a guest post from an old new friend.

There have been 369 entries made to this blog in the last year, and every word has been my own.  For this entry, I’m going to turn the microphone over to someone else.

One of the entries from this past November discussed the day I put Dromedary on hiatus, at the end of the summer of 1996. I came back from vacation and, via email, disconnected myself from both Jenifer Convertible and Footstone.  I was due to pick up master tapes from both bands, for CDs that were supposed to come out at the end of the year.

Over the last few months I have reconnected with the folks from Jenifer Convertible, and our reunion has been fantastic.  They’re all such great guys, and Jim and I have begun to re-forge the friendship that we were building fifteen years ago, before it became stunted.

I realized that I’ve been able to tell you what happened to Footstone, cuppa joe, and the Mommyheads after we went on hiatus.  But I’ve really had no clue what happened to Jenifer Convertible, one of the best NYC indie bands ever, and a bunch of great people.

So with that in mind, I’m turning this entry over to my friend Jim Santo, Jenifer Convertible’s guitar player.  Jim is going to tell us what happened to Jenifer Convertible.

Epilogue: The Death (and Rebirth) of Jenifer Convertible

Al asked me to write an account of what happened to my band, Jenifer Convertible, following the dissolution of Dromedary Records, and so here goes.

Be forewarned that my episodic memory has never been very good, so I may get some of this wrong, in terms of the order of specific events, dates and other details. It’s best to approach the following as lessa definitive eyewitness account than a semi-impressionistic pastiche of loosely ordered, half-remembered experiences.

I also want to state at the outset that, while we were, I believe, justifiably angry at Al for cutting us loose, none of us hold a grudge today and none of us blame him for what ultimately happened (or rather, failed to happen) to Jenifer Convertible. In retrospect, given our own often feckless attitude toward our so-called career, the outcome would most likely have been the same.

Let’s back up a bit to the beginning of our formal relationship with Dromedary. After months of courting (recounted elsewhere on this blog), Al invited us out to his suburban New Jersey home for a backyard barbecue and contract signing. I recall being struck by Al’s physical appearance: he had dark rings under his eyes, as if he’d not had a good sleep in weeks. He seemed irritable, distracted and depressed. He was not doing a good job of hiding the inner turmoil that he’s been documenting here over the past several months, and in retrospect, this was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Al’s burgers were overcooked that day, and so was he.

Nevertheless, we were eager to get our record released by a cool label like Dromedary. We were unaware of how ineffectual the label was, commercially, but in truth, that knowledge likely would not have made a difference. Beyond some tentative overtures by the Hoboken-based Bar/None label, nobody else was interested in what we were doing, so like a shy boy marrying the first girl to sleep with him, we happily signed on the dotted line.

Thus ensured an outlet for the album we were about to make, in February 1996 we got down to work at Wharton Tiers’ Fun City Studio on East 22nd Street in Manhattan. This was very exciting, to say the least! Here we were, recording with the producer responsible for seminal releases by Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Helmet and countless more (Wharton’s production Quicksand’s 1995 LP Manic Compression was high on our list of favorite albums). My guitar tracks were performed through a Marshall amp belonging to J. Mascis, for crying out loud!

True to Wharton’s penchant for working fast and capturing bands at their most immediate and real, basic tracks for the 13 songs that would comprise the Wanna Drag? LP were recorded in just 8 hours on the first day.

Much else about the recording process I have forgotten.

The shards that remain: a bout of laryngitis that prevented me from singing all but a few harmonies on the album; my solo on “Awakening From A Disturbing Dream,” which Wharton pronounced “killer” to my everlasting pride; and my reaction to the stripped-down mix of “My Boy Bill,” for which I was not present, and which appalled me on first hearing (I’ve since come to accept it).

At last, in the spring of 1996, Wanna Drag? was mixed and mastered, and it was time to deliver the goods to Dromedary. As I remember it, I sent an e-mail to Al first thing Monday morning, asking when we could get together to hand off the masters. I got no reply, and followed up on Wednesday. No reply to that, either. Hmm. And then, on Friday morning, I recall, came an e-mail from Al. Not a personal reply. A mass e-mail to all the bands on Dromedary. I’ve had enough, he wrote. My health is suffering. I’m stressed out. I’m neglecting my family. I can’t go on with this. I am shutting down Dromedary, effective immediately. Sorry.

