Earth studio in England
and we wanted to go, but RCA wanted to keep us where they could watch us in New York. So they
wouldn’t let us to so it. And Tony told them that that is where he produced, in
his own studio, and they couldn’t come to terms and work it out. So we stayed
and Richard Gottehrer produced us. So Tony and I finally met when Tony moved
back to New York
in the late ‘90s, and we were both on the bill at a T Rex tribute concert. We
started talking and then we started writing songs together. And those songs
ended up on the Glow album. That was a real labor
of love to do that album with Tony.

 

 

 

 

It
seems like you’ve worked with a lot of amazing people.

I’m very fortunate
to have worked with many of my heroes, besides great pals and friends. Many of
them have been my mentors from afar.

 

How
were you able to get yourself into those circles? You’re work with such a
diverse cast of characters.

(Laughs) It is diverse. I think it’s
because I put myself out there and I like meeting people. I do a lot of
different types of shows and I work with a lot of actors. When I did my book
tour in 2007 and 2008, Joyce Dewitt appeared as me, the reader of the book. I
played guitar and accompanied her as she read from my book. It was pretty cool.
I just get around and I meet people. I’m not shy about asking people to
collaborate because I love to collaborate and I think most artists like to as
well.

 

You
produced Liza Minnelli. That must have seemed like an unusual collaboration.

I love
Liza. I did a project with her with a big band and I produced it and it came
out great. When we did it live in the studio, I brought in the big band because
I knew she was a great live performer.

 

It’s kind of interesting how a lot of artists are revisiting
their earlier work – The Who are touring behind Quadrophenia,
Peter Frampton is celebrating the 35th anniversary of Frampton
Comes Alive, Ian Anderson recently did a sequel to Thick
as a Brick, and here you are celebrating a milestone of your own.

I was just listening to “5:15” from Quadrophenia last
night. I was at a club and they were playing it really loud and I was singing
it quite loudly too. One thing I think is interesting about revisiting those
old albums is that the meanings change. For The Who, it was originally about
the Mods and the Rockers days. For me it was interesting to go back to my early
twenties and my views and emotional state of mind at that time and think about
what has changed and what hasn’t changed, especially the way I approach
relationships, the way I talk about myself and the other people I’m talking
about in those songs. It’s really an interesting and emotional journey to go
back to now, and I think for anybody going back to their earlier work, you
really see it through different eyes. For me, a lot of it was, wow, how did I
know I would feel that way, because a lot of it is how I feel now as opposed to
how I felt then. I often wondered what advice I would give my younger self, but
it’s actually my younger self giving me advice for the future. It’s like that
phrase, if I only knew then what I knew now. It was emotional for me, doing
those songs again with the same musicians.

 

The next time you went into the studio following the
release of Cool Blue Halo, did you find it a
bit intimidating to have to top it? The bar was raised pretty high at that
point.

That’s
why I didn’t try to duplicate that album with my next one. Primal
Dream
was a rock album. I brought in the same musicians but I added drums and bass
and Ivan Julian from Richard Hell’s band on guitar. And I made a loud rock
album. All of the albums I’ve made so far have been quite different from each
other, and one of the reasons was just like what you just said. I didn’t want
to feel I had to top myself or copy myself in any way. I like for things to
stay different. As a solo artist you have more leeway to do things that way.
When you have a band, people expect the band sound. You expect REM to sound
like REM and you expect the Bongos to sound like the Bongos, or the dBs, or
Soundgarden or Coldplay or whoever. But as a solo artist, you do have the
ability to change and I have made a point of exploiting that to the fullest.

Take an artist
like Neil Young. He’s not always well received, but just the fact that he did a
record like Trans was pretty cool. I always admire artists
that go out on a limb. Lou Reed is one of my favorites. Not only do I know Lou,
and he’s taught me a lot over the years – even though he doesn’t realize how
much he’s taught me – Lou has always impressed me with the variety of work that
he does. He’s always been super gracious to me.

 

So what’s next for you now? Are you going to take this
album out on the road?

I have been performing a lot actually, especially in the New York region – New York,
New Jersey, Connecticut
– and rediscovering the state of New
York. I’ve played near Woodstock and some small towns upstate,
sometimes solo, sometimes with one or two other musicians. I’m always
performing in some way, and somehow and I think I will be touring with this
album. And some of it may be solo because that’s another way to hear these
songs.

 

 [Photos credit: Mick Rock. Top – Barone and Garth Hudson; middle, Barone and Tony Visconti.]

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