You can blame it on R.E.M or you can go farther back and blame it on The Byrds, but whoever you want to pin responsibility on, there were a lot of artists on college radio in the late ’80s who jangled and twanged their way to a certain degree of success. I’ve maintained a fondness for a lot of those bands over the years, but one that’s always been high on my list of faves – thanks in no small part to my having instantly fallen head over heels in love with their semi-hit single, “Mybabyshesallright” – is Scruffy the Cat.
Alas, the band’s been broken up for quite some time now, having given up the ghost back in 1990, but I was able to find a certain degree of solace from following the solo career of the band’s frontman, Charlie Chesterman, over the years, all the way until – sadly – he passed away in November 2013. Suddenly, however, I’m getting even more solace than I ever could’ve hoped for, thanks to two new releases from Scruffy the Cat.
The first, Time Never Forgets: The Anthology (’86-’88), is a beautiful-sounding digital reissue of the band’s entire back catalog in one convenient package…which, if you’re not enough of a fan to know the titles of all of their releases off the top of your head, means that it contains the High Octane Revival EP, their full-length debut, Tiny Days, the follow-up EP, Bang Bang Bang Bingo, and their final full-length effort, Moons of Jupiter.
36 tracks of pristine Scruffiness? Sold.
But the second release is an even bigger thrill: The Good Goodbye: Unreleased Recordings 1984-1990, which arrived in stores last week courtesy of the fine folks at Omnivore Recordings and contains 23 Scruffy the Cat tracks that, unless you’re really, really in with the in crowd, you’ve never heard before. If you’ve got memories of the band’s music that are fond as mine, then I’m sure you’re as psyched to hear this collection as I was. But if you have no memories of the band and have never heard their music at all…well, then this is a really good time to get in on the ground floor and find out what you’ve been missing.
And on that note, when I found out about these releases, I decided to see if there was any way I could hop on the phone with one of the guys from the band and chat about these new collections, just to try and help do my part to spread the word. As a result, I soon found myself having a lengthy and most decidedly in-depth conversation with the band’s guitarist, Stephen Fredette, about the life and times of Scruffy the Cat, including discussions about their formation, the recording of all of those EPs and LPs I mentioned, their eventual dissolution, and their all-too-brief reunion a few years ago. Oh, right, and Fredette also shared some truly fantastic stories about some of the many shows the band played in their career, including dates with Alex Chilton, the Pogues, and…Paula Abdul?!?
Yeah, you know you want to read on now…
News Reviews Interviews: At the risk of gushing from the get-go, as someone who’s been a Scruffy the Cat fan from the first time I heard “Mybabyshesallright,” I just wanted to say that I’m incredibly psyched about these two releases.
Stephen Fredette: Yeah, actually, it’s pretty exciting stuff to me, too, to tell you the truth!
I guess the first question, then, is to ask how these releases came out, since it’s clear that a great deal of work has gone into them.
It’s an interesting story. This actually all started back in 1999, when Mac (Paul Stanfield), who’s the bass player for the band, and Pete Weiss got together to basically digitize our stuff, because a couple of those EPs were on vinyl, and the original CDs were from the ‘80s, and it was pretty bad. So they essentially put together on a three-CD set the Relativity stuff and all of our other recording sessions, and we tried at that time to talk to Sony about putting stuff out, and we just got put off and put off. And, basically, 15 years went by.
A lot of people were aware of this three-CD set, even though only the band members had them, but some people got copies of them, and this guy named Eric Bradford decided that he was going to take it on himself to get the stuff released. This was a couple of years ago. So the only stumbling block was that the recording rights were owned by Relativity, which had been sold to Sony, and we just needed their permission to go ahead and do it, but we just never got permission. Eric worked on that for, like, a year and a half – on his own, not in connection with us – and…it actually wasn’t until Charlie (Chesterman) passed away that the executive people showed an interest.
So that’s actually how it came about: after Charlie passed away, Sony decided they were going to put it out themselves. But then we had that other body of material, so that’s where a guy named Jay Coyle got in touch with Omnivore Recordings, and they were really enthusiastic about putting it out. So it turned into two different projects.