And that was that.

I don’t remember whether Lenny or I ever responded to that e-mail. What would have been the point? The only label that had ever expressed any sincere interest in helping Jenifer Convertible was dead, and we were left holding master tapes that nobody wanted. Lovely.

We had no backup plan, of course. And so, for several months we sat on those tapes, without a clue as to what to do next. And then one day, Lenny announced that “W.” wanted to have a meeting with us. (I’m not going to identify this person; if you want to play private eye, be my guest.)

W. was the lead singer of a godawful Pearl Jam clone band with whom JenCon had shared a bill once. He ran a record label which specialized in bargain-basement genre compilations (History of Surf Volume #5,219, that sort of thing), but was developing a new imprint to release original, alternative/indie rock stuff.

We met W. at his Manhattan apartment/office, where he sat behind a desk, pledged to spend $100,000 promoting our album and confidently guaranteed we would seize “a top 10 CMJ listing” (CMJ, an acronym for College Media Journal, was and is the Billboard Magazine of college radio and an influential tastemaker).

I am certain that, in our heart of hearts, not one of us believed a word he was saying. But in the wake of Dromedary’s collapse, a certain fatalistic malaise had settled over Jenifer Convertible and we were happy to be led by the nose into whatever ridiculous adventure W. had in store for us. So, we signed to his new label.

This is what happened next: Nothing.

Next to nothing, anyway. W. did release Wanna Drag? in June 1997 and pressed up some unknown (to me) number of CDs. We got to see it on the shelves in the Virgin Superstore in Times Square, tucked between Jennyanykind and Jethro Tull. And that’s about it.

If W. spent $100,000 to promote Wanna Drag? we never saw any evidence of it. Not only did we not reach the CMJ top 10, we never received any airplay, anywhere, as far as we could tell.

And press coverage? At the time of its release, Wanna Drag? received exactly one review, in the then-hugely-influential Option Magazine. I will never forget the day Lenny and I dropped by See Hear, the East Village zine shop that was in those days every NYC band’s primary conduit to the alternative media, to see if anyone had reviewed our new album.

We cracked open the latest issue of Option and flipped to the reviews section, where, to our amazement, we saw a big image of our album cover. It took up 1/4 of the page! Wow, we thought, they must have really loved it!

Then we read the review.

Option is long gone now, and I don’t have a copy of that issue, so I cannot directly quote from it. But here the gist of it: we all had lots of fun listening to our Sonic Youth and Pavement records, but those days are over. Indie-rock is dead, electronica is where it’s at now, and if you need proof, just listen to Wanna Drag? by Jenifer Convertible.

In effect, Option made us the poster band for the death of indie rock. It was a mean, relentlessly mocking review, and by featuring our album cover so prominently, the editors made sure everyone would read it.

Needless to say, this was a kick in the teeth, but to our credit we didn’t break up then and there. Instead, we soldiered on, doing, well, doing pretty much what we had always done: rehearsing once a week and playing the occasional gig at the usual East Village rock bars.

It must be admitted that while W. was completely ineffectual, Jenifer Convertible did little to help ourselves. It’s the classic story of a band that gets itself signed and then expects the label to do all the work from then on. Even with a good label, this attitude is a recipe for disappointment; with a bad (or, at best, useless) label, it guarantees failure.

In the meantime, strange things were happening with W.

First came the sudden notice that he was vacating his NYC office and relocating to Philadelphia. We did not receive this as welcome news, although given the fact that we had not held a single meeting with him since signing to his label, it really didn’t matter where he was. Later, just as suddenly, W. up and moved to Florida, after which all communication with him ceased.

Eventually, sometime in late 1998 or early 1999 (I warned you I am no good with specific dates), we came out of our funk and decided to make a new record. It would not be a full album, but rather a 4-song EP with one song contributed by each member of the band: “Flicker” by Lenny Zenith, “Coffee” by our bass player, James Pertusi, “Mistake” by drummer Eddie Siino, and “Anger” by yours truly (we also ended up tracking an additional song by Lenny entitled “Jackie Collins #9”).

We decided to record it at Excello, an excellent Brooklyn-based studio with an impressive client roster that was co-owned by members of Love Camp 7, our friends and contemporaries in the mid-1990s East Village music scene. We had high hopes for these sessions and were naturally excited to be returning to the studio. Alas, this would not turn out to a pleasant experience. Not at all.

Let me be clear: the resulting EP — which few people have ever heard — was really good, certainly as good as anything on Wanna Drag? and in some respects even better. But the process of getting there was no fun.

First, there was the matter of our engineer (name withheld), who was super-competent and professional, but also a cold, impersonal, tightly-wound individual. He did not show much respect for us, or our music, and, without saying so, made it clear that he knew what was best for us, and our opinion on that matter was irrelevant (this is, unfortunately, a common attitude among audio engineers).

And then there was the fact that, before the EP was finished, Jenifer Convertible had called it quits.

The end came, appropriately, at Luna Lounge, a cool, intimate venue, then-located on Ludlow Street in Manhattan. Luna’s owner Rob Sacher was the first to really embrace JenCon and help us find an audience. We considered it home.

I remember we were all really tense that afternoon, riding in the van on the way to load in and soundcheck. Eddie, who was separated from his wife, was pissed off at his girlfriend about something or other. Lenny was planning to make some sort of political statement from the stage that night, which was irritating James, who disliked that notion. And me, well, in those days I was just generally angry all the time.

The show that night started off well enough. We had a good crowd and were going over well. Lenny was noticeably tipsy, but that was not at all unusual. And then we launched into my song, “Anger.”  “Anger” has an instrumental intro that may seem improvised, but was actually tightly arranged in such a way that we all knew when to break into the first verse in dramatic fashion. When it worked it was great, but on this night, Lenny became confused. He moved too soon from one section to the next, and to my horror, two things became obvious: Lenny was going to break into the first verse too soon, and I was the only one who realized what was about to happen.

So I stepped to the mic and stopped the song.

It was not the first time I had done this. On previous occasions it even was kinda cool, akin to Elvis Presley’s “Let’s get real gone for a change” false start at the beginning of “Milk Cow Blues,” or Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live in 1977, stopping the Attractions from playing “Less Than Zero” and switching to “Radio Radio.”

But my name was not Elvis. And our drummer was not happy.

Eddie blew a gasket and started shouting at me, accusing me of embarassing him and threatening me with physical violence. We got into a shouting match, in front of everybody, which ended when I said, “fuck this” and left the stage. The rest of the band regrouped and carried on without me for a song or two while my friends tried to convince me to get back up there. I finally relented and returned to the stage, but then in the middle of the next song, my amplifier failed. That was it. I left the stage a second time, the band played maybe one more song without me, and the show — and Jenifer Convertible — was over.

A week later, Lenny gathered us all together to announce that he was ending the band. Nobody protested.

But we had a record to finish, and we resolved to do so.

We still had vocals to record, and overdubs, and we still had to mix it. I will spare you all the pain of elaborating on what went down. Suffice to say, it involved a lot of tears, anger and general anguish. But we got it done, and you can hear some of it here: http://www.myspace.com/jeniferconvertible

This sad tale has a happy ending. Lenny, James and I remained in touch. Lenny moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, but returned to NYC with his new band, Without Misty, to record an EP that sounded a lot like Jenifer Convertible. James engineered the session and I sat in on vocals. You can hear some of that here: http://www.myspace.com/withoutmisty and you can buy the CD from my own Dive Records label here: http://www.diverecords.com/

We also stayed in touch with our original drummer, Andy Moore, who had played on all the recordings that attracted Dromedary to us in the first place, and who had moved to Maine in mid-1995. Frequent summer visits to Andy’s place, together and separately, culminated in an August 12, 2006, reunion show at a house party in Camden, Maine. Later that fall, we performed in NYC for the first time in seven years, again at a private event at the Salt Mines rehearsal studio in Brooklyn. A public reunion, albeit without a drummer, took place  in October 2009 at the Living Room, a few blocks south of the original site of the Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street.

I’ve left out the very ending of Jim’s epilogue.
For now.

~ by Al on December 28, 2009.

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