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ASA BREBNER:

ROCKIN’ STRONG

by Julia R. DeStefano

“The way
to innocence, to the uncreated and to God leads on, not back, not back
to the wolf or to the child, but even further into sin, ever deeper
into human life.”


~Herman Hesse

A
prolific songwriter, wordsmith, producer, and all-around gem of the
local scene, Asa Brebner has experienced a substantial share of ups
and downs throughout the course of his exhilarating career. Also
an accomplished visual artist, his artwork has been exhibited at Church,
Club Passim, the Middle East, and the Paradise Lounge; it can be seen
regularly at the JamSpot in Somerville, as well as at Hi-N-Dry.
In fact, Peter Wolf recently presented Keith Richards with one of Asa’s
guitar sculptures.

Having
learned guitar with the help of R&B, the Rolling Stones, and an
assortment of blues records, he says his “break” came in 1974: “I
knew these crazy vegetarian, peyote-eating, heroin-addict maniacs that
ran a health food store where Dali is now. So whenever I go into
Dali, which is not that often, I get this déjà vu, but it doesn’t
look like it did before.” It was here that the starry-eyed Asa
would become associated with a particular group of people—individuals
who would soon be what he says was “arguably the first punk
band to play at the Rathskellar after the days of Willie Alexander and
the Lost. There was a string of years where they just had cover
bands down there.” Led by the charismatic Mickey Clean, the
Mezz was given a chance by owner and visionary of the Kenmore Square
club, Jimmy Harold, which soon amounted to a Tuesday night residency.
Asa recalls, “His attitude was: ‘you guys are so bad, people will
just come down to laugh’ and he was partly right, but we had a lot
of energy and at the same time, there were a lot of other people who
were rebelling against the corporate Doobie Brothers, Eagles-type stuff
that was on the radio at the time. So-called punk rock came out
as a reaction against that, which we (the Mezz) were somehow part of.”

A
mere two years later and Asa became a member of the re-formed Modern
Lovers. Having been convinced to join and groomed by Jonathan
Richman, he accompanied the band as bassist on their first tour of Europe.
At a young age, Asa found himself playing 3,000 seat concert halls with
Sid Vicious, Mick Jagger, members of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and
even Nick Lowe among the fans. The Modern Lovers played a huge
rock festival in Holland with Journey, Thin Lizzy, and Graham Parker,
and also appeared on England’s
Top
of the Pops
TV show with Foreigner
and the Buzzcocks Asa says, “The whole time I was using a little B15
bass amp turned up to about two. Jonathan knew how to use low
volume to his advantage. Instead of assaulting the audience with
a wall of noise, he made them participate by forcing them to listen.
It was pretty amazing and totally against the gestalt of what was the
prevailing status quo of the time. There were more than a few
tense moments when the punks who came expecting to hear “Roadrunner”
were treated to the drama of him crawling around onstage, plaintively
singing “I’m a Little Dinosaur.”

In
1978, Robin Lane’s arrival in Boston resulted in the formation of
Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, a band that toured the U.S. several
times, cracked the Billboard Charts, and whose hit single, “When Things
Go Wrong” was an early favorite on MTV. They were scouted by
Jerry Wexler, the famed producer of Atlantic Records and Stax/Volt,
who produced Aretha Franklin’s early material. Asa says that
he remains “in awe that he [Wexler] came to see us at a now-extinct
local venue. We got signed to a two album deal with Warner Brothers
records and toured for two years in a Winnebago, alternating between
playing new wave nights in Midwestern backwaters and opening for such
diverse acts as the Cars, the Kinks, the Ramones, Split Enz, Hall &
Oates, XTC, Black Flag, and the Undertones.”

In
what can fittingly be described as bittersweet, Asa recalls the Chartbusters’
rise and fall in local popularity: “We sold 60 thousand units in New
England and now there is barely any cultural memory of all that save
for the ubiquitous Robin Lane & the Chartbusters albums one can
find in a pile of old vinyl at any yard sale.”

