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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Local Cover Bands

“Brown Eyed Girl.” “Margaritaville.” “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

If those songs make you cringe, this is the article for you. If they make you think, “Man, I love those classics,” may I suggest scrolling over to HiT’s latest column on the lack of trans-conservative representation in “Birds of Prey.”

Consider yourself warned.

It’s Friday night. You and the gang are meeting at that place you like, the one with the really good wings (and the craft-y beer for the douche in your crew).

You exchange high five’s, head inside to your favorite booth and there they are, in the corner they’ve occupied every Friday since the late ’90s. They have names like Johnny’s Uncle Steve, The 9th Avenue Boys or Acoustic Mayhem (that’s mine).

And they’re halfway through that song you’ve loved since high school, the one you’ve heard a million times but never get tired of. It’s about the girl or the guy who fell in love with the guy or the girl and lost said girl or guy and now pines over three power chords (or several jaunty ones if the song is from the ’80s).

You give the band (1-3 pieces; some combination of vocals, guitar and light percussion) a thumbs-up. They smile, return your thumb and move to the next song, the other one you’ve heard a million times, and the cycle continues.

What you probably don’t know is that every time Uncle Johnny’s 9th Avenue Mayhem plays that song, they die inside, just a little, not so’s you’d notice, just one more of the 10,000 cuts.

Because if you’ve heard it a million times, the band has played it three million. And they hate you for it.

Hello. My name is Terry. And I’m a singer in a cover band.

Phase 1: Beginnings

One simply isn’t born the finest cover vocalist in southern New Jersey (the world?). It was a slow progression. A metamorphosis, if you will.

Every singer goes through the phases, in much the same way other things go through phases. Like the moon, for an example, and caterpillars! They have phases, too. And like these Moon Caterpillars, the first phase in becoming south Jersey’s finest cover vocalist comes at the larval stage.

For me, it was somewhere around 1975, the baby of six, during the Jurassic Age before the Internet or MTV. My father and brothers kept the house full of music (my useless sister listened exclusively to “Grease” and Shaun Cassidy records).

For Dad it was “West Side Story,” Neil Diamond’s “Hot August Nights,” which I can still hear scratching through the living room, and a collection of TV and movie theme songs by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra on gold-colored vinyl.

As a superhero obsessed 5-year-old I played the “Batman Theme” so often that Adam West’s ears must have burned all that summer. From my brothers it was a steady diet of Beatles and Beach Boys, from whence I honed my ability to pluck a harmony out of thin air, and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which first terrified me (think of being 5 and hearing that portentous, dissonant overture) then thrilled me, while also teaching me how to use my vibrato.

(FYI; Murray Head’s “Heaven on Their Minds” is one of the greatest vocal recordings ever captured. You could argue, but you’d be wrong.)

Phase 2: Honing

Mine was a musical family, and every Christmas or Easter when the guitars came out, I was assigned the Brian Wilson parts because Wilson is easy to sing when you’re 10.

What you don’t realize at 10 is that every time you sing you’re developing your own musical core; Superstar, Beatles and Beach Boys is a fine core. To me, it was natural to try and emulate these distinct voices.

While no Rich Little (boy, I’m really dating myself here…) I became something of a gifted mimic, able to reasonably approximate Jesus, Judas, all four Beatles, a few Beach Boys and all the Monty Pythons. (My God the ’70s were great. And RIP Terry Jones, your effect on my childhood is felt in the annoyance of many to this day.)

In teenhood, my ear developed its own taste (sorry if that reads sci-fi). My ’60s-’70s foundation would remain the same (and, more importantly, most importantly, in fact, helped me avoid the road to Hell that is paved with Classic Rock).

I found myself intrigued by new voices; Steely Dan, Prince, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, The Cure, REM and all that great first wave of American alternative.

(Find a finer song than Aimee Mann’s “That’s Just What You Are” if you can, but you can’t. Bonus Cool Points: Squeeze’s Difford & Tilbrook sing the harmonies.)

I’ve often pondered what constitutes the molten core of my musical soul; turns out I’m just a sucker for a great 3-minute pop song, be it Beatles, Prince or Miley Cyrus.

Phase 3: Aha!

