Wringing Joy

At a time when it seems a majority of recording artists are, for better or worse, writing their own tunes, the influence of a few gifted and studied crafters of song underlies the musical scene like a hidden landscape, lending subtle contour to the corpus of an era in the concerts and releases of divergent other musicians. Without it, you'd be "missing something you never knew you had," as Rick Danko sings on "Too Soon Gone," a memorable Jules Shear-penned song on The Band's Jericho album.

Shear, who'll be making a rare local appearance at the Katmandu Cafe on Saturday, is one of today's more prolific contributors to the contemporary musical atmosphere, having written hits for singers like Cyndi Lauper ("All Through the Night"), Alison Moyet ("Whispering Your Name"), and the Bangles ("If She Knew What She Wants"), as well as having his compositions covered by a range of performers from rockin' Roger McGuinn to Art Garfunkel.

In solo performance, the closing moments of Shear's treatment of "Healing Bones," a tune co-written with Danko and title of Shear's last CD on Island, provide vocal tones from Jules which plaintively reflect Rick's own signature mournful and indelible wail almost as if Shear carried a ghost of that voice within his own. The guitar counterpoints of Shear's styling here suggest the melody was created on piano.

Healing Bones was the tenth of Shear's albums, a progression which began on Arista in 1976 with Jules playing a third of the Funky Kings before forming Jules and the Polar Bears and recording for Columbia. He was living in Boston in 1983 when Todd Rundgren produced Shear's first solo album (Watch Dog) in Woodstock and gave him a taste of a town he decided he'd like to live in. Beyond his solo albums since settling in Woodstock, such as The Great Puzzle, and Eternal Return, Shear also formed and recorded with Reckless Sleepers as well as teaming with Marty Wilson-Piper for The Third Party's stripped-down sound in 1989; a sound which was instrumental in the creation of MTV's "Unplugged" series for which Shear served as host in its inaugural baker's dozen of episodes.

Iain Matthews, who had risen to early prominence in the 1970's with groups like Fairport Convention and Matthew's Southern Comfort before striking out on his own, did Shear the singular honor of recording an album (Walking a Changing Line, 1988) comprised entirely of his songs.

"That came strictly out of the blue," Shear recalls. "He just called me one day and said, 'Look, I'm going to do an album.' I thought he was going to ask about a particular song and I was totally surprised. He already picked out most of the songs because he had old demos of mine he had collected from various people that he knew. We had mutual friends (through whom) he was finding these demos and making a list but he really wanted to do an acapello song, so he asked if I would write something for him to sing acapello, which was cool, but that was really the only thing I wrote (specifically) for the album."

The Enigma label also had the idea of picking through Shear's back catalog of a "gazillion demos" floating around to release some of them as a kind of piecemeal album called Demo-Itis. But Shear just keeps churning out a profusion of quality numbers and simply piling aside those he doesn't use himself. The impetus seems to imply as much of an enjoyment of the process as of its product.

"I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is start making up something and, whichever way I move that day- if I'm moved to write something fast or moved to write a ballad, whichever it is, I just do it straight out of the sleep state. I just go straight into working on a song, whichever way it comes to me. It might be words. It might be music. I don't care. I've done it all kinds of different ways and I don't have a formula other than I like to do it first thing, as soon as I wake up, because it just seems like a pure sort of thing. You're not drained by the every day things that sort of bring you down. You can get fresh energy when you wake up and I just write what comes into my head and then I work on it for a couple of days to try to improve it if I can."

In his prodigious output, Shear has co-written more than a few, often with names as familiar as Natalie Merchant, Marshall Crenshaw or Dion (DiMucci, not Sanders- yet). Shear observed that such song-sharing efforts have brought him valued friendships he may have otherwise missed.

"I'm just trying to have fun with music," said Shear when asked about his continually varying approach. "I don't want it to become a job; a nuisance; something I've got to do because I've got bills to pay. I've loved music as far back as I can remember and I'd like to keep my enthusiasm for it. The reason behind almost everything in my career is so that I can continue to wring some joy out of music."

That treasured sense of joy has inspired Shear's current project of writing an album of duet-oriented songs with another musician in mind for each one.

"I think it'd just be fun to sing with people," he said. "Usually, on my own records, I do all the vocals myself but I love singing harmony. It's (the project is) a way of putting a twist on it that'll give ya a little more joy. I'm just going on faith by writing these songs that I'm going to be able to complete this thing. It's weird when it's out of your hands, when you're dealing with duet partners who have lives of their own but I have a pretty good list, right now, and I'm hoping I can make it work. It makes the project more complicated but maybe it'll make it more fun, too."

Concentrating on the duets album has also meant a sparsity of recent public appearances. One way to keep your performance chops sharp and starve off the ravages of cabin fever at the same time is a tidy little informal gig like the Katmandu show. It also affords hometown fans an all too rare glimpse at a peak in that hidden terrain of the current pop scene.

-Gary Alexander