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Second Set: A home life with Widows

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb, 9, 2012 - You can live in a house for years, leave for just as many, then return to see a building that only slightly resembles the place you once knew so well. As an example, a frame home on East Jackson in Webster Groves, just a few paces west of Edgar Road and a stone's throw from the charming Blackburn Park. For me, to pass that place is to be overtaken by memories and the realization that a property truly does take on the personality of its residents.

In the early '90s, the house at 475 East Jackson was a neutral brown, which blended in with the impressive collection of trees all around it, including one massive specimen on the front lawn. That lawn's still defined by a sharp, little hill, one that was always a drag to mow on summer afternoons. But the now-gray walls and redone front porch give the structure an entirely new vibe, a certain curb appeal that's probably added exponentially to the value of the place. Meanwhile, the old, rambling house to the east has long been demolished, replaced by two mini-McMansions, each of them halving that sprawling corner property.

It's the same place I used to live during a truly magical, too-short period.

Music In The Walls

Residents since then would be forgiven for not knowing that at the dawn of the 1990s, the house was the headquarters of the Three Merry Widows and the literal home to vocalist Alice Spencer and guitarist Brian Simpson. Also a constant was Sean Garcia, who added guitar and additional vocals to the mix, while the rhythm section of drummer Matt Albert and bassist Charles Shipman was present for rehearsals, but they were less likely to be found scratching out lyrics or jamming on the back porch. Alice and Brian lived downstairs, their band took over the basement, and I lived in the dormer up top, covering music for the RFT and basically living on Big Bend, shuttling between Webster and the clubs in the Delmar Loop.

Pretty much, it was a post-collegiate dream.

East Jackson had been a musical block. Recently disbanded acts, like the Painkillers and the Oozkicks, practiced in homes within a dozen yards of the house, and the proximity to Webster University made the school a natural hangout for local musicians, both as a venue and as a place to record.

"Webster Groves always had a great vibe and creative spirit during that time period," Garcia says. "I met Alice Spencer at Webster University and I met Brian Simpson in the McDonald's parking lot in Webster Groves. So, in a sense, the beginnings of what TMWs ultimately became had its roots in Webster Groves."

Spencer adds, "I bought my first piano when I was living in that house. I loved the way it sounded in my room. Before that, I had to sneak into the practice rooms at Webster. I don't know about anyone else, but I always thought that house had a great feel about it. I think you had told me some stories about it being haunted, or maybe I made that up, but I always felt like the house was loaded with a unique kind of musical electricity. That was a magical time because we were finding ourselves, our sound."

The Widows moved in at an interesting period in their history. Starting out with the new wave sound that many bands were playing in the late '80s, the band added both Spencer and Shipman and, thus, their "classic" lineup was set. In time, the group's sound began to coalesce, with touches that recalled the '60s more than the '80s. And though the group found songs out of jamming, they weren't among the crop of jam bands that evolved from that period, per se, instead concentrating on well-crafted songs that recalled (and drew comparisons to) acts like Fairport Convention and Richard & Linda Thompson. As their shows began to draw more people, record companies took an interest and, for a relatively short period, the group moved to Boston, where they signed a deal with the fledgling TVT Records, flush with cash from the unlikely success of the "Television's Greatest Hits" album line.

Their first album "Which Dreamed It?" followed, produced by the veteran, well-regarded Peter Henderson. While the album was key in taking them beyond their home bases of St. Louis and Boston, the recording's sound became a sticking point, as did the label-insisted inclusion of poppier tracks.

"The first record was great, but it was heavily produced," Spencer recalls. "We had a blast making it with Peter, as he knew all kinds of amazing tricks (taught to him by Geoff Emerick). We were kids thrown into a playroom full of toys we had always wanted and we played with every single one."

Adds Simpson, "With regard to the album's production, Peter did a marvelous job and it was tremendous working with him; he is still a good friend. I think many people felt that the album came out a little flat, that it didn't really capture what the Widows were like live. I guess I believe that to be the case as well, but I have no idea what the source of that was: our youth, nervousness, recording, mastering... who knows? I think we intended to make the next album a bigger sounding album -- not 'big' like many of today's albums, where everything is so compressed that it slams you in the face, but something that was thicker yet had a lot of air as well."

