Why did the Grays split up so soon? Artistic differences? Personality clashes? Did the band really leave Jon asleep in a restaurant while on tour? Who knows? Several things sure couldn’t have helped. First, their depressing song titles. Singing songs with titles like “Nothing”, “Oh Well Maybe” and “Oh Nevermind” is not a recipe for success. Hell, Jon alone brought “Not Long For This World”, “Nothing Between Us”, “No One Can Hurt Me” and “Not Ready Yet” to the pity party. Maybe if they’d sung about puppies, kitties and rainbows, things would’ve been different.
Second? Falkner’s facial hair. “My god what was that doing? It was kind of like a chin strap,” he confessed in a 2008 Art Into Dust interview. “The worst thing is the photos from that era, it’s so grotesque and there’s things in it, bits of food. Hey, why won’t you talk to me?” It’s that timely quarter-beard that might’ve help prompt the third main cause of their demise: MTV music critics Beavis & Butthead. The animated duo called them “like a cross between Stone Temple Pilots and Nelson” (among other body parts) in this video from the show’s fifth season. ]
Of course, it didn’t help when the Russians got involved…..
I’m not sure when I heard that the band broke up. How did we hear about these things before the world wide web? I do not recall. At my short-lived job at a management company in Hollywood in the summer of ’95, their label was courting a band called Silverjet that was friendly with Roger Manning and his new glam-pop band, Imperial Drag. Between their singer Luke Tierney and another friend of mine who was working for Imperial Drag’s management, I was getting plenty of insider info. I remember listening to an advanced cassette of Roger’s Moog Cookbook album with some friends on Sunset Blvd after a show, when I saw Luke walking down the street and pulled him over to giggle with us. I probably heard about the Grays’ demise sometime that summer.
Within a few months, I was back out of the music biz loop and returned to sweet home San Diego to start a family business helping people find old auto parts because the only thing I knew about cars was “this thing steers it”. Once Vintage Parts 411 (later the Garden of Speedin’) became more of a publishing company that made directories for the vintage car world, we needed to be online. As soon as we got up to speed, I started a personal page for fun and thought I’d write about things I knew best. That meant the band Jellyfish. Within a few months, I was overwhelmed with news, bootlegs and an avalanche of pop nerd emails. At some point in the middle of 1996, I got word that Jason Falkner was putting out his first solo album on Elektra Records.
What I didn’t know was that the night that the Grays split up on tour, their main A&R man at Epic Records had said he’d look into letting Jason record a covers record by himself. Upon returning to L.A., Jason managed to book studio time without the label knowing and record the whole record playing all of the parts in just nine days (this after Ro Sham Bo took at least four months). He managed to avoid the shocked label folks until it was done (on their dime) but then they never released it, Sony/Epic eventually sold it to Elektra as part of his new solo deal. It was finally released seven years later on a Japan label in 2001 as Everybody Knows It’s On.
As an excuse to get an advanced copy of his first solo record, Author Unknown, I called the label, told them I wanted to write about it for my page and would be happy to run a simple website for him until they did something more official. When I faxed over some basic info to the label, Jason happened to be in the office, vouched for me and I got my cd a few days later. Not long after that, they invited me up to Luna Park in LA to see Jason’s first real solo show. Just as the Monochrome Set’s “He’s Frank” came over the PA before he played, I saw Buddy Judge and asked him, “Didn’t you write this song?” “No, but I used to play it,” he replied. We talked for awhile and he told me that he was working on a solo record that was heavy on tuba. He wasn’t kidding. His only solo record,1998’s Profiles In Clownhenge, is a dark but circusy record that is fun, funny and definitely heavy on tuba.
When I first started the Jason Falkner Lives site, I printed up some of the pages for Jason to see at a show since he wasn’t online yet. I guess he wasn’t clear about what I’d shown him because a few hours later, we were talking about the internet and he said “I should get a website.” “You have one!” “I do?!” The website I did for him was almost entirely text for a few years until a talented designer named Ben Scanlon offered to save me. I’d say that the new site, Can You Still Feel Him Up?, looked 1000 times better but 1000 times zero is still zero. Eventually I handed over the torch to Linda Rapka who redesigned the site and ever since then, she has run things better than I ever did.
