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IN THE LATE SUMMER OF THEIR YEARS: NICK REIFSTECK & THE SEROTONES
se•ro•to•nin n: a phenolic amine neurotransmitter. . .that is a powerful vasoconstrictor and is found esp. in the brain, blood serum, and gastric mucosa of mammals
se•ro•tin•al adj [L serotinus coming late]: of or relating to the latter and usu. drier part of summer
--Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
It's a slender dark-blue trade paperback that's probably on the bookshelf (or packed in the bottom of a box on the floor of a damp basement) of anyone who has followed Louisville music over the past 40-plus years. It's long out of print and almost 20 years out of date. But if you're lucky enough to have a copy (the spine's probably creased – the pages, printed on vellum stock, fall from the crumbling glue of the binding each time you open it), you can leaf through Louisville's Own: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Louisville Area Recorded Pop Music from 1953 to 1983 and see:
A cherub-faced J. Tommy Cosdon (a.k.a. Cosmo), in wavy hair and an ascot, left cheek resting softly on curled fingers.
Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame inductee Harvey Fuqua with his bandmates The Moonglows, his head titled in a suave angle, his eyes veiled in come-hither.
Steve Ferguson as a member of The Mersey Beats U.S.A., clean-shaven in a cardigan, dark slacks, and loafers, sitting on the bow of a sailboat, hugging his knees.
Airbrushed torso shots of each member of Circus, with their blowback hairstyles and wardrobe straight off the racks of Chess King.
All iterations of The Monarchs, from the year when they wore nifty white jackets and dark slacks to the year when they wore tuxedos with ruffled shirts and bow ties the size of a sparrow's wingspan.
Published in 1983, Louisville's Own was written by Bill and Brenda Woods when they worked for Allen-Martin Productions, who recorded a lot of the acts within the book and promoted them through their own agency. It was an attempt to compile a comprehensive reference piece on the city's surprisingly considerable presence in pop music since the early 1950s. It was also an obvious self-congratulatory gift for the groups whose careers bridged nearly three decades (and more). At the same time it was a memento mori of the ones who didn't make it past a solitary 45. For every Monarchs, there is a Doctor Strange and the Lovers. For every Moonglows, there is a Chukkar. For every Sultans, there is an Aztecs. For every NRBQ, there's a Jil Thorp and the Beat Boys.
The first picture in the T section is of four young adults – three men and a woman – taken in 1983. Each is dressed in a shimmery tropical print shirt. The man at left is wearing a maniac grin. His arm is around the woman, who holds an unfolded Japanese fan. Her hair is shaved on the sides. Her bangs are platted to form a long widow's peak that ends at the level of her eyebrows. Her eyes are rimmed with makeup, crayon heavy and dark. The guy at right has his shirt open, a dark tee-shirt is underneath. His hair is tousled as if he's just stepped off the sailing yacht after chasing Rio (who dances on the sand).
The tall young blonde man in the center is clenching his lips in a tight smile. As if he's either going to puke or explode in laughter.
The picture is of Jil Thorp and the Beat Boys, described in Louisville's Own as having "a Jamaican-influenced pop sound," not too different from what was being sent over the airwaves or blasting from MTV back then. Their guitarist, the young man with the tight, ambiguous smile, was 23-year-old Nick Reifsteck. He left the band shortly afterward.
Now 40, his blondish hair darkened a touch and infused with whisper of silver, a Nick Reifsteck has returned as frontman, lead guitarist, and songwriter for the second band where he can perform his own material: Nick Reifsteck & the Serotones. Backing him is a quartet of seasoned musicians who, in their own individual ways, touch on other parts of Louisville's music history. Their direct, clean sound – balanced at the centerpoint where raw garage rock, polished blues, and country purged of its twang all meet – is on Black Dog, their debut recording on homegrown Analemma Records. The songs on the CD – as well as the band's sound – are honest and mature, carried by Nick's liquid tenor that can move from tremolo to a growl within the span of a single song. Even if the songs didn't have Nick's vocals, there is still no overshowmanship from anyone in the band. It's what rock-and-roll will sound like when it grows up.
The first band in which Nick performed his own material was One Red Romeo, with Bob Strehl and Roger Crowe, a regular act at the long-defunct Uncle Pleasant's on Preston Street. He had formed that band after another tour of duty with one of the others he had played with earlier.
