I was shocked recently when frequent commenter JMF did not know who Jules Shear was. He’s a really well informed guy on most things that matter. So I followed up his comment with a few of Shear’s songs. And I started with the first song of his that I had ever heard, “Lovers By Rote” off the first Jules and Polar Bears album, Got No Breeding. It is a great album. In fact, it is one of the greatest. It still thrills me. For the decade that followed that, Shear tended to be produced as a New Wave artist and it never worked. Then his work went more in an acoustic direction that was much better. But still, the Polar Bears were the perfect band for him: unhinged rockers with Richard Bredice with wonderful gritty guitar solos. You should buy the album. Really.
But I was thinking, “Why was ‘Lovers By Rote’ the first Jules Shear song I had ever heard?” After all, it is the third song on the album. Well, it was because I was in this band when I was 18 with this “old” guy, Roger, who was 30 who played keyboards. Pretty much I wrote everything, because that is and was what I did. I mean, I’m an okay guitarist now, but I was horrible then. I was slightly better on the piano, but nothing compared to Roger who was actually kind of good.
Will was also in the band, where he destroyed his voice in really beautiful ways. He has always had a strong voice, but at that time he was a wild man. John Lydon had nothing on him. Anyway, Will and I were really very “interesting” and “edgy” and all that. And Roger didn’t know quite what to make of us, but what he did make of us was not good. I think he saw us as students or something. The only thing worse than our learning abilities were his teaching abilities.
Anyway, one day I brought in this song called, “Do You Like Life?” It was basically just logorrhea, “People don’t care left standing in the rain you left a puppy dog…” And so on. It was word collage with three verses and then a kind of chorus in the middle of it that was written in something bizarre like 4.5/5 time and it was basically chanted. At this point in my life I second guess everything but I didn’t then. I knew the song worked. Roger hated it.
But he didn’t hate it because he didn’t like the sound of it. He didn’t like it because you just didn’t do that sort of thing. Note, this is 1982. We are well into the post-punk movement. I listed to Gang of Four a lot in those days. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing to stop you from doing anything at all as long as it worked. And “Do You Like Life?” worked as well as anything else we did. In fact, I think some of the other songs we did were more challenging to listeners. (And compared to some of what I write today, it was downright charming; everyone hates what I do now.)
So a couple of days had gone by and Roger was really excited. He had found a song he had to share with me: “Lovers By Rote”:
Do you see?! You could just start chanting in the middle of a song because this guy on this album did it. I was 18, so I said, more or less, “Yeah, I knew I could do that because, you know, I did it.” But I loved the song, especially the refrain, “Stupid questions about love are the stupidest questions of them all.” Which now seems kind of appropriate because Roger asked a lot of stupid questions about music.
The band didn’t last much longer than that. For one thing, I know I was horrible to work with—I’m just too caught up in my own thing. There’s a reason why I’ve generally worked alone or with one other very understanding person. But the bigger problem was that Roger was far more interested in drinking than realizing my bizarre vision. Will and I went on to create our own duo. We tried to add other people, but anyone who could actually play had more or less the same reaction to our work that Roger did. They could tell we were onto something new, but that wasn’t necessarily good.
Maybe this is why I so treasure idiosyncratic art that isn’t necessarily technically good: pure protection of my own self-esteem.
Here is the song “Too Soon Gone” from one of my favorite of Jules Shear’s solo albums, Allow Me: