Waxing Poetics: The Oral History

I wouldn’t dare offend my numerous friends in the Hampton Roads musicians community by suggesting that any one band was or is more popular than another, but I at least feel comfortable saying that Waxing Poetics were the first local band that ever captured my attention. It helped immeasurably, of course, that they were also the first local band I ever heard played on the radio, which was a relatively unheard-of phenomenon back in the day, but it was mind-blowing to me that these were guys who lived in the area and, yes, actually had day jobs in the area once in awhile!

If you frequent this site with any regularity, then you probably know how this story goes: I pitched the idea of doing a piece on the Dec. 30th Poetics’ reunion show – with Left Wing Fascists opening up, no less! – to Pulse Magazine, and my editor gave me the go-ahead. It seemed like it might be fun to travel the oral-history route, so I contacted all of the former members of the band that I could find, not to mention one of the band’s former producers (thank you, Peter Holsapple, for helping me get on the phone with Mike Mills), and the results were outstanding. They were also downright epic, so there was never any way it was all going to fit in Pulse.

Here’s the piece as it appeared in Pulse. It’s pretty great, if I do say so myself. But if you loved the Poetics as much as I did, then I think you’ll find this extended version even better…

Waxing Poetics: The Not-So-Secret Origin

Paul Johnson, a.k.a. Paul Tiers (lead guitar, vocals): David Middleton and I were in a band called The Probe when he was 15 and I was 17. They existed prior to me being in the band, and I bugged the crap out of ‘em, to the point of them letting me join.

David Middleton (lead vocals, guitar): We were young, we were underage, but it was legal – although I don’t know if it still is – for us to perform in nightclubs. Even if the nightclubs sold alcohol, there was a law about…something having to do with how minors could be in the club as long as they were the entertainment. Which is surprisingly liberal for Virginia! We were so young, we were thinking, “Let’s look into the legalities of us being in these clubs,” but it was legal, as long as we were the entertainment…and as long as we weren’t caught drinking.

Paul Johnson: We were mostly a cover band.

David Middleton: We did lots of post-punk, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, the Vibrators, a lot of late ‘70s / early ‘80s Stiff Records stuff, ska, stuff like that. We did have a couple of original tunes, though, one of which was “If You Knew Sushi,” which later on ended up on the Hermitage album.

The Probe parted ways sometime in the middle of ’82, and Paul skipped off to Arizona or New Mexico to work on an oil rig or something like that. He was always up to something bizarre. And I thought I’d never see him again, so I went about my merry way. I was still in high school, but meanwhile I played around with a couple of different bands and different musicians around town. Nothing really serious, nothing that went anywhere, but I kept busy with music. And then I got a call from Paul one night late in 1983, probably October or November, and he was back in town and he was putting together a new band.

Sean Hennessy (bass, vocals, 1983-1989): Paul and I had been friends for a long time, went to elementary school together, and he and I got together with Billy, but…I can’t remember how Paul met Billy.

Paul Johnson: I met Billy by default at a party that I was trying to leave. An angry redneck who’d been ejected from the party wouldn’t let anyone leave, and he had a huge knife, so I was, like, “Well, I guess I’m not leaving yet!” So I went down to the basement to get some more beer, and I told the guy who owned the house, “Hey, you’ve got a guy with a knife in your front yard, and he won’t let anybody leave!” Then I went over to the keg, and there was Billy. We hadn’t talked earlier, but thanks to that redneck, we met, and we ended up exchanging phone numbers. Isn’t that great? We met because of a knife-wielding maniac.

Bill Shearin (drums, percussion): Yeah, the guy with the knife tried to stab my car! But, hey, better to attack the metal of my hood than us, right?

Sean Hennessy: We actually had tried a few other people out before Dave joined us. We had Marty Jones, who’s now with Marty Jones and the Pork Boilin’ Poor Boys out in Colorado, and he sang with us for awhile. He was with C.J. and the PhDs and Nick and the Razors in Norfolk.

Paul Johnson: Dave told me he would never again do music, that it was fun but that it wasn’t his calling and that he probably wouldn’t ever put any energy into it ever again. But after going through a number of singers that didn’t seem to fit what we were trying to do, I said, “You know, he was a great singer and a fun guy to work with and an interesting guitar player. Let’s give him a call and just see if he wants to do it.” And he picked up the phone and said, “Yes, I’d love to do it,” to my surprise.

David Middleton: Sean lived in a house with a roommate, and they had a little rehearsal space in their attic, and they invited me out there to hear what they were doing and see if I wanted to sing, but I already had made up my mind that I wanted to do this. I mean, a chance to be in a band with Paul again was definitely a thrilling option. That, and the opportunity to be a singer as opposed to just a guitarist, which is kind of what I was doing in other groups. So even without hearing them, I really wanted to do it. But I went out there and I heard them. There were a couple of original pieces that Paul had that didn’t have any lyrics or anything, so they were doing a lot of cover material, but it was, like, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen…and they did “Radio Free Europe,” by R.E.M., which was a new song at that time, and that kind of hit me. I was, like, “Wow, okay, this is a good sound. We could definitely do something in the context of this sound.”

Sean Hennessy: Paul and I have sort of a raunch ‘n’ roll background. He likes a lot of that. The Stones and the New York Dolls. I definitely had influence from the modern rock of the time – the Psychedelic Furs, the Cure – and I was a big Iggy and the Stooges fan. And David at the time was an Elvis Costello and R.E.M. fan, but he really runs the gamut when it comes to music. So our musical interests were pretty varied.

David Middleton: Our first gigs were just backyard barbeques, setting up in a friend’s home or something and having beer and inviting friends over, but then in early ’84, that was when we started kind of getting our name out professionally, and we started playing clubs like Dominic’s and Cogan’s and places like that.

Paul Johnson: But then Billy didn’t show up to our first gig! ‘Cause he’d gotten some job working for a chemical company where he had to go sleep in a trailer or something and watch these nuclear places. Something weird, anyway. It was some job where he had to wear a helmet, I know that.

Bill Shearin: It just happened at a time when, y’know, I’d gone to college and then I got a job offer, so I tried that out for awhile. It was a job that kind of had me sequestered all over the country, working for a water purification company…and, believe me, it wasn’t even as glamorous as it doesn’t sound

Paul Johnson: We never fully understood what he did, but it paid pretty well, and he didn’t see much hope for these guys who practiced in an attic, and…I don’t think he thought we were gonna do anything! So he goes, “Well, I’ve got this job where I get paid really good money to sleep in a trailer and travel around!” So we booked this gig and he didn’t show up, so we were, like, “Fuck this guy!” So Chris Hite was, like, “You guys are doing some interesting music, I’ll do this.” So Chris ended up in the band.

Chris Hite (percussion, drums, 1983-1985): I only played with the band for about a year and a half. Bill was a much better drummer than I was at the time, and although he didn’t sing, his drumming was more solid.

Paul Johnson: There were some…disagreements with Chris.

Chris Hite: If I remember correctly, I was being kind of a dick at the time and didn’t get along all that well with Sean. I love Paul and David and I always will, but Sean I had some issues with.

