I first met Johnson - who is still serving behind the drum kit today in 2013 with Blues Hippy & The Soul Underground, Willie's current band, and who might hold the record for the most years and most gigs played with Phoenix - at a gig at a Lum's Restaurant across the street from the OSU Mershon Auditorium on a snowy night in 1983. As I recall we hit it off right away. He hailed from Youngstown, Ohio, giving him a solid grounding in working-class Attitude, and he understood what constituted rock & roll and what didn't. (One of my most-repeated quotes of the 30 years since that night has been, "Jim's musical interests run the gamut from The Rolling Stones to The Rolling Stones." I think people sometimes misinterpret that phrase as a put-down. I mean it in absolutely the most positive way.) We somehow wound up talking that night about Willie Nile, a songwriter I loved who most people were barely of. Jim admired Nile's rocker attitude crossed with a lyrical poetry bent. I subsequently found Jim to be that rarest of rock & roll drummers: somebody who actually listens to the lyrics and serves the song, instead of just simply driving the beat. The friendship born that night stands strong to this day.
The biggest change from Big Band to Shadowlords was that Willie had started playing lead guitar in the interim. And Jesus, what a lead guitar player he had become. He was a great, quirky, idiosyncratic soloist. Willie's solos never started or ended anyway near where you expected them to. (Later, in 1990's True Soul Rockers, when Willie was paired with Mike Parks - who essayed an absolutely slashing, rock-solid (no pun intended) style of lead guitar - Willie found the second lead guitar foil he had always needed. Willie & Mike playing together was like having Richard Thompson & Duane Allman playing in the same band, but they somehow pulled it off.)
That lead guitar playing persona, however, proved to be both a blessing and a curse for Willie. The band got exponentially more popular (rockers in the Midwest LOVE guitar heroes) and Willie's performances - playing behind his back, launching forays into the audience to play from atop bar patrons' tables, walking out onto High Street sidewalks with an extra-long guitar cord to play solos to incredulous passersby - started to take on Legend Status, but it all took a toll on Willie's songwriting prowess. Where once we were gifted with melodic gems sporting pretty cool if somewhat vague lyrics, a certain percentage of The Shadowlords repertoire consisted of good-but-not-great compositions that served as a mere jumping-off point for Willie's extended guitar solos. (I remember one night when Greg Glasgow told me in a desultory tone that nowadays the band only rehearsed the beginnings and endings of the songs and just slogged through the middles waiting for Willie to finish soloing.)
At some point I took over roadie duties from Rod Cline. George Golding took over from me. Then I came back. Then George came back. Willie would burn us out every six months or so. It was very Tale Of Two Cities: Willie was the best of bosses, Willie was the worst of bosses. Jan Bungart was there every inch of the way, God bless her little heart. She was the band manager, associate producer on both Shadowlords albums - 1983's We Love Noise and 85's Not A Butterfly - and essentially held the entire operation together with spit & baling wire and sheer force of will.
Guitarist Steve Donnellon replaced Tom McClelland sometime in 1984. Donnellon was a much stronger player than McClelland but somehow it seemed like the band lost a little bit of innocence when Tom left. As a rock unit, however, Steve was a solid addition. The main problem with the two Shadowlords albums - much like the A&M release before them - was one of inferior material. "Why should I waste my best originals on these little indie records that nobody's ever gonna hear?" Willie told me between sets one night, "I'm holding out my best songs for my next major label deal." Nobody, and I mean nobody, could get across to Willie that by the mid-80's the major labels were all using indie labels like Major League Baseball used farm teams. Until The New York Yankees saw a player on the Columbus Jets produce big-time on the Triple-A level, they weren't getting their shot at The Big Show. Until Columbia or Arista - or even RCA or Mercury - would even consider signing a new act, they were going to have to see them shift 50,000 units on their own on an indie before they'd even bother to send an A&R guy to check out the band. The major labels wanted somebody else to do all the legwork, to lay all the groundwork, so they could simply waltz in and skim off the profits from other people's hard labor. Times had changed in the music business and Willie wasn't changing with them. I have a cassette full of tunes better than the ones recorded on the Shadowlords albums, and I don't even have the A-material.