As far as the Relativity material goes – and with all due respect to Sony, who at least finally did manage to put it out – it had to be frustrating to get no response at all from your initial requests.
Sure, yeah. I mean, it definitely was. Also, we were on a sort of time clock, with Charlie being sick. So that was a bit frustrating. But the thing is, you know, once it went through and I started dealing with this guy Tim at Sony, who it turned out was a fan, all of a sudden everything was fabulous. I mean, they’ve been incredibly nice and incredibly great about this whole experience.
It’s all a matter of finding the right ear to listen to you, I guess.
Exactly. Yeah, you know, it was the right person to get involved. And Sony has Legacy now, so they figured this would work.
With the unreleased material, how long has that particular set been under consideration?
You know, it was all the same package. It was basically the same package, and once Jay found out about Omnivore, they were, like, up for it right away, and it was simply a matter of getting a lot of things done, like getting signed agreements from us, because we’re all over the country now, and I’m making artwork and stuff. So, basically, it’s what I was doing this summer. [Laughs.] That’s what I did with my summer vacation!
So was the process fun, depressing, or “other”?
You know what? Except for the fact that you realize that Charlie’s not around and you wish he was – and that’s always omnipresent in this – everything else has been pretty much a breeze. I’ve been, like, the band representative, and the people I’ve dealt with at both labels were just absolutely charming about everything we wanted to do and were incredibly enthusiastic about it. So it’s been fun, actually, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t expecting to have as much fun as I did.
To jump back to the very beginning, what’s the secret origin of Scruffy the Cat? How did the band first come together?
It was pretty easy. Do you know that Charlie was in a band called The Law?
I’d read that, but I’ve never actually heard anything by them. (Note: I have since remedied that situation by going here.)
Well, The Law was, like, Des Moines’ big pop-punk band, and they decided that, since nothing was going on in Des Moines, they would move to Boston. And, actually, they opened for a friend of mine’s band, and they came home from playing this gig, and they said, “Oh, my God, you’ve got to meet these guys!” So I went over to the house and met Charlie and all those guys. Mac was in The Law, too. But they broke up a couple of months later. So essentially Charlie… [Starts to laugh.] I would answer ads in the paper – The Phoenix had music ads – and one day I saw an ad that said, “Musicians wanted. Band died.” And I thought that was really funny, but I never answered it…and I found out later that that was Charlie, and that it was a very typical Charlie thing to do.
But Charlie knew that I was playing with a couple of people, and…what basically happened was that he got some friends to give him free studio time, and he came to me and said, “Listen, if you guys are the band, we can do some of my stuff and some of your stuff.” So that’s how it started. Charlie asked me to do that, and we did the recording thing, and then Charlie said, “Why don’t we just stay a band?” And we did. And then for six months we tried to come up with a name. [Laughs.] And that was a terrible experience.
So how did Scruffy the Cat finally come about as a name?
Honestly, Charlie used to come out from Boston to rehearse, and when we drove him back to the T (Boston’s rapid transit network), that would be the time when we’d come up with names…and there were dozens of ‘em. Our bass player came up with some that we really didn’t like – this was after months of doing this – and finally, in exasperation, he just threw his hands up and said, “Well, why don’t we call it Scruffy the Cat?” Which was his dad’s cat. And I was sitting the back seat, and I stopped for a minute, and I said, “Hey! That’s not a bad idea!” [Laughs.] And that’s how we got the name Scruffy the Cat.
And I’m sure you grew tired over the course of the band’s run of being asked that question.
Well, actually – and this is what Charlie was always good for – he came up with fake reasons for it, my favorite being that it was the name of somebody’s fish. [Laughs.] That was actually my favorite one. But, no, you know, if somebody kept asking me, that could get tiresome, but Charlie always had a completely surreal way of dealing with it.
You said The Law was kind of pop-punk.
Yeah, and ska, too. This was 1979 or 1980, and Charlie was heavily influenced by punk rock.
So who brought the twang to Scruffy, then?
