Rock ’n’ roll throws a lot of bad parties. They drag, they get maudlin, or they degenerate into knife fights. Or, worse yet, out come the slides from Sting’s latest ego trip. Rock ’n’ roll is just too full of itself, much of the time, to make its guests feel at home.
Now and then, though, you come across a rock ’n’ roll record that makes you feel good the way, say, a summer night of putt-putt golf, hamburgers, and a little beer does. Nobody’s trying to impress you. You’re not even keeping score. It just seemed like a fun idea, and you realize, somewhere between the first hamburger and the second beer, that you might remember this party years later. The Sad Smiles of the Young Nashvillians, a CD reissue of two albums by one of Nashville’s long-forgotten local rock bands, is just such a record.
In the early 1980s, when the Young Nashvillians’ albums were recorded, Nashville had a dynamic new wave scene, though not many of the bands were really worth a damntoo much Goth gloom, too few ideas. A lot of local rock ’n’ rollers seemed embarrassed by their addressone local new wave compilation album was called The London Side of Nashville. Punk rock had told us that anyone could make music; but fun as a motive was starting to give way to money. The grail of the major-label contract shone in rockers’ eyes, and most of them wrote geographically generic material geared to national success.
In contrast, the Young Nashvillians celebrated their daily lives as citizens. In the theme that opened their first album, Metropolitan Summer, they sang, “We like it and we want to stay here/Find jobs and maybe some wives.” Some did, some didn’tno one can foresee the futurebut the reissue CD does preserve the past. The Sad Smiles of... is an artifact of life in a particular time and place, made with affection and honesty.
The group formed 15 summers ago, when six Nashvillians between the ages of 15 and 21, along with a ringer from California, got together in Jon Shayne’s basement to play music. They did it just for the hell of it. Shayne and his friend from Harvard, Norman Yamada, wanted to have a summer project while Yamada was in town working on a political campaign. They assembled Jerry, David, and Paul Lefkowitz, Brad Smith, and Todd Wells and named themselves the Young Nashvillians, after a promotional campaign by a local bank. They recorded 16 songs on Shayne’s four-track recorder, enjoyed themselves, and circulated tapes to friends. One found its way to Kevin Gray, leader of the popular Nashville party band the White Animals, and the Metropolitan Summer demo tape became an LP on the Animals’ label, Dread Beat Records.
Despite this happy accident, the Young Nashvillians were destined to remain outside Nashville’s musical history. While they would reunite the following summer to record and release seven more songs, there was little chance of keeping the band together and pursuing commercial successsome of them were in college far from Nashville, some would be going to college soon, and their plans for the most part did not include music. As Prince says, it was nothing but a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.
If the 1982 Metropolitan Summer recording sessions were a party, they were a graduation partya celebration of young Nashvillianness coming to an end. In Jerry and Paul Lefkowitz’s “Special Things,” Paul sings, “There’s a place in my heart/Where I keep my special things.” Jon Shayne likes this song best of all and thinks it expresses what the album isa memento of special things, one of the most special being the musical summer itself. When Dread Beat released the Young Nashvillians’ demo as an album, the label moved this song from second place to 15th; the CD reissue moves it back, where it once again serves as a sort of introduction.
In truth, the album isn’t entirely about Nashville, although the Nashville experience is directly chronicled in “Green Hills” (written before the mall of the same name openedit’s oral history!), “Vanderbilt-in-France,” and the amazing “Shoney’s Ice,” a polemic by 15-year-old Paul Lefkowitz. (“Kinda gooey, kinda chewy, kind of in one clump/Shoney’s ice tastes like it’s been taken from a chemical dump.”) But most of the songs don’t name namesthey just are so Nashville, in the words of an annual contest held by this paper.
Because these Nashvillians were socially and financially comfortable outside the studio, their Nashville is a happy place, a good place to grow up. Their songs capture a time when you might’ve worn your flip-flops to the senior prom, a time when you and your girlfriend might’ve gone to McDonald’s, hung out by the pool, or maybe just driven around a lot. Among the less Nashcentric standouts are “Ironic Twist,” a cheerful parody of dance-craze songs, and “Jumper Cables,” a primer about car-repair service set to a pounding rave-up beat.
Tacitly, these songs are also about musical influences. “Special Things” was inspired by the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” while Shayne’s wordplay and bright melodies owe something to Jonathan Richman. The Casio organ work and frantic dance beats recall the new wave aesthetics of the time, and Yamada’s songs absorb soul music the same way Elvis Costello’s did. His “Take the Tumble” is a soul number in structure and mood, only it needs more depth than his vocals can manage. Layers of backing vocals pile up as the song progresses, taking it over in amusing heterophony.
Indeed, the entire album is loaded with musical gimmicks and hammy background vocals of various pitches. Guitar solos can be dodgy, and even the lead vocals can occasionally make you wince if you’re not feeling charitable. But this is a hootenanny, not an audition, and the band doesn’t really mind that much if you laugh at them.
Gratified by the “intense if isolated enthusiasm,” in David Lefkowitz’s words, that greeted their debut release, the Nashvillians entered a genuine recording studio in 1983 to make The Young Nashvillians Are Here!, a 7-song, one-sided LP that also appears on the CD. While they don’t memorialize time, place, and mood the way Metropolitan Summer does, these tracks are better recorded, better sung, better played, and generally more tightly conceived and written. The Young Nashvillians Are Here! is the most entertaining rock ’n’ roll record ever by a Nashville band. Listening to it now, I almost can’t believe it didn’t take the party nationwide.
But it didn’t, and instead the mini-LP marked the end of the Young Nashvillians. Not that the remnants aren’t delightful. In “Amelia,” a love song to the downed aviatrix Earhart, Shayne plays verbal stunt-pilot himself in a fearless tour de force of rhyming. “Eagle Man” features more of those hysterical backing vocals, and on “Thanks But No Thanks” Paul and David fend off various tempterspower-tool salesmen, Hare Krishnaspolitely but firmly. (“It’s a very nice offer; I really appreciate it,” Paul says to a girl putting the make on him.) A pumped-up remake of “Jumper Cables” closes the original album with a bang; on the CD, it’s followed by a bonus track“Dance with Lance,” a wry and charming plea Paul Lefkowitz wrote and recorded alone with Shayne in 1989.
Jerry Lefkowitz put out the new CD on his Kattywampus label in Minneapolis, with help from Jon Shayne, who put in a couple of days remixing Metropolitan Summer. Unfortunately, Shayne censored the name of David’s tow truck from the original version of “Jumper Cables.” (Hint: It rhymed with “gas hole.”) But he did bring the sound closer to the “basement-o-phonic” mix of the original demo, making the CD a more appropriate souvenir of the musical party that was the Young Nashvillians’ brief existence.
Like Paul’s hapless “Lance,” the Young Nashvillians’ music is “a special kind of castaway.” Nashville’s scene passed it by; the Nashvillians’ own lives passed it by. Only two of group’s members, Jerry Lefkowitz and Norman Yamada, have pursued music seriously in recent years. The group’s influence on pop music, here or anywhere, was approximately zero. But for those of us who were also young Nashvillians when it was recorded, the CD brings back memories of a smaller town, one in which we paid a few bucks to watch the Sounds rather than buying PSLs for the Oilers, and one in which Green Hills was “five long blocks without sidewalks around.” Think of The Sad Smiles of the Young Nashvillians as a kiss from the pasta kiss of greeting if you weren’t there, and a sweet, affectionate kiss goodbye if you were.
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