When I was playing in rock bands, or more specifically when I was rehearsing with rock bands, my favorite thing was practicing a new song for the third time. The first time was usually a train wreck, the second time a train wreck with fewer flubbed notes, but attempt number three, on a good night, was touched with wobbly-legged possibility. How I interpreted this possibility varied, from the reasonable We're not likely to thoroughly embarrass ourselves by playing this song at Lee's Liquor Lounge, to the quixotic Once this song reaches the ears of the generous patrons of Lee's Liquor Lounge, I will never have to work a real job again.
Thereafter anything could happen to the song, further improvements being one potentiality, but one among a crush of less welcome cousins: the usual accretion of ornamental notes, the hackneyed ending and the fussy ending that replaced it, the misguided "reggae" version, the inspired vocal ad-lib that became an irritating phrasal tic, and of course boredom, the root problem behind most of the above pitfalls.
Hookers and Blow, a rock and soul cover band whose most semi-famous member is the Honeydogs' Adam Levy, seem to be a third-time's-a-charm kind of band. For a recent Monday night rehearsal in a borrowed Northeast Minneapolis practice space, Levy has brought in some new material to learn, including Shuggie Otis's mid-'70s obscurity "Ice Cold Daydream." The group plays the song three times, progressing from shaky to pretty good, eventually turning it into some worthy rubbery funk-rock. It seems unlikely that the band will embarrass itself by playing the song the following night at Gluek's Bar & Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis.
"I'm kind of a throw-the-shit-at-the-wall kind of person," says Levy, whose main band just put out their sixth and best album, 10,000 Years, on Aimee Mann and Michael Penn's United Musicians label. "It might make me look really sloppy, but if you're playing with a fairly accomplished group of players, you run through something like three times, and most people got the hang of it. When I bring new songs in, sometimes I like to give stuff to the band right before we record it, because I feel like people are most creative at that early stage. When they start reinterpreting or listening to what they're doing and evaluating it, all of a sudden it gets very departmentalized."
I've come to the Hookers and Blow practice with a double purpose. For one, I'm hoping to witness some manifestations of rock-culture dissipation--perhaps a freebasing accident of the type formerly common (I've been told by a grudge-bearing tambourine player) at Up With People rehearsals. For two, I'm going to sing OutKast's "Hey Ya!" with the Hookers and Blowers the following night, and we needed to work it up. At their Tuesday night house gig at Gluek's, the band is typically 10 members strong, but by the end of this rehearsal, they're down to six: singer-guitarist Adam Levy; singer-guitarist-drummer George McKelvey; bassist Trent Norton; drummer-singer Tom Scott; keyboardist Peter J. Sands; and trombonist Matt Darling.
Preparations for my guest spot begin badly when I misplace my tape of the tune. This sends me into something of a tizzy, but doesn't seem to disturb the rehearsal's chummy and laid-back atmosphere. When I come back from searching my car for the missing-in-action cassette, I detect a distinctive odor that, thanks to a summer spent hanging out in the shaded parking lots of Fridley, I take to be one of the sidemen's reefer. Sands the mild-mannered keyboardist finds the tape at last, and we proceed.
The song has been chosen partly because its four-chord cycle and just-the-basics rhythm should be a quick learn, and indeed things fall together pretty easily. In the interest of time, though, we decide to leave one segue partly in the hands of fate, or more properly in the hands of my memory for visual cues, which is less reliable than fate, but maybe not as cruel. In a fit of rock-star pique, I demand that a backing-vocal section be sung "like women," which proves unproblematic for this willing, Bee Gees-friendly band.
Consistent with this groovy vibe, Levy is shod in orange sneakers and wears a blue long-sleeved T-shirt decorated with soccer players--some of whom are also orange. (I seem to remember reading in the June '48 issue of Apparel Arts that men not involved in the circus arts should avoid orange shoes, but I like Levy's sneaks all the same and am also impressed with the shoe-to-T-shirt coordination.) Levy is known in some music-industry circles as "the tall, skinny Adam Levy," which distinguishes him from the stocky Adam Levy who plays guitar with Norah Jones.
Levy, at 6 feet 3 inches, has indeed retained a boyish figure, and the 38-year-old father of three has a kind of hipster-dad look. He was a full-time musician throughout much of the late '90s, when the Honeydogs were signed to Debris Records, an imprint of the now-defunct Mercury label. But that deal and a few others went sour. So in an ironic but not necessarily bitter development, Levy now spends days as an employment counselor and manager, helping dislocated workers.