Strangely enough, it was me, the guy from Boston. [Laughs.] I had done the same thing with punk rock – I’d gone to art school, I was there in, like, ’76 and ’77, and obviously punk rock became very huge – so when I first started listening to it, honestly, it really changed my life entirely. But, y’know, Boston is always sort of a very accelerated place, and by 1980 I was really tired of everyone dressing the same, with the leather jackets and stuff, and…for some strange reason I started listening to Hank Williams. I had a roommate, who was our first manager, who’s from Kentucky, so he showed me Lefty Frizzell and people like that, and I knew about Merle Haggard, so…it was just something that I was interested in, and I really kind of liked it. And I thought it was ironic that, when I started playing with a guy from Des Moines, Iowa, he had absolutely no knowledge of country music. We had a huge background in ‘50s rock – I think both of us, when we were kids, there was a revival in the ‘70s – but he didn’t know anything about country. So I started playing Hank Williams and stuff like that for him, and he started writing country songs.
How did the band’s career build? How long did it take you from playing the clubs to signing to Relativity?
That’s a good question. The first band that the four of us played in, we played for about six months, and then that band broke up. And then Mac came out from Iowa, and Stona (Fitch), who was a friend of Charlie’s from Princeton, said he’d join in. So it took about a year for us to get based in Boston really strongly, and… [Sighs.] God, y’know, for, like, two years, we’d play 300 nights a year in the Boston area, and we’d go to New York and Portland and places like that.
And then we went in to record a demo tape with David Minehan from The Neighborhoods, and it actually went so well that that’s High Octane Revival. We were sending it around, and Relativity were really interested in it, and they wanted to put the demo tape out, so…that’s how we got to be associated with Relativity. And getting signed up with Relativity, that finally led us to doing the North American circuit, so we finally got to go out on the road.
How much interaction did you have with the other bands on the Boston scene?
Oh, tons. A lot. One of the reasons I think Charlie was interested in me was because I’d been around the clubs since, like, the mid-‘70s, and I knew tons of people. In fact, I found out that, at one point, I was evidently almost the guitar player for the Del Fuegos. [Laughs.] Because they were in the room next to us. So I was really good friends with the Del Fuegos and…oh, God, name a band and I’ll tell you if I know them, but we basically all knew each other in those days.
Were the Pixies around at all when Scruffy was active?
Well, that’s something I missed entirely. [Laughs.] I remember their first gig, at Chet’s, and I remember the posters that they were putting up. What was the one about “Kill the Pixies” or something like that? That’s the one of their posters I remember, and I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting.” But I just couldn’t bring myself to go down to Chet’s that night, and I ended up missing out on the whole thing. But there were bands like the Throwing Muses and the Pixies who were, like, a different musical style, so you didn’t necessarily travel in the same circles. Also, the Pixies were from Northampton, so they didn’t come up – like we all did – throw the small clubs and all that. They got big pretty quickly. So I don’t actually know any of the Pixies, although I knew the Throwing Muses really well. I remember Tanya (Donnelly) was a big Scruffy the Cat fan, which completely surprised me.
So were you more peers with, say, Mission of Burma?
Well, I knew Burma because I was older than most of the guys, and the Burma guys are a couple of years older than me, so I first saw Mission of Burma in 1979, and I just absolutely fell in love. Actually, to tell you the truth… Peter Prescott was in Volcano Suns at the time, and they were next-door neighbors to us, so we knew them really well.
So who were your peers on the Boston scene, then? Who were you playing around with at the time?
Oh, okay, well, definitely the Dogmatics. And…who did we play with all the time? Well, there was a band called Last Stand, who were originally called Noonday Underground, and we played our first show together, so we always played with each other all the time. Um…I’m trying to remember who else. I remember the national stuff a lot better than I remember the local stuff. [Laughs.] Because you just knew everyone. Salem 66 were next to us, the Zulus were in the room across from us, and we played inside bands with each other. The Condo Pigmies was my friend Patrick (McGrath’s) band. And like I said, we knew the Del Fuegos really well, and…I’m drawing a blank!
You’re good! Okay, so once you got signed to Relativity… I mean, like I said, my first memory of the band starts with “Mybabyshesallright,” but I can’t really get an idea for how big that song was. I just know that it was big on college radio right around the time I first heard it.