As stated above, The Shadowlords were widely popular in Columbus, could pretty much pack local clubs at will, were the undisputed Kings Of Comfest - a popular summer hippie-fest that survives to this day in Goodale Park - regularly holding down the Saturday night closing slot. And that's about the way it stayed for the band's almost 5-year existence. It never really got bigger, it never really got smaller, and the local tastemakers & hip intelligentsia (if there was or is such a thing in Columbus) came to view them as a talented band sadly going nowhere. Finally in 1988, right after another Comfest headlining show, Willie broke up the band.
Willie's next project was The Flower Machine, a full-blown High Concept Band that attempted to evoke a full-on recreation of 1960's Psychedelia. Joining Willie in the power-trio format were old Marion buddies Jim "Kozmos" Cummings and Jerry Hanahan, formerly of The Buttons and The Big Band, back on drums. To me, the biggest casualty of The Flower Machine period was bassist Greg Glasgow. In retrospect, Greg was the heart & soul of Willie's bands. He was the Quality Control Master. It was Glasgow that grounded Willie from his worst excesses, if The Flower Machine is any gauge. He was the last musician to call "bullshit" on questionable Willie tunes and questionable Willie moves. And when Greg left The Shadowlords he left music entirely, became a paralegal and never looked back. To this day I consider the absence of Greg Glasgow as a huge loss to the Columbus music scene. He was a great bass player and a great singer, and an even better person. I miss seeing his face on a stage.
The Flower Machine set up shop at a Fourth Street bar called Ruby Tuesday's (no relation to the family casual-dining restaurant chain) and remained popular through sometime in 1989. I kept waiting (and wishing) for them to get better, but they never did.
One Friday night, late in The Flower Machine's existence, I attended one of their Ruby's shows with Glasgow. About halfway through their first set Greg's assessment was "Oh, this is just awful." as Willie reeled off solo after solo in hippie garb & headband and Koz - attired in what would become his trademark top hat and preacher's frock coat - attempted to find the beat woozily laid down by Hanahan. Greg bailed after the first of three sets, flatly refusing my request to confront Willie in a kind of Rock & Roll Intervention and get him to break up the band. "You want to tell Willie Phoenix to his face that his band sucks?" Greg said, shaking his head at my presumption. "You go right ahead, Ricki, do what you have to do, but leave me out of it. I've been friends with the guy for a long time and personally I want him to talk to me again sometime in the future."
After the second set, as I attempted to get Willie away from a group of admirers & well-wishers (no matter how bad Willie's bands were, they ALWAYS attracted hangers-on) to deliver my "Your band is highly deficient and you need to move on." speech, Willie spotted me, grabbed my arm and said in his usual rapid-fire patter, "Ricki, you got your car here? You got a cassette player? You need to hear this tape, NOW!" Fearing the worst, and steeling myself to harsh Willie's Flower Machine groove, we went out to my car and Willie cued up a cassette. Out of my car speakers burst "Electric Folk-Dreamin' Man" and "I Wanna Feel What We Used To" - absolutely the two best songs I had heard from Willie since the Romantic Noise or Buttons days.
I couldn't believe my ears. Those two and at least three others on the tape were short, alternately punchy or gorgeously heartfelt new tunes that couldn't have been further afield from the hippiefied indulgences of The Flower Machine. Before I could even begin my Flower Machine diatribe, Willie informed me this was that band's last show and he was forming a new band that could play the new songs he'd been writing. And just like that, just that easily, just that simply, The True Soul Rockers were born.
The Shadowlords, 1985
Left to right; Jim Johnson, Steve Donnellon, Willie Phoenix, Greg Glasgow
(coming up in the fourth and final installment of The Ballad of Willie Phoenix,
The True Soul Rockers & beyond, 1990-2013.)
© 2013 Ricki C.