Locally, "Which Dreamed It?" was a hit, bouyed by the lead track and single "Black Halo." With the release coming soon after their return to town, the group was now in the enviable position of their fanbase outpacing the tiny confines of Cicero's. Soon, they were playing larger venues like Mississippi Nights and widening their national base in the process. They played short tours with Trip Shakespeare, Uncle Green, School of Fish and the band that turned them onto TVT, their label-mates the Connells. They also shared the stage elsewhere with Mazzy Star, fIREHOSE, Billy Bragg and Soul Asylum, a very respectable group of "college rock" acts of the time. Smaller festival gigs popped up on an occasional basis. Lots of good things were happening.

Save for one.

The Need For Hits

TVT Records was created in 1985 by Steve Gottlieb, whose "Television's Greatest Hits" records cashed in on a suprisingly early nostalgia craze for 1970s TV theme songs. Soon he began to move away from the novelty niche by signing new music acts. The label earned some cash back by signing an unknown Cleveland industrial band called Nine Inch Nails, whose "Pretty Hate Machine" would go on to become one of the iconic albums of its age. Suddenly, the laid-back TVT started down a new path, hiring additional publicists, sales reps and the like. The idea of breaking Three Merry Widows, adding sheen to their next recording, was popular in the New York offices but unpopular in Webster Groves.

Says Spencer, "The record company had expectations of us being very commercial and mainstream, but we had other ideas and that time was about figuring that out."

Adds Garcia, "The sound of the second album had roots in folk, psychedelic, whimsical and pop much like WDI, but there was also an element of the sound being less cohesive due to pressures from TVT to produce a hit single. Overall, the second album had a more mature sound than WDI, regardless of TVT's attempts to push the band into a mainstream mold. We wanted the second album to capture the power of our live show and yet still have a produced sound. WDI lost a lot of sonic character after it was mastered. I think WDI is still a great sounding record, but in hindsight, we would have produced it differently today. Specifically, we would have spent more time capturing the energy of our live show."

To craft the record that they wanted, the Widows recorded demos in a variety of places, often recording scratch takes in the basement of East Jackson, frequently with Matt Albert's brother Tim, a well regarded recording engineer and blues musician. Webster University's audio studio was used, as was the California, Mo., farm of Kurt Groetsch, another band confederate from Webster Groves. There, the band would write and record around-the-clock, tucked away from pressures in rural mid-Missouri. At home in Webster, the recordings were relatively no frills, but they still captured the refined sound the Widows were perfecting.

"We taped everything during rehearsals although in those days we didn't have a hand-held digital recorders which would have been great," Garcia remembers. "We were using for the most part a jam box to record rehearsals. Once we started demoing for the second album at East Jackson, we used my Tascam eight-track recorder, which was cassette based. We had help from Tim Albert who provided his outboard gear, microphones and engineered the basic tracks. I remember the basement being a comfortable space to rehearse, write and demo new ideas. We spent a lot of time there, specifically writing songs for the second album. Since we were no longer all living together, the house on East Jackson became home base during that period of time."

"The basement at the East Jackson house was great and gave us the room and opportunity to both practice and record demos," Simpson adds. "I don't have an auditory memory associated with the acoustics of the space, but it was clearly pretty good and well-controlled as we found it sufficient to do quite a bit of demo-ing down there for the second album, that was never meant to be."

Despite the fact that group had committed to plenty of material, they were never able to regain the label's confidence, while TVT had gone on a bit of a shopping spree, signing up a variety of bands with a variety of sounds, from metal to hip-hop; it even wholly subsumed the proto-industrial label Wax Trax, buying its roster and catalogue. Like the Widows, many acts wound up with short-term relationships to the label, which would soldier on through 2008. The band, too, lost confidence in the label, figuring that the only way to put a stop to the back-and-forth was, in effect, to disband.