Yeah, the thing about the college charts – from what I recall, because I don’t have them in front of me – we pretty consistently went to #1 on…whatever that list was. The college-radio list.
Oh, yeah, definitely the CMJ. When we’d play those, we’d always be in New York for the New Musical Festival and CMJ and stuff. We’d go down and do that, and…I’m pretty sure we also played at least the first three South by Southwests. Actually, one of my favorite quotes was on an official South by Southwest site, where there was an article about the bands that you missed at SXSW, and it had this great sentence that said, like, “In ’87 or ’88, the big buzz band was Scruffy the Cat, but if you had gone down to 6th Avenue, you could’ve seen Billy Ray Cyrus playing!” [Laughs.] And I’m, like, “Oh, my God, what does this sentence even mean?” Yeah, I guess you could’ve seen Billy Ray Cyrus play a club… But, yeah, we had a couple of buzz years at SXSW, which was always fun.
Did it feel like a high point when you got a video into rotation on 120 Minutes?
Oh, yeah, definitely. [Laughs.] Oh, sure. Actually, that whole experience with the video was very funny, because the label said, “We’re gonna do a video for you,” and we’re, like, “Okay, that’s fine.” And we didn’t have any say in it whatsoever, so we showed up at the Rat one morning – the Rat let us have the stage for the whole day – and these people from New York came up with a camera, and we had to lip-synch over and over for about eight hours. And then they went home, and then about six weeks later we got a tape in the mail. And we were really, really sort of apprehensive, because MTV in those days was girls in bathing suits and stuff like that, and we were, like, “What are they going to do to us?”
But they did a perfectly straight version of it, except that they added animation, and we were really, really happy with the video. And then they got it to MTV, and it went on “120 Minutes,” and…we actually ended up doing a bunch of interviews with MTV in various parts of the country. Also, Peter Zaremba had that show (The Cutting Edge), and Peter was a friend of ours, too, so he was really good about that. So, yeah, it definitely turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. We were, like, “Great! That’s fine!” But we usually tended to be fairly blasé towards things. I think it was sort of, like, to insulate yourself, you just had low expectations. So when things went better than you expected, it was always a huge pleasure. I mean, just getting signed was, like, “Wow! I never expected that to happen!”
You’ve got an incredibly comprehensive gig list on the band’s website, but there’s one in particular that really caught my eye. So you, uh, played a show with Paula Abdul, did you?
Oh, my God, did we play with Paula Abdul. [Laughs.] That was Spin’s first birthday party. Spin had been around for one year, so they decided to throw themselves a huge party at the Palladium. And I was psyched, because I was going to be on the same stage that was on the cover of (The Clash’s) London Calling. And we got there, and we had no idea who else we were going to be playing with, and…these people showed up, and there were, like, 15 or 20 dancers, and they had a tape. And then there was this incredibly tiny woman – she was, like, five foot tall or something – and she was leading it. And she had not put a record out at that point, so we had no idea who it was. And they went up and did their sound check, and…we were just absolutely agog at the fact that they had put these two acts together. So that’s how we ended up playing with Paula Abdul. Actually, that whole gig was insane, because there are, like, three floors to the Palladium, and it was full of everyone from the New York rock scene. Like, our manager was standing in one hall with Joey Ramone, and…who was it? Oh, Patti Smith’s guitar player. And all these other guys. And I was, like, “Oh, my God, this is, like, rock history!”
Speaking of rock history, the gig list also mentions that you guys played several dates with Alex Chilton.
[Immediately starts laughing.]
So, uh, how was that experience? Based on what I’ve read about him, it seems like it would’ve the classic case of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
It was an amazing thing, because…he didn’t talk. I mean, the man didn’t talk unless he had to. He’s not going out of his way to be anybody’s friend. And, you know, his shows could be… [Hesitates.] The thing I liked about him was that he had a notebook with, like, dozens and dozens of songs, and…he didn’t do set lists. He would go up, and then he would play a song, and then he’d flip through his notebook and decide what he was going to do next. So at one gig, someone yelled out “September Gurls,” and then someone yells out something else, and someone yells out something else. And he just didn’t pay attention. And then finally he just went to the microphone and said, “You can all fight it out amongst yourself, and then I’ll play what I want.” [Laughs.]
