THE COLLABORATIVE GLOW Richard Barone

 

The erstwhile Bongos
frontman (and
Frontman memoirist) didn’t necessarily set out to
make a new solo album. We’re glad he did.

 

BY
STEVEN ROSEN

 

When
Richard Barone talks about the people he’s collaborated with in his career as a
rock musician, composer and concert producer, the list is so impressively
varied – and so strange in its mix-and-match nature – that you wish he’d write
a book about it.

 

Seriously, who else has worked with Tiny Tim, Pete
Seeger, Lou Reed, avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, producer Tony Visconti,
Jill Sobule, Moby, songwriter Paul Williams (“We’ve Only Just Begun”), and, of
course, one of Hoboken’s first and most celebrated New Wave rock bands, the
Bongos? (He was that band’s front man.)

 

There’s
so much there, and it’s so fascinating, it takes more than an interview – even
a one-hour interview like this one on behalf of his just-released CD Glow – for him to explain it all.  In fact, it deserves an entire book. And
Barone, in fact, has one. His memoir, Frontman:
Surviving the Rock Star Myth,
was published by Backbeat/Hal Leonard Books
in 2007. At a Carnegie Hall concert marking the book’s release, he sang “I’ll
Be Your Mirror” – with a band featuring Moby on keyboards – while Reed recited
the lyrics on a video screen behind the band.

 

Since
then, Barone has just started collaborating with Seeger. And he has release Glow, which has 11 new songs. Many of
them feature production and other contributions from Visconti – the American
who helped shape the British glam era that Barone loves by producing, among
others, T. Rex, David Bowie and Sparks. And since Barone’s love for melodic,
literate rock with inventive arrangements – sung in a gentle voice always
respectful of a song’s introspective qualities – has led him to be called
“Beatlesque,” Visconti is an especially good match. The latter considers George
Martin’s Beatles records key to having turned production into an art form.
Indeed, his first major production was “Maybe Tomorrow” by the Ivys – the band
that became Badfinger, one of the greatest of all Beatlesque bands.

 

Barone and Visconti had
earlier recorded some of Glow’s songs, and he’d issued an EP with some in 2008. The plan was to continue
issuing the collection as singles and EPs, similar to the way early Bongos
tracks were distributed. But instead, Glow, released on Bar/None, has become just Barone’s fifth solo album since the
Bongos’ 1987 break-up.

 

Its release came about,
oddly enough, as an offshoot of his interest in getting a batch of archival
material on Tiny Tim out to the public.

 

This takes a little explanation. When Barone was 16 and living in
Tampa, back in 1976, he met Tiny Tim and found the eccentric pop singer – a
living, singing encyclopedia of pre-World War II (and later) recorded music –
enchanting. He wound up recording Tiny Tim at a local motel and studio.
Thirty-three years later, in tribute to the now-deceased singer, Barone got
Collectors’ Choice Music to release those tapes as I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana – Rare Moments Volume 1 last
year.

 

He was bringing Hoboken’s Bar/None Records a possible sequel. “Glenn Morrow, who owns the
label, has been my friend for a long time,” Barone says, by phone. “He was my
first roommate in Hoboken and we were in a band together (“a”), and we’ve been
wanting to work together on some new project for a long time, but hadn’t.

 

“A
lot of people have contacted me with their material of Tiny Tim, especially
people from the avant-garde scene in the New York of early 1960s,” Barone says.
(Despite his breakthrough as a late-1960s novelty act, Tiny Tim earlier was a
key part of New York’s underground arts scene, performing at the Living Theatre
and with Lenny Bruce and Greenwich Village folk acts. Jonas Mekas, a pioneer of
the independent-film movement and founder of Anthology Film Archives, had audio
and video of Tiny Tim  performing in
1963.)

 

 “So I was bringing Glenn a second Tiny Tim
project that I’d been working on with Jonas Mekas,” Barone says. “But Glenn
said, ‘What about your own album?’ I wasn’t really shopping for a label at the
time; I hadn’t been focused on that. But it got me thinking that there could be
one. So I gave him 20 tracks and he picked the 11 on the album.” (Not all are
Visconti productions.)

 

That choice covers quite a bit of territory, but it
reveals an observer’s sense that Barone’s songs have unifying traits –
exuberant dreaminess, empathy, and awe at the possibilities for beauty in pop
music.

 

Some
of Glow’s tracks have ultra-high-tech
production – Barone uses a Gibson HD.6 Pro Digital Les Paul electric guitar on
the inspirational title cut, which allowed each guitar string to have its own
recording track. Steve Addabbo, who produced this cut, also played a Digital
Les Paul, which means the two guitars created 12 separate tracks. The mixing
was done at Skywalker Sound. Inspired by this, they later produced an
all-instrumental version of the same song, adding cello and electric cello.

 

On
the other hand, “Radio Silence” – with its bouncy spiritedness – was recorded by
Barone at home, using his laptop and GarageBand software application.

 

Another
song is a collaboration with Sobule on “Odd Girl Out,” the compassionate tale
of a young lesbian in pre-liberated, 1962 New York.

 

And
one track is simply a live version, from Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight radio
show on New York’s WFUV-FM, of a stately ballad Barone wrote about 9/11’s
aftermath with Williams – a songwriter responsible in the early 1970s for
classics by the Carpenters and Three Dog Night. Barone had gotten to know him
by performing at a tribute concert in Williams’ honor. And, again, there’s a
Tiny Tim connection.

 

“I
was performing the song that Tiny Tim covered on the album God Bless Tiny Tim, ‘Fill Your Heart.’ On the other hand, David
Bowie did a cover of the song on Hunky
Dory.
  I did an arrangement that
combined Tiny Tim’s arrangement with the Hunky
Dory
version, and he really liked it and asked if we could write a song.”

 

The
result, “Silence Is Our Song,” is based on newspaper stories Barone had saved
about couples that met and fell in love after 9/11 – lovers in a dangerous
time. He brought a clip file to Williams in L.A. and strummed guitar chords
while Williams devised lyrics. “Paul Williams is a brilliant songwriter, and
while I was more into bands like Roxy Music during that time (of his hits),
he’s undeniably a great craftsman of song, great guy and a fascinating person,”
Barone says.

 

Another
song on Glow also got an early
release – a really unusual one. A rough mix of the thrustingly rhythmic “1-2-3 Infinity”
was used by Anousheh Ansari – the first self-funded woman in space – when the
Iranian-American was aboard a 2006 Soyuz flight to the International Space
Station. Barone said she made sure it was played with released television
footage showing her, and he believes she carried a copy of the song, itself,
into flight.

 

He
met her at a party in artist Peter Max’s studio, and subsequently let her hear
the song. When she told him she had an interstellar use for it, he allowed her
to have it.

 

“She
said, ‘That’s my song! That’s my song!'” Barone recalls. “I think songs should
get out in funny ways like that.”

 

[Photo
Credit: Mick Rock]

 

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