"It started in 1988 as a studio project after I came back from California," he said. "I had been there two years. Lived in Hollywood. I went out there to try and continue a musical thing with Jil Thorp and the Beat Boys. That didn't work out. I ended up managing a warehouse for a Japanese clothing company for a couple of years. I did a lot of writing out there, and ended up moving back to Louisville in the fall of 1987 because it was cheaper to move back here than it was to move across town in Los Angeles."
From what Nick says, it appears the work with One Red Romeo was the foundation for his work a decade later with the Serotones. "We had a lot of fun doing our own thing. And it was a great experiment for me because I could just take songs that I had roughed-out on an acoustic guitar, and I had a bass player and a drummer who'd play anything I presented to them. The songs just took on a life of their own."
These songs for both One Red Romeo and the Serotones were seeded in many distinctive ways, from the common songwriter habit of noodling with chord progressions on his guitar while he tapes himself, to having a flash of lyric smack his mind while as he cut his grass before a rainstorm was ready to hit. But in assembling the Sertones, he not only had musicians who liked what he put in front of them. He also had teamed with people with whom he was already close.
"We were all interconnected for years," said drummer Charlie Stevenson. "I've known Nick for 21 years as a friend. Somewhere there's a tape of [Nick], me, Dave Barrickman, and Jeff [Lehman] back when Dave and Nick were 17. We had met in jazz lab at Bellarmine in the late '70s."
We were in the wide, high-ceilinged living room of the Old Louisville home of Nick Reifsteck and his second wife, Margaret. A broad picture window overlooked a small front lawn and the sporadic after-rush-hour traffic. In the center of the doorway that spanned the back wall, separating the living room from the dining room, dozed a black German Shepherd named Cole: the black dog namesake of the CD's title and featured on its cover. His long snout rested between a pair of legs that seemed to stretch out to the center of the room.
Charlie continued, nodding to Serotones bassist Fred Lipsey, seated in a corner. "And there's this weird connection with Fred. He's about three, four years older than I am. He played in a band on the front porch of his home in Shively. I used to ride my bicycle down the street to hear them when they'd play. I even bought a mini-bike from him when I was 12."
Charlie's wife Alice, the band's backing vocalist, believes more in the karmic destiny that formed the Serotones. "You meet people that know will always be in your life. Charlie and I went to see Nick's band One Red Romeo in 1989 during one of their first gigs at the old Tewligans Tavern. I went up to Nick and, for some stupid reason, said, 'If you ever need a backup singer – '. He later called, so I started to sing with One Red Romeo. All of a sudden I was in a real band that was working. I did that for about two years."
One Red Romeo played their farewell gig in October, 1990 in a Homefront Series show at the Red Barn on the University of Louisville campus. "I moved to Nashville shortly after that," Nick said, "just to pretty much kick around the city, shop tapes [of the band] around Music Row. But we really didn't fit in with what was going on in Nashville at the time. We weren't country enough. But I did a lot of writing there, recording at home. In fact, a lot of those songs ended up on Black Dog."
Nick returned to Louisville a couple years later and reconnected with the Stevensons, jamming in the basement of their home in Clarksville for seven years to keep alive their interest in playing while also practicing Nick's material. "And we thought, 'oh, someday we'll get a bass player down here,'" Nick said.
A band looking for a bassist. A bassist who had bolted from an unchallenging, if regular, gig. A trip to Boston by two teachers. And a chance reunion by two grown homeboys equals a synchronicity that rivals anything in Field of Dreams. But in this story, no one has to dig up half a cornfield or act alongside Kevin Costner.
Alice, a teacher at J. Graham Brown School (alma mater of Peter Searcy, April's LMN cover story subject), was attending an educator's weekend seminar in Boston with one of her co-workers, Robin Lipsey. "She told me her husband, Fred, was a bass player," Alice said. "When I came back home, Charlie and Fred were waiting for us at the airport. I said, 'Charlie, by the way, Fred's a bass player.' Charlie asked, 'What's Robin's last name?' I told him. He said, 'Oh, my God!'"
"I remember Charlie coming up in the neighborhood," Fred said. For more than 30 years he had burned through his evenings as bassist for The Rustics, a cover band popular at Colonial Gardens and Jim Porter's Tavern. Though they had written and performed a handful of their own songs, and had a record that received airplay on WAKY and WKLO in the band's early days, they had become known mostly for their note-by-note versions of hot country tunes.
"[The Serotones] were minus a bass player," Fred said, "so I thought I'd see how it worked. I had just gotten out of playing long nights several nights a week and I really didn't want to do that again. I was impressed with the stuff Nick had written. With it I don't have to sound like anybody else. I can do what I want to do and Nick's been very open about that."
The fifth Serotone made his way down to the Stevenson's basement rehearsal space after meeting Nick at the church they both attend: Will Cary, former frontman for The Nightcrawlers and a harmonica player with a style that drinks equally from blues, country, and folk (sometimes all within the same song). Meeting Nick had whisk-broomed the thick dust off his own recollections of the city's music scene in the 1980s. "I went back in the old memory banks and said, 'You played with Jil Thorp and the Beat Boys when they were getting so many dates that they actually decided they needed someone who could really play. You were that scrawny new guitar player they hired.' So we go all the way back to Tewligans in 1981."
Scoring Will for the group was like getting Ringo Starr to fill the hole in your band so that you could finish your album. Or, in keeping with the Field of Dreams metaphor, bringing Shoeless Joe Jackson back from the dead to be the designated hitter and give your bus-league team that final push toward a winning season. It was a presence that would guarantee something magical would happen.
When Nick announced the new addition, Fred was intimidated, stating that it was either going to be "really good or really bad." Charlie remembered how often he had seen WILL CARY AND THE NIGHTCRAWLERS painted on the window of The Mason's Jar. How could a musician that busy performing be anything less than a rock-and-roll badass?
But meeting the rest of the Serotones was a nervous time for Will, also. "I remember the first time I came down into the basement," he said. "I hadn't practiced with a real band in seventeen years."
The basement practices continued. The sound was locked down. Nick's songs were made real. They booked time at Ramcat Studios.
The Black Dog woke up and began skulking through the city.
A black dog – easy to describe and, depending on its size, viewed as a danger. The stark contrast between its eye color and its fur intensifies the pinpoint glare from its pupils. There are apocryphal tales that a black dog escorted Mary and Joseph into Bethlehem and sat guarding their child's makeshift cradle. That they silently wander the streets of Sarajevo after the town is painted in a starless night, stalking snipers. Some mornings all that's found is a rifle and a skid-mark of blood. You hesitate to approach, wisely assuming nothing about it when you think you can guess everything.
Then the black dog makes its first sound: a hard snap of drum and an eight-note blazing chromatic guitar run. The bass is heartbeat-constant but never heavy. A harmonica breathes rapidly in the background. The first verse opens, "If I lied would you believe? / If I died, baby, would you grieve?" You are in the thunderstrike of a pounding blues number called "You're Gonna Miss Me." The black dog's growling rhythm and guitar tell you so.
Just when your adrenaline is shooting deep blue through your body, the song finishes cold with an echo of guitar that gently returns with a chord strummed softly. The same voice is back, warmer this time: "Two hearts together / That's how I've heard it should be. . . ." The dog is walking toward you, tail down and wagging slowly. His head bumps under your palm, asking you to scratch behind his ears.
Black Dog is not so manic that it constantly leaps from high intensity blues or rock to a nest of lullabies. But short of disco or Bluegrass or boy-band grooves, there isn't a style that the recording doesn't explore. There is a consistency among all the tracks: the songs themselves. Nick had written the pieces during his years in Nashville and back home in Louisville before and while the Serotones were gestating. Besides the blues and soft rock, you can hear a splash of country in "Dying Just a Little" and "Sleep on the Floor," arrow-straight rock in "Likely Story" and "Fool I've Been," and a tender love ballad called "Madge."
By halfway through your acquaintance with the black dog, after he's let you pat his flanks, rub his tummy, and take a quick whiff of his strong breath, he fixes a gaze on you. You fall into those pinpointed pupils. You find him leading you on a journey thorough a man's life, one at first full of love and purpose that quickly ends on the floor of a motel room with a plastic bag tied around his head.