But my favorite story of the Alex Chilton trip was after we had played, like, five or six dates with him. We got to Albuquerque, and in Albuquerque you played in a record store called The Bow Wow, which was a great place. And it was right on Central Avenue, which is Route 66. There’s a Route 66 sign and everything. So we did our sound check, and he did his sound check, and everybody left to get something to eat, but I – as usual – just sort of went outside the record store, out to the sidewalk, and just sat by myself to watch the sunset. So I’m just sitting there, and Alex Chilton comes out of the record store. And he walks by me and goes over to his Isuzu Trooper – they traveled in two Isuzu Troopers – and he pulls out a ghetto blaster. And he walks over to me, stands right in front of me, and he presses “play” on the ghetto blaster…and he had the theme to the TV show Route 66 cued up. So it starts playing, and I realize what it is, and I say, “Oh, okay, wow, the theme from Route 66!” And he didn’t say anything. So I realized that we weren’t supposed to talk. [Laughs.] So we’re sitting there in this beautiful sunset, he’s playing the theme from Route 66, and then it ends, he presses “stop,” he puts it back in the Trooper, and…he leaves. And I’m just sitting there, having just had this incredibly surreal experience happen to me because he needed someone to play the song to. He had it all set and ready to go. And I was the guy.
Alex Chilton was like that: he could be friendly and stuff, but mostly he just didn’t talk. He did actually say one thing to me, though, after our last show. We used to cover “Little Bit O’ Soul,” and he said, “Yeah, I like that you guys do ‘Little Bit O’ Soul.’ That guy used to be my roommate in New York.” And I was just, like, “Oh, my God, your roommate was the singer for The Music Explosion?!?” [Laughs.]
I could basically go through every other act you’ve played with and probably get great stories from you for all of ‘em, but the only other one I feel like I have to ask about is the Pogues.
[Immediately starts laughing again.]
That just seems destined to have some sort of story involved.
Yeah. Actually, we did a couple of shows with the Pogues. It might’ve been more than two, but one was with Shane (MacGowan), and one was the version without Shane but with Joe Strummer playing acoustic guitar. And Charlie and I, we were always really good about bumping into famous people and being, like, “Okay, so that’s them.” But unfortunately we couldn’t even bring ourselves to talk to Joe, who evidently was an incredibly friendly man.
But the thing I always remember about playing with the Pogues was the show with Shane. First of all, watching the crowd in…the Ritz, I’m pretty sure, and watching the floor start to go up and down about four or five feet was terrifying. But because it’s an old theater, our dressing rooms were in the wings, and they were above the stage, so you could sit in your dressing room and look down on the act, which was really kind of fun. So Shane’s out there, and he’s got a bottle of vodka in one hand, and he’s completely, completely shitfaced. And he’s singing, and he’s being Shane, and stuff like that. And he finishes the bottle of vodka, and then at the next instrumental break, he staggers over to the wings, and as soon as he gets behind the curtains, where the crowd can’t see him, he stands straight up…and it’s obvious that he’s not intoxicated at all! And he goes over to a water cooler and refills the vodka bottle, then he walks back to the edge of the curtain and instantly goes into his slouch and drunkenly comes back on stage! [Laughs.] I just thought that was the greatest thing to see. It was just, like, “Wow!”
I’m torn between being disappointed that it ruins the illusion and thinking it’s incredibly awesome that he pulled it off.
Yeah, y’know, at first I was, like, “Aw, this is all an act!” And then I realized that I don’t know if he did that all the time. I’m not saying that it was a common thing. But he did do it that night, and…he pulled it off so beautifully that you had to admire what he was doing.
Okay, so between Tiny Days and Moons of Jupiter, those two efforts sound – at least to me – like very different albums. What was the difference between them, creatively speaking?
One thing is that there weren’t as many Charlie contributions, so it was… I mean, Charlie was the one who always picked the titles for the records, and he came to me one day and said, “The next record’s gonna be called Moons of Jupiter.” And I’m, like, “Wow, okay, great!” I think actually that there had been some sort of progression towards incorporating elements of soul. I mean, obviously, we were as unsoulful as you can be. [Laughs.] But, actually, we had even done that in the very early days of the band. I remember we did, like, Sly and the Family Stone’s “Stand,” which was one of my favorite songs. At the time in Boston, there was sort of a mix of rock ‘n’ roll influences, and a lot of bands – especially in the punk and post-punk era – had R&B influences. I mean, that’s what you’d be playing over the P.A. We all knew Motown and we all knew Stax, and I had a pretty good interest in Philadelphia stuff.
And then we were looking for a producer, and I had heard “The Ledge,” off of (The Replacements’) Pleased to Meet Me, and I said, “Oh, my God, this is one of the most unbelievable sounds I’ve ever heard in my life.” You know, the way he got the bass and the drums? And when we found out it was Jim Dickinson, we were, like, “Oh!” So people got in touch, and Jim said, “Sure, I wanna work with ‘em!” And so it was off to Memphis, and…it was a different recording experience than anything we’ve ever done, because with Jim, you record for 90 minutes, and then he talks for three hours. [Laughs.] But because he’s telling you stories that are just mindboggling, like, “Yeah, the way I got into ‘Gimme Shelter,’” or “when I was doing studio sessions with Duane Allman” or “when I was playing piano for Aretha Franklin,” so you’d just sit there. And he’d sit there in the control room and continuously take the seeds out of his pot and roll joints and smoke ‘em.
He had this incredible, soothing, leveling thing to him. He never got really enthusiastic about stuff. You could tell when he’d like stuff, but he was very low-energy, both him and Paul, the engineer. It was what they call Southern time. And Southern time is slow. So that’s what the whole experience was. But the other thing was that we got to live in Memphis while we were doing it, and we basically spent two weeks in the studio. So it was approached completely differently. I can tell it’s a lower-key kind of thing. And it’s incorporating a few of the Memphis kind of things – I think Charlie was working on sort an R&B kind of approach – but “Moons of Jupiter” was one of the first songs I ever wrote in my life, so that’s an old, old song, and it was obviously a case of kicking it out as much as you possibly can. So, anyway, I think the difference between the two albums is that the influences are much more varied on Moons of Jupiter.
So now I realize something I didn’t ask earlier that I obviously should have: how was Chris Butler to work with as your producer on Tiny Days? Because he came in with his own slice of musical history, having been part of The Waitresses.
He would be the opposite of Jim Dickinson. [Laughs.] He was a cheerleader. He was great. He just did everything possible to make the whole thing a festive affair. Which was good, because we were living in incredibly wretched conditions. We essentially didn’t have any budget for anything, and we had to stay in Hoboken for a month. And it was winter, and it was actually one of the worst winters in New Jersey history, and…the studio wasn’t heated! I mean, it had one of those big jet heaters, but you had to turn that off when you were recording. And since we were crashing on people’s floors or whatever, I ended up sleeping in the studio. I would cover myself up in packing blankets and make it through the night. So it was a bit physically intimidating. But Chris went out of his way to keep things going and keep things really upbeat. He was different than Jim, in that he was coming from a pop, guitar-oriented thing, because of his stuff with The Waitresses and Tin Huey, so I think we really got to use that, and that worked out really well.
And then between Tiny Days and Moons of Jupiter, you also did the Boom Boom Boom Bingo EP. Was that just to kind of keep the momentum going for the band?
That was Charlie’s idea. Like I said, he would always come to me and tell me what his idea was, and it would always be a good idea. But I think it was also because he had “You Dirty Rat,” and he wanted to do something with it. So his idea was to go into the studio for two songs and then record us live. Because, you know, we were always stronger as a live thing, so we wanted to get that on record, as far as what we did live. Because sometimes it was completely different from what the studio thing was. So he just decided on a five or six song EP and said, “It’s not a big deal for the record label.” And they went along with it. And, actually, I’m really glad they did, because I’ve always been really fond of that one.
Well, it has to be asked: what led to the eventual demise of Scruffy the Cat?