Not every artist remembers precisely when they discovered their muse. For me, it was a fateful day in the spring of 1985, freshman year of high school.

My friend Chris gave a history report on the first American soldier to die in Vietnam. As a coda, he played Billy Joel’s “Goodnight, Saigon” and I was transfixed. I’d been aware of Joel’s music most of my life as his early hits dominated the airwaves. I think I even had a T-shirt. But I was never what you would call a fan.

Until “Goodnight, Saigon.”

Billy Joel - Goodnight Saigon (Official Video)

Weekdays after school I worked in my mom’s newspaper store (lunch counter, lottery, dirty magazines), which sat two doors down from the record store. At the staggering sum of $3.35/hr. (and using whatever I didn’t plink into the Gyrus machine) I began to accrue Joel’s back catalog.

I started with the unfortunate “Cold Spring Harbor,” which I later learned was famous in musical circles for being remixed at 33 ⅔ RPMs, not the standard 33⅓, rendering Joel’s youthful vibrato into something that would not have been out of place on a Chipmunk’s album.

Every night I lay in bed, envisioning myself as the man behind the piano on “Travelin’ Prayer,” “Billy The Kid” and “Pressure.” That fantasy grew more intense with “Song in the Attic,” Joel’s live apology for “Cold Spring Harbor.”

I could practically smell the roaring crowd.

This was before I learned that just about the only thing live on a “live” album was the crowd noise. But a kid doesn’t care.

You’d think a newly obsessive Joel fan would have taken piano lessons. I did not. You’d think that an aspiring vocalist weaned on interweaving harmonies would emulate a more accomplished singer. I did not.

I thought Joel was great. Not Freddie Mercury, but who else was Freddie Mercury? Maybe if Chris had played a Queen song that day I would have latched on to them, though, to my recollection, Queen wrote no Vietnam songs.

Joel was my guy, for better or worse, and I misspent the next 10 years of my youth as his staunchest defender: Yes, “Piano Man” is schmaltzy. Sure, “An Innocent Man” is derivative. But have you ever heard “Sleeping with the Television On?” “Get It Right the First Time?” There’s gold in them thar hills!

I referred to Joel as “the American Paul McCartney,” another artist derided for not being serious enough or, worse, being fake serious, but whose music also defies pigeon-holing. Joel and McCartney’s music are, to turn an overused phrase, timeless.

By the time “Storm Front” was released in 1990, I knew every word to every Joel song and could recite them on command, even “We didn’t Start the Fire.” I had also learned to emulate his vocal mannerisms. Again, maybe not the best singer to base your sound on, but by this time the die had been cast.

I was the Billy Joel guy. Now and forever. To the annoyance of many.

My vocal tool belt now bulged with reasonable facsimiles of not only Joel, Beatles and Beach Boys, but Donald Fagen, Michael Stipe, Robert Smith, Prince and a dozen others. It was then I knew…

Phase 4: I’m Gonna Be a Singer!

What does all of this have to do with your local cover band, you might ask. I’m getting there.

I got into college on the back of strong SAT scores despite a ghastly high school GPA. Two things of note happened during my (very brief) college career; I pledged Delta Chi, thus ensuring my college stay would be very brief, and I met BQ.

BQ (Brendan Quinn) and I went to rival high schools in the Philly suburbs, but did not meet until college in the Pittsburgh suburbs. We became fast friends (still are). but BQ’s best friend was Bob Troutman, and Bob Troutman played guitar, and I, after one college poetry class, was America’s greatest living lyricist.

So we formed a band and began drinking, smoking, shrooming, writing, playing, recording and… it was really pretty good.

We eventually knocked off (most of) the drinking, smoking, etc.and focused on the songwriting, which began to find itself, my pop ear candy meshing with alternative cellar dwelling.

An uneasy alliance. Think Glenn Tilbrook singing REM, or Billy Joel singing Smiths. It was odd, it was tense, and it worked.

The band (DPR for Dread Pirate Roberts) played parties for beer and weed. Sometimes we’d even make $50 if we remembered our tip jar. We were good and getting better. We added a second guitar, Bob got exploratory on his Rickenbacker 12-string and mandolin, Ginny Bivens came on as co-lead vocalist.