Paul Johnson: There were just differences, mainly with David and Chris and the creative vision of the band, and if I was gonna listen to one of them, I was thinking, “Well, I think I’ll listen to David. I’d love to work with Chris, too, but…” So I took David’s side on that one.

Chris Hite: Paul is spot on. I guess I did have some issues with the musical direction. But what did I know? I had just come from playing in a New Wave cover band, and the stuff I was getting into was a bit weirder.

Paul Johnson: Billy had come back and we forgave him, so he started working for us as a drum roadie. And then when Chris and David weren’t meshing, Billy was there, and he was a great drummer, and he was the right guy for the job, definitely. Billy got off easy, though, because he saw these losers in an attic and went, “I’ll go get a real job,” and then the losers in the attic got a following, and he said, “Oh, okay, maybe these guys have got something that I didn’t really see the first time around!”

Chris Hite: it was logical for them to him back and give me the boot.  They wanted a tighter drummer…and I was more like the drummer in Crazy Horse!

Bill Shearin: I wasn’t really gone that long. I just felt like I needed to try having a real job, and that was the time for it, but it didn’t take me long to realize that what I really wanted to do is jump into music head first. And after all these years, I wouldn’t change anything, because to get the life experiences I’ve gotten from being in the band has just been incredibly cool. I mean, to experience whatever degree of success we had, it’s just been the coolest thing in my life.

The First Single

David Middleton: We felt that going from playing live to entering the studio was a natural progression. You know, naturally, all of the groups that we grew up listening to made records. Paul and I at one point even kind of started chomping at the bit, and I remember a time when he and I were driving around town, just kind of talking, and saying, “Okay, if we don’t have a record out by this time next year, we’re just busting it up.”

So much of being in a band is sitting around and waiting. Getting your name out and waiting for things to happen, waiting for sound check, waiting for the club to open, and this and that. And weeks go by without a gig. Especially back then. Of course, I sound like an old man, but without the internet and things like that constantly putting your name out there, you had to play gigs, you had to put up flyers, you had to really keep your name out there to get anything going.

So there was a time when we were playing and playing, doing three sets a night, seven nights a week, which is why we started thinking, “If by this time next year we don’t have an album out, that’s it. I’m gonna go and drive a truck or something.” So it was just a natural progression and something that we all kind of all felt compelled to do.

Sean Hennessy: You know, it’s funny, but I don’t remember that being the experience. It just seemed very organic to me. We just seemed to go from just wanting to get together to play to “wouldn’t it be fun to play out live?” And everything sort of just seemed to lead to the next step.

Paul Johnson: To record the single for “Hermitage” and “Return,” we went to a guy named Ira White’s studio somewhere in Ocean View, and he had a garage…I think it was a four-track or an eight-track studio. It might’ve been eight. And we did that live, except for the vocals. It was just the guitar, bass, and drums, but I think we went back and David did the vocals separately. That was Chris Hite on that, along with Sean, myself, and David. And that was our very first time ever recording, other than, like, cassettes during rehearsal or whatever. So the music was done as you hear it, and then the vocals were overdubbed, but I don’t think there were any other overdubs on it.

Chris Hite: The recordings of “Hermitage” and “Return” weren’t bad considering what they were. And the energy in the band was certainly good.

David Middleton: Before it became a single, before we released it as a 45, we got the tapes to Carol Taylor, and she played them as reel-to-reel tapes on the air on FM-99, which was absolutely marvelous. That increased our draw in the clubs by at least 100 people that night alone that she played it. And it was kind of like that scene in that movie That Thing You Do! where the kids hear their song on the radio for the first time. We were tuning in to the radio for the night that Carol played it, and we were all jumping up and down while it was playing and everything.

Enter Carol Taylor

David Middleton: Carol Taylor was introduced to us through Rickey Wright, who was a friend of ours from back in the Probe days.

Sean Hennessy: Rickey Wright. Oh, what a great guy.

David Middleton: Rickey was one of those people who I knew, if Paul and I had a band, at minimum we would have an audience of three people: Rickey, Angie Bailey, and Randy Holmes. They were the three people who really followed The Probe around a lot, so I knew that, if we did this, at minimum we’d at least have those three people. And all three of those people were in the clubs from the very first night that we started playing as the Poetics.

So Rickey had been hanging around us for a long time, and he became friends with Carol…I’m not exactly sure how they met, but at one point he said, “You know what? I’m going to bring Carol Taylor down to see you at Dominic’s.” We were familiar with her on FM-99, and we’d been listening to her because she was playing good music, and…I was deathly afraid. I thought, “Oh, no! Oh, God! She’s gonna come in, and she’s gonna see probably our worst show, and she’s gonna walk right out!” You know, I really thought that it was just gonna be a horrible scene. But he did. He brought her down to Dominic’s, he sat right up front with her on the barstools, and it, um, honestly was one of our worst shows ever.

We had amps breaking down. It was a Murphy’s Law, where everything that could possibly go wrong did, and it was one of those nights where I was just, like, “Oh, God…” I was up there on this little stage that’s no higher than the floor, and I was thinking, “Oh, man, she is gonna turn around and walk right out!” But she didn’t. She stayed around, and we started talking after the show, and there was just definitely a connection. There definitely was. She liked us a lot, she thought we were really good…I guess she understood what we were about. I mean, years later, I now know that, her seeing us for the first time, she was probably thinking, “Oh, wow, finally: a real band!”

Sean Hennessy: I certainly think Carol was a great influence on us, and she seemed to take a liking to us right away, but…I don’t remember the first time I met her. You know, I’m sure what David said could’ve happened, though. We sure had some good shows and some bad shows. I mean, I think that our strength was as a performing band even more so than the recording at the time. We were playing out 14, 15 days a month and rehearsing on our off days, so we were playing a lot and we were pretty tight – generally! – as a performing band. Not that we didn’t have our off nights. And sometimes if it is a big show, if David knew or we knew that Carol was going to be there, we may have had a case of nerves. It happens.

Paul Johnson: I don’t remember it that way, either! I remember Angie Bailey told Carol about us, and I remember talking to Carol afterwards, and…I was indifferent to whether it was a good show or not. I just remember doing the show, Carol was there, and…we had already started a local following, but I do have to attribute whatever regional or wherever success – if you want to call it that – to Carol’s hard work. I mean, she really did put us in the right places in front of the right people, and anything past our local following, I attribute it a lot to her input.

David Middleton: After Carol played our single on the radio, she became more and more interested in us as she started hanging out with us, and then one night she proposed the idea of her managing us. And from that moment on, we were a team, but, honestly, I thought that she was much older than she was. I really thought that she was in her thirties or something. But it turned out that she was only 20 at the time. She was only a couple of years older than me! So to find that out later, I was kind of shocked. I assumed that she was much older than she was just because of her incredible knowledge of music and just the way she carried herself.

Jeff Bailey (bass, 1989-1991): Carol was fun. She was a lot of fun. You could joke with her, and it was just fun hanging around her. She was good at protecting us from other stuff. If there was something going on, if there was some sort of business deal or some sort of problem with a club owner or a booking situation, she was really good at saying, “Okay, you guys just go and have fun, I’ll take care of this.” And then she call out the goon squad. I mean, not really, but you know what I mean. It was fun being around her, and she was open to a whole bunch of suggestions. She loved the music we were working on, and it was easy to impress her. We’d play something, and she’d go, “Wow, that was great!” So, yeah, it was fun working with her, and I don’t think it ever stopped being fun.

