Don’t Call It a Comeback

Five years ago, I started work on one of those rock-magazine perennial “Where Are They Now?” features. This version was going to focus on musicians from the ’90s, so a moderate amount of diplomacy was needed, given that the musicians in question might think of themselves as vital artists on the verge of a major comeback. The euphemism I settled on was “career update.” I don’t think it fooled anybody–“This is a ‘Where Are They Now?” article, isn’t it?’ demanded Soul Asylum’s manager–but the politeness seemed to be appreciated.

At any rate, the higher-ups changed their mind about the feature before I really got rolling–but after I had finished three of the “career updates.” The Natalie Merchant one was rather dull, so I’ll let that remain on my hard disk, but I think you might enjoy the other two. The reporting’s current circa 2004, but not much has changed with these acts since then. First up: a once-omnipresent jam band.

By Gavin Edwards

“In the midst of a lot of grunge, some great music that was kind of nihilistic, we had a message of hope.” Chris Barron, lead singer of the Spin Doctors, is reflecting on 1991, when the New York music scene improbably became the home of hippie jam bands like Blues Traveler, and his group became the biggest of them all. Their live shows featured lots of improvisation, but what sold records were a pair of catchy singles, “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” which the group used to call their “white-bread hits.” They sold a lot of Wonder Bread: their debut, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, went quintuple-platinum. “I got sick of seeing myself on TV,” says drummer Aaron Comess.

They recorded a less-successful followup, Turn It Upside Down; guitarist Eric Schenkman left the band on Labor Day 1994, soon after its release. He says, “We made too much money–the whole thing was fucked. When I left, I figured they’d call me back one day, but they never did.” Schenkman moved up to Canada, where he worked on music for commercials, including ads for Budweiser and Sprite.

Bassist Mark White quit the same year, and started obsessively bicycling around the perimeter of Central Park. “I felt like I was on another planet,” he says. “I was doing anywhere from 30 to 60 miles a day, pumping away every day for three years, in temperatures from zero to 105. I was just obsessed–I was riding like a crazy person.” Three years ago, he moved down to Houston, and at age 37, finally got his driver’s license.

Meanwhile, Barron and Comess stayed in New York, continuing with the Spin Doctors and various side projects. Barron’s beard grew to Rip Van Winkle proportions–‚ÄúPeople comment a lot on that Grizzly Adams look,” he says, “but we were touring so much, I didn’t have it together to get a haircut and a shave.” The band’s sales dwindled to nothing on 96’s You’ve Got to Believe in Something and 99’s Here Comes the Bride, but they had salted away a good chunk of money from the glory days. “I bought a nice apartment,” Barron says. “And I bought a BMW for tooling around, but it just wasn’t me. I started freaking out all the time and worrying about where I had parked it. People were saying, ‘Who are you and what have you done with Chris?'” He sold the Beemer, buying an antique 1942 Ford station wagon instead.

In 1999, Barron thought his career was over–and not just because of low sales. His right vocal cord became spontaneously paralyzed, and he lost his voice. “It’s a really rare freakish thing that happens to one in sixteen million people,” Barron says. “It forced me to do a lot of serious soul-searching. I had been a singer my whole life, and now I had to think: What am I gonna do? Who am I gonna be? I came up with nothing. I could pick up mule-skinning or flower-arranging.” After whispering for seven months, he regained his voice.

The Spin Doctors had played dozens of shows at Wetlands, the New York club, so when it closed in 2001, they reunited the original lineup for a farewell show. They found the original chemistry was still there, so they started writing new songs and playing together, and found that they were enjoying themselves again. Their manager is considering record deals and pointing out that the group is only a few years older than the guys in Maroon 5. And Barron has grown a beard again. “But it’s under control,” he promises.

(They ultimately released another album in 2005, Nice Talking to Me, and apparently still gig.)

posted 20 July 2009 in Articles, Unpublished and tagged , . 4 comments

4 Comments on Don’t Call It a Comeback

  1. Chris M. Says:

    The Natalie Merchant one was rather dull

    The joke there writes itself.

    (I do love vintage 10K Maniacs, but oy did she become boring after 1996 or so.)

  2. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    I realize this hasn’t been through any sort of formal fact-checking process, but I believe “Pocket Full of Kryptonite” was the second Spin Doctors album. Their first was a live album, “Homebelly Groove.”

  3. Gavin Says:

    You are the fact-checking process, Tom!

  4. Gavin Says:

    And I would say that solo Natalie M. was so boring as to make anyone who ever enjoyed 10,000 Maniacs, even a little, reconsider.

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