How I Discovered Jules Shear

Got No Breading - Jules and the Polar BearsI 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.

Afterword

Here is the song “Too Soon Gone” from one of my favorite of Jules Shear’s solo albums, Allow Me:

6 thoughts on “How I Discovered Jules Shear

  1. Hey, I already admitted to being an artistic troglodyte, don’t rub it in! I’ve requested one of his records from the library, already!

    In all seriousness, I imagine Shear’s era was the worst time to be an idiosyncratic recording artist. You had underground rock journalism in the early 70s and independent late-night DJs. Now there are all kinds of internet writers on music and radio/streaming stations. But Shear’s era was MTV’s age and the time when radio stations all got purchased by Clear Channel or some such.

    Plus I think it helps now that a lot of younger musicians realize labels are mostly a scam; more and more are putting out music independently or on tiny labels and relying on live performance to build a fan base and pay the bills. Which is probably a very good thing. (I do resent having to go to a club without seats to see a performer, though. I’m too flimsy to stand in one place for two hours!)

    I wonder if so much live performance makes newer acts a little testy. I read about one band that has an ironclad rule: no talking on the tour bus. Maybe that helps them keep from driving each other bananas.

    On a side note, I imagine "well-informed" is a backhanded compliment at best, but I’ll take it . . . ;) I think one thing that is definitely going by the wayside now is critical reading, since few people read at all, and (on politics especially) most only read what they are predisposed to agree with. Which is fine — I have practically no need to read George Will, for instance — but it’s important even when reading a source you trust/like to consider their perspective. Particular blind spots they may have, areas in which they’ve demonstrated more insight/knowledge than other areas, etc. After all, there is no such thing as objective reporting besides the box scores. (And sports stat geeks will tell you that box scores, through what stats they list and which ones they ignore, aren’t objective either.)

    I am, I’m afraid, woefully ill-informed on almost everything. But I do consider myself a much better critical reader than I was ten years ago or so. See, you CAN learn things as you age. (Besides my previous only bit of wisdom garnered from experience . . . make sure you have extra toilet paper before you use the last of an almost-empty roll.)

    Oh, and I requested "Pink Moon," too, so there!

  2. @JMF – Not at all. You are very well informed. That’s why I was surprised.

    It’s interesting that you mention MTV, because Shear was partly responsible for [i]MTV Unplugged[/i] and he hosted it the first season. He’s always had a lot of admirers because of his songwriting. And [i]Steady[/i] (co-written by Cyndi Lauper) was a minor hit for him:

    [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAEYxvuLSwY[/youtube]

    Good song. Terrible video. Production typical of what I hate about this period of his solo work.

    I read an interview a few years ago in [i]SOS[/i] of a sound engineer known for recording albums for bands very quickly. He noted that it was only possible because bands played live so much. In the 1970s, it wasn’t possible because the bands just weren’t that good.

    Well, it just always seems to me when I bring up a book, you have already read it. So that was probably what I was thinking of. We can’t know about everything.

    You are totally right about box scores. Also, there is a lot of judgement in sports. But I guess what’s called an error shows up as an error in the box score, as it should. Wilt Chamberlain wrote about how basketball players changed the way they play because of what shows up in the stats. He noted that Jerry West was probably the great ball stealer of all time, but they only started keeping track of that his last year or two playing. Chamberlain’s books are great, BTW. He was kind of the Bobby Fischer of basketball: enormous ego but well made up for by the fact that his understanding of the game was so great. Also Chamberlain wasn’t exactly wrong about what a great player he was.

    It’s hard not to fall in love with [i]Pink Moon[/i]. But it really is music to kill yourself by. So be careful!

  3. Thanks for the warning . . . but music doesn’t affect me that way. When things are looking alright, Billie Holliday sounds fun, and when things are dire, I could feel depressed listening to Tom Lehrer . . . ;)

  4. Nice to go back, via self-referencing link, and review this writing. I had wondered why my name was not present in the Jules write-ups……I do read you more these days than some times in the past.
    I don’t recall us ever even having a proposed band name with Roger. I guess we thought we weren’t going to do any gigs and would just go straight to 8-track. I recall proposing the production label name of Nephogri.
    We could always post a track or two of our demo tape, which later took us to the name Otherwise Nice Guys….but I don’t want you to lose any readers.
    It took me a while to get behind the name ONG, but I did like it a lot more than the earlier proposed name of The Late-Night Rhythm and Doughnut Quartet.

    • I don’t know what to think of the name ONG. I like it because it has pleasant memories. It was Mark’s idea, you may recall.

      I would be far more accepting of releasing that early work, like you going totally crazy on “That’s What I Said.” I suspect that works to some extent.

      It was hard to think in terms of gigs given that Roger always thought he was teaching us — right after this break so he could down a 32 ounce bottle of Schlitz.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *