Dusky Songbird: A Tribute to Maggie Roche

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Maggie Roche died last year. I only recently learned this sad news.  (Blame our relentless media avalanche, or my own hibernation inclinations). She and the music of The Roches have been continually rolling across my mind lately. If any artist deserves a profile on longitudes, Maggie Roche does.

For those who don’t know them, the Roches were an Irish-American trio of sisters, most popular in the late 1970s and ‘80s, famous for their intricate folk harmonies and quirky lyrics (and clothes). The Roches are treasured by a small cult of passionate, and distinctly older, fans. In other words, their music was far too clever and sophisticated to ever get past the left end of the FM dial.

I love all three sisters, who each contributed something special. But Maggie… the eldest and linchpin of the trio… was my favorite. Her songs were intriguing, with one foot in sunlight and the other in partial shadow. She had a touch of dusky Irish mystery, and I loved her strange alto/contralto vocals, aptly described by one writer as a young girl trying to imitate the voice of her father.

Here’s my paltry, belated tribute to this amazingly talented and very introverted artist.

♫ ♫ ♫

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Suzzy, Terre, Maggie Roche

Margaret A. Roche was born October 26, 1951 in Detroit, Michigan, and raised in the leafy, conservative burg of Park Ridge, New Jersey to artistically inclined parents John (Jack) and Jude Roche. She first sang in Roman Catholic church choirs, sometimes with her two younger sisters, Terre (pronounced “Terry”) and Suzzy (rhymes with “fuzzy”). She started writing songs in 1964, after receiving a guitar for her birthday.

As they got older, the Roches supplemented their choir singing with annual Christmas caroling, sometimes venturing across the Hudson River to Greenwich Village. At their father’s prompting, they crisscrossed New Jersey to sing from the backs of trucks in support of Democratic candidates (their first large public appearance may have been in 1978, at a rally for Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, where they were introduced by comedian Chevy Chase).

Maggie briefly attended tiny Bard College in the Hudson Valley (I think it was just after Chase and Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen), but she dropped out to form a duo with Terre. In 1972, after a songwriting class at NYU with Paul Simon, they assisted on one song on Simon’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973). This led to an album with Columbia, Seductive Reasoning (1975). Few people know about this album, and even less bought it when released. But it contains early stirrings of genius by Maggie. Her closing song, “Jill of All Trades,” fits snugly alongside the best, then-in-vogue confessionals of singers like Laura Nyro, Carly Simon, and Judee Sill.

Irene Young

“All of you will buy a ticket, just to see my face again” (photo Irene Young)

Supposedly, Columbia hoped the duo would provide some sex appeal for its label. Instead, reflecting Maggie’s inclination toward modesty, Maggie and Terre deliberately dressed plain for the sleeve photo, with no makeup or jewelry.

Youngest sister Suzzy made it a trio in 1976. The threesome soon developed a following at Gerde’s Folk City in the Village, where, fifteen years earlier, Bob Dylan had made a splash.

Like the Everly Brothers, Bee Gees, and countless bluegrass bands, the Roches exploited their genes to create intuitive vocal harmonies, with Maggie anchoring the low end. They were also cheeky lyricists, penning ironic songs about adultery (“The Married Men,” written by Maggie), crowd anonymity (“The Train,” by Suzzy), and inter-generational tension (“Hammond Song,” by Maggie), among others.

All three stellar songs are featured on the Roches’ 1979 eponymous album on Warner Brothers, tastefully produced by, of all people, prog-rock god Robert Fripp (King Crimson), in “audio vérité” style.

