by Jack Rentfro Photos by Sheena Patrick
Carl Snow was on his motorcycle when a kid walked up to him at a stop along the way. The kid insisted the burly biker was a famous professional wrestler.
â“Yeah, I seen you. On TV!â” said the kid. Snow's certainly got the look: shoulders the breadth of a whisky barrel; weightlifter's biceps, all-too-visible beneath short sleeves; the shaved head; the villainous Fu Manchu mustache. Tattoos everywhere you can see skin, including one across the base of his shaved skull that reads â“WFOâ” in Teutonic script.
â“You with that WFO!â” the kid went on, mistaking the evil scrawl on the back of Snow's neck for the initials of one of the professional wrestling associations, like the WWE.
If you can't deduce the acronymâ"it stands for a desirable throttle setting for a bike headed down a long straightawayâ"ask him yourself.
That's the way it goes with Carl Snow. Dude's got knives everywhere, too. â“I'm ready for anything!â” he snarls. Never mind that he's a big softy who'll tear up at the mention of a departed friend and dotes on the memory of his father, Ray Snow, gone now almost a decade. Who frets endlessly about his dogs' welfare and will carry on uxoriously about his love for his wife.
The 41-year-old survivorâ"just barelyâ"of the Cumberland Avenue punk scene of the '80s has a history that interfaces with a dozen bands and scores of musicians who came out of that raucous rock crucible. The auteur behind well-remembered punk and post-punk powerhouses like Koro, Red and Whitey, Snow has been relatively quiet on the local scene in recent years except for the Carl Snow Band and That, an even shorter-lived reunion with long-time co-conspirators Chick Graning and Rodney Cash.
Now comes â“Carl Snow's Summer of Love,â” belatedly, and not at all as cheesily as the name might suggest. Fall is just two weeks away, but, it is all about loveâ"of music among the all-star ensemble: songwriter Snow on guitar; Hector Qirko on bass; Speedshifter singer Andy Pirkle on vocals; and longtime drummer Stan Duncan. The youthful rage is still there, but, like the players themselves, there's a certain bittersweet romance creeping into the songs: The inevitable shadowside of maturity. The quartet comprises more than 100 year's worth of combined musicianship, assembling to give it another go, this time for the music instead of â“making the scene,â” that social phenomenon Snow thinks has superseded honest listening and corrupted the very art of the performance.
The boys have cooked up more than enough material for the 80-minute show planned for the Corner Lounge. Mostly Snow originals, there'll be a versatile spread of songs from the hormonally charged years to the rootsier Carl Snow Band's Useless CD to the new, never-before-heard pop and soul-inflected material, plus a few covers.
â“Our current fave new tune was actually written in 10 minutes across a quarter of a century,â” Snow says, recalling how â“Humor Meâ” was written. Intended for Red, the song never developed beyond the chorus. â“When the Summer of Love started playing, the â‘writer button' got pushed down on my head and I paid a visit to the old chorus and all of a sudden, the verse and bridge came tumbling out of my mouth and Blam!: â‘Humor Me' entered our canon.â”
Snow claims he is having more fun playing with these middle-aged guys â“than I've had since Red, and that was 1980.â”
A visitor tries to stay out of the way during a recent rehearsal at Snow's home studio. The band is squirreled away in a little nook to condense their sound during this lo-tech run-through. The narrow hallway connects the studio/bedroom to another part of the Prairie-style house dug into the side of Black Oak Ridge a few miles out Tazewell Pike from Fountain City. It's the home Snow shares with the love of his life, Cynthia Loftis-Snow, a hairdresser from a family of hairdressers (slightly funny, 'cause Snow's pate is as bald as an embryo's), and the three dogs they adore so much they leave the TV on for them when they're not at home. The multi-level rancher has a sort of Zen aesthetic to its lived-inness. It's a home and a studio, where Snow records and teaches guitar. Besides working with the Summer of Love, he is also working on a project with Chris Scum (the Dirty Works), and he has a gig making recordings for various audio companies.
Laughing half the time, the band members yell out at each other in the easy shorthand of musiciansâ"how many measures of this; where to put the change. â“I was trying to find the bridge,â” Duncan hollers over the general din. â“I forgot there was an extra â‘A',â” Qirko chuckles.
Snow calls Qirko, one of the best guitarists around, a â“bassist's bass player,â” meaning, he understands the bass is there to be an anchor, not a guitar playing in the lowest register. Think â“Duckâ” Dunn, not Jaco Pastorius. â“They're indulging me,â” Qirko says, enigmatically disarming any curiosity about a virtuosic lead guitarist's relegation to the rhythm section.