Bill Shearin: Carol’s knowledge and expertise and how much hard work she did as far as getting us out there…I mean, her legacy is a pretty cool one, in my opinion.

Meet Mike Mills: The Recording of Hermitage

David Middleton: In 1985, R.E.M. at that point were not yet untouchable. They weren’t Rock & Roll Hall of Famers or major-label artists just yet. They were still on I.R.S. Records, and they were still very accessible. R.E.M. is still very much that way, actually. I mean, they’ve always remained accessible. But Mills was one of those people…well, you know, Carol had interviewed him several times and talked to him and hung out with him, and she had seen R.E.M. many times, and she was one of the first people to get their records played on commercial rock radio. So Carol was important to their career.

Mike Mills (R.E.M. bassist, producer of Hermitage): Carol worked at WNOR, and she was a very cool, fun, kind and knowledgeable person. Just fun to be around. And she loved indie rock…which, of course, didn’t have that name at the time. But, yeah, so through her, I guess, is how the Poetics and I got hooked up.

David Middleton: On several occasions I had seen R.E.M. live, and I had met Mike and talked to him a little bit, and one night Angie Bailey and I actually snuck backstage at one of their shows in Charlotte and just started talking to him. And he remembered us from seeing us a few months earlier, and I told him about the band, and he said, “Send me a tape!” And we did, of course.

Mike Mills: Yeah, he did. And the tape sounded pretty good, as I recall. Carolina was basically our second home for many, many months. The first place we ever played outside the state of Georgia was Chapel Hill, and for the longest time North Carolina basically paid for my food and rent, because we’d go up there and play either Chapel Hill or Raleigh, at the Pier, or Charlotte or Greensboro. We’d go up there one weekend and play two of those cities, then we’d come back up two weeks later and play two different ones, and that would just basically take care of our bills for the longest time.

David Middleton: In  ’85, the Poetics went down to Athens, Georgia, and played at the 40 Watt Club with the Kilkenny Cats on one of our little tours down south, and he was there, along with a few other people that we knew, and…it was just something where he kind of kept tabs on us, and we’d play around and run into each other. Then in late ’85, around Christmastime, I believe, R.E.M. were playing at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, with the Minutemen, and we of course weren’t able to be there, because we were setting up and playing our first set at the King’s Head Inn that night. But after the R.E.M. show, Carol brought Mike down to the King’s Head Inn, where he famously got up and jammed with us and hung out with us after the show.

Mike Mills: King’s Head Inn! That’s right, because we didn’t get to Norfolk that many times. Yeah, I remember that. But I don’t remember what song we did. I just remember that they were good guys and good musicians, and I liked the direction they had musically, and…I’ve never been dying to produce bands, but they asked me, and I thought that we could work together well, both personally and musically. So I said, “Why not?”

David Middleton: At that point, he said, “Look, R.E.M., we’re taking our first vacation next March, so why don’t you book some time at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In? Let’s coordinate, and I’ll meet you guys down there, and let’s record something. Let’s record an album!” I mean, it kind of just happened organically. And we took him up on it…by which I mean we were jumping up and down like little jumping beans!

Mike Mills: They, uh, got a pretty raw producer, let’s just say that. I had some ideas about what I liked, but I was certainly no Steve Lillywhite in there.

Bill Shearin: I remember one time after a session I said, “Mike, I don’t get it. Why on earth would you be producing an album for us?” I mean, R.E.M. was getting ready to start on Lifes Rich Pageant. But he was, like, “Well, y’know, I just drove up here and…I figured it’d be fun.” And it really was. It was fun to hang out with him. And the same with Mitch.

Mike Mills: You know, working with Mitch…it’s always good to have that sort of built-in support system, when you’ve got a good studio and a good engineer and you know you can rely on them. It makes everything go so much more smoothly, especially for someone who’s relatively new at it. It was one of my first production gigs, if not my very first, so you lean heavily on your engineer at that point.

David Middleton: Mike was wonderful. He’s just a lovely, fun guy to be with. Very creative, with a great energy, and…he was fantastic. It was a lot of laughs. We had a lot of fun. And in between songs, we’d have little jam sessions with him on keyboards and things like that. You know, it was very loose, very creative, and very fun. We had a song called “Jimmy Carter’s Head” that was supposed to be the very opening song of the album, but we never could get a good recording of it. Like, every time we tried it, it just didn’t have the groove we wanted. It’s now available on iTunes, though, as a bonus track when you buy the Hermitage album.

Bill Shearin: We had a really fun time. And with that being kind of our first real experience recording an album…I dunno, there are so many people now who work in studios, and so many people record in home studios, but back then it was a much different experience, because you could tell that they had the savvy. It wasn’t just some guys hooking up equipment in their garage. Mitch was already working with Let’s Active, and of course he’d already worked with R.E.M. I was pretty impressed by the fact that it was so low-key. They called it Drive-In Studios for a reason.

Paul Johnson: I wouldn’t say Mike had a lot to do with the sound of the album, but he kind of had some creative input there, and he was a great presence. You know, we were amateurs in the studio. We were a live band that had done minimal recording, and R.E.M. had made – and so had Mitch – cool-sounding, successful records. He was a good guy to work with. He came up with some cool ideas. We sort of had an R.E.M.-ish sound on that record, obviously, but he said, “You know, you guys should try doing something with a harder sound.”

Sean Hennessy: Mike’s a great musician, and for me as a bass player to have him come in and comment on stuff and help with the sound, that was incredible. But, you know, at that point, we were in our late teens and early twenties, and…it felt normal and natural. I don’t think we were too overwhelmed by it. It was just kind of…cool. And Carol knew them, so it was like hanging out with some new friends. It worked out really well. And having him play on “Return” was kind of cool, with his Floyd Kramer style keyboard riffs in there. That was cool.

Mike Mills: Yep. Yep, that’s about my one style. That’s what I’ve got. But, yeah, I remember that they had one called…man, I really should’ve done some research, because the titles probably would’ve stimulated me, but I specifically remember one called “Mrs. Dance’s Skeleton” that was really good. So, yeah, they had good tunes, and I liked them. I didn’t really have to do much with them. I filled in some spots that needed some more musical things going on, trying to give it some texture and melody where it needed it. But there wasn’t all that much to do. They were pretty well formed at that point.

Paul Johnson: You know, it’s funny: I pulled out Hermitage last night on vinyl, and…I didn’t do a lot of writing on the first record, certainly not as much as I did later, but I will say that Hermitage sounds like a record, not just a recording. There’s a difference to me. Most of it comes together well, and the tones are good. Mitch really has a good ear. And the parts were layered well. We were working with professionals. And we did that record really quickly, too. There were only really a few days that we were in there recording, and then we came back to do a few overdubs where we realized that parts were needed to make the songs a little more interesting. But the whole thing was recorded in only a few days.

David Middleton: It definitely didn’t hurt to have Mike and Mitch’s names on the album. You know, some critics balked at it. They were, like, “Oh, even Mike Mills and Mitch Easter can’t save this pile of crap.” You know, there were those people.

