[This is the beginning of what will be an ongoing series documenting my musical journey through the past 22 years. It is important for me to get this story out into the ether for my children to one day discover and learn a little about their old man. Included will be photos, songs and musings of all my travels and experiences. And most importantly, about the love of music that guided me to where I am today.]
On June 4nd, 1992, I moved to New York City.
I was an indestructible force of youth and ignorance.
I was 21 years old and my name was Adam Michael Patro.
The safe warm womb that I vacated was white suburban Baltimore.
Once in New York, that ignorance paid off because if I had any clue about the level of talent and salesmanship needed to become a rock star in the early nineties, I wouldn’t have so murderously cut the umbilical cord.
A brief word on 1991, my last year in Baltimore.
Three things happened that year to cement my quest for rock stardom.
I discovered this record:
I’m fully aware of all the artists that inspired this record. It didn’t come out of a vacuum. All popular and culturally defining albums are born out of greatly unappreciated ones. But it was this album that tore through my spine and forced me to want to create. As all great art should.
I acquired the Atari 1040ST with Cubase 1.0. (First home computer with MIDI ports.)
For the music that I wanted to create this was the machine that I needed. The machine that all the professionals were using. This was about the time I came down with a serious case of gearitis. There is no cure.
And lastly, a musical epiphany occurred during the last song of Jane’s Addiction’s set at the first Lollapalooza that summer in Virginia that also featured Nine Inch Nails. (It was during that show that I passed out due to dehydration and somehow managed to convince the nurse at the first aid tent that I didn’t need to go to the hospital.)
Interestingly enough, it was during Stephen Perkin’s drum solo in Three Days that the musical spirit took hold. He bowed his head at the alter of drums and maniacally played a chorus of noise and groove that soon was accompanied by two other drummers from either side of the stage who joined in on floor toms Nitzer Ebb style. It was a glorious cacophony glued together by a racing heartbeat of eighth notes from Eric Avery’s low E string.
Maybe it was exhaustion after 8 hours of sun, hunger, dehydration and loud music. Maybe it was the mushrooms. Whatever it was, at that moment, I decided to be a musician. Six months later, the spirit whispered that it was time to head north. Destiny awaited.
Once in New York, it only took me 8 weeks to burn through the $8000 I had been saving for over a year working on the assembly line at the General Motors plant back in Baltimore and in my haste to plant roots in New York, settled on a $6.50 job pushing papers at a midtown Ford dealership. (I wasn’t really qualified to do anything else.) So I was out of money and couldn’t afford the $825 a month for the “one bedroom” apartment on the corner of Spring and Lafayette I had foolishly rented in Little Italy.
Fortunately, I had a cousin living on Thompson Street in the village who allowed me to stay with her. Temporarily.
As my first New York summer turned to fall, I hit my first low point. I was stuck at the Ford dealership, my cousin was getting restless and all my musical gear was in storage by the Holland Tunnel.
I should note that at this time I was a rather gifted pool player. Like “run-the-table, late night hustler, get chased out of the bar for being a shark” good. Now, I didn’t hustle or anything like that. What I did was spend most of my nights nursing a Budweiser at The Raccoon Lounge on Warren Street down by the World Trade Center and whipping any and all who dared cross my table. I even belonged to a city wide pool league.
In mid-November, my cousin’s patience ran out and she gave me two weeks to clear out. To be fair, other than playing pool, I was usually just hanging out on her couch, drinking her vodka and being depressed. I wasn’t even giving her any money for rent. She was right to send me on my way.
That night, I sulked up to her Greenwich Village rooftop to smoke a badly needed cigarette. The early evening air was chilly and the sky glowed gold from the two imposing towers just to the South. And like a pair of stern yet loving parents, I felt safe under their presence.
Please, I don’t want to leave you. I belong here. I know that more than I have known anything so far in my life. I need help.
Help came the following morning with a phone call.
“Dude. I quit my job. I’m moving up in two weeks. You got to find a place.”
That was Thomas Denman.
Thomas Denman moved from Fremont, Ohio to Baltimore to play guitar. In the Fall of 1991, he placed an ad in the Baltimore City Paper looking for fellow musicians which I responded to. He only lived a few minutes away by car and was the first person to seem genuinely excited about my music. We immediately hit it off and started making plans to form a band.
I had been composing songs for a few years by the time I met Tom. My primary writing instrument was a Roland D-20 multi-track keyboard that I somehow convinced my father to buy me with the little money he had saved up for my college education. My guitars skills at that point were in their infancy and I hadn’t yet the courage to write on it.