Eventually, there would be a final show followed by a one-time farewell gig and then... silence. Though different configurations of the band would follow, notably Spinning Jenny and Tinhorn, none would have quite the same impact. Eventually, members would find jobs and lives elsewhere, leaving behind good memories, but also some bittersweet ones, mostly centered on the idea of "what could've been."

"Of course, ultimately we had to break up to get away from the label and we never did record our second album," Spencer said. "It would have been a much stronger record than the first. I imagine our second record would have been raw and natural with an emphasis on the dynamics we worked so hard to create at our live shows."

Music, Magic And Ghosts

At home during rehearsal nights, songs drifted up the steps of 475 East Jackson toward me, filling the house and, no doubt, a little bit of the neighborhood, too. And hearing songs come together is very different from just listening to them at a show. When you live with a band you come to realize that one member being unhappy with a song's bridge might mean that track being played 10, 12, 15 times over the course of an evening. And the Widows were perfectionists.

I remember those practices, for sure.

And the business meetings and spaghetti dinners. And the time that the band's disc arrived by mail, all of us handling the CD longboxes; mine was neatly trimmed and taped to my ceiling. And when the Widows went on tour, how the crafty band Enormous Richard took over the basement, rehearsing on the remaining sound system (the Widows') and drum kit (mine).

As Spencer alluded to earlier, the house had some wild energy, too. While no else in the world needs to believe it, that East Jackson house was alive with spirits. Friends and I used to play all-night sessions of Ouija on a board so juiced, I eventually burned it. Even a second board went nuts on us and every time the band was out, we'd fire up the Ouijas and I'd be left with the consequences: a house full of banging drawers, unexplained voices and footsteps. When the band broke up and eventually moved on, my own sense of the creeps was too profound and I fled to south city.

Brian Simpson's memories are a bit more amusing: "The house itself was pretty critical to the band at that time as a lot of the business was also conducted there. I remember the telephone in the area between the bedrooms on the first floor and spending a lot of time on there as each new possibility came up. It was there that we were told we were going to be traveling around playing the parking lots prior to Grateful Dead shows; this was through Bill Graham Productions ... didn't happen. We were also told that we were one of Spin Magazine's 'Bands to Watch' and were to be flown down to the Florida Keys with C&C Music Factory for a photo shoot. At that point, we panicked and the house became a fitness facility. We had seen what the other band looked like in their videos and thought a bunch of pale, out-of-shape hippies would look a little silly on the beach next to those guys! I also remember folks from other bands from the St. Louis scene coming to hang out (e.g., Lettuceheads) and I think one or two bands that came through town stayed there."

All true. And Alice Spencer's memories. These hit me hard. Because they're kinda ... perfect, really.

"My memories of living there in Webster are happy ones," she writes, from half a country away. "They run together in a montage of images: sitting in the front yard writing lyrics, playing the piano in my room, hanging out in the kitchen with you and the guys, writing songs and jamming in the basement with every expectation that life would go on like that forever."

About This Series

For the past two-decades-and-change, Thomas Crone has covered alternative music and culture in St. Louis for such publications as the St. Louis Beacon, Riverfront Times, Post-Dispatch and St. Louis magazine, along with a host of smaller, deceased titles like Jet Lag, 15 Minutes and his own zines Silver Tray and 52nd City. He's co-produced the music documentaries "Old Dog, New Trick" and "The Pride of St. Louis," along with several shorts. He's currently pre-producing the web series "Half Order Fried Rice," while teaching media writing at Webster University. He's making a lot of his memorabilia available to the public at https://www.silvertrayonline.com/

This series, "Second Set," will highlight the known and unknown stories of St. Louis musicians, deejays, promoters and gadflies. Each week's edition will showcase artists, albums and songs that collectively make up a fascinating Midwestern musical culture, one filled with both major successes and vexing could-have-beens. Combining personal recollections with interviews of the principals, these article will put into context the people, recordings and venues that have informed St. Louis' recent rock'n'roll and pop music.

At the end of 2012, the pieces will be collected, along with new essays and Q-and-As, into a book, produced by the Beacon.