Mike Mills: Hey, listen, there’ll always be haters, y’know? Some people just can’t be pleased.

David Middleton: But all in all, you know what? It’s really just a matter of…we wanted to put out something that represented how we felt at the time. We wanted to release something that was from our hearts, that was good. And I think it was also kind of important for us to go with…Norfolk is not a city that’s known for its music, so I think it was kind of important for us to travel a little bit further south, to areas that were a little bit more known for music, and get guys whose names could actually mean something. And that definitely helped us to get heard a little more outside of our area, yeah, absolutely.

“Sushi” on Sunday Night

David Middleton: It was nice to get the video for “If You Knew Sushi” on 120 Minutes, because you got to be on MTV, but you got to be on there with stuff like the Blasters and X and Throwing Muses and all these oddball but good groups that were going on in the ‘80s, and not sandwiched between “(Let’s Get) Physical” and whatever the latest Diane Warren-penned Heart song was. So, yeah, that was a thrill. And it was very fun making that little video, and it was a treat to see it on TV in the summer of ’87.

Sean Hennessy: I used to watch 120 Minutes on a regular basis, when MTV actually showed videos, so that was a great experience, just being able to see it. It was one of those I-didn’t-quite-believe-it moments, because we didn’t set out and say, “You know what? We’re gonna have an MTV video! This is the game plan.” We didn’t have a business plan or a structure here. It just sort of happened. It was, like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a video?” And then, “Wouldn’t it be cool if it got on MTV? Wouldn’t that be fun?” And then to actually have it happen was pretty special. Time slowed down for that moment.

Bill Shearin: Oh, yeah, that was a lot of fun. Of course, Matt Pinfield wasn’t around then. It was still kind of fledgling show. But I was very excited. I remember we had a little party…like we needed a reason for one, right?

David Middleton: I know that INXS did a video where they were kind of aping Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but I wasn’t sure if theirs came out first or if it was ours. Either way, it would’ve only been a short period of time between them, but I’m not sure exactly when theirs came out. After ours premiered, I remember seeing theirs, but…well, either way, Bob Dylan beat us all. We just did an ape-like take on it, using lyrics from other people’s songs. It can be difficult (recognizing the lyrics), because we used a lot of classic rock, but we also used a lot of songs from that period, so there were things like Let’s Active and Del Fuegos lyrics, and some people today might not know those. And then I think some of them aren’t even lyrics. Like, one of them is just a line from the inner sleeve of a Rolling Stones album! But, yeah, that was a blast to make. We figured if you’re gonna make a video, it either should be the band performing live or something completely fun, because a lot of people were making videos trying to be very serious, and we just didn’t feel like doing that.

Paul Johnson: I was so broke, and I was living in this house that had once been a devil-worship house with this girl named Eileen and her pit bulls. We were just friends, but I was paying her $100 a month, because we were touring, and all the money went to the road manager and the roadies and the rehearsal place and the van and the equipment, so I was literally eating Ramen noodles with broken up pieces of cheese in ‘em because I was so fricking broke. And then I look up…and there’s my ass on “120 Minutes.” And I’m, like, “Hey, cool, I’m on MTV!” And in later years, I taught guitar in Brooklyn, and I actually teach guitar here in Warrenton, but these kids would come and they’d go, “How come you were on MTV and you’re not rich?” And I said, “Lemme tell ya something, kid: this is how it really works.”

Changing Things Up for Manakin Moon

David Middleton: If you listen to Hermitage, it’s very bright, clean, crisp, and upbeat. Paul describes it as “caffeinated,” which I think is a great way of describing it. We were drinking a lot of coffee, so it’s definitely caffeinated! But Manakin Moon is much heavier, much harder, much darker. I listened to it again recently to prepare for this reunion show, and I found myself at the end taking the headphones off and going, “Wow, that’s a really strong, solid, hard rock album.” I guess that makes sense. We kind of come from hard rock. I mean ,the first album I ever bought with my own money was Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. The first 45 I ever bought was “Black Dog,” by Led Zeppelin. So hard rock is definitely in our DNA. And we definitely had a producer for that album (Steve Gronback) that really could get that sound. He could really get those muscular guitar sounds. So we really went for it. And, yes, it turned out to be a darker, sort of harder affair. But in a good way, I guess.

By the time we released Hermitage, I had already written songs like “Baby Jane” and “Where Your Name Is” and things like that. In fact, people were asking if “Baby Jane” was going to be on the Hermitage album. Before it was even released, our sound had kind of grown a little bit already. And then another thing that also happened was, you go into the studio with one sound in your head and you kind of come out with another sound in your head, because you come out as a better player, so you’re hearing things differently. So after we recorded Hermitage, our live shows became a little more muscular, with the grittier guitar sounds, and maybe the songs got a little bit heavier and darker. It was definitely gradual, but it had a lot to do with just the experiences that you go through as a band.

Sean Hennessy: I think there was a difference where we were songwriting-wise, but there’s a correlation, I think, with the sound that we wanted and who we were working with. I mean, we were working with jangly with Mitch and Mike, and Steve had a different sound. And that was a conscious decision. We wanted a little more raunch in there and a little less jangle.

Paul Johnson: I like the songs on Manakin Moon a lot. I like my guitar playing on Manakin Moon. That’s probably my favorite, the sounds I was getting at the time. It’s more like the stuff I’m doing now. On the first record, David wrote a lot of the parts, and they were very jangly and not in the vein of where my roots come from. There were creative things that David did on guitar that I wouldn’t have thought to do, and it made me look at things from sort of a different perspective. The second record is more in the vein of what comes natural to me. As is the third, but I like the songwriting on Manakin Moon. I like David’s lyrics, I like the overall sound of the second record probably the best. But David might tell you something different. I think he’s partial to the third. Some might like the first. Maybe it depends on what mood I’m in. I don’t know.

David Middleton: Originally Manakin Moon was going to be produced by Tim Butler, who is the bass player for the Psychedelic Furs. He had seen us at the Bottom Line in Manhattan, and…it was one of our worst gigs ever. But he loved us. And he invited us to the Ritz to see Husker Du with him the next night, and we hung out with him, and then we went over to his place and talked all night, and he wanted to helm the second album.

Paul Johnson: He trapped Dave and Billy at his house. His wife wouldn’t let ‘em leave! And he kept going on and on…I think they were doing blow or something, the Butlers, and they were just non-stop, on and on. And every time they’d take, like, two sips out of their beers, they’d give ‘em a fresh one. Basically, they told me they were pinned at their house. Y’know, I’m sure Tim’s a nice guy, and he was being sincere, but he was wasted. I don’t even know if he remembers that! And we’d played with the Furs, and we’d seen ‘em in concert, but I didn’t recognize him at first. They told me later who he was, but I was just, like, “Wow, who’s this guy? He’s wasted!”

David Middleton: Unfortunately, our paths weren’t able to cross again, and it wasn’t due to anything between us. It was just that, at the time we needed to record Manakin Moon, Tim was scheduled to tour Europe, and there was no way we could figure that out. So unfortunately that fell through.