â“What could be better? I get to work in the engine room of this big machine,â” he adds after Snow expresses delight at finding the most empathic drums 'n' bass combination he's had since being backed by the brilliant, sibling chemistry of James and Bill Dungan (Seavers) back in the Red days. Asked about the dinky-looking Danelectro he's playing with the Summer of Love, Qirko says, â“it's the only bass I've got. Jim Williams (bassist for Qirko's own HQ Band) sold it to me years ago. I use it around the house for demos, but I'm looking forward to turning it up all the way at the gig.â”
â“I grew up with Hector in my life,â” Snow says. As a teenaged Bearden High student around '80 and '81, Snow went to both Qirko and the late Terry Hill for guitar lessons. But, he jokes, â“my single claim to fame is turning Hector onto XTC. We figured out the entire Drums and Wires album. Then we wondered, â‘Why is my mother giving you money for lessons?' I was also going to Terry Hill for lessons at Camel Studios and Hector at Pick 'n' Grin. It's kind of weird, playing with your teacher, but you get over that.â”
The student-teacher relationship Snow had with Qirko and Hill (who together were the frontal lobes of seminal art-punk band, Balboa) rapidly transmuted into comradeship among artists who mutually viewed music as a vehicle for exploration. Today, there remains this â“shared areaâ” between them. â“Like, a shadow. A good kind of shadow.â”
Back to work the boys go, Snow croaking out a scratch vocal to scan the lines for Pirkle, who relishes the opportunity to draw on his sweeter voiced R&B inspirations with this band than he does the harder-edged Speedshifter sound.
This one's readyâ"â“Cherie,â” ( â“Cherie, she don't love meââ” ), a bright, crisp Nick Lowe-ish power lament confessing to a two-dimensional love affair with a certain downscale porn mag. â“Rockin' like Dokken, baby!â” Snow exhorts the crew.
The bandleader can't get over finding a double-kicking drummer like Duncan to combine with Qirko's savvy bass. Although he is a '70s band veteran (Sanhedrin) and a native of the area, Duncan moved around a lot and only returned to Oak Ridge in recent years, making him the Summer of Love's unknown quantity. Although Duncan had worked with numerous local musicians, including Qirko, in various projects, it was pure chance that landed him in the band. Snow was assembling the hypothetical new band in his imagination when John Tilson (Vacationist League) came over to the house to record. Duncan dropped by to lay down some drum tracks and Snow liked what he heard. â“I said â‘sure,' though I had no idea who Carl was,â” Duncan says. â“We discovered the mutual friendship with Hector, so we asked Hector if he wanted to play.â”
Circumstances led Pirkle to the band as well. He met Snow a few years ago when Snow dropped into mutual buddy Rodney Cash's metalworking shop. Pirkle invited Cash, Snow and Graningâ"Thatâ"to open for an upcoming Speedshifter show. Earlier this year, when Pirkle took his son over to Snow's for guitar lessons, the invitation was reciprocated and Pirkle found himself a job singing Snow songs. The Speedshifter guitarist and main singer-songwriter (little brother to progressive country songstress Sarah Pirkle) agrees that few would ever associate Sam Cooke-style â“crooningâ” with the Snow sound, but Pirkle says he looks forward to doing just that with the Summer of Love. â“I rarely get a chance to do that with a hard rock band like Speedshifter,â” he says. With regard to their songwriting sessions together, Pirkle says it is astonishing to witness Snow's ease with lyrics and melody. â“He is so accomplished. He can write anything from punk to country. Whatever (style) he wants and it looks so effortless, too.â”
After rehearsal, Snow is clearly elated about the group's cohesion. â“It's an amazing thing,â” Snow says. â“It is magic and I ain't saying that in the schmaltzy, Vegas/carnie/agent way. I'm saying it 'cause it's fuckin' true. No shit.â”
IMMERSION THERAPY & BLACK MOSES
The paternal line is the source of Snow's musical germ. Between Ray Snow and his two brothers, little Carl was practically a Skinnerian experiment in cultural immersion therapy. â“We all lived in Atlanta and one my uncles came back from 'Nam with this huge reel-to-reel with everything on it, from Joplin to CCR. He'd put a flight helmet on me, plop Plato in front of me to read. Or put headphones on me and play me Sibelius and Rachmaninoff and then that Vietnam-era rock on the reel-to-reel. Dad's dad was a holy roller preacher down in Alabama and that's some serious rockin' 'n' rollin', too,â” Snow says, adding that his own religiosity these daysâ"he attends a local Presbyterian church sometimesâ"is a kind of Buddhist-Christian hybrid. â“Dad would also take me around churches to check them out. I liked the black ones best 'cause the music was the best. Presbyterian hymns just don't have the moxie.â”
Ray Snow was a traveling salesman. Carl's father and one of his brothers wanted to settle with a business of their own somewhere and that town ended up being Knoxville. But before that was a lot of moving around. Snow recalls being a toddler in Connecticut where the parents would take him along instead of getting a babysitter when they went bar-hopping. The boy ended up atop the piano doing sing-alongs. â“I'd sing â‘Rocket Man' or whatever. Bars were my kindergarten.â”