For a few fun years, I talked to Jason a lot and saw him every month or two, whether it was seeing him play (click for long-winded reports), getting news to put on his website or just for fun. There were lots of shows in San Diego and Los Angeles, we visited him while he was recording Can You Still Feel with Nigel Godrich and there was random niceness like when he called and said there was a band playing Spaceland in a few hours called the Lilys that I HAD to see. While on tour with Suzanne Vega, he’d seen a bunch of mods outside of a nearby club in Philadelphia and when he went inside, the Lilys blew him away. I was not about to drive two hours to LA to see someone I’d never heard of at a club that my girlfriend wasn’t old enough to get into. Of course, I caved and as they went into “Shovel Into Spade Kit”, I felt my jaw hit the floor. I turned to Jason to say thanks and he was already staring at me with a huge grin, a whiteman overbite and an “I TOLD you so” nod.
Another post-Grays act Falkner was involved with was one Brendan Benson. In a great Art Into Dust interview about his early days, Benson explained that the two were dating girls that shared a flat while Jason was in Jellyfish and years later, Benson gave him a tape of rough songs he was working on. Not knowing Benson even wrote songs, Falkner was so impressed that he excitedly offered to help work on the songs and record some demos. The two would occasionally do acoustic duo auditions for label people and Virgin Records eventually signed Benson. Like their home recordings (released as Well Fed Demos), Jason produced and played almost everything on the resulting record but Virgin felt it was more like a Jason record with Brendan singing. He agreed to re-record it with producer Ethan James (Minutemen/Jane’s Addiction) and a cracking backing band that included San Diego’s Elgin Park/Greyboy Allstar Mike Andrews.
Jason had nothing to show for all of his work with Brendan, but, the resulting album, One Mississippi, is one of my favorite records ever made. I named it my #1 record of 1996 in an annual zine I used to do and the next time I saw Jason and his then-girlfriend Arly Jover, she jokingly attacked me yelling “Traitor! Traitor!” with Jason behind her sayin “Yeah!” The two made up later and Jason’s all over BB’s second album, Lapalco. I’ve never heard the Falkner version of One Mississip, though the two tried to get it released only to find that no one at Virgin could find the masters. Later, Andrews and Jason became friends (see video below) and Elgin Park backed Jason on at least one occasion. He played “Goodnight Sweet Night” with them at a San Diego Poptopia show and drummer Matt Lynott toured as Jason’s drummer at one point.
Funny enough, when Benson first came through San Diego, in April of 1997 with England’s 60 Foot Dolls, he had not one but two Grays in his band: Buddy Judge on guitar and Dan McCarroll on drums. At a free, hastily set up show at 4th & B (capacity: 1500), there were maybe 10 or 15 people there. They sounded great and Buddy was impressive playing leads but Brendan, still new to performing his own songs, was definitely not even a small fraction as exciting as he looks on the cover of One Mississippi. Most everyone left after they played so the Dolls played one song and walked off. There’s little or no recordings of their time playing with Brendan, though legendary trader Kamenliter, who taped the Grays at CBGB’s, also recorded a New York Benson show where they did one of their songs in the style of the then-popular “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers (that’s one Jon Brion using a screwdriver instead of a slide on the original FYI). A clip from a French tv show with Dan on drums was recently deleted from Youtube.
Both Dan and Buddy would play with Aimee Mann and Michael Penn often over the years. Penn even gushed that Buddy was the best songwriter in the Grays and let him sing “Nothing” as an encore. The last time I saw Buddy was on tour was with Liz Phair at SDSU’s Montezuma Hall. To say that she went downhill after this, hiring Avril’s songwriters and getting naked at the drop of a hat, is an understatement. I blame Buddy. Here they are performing on Sessions at 54th Street.
