by Christopher Burbul
One Sunday I ran in to my old band mate Larry Dersch. We’d been in the Bentmen together back in the early ’90s,and anybody who knows him know he is not only one hell of a guy, but also a gifted drummer. After a little catch up, he mentioned that he was playing with a former band mate and of ours, Bassist Matt Gruenberg, another serious player, in a trio with this guy Randy Black, called Randy Black & the Heathcroppers.
Randy Black? I didn’t know him personally, other than the lore of his Rumble winning band Limbo Race, in which he played guitar and sang back in the day. The stuff of legends, Boston style, as they say.
Being curious as to what the hell a Heathcropper was, and what my old cohorts were up too, I showed up at the Cantab for their gig the next week. They were playing downstairs, in the dingy basement beer hall with the scars and smells of decades of Pabst, engineer’s boots and drug induced dementia.
When they began I was curious and by the time it was over I was mesmerized. Call it “eclectic folk rock with deeply emotive lyrical storytelling,” but that would not do them justice. At first it seemed like I was back In 1979, hearing late reflections of early Echo & The Bunnymen and fuzzy, ghostly images of Tom Verlain’s Television. Then it was power pop that belonged on the CMJ charts. Wait a minute, Randy is howling like Roy Orbison at midnight on a blue moon, baring his soul and sharing his humanity in a way that welcomed you inside his world to connect with his pain and come out the other side understanding that you are not alone.
And then it’s another upbeat rocker with a ting of the southwest to bring us back to the moment. One of the most interesting things about this group for me is that Randy is a vibrant rhythm player and the songwriting draws its strength not only from the lyrical tableaus he presents, but the strong musical hooks that he creates by moving cords all over the fretboard with his left hand while chopping them to bits with his right. The songs have a primitive sophistication and a driving rhythmic sensibility that draws the listener into the lyric. And NO guitar solos. This not only takes guts but it takes chops to pull it off and these guys could open a steakhouse.
This is where the unique talents of the rhythm section come in. Matt Gruenberg plays solid, driving bass lines while at the same time managing to provide a mellifluous melodic counterpoint to Randy’s cascade of guitar. And Larry Dersch builds a rhythmic scaffold that allows the bass and guitar to dance, sure footed, into the night.
I’ve seen Randy’s band perform a few times over the last two years. Audiences connect with the rhythmic hooks and raw honesty of his music. I spoke with him soon after his group opened the show on the closing night of the venerable Cambridge institution T.T. The Bears’ Place.
Noise: Let’s talk about Limbo Race and winning the Rumble in 1982.
Randy Black: I really didn’t know Limbo Race was such a good band until 20 years later. I was writing three songs a week back then.
What I remember about winning the Rumble is that my father was there with thousands of people screaming for us, and he thought, “He quit school, and he’s a fuck up, but he’s done what he wanted to do and this is going to make him happy.”
But I’ve had two bands since then. I’m proud of Limbo Race and Dr. Black’s Combo, I just don’t play that music anymore. I don’t talk about it much because that was 30 years ago.
Noise: Can you reflect on On T.T.’s Closing?
Randy: Bonney Bouley (T.T.’s owner) is one of my favorite people of all time. She accepted me and my band in a way that no one had accepted us before. It was a family thing, a welcoming, a kindness. It was an absolute honor to play that gig.
Noise: What’s its like out there as a veteran performer with live music venues becoming extinct?
Randy: Clubs close and open all the time. Who ever thought T.T.’s would open? It was a restaurant and some one said to Bonney, “Lets make it a rock club.” That’s how these things goes. I spend very little time thinking about this. I think about songwriting an awful lot, and fiction writing (several of Randy’s short stories have been published under the name Edwin M. Steckevicz). I’m not a social scientist. I’m a songwriter and a singer.
Noise: What motivated you to form the Heathcroppers?
Randy: Larry was always going to be the drummer. I told him two years before we started the band that I was writing again and he was already on board. We had worked together on a previous Randy Black solo album Below The Tapering. Matt also played on that record, and was living out of state. We got in touch and he said he was moving back to Boston in six months and I said, “I’ll wait, if you’re into this. I’m not going to look for another bass player.” I always hoped that they would be involved. It’s such a joy to play with them.
Noise: I have to ask: What is a “Heathcropper”?
Randy: It’s a pony that eats scrubby vegetation. I see it as metaphor for we few, we band of urbanites who thrive on what springs from the cracks in the concrete jungle. Thomas Hardy will tell you.
Noise: You also perform this material solo. Can you talk about the difference?
Randy: The band is like a boat, and everybody has an oar and often times we are going ahead in the same direction. Then Matt or Larry or I will pull one way or the other. You know, tempo, mood, whatever. And it all works if we can adjust to each other and keep it going somewhere. Playing solo is like swimming. You can just dive in and do the backstroke or go under water, but you miss the feeling of being in that boat.
Noise: Your songs paint tableaus and offer the listener an opportunity to share that perspective. Do you start with a particular mood or experience?
Randy: It’s really like snippets. I have paper all over the place where I scribble things down. I have a roll of cash register tape in the car that I unfurl and write snippets on. Eventually when I have five or six of them I’ll put them on the computer in a folder. If I have two or three ideas that are all heading in the same direction, I’ll squeeze them together and see if they stick.
I think about phrasing a lot. It’s 85 percent of presentation. When I have a chord progression, I’ll just sing nonsense syllables over it and see where the rhythm and accents are. And then if the words fit, they fit.
Noise: There are recurring themes of relationships and overcoming adversity in your lyrics. Can you speak to your motivations?
Randy: It’s just what I do. I can’t not do it. If I didn’t write it down, I’d go nuts. It’s like exercise to me. Exercising my songwriting muscles.
Noise: I’ve described your music to other people as introspective folk rock. Do you that’s accurate?
Randy: Introspective has a negative connotation to me. It sounds selfish. I like to say that I’ve invented a new genre called Faux Crock. It’s who I am.
Noise: Oddly enough everyone I’ve talked to at your shows think that you are letting them into your life in a very intimate way. You get up there and let it all hang out. That’s not selfish. There’s a lot of pain in your music. The message is that here I am, in this world, flawed…
Randy: Just like you.
Noise: Exactly. And you are giving the audience permission to be introspective without feeing egotistical about it.
Randy: I have no great philosophical ideas or insight about it. It’s not complicated at all. It’s just what I do.
Noise: Your comfort with sharing intimacy makes the audience comfortable enough with themselves to share in the experience.
Randy: Or it’s just chronicling things that happen in my life. When I’m performing I can very easily get gone, let it take me over, and I like that place. It’s like right now this is what’s happening. I’m not looking for or thinking about the reaction, but I love it when people respond. It’s just what I do. I hope people see the humor too. I think my work is an acquired taste. The beauty of performance is that it’s different than your normal life. It would be so hard to not be in a band.
In the end maybe Randy Black is just a guy, sharing his experience, and doing it in a way that manages to make other people feel like it’s okay for them to feel their own lives.
You can see the band at The Plough & Stars on 9/4/15 and at regular gigs at Sally O’s and The Tavern at the End of the World (Randy performing there solo on 9/17/15). Find them online at Heathcroppers.com. Hear their current album, The Sky Goes Clear, at Soundcloud.Heathcroppers.com.