If you'd asked me about spite incarnate 10 years ago, I would've told you about the Feldman brothers of New Rochelle, New York.
Two siblings in the family tuxedo business, they worked side by side for 15 years until someone got too passionate about cummerbunds or expanding the powder-blue inventory. Whatever went down, it compelled one brother to break off and start up his own business, also called Feldman Tuxedos, directly across the street from his brother. They never spoke to each other again, and anyone who rented a ruffled shirt from these rancorous old penguins was a pawn in their silent tuxedo war. It would be nice to report that people wanted to see the black and white world at peace again, but no one cared -- you just couldn't beat the savings. All you had to do was mention you'd been across the street and prices would be slashed, with a free pair of spats thrown in besides.
Here's another pair of spats, free of charge. Before they hated the spit out of each other, Andrew Lockwood and Shayne Caraway were like brothers, maybe more like brothers than even they realize. Best friends in high school 15 years ago, things slowly degenerated through living together, playing in an angry industrial band together, going into business together and sharing a mutual circle of friends. They'd perform at open-mikes together and discussed hosting one together. That was before taking the former roommate gripe "someone drank the last of the orange juice and left the empty container in the fridge" to its natural conclusion.
Two and a half years ago, embroiled in disputes over girlfriends and musical partnerships -- not always mutually exclusive interests -- the pair ceased all verbal contact. Like an admonishing report card, Caraway (a.k.a. Optimist) derides Lockwood, saying he "has increasingly shown a lack of respecting normal, appropriate boundaries with me, especially when it comes to girls. This lack of respect expanded into my professional prospects."
Chief among his accusations are the numerous times Lockwood has allegedly dipped his toes in the "Optimist talent pool" and squired away female singer-songwriters for Lockwood band projects.
Lockwood counters that "Shayne has odd ideas about ownership -- he thinks he owns people."
As spectators, no one has to respect any of these boundaries -- anyone can step inside the soap opera worlds of Caraway and Lockwood and see for him- or herself. Fourteen months ago, Lockwood began hosting a closed-mike night at the Emerald Lounge in Phoenix called Songwriters' Ball, held on the last Thursday of every month. Three months later, Optimist began hosting an open-mike night every Sunday at Hollywood Alley in Mesa as well as a closed-mike night called Acoustic Alley on the last Wednesday of every month (the next Acoustic Alley will be April 24, with Songwriters' Ball the following night). Here's some of the drama you may have already missed:
February 27, Acoustic Alley. By happenstance, Cockeyed Ghost's Adam Marsland winds up being the only artist ever to get booked for Acoustic Alley and Songwriters' Ball on consecutive nights. He writes in his tour diary: "I later found out the Optimist and Andrew are nemeses with dueling nights, so it's interesting that I played their shows back to back."
February 28, Songwriters' Ball. Marsland writes of this appearance: "I drew more people and the crowd more receptive to what I was doing," while adding that "Andrew's new band, Velveteen Dream, closed the night with some cool, dreamy pop that reminded me of the Church." He also gives a thumbs up to "Jim Miles' kickass set." Miles co-leads Lockwood's side project X-Offender and is his current roommate. As recently as last year, Miles roomed at Caraway's house and played with him in Jonny Bionic's Trailer Park Disaster as recently as January. Now would be a good time to start thinking about making flash cards.
March 10, Optimist's Open-Mike. Tonight's sign-up sheet has a strange but familiar name -- it's Sarah Meyer, one of the aforementioned singer-songwriters Optimist discovered and split with acrimoniously. For the past year, she has been in the band Velveteen Dream with Lockwood, also in attendance tonight. Although most people wouldn't attend an open-mike of someone whose guts they reputedly hate, gutsy Sarah insists she had a new song she was eager to play, and to hell with Optimist. (Sample lyric: "Still taste your lemonade/Feels a little bitter on my tongue.") Later, Optimist, who often tapes shows on minidisc, transcribes the lyrics and determines the song's about him because it mentions her age when they went out together. "It's tough to be in love with Optimist," he crows. "Sarah's a very confused girl. A brilliant mess." Meyer insists they never went out together and the song is about a friend named Laurie. Fans of songs about refreshing lemonade don't know what to think.