Sean Hennessy: I didn’t even realize that Tim was considering producing that album, so this is news to me! I mean, hey, it certainly may have happened, but I don’t remember that being a conversation. But if he had, it would’ve certainly changed the sound. It sure would’ve changed the bass sound. He was most definitely an influence on my playing early on. In the beginning, in the days when we did three sets of material and there were cover songs in there, there were certainly a few Psychedelic Furs songs in the mix at my request. So I think it would’ve been awesome with Tim. Not that I didn’t enjoy working with Steve Gronback or that he didn’t do some great work.

David Middleton: Steve Gronback had recently produced an album by the Rain Parade called Crashing Dream, which you might remember, and we – Carol and I especially – were definitely fans of that band. They had fantastic guitarists and an amazing sound. So that was the connection that Carol developed. I’m not exactly sure how she developed it, but it was definitely a smart choice, because he really knew how to get those really big, crisp and clean yet dirty and gritty and muscular guitar sounds. So he was definitely a good choice. We recorded at his studio, which is in the basement of a big log cabin. A solar-powered log cabin out in the woods in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina. It was really lovely.

Bill Shearin: As always, recording is an ongoing experience, and even though I’ve got fond memories of just about every situation we were in, Manakin Moon was pretty fun. Yeah, we recorded it in a basement studio in the middle of Carolina in the winter, but it was amazing how that came together. The songs really showed our growth. I mean, I’d loved all our songs as a band up to that point, but you get more used to the recording process, and we’d been together longer and…well, we were just having a blast.

David Middleton:  As far as the cover of “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” Paul, Sean, and I were all big Eno fans. Especially Paul and Sean. They really knew more Eno stuff than I did. And one day, Paul lent me the album Here Come the Warm Jets, and I was just completely…I mean, that’s one of those albums that you just can’t help but be completely blown away when you first hear it. And, yeah, I was just very taken with that song. It just had such a great soaring melody. Originally, however, the idea was that we were going to cover the song “Here Come the Warm Jets,” which is a stranger and much weirder song. But that was originally the plan. But then I latched onto “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” and I was just, like, “You know what? This song just really is aching to be covered.” And that was just how it came about.

Sean Hennessy: Yeah, I love all that stuff. Y’know, before Eno went to his total ambient stuff. I like some of the music he made and the songs that he wrote, so I’m glad we covered that.

David Middleton: I like it when people are freaked out by (hearing the original and realizing it’s a cover). I remember seeing bands do covers, and I didn’t know that they were covers, and then hearing the original version. It really blows your mind. Now, I didn’t want to do it like the original, because you can’t really touch that. I wanted to do it radically differently. I didn’t want to copy it note for note or anything like that, because it’s such a unique record. It’s almost basement-demo sounding, and I didn’t want to touch that at all. I know that many people have covered that song since and done it more faithfully, but I didn’t want to go in that direction at all.

When Manakin Moon came out, a lot of people thought it was a Roxy Music song. Because it’s credited to Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera, I think a lot of people assumed that, because they were both in Roxy Music, it was a Roxy Music song, so many of the reviews said, “They do a great cover of Roxy Music’s ‘Needles in the Camel’s Eye’!”

Paul Johnson: Steve was a great producer, and he’s really good with tone as well. The tone on Manakin Moon is …well, it’s just a well-produced record. And I was pleased with the way he got the overall sound to be, as well as my guitar sound. I don’t apologize for any of that. I never go back to the records I’ve made and go, “Oh, I should’ve done this better,” or, “It would’ve been good if we’d done that.” It’s the record we made then, and it is what it is. It’s what we were doing then, and it captured what we were doing then. So, yeah, Steve did a good job.

We did a demo with him later, though, that I wasn’t that happy with, that I think was very overproduced. We did that for Warner Brothers, and…I don’t think anybody was happy with that. I think Steve saw big numbers, maybe, with Warner Brothers, and Warner Brothers came to see us play in Baltimore and, like, partied with us afterwards. We were drinking Jack Daniels and having a good time. And then we went into the studio and cut this extremely slick demo, and I was, like, “This doesn’t even sound like us!” And they listened to it, the guys from Warner Brothers, and they were, like, “This isn’t really the band that we were expecting.” I think they wanted the more raw energy that we got at the show in Baltimore. I’m not blaming Steve or anything. He did great on the second record, that’s for sure. I think sometimes when people see “major label,” they think people want a big, polished sound, but I don’t think that’s what they were looking for.

David Middleton: This probably wouldn’t affect bands nowadays, because I hear groups like Bon Iver or whatever, and their records are very weird and they win Grammys and get played on the radio, but back then we were in this sort of netherworld where our music was a little too weird for commercial for rock and pop radio, and it was not really weird enough for college radio. At the time, college radio was mostly, like, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers…you know, much more out-there stuff. So in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when we were really trying to get our records heard, we ended up in this little netherworld. Fortunately for us, I guess we were able to make records that sounded good between the Doors and Journey or whatever. So a song like “Baby Jane,” I’ve heard it on FM-99, and I’ve heard them follow it up with “Love Me Two Times” by the Doors. And I was, like, “Okay, all right, that’s fine with me!” So, yeah, whether we were fortunate enough or smart enough or talented enough, I guess, we made records that you could put in there on commercial album-rock radio.

Bill Shearin: I did enjoy the first time I heard “Baby Jane.” It was an early summer afternoon in ’88, and I remember that I’d fallen asleep to the radio, and darned if I didn’t hear that song as I started to drift back awake. I was, like, “Now that is pretty darned cool…”

Sean Says Goodbye, Jeff Says Hello

Sean Hennessy: A combination of things led to my departure from the Poetics. I had tried to go to school earlier on, but I couldn’t. My student loans, I didn’t qualify as an independent student until I was 25. So it was that. And we’d come back from a tour that wasn’t a great tour. We opened for Killing Joke, and that, uh, kind of wasn’t a good combination.

Paul Johnson: I remember that the lead singer of Killing Joke stood behind the stage right before he was supposed to go on and down a whole bottle of some kind of liquor, a little pint of something, and that was how he got into the persona of what he did. I was, like, “Whoa, okay…” He stood there by himself, sort of hidden, and did this. But I saw him, because I was back there.

Sean Hennessy: So there was a little frustration. But it was just time. It was time to go. I saw what happened to a lot of musicians, where, y’know, you have a certain amount of success, and I think that’s great, but I didn’t really want to end up working in a music store or giving guitar lessons or something. And I had been working as a photographer as well, and that was starting to fill my creative needs. I worked for On Stage Magazine as their staff photographer, and I worked for a commercial photographer in town as his assistant, and I really wanted to go and study. So I took off and went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Parsons School of Design in Paris and studied photography and film. And that’s what I’m doing these days.

Jeff Bailey: I’m the new guy. I joined the band in ’89, when they already had two of their albums out and had been together for five or six years. The first time I saw them was at the Kings Head Inn show to promote the release of the first album. I was in a band called the Boweevils, which I joined in ’86, and…I guess I was behind the time, because everyone in Tidewater knew about ‘em when Carol Taylor invited the Boweevils and a whole bunch of other musicians in the area to the Kings Head Inn for the album release party. They broadcast it on FM99. I still have a cassette tape of it somewhere. Then Carol actually got the Boweevils traveling around with the Poetics. We used to travel mostly in-state, but we did a couple of out-of-state gigs where we would open up for them. And then I guess it was the summer of ’88 when the Boweevils broke up, and I moved up to Richmond because I was working for B. Dalton Booksellers, and they said, “Hey, we’ll make you a manager and move you to a store in Regency Mall,” so I said, “Sure!”

