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.
Having suffered on the major-label pillory and endured other unhappy aspects of rocking out for profit, Levy has found a stress-free playing opportunity with Hookers and Blow. As a kid Levy was a big fan of the Clash (key remakes: "I Fought the Law," "Police & Thieves") and Elvis Costello (key remakes: "What's So Funny About (Peace Love and Understanding)," "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down"). And his own choice of covers--Beatles, Jorge Ben, Desmond Dekker, the Spinners--seems to follow those Brits' mixes of record-collector nuggets and rejiggered oldies.
"Most of [it] is stuff I listened to over the last 10 years and never took the time to figure out," Levy explains before the Tuesday night set at Gluek's. "A lot of them are songs that no one's heard of, but they're songs that have currency with my immediate friends and my wife, and they mean a lot to me."
Levy's varied musical interests--which include '60s harmony pop, soul, funk, roots rock, bossa nova, and Middle-Eastern music--are reflected on the overdub-happy 10,000 Years. Produced in Minneapolis and Los Angeles by John Fields and Levy, the album features the songwriter's widest-reaching melodies and his most ambitious lyrics. More impressively, perhaps, it manages not to founder under a weighty narrative conceit involving a test-tube baby who grows into a low-level criminal and later a hero in an apocalyptic war. 10,000 Years, then, is a concept album, which Levy acknowledges has "a negative, almost Spinal Tap connotation to it. I would just as soon treat it as another way to bring together a body of music to tell a story," he adds, "and to make a lot of little points rather than some large conceptual point." Though there's an ambitious artiste at work here, Levy has cloaked this character in an unpretentious Midwestern demeanor, and then surrounded him with nine bandmates who are pretty goal-oriented toward having a weekly musical booze blowout.
As 10:00 p.m. approaches, Levy takes a few last sips of beer before corralling his colleagues for the first Hookers and Blow set of the night. He asks me if I'm still writing music, and I tell him I've been dry for a year or so, which he tells me not to worry about. More Hookers and Blow friends and fans start to trickle in, and Levy tells me to be ready for my song during the second set. "Conceptual points" of any size are in short supply at this loosey-goosey gig. Players and singers wander on and off stage, and regularly swap instruments and lead-vocal duties. The band jams as if for a floor full of dancers, though these too tend to be in short supply--though singalongs pop up like brushfires once the bar patrons get into their cups.
As for the OutKast number, it would probably be some violation of journalistic ethics to review my own performance, but I can report, after the fact, that one Gluek's customer, a heavy drinker it would seem, told me that I was bound for success in Hollywood--though he might have been referring to Hollywood Video. At various times over the past decade, Levy and his cohorts have been pegged for something closer to big-time success. But these days, Levy isn't much concerned with fame or its absence. He is, after all, still getting people to put out his music. And I'm pleased to report he is now doing what must be the best Shuggie Otis cover one can hear with any regularity in Minnesota. Any Tuesday night, you can show up and ask to hear it yourself.