Also playing that night is Jonny Bionic, who used to play the Songwriters' Ball until Optimist started up the Acoustic Alley. "Jonny and I have an ongoing friendship, and he's part of the family of Songwriters' Ball," says Lockwood, who wants it known he's never discouraged any of his musician friends from going over to what he calls "the dark side." "But since Shayne has been playing in Jonny's band Trailer Park Disaster, Jonny's stopped coming around the Emerald." Caraway denies ever giving Bionic any ultimatums, but the subject of loyalty rears its parental head, and not for the first time. "If I'm gonna give someone like Jonny first dibs on a show, there needs to be some exclusivity," he demands.
Bionic's a psychotic mix of backwoods idiosyncrasy and schoolyard innocence, like a curious kid studying ants through a magnifying glass and wondering why they're all burning up. Tonight he's performing without the clothesline hanging across the stage. Optimist joins him on the high harmonies of a song called "Tidal Wave." A few months back, on the very last Songwriters' Ball Bionic played, Optimist provided the harmonies for this song from the audience.
"Optimist often puts in an appearance at the Emerald, usually to talk to someone briefly and hand out fliers for one of his shows," chuckles Lockwood, "but he stayed for over an hour that night and looked like he was having fun."
Optimist's opinion of the night out? "Mostly Andrew invites people who are his friends or people he knows on the scene. I don't see him seeking out new talent. He has veterans of bands who've been around for six years or longer. A lot of things he does, including that night, just strike me as being an ass kiss. I think he joins bands, lets people join his bands and puts together these nights with that as a big factor, like 'who can I ingratiate myself to?' And in a lot of ways, it's working out."
March 17, Optimist's Open-Mike: What once was working out, but is now backfiring, is Optimist's use of the closed-mike as a reward system for people who do good on the open-mike. "When people ask point blank, 'Can we play at the closed-mike?', I try to be as diplomatic and honest as possible. But I tell them you have to be one of the five or six best acts at open-mike. And you've got a ways to go." Optimist laughs and looks away for a moment. "It hurts their egos and they say, 'Fuck Optimist.' Well, I'm trying to do something with integrity or good entertainment value. I try not to be brutal unless they're close to me and they want that. Not a lot of people want that. But I want that."
From the stage, Optimist voices disappointment that some people who've played Acoustic Alley now think they're too good to play the Sunday nights. The exceptions tonight are Mike Montoya from Fatigo; Until August, a pop band playing acoustic versions of songs they'll play electric at the next Acoustic Alley; and Lonna, an attractive long-haired lass with glasses who gets the usual Lisa Loeb comparisons from barflies, except her songs are generally better and less self-consciously precious. She opens with an arresting song called "Dead Dog" and follows it with the faux gospel of "Jesus Has His Eye on You" and "Satan Song," a joke song that everyone calls out for, much to her annoyance. (Sample lyric: "I have rejected Satan from my life/Some girls get so anxious and look for dangerous love, hiking up their skirts and kissing with their tongue.")
Tonight's lax time restraints mean a selection of intense songs from Optimist himself. He has what they used to call in the biz a "legit" voice, in that he enunciates in a clear manner that is more befitting of a Broadway musical than a rock song, but that's okay, since Optimist never rocks. His repertoire consists of sensitive keyboard ballads with the word "fuck" casually interjected somewhere. Tonight he performs a new original called "Pigs."
One wonders what happens when people who come expecting a benevolent, smiley faced host get this grimly severe guy singing "clean me up, market me brains and feet" and bemoaning the "diamond in the rough" that breaks this little piggy's heart of glass. Bluntly, a song like "(I Will Make You) Black and Blue" doesn't sound very "optimistic."
"Well," says Optimist, laughing, "people who take songs like 'Black and Blue' literally shouldn't be allowed near metaphors." You may have seen Caraway's industrial band called Figurehead (which Lockwood once played in for five years) or his portrayal of Decepto, the archvillain of Les Payne Product -- the first time the presence of a villain improved a live show since Kiss Meet the Phantom of the Park. In comparison to Decepto and Figurehead, Optimist seems like a guy who sat through a hot summer of anger-management courses.
"The general consensus when you meet me is that I'm a villain anyway," he says, nodding. "People are predisposed to think I'm an ass. You're either won over by my sincerity and my professionalism or you're not." When asked the main difference between the two closed-mikes, Jonny Bionic notes, "Shayne always wears a suit jacket."