The name of the recording studio and engineer are lost on me, however, I remember the sessions well enough. This song was one of a three song cassette that I was going to lure some hot shot A&R guy to sign me to a fat record contract as soon as I got off the bus in New York City. It was recorded onto a Tascam 16 Track 1″ reel-to-reel and mixed down to DAT. A high school friend and former band mate, Paul Krysiak, played electric guitar.
So back to the phone call.
It’s not as though Tom’s call was a total miracle. Months before I left Baltimore, we had made tentative plans that he would eventually join me. It’s just the timing couldn’t have been any better.
All I had to do was find an $800 a month two bedroom apartment and secure a lease even though my potential roommate didn’t have a job and I barely made enough to cover half the rent.
Oh, and I had two weeks to make it happen.
After an exhaustive search and only days to go, I ended up breaking down in tears on the couch of a gay couple’s brownstone in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. They were renting a railroad apartment on the top floor and were reluctant to give it to me for the reasons already stated. Taking pity on me, arrangements were made that they would have a phone conversation with Tom’s mom back in Fremont to get some financial assurances.
On December 2nd, 1992, Tom left Baltimore for a city he barely knew and to a new home he had never seen.
And I was finally able to liberate the rest of my meager belongings and musical gear from storage. I was whole again and ready to fulfill the promise of my spiritual awakening.
[Shortly after settling into our new place, Tom and I immediately begun to write. The first piece of music we conceived was, ironically enough, the first and last thing I composed on the computer rig in New York City. This piece of music sat on a cassette for 19 years until I resurrected it for the Pilgrimage opera. More on that in this previous post.]
In early January, 1993, Tom and I answered the Village Voice ad of a drummer and bass player who were looking for a guitar player and singer. We met bassist Helder Coelho and drummer Ray Dominici a few days later at some skanky rehearsal spot in Lower Midtown and Riverzone was born.
With my computer rig in storage for most of my first six month in New York City , all I had was my Ovation acoustic guitar. So during those six tumultuous months, when I wasn’t working my mind-numbing desk job, playing pool or getting drunk watching Seinfeld, I worked my guitar chops enough to not only begin writing songs, but to also assume acoustic guitars duties within our fledgling band.
We soon acquired a tiny room behind a Fotomat on Varick Street in Tribeca for use as a rehearsal spot and began wood-shedding.
The first set of 8 songs were born quickly with the sound of my writing altered dramatically with the acoustic guitar. The lyrics lingered on themes of leaving home and heartbreak.
I’m uncertain what was the first song I wrote for Riverzone, however, I am sure it was one of either two songs. Mighty Have Fallen or To Be Without.
Mighty Have Fallen was recorded twice. The first version was tracked digitally at Tiki Recording Studios in 1994 with Mark Gaide on Tascam D-88’s through a custom built Trident console. The second version was tracked at Cove City Sound in 1995 with Dan Hetzel on a 2″ 24 track Studer though a SSL console.
This is the 1995 version.
After six months of constant rehearsing, we played our first show at a club called Street Level that use to infest the corner of 1st Ave and Houston Street.
The date was July 21st, 1993. My first New York City gig.
Riverzone was the first band on that night. Well, considering it was the middle of a New York summer, it might as well have been the late afternoon. The heat of the setting sun blazed through the windows that looked out onto the stench of the Lower East Side. And besides my sister, girlfriend (visiting from Baltimore) and a few people at the bar, the place was dead. But none of that mattered, because as far as I was concerned, I had arrived. In the span of just 13 months since moving from Baltimore, I was in a band and we were playing our first gig. It was only a matter of time before we were playing arenas. The certainty of this fact was absolute and I played the show like the rock star I was going to transcend into.
I was so comfortable on the stage that halfway through the set I took off my shoes. This was my house. One that would soon be many. I was pretty damn sure of myself.
How was the gig in reality? It couldn’t have been very good. However, the shows would get better as we continued to rehearse ferociously and our confidence grew. So much so that it was time to spend some money and record our first demo.
The Riverzone demo was recorded at Tiki Recording Studios in Glen Cove, Long Island in December, 1993. Mark Gaide was the engineer and we tracked on the brand spanking new 8-track, 16-bit Tascam D-88 digital recorders.
The band recorded the basics live and then overdubbed additional guitars, vocals and keyboards before mixing it through Tiki’s custom built Trident console.
The demo was also a wake-up call for the limitations of our drummer, Ray Dominici. During playback, deep into the mixing process, we were astonished to discover that not only was Ray playing the same beat in every song, he wasn’t holding the band together as tightly as he should have been.