Nick Reifsteck's dispatch from that journey is called "Shambles." Its hook is straight rock-and-roll. Its message is sorrowful.
"I wrote that while I was cutting the grass," Nick said. "I was living in Okolona out at McNeely Lake, probably about two years before the divorce [from my first wife]. I was trying to cut the back grass before it rained." It was the inspiration for the song's opening line, "It was a day like this one / Cloudy with the sky all filled with rain."
He continued. "I had heard a story on National Public Radio several days before about a man from Louisville who worked with Native American children, and he helped bring awareness of fetal alcohol syndrome to those children. This guy apparently went through a divorce and custody battle where his wife accused him of child molestation. The shame and the whole trauma drove him to suicide."
The man was Louisville-native novelist Michael Dorris, author of Yellow Raft in Blue Water and The Broken Cord – about coping with fetal alcohol syndrome, which afflicted all three of his adopted children – and the husband of novelist Louise Erdrich. On top of the pain he felt while going through the divorce from Erdrich, a woman he had loved for so long and could not bring himself to fight, sexual abuse charges were being readied against him in Minnesota. So to kill his pain Dorris checked into a motel room in Concord, New Hampshire, tied a plastic bag around his head, and suffocated himself.
"People ask me about that song," Nick said. "They say, 'You've been through some rough times.' It's not about me, but it's got a lot of emotion to it. There's a good friend of ours, an Episcopalian minister, I gave a copy of this disc to. He really likes 'Shambles', which really surprised me. It's probably his favorite song on the disc. I was quite flattered."
"Shambles" follows in the tradition of the folk songs and folk tales that are told first-person deceased, like "Long Black Veil." It's also a point-of-view used in film. The deceased Lester Burnham told the story of the final days of his unfulfilled life in last year's American Beauty. Joe Gillis filed his flashback report while floating facedown in Norma Desmond's swimming pool in Sunset Boulevard. Considering its backstory, "Shambles," told by a "sorry ghost in chains" who ceased to be a man when the morgue drawer closed, is about the chains of secret shame that become heavy, unbreakable, dragging their owner toward an abyss. Like Marley's spectral dispatch to Scrooge, it is a warning about chains, how they can be broken or forged stronger. This one happens to be in four-four time.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that, when boosted with medication, can help ease depression. The Latin root of the chemical's name is sero, meaning to plant. It also means "at a late hour." Ages of the Serotones range from 40 (Nick) to 50 (Will), which has them in the late summer of their years, sliding toward the autumn of middle age. It also puts them in roughly the same baby-boom age bracket as many of their more prominent peers. But if there is one irrelevancy in music, it's age. Shove aside the jokes about erectile dysfunction, baldness, menopause and bladder-control. Nature can't inhibit the soul that has been immersed in the waters that create rhythm and melody. The gods themselves labor in vain to call back the gifts they have bestowed upon a cocky group of mortals. And when they finally shuffle off this vale of strip malls and Internet chat rooms, and all that remains is the work they left behind for us to enjoy forever, they continue to defy death.
The only problem right now, for the Sertones at least, is finding an audience of folks their age.
"There's a niche that's not being exploited," Alice said. "There are people our age who do want to go out and rock. You don't die after forty."
"Sometimes you feel like it the next morning," Fred added.
"I think the people we want to tap into," Charlie said, "are those people in their late thirties and early forties who don't identify with any of the other local music. If they want to rock, it's not gonna blow their ears out. We hope it's something they can identify with. Nick writes stuff that reminds me of things I heard growing up."
"There's a market for people our age who still want to rock," Nick said.
"Yeah," said Fred. "We're not ready for AARP yet."
Black Dog, songs for the late summer of your life, is available at ear X-tacy, Hawley-Cooke Booksellers, Sam Goody in Oxmoor and the Green Tree Mall, and online at Amazon.com and Orchard.com.
Will Cary has a two-song CD on which Nick Reifsteck plays guitar. The two songs were written for Nick's friend Ann Troutman, who was in a coma after she was involved in an auto accident. She has since recuperated. Proceeds from the CD's sale will go to the Crusade for Children.
Keep up with the Serotones online at http://home.att.net\~serotones\serotones.html. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to google.com. WebMD.com and Salon.com, for background.