In
1981, Asa unveiled the Grey Boys, the first band in which he composed
and sang all of the songs. The following year, he reunited with
Robin Lane for an album and tour and played Europe, the United Kingdom,
and Australia with the Modern Lovers. Through the chaos, Asa continued
to write material and assembled Idle Hands, his own group. A local
favorite, their song “Last Bad Habit” appeared on Warner Brothers’
Best of the Unsigned Bands collection in 1988. The ensuing years
saw the release of a number of solo records—the first being the rare
Prayers of a Snowball in Hell, followed by Ragged
Religion
, I
Walk the Streets
, Best No Money Can Buy, Hot
Air,
his first live recording, Abbey Lode,
and a retrospective compilation entitled
Time
In My Way
, both of which were
released in 2007.

Asa
is still “plugging away like a cat with nine lives,” yet is no longer
reaching for the brass ring. The following quote by Czech-French
writer Milan Kundera deeply resonates with him: “At a time when history
still made its way slowly, the few events were easily remembered and
woven into a backdrop, known to everyone, before which private life
unfolded the gripping show of its adventures. Nowadays, time moves
forward at a rapid pace. Forgotten overnight, a historic event
glistens the next day like the morning dew and thus is no longer the
backdrop to a narrator’s tale but rather an amazing adventure enacted
against the over familiar banality of private life.” He says, “it
distills everything one needs to know about popular culture, which is
now referred to as ‘world culture.’ It says it all as far
as the difference between now and before there was media. Things
have accelerated to a much more alarming pace—who knows what’s going
to happen? Events have, however, become the backdrop as opposed
to your life, which used to be the adventure itself. Now it seems
the adventure is us watching it all unfold.”

A
testament to his perseverance and immense love of music, Asa’s latest,
“Suenos de los Muertos” (Dreams of the Dead) is “fiction distilled
from reality,” a cathartic look at the loss of a life. He arrived
at the title while caring for his ailing mother, who passed away almost
a year ago and also cites the play-turned-movie,
Our
Town
as additional inspiration.
He explains, “Oscar Wilde once said: ‘A sentimentalist is someone
who wants to experience an emotion but doesn’t want to pay for it’
and I had to watch my mother go into the next world.” One song
in particular entitled “I’m Not Gone” addresses this, though he
hopes it does not come across as “schmaltzy or sentimental.
I think it goes beyond that and hopefully, transcends it.”

Generally,
Asa says his songs are emotional reactions: “I always thought the
best songs that I wrote were those that came out in minutes and maybe
I’d tweak them later, but they started with some sort of a throb,
a regurgitation of emotion. Then there are plenty of others that
are along the lines of satire and come from a totally different part
of my psyche. Those songs write themselves, too. It’s
almost as if you just have to come up with the feeling or title and
it will write itself. There’s a song, “AllNightUpTightBagBiteKo
KaineParty,” on my new record which is a nostalgic look at the late
’70s and ’80s when people were staying up, taking all kinds of horrible
drugs, and playing awful music but loving every minute of it.” He
explains that whether it happens to be static—beautiful in of itself;
the Mona Lisa or a Van Gogh painting—or didactic—in need of propaganda;
a topical matter relating to the outside world, such as a commercia—a
good song will always “resonate with somebody without them knowing
who John Hyatt is or Tom Waits. It will speak to them without
any prior knowledge except the English language or whatever language
it’s being sung in.”

Suenos
de los Muertos
is the first
project that Asa has done completely in digital format and as expected,
he still has some nostalgia for giant reel-to-reel tape recorders:
“I started out doing this stuff when digital was an unheard of thing;
people didn’t know what digital was unless it meant their fingers.
I did the basics of
Suenos up in northern New Hampshire and brought it
to my friend Pat Wallace who has a logic format. I love the whole
digital world; I think it’s getting better. I look more for
the feel of the thing and the sentiment behind it—whether it rocks
or not!”

Multifaceted
Asa is still doing the rock ’n’ roll “mating dance” and rockin’
strong with the Family Jewels, (Fred Griffith, Andrew Mazzone, Steve
Sadler, Kevin Shurtleff) an R&B outfit rooted in music of the ’50s.
On the other end of the spectrum, his recent involvement with the New
Hampshire-based Bramble Jam marks his newest venture, one into the realm
of family-friendly sounds.

“Wishes and bottles
and cigarette burns, we’ll limp on home by and by —but not until
we’ve all had our turns for the best no money can buy.” ~“The Best No Money Can Buy”

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