Buddy ended up with an interesting rock studio resume, singing with the Wallflowers, playing bass with Velvet Crush and adding guitar to Robbie Williams’ 2005 Instensive Care album. In recent years, he’s been doing a lot of soundtrack work for television, film and documentaries. The samples of his work on BuddyJudge.com are varied and fantastic. Hire him!
His old Boston buddy, Dan McCarroll ended up with the most surprising music career. After playing drums with Pete Droge & The Sinners and doing various studio work, he landed an A&R job at Lars Ulrich’s Music Company label before ending up at EMI Music Publishing. In 2010, he was named the President of the Capitol & Virgin label group. Kind of a big deal. Ironically, it was Capitol Records that first was interested in signing the Grays.
Encouraged by owner Mark Flanagan, Jon Brion started doing a series of unique solo shows in 1996 at Club Largo where the Grays got their start with a few showcases under the name Me. Since Jon was a virtual encyclopedia of music and could play almost any instrument, the setlist-free shows became an amazing anything-goes display of original music and unreal human jukebox feats, either by request or off the top of his head. As word spread and his studio resume grew (Rufus Wainwright, Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple, the list is endless), you never knew who was going to show up and play.
Sometimes the guests were a mystery (I saw Beck and Beth Orton do a surprise set of duets with Roger Manning and Justin Meldal-Johnsen) but, occasionally, special all-star shows were announced. I went to one benefit with Fiona Apple, Rhett Miller, Elliott Smith and Jon all sitting next to each other, trading off songs. Rhett was so daunted that he tried to write the best song he’d ever written for the occasion and produced “Rollerskate Skinny“. Mid-song, Elliott pulled out a harmonica and played along to everyone’s surprise. Besides the who’s who of the incredible Largo family of musicians & comedians, touring acts like Neil Finn and Robyn Hitchcock guested regularly and people like Mike Myers might show up to test out Sprockets material as a surprise opening act.
For years, Brion played every single Friday night at Largo, which only held 130 people at the Fairfax location (it moved in 2008). I went every year or two, which meant sitting in traffic from San Diego on the worst day and time possible, but it was always worth it. The club’s no taping, no cell phone, no talking policy meant that the room was full of people who really cared, listened and sang….harmonies even. It also means that hundreds of amazing moments will never be seen on Youtube or even traded illegally (though a few sneaky people managed to get some gems). At one point, I joined a Yahoo group dedicated to Brion so I could hear about what I was missing. It was torture so I unsubbed.
Brion regularly did Grays songs in his set and, one night, after he got Largo regular Andy Prieboy to sing a Wall Of Voodoo tune from before he was their lead singer, he felt bad enough to take a request for a few Falkner-penned Grays tunes. He’s played quite a few suggestions of mine over the years and I can’t ever turn down my shyness enough to not sing the extra parts. I brought a synthpop-loving friend to see him once and Jon took my Depeche Mode requestbait by pounding out “People Are People” with me singing Dave Gahan’s end part. Another time, he was searching for something to play while strumming one chord repeatedly on a ukulele. It sounded like the Bee Gees’ “1941 New York Mining Disaster” so I suggested it from a front table and he grinned as I nailed my Gibb harmony. He was even nice enough to honor my handwritten pre-show request from Flanagan, playing “Summertime” on a harmonium in the middle of the club for a fan who’d recently passed away and then taking my “We Can Work It Out” suggestion to end the night.
At one point, VH1 thought that a star-studded television version of Jon’s shows could work. They filmed a pilot that supposedly didn’t test well because of the unfunny comedy bumpers, some of which had some very funny Largo regulars trying to overcome an unfunny host. It’s a shame because the music bits with Elliott Smith, Cheap Trick, Grant Lee Phillips and others are great. My friend Sara was working for VH1 and ended up getting dragged onstage, playing a toy piano for one scene opposite E from the Eels. She showed me a test copy of the pilot and swore me to secrecy but it’s since ended up on Youtube in its entirety, so enjoy.
