RICK BERLIN by AJ Wachtel
Rick Berlin is as iconic in Boston as Old Ironsides and clam chowder. And in the past generation, he has seen all the trends in music come and go and has consistently produced his own easily recognizable style and songs to hungry ears and a large local following without compromising his message or his music. His leadership and large catalog are what separates him from the majority of performers trying to make a difference in today’s difficult music industry. Listen to history…
Noise: You’re a long-time veteran of the local scene and throughout the years your music has been called punk, alternative, progressive, art-rock, and performance rock to name a few. What would you call your music today?
Rick: All and none of the above. To me, over all, my stuff is personal but rarely autobiographical. In the sense that I steal songs, like a vampire, from the stories I hear, the comments, from friends close and not so close. Also I’m located in a sense, in a place, in a slightly bent corner of my ’hood, Jamaica Plain, its bars (the Brendan Behan, Doyle’s), streets, stores, projects, houses, pond, inhabitants. My sound varies with each record. The new one, out October 16th called Paper Airplane, has a full band—a great incredible band. The prior record, Old Stag, had a string quartet. The one before that, Me & Van Gogh, simple piano and vocals. In all those many bands and approaches, the through line is my voice—somewhat of an acquired taste, but as my friend Chet Cahill once put it, my “voice has found it’s voice”—especially in the last decade. What else? I guess you could say my stuff is cinematic—rough jagged hand held sound shots. And lastly, it’s emotional. Very emotional but, without, on a good day, being smarmy. Ultimately there’s no tag or genre sound to what I do. God knows how others label it. Hopefully it moves the heart sometimes, or makes you laugh out loud, or has you look inside yourself—recognizing in a song of mine a part of you.
Noise: What’s the story behind Paper Airplane? Who plays on it?
Rick: The short of it is that Dennis Brennan asked me to play a guest spot with his guys at the Lizard residency a couple of years back. The deal was that they’d learn two of my songs in the dressing room five minutes before we’d go on stage. Dennis [harp], Billy Beard [drums], Andrew Mazzone [bass], Duke Levine [guitar], and Kevin Barry [guitar] learned them and it killed me how great it sounded and how quickly they got it right. I immediately thought, hey, that’s the next record. Andrew, who runs the studio, the Mark Sandman Project, and my label, Hi-n-Dry, set it up for it to be do-able. Joe Stewart, who engineered Old Stag, engineered and produced, along with Dennis. We did piano, rhythm tracks, and harmonica at Hi-n-Dry, then added guitars, vocals, tuba, trombone, and mix it at Hummelvision in JP. Jane Mangini [Trans-Siberean Orchestra] played all the piano parts. She’s an incredible musician and channels my weird hammering as she adds her own art and vibe to the tunes. Without her I never could have done this. Lastly: Andy Plaisted played drums instead of Billy. These guys have no agenda. Nothing to prove or fight over. They play with restraint, brilliance, and heart for the song. The takes were never more than two per tune.
Noise: Of your old bands, how come there’s never been an Orchestra Luna, Berlin Airlift, Rick Berlin-the Movie, or Shelley Winters Project reunion?
Rick: Don’t like ’em. For my stuff, or for any other band. Just seems so… raked over coals. But there was once an Orchestra Luna reunion 15 or 20 years back. Randy Roos [guitar], Chet Cahill [bass], Don Mulvaney [drums] my sister Lisa Dudley [vocals] and Liz Gallagher [vocals], my room mate at the time, Charlie Isenberg, read the spoken word parts that Peter Barrett [deceased] wrote and my friend from Paris, Eddy de Syon programmed the orchestral parts. We played “Doris Dreams,” “Faye Wray,” “Little Sam,” and “But One” upstairs at Ryles in Inman Square and the place was packed. So yeah, that was fun—but one night only.
Noise: Who have you been playing with lately?
Rick: I’ve been performing with these guys here in JP, the Nickel & Dime Band. They are all great seat-of-the-pants musicians with quick ears and we’ve been learning some tunes of mine that go way back. As far as back Berlin Airlift, as near as Shelley, as well as from my new record. It’s a blast to play out or just rehearse with these guys tying on a case of shitty beer and gutting the tunes out. Because they already know each other well, there’s no head opera to deal with. It’s just plain old rock ’n’ roll fun—among the best times I’ve had playing with a band ever. We played at the Midway in JP on Wednesday, September 8th. I was nervous about being an old lady front man looking like an idiot, trying to get it back with all the silly rock moves, but what happened was so cool, spontaneous, insane. I loved it.