Well, eventually things weren’t working out with Relativity. Relativity made some questionable decisions which I won’t go into, but we realized that Relativity and us weren’t on the same page. Fortunately, we didn’t sign one of those contracts which everyone was signing in those days for 10 records and you were obligated. We were on a per-record basis. And eventually it became clear that we weren’t happy with Relativity and Relativity weren’t entirely happy with us, so that’s how we got out of the recording contract. The thing is, once we didn’t have a recording contract, that made touring more difficult, and as things further stagnated, that’s when personal problems developed and, you know, just the exhaustion of being on the road three or four months at a time, coming home for six weeks, and then going out for another three or four months. As much as I loved doing it, it contributes to tensions between people, and then finally it just reached a point where Charlie and I just weren’t getting along, and…Charlie just decided he was going to go do something else.
Did you work on any of his solo material over the years?
Yeah, I did. I’m on the first record. And I actually did the cover for the first record. He asked me to do the cover, which is a typical Charlie story. If you ever see the cover for his first record, which is called From the Book of Flames, I had gotten a book about hot rods with flames and pin-striping which is called The Book of Flames, and he was very fond of that, so he said to me… [Starts to laugh.] “I want you to paint me an angel with a human heart for a head, with horns, with a halo, coming out of a burning book, holding a wrench in one hand and a piston in the other.” And I said, “Uh…okay, I’ll do that.” It’s funny, because no one’s ever suggested something to me that I can actually do, but I went home and painted exactly what he asked me to paint. It was pretty funny.
So, yeah, I did the cover for his first one, and I actually played bass for him a few times. One time was at the Paradise, with what sort of became the Motorbikes. It was me playing guitar with Andy (Pastore). Charlie decided he didn’t want to play guitar for a gig, that’s what it was. So he asked me to come along, and Andy and I played guitar, and Charlie wore one of those fringe leather jackets, like the Byrds or something. I remember that really well. So that night, he was just the lead singer.
So have you ever done any solo work, or have you just stuck to being in a band?
No actual solo work, although that’s a funny story. We had a meeting with Relativity once about the next record or something, and the guy from the label would always come up from New York, and we’d go to dinner. They’d just had a big hit with Joe Satriani – it may have been their biggest hit – and the guy from the record label says, “By the way, Stephen, we want to talk to you about doing a solo record.” And this was just so incredibly ridiculous to me that I burst into laughter. [Laughs.] I can say that I actually laughed my way out of my own solo career! But, yeah, I’d always just been so devoted to the idea of the band that there was no way on earth that I was going to do a solo record, but especially not when I realized later on that it was because of Joe Satriani. I was, like, “I can’t do anything like that. That’s insane!”
After Scruffy, I was in a ton of bands, too many to even keep track of. But I was in Lazy Susan, who I’m actually playing with again in October. Lazy Susan was these two women, Shirley Simms and Therese Bellino, with various people backing them up. So I did that, and I was in a band called the Lucky Charms, which was a bunch of surfers and was kind of fun. Pete Weiss and I had a band for a long time – Pete Weiss and the Rock Band – and did an infamous 36-song debut CD.
Wow, 36 tracks?
Yeah, well, like, one of the tracks is called “Peter Prescott Remarks ‘Oh, God,’” and then, uh, Peter Prescott remarks, “Oh, God.” [Laughs.] That was one of the tracks! And then toward the end of the ‘90s… I had health problems. In 1997, I had heart surgery, and then I had a stroke in the recovery room. [With mock excitement.] And then I got to teach myself to play guitar again!
Oh, yeah, it was terrifying. I came home from the hospital and I picked up a guitar and…I couldn’t play! [Laughs.] But then in the late ‘90s, I was in a band called Pony, and we put out a couple of CDs and stuff, and played around for a long time. So that was the most major thing I did after Scruffy the Cat: a band called Pony. And then, unfortunately, I got diagnosed in 2007 (with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), and everything just sort of fell apart because I was so sick. And that took awhile to come back from.
You guys did eventually reunite as Scruffy with Charlie, though, toward…his later days, I guess you’d say.