( I still remember, as a record reviewer for my college newspaper, looking at the cover of The Roches album and thinking Why would three attractive women deliberately try to look nerdy and unsexy? And why is Fripp producing them? )

The Roches thrust the sisters into the spotlight. Critic Jay Cocks of Time magazine called their music “startling, lacerating, and amusing.” Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow performed “The Married Men” together on Saturday Night Live, and soon after, Paul Simon chose them as his musical guests on the show. Punk rock was peaking in the late 1970s, and the Roches combined the directness of punk with literate and sardonic lyrics, precise pronunciation, avant-folk harmonies, and a goofy, insouciant attitude, to create something musically unique.keep on doing

The follow-up album was punningly titled Nurds (1980), and was slightly disappointing compared to the debut… although Maggie’s “This Feminine Position” is one of their breeziest songs, with its soothing synthesizer and acoustic guitar. Also, she interprets an Irish folk ballad, “Factory Girl,” with Gaelic aplomb.

The group came roaring back with Keep on Doing (1982), again produced by Fripp. This might be their high point, with Suzzy and Terre’s “Keep on Doing What You Do/Jerks on the Loose” and Maggie’s songs “Losing True” and “The Scorpion Lament.” “Losing True” is the song that permanently hooked me on the Roches. It’s rich with irony, rhyme, and alliteration, and the cathedral harmonizing, with syllables stretched to breaking point, rivals anything the Mamas and Papas ever did.

There were many TV appearances through the ‘80s, characterized by innocuous interview questions usually unrelated to the music. My favorite is Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow, from 1982, where poor, shy Maggie was dazzled by the cameras, and gripped the armchair like she wanted to bolt from the studio! In 1983, the Roches had an hour-long special on the PBS show Soundstage. In 1985, they appeared on both The Dick Cavett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Their music was then featured in the film Crossing Delancey (1988), starring Steven Spielberg’s then-wife, Amy Irving. Suzzy even had a small role in this film.

In 1990, Carson brought them back in the wake of their comeback album Speak. Here, they bopped to their beautifully sarcastic “Big Nuthin’,” written about their hyped but hollow TV spots (Carson naïvely thought the song was strictly about the Saturday Night Live appearance). By this point, Maggie was playing keyboards onstage.speak

While “Big Nuthin’” is the eye-opening track on Speak – a great album, song-wise, but hindered by then-fashionable high-tech production gloss – it’s the ghostly minimalism of Maggie’s title song that knocks me out.

After Speak, they continued to release records, including an enormously popular collection of Christmas songs, We Three Kings (1990), which is sometimes reverent, sometimes whimsical, and always Roche-ey.  But their visibility dimmed as Maggie wrote fewer songs. Suzzy released solo records, wrote two books, and raised her daughter (Lucy Roche, who currently records and tours with Suzzy; Lucy’s father is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III). Terre, a talented guitarist, established a guitar workshop and also began a solo career.

Maggie, characteristically, kept a lower profile. She joined her sisters for music voice-overs (as roaches!) on a segment of Spielberg’s cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures (her bug character was the brassiest of the three… a private joke for fans, since Maggie was so soft-spoken); a children’s record, Will You Be My Friend, which won a parents’ award; and made several records with Suzzy, including a 2001 collection of diverse prayers set to music, called Zero Church (for an inspiring, non-denominational, non-traditional song for Christmas, you can’t beat “Anyway” from that album). The Roches also covered songs for various artist tribute albums, notably a lush rendition of the Band’s “Acadian Driftwood.”

The last album with all three Roches was Moonswept in 2007. For me, the standout song is “Family of Bones.” Suzzy handed her sister the words, and Maggie waved her wand to conjure, in less than a day, the haunting, hymn-like music.

♫ ♫ ♫

Mountain Stage archives

L to R: Maggie, Suzzy, Terre (photo Mountain Stage Archives)

Maggie had breast cancer for ten years, but evidently didn’t tell her sisters until just before she died. Suzzy wrote on the Roches’ Facebook page that her sister was “a private person, too sensitive and shy for this world, but brimming with life, love, and talent.” She also called her a “brilliant songwriter” and “authentic.” Maggie left behind her partner, Michael McCarthy, and a son, country songwriter-producer-musician Felix McTeigue. In 1989, she wrote a song called “Broken Places” about a mother being reunited with her son, after giving him up for adoption. Most artists would attempt just a first-person narration of a risky song like this. Maggie, however, interpreted it (like “Hammond Song”) from two different viewpoints.