I’d been making the Largo pilgrimage less and less over the years but I finally made it to the new location to see Jon a couple of years ago. The Coronet Theater is less intimate but being housed in a turn of the century theater that had been frequented by Chaplin more than makes up for it. The last time I had seen Jon, he’d been mastering looping equipment that allowed him to record himself playing drums, keyboards or bass and then play guitar and sing over it. This night, he fielded a “Purple Rain” request and was already making it sound just like Prince when he started fiddling with some gadgets we couldn’t see. Suddenly a projection screen lit up with a video loop of an orchestra that was playing the symphony sounding part. Then came more fiddling and up came a black and white clip of someone playing the main melody on a Theremin on another screen. Unreal.
Brion barely missed a Friday night show in ten years before finally slowing down to play Largo just once a month. Occasionally he’ll play in Seattle or Chicago but he’s created a completely unique long-running residency where people travel from all over the world to watch him. Regulars knew his original songs and had seen them played ten completely different ways by the time he finally released his first solo record, Meaningless, in 2001. It was barely promoted and he didn’t tour so it’s filed in the Lost Classics section. By his own admission, his perfectionism keeps him from ever finishing records. Always tinkering, that guy. That hasn’t stopped him from constantly producing and playing on other people’s successful albums and soundtracks like Magnolia, that featured hit songs by his ex, Aimee Mann, including the Oscar-nominated “Save Me” which was written for her (then) beau Dave Foley.
Jason also continued an interesting series of collaborations with everyone from Daniel Johnston to the French group Air, who hired him to play frontman. Most famously, he helped Paul McCartney on his 2005 album Creation & Chaos In The Backyard by playing guitars while Paul laid down basic tracks. As agreed upon, most of them were re-recorded by Paul later, but a few things stayed (electric guitar on “A Certain Softness“, acoustic guitar on “At the Mercy” plus classical guitar and grand piano on B-side “Growing Up, Falling Down“). Paul became a fan of Jason’s Bedtime With The Beatles lullaby record enough to pen a note for the second edition in 2008. After the critical acclaim for his first two Elektra records (often referred to by fans as “Neglektra”), Jason released a series of demo compilations and EP’s and then put out his first album in eight years in 2007 (I’m OK, You’re OK) followed up just two years later by All Quiet On The Noise Floor, released appropriately by a Japanese label called Noise McCartney.
Not surprisingly, Jason and Jon’s paths have crossed over the years. Even in a town as big as LA, it’s not surprising since they travel in similar circles. One of the first times was an awkward exchange at a Cheap Trick show. But, in a 2003 Tape Op interview, Jason mentioned Susannah Hoffs’ self-titled solo record that they both played on. “(Producer) Jack Puig booked us so we never overlapped,” he said. “We’re so close musically that all of our differences – however insignificant – were blown way out of proportion. But we get along now.” It would seem that it would take those two becoming friendly again to have even a one-off reunion. Maybe they should just rent a rehearsal space and jam on some Kinks tunes…..
The Grays are remembered fondly, to say the least. The word “supergroup” gets thrown around a lot when they’re talked about. The response to these blogs have been unreal for a band that only put out one record. Years ago, they had a European fansite but I’m happy to join Britty’s Facebook fanpage to give them a little online home so there’s more for fans to see and hear from their short time on this earth. It’s nice to see so much appreciation for a band that came together accidentally, if not unwillingly, and whose members couldn’t wait for it to end most of the time.
As far as I know, Jason has never performed a Grays song with any of his various backing bands. Of the solo performances where he was played songs from Ro Sham Bo, this was by far my favorite. His 1996 tour opening for Suzanne Vega ended at Brick By Brick in San Diego and I took video. Famed video archivist Kamenliter was nice enough to upload this clip of him playing “Very Best Years” on a harmonium just for Yer Doin’ Great. Seems like a fitting way to end this thing.
Thanks for reading.