A few months after the Tiki sessions, the search began for a new drummer. When we found the new guy through a Village Voice ad, Ray was fired in our little room behind the Fotomat. It was incredibly painful. His playing wasn’t the only issue. Throughout the early part on 1994, he was becoming more and more unreliable. Ray was a livery car driver and had a small family but was having issues at home. And those issues were impeding our rise. It was time for him to go, however, he was not only our first drummer he was also a good friend. As he left with drumsticks in hand and his head down, I kissed his cheek. It was the last time I ever saw Ray.
The new guy, however, was a godsend. He was a big, friendly bloke who had a wrist that made the snare go WAP! In my mind, we were as good as signed. With the backbone the new guy added to the songs, our fortunes were set.
That was until after our first gig together at Don Hill’s. The new guy had gone back to the rehearsal spot later that night and took out his drums and then called me the next day at work to say he was out.
I was devastated.
In my mind, we had climbed that mountain. The band had a year of gigs under our belts, a tight set of music and a four song demo. Riverzone was prepared for the next level. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this.
This was going to set us back at least six months. And God, to go through the whole nightmare of placing the Village Voice ad which then leads to the bullshit phone calls, the waste of mailing out tapes and then the fucking torture of auditions. And then when you think you found the guy, there was no guarantee he wanted to be in the band.
I was nauseous when I called Tom. He didn’t take it the news well.
Then along came Richie.
I’m not sure where Richie came from.
He kinda showed up when we needed him and then was gone when we didn’t.
I couldn’t even tell you how many gigs we played together.
What I know is that he kept Riverzone alive long enough for us to find the last guy. Jared Feldman.
After one our countless Kenny’s Castaways gigs in the fall of 1994, Jared’s father approached us about having his son play in our band. Jared’s band, Wild Kingdom, was playing later that night, so we stuck around to check ’em out and we must have liked what we heard because we took his dad up on his offer.
Jared, on the other hand, wasn’t as thrilled as his dad was about playing in our band. So due to creative differences and mostly because of the bitch of a commute Jared had to do from the middle of
Long Island to the city, he immediately bowed out.
It was also about this time that we said goodbye to our little room behind the Fotomat. Without a committed drummer, there was no way to justify the $400 a month rent.
Once again we were rudderless.
So a plan was hatched.
After a year and a half of constant playing, we didn’t seem to be making a dent. The audience for our gigs were still mostly friends and even though we would usually get a good response, we couldn’t turn that into a buzz. Remember, this was 1994. There was no e-mail list. No social media to promote gigs. It was the band and the songs. You went out and played hard and if you had it, that buzz would ignite and then the record labels would start seeping through the walls of the club.
Riverzone lacked that buzz.
So we decided on a backdoor approach. The band would record three album ready songs and shop them to the labels. All we needed was a few thousand dollars, a great studio and a drummer.
Money wasn’t an issue. The three of us decided to pitch in $2000 a piece. Tom and Helder had decent jobs and there just so happened to be a remaining $2000 sitting in my college savings account back in Baltimore. Considering that it seemed a foregone conclusion that I wasn’t go back to college, my dad gave me the money.Tom’s boss and Riverzone’s pseudo-manager, Alexis, got a line on a studio in Glen Cove, Long Island. Cove City Sound is owned by Richie Cannata, famed saxophonist for Billy Joel and the Beach Boys. One of the staff recording engineers, Dan Hetzel, was assigned to produce the tracks.
And what about the drummer? After much debate, it was decided to ask Jared if he would record with us. He balked. We offered him money. He agreed.
I would love to be able to write about how after spending all that time and money recording those three tracks, a bidding war erupted amongst the major labels. Riverzone eventually signed the biggest deal, we hired Jared, finished the record and went on tour opening up for Hootie and the Blowfish. (Then when the second record flopped, we found ourselves millions of dollars in debt and having to play county fairs. Opening up for Hootie and the Blowfish.)
There was an important caveat to this whole thing working.
We needed to know people at record labels to send the songs to.
We knew no one.
Richie Cannata was extremely gracious to give Alexis the number of a entertainment lawyer in Midtown whom we immediately called and arranged a meeting. A meeting that we had to pay $300 for the pleasure of having, mind you.
“These songs are too polished. I don’t here the band. I don’t think there’s anything I can do for you.”
That was it.
Our only card and we played it.
Tom, Helder and I stood on the platform of Columbus Circle waiting for the A train in shock. I remember Tom and Helder staring at their shoes. Almost $8000 in the hole and we were right back where we started before the whole Cove City affair.
I, on the other hand, was energized.