While I don’t usually provide links to songs, I can’t help but do it here. In addition to a self-effacing sense of fashion, Maggie had a wicked sense of humor. The song below is from the seriously underrated album Can We Go Home Now (1995): thirty-three couplets of Maggie’s hilarious rhyming bliss, seen from the protective shell of her allegorical black winter coat.

Fly with the angels, dusky songbird.

(Thanks to John Lingan, The New York Times Magazine, for some information)

 

Vanity in a Tin Can (Part 2)

(This is the conclusion of my two-part article about my experience as a jazz disc jockey)

Before long, manager Geoff hired me as a full-time, paid deejay. He was very encouraging:

“The whole trick is to put a smile into your voice.”

“Try to hit those peaks and valleys, like an easygoing rollercoaster.”

“Man, you sounded hot  yesterday! Have you thought of this as a career? It doesn’t pay much, but you can make a living.”

I began taping my shows, hoping for that one perfect show (I came close, but never got it). Downtown Lowndes and I occasionally exchanged notes. One night, very late, we pretended we were two pompous Top 40 deejays:

“Hey, OK! Got the hot wax and the best tracks, my man Downtown!”

“Hey, OK, Pedro! What’s comin’ up here? Michael Jackson? Noooo, sorry… Chuck Mangione! Hey, OK!”

We figured nobody was listening, anyway, so we might as well stretch out.

Once in a while, I did get phone calls for requests. There was a college guy who always requested Charlie Parker, and nobody else. There was a teenage girl who didn’t care about music but only wanted to talk to the male deejays. She was referred to variously as “Miss Lonelyhearts” or “Jailbait.”

The most frequent caller was this drunk who hated any song unless it was an old, Big Band standard. Everything else was a “buncha crap.” (If he hated it so much, why did he keep calling? I think he was upset because the music had changed so much since “his day,” including the type of jazz being played.)

Alto saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker

One night, while gazing out the porthole at the city lights, I tried to reason with him:

“You should give it a chance. I know this is newer music, but it’s good jazz. It’s Branford Marsalis, brother of Wynton!”

“It’s a buncha crap!”

I gave up.

Because WNOP was a small, tight-knit affair, we sometimes got together outside of work. Brendan, Downtown and I visited local clubs to hear different bands. Eventually, Downtown got his own weekend blues show and became Rod “Blueshound” Lowndes, and his became the station’s most popular show. Whereas at one time he’d complain about not getting any phone calls, soon he was complaining that he couldn’t cue the records “with all these damn calls!”

At one company luncheon, he and I got into a friendly argument about African-American origins of blues music. Similar to “buncha crap,” I was a bit of a purist, so I preferred the primitive, country blues, while Downtown liked contemporary, electrified, urban blues. We went back and forth before someone finally looked at Val, our resident “hip black cat,” and asked for his input. Val’s perfectly timed response was “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

The pinnacle of my time at WNOP was when I got my own avant-garde jazz show. It was still late at night, but it was my show, and I could play practically anything I wanted. I remember Glenn pulling me aside before my first show. He was musically knowledgeable, and he suggested I didn’t have to always play the really “black” stuff, meaning challenging and spiritually probing free jazz artists like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. It was a good tip, but I was already primed for a mix of dark and light, combining those artists with a little progressive rock, fusion, and ECM label.

Unfortunately, “The Vanguard Express” didn’t last long. Our Arbitron ratings dipped, and my show was one of the first casualties. The day after it happened, I received a personal phone call from Robert Fripp, legendary leader of King Crimson, who agreed to be interviewed for the show. I had to tell him.

“What?! You’ve been sacked!” Fripp said, as I struggled to recover from a hangover. I explained it wasn’t me that got fired, but the show, and he sympathized. So… no interview. Nevertheless, it was a thrill to get a morning wake-up call from one of my music heroes, even if I had cotton-mouth and crimson eyeballs at the time.