Yes. Charlie had always been completely opposed to getting back together. He just wanted nothing to do with it. For one thing, he was involved in his solo career, so he didn’t like to fall back on Scruffy the Cat, because he wanted to do his own thing. Having said that, after the band broke up in 1990, Charlie and I worked together in the same room at a frame company for almost 14 years. [Laughs.] So we were still together. In fact, I realized at one point that we’d actually been together in one way or another for over 20 years ago. So the subject would come up now and then, and none of us wanted anything to do with it for the first couple of years, but eventually… I was one of the last holdouts, and then I decided, “Yeah, why don’t we do it?” But Charlie, he just would not do it. He had no interest in that. Although when I got sick, there were benefits for me, and Charlie’s band would play among the bands that would play.
And then, ironically, when I was starting to get better, Charlie got sick, and I think that changed Charlie’s perspective on things. So he was open to doing something, but the show that we did play, we had no rehearsal. We hadn’t played together in 21 years, and Charlie’s stipulation was that there was no rehearsal, that we’d just show up and do it. It was five or six songs, but – amazingly enough – we pulled it off with absolutely no rehearsal! [Laughs.] And things with him got better and got worse, and I got better and I got worse, but when it became obvious that things weren’t going very well, he definitely was open to the idea to doing a full-on reunion, because Mac (Paul Stanfield) wasn’t at that show. So we arranged to do these two shows in October of last year, but then his health just didn’t hold up, and…there was just no way we could do it.
Well, with these two new releases, hopefully the band’s back catalog will have a chance to be brought back to the forefront again and maybe even bring you guys a new audience.
Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping. I mean, we’ve got, like, a fan page, and we’ve got 700 or 800 people, and I’m sure they’ll all be interested in it, but I’m really kind of interested in people who’ve never heard of us coming to us for the first time. So I’m really psyched to see something like that happen. And I’m really glad that these two releases are coming out so close to each other, because I think that might be a good way to sort of generate notice of them…especially since with one of them, most people have never heard the stuff before.
And on that note, to start wrapping up, is there a particular track on The Good Goodbye that you’d recommend for people to check out, or maybe one that, having rediscovered it, you can’t believe it never made it out there before this?
You know, what’s really funny is that there’s a song that I’d completely forgotten had even existed. It’s from the last recording session we did, but it’s a song by Charlie called “Hope.” I was completely surprised by that one. There’s two songs – “Hope” and a song by Mac called “Porch Flambé” – that are about as good as we could do in the studio. I was really impressed and happy about how they came out. That said, I’m also obviously very fond of the very first stuff, because that’s how we started out. But, yeah, the big surprise for me was “Hope.”
Well, look, Stephen, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. Like I said, and as I’ve obviously shown, I’ve been a fan for a long time, I’m excited about these releases, so I wanted to do my part to spread the word.
Oh, I’m really grateful for this. I really appreciate it. Where are you, by the way?
I’m in Chesapeake, Virginia, right next door to Norfolk and Virginia Beach, where you played more than a few times…and with some bands whose members I’ve become friends with over the years.
The second-to-last Scruffy the Cat show was in Norfolk!
Yep. I remember that. Actually, I think that might’ve been one of the shows that we created. Once in awhile, we’d go to a town and make a show happen instead of being booked. And I’m pretty sure Norfolk was one of those. I loved going to Norfolk. I still have a sign from one of the clubs. They had a professional sign painter who did all their posters and stuff, so the club in Norfolk had this beautiful sign, which I still own to this day, because it’s so great. I always loved Norfolk.
Well, I know Antic Hay opened for you at one point, and so did The Mockers.
Oh, yeah! And, oh my God, that last night… I remember the kids who opened for us were really great. I say “kids” because, at that point, I was in my early 30s, so anyone who was 19 or 20 years old was a kid to me.
Do you have any idea what band it was? I didn’t actually see it on the list.
It’s on the list…and, oh, I have the list right here! And all I have to do is go to the very end, so… [Long pause.] And you’re right: it’s not on the list. Because it’s the show that we made by ourselves, that’s right.
Well, leave it to me to find the one omission.
[Laughs.] Actually, there’s another show that’s not on the list, too. But thanks for pointing that out! I would’ve totally missed that. But I remember the gig, because we had to drive home from Norfolk to Boston. Plus, you know how it is: the last gig of a tour is always pretty much etched in your memory.