And I moved up there, but about eight or nine months later, right about when I was getting tired of standing around in a bookstore pretending I was a manager, Dave Middleton called me one night and said they’d just gotten back from a Midwest tour and were thinking about making a change. This was the tour where they were  supporting Manakin Moon. So he called me up in April of ’89 and said, “If we were to make a change, would you want to play bass?” And I said, “Well, heck, yeah!” I mean, I was already 29 years old, so I figured it’d probably be the last time I’d be willing to jump into a situation like that and travel around. Plus, y’know, they were already putting out CDs and traveling the country, and that’s what I wanted to do. So from June 1 of ’89… I have a good memory for this, because I happen to have a cassette tape that says “June 1, 1989” on it that was my first rehearsal with the Poetics So from June 1 of ’89 to December 2 of ’91, which was our last show at the Boathouse, I was with the band. We did an official last show in October, I think it was, but then there was some benefit thing that they wanted us to play at the Boathouse, which we did. So, yeah, for two and a half years, I was the bass player for the band, and then I’ve played for some reunion shows.

Sean Hennessy: I’ve never played a reunion show. Because when Jeff took over…I mean, he’s the bass player now.

Jeff Bailey: I saw Sean in September ’89, when I played my first Boathouse show. We did about eight of those while I was with the band, and they did a lot more before I was there, but my first-ever in-town show was at the Boathouse, and Sean was there. Afterwards, maybe it was the next day, I saw him out somewhere, and he told me I did a really good job and congratulated me. And that was the last time I laid eyes on him.

Sean Hennessy: I didn’t…and I think at the beginning I can say that we didn’t…expect anything from the Poetics. It all just kind of happened very organically. And I was amazed every time we played that people came out and were there and knew our songs. And it was fun. I’m certainly not bitter, and I didn’t expect to be a rock star. That wasn’t my goal. And I don’t think it was the goal of anybody in the band. We just liked playing music, and we were having fun doing it.

Jeff Bailey: When I took over for Sean, it was kind of a challenge to…not so much to learn the songs, but to get the feel of them, if you know what I mean. Like, I remember “Where Your Name Is” having a very distinct sound and me not knowing exactly how to reproduce it. For one thing, some of the mix on Manakin Moon, the bass is so mixed in there that I couldn’t really tell what Sean was doing, and I kind of came up with my own thing. And then I remember Paul stopping the song and saying, “Uh, I kind of like what Sean did during the song. He just did this.” And I went, “Oh, yeah, that sounds a lot better,” because I was trying to do something else.

That was just a matter of me not being able to hear exactly what the bass was doing on the record. On most of ‘em, like “Baby Jane,” you can hear it really well. But on that particular song, I couldn’t exactly tell what Sean was doing. I think more of it was just trying to get the right feel. Because, y’know, I came from more of a…I guess if you ever heard the Boweevils, we were sort of a cross between this Squeeze-type stuff, pop music, and then a lot of sort of Motown-ish stuff. A lot of my early bass playing was me trying to reproduce all of those Motown records, that bouncy bass, which is a little different. Plus, Sean played with a pick. Sometimes when you play with a pick your style is completely different. I think on one or two songs during the reunion show I’ll have a pick in my hand, and it’ll be very foreign to me, because I hardly ever play with a pick. But it just sounds like that’s the way it should be. Like, the song “Hermitage,” I wouldn’t play it with my fingers. I have to play it with a pick, because it sounds like that on the record, and it’s a great sound.

What’s funny, though, is that when I did start reproducing some of those same things in exactly the same way that Sean did them, the guys were going, “Wow!” It was like they were hearing them for the first time. Maybe it’s just because it was off someone else’s hand. Maybe it was because I was playing with my fingers. There are a few little accents you can do with your fingers that you can’t really do with a pick. A pick makes everything sound the same. And there are certain cases where I might pop a string here or there, or if I’m just doing a series of eighth notes, I might put a slightly different accent on certain ones. I don’t know, but they just jumped out of their skin one time when we were playing something simple. I think it was “Beauty and the Beatitudes.” I played it note for note the way Sean played it, but at the end, they were, like, “Oh, my God, that sounded great! That was so much better than the record!” And I was, like, “Really? I didn’t do anything!”

During the first few gigs, though, I did get…like, we were playing the Bayou in Washington for maybe the fourth or fifth gig I did with them, and people were yelling, “Where’s Sean? Where’s Sean?” And I was kind of looking at everybody and shrugging my shoulders, but I was trying not to get embarrassed, because I figured I’d get that. But they kept saying, “Where’s Sean? Why isn’t he up there?” Finally, Paul came up to the microphone and said, “You know, I don’t know where he is…but I invited him!” And it was at that time that I guess I knew I’d replaced him for good and that they were okay with it. And the whole time I was with the band was a lot of fun.

A Very Strange Bed Time Story

David Middleton: When we made Bed Time Story, a lot of records that were coming out that sounded very processed. Big, wet drums, lots of reverb, and lots of processed chorus-y things. It’s similar to nowadays, when everything kind of has auto-tune and that sort of stuff. There was a typical kind of late ‘80s/early ‘90s sound with lots of gated reverb and…just things that we didn’t like. And we were coming to the end of our contract. We’d signed a three-album deal with Roadrunner, and here we were at our third album, and we’d agreed to the most money for this record. Carol and I actually discussed this. I had been making a lot of four-tracks demos, and so had Paul, and we had been kind of creating a sound that was a little more…rootsy, I guess. Listening to stuff like ‘70s Stevie Wonder and things like that, we were creating this very analog sort of sound that was getting even more basic. And we thought, “Why not just go ahead and follow our muse and do exactly whatever we feel? This is the third album. Let’s make something that we could put on 10, 20, 30 years from now, and it won’t sound dated, and we’ll still be very, very proud of it.” So we just eschewed everything that we had done before and just completely cleared our minds and explored every little bit of creativity, everywhere that we wanted to go.

Paul Johnson: Yeah, I mean, that was David’s mission, and I was on board with it. That was a very loose record, and I’m all down for loose. A lot of it was done live. We were trying to just really get a rawer sound, less produced than the second or even the first record, and I think we did it.

Jeff Bailey: When Dave and Paul, who wrote most of the material, started taking their songwriting in a different direction, I think the bass playing was probably the first thing they wanted to see change. You know, a little bit different. Because it was no longer that R.E.M. / Cure kind of quirky pop stuff. It became a little more groove-oriented, and there was just some stuff about it that…I think they were looking for someone like me.

Dave Middleton did a project called The Dave Middleton Combo in the summer of ’88. This is while the original band was still together, but he asked Mark Lawrence from the Boweevils and me, and then him and Bill, we slicked our hair back, put on leather jackets, and played old rockabilly tunes. I think that was the seeds of Bed Time Story, because when we did that, he liked the way I played, I guess, and he thought, “Well, this is more the direction I want the Poetics to go into.” So, yeah, I think that’s probably where it all started from. So listening to and learning the new batch of songs was really easy for me, because they were kind of like…I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I feel like some of ‘em really were written for me or at least my style in mind, with some jamming groove things and stuff like that. It was really fun to put in my own bass lines for a change rather than have to learn stuff off a record.