One night I showed up for work and noticed that the album sleeves in the library had colored tape on the spines. Red, yellow, blue, green, and brown. I soon learned that, in keeping with WNOP’s “jazz plus” format, this indicated varieties of jazz. Brown meant traditional jazz. Green was pop or rock with jazz elements (e.g. Joni Mitchell or Steely Dan). Red, yellow, and blue also had meanings of some kind.

Hereafter, all jocks were required to play a certain quota of each color per shift. Of course, the color brown, for traditional jazz, received minimal airplay. I worried about what “buncha crap” would say.

This is about the time I started losing interest in being a deejay. As with everything in life that’s free and untainted, people have to muck it up with manipulations.

It wasn’t long before programming director Chris was dropping by with comments like “Pete, you didn’t play much Red or Yellow last night. We’re trying to get the Arbitron ratings up, you know.”

Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon

I told him I’d try to do better. But I really didn’t try too hard.

Instead, I went in the opposite direction. I’d cue up Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray’s “The Hunt,” which is a live, 18-minute saxophone apocalypse from 1947, then go out on the poop-deck to smoke a cigarette and watch the city lights shimmer on the water.

Things went from bad to worse. Like a lot of single guys who didn’t have girlfriends, I had a little dog to keep me company. One night during a long shift, I brought him to the station with me. He just lay there asleep on the floor, but one of the newer deejays saw him, then went and told the teacher.

“Pete, this is a place of business, and you really shouldn’t bring your dog here.”

“Sorry, Chris, but this is like a home away from home for me. The Jazz Ark is like an extension of my apartment.”

“Well, that’s very flattering, but we don’t allow animals in this ark.”

Not long after, I gave my notice. Chris was right, of course. The station wasn’t a playpen or home away from home. It was an office. And when I realized that fact, the fun disappeared.

WNOP’s jazz format lasted till the millennium, when The Jazz Ark became a Catholic Radio ark. I don’t know if Chris and Geoff’s Arbitron ratings ever spiked like they’d hoped. I saw Chris at a Pentangle concert, around 1992. During our time at the station, I didn’t think he had much taste in music. But maybe I pegged him wrong. Pentangle’s a damn good band.

The only other person I saw was my pal, Downtown. Appropriately, I saw him downtown, about eight years ago, after some function. It was about 1 a.m. He was serving drinks in a seedy bar and taking jukebox requests for the night owls. Same extroverted manner. I recognized him, but I don’t think he recognized me.

I debated whether or not I should reveal myself, but he looked a bit down on his luck, and I didn’t want to embarrass him. For all I knew, he owned a string of successful bars and restaurants downtown. But I didn’t want to take the chance.

So I just requested an old blues song.

Vanity in a Tin Can

Lately, I’ve been divulging incidents that occurred when I was young and stupid. Like, when I hurled rotten apples at moving vehicles, or harassed the night watchman at boarding school.

Here’s another slice of my biography that a few might find interesting or unusual. If no one finds it interesting or unusual – which is entirely possible – I give permission for this essay to be burned on the bonfire of my vanities.

***

After college, I worked for a couple years at an AM radio station called WNOP, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you’re an older American, you may remember the 1970s situation comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Although I have no proof, I’m convinced WNOP was the model for WKRP.

Like its television counterpart, WNOP was no ordinary radio station. The walls were curved. There was no bathroom. To reach our “office,” we had to tread across a long wooden pier. Also, we never saw the station owner, we only heard about him. He was like the Easter Bunny.

And every time a barge passed by, we bobbed up, down, and sideways.

Take a soup can, peel off the label, then place it in bathtub water so it rests vertically. That was our place of work. It was a gigantic steel cylinder that floated on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just across from downtown Cincinnati. I’m guessing the location choice was related to airwave reception or something. Let me explain:

WNOP was owned by a wealthy local beer distributor, who loved jazz music. He seemed to run the station more as a hobby than a business. I worked there in 1984-85, when arena rock and new wave music were all over the radio. Therefore, because we played jazz – America’s homegrown music – nobody listened to us. So, we didn’t make enough money to afford a proper radio tower. So, the waters of the Ohio River carried our signal.