March 27, Acoustic Alley: Major drama ensues tonight. As if a closed-mike performer asking Optimist "how much do we get paid" isn't bad enough, Lonna's ex-boyfriend and current music collaborator Mike is in the audience heckling Optimist. "This guy has hated me for four years," Optimist stresses. "I discovered this diamond out from under him and he never took Lonna's music seriously before that. When I did a show at the Mason Jar last week, he was making pretend monitor feedback noises while I was trying to get levels for Lonna. But, hey, I even put him on Lonna's guest list tonight. Then he yells shit out while I'm trying to introduce her like, 'You suck. Jewel is better than you are.'" Caraway waits until Lonna's set is over before slamming his hands down on their table and telling Mike he's banned from future Optimist Presents shows. Lonna calls Optimist "a fucking asshole" in the parking lot and he responds by telling her she's no longer welcome, either.
"Shayne has a thing about loyalty which is really weird, 'cause in a musical community it doesn't really work that way," says Lonna the next night. "Andrew once came up to me after a show and told me I did a good job and all of a sudden Shayne dropped me from a show he'd asked me to do. It took me a while to get it out of him and he said it was because I didn't have the loyalty for him. But there's a fine line between loyalty and wanting complete control over everything I say and everyone I talk to."
March 28, Songwriters' Ball: No surprise, Lonna turns up here with Mike to talk to Andrew about performing the following month. Now that the Trailer Park Disaster is defunct, Jonny Bionic is back on the Ball again. Since Optimist has portrayed Lockwood as a major backstabber, the Songwriters' Ball seems to be everyone's logical first stop on the Optimist deprogramming tour. Lockwood knows everything they're going to say, and his previous episode of losing himself in the Optimist way of doing things is eerily replaying itself with Lonna and Jonny, Optimist's two most championed discoveries. "It's a predictable pattern. People get fed up and walk away," says Lockwood.
In this study of contrasts, Lockwood comes off less colorful but more comfortable, like Casual Friday at the office. He adjusts the sound during the performer's first number and stage manages without a dress jacket and sometimes with a drink in his hand. Granted, it's a far cry from Optimist's professionalism, but that wouldn't befit the relaxed living-room vibe Lockwood wants the Emerald shows to have. Generally, acts intermingle and play with one another more readily at the Songwriters' Ball. Most are already playing in bands so there's more a sense of community than competition. "I didn't have a battle plan behind Songwriters' Ball except booking artists I wanted to hear like Chris Doyle from Big Blue Couch, Jocelyn Fox of Rain Rose Alchemy and Shelby James of Truckers on Speed. And a rarity like Brian Smith of the Beat Angels playing an acoustic gig," says Lockwood. "I wanted to steer clear of open-mikes. Even if you build a good one, anyone can sign up and clear the room."
It's curious that Lockwood, lead singer of several well-respected, now-defunct Valley pop outfits like The Lemmings and Danny, has subsequently formed three bands in which he has chosen a secondary role playing keyboardist and arranger for female singer-songwriters. Although his side project with Jim Miles called X-Offender features some of his own songs, he's quick to emphasize that Velveteen Dream is "clearly the best band I've ever been in, and the songs are all Sarah's."
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"Velveteen Dream are recording with Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket at the moment," he says, "and I'm also working on a collection of my own songs from as far back as 1988, just to clear the deck." One wonders if his Pygmalion desire to form female-fronted bands has tapped him for new songwriting ideas. Many of his Ball performances are of songs he's squirreled away from previous bands, like "Me on Your Drugs," which are quite good and deserve more exposure than filler in between other acts.
Epilogue: With more bands than he can shake a stick at, Lockwood can hardly be expected to form another one, so his patronage of Lonna and Jonny at the Songwriters' Ball has no other bearings beyond "ass kissing." And true to his chosen name, Caraway is still optimistic about the open-mikes, and the bands he continues to champion, like Briefcase, Fatigo, Until August, and Sweet Bleeders. He's also content to cheerlead Lonna's songwriting ability from a distance, although he doesn't sound hopeful now that she's collaborating with an ex-boyfriend who didn't support her efforts in the first place. "Once you're in a band, you settle for other people's ideas," he says. He's less sure about his relationship with Bionic. "Jonny can do what he likes, but he can't expect preferential treatment from me anymore," he says.
"All one can hope for," says Optimist, "is a little gratitude. I believe that sometimes all someone needs is for just one person to believe in them. For Lonna and Jonny B, that person was me. For quite a while. So why do I want to do all this work, not make any money and be harassed and abused on top of that? 'Cause artists can be demanding and weird and you have to baby-sit."
It's just like Optimist's song "Pigs." Sample lyric: "Sing song bird, just pass by/Leave me out of reach like passing sky/Well you know what they say how we can't fly/Fuck you all, this pig had to try and try."