Let’s take a step back.
In May of 1994, Tom and I moved from Fort Greene to a neighborhood at the top of Manhattan called Inwood. Helder had been living in the building for several years and was sick of driving us into what was a pretty dangerous neighborhood at the time late at night after gigs and rehearsals and lobbied hard for us to move into his ‘hood. The two bedroom apartment that was available was far larger with ample space for our home recording studio.
At the heart of our set-up was the Tascam 688 8-track cassette recorder. Sweet little machine. Then there was my Atari 1040ST that I would program the drums and keyboards and then “stripe” a SMPTE tone on the eighth track on the 688 with a JLCooper PPS-1 box so to sync both machines up. All very archaic. But it got the job done. Riverzone just didn’t rehearse endlessly, play gigs or dump thousands of dollars at giant recording studios, we also constantly wrote and recorded demos.
There were a few new tunes that Tom and I had been toying with sitting on the 688 that had a slightly different sound then our previous tunes. Instead of the long progressive type acoustic guitar driven songs, these songs were shorter bust of electric guitar pop.
That midtown entertainment lawyer was right. I knew it. The three Cove City songs were layered to the point of exhaustion. There was no fire. No urgency. The band wasn’t there because there was no band. Just musicians playing parts. Riverzone was a seasoned rock band. We needed to capture that. Crudely, if possible.
I waited a few days before calling a band meeting. My proposal was simple. We were going to record again, however, this time it would be in a a cheap ass hole-in-the-wall recording studio somewhere in the city. We would track the new songs live. If there was something to capture, we would capture it. Lightening in a bottle. We owed it to ourselves to try. After everything we’ve put ourselves through, we had to know.
I spent a few weeks visiting hole-in-the-wall studios in the city and was leaning toward one on 14th Street when Tom and Helder approached me with their own proposal. They wanted to go back to Tiki Recording Studios. I was reluctant. I felt we missed out on that gritty New York City recording experience. The new songs needed that seediness the Rolling Stones captured on Some Girls. Plus I didn’t want to go out to record in Glen Cove, LI anymore. However, I relented.
Once again, we hired Jared to play the drums.
The basic tracks were recorded live with very little additional guitar overdubbing. All we needed was for me to nail the lead vocals and we were set. Of course, I get a bad cold right in the middle of the sessions. I was able to muscle through my tracking with the help of plenty of Guinness Stout juicing me along, but it was far from my best performance.
After the songs were mixed and the CD’s manufactured, I sat down and listened to all our hard work. I couldn’t have been more unsatisfied. We spent too much money recording four songs at Tiki when we could have recorded up to 8 songs of similar quality elsewhere in the city. And even though the songs were okay and everybody played well, the sound just wasn’t what I wanted. It needed to be dryer. More in your face and raw sounding. These mixes were drenched in reverb and once again, my vocals were buried.
And the only person I can blame for it all is myself.
I tried to take the reins and guide the band in a certain direction. I heard what I wanted in my head and was pretty sure how to achieve it but I gave up that control when Tom and Helder decided on going back to Tiki. I became a passive player and allowed myself to get caught in the stream. Tom and Helder were a few years older than me with real jobs. I looked up to them as if they were my big brothers. I just didn’t have it in me at the time to tell them no.
Would it have mattered in the end if I had gotten what I wanted?
It was the fall of 1995. We had our first EP, Such Things, and that was about it. Jared was still reluctantly playing with us as long as we traveled an hour an a half out to Long Island to rehearse at his space.
The gigs started winding down and speaking for myself, I was getting sick of the songs. Once there was a point, not too long ago, when I felt that I couldn’t live without this band. Now I wasn’t so sure I could live with it.
Riverzone played its last show…I’m not sure when. It was at some joint across the street from where Street Level used to be.
Unfortunately, the gig was recorded. It was a terrible show. At one point, someone from the previous band accidentally picks up one of Tom’s guitars and begins walking off with it. You can hear Tom yelling for the dude to stop on the tape as the three of us kept playing. Helder broke a string. No one was there to see us. It had finally sputtered out. There was no more gas.
It was never spoken. Tom began to drift away. I saw less and less of him. Then in March, 1996, as I sat on the futon eating my daily ration of frozen chicken and tater tots, Tom walked out of his room and told me he had found his own place and was moving out in May. He then turned and walked back into his room.
I sat stunned. That was it. After four years and a mountain of dreams, it was all gone. I cried. I cried it all away.
We had done so much and gotten little of anything in return. There was only two things to do at that moment. Give up or try to find a way to carry on.
I just needed a little time to figure it out.