Chris Stamey’s memoir tells New York stories, local stories
Chris Stamey’s new musical memoir serves as a kind of secret history of Winston-Salem sounds in the ‘60s and ‘70s. A founding member of the influential band the dB’s, a prolific solo artist, producer and all-around indie-music guy, University of Texas Press has just published Stamey’s music-centric autobiography, A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories, which focuses attention on the 15 years he spent living in Manhattan and just across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. But North Carolina, and Winston-Salem, in particular, loom large in the story of how this talented songwriter and arranger found a place in what he calls “the American indie-rock revolution.”
Stamey, along with fellow Winstonian Mitch Easter, a close friend and frequent collaborator, was a product of the age, born in the ‘50s, raised on Popular Science magazine, inspired to tinker with things like toy rockets and reel-to-reel tape decks, there with open ears (and a contrarian skepticism) when the Beatles broke big in America. In some ways, it’s a story that was repeated all over America in the early ‘60s, with rock ‘n’ roll, and the British Invasion jolting quick fermentation in the creative juices of a generation of young musicians. But, as Stamey tells it, something peculiar was happening in Winston-Salem, and the combination of factors led to a flowering of unusual original music from the city. A special concert at The Ramkat in Winston-Salem on May 12 will recreate some of that local music that Stamey discusses in the book.
The event, really a once-in-a-lifetime bit of local musicological excavation and re-creation, is called “Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Winston’s Psychedelic 60s … and Beyond.” Songs by local bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s, such as Sacred Irony, the Imperturbable Teutonic Griffin, Rittenhouse Square, Little Diesel, Sneakers and more will be performed by a large cast of players. Some of these bands were different vehicles for a revolving cast of players, including Stamey and Easter (who went on to success as an influential record producer and with his band Let’s Active), Peter Holsapple (later of the dB’s and R.E.M.), Rob Slater (now of Luxuriant Sedans), Don Dixon (who also went on to success as a producer) and many others.
“For the most part, either original lineups or almost original lineups are performing songs talked about in the book,” said Stamey, who spoke to me by phone from his home in Chapel Hill last week.
Local guitar legend Sam Moss, who died in 2007, is remembered in the book for his talent, humor, commitment to the blues, and for his role in influencing many young local guitarists at the time. And if one was looking for the story of Winston-Salem rock, Stamey has threaded that narrative through his book.
The concert on Saturday takes its name from a song by the band Captain Speed and the Fungi Electric Mothers, a band that made a super-rare test-pressing of some of their far-out material and played a legendary show in town.
“That concert really changed everybody’s attitudes in our local rock scene,” Stamey said.
In the book, he describes the show as “a seismic event for our town.” The band, led by guitarist Mike Greer, pressed four test copies of a two-song 45, and a rendition of the material will be performed by admirers at The Ramkat.
That earth-shaking concert took place at a Catholic high school. Stamey points out that local churches opened their doors to young musicians, letting creative youth culture flourish within the relatively subdued setting away from nightclubs. And that had an unanticipated consequence that may have shaped the blossoming of Winston’s music scene: young bands were permitted — even encouraged — to perform original material.
“Little could match the excitement of writing a song during the week and then playing it for your musical peers on the weekend,” Stamey wrote.
A handful of talented young musicians and a supportive network of church potlucks and coffeehouses fostered the music scene. Another factor that helped impart the foundational elements of music-making, in Stamey’s case, was a public school system that provided a music education.
“At Reynolds High School we had a great guy named Bob Smith who taught music theory,” Stamey said.
That musical education didn’t end in Winston-Salem, Stamey went on to study orchestration at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill before heading to New York in 1977. And A Spy in the House of Loud demonstrates his keen ongoing interest in acoustics, arcane recording techniques, songcraft and musical innovation. But something special was happening in Winston. When Stamey writes about seeing Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt at a concert at Wake Forest or experimental composer George Crumb at the North Carolina School of the Arts, one senses that the swirl of high art, the electric kick of rock, and the of-the-people poetry of folk was blending together in its own unique way in these parts.
Students of indie-rock history will find Stamey’s book loaded with interesting non-North Carolina-centric tidbits. Stamey was central in the release of former Big Star singer and songwriter Chris Bell’s solo masterpiece gem “I Am the Cosmos.” (Stamey ran a label that put out the single.) Stamey also played guitar briefly with legendary rock writer Lester Bangs. He was roommates with Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo. Stamey collaborated extensively with Alex Chilton of Big Star and the Box Tops. Stamey was on the scene in Lower Manhattan when CBGB’s was at its peak. In its way, Stamey’s memoir fits nicely with books by James Walcott, Patti Smith and Will Hermes that delve into music in New York City in the ‘70s.
Stamey brings a fair amount of musical analysis, acoustical science, and audio-engineering knowledge to his writing, which will add to the book’s appeal for theory nerds and studio rats. (Style vigilantes will appreciate his concern over superfluous apostrophes.) His discussions of how to achieve blurry effects by moving one’s head quickly to the side of a microphone while singing, or how to execute complicated (and now obsolete) analog tape editing tricks, or why different types of distortion highlight certain notes in the overtone series, altering the color of some chords — the stuff can be complex, but his writing is approachable and energetic.
He makes a great pinball analogy for how a good record should work, to “trigger some kind of instant deep-brain response, bypassing the critical faculties, beyond analysis. Just neurons flashing all over the place.” That’s about as compelling a description of how a good record feels as any I’ve read. It also captures Stamey’s aesthetic taste for kinetic action, an openness to mechanized clangor, and his fondness for the temporal compression of the pop song.
Listening to (early Stamey project) Sneakers now, one can hear the connection to Big Star and the through the line to soon-to-follow bands like the Replacements. This was urgent, pent-up and melodic pop, with a rare balance of muscle and brains.
The book is punctuated with several “Jukebox” chapters, which are about particular songs by other artists, songs that captured the feeling of the moment in some important way. And Stamey’s thoughtful enthusiasm for, say, “Little Johnny Jewel,” the first single by the band Television, will make you want to revisit or investigate these songs with renewed attention.
An appendix at the back, with a handy Spotify playlist, offers detailed harmonic analysis, discussions of arrangements, instrumentation and production elements. Stamey offers plenty of glimpses into his process as a songwriter, with insights into how sonic architecture takes shape during the recording process, and how contemporary songwriters leave room for a song to achieve its full character in that phase of the process. As Stamey puts it, in contextualizing how developments in studio technology altered a songwriter’s focus: “A song was a script for making a record.”
In addition to the show at The Ramkat, the next day, May 13, Stamey do what he calls “a musical book reading,” which will involve string accompaniment (violin and cello) and his guitar playing. The reading takes place at Bookmarks in Winston-Salem at 3 p.m. It’s free and open to the public.
See “Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Winston’s Psychedelic 60s … and Beyond” featuring songs by Captain Speed and the Fungi Electric Mothers, Sacred Irony, Arrogance, Rittenhouse Square, Little Diesel, Sneaker and the Imperturbable Teutonic Griffin performed by an all-star cast of players including Robin Borthwick, Don Dixon, Ed Dodson, Mitch Easter, Tommy Eshelman, Jim Glasgow, Peter Holsapple, Robert Keely, Bobby Locke, Corky McMillan, Bob Northcott, Rick Reich, Will Rigby, Chuck Dale Smith, Chris Stamey and more at The Ramkat, located at 170 W. 9th St., on Saturday, May 12, at 8 p.m.
Tickets range from $17 to $25. For more information, call (336) 754-9714 or visit www.theramkat.com.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.