David Middleton: Bruce Olson, the producer, was the lead singer and guitarist of a band called The Offenders that were kind of, y’know, semi-big around the Richmond, Norfolk, and DC areas in the early ‘80s. I remember seeing them open up for Squeeze once. I knew that his ideas…he definitely was one of those guys that was open to any idea. And he was also very open to doing whatever it took to create the sound that the song exemplified. For example, we had tried recording the song “Manakin Moon” with Steve Gronback – hence, of course, the title of the album Manakin Moon – but it didn’t really work, because Steve wanted to put a lot of instruments on it, and he really wanted to arrange it and put piano and backing vocals and things on it. And it just didn’t work. It didn’t have the sound that we really needed. So when we went to record Bed Time Story, we still wanted to record the song “Manakin Moon,” we thought it was good, but we also felt that it was a song about feeling alone and abandoned, so why not just do it completely solo? So that’s just me and the guitar in the studio with the lights out. So we explored every single idea to exemplify the sound and the tone and the feeling of each song.

Jeff Bailey: I remember that we couldn’t get “Shake” right. We couldn’t get the feel of the song right. We recorded it five or six times, and Bruce said, “All right, sit tight, I’ll be back in a minute.” And he went to the store, and he came back with a 24-pack of beer. So each one of us pumped two or more of ‘em into us, and then we got up and played one more take. And that’s the take you hear on the record. I guess we were just stiff. It was just one of those days where you’re self-conscious because, y’know, the mike’s rolling, so you feel like you’ve got to be perfect. And you can’t do that. If you want a really good take, you can’t be self-conscious about the microphone in front of you and the tape rolling. You’ve just got to go for broke.

We recorded that at the Flood Zone, in Richmond. I think anybody who records in the studio will tell you that a lot of involves sitting around. It was nice. For the most part, it was a perfect combination of really exciting and really boring, but it was fun sitting at the board and watching people do stuff. We did a lot of the backing tracks live. As a matter of fact, almost everything we played live, and most of it was the first or second take, and then we would overdub vocals and backing vocals and guitar solos and things like that, which of course took the longest amount of time. A lot of times we were sitting there with beers in our hands, waiting for the day to end so that we could go back to the place that we’d rented in Richmond so that we wouldn’t have to drive back to Virginia Beach after every day of recording.

David Middleton: I stayed late one night to do some extra vocal parts, and Bruce drove me back to the little house on Monument Street where we were staying, and on the way back he said, “Have you thought about the sequence of the songs on this album?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m sort of trying to figure it out in my notebook.” And he said, “Because you’ve got everything from art rock to country rock on this album. You really need to figure out how you’re going to order it.” So that’s the reason why you’ve got kind of a hard, dark Side A and sort of a lighter, gradually getting more acoustic Side B.

Oh, God, I just choke up thinking about Bryan Harvey when I hear “Jet Black Plastic Pistol” and when I think of him. That was one of the best afternoons of my life. I mean, they came in, and…they had auto parts. Johnny Hott had a bag of percussion stuff that included all kinds of trash and toys and auto parts and tools and pieces of metal and who knows what. It was kind of like band camp. We split into two sections: Paul and Jeff and Bil and Johnny, they were all doing the percussion stuff, and Bryan and I sat and worked on the vocals and the music and the arrangement. I remember at one point I was teaching him the backing vocal, and I was, like, “Okay, I want you to sing this part: ‘Jet black plastic pistol.’” And he stopped me and he looked at me and went, “‘Jet black plastic pistol’? That’s really amazing! Where did you come up with that?” And I said…I was, like, “Uh…honestly, I was trying to write something that sounded like you!” Of course, it didn’t sound anything like anything he would write. But literally what I was doing, I’d been listening to House of Freaks and I’d been trying to write something like that!

Bill Shearin: What I loved about Bed Time Story, but also about the other two albums as well, is that every producer that we had was completely different but was very good for our sound. They were able to pull out the songs that we had and put their ideas into them. The engineers were good for that, too. Engineers are sometimes co-producers, really. So I was really impressed with every single one of ‘em and what they did with the songs we were there to do. Sometimes it can be a thankless job behind the scenes, so you want to give ‘em their due. There’s a reason why producers and engineers are known as the Xth member of a band: because they actually transform themselves, or at least try to, to be a part of that band for at least the length of the sessions.

David Middleton:I think Bed Time Story holds up beautifully. Someone even once told me that some of it, when he listens to it now, it reminds him of Radiohead or Nirvana, things that came later. So, yeah, I think it definitely holds up.  I think musically, in the context, it holds up the best of all three because it’s just so basic and barebones that it was kind of futuristic at the time.

Paul Johnson: You know, there were times when I’d go back and think, “Oh, Manakin Moon sounds too much like the ‘80s to me,” or whatever, but you know what? When I go back and listen to “Radio Free Europe,” it sounds like the ‘80s. And when I listen to the dB’s or the Del Fuegos, and I love those guys, they sound like the ‘80s. You can tell when those records were made. So it wasn’t like we were doing something that we were ashamed of. I will say, though, that Bed Time Story, you can’t really tell exactly when that one was made. I will agree with David on that. There isn’t any flashy ‘80s dated reverb on it. You can tell when you listen to the first two records when they were made, but Bed Time Story could’ve been made just a few years ago. It holds up. If you played that for a bunch of people who had never heard of us and knew nothing about it, I’d be curious as to what a panel of 10 people would say about when they thought it was recorded. That’d be a fun project.

Studio vs. Live

Bill Shearin: No, the albums didn’t represent our live sound. But we’re just one of hundreds of thousands of bands to say that.

Sean Hennessy: Although I will say that I think that to go into the studio with a group of guys like that, where we had been playing that much, makes a big difference, I think there was a different energy to the band live.

Paul Johnson:  As far as our studio records go…if any of them captured our live sound, the third one did, but mostly I think the Poetics’ albums just sound like albums. But our live sound…to be honest, I think our little self-released live record does capture it. I’m happy with Never Were…Never There, which was just taken from cassette board mixes. You know, that’s what we sounded like live at that time. There’s mistakes on it, and some of the songs were out of tune, but there’s an energy there that captures where we were at at that time playing live. David was the only real singer in the band, and he does most of the vocals on the first and second record, but the rest of us…I mean, I’m a garage-rock croaker at best, but we’re all trying to do his backing vocals that he’s done on the record, so we had a rawer, less careful sound live. The guitar solos are a little screwed-up sounding, but I’m all for that. I’m for leaving mistakes just to show what it was really like.

Breaking Up the Band

Paul Johnson: I realized our contract was up, the Warner Brothers thing didn’t work out, and I had played with everybody in Tidewater that I pretty much wanted to play with at the time. I had so many side projects when I wasn’t touring with the Poetics. I recorded with a lot of people, I sat in on people’s gigs…I’d basically done the Tidewater music thing, and I wanted to go up to New York and see what was up there.