In the era of B-52s, 10,000 Maniacs and Indigo Girls, my songwriting grew exponentially better as I now wrote from two points of view, crafting two melody lines for each song as opposed to standard melody-harmony.

Bob would sometimes chime in as a 3rd perspective. Then he would chime in more often. Then he asked me to write melodies for him and Ginny. Then he and Ginny fell in love and that was that. DPR died, Yoko’ed before our time.

I’d be super mad about it, too, if Bob and Ginny weren’t still together some 30 years later. Who could be mad at that?

Phase 5: I Guess I’ll Do Something Else

I flunked out of college and fried out of a couple of dead end jobs, drifting. However, I’d been “the theater guy” in high school, there were a couple of theaters in the area, so why not audition? What’s the worst that could happen?

Now, my theater tale is one of wonder and woe, and infinitely more interesting than my life as a singer and perhaps we’ll share it one day, but for now it serves the purpose of delivering me from Pike Creek, DE to Cape May, NJ, where my life truly began (and continues).

May 22nd, 1993, I walked off stage after an 11-week run of “West Side Story” at Three Little Bakers. May 23rd, 1993, I moved into my crappy little apartment in Cape May and began my career at the local dinner theater.

That night, we were shown around the town by the director and ventured into The Ugly Mug, a famous local bar, where a band was playing. Southwind, they were called. Two guys on bass and guitar, a woman on acoustic and lead vocals, an Ensoniq keyboard playing drum sequences and man were they good.

It happened to be Sing Along With the Band Night, a sort-of proto-karaoke, so I checked their list and was delighted to find “Tempted” by Squeeze. Despite blowing a lyric in the second verse, I did okay and won 3rd prize. I also discovered singing in front of a large audience and was hooked.

The Ugly Mug became my second home. (I’ll leave out the part about how destructive this was to my relationships and how it fed a burgeoning alcohol problem because that’s too depressing.) One song a night became two, two became three, three became six and two years later I got the call.

“Rose is leaving, would you like to be our new lead singer?”

Phase 6: Opportunity Knocks

Yes.

Despite sitting in with the band on probably 20 songs a week, the thought being a singer in a band, their band, never really occurred to me. But here I was. I had also, by virtue of attrition, risen to the rank of Director at the dinner theater.

This meant page-to-stage mounting of six new shows a year, along with memorizing (no cheat sheets, no iPads) three songs a week for Southwind. I was probably certifiably mentally ill for most of this time (five years) but it was worth it. I was a rock star!

This was my time! My chance to mold Southwind, a band in its second decade, in my image! Out would go all the stodgy top 40 standards, in would go all the cool shit, the Deep Cuts, the stuff they only played on WXPN!

Except… that never really happened.

The first song I sang at my first official gig was “Interstate Love Song” by Stone Temple Pilots. A fine song, but about as edgy as we would get in 1995.

Stone Temple Pilots - Interstate Love Song (Official HD Music Video)

At about 10 years younger than the rest of the guys, I was able to persuade them to learn some Alternative Classics (Violent Femmes, Smithereens), otherwise we remained on the middlest of roads.

“Guys,” I would complain. “Why do we play the same songs over and over?”

Their answer? “Because that’s what people want to hear.”

I didn’t believe it. I’m a people and I didn’t want to hear seven Jimmy Buffet songs a night. I was assured I was just being young and impetuous. Which I was, but I didn’t want anybody telling me that! And it didn’t change the fact that our play list was boring as hell.

Fortunately, the summer of ’95 brought a change of venue, a new bar with young owners who insisted we modernize our playlist. And while we never delved too deeply into the alternative vault, 1995 brought great music from new bands like Counting Crows, Green Day and Blues Traveller (we played “Runaround”, minimum, 4 times a night).

Running between the theater and the band I dropped about 20 lbs. so I was looking pretty good, still had most of a head of hair and wasn’t afraid to be a little coy with my sexuality, lacing up tight black pirate pants from International Male and donning a do-rag and tight t-shirts with the sleeves cut off.

Women dug me (though myth of singers getting all the chicks was a tad overstated. A tad), men seemed to like me okay (I was not as intimidating a sexual competitor as, say, Jon Bon Jovi or David Lee Roth) and we all had great fun playing music that was new and interesting.