Noise: How has your audience changed over the years?
Rick: Older fans rarely make it out to shows. They have kids, early to rise jobs. So the people who come out to hear me are young—way young—twenties. At a house party there are teens. My nephew, Sammy Dudley, and his friend Jesse Adams-Lukowsy play with me a lot, bringing all that great edge and joy to the music. They are 19 and 20 respectively. They keep me young, but not in a foolish too-much-make-up way. I guess I would hope to have something relevant to say to people of any age. Ya never know though, do you? It’s out of your hands. I love to perform. It’s a gift. It’s who I am. It’s a safe place to put my best self forward. I’m very very lucky to have been and to continue to be able to do this year after year.
Noise: Do you ever play with old bandmates Randy Roos or Steven Paul Perry—two guitarists that were way ahead of their times?
Rick: Randy played on several tracks of a record I did with Chet Cahill called Half in the Bag. You can download it from my bandcamp site. It’s got layers of wild guitar art. Steven played with the Berlin Airlift guys at the CD release night I did for Me & Van Gogh. They rocked the house, and later when I played an old Orchestra Luna song he jumped in on the solo. But I don’t see either of those guys. Randy still makes his living playing and recording music, and Steven as far as I know, is busy writing and recording as well. Rare, great, one-of-a-kind players both.
Noise: I remember meeting your mom backstage at one of your shows at the Channel in the ’80s—you looked just like her! How did her support help your focus and spirit?
Rick: I really look like her now—no lips, tight smile, forward lean, lots of young friends, wind tunnel optimism, funny walk. She never wavered in her belief in what I did with my life. Sure, she worried—the gay thing. Was I happy? But by essentially being a waiter forever who is also an artist who loves his life and work, well, she flat out got behind it. She saw that it made me happy. I still have the car she bought second-hand knowing I’d inherit it when she died. I see that car and think, “hey, Mum…” as if she’s still here looking after me, beaming, proud, wondering what the fuck is gonna happen when I’m too old to wait tables and my career ship hasn’t made it into safe harbor.
Noise: Any advice to rookie rockers trying to get their music heard in this tough environment?
Rick: Most advice is questionable. Everyone has their own way to do it. That’s why I love rock. You can reinvent it to suit yourself, even as it’s all been written a thousand times over. But I would suggest to worry less about how successful you are, and spend more time trying to be as truthful an artist as you can be. If you have a band, try to love ’em. Bands are so painful sometimes—the drama of it. The psychology you confront when you essentially marry people you just met. There’s the honeymoon. The first rehearsal. The first gig. The first fans. The first road trip. The first fight. The first record. The first flop. Then what? Head off to weekend warriorville? Andrew Mazzone said, “every band has an expiration date and most miss it.” Anyhow, love it or you’re wasting your time.
Noise: Any great local story that is still important to you?
Rick: Not really. Or maybe there are too many. Perhaps the demise of main- stream radio, especially the old ’BCN, when your fucking unsigned band’s cassette would be played in rotation during drive time and the clubs would fill up with kids who were singing your songs at the top of their lungs. And also the Rat. The Rat smelled like it and the guy in the crowd who yelled at the girl in my band to “suck on it” when she finished singing an acappella intro to a song about Judy Garland… that shit kicked my ass.
Noise: Tell me some of the great artists you have performed with or have opened for throughout the years.
Rick: Name drop: the Boomtown Rats, Roxy Music, J. Geils, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, Weather Report, Ramones, Blondie, Television. Dennis Brennan, Labelle, the Shirts, Lance Loud & the Mumps, Split Enz. Silvia Sydney—the oldest drag queen in history, the Dambuilders, Extreme, the B52’s, the Pointer Sisters, the Psychedelic Furs, Face to Face, Joanaspolicewoman, Twinemen, the Dresden Dolls, and the Neighborhoods. Meanwhile Bowie, Meatloaf and Jim Steinman, Peter Wolf, Andy Warhol, Rado and Ragni [Hair], Jimmy Page, Steve Tyler, Lou Reed, Jeff Berlin [porn star], and God knows who else actually saw me perform with this that and the other band.
Rick's CD release party for Paper Airplane (Hi-N-Dry Records) is at the Lizard Lounge on Saturday night October 16. The first fifteen people through the door get a free copy of Paper Airplane—otherwise it's $10. You can get tickets in advance here.