BY FRED MILLS
“You have a hit song,” said the vice president of the label. Silence, as we traded glances. “Whose is it?” I asked. “It’s your song, Tom. ‘Hell.’” The energy in the room was heavy. On one side there were label guys, looking around with barely contained enthusiasm. On the other, the Zippers, reacting quite differently. We exchanged furtive glances. I had the distinct feeling that, because “Hell” was my song, it was going to cause trouble.”
Trouble, indeed. So writes Tom Maxwell, erstwhile member of North Carolina’s Squirrel Nut Zippers, whose improbable 1994-97 trajectory that landed them in the Billboard Top 20 helped fuel the national Swing and Lounge revivals, cemented Chapel Hill’s reputation as a repository of talented, iconoclastic musical oddballs, and ultimately destroyed a host of friendships and working relationships. His prescient observation comes about midway through this slim (approx. 140pp) but utterly engaging memoir, which charts the group’s rise while offering what can only be called a cautionary tale for fellow musicians.
That the Zippers’ tale is more colorful than most is a given; at one point the band was a near-ubiquitous fixture on mainstream radio, MTV (back when MTV actually played music videos) and television talk/variety shows. The band even performed at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration and the Atlanta Olympics. But it’s the way Maxwell can remember so much of it in such detail—the happy recollections are akin to someone still aglow from having won a sporting event, while the un-happy portions of the narrative are rendered like someone describing a car crash unfolding in extreme slow motion—that makes it a must-read for anyone with even the remotest interest in how the music biz works. And since the book basically only covers the point at which he first hooks up with the Zippers, in early ’94, through the scene four years later when he’s watching a Gap commercial called “Khaki Swing” and is struck by the realization that a jump-the-shark moment is at hand (“Well, that’s that,” I said, to no one in particular.”),it’s a short, sharp, sweet shock of a read.
In between are some classic vignettes. Like when the Zippers are feted by the Squirrel Brand Company that makes the actual candy confection the band named itself after; when Paul Schaffer fairly gushes over the band as he sits in with them during a Letterman show taping; and when what starts as a fanboy moment for Maxwell evolves into a genuine friendship with guitarist Al Casey, who had been part of Maxwell’s hero Fats Waller’s band. Or how Maxwell literally recoils in horror, verging on a panic attack, when he learns that their label, Carrboro’s Mammoth Records, has been bought by the Disney Corporation which presumably will put the Zippers to work penning odes to mermaid princesses; and how, at the peak of press interest in the band, Maxwell endured interview after interview about cigars, martinis and bathtub gin. Feeding the publicity machine, in fact, is what accelerates the onset of “trouble”: it’s an age-old story, how the pressures of success affect bands and their members differently, and for the Zippers the result was a group essentially dividing into separate camps with all the accompanying frayed friendships and divergent agendas. (Maxwell generally got along with band founder Jimbo Mathus, although the two soon grew apart; he clearly clashed with Zippers vocalist—and Mathus’ wife—Katharine Whalen, who comes across as a bit shrewish at times.)
Worth noting: the book also offers a brief but illuminating snapshot of Maxwell’s youth and early musical inspirations, plus some pre-Zippers Chapel Hill scene context that will be of particular interest to chroniclers of NC music history—raise your hand if you remember Teasing The Korean, What Peggy Wants and Metal Flake Mother.
The book, though, does not dwell on the aftermath of his Zippers tenure—nor does it even mention the day in 1999 he quit the band—which, as it involved lawsuits, unpaid royalties and the aforementioned splintered relationships, would certainly have made Hell a “sexier” affair, so to speak. Maybe save it for another volume? But since the legal matters were settled out of court, it’s likely the terms of the settlement include not talking about it publicly. But to be honest, it wouldn’t necessarily have made it a better book (all the Behind The Music-type ugly stuff is pretty common knowledge among locals anyway), because, again, both Maxwell’s pinch-me moments and his creeping sense of dread are visceral and believable enough to land the reader right there in the middle bunk of the Zippers’ tourbus.
And if that reader also happens to be an aspiring musician, the message here couldn’t be clearer: enjoy the ride, but be careful what you wish for.
Below: Maxwell recently appeared at BLURT’s sister business Schoolkids Records, of Raleigh, to play some tunes and plug his Hell book and his new Tom Maxwell & the Minor Drag album.