It was, in short, the best summer of my life. Maybe of anyone’s life. Lead actor and director of a successful dinner theater, lead singer of a very successful rock band. It could not get any better.

And it didn’t.

Phase 7: The 7th Phase

That new bar only lasted one season (in beach towns you count not in years, but seasons). Our next venue was fine, but did not challenge us. And when the drummer and keyboard player up and left our playlist shrank to about 60 songs.

My song suggestions were largely ignored and we fell back into a relentless cycle of Buffett and Van Morrison. I began working with one eye on the clock.

Though I knew it was over, I stayed for three more years anyway. The final straw? Instead of replacing the departed players, we were all going to learn some guitar and keyboard. This was fine for the other members, who grew up playing guitar and keyboard. It was something else entirely for me, learning two instruments from scratch.

When I inquired how much more money I’d be making for this tripling of my workload, the answer was, “None.”

Buh-bye.

I was 29. Ancient. Soon after, I also left the theater (though I returned twice because I’m a glutton for punishment). Did I use this opportunity for self-improvement? Go back to school, get a worthwhile degree?

I did not.

Instead, I started a new band with my brother Mike. And we swore The O’Brien Bros. Band would never play a song that didn’t interest us. Let the chips fall where they may. We were going to play only music we loved.

If the audience liked us, the gigs would come. If not, at least we kept our integrity (or as much integrity as a cover band can have). We played “Solsbury Hill” before it became ubiquitous, “7” by Prince, “TIl It Shines” by Bob Seger, “Begin the Begin” by R.E.M., “Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan, “Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother Where Art Thou and on and on.

Our goal; for at least one person a night to think to themselves, “Man, I love this song… nobody ever plays it!”

We weren’t sure what the reaction would be to a live band playing what amounted to a bunch of B-sides and obscurities, but people loved us. Why? Because weren’t playing “Margaritaville,” “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

We even worked in one of Mike’s original songs, “Calling Down the Lightning.” After a few plays people began singing along with us, which must have been really cool for my brother.

The O’Brien Bros. Band lasted three years and is, to this day, the most fun I’ve had as a singer.
As important, I had proven my point; your average bar full of summer beach vacationers do not have to be pandered to. You can challenge them a little. They won’t be mad.

They may even thank you for it.

Phase 8: I Just Want to Work.

What does all of this have to do with appreciating your local cover band?

Not a whole lot, I suppose. Maybe it’s just an understanding none of us start out with the ambition to play the same 40 songs every night. It happens in a slow drip over a lot of years, like the Grand Canyon but less grand.

Twenty six years into my career as a professional singer I’ve learned a few things.

Mainly, that Tim (my former Southwind bandmate and current acoustic partner) was right all those years ago; we play the same songs because they’re the ones that people want to hear. And if you’re not one of those people, instead of booing or heckling, maybe buy them a beer or toss a buck in the tip jar.

Though we may never understand what can be gleaned by a billionth request for “Don’t Stop Believin,’” others don’t understand my Scientologist-like proselytizing of Squeeze.

In short, I suppose there’s a certain comfort to be had in knowing that you can walk into any bar in America on a Friday night and know that all 50,000 (give or take) working bands can play “Brown Eyed Girl” for you. Even if they hate you for it.

You get 50 songs a night. We all play the same 30. It’s what you do with the other 20 that set you apart.

Now, let me tell you about my 16 years as a karaoke host…


Terry O’Brien, a resident of Cape May, NJ, has fronted, Southwind, The O’Brien Bros. Band, Love Me Dudes (a Beatles tribute), The Strangers (a Billy Joel tribute) The Terry O’Brien Band (Beatles, Billy, Bruce and Prince), and Acoustic Mayhem. He’s currently the singing half of O’Brien & Joyce.

His column, The Undertow, has appeared in Exit Zero magazine since 2003. He’s managed a haunted house (Ghost Ship, 2009-2014) and been a karaoke host (Terry O’ke, 2005-2019). His book, “Murder-Oke & Other Spooky Cape May Tales,” has sold 3,000 copies over 12 years and is available somewhere on the Internet for $.02.

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