Shhh, don’t make any sudden moves, but yacht rock – the most maligned, mocked and marginalized subgenre in the history of everything ever – is quietly becoming cool. I am choosing my words carefully here. I would have said “cool again,” but it never was cool – not even in, or just before, its commercial heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Michael McDonald and Skunk Baxter-era Doobie Brothers squandered the modest cool capital amassed by the Johnston/Simmons-fronted Hell’s Angels house band of the same name, even as it paid for mansions for all. Solo Loggins might have lit up the cash register as if there were a small sun inside, but Kenny’s connection to the ex-Buffalo Springfield Messina was his only fraying tether to the natural cool reserves of the California country/rock scene. For the mewling and strangely affectless Christopher Cross, “cool” was never even on the table.
On all but a few Standard Cool Meters, yacht rock registers as a callous, coke-fueled cash grab and the nadir of the singer/songwriter era: a generational rock death-knell sounded in the unmistakably chimey FM piano sounds of the Yamaha DX7, the harbinger of all things digital. Surely, pop culture is cyclical. The wheel of generational resonance, repurposing and resurrection is still more or less clocked to the rhythm established by Happy Days and American Graffiti in the ’70s: It takes 15 to 20 years of neglect and contempt for a period to come ripe again for fetishization and the recovery (or naïve projection) of cool.
The odd inversion here is that there is no popular resurgence of yacht rock, no signature positive and unironic sync in a movie or a commercial. It’s the indie kids, the underground, helming this unlikely return of a value that was, in its own day, entirely and unabashedly corporate, piloted by lawyers doling out points and grams, doing lines and doing time. My friend the great and decorated drummer Eric Parker played on some of the yacht music of which we speak. When big bad corporate Verizon recently offered him 20 gigs and four lines, he said, “What is this, the ’80s?”
But here is what I want to know: If yacht rock makes a return, will it bring its cousin, jazz/rock fusion, along for the ride? The fusion of the late ’70s – drained already of the revolutionary energy of Bitches Brew – was played by the yacht rock A-team. It was, by and large, the same cats. The slick, sanitized funk of yacht rock and its spiritualized but demonstrably materialist/individualist ideology was their money gig; wordless and slick jazz fusion, absolved from the burden of bad poetry, was their labor of love. As far as I can tell, no one has yet attempted to resell late-’70s fusion as something cool or come relevant. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that fusion requires – how shall I say? – “a very particular set of skills.”
I admit it: I loved fusion. I grew up on it, and it worked its insidious way into the fibers of my musical imagination, knocking me out of the cool game before I could even get a leg in. In those critical and impressionable teenage years, I was rather a fanatic of the form, and not even of the good stuff. The “good stuff,” history has more or less decided, was the first generation of fusion in the very early ’70s: an illumined ring of experimental and liberated music, about two or three years wide, that was either made by or implicitly endorsed by Miles Davis. This includes the earliest records by Weather Report and Return to Forever (very different from what they would become), Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and a few others.
This music was wild. Its compositions were ultra-light and small-footprint, its noisy ensemble improvisations endless and abstract. Returning to this music after all these years, I find it quite the opposite of the ameliorative compromise that fusion ultimately became. This music is, if anything, more difficult than bebop. And whenever fusion does enjoy a patch of cool (usually under an assumed name), it is this early, liberated, Afro-inflected fusion that is referenced and reinforced – in the Minimalist, skronky groove/jazz of Medeski, Martin & Wood or (Miles alum) John Scofield’s UberJam band, in acid jazz, illbient, avant hip hop and the hybrids and variants of dance and electro.
No, my fusion was the fusion of the almighty guitar (the Gibson ES 335 typically), the alto sax, the blue blazer. I owned and studied records by Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, the Crusaders. I revered the ECM label’s more popular offerings, mostly meaning the luminous early records of the Pat Metheny Group. I even enjoyed a fair share of the fusion that was clearly commercial music and not jazz at all: the ready-for-TV themes of Bob James; the popular-but-highly-skilled “fusion lite” of Spyro Gyra; everything up to but not including the genre’s self-confessed artistic nadir/commercial peak/total apocalypse – which is, of course, Kenny G.
Among my many fusion favorites was one – precisely one – local band. They were called Dry Jack, and they were one of the good ones. They weren’t really a local band. They weren’t from here, they didn’t form here and they’re not here anymore; but for a period in the early ’80s, they camped out in Coochie’s in New Paltz (now Cabaloosa) for months at a time, it seemed. It didn’t make sense. We couldn’t believe how good they were. They weren’t just certified adepts in the demanding language of fusion; via the piquant and brainy tune-writing of keyboardist Chuck Lamb, they were one of the real original voices in the style.
One night I went to see the Pat Metheny Group in the Vassar Chapel, my third or fourth PMG show. This was the Metheny Group of the transitional Offramp era. The popular bassist Mark Egan had been replaced by Steve Rodby, with drummer Danny Gottlieb soon to follow him out. At the very beginning of his obsession with Brazilian music, Metheny had hired on the late percussionist/vocalist Nana Vasconcelos, but his South American integration was not fully conceptualized yet, and nowhere near as happenin’ as it would go on to become. The sound in the chapel was problematic. It was a murky night overall for one the greatest of all the fusion groups.
I left and made my way to Coochie’s to see for the first time this Dry Jack band that everyone was talking about (well, at least my brother was). When I hit the door of Sean Mazzetti’s narrow train-car club, Dry Jack was in full froth, darting between frenetic groove jams and solos and Lamb’s intricate-but-immediately-likable-and-charming line-writing. Two or three songs in, and there was no doubt in my mind which was the better band that night.
From then on, I tried to see them every time I could and began the unreasonably difficult pursuit of their two records: 1979’s Magical Elements and Whale City, date unknown. I think I might have had to write a letter to Inner City Records explaining why I wanted a copy of Whale City and why I was worthy of it. After it arrived, it fell right into rotation, alongside whatever Dixie Dregs record I was fixed on at the time. For this was the tail end of my fusion years; XTC and Elvis Costello were about to rewrite my self.
But it is of Dry Jack I sing. The Internet is a wonderful thing; I have learned that Inner City reissued both records in 2008 and – dig this – the now-Colorado-based Lamb books what appear to be semi-regular reunion shows, featuring the original lineup (bassist Rich Lamb, guitarist Rod Fleeman and drummer Jon Margolis). Local guitar virtuoso Tony DePaolo was in Dry Jack too, replacing Fleeman for the last of the Coochie’s era.
Check out “Wimpy Thing,” a song that begins with a skittish, mock-bluegrass head that has more to do with Aaron Copland than with Bill Monroe, then pivots abruptly into a half-time funk feel and the kind of agile, impish, peekaboo melody that always made Chuck Lamb’s tunes such a sheer, quirky delight. Check out Whale City’s 13-minute title track for a prog/jazz epic. Listen to Magical Elements for such jumpy bop-inspired winners as “Lit Spinners” and “Strollin’ on Jupiter.”
There are things you can listen to and things you can buy. Tune your Spotify or YouTube to Dry Jack. If the yacht rock resurgence has legs, and fusion indeed tags along, this is a band I would very much like to see reconsidered and repositioned in the canon. It starts with you and me.