David Middleton: Paul had been thinking about leaving the band for a long time, he was kind of getting itchy feet, so we called a band meeting one day, and he expressed this, that he had wanted to leave, and I was kind of anticipating it, in a way. I didn’t even hesitate: at that moment, I said, “You know what? Let’s just dissolve the group, then.” Because I didn’t want to be burdened with trying to…you know, the chemistry of the band was Paul and I. We were in The Probe together, and the reason that we were able to do what we did and get as far as we could was because we had that kind of bond and that sort of chemistry. We were each other’s biggest fan, y’know? So I felt that trying to continue the band without him would just be weird. We had had a different drummer at one point, and we had had a different bassist at one point, and those things you tend to be able to accommodate, but having the creative energy, trying to create that creativity energy with another guitarist…? I would’ve felt uncomfortable. So I said, “Look, if you feel that way, let’s not dwell on it, let’s not make each other miserable, let’s just dissolve the group. And then we can kind of all move on, and if we ever feel like it, we can get back together and play again, but we don’t have to have it burden us.”

Jeff Bailey: Sure, it could’ve been that the big break was right around the corner, but I think we all kind of had a sense that there wasn’t much more we could do with the band, so instead of just rehashing the same thing…I mean, maybe I’m the only one that felt that way, but I think everybody did. I think it was sort of a mutual opinion that the band had kind of run its course.

David Middleton: After we had finished touring for Bed Time Story, we kind of ended up falling into this period of time where…well, I think a lot of it had to do with what I described earlier, about our music being too weird for commercial radio and not weird enough for college. I think it was just at a time when there was a lot of other competition coming up, and people really weren’t going to see bands as much. It was just kind of a nebulous time in music. And the face of music was changing. It was getting a little more towards grunge and things like Metallica and Nine Inch Nails. It was kind of going a way that really…even though our music was somewhat tough and hard and muscular in a way, it didn’t go in that direction. We weren’t a metal band or anything like that.

One of the things that made us decide to pack it in was the fact that we just weren’t drawing at the clubs, and doors were closing on us. I remember a great club down in South Carolina called Rockefeller’s that we used to play, and the owner was a guy named Art who loved us, but one night he just came up to us and said, “Look, I’m your biggest fan, I love you guys, but you don’t draw, and I just can’t book you anymore.” I saw a lot of bands make it by changing their sound. I mean, I remember the Black Crowes warming up for us once, and their name was Mr. Crowe’s Garden, and they wore button-down shirts and played Rickenbackers, and they had more of an R.E.M.-like sound.

Paul Johnson: There was nary a blues riff played when we played with Mr. Crow’s Garden, I can tell you that.

David Middleton: And then I remember seeing them a couple of years later, and suddenly they had tattoos and were sounding like the Faces. And I was, like, “Okay, y’know, I definitely the newer sound better, but…” I didn’t want to be one of these bands that changed their sound just to get somewhere. It was, like, is that what I want to do with my work?

Paul Johnson: I found a lot of musical soulmates when I went up to New York, and I still have that relationship with them. I just wanted to go up there and see what was available creatively. I did a lot of experimental things, I had a little studio and helped record a bunch of other artists, I worked with guys from the M-80s, Egypt, Rylo…you know, I just did the New York thing. And I don’t regret any of it. I wasn’t trying to get signed to a major label, I was just looking for creative projects to get my ya-yas out.

Jeff Bailey: We still got along great, all the way ‘til the end. Everybody likes to ask me who was fighting who and who got mad at who and why we broke up, because you hear that all the time from other bands. But, no, we just had that meeting one day, and Paul said, “I think I’d like to quit, I want to do this, and you can get another guitar player if you want, but I’ve got to go and do this project on my own, and I feel like I’ve done about as much as I can do with the Poetics.” And Dave said, “Hey, I feel the same way,” and I was already ready to go back to music school and learn how to be a teacher. I think it was harder on Bill, though. I think he was still all gung-ho about the band staying together.

Bill Shearin: Well, you never want anything like that to end, of course. But you want to be respectful of your band members. That was quite a long time ago, so how could I not be fine with it now? I always felt like we were a good band, so, sure, it’s a little tough when you decide that it’s time to move on or whatever. But that’s the way with anything, isn’t it?

Reuniting and Reflecting

David Middleton: We let the reunions happen kind of organically. We all kind of live far away from each other now. I live in New Jersey, Paul lives in northern Virginia, the other two guys live down in the Tidewater area. And then some of us have children. Paul has a son, and Jeff has, I believe, two daughters and a son. And they all play in groups and do things, and we’re all kind of busy. So what I do is…well, we always talk about it. Every year we sort of think about it and talk about it, and we always get in contact with each other and just say, “Figure out when you want to play again, I’m open to it.” And I sort of leave it up to Paul. When he kind of feels the vibe is right, he’ll call me, we’ll sort of start talking about it, and then we’ll feel it out. Of course, now that we’re much older, we’re getting to a point where we have to book it four months ahead of time! We used to be able to kind of get together on a whim, maybe three weeks out or a month out, but now we need close to a half a year. But that’s okay. That’s all right. Whatever it takes.

Bill Shearin: We’ve all stayed in close contact since the band broke up, but we still get together to play. When it’s something that you enjoy, you do it for more than just monetary reasons. You do it because you love it.

Paul Johnson: I’m still proud to hear myself on the radio. It always feels good. Plus, I get a little quarterly check, too, and that always helps out a little bit. I just got one that I’m going to use for Christmas money!

Jeff Bailey: You know, the second gig I ever did with the band…it was still the summer of ’89, and we played at King’s Dominion. That by itself isn’t necessarily the ultimate achievement. I mean, it’s not like Carnegie Hall or someplace like that. But we opened for the Bangles. And I thought, “This is my second gig with the band!” I was as nervous as I could be as I was standing on this stage that was taller than two Boathouse stages, looking down at 5,000 people and playing in front of people as a Poetic for the second time, the first time being at the Atlantis. That was a real “rock star” moment. But, you know, just being at the Boathouse and being able to stage-dive without people dropping you on the floor…just having something like that is probably the best part for me. I don’t remember being any more impressed with a lot of stuff we did than just coming home and playing at the Boathouse. That was always a lot of fun. That, to me, was “rock star” enough. And now the fans are crawling out of the woodwork again, which is exciting.

You know, I think I’ve actually had more of those kind of “rock star” moments since the band broke up, because people recognize me and will come up to me and say, “I remember you! You were in the Poetics!” And they come up to me and ask me a bunch of stuff about the band, and…it’s kind of fun reliving it. I work at Landstown Middle School, and three-quarters of the faculty is now saying, “Hey, I didn’t know you were in the Poetics! I’ve already got my tickets for the reunion show!” I’m, like, “Okay, good!” There’s more people than I would’ve thought who still remember the band and still want to go to this concert…including some of my students, which really makes me feel old!

(ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF WAXINGPOETICS.NET)

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One Response to Waxing Poetics: The Oral History

  1. Fred Woll says:

    Will,

    Love the interviews, especially the random roles. Here’s a request: Sam Jones, aka Flash Gordon. I understand he’s in the private security business now??? Flash Gordon is protecting the innocent for real???

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