During the family's Memphis interim, little Carl was sent to a Montessori school where he happened to strike up a friendship with â“a black kid named Vincent Hayes. His dad was Isaac Hayes. I rode to school with Vincent in the Hayes limo.â” After school, the boys would go to the Hayes' apartment to play. Little Carl hadn't the slightest idea who Isaac Hayes was at the time. Nevertheless, he knows now: â“Black Moses was in the house! I used to bang on his piano all the time.â” As if that weren't portentous enough, Carl's father once took him to a major public event on the capital steps in Atlanta where Carl claims to have â“sat on the bench right beside Ray Charles while he sang â‘Georgia.'â”
Snow adds, â“The stars stalked me when I was a kid!â”
Perhaps even more telling was the little boy's exposure at the Hayes' house to the next big thing in audio technology: audiocassettes. Carl began recording himself singing to records and the radio. The fascination with recording and the peripatetic upbringing triggered an impulse to archive everything. â“I moved; I lived in a different town every month. I felt like I had to make some kind of impression,â” Snow says. â“I had to document that I was here.â”
BITMAPPING & BALLET
Nowadays, state-of-the-art recording for Snow involves computerized programs like Cubase, and Acid and many other recording and audio types of software for a fully functional audio-video studio. The technology enables Snow to work at home, but the important thing, he insists, is the human component: â“We can record anything. But the most important thing is that I was taught by Terry and then Matt Lincoln (at Lincoln's Underground Studios), and then (longtime instructor and band veteran) Rick Wolfeâ"HOW TO MIC SOMETHING. I know what mic goes to what kind of instrument. I'm real old school about that. I like it the real way.â”
This is where the ambient, electronicaâ"â“dance stuff, evenâ”â"that he has composed comes from, like his techno opus, Bitmapping . And Ballet , which Snow also composed at his digital studio, a track at a time, until he had layered 398 tracks together into a neo-Romantic orchestral symphony. Hoping someday to have the opportunity to showcase these more or less unheard-by-the-public compositions, Snow explains how he relied both on the synthesizer's library of digitized samples as well as samples he created using the many instruments spread around the house: â“Baritone guitar: meet the cello.â”
â“It's like (Karlheinz) Stockhausen (20th Century German minimalist/electronic composer and theorist), his theory of bricks. I'm making my music of existing bricks. I see it,â” Snow says, almost mystically. â“The bricks are there. If I need an A-flat trio of trumpets doing one-three-two line, I can see that as a loop. I did Ballet in 16-20 hour shifts over three months in 2002.
â“I've always loved (art rock pioneer) Brian Eno. Terry turned me on to that stuff. Being around Terry at Camel Studios is why I have a studio. There'd be Terry, and Hector'd be there, and (Balboa/Lonesome Coyotes drummer) Doug Klein,â” Snow recalls, still inspired. â“Yeah, Camel One (behind Pick 'n' Grin in Bearden) and Two (in Rocky Hill). I was over there the day John Lennon died. I walked in, and Terry was crying and told me he couldn't teach today. I just started crying, 'cause I loved John Lennon. I went to the car and my mother saw me crying and I told her and she started crying. We couldn't make it out of the parking lot for 30 minutes. But moments like that forge (connections between) people.â”
Around the time of the dissolution of the vibrant Cumberland Avenue music community when one could go hear several original local bands playing at venues only a short walk apart, Snow himself was in one of his retiring modes. It also is when he realized he had contracted Hepatitis C. The blood-borne viral infection can result in cirrhosis or liver cancer. Snow tried to convince himself that he got it during a passage through an Austin tattoo parlor during the '80s. But, â“I most likely got it doing arm dope, which is a really stupid thing to do, with dirty-as-hell needles.â”
Considering his everlasting health problems and lack of insurance, Snow takes care of himself the best he can through nutrition and exercise (which explains the draft horse physique). Struggling with the illness and its varied depredations on his body is a daily thing.
â“It's just hell. I was diagnosed when they first learned to distinguish it from AIDS. The doctors had no strong platform from which to advise me. They didn't know any more than I did. The interferon treatment (which works through the body's immune system) is as bad as the disease. It's not a death sentence, but it's not a sentence for a happy, physical life. But, like everything else, you can learn from it.â”
The situation colors every part of his professional and personal existence. It is indirectly responsible for the chronic hoarseness and diminished lung-power, which is why a lead singer was needed for the Summer of Love. â“When you can't go anywhere, what the hell are you supposed to do? If you're a musician, you want to be in a band. But you can't. You can't be a studio hack,â” Snow says. Unless, of course, the studio is yours. â“Luckily, I came along at a time when computers that allow looping, and sampling and Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) technology were happening.â”
And, anyway, â“torture brings out the best songs,â” Snow says. As he prepares to leave the rehearsal that day, Qirko insists that the delay of the band's debut means nothing. â“It's definitely â‘Carl Snow's Summer of Love,' whatever the season.â”
Snow previews an acoustic version of one of his songs, insisting a visitor listen to one more as he strums: â“Hey now, don't worry. 'Cause, hey, now, what good would that do?â”
Carl Snow and the Summer of Love have scheduled a Halloween show Oct. 31 at Manhattan's.
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