I was hired as a broadcasting intern by the station manager, a well-known former rock deejay named Geoff. He was a fat guy with glasses who had an excellent radio presence, and he was really nice. I had no radio experience, but I liked jazz music, and was eager to learn, and I’m guessing that’s why he hired me. Also – because I was an intern – he didn’t have to pay me.

Directly under Geoff was Programming Director Chris. Unlike the owner, Chris treated the station as a business instead of a hobby, and he wanted WNOP to be real successful. And whereas Geoff liked me, I don’t think Chris did. You’ll find out why a little later.

Despite being an AM station at the left end of the dial that played jazz, we had a lot of talent at “The Jazz Ark.” The morning host was Kristi. Kristi was a very attractive and outgoing blonde who (surprise, surprise) did a lot of public relations for the station. The two daytime hosts were Ray and Val. Ray was semi-retired, and a radio veteran. Warm radio voice, knowledgeable, and he personally knew many of the famous jazz musicians that occasionally swung through town.

Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) as “Lester the Nightfly,” from his solo album, “The Nightfly”

Val had a great voice, too. He was about 35 and had worked all over the country. Val was black, but he sounded white. Maybe that’s why, at one time in his career, he was a country-and-western disc jockey. This factoid always fascinated me. But I guess if you’re a good enough jock, you can do any type of music. Val was the epitome of cool, and most of us younger guys tried to model ourselves after him.

The younger crew consisted of me, Glenn, Brendan, John, Rod, Chuka, and a few others I can’t recall. Like me, Glenn also appreciated jazz, but unlike me, he was very smooth in front of a microphone. Brendan was a real affable, slightly conservative guy-next-door. John was a short fellow whose dad owned a chain of shoe stores in town. John idolized Val. If you talked with John for any length of time, eventually he’d bring up Val. And Chuka was from Africa and broadcast news only.

I was closest to Rod “Downtown” Lowndes, who previously worked as a riverboat bartender. We were both into dirty rock ‘n’ roll and blues. We also occasionally “indulged” in things.

I remember my trepidation the first time I stepped in front of the microphone. I had a fear of public speaking that dated to a bad incident in childhood, so I had a legitimate concern about hyperventilating while on the air. But the guy who mentored me that first night seemed to think I’d be ok.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Nobody’s listening anyway.”

That calmed me a little, but I still felt like Barney Fife appearing before the Mayberry Municipal Court. As time went on, it got easier. I discovered that talking with the music at a low volume was very helpful.

Symphony Sid Tolan, the dean of jazz disc jockeys

My best memories of WNOP were the early days. Many deejays adopt catchy on-air pseudonyms or nicknames, and I thought about doing the same, similar to real-life Symphony Sid Tolan, or fictional “Lester the Nightfly.” I asked Geoff if maybe I should become Pete ‘Midnight’ White, or something equally ridiculous.

“No, I think you have a good name already. It’s very German-sounding, which will appeal to all the German listeners in Cincinnati. What do you think, Chris?”

“Sure, keep your name,” mumbled Chris. So I kept my name.

And speaking of vanity, it was also fun to drop, in conversation, that I was a deejay. I got a lot of “Really?!” responses. Also, this was before I met my wife, so mentioning I was a disc jockey was a great icebreaker with women. Their eyes always got a little bigger. Previously, it was a struggle for me to even get a second look from an attractive female. But once they learned that I worked in front of a microphone, they seemed to push their breasts a little closer.

I was very careful not to spill that I was merely an unpaid, untalented intern working the graveyard shift at a cable station that nobody listened to.

(Please check back soon for the conclusion of “Vanity in a Tin Can”)

(Illustration of WNOP by Robert Freeson and “Cincinnati Magazine”)