Welcome to Showbusiness

On Sept 15th I’m doing a show of music from the 1930’s and the love songs of Jimmy Durante. Tribute shows are all the rage these days and if not a tribute show then it has to be hip and new and cutting edge and a major production event with lights and cows and flying singers on wires. Or if you’re a jazz guy then it has to be in a  box of educated swellishness and lounge crowd cabaret edible acceptability. And I care nothing for that whole thing.

I like how Jimmy Durante sang loves songs with sincerity and heart. And even though he had showgirls in his act it was somehow not off. Who would fall for a guy with a nose like that? It’s hokum and Vaudeville.  So the show goes from old vaudeville 2 beat flag-wavers to swing and ballads.

The other show I’m doing is at Mancini’s on the 22nd. I call it hip cats of the fifties, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Joe Williams, Julie London. This is all the jazz pop stuff I’ve been learning this year and most of last year. And I’m not trying to cop a tribute to these stars but more just learning to play and sing the songs.  This music is fun to play but hard to do. Way deep and not rock. It will probably be more acceptable to the steak and wine crowd than the Durante show. But if either of these shows catch an audience I’ll try to get off book and move it to the big ticket rooms. I don’t need to go there, but it would be nice to get my players some dates and some better money. Meanwhile I’ll book a busk or two.

That’s showbiz. 

The perspective on this path.

I usually don’t write anything personal on Facebook. I use it to toot my horn about my band or gigs. It’s about the advertising. I know I’m not a big deal. I’m an okay self taught singer and guitar player. Love songs to the people is what I can do. I crawl up out of my self absorbed dark pit of indecision and nihilism and realize I’m privileged to to be able to contribute some love and goodness to people. I only do love songs. The reality is in order to get through whatever happens next we are going to have to love each other more to survive. That means I have to love you. It’s a verb. I have to love you enough to sing love songs so maybe you’ll get it and love someone. 

Every gig is the last gig. Every gig is the first gig. Every gig is starting at zero. The stuff I’ve learned has got me this far. It’s not about applause, attention, fame or money. It’s a lost cause decorating time with notes and words to give voice to the love that we all need to live on. I’m standing on the shoulders of the people who have sacrificed so I could be this, do this. I’m not telling you to come see my show because I’m the super hot shit everything amaze ball performer with the miracle guitar solo. I just play guitar and sing.

I’ll do my best to bring the love to you. I’ll keep on trying. There’s only one planet and we’re all in this together. I love you. 

Back in the game.

We’re coming back to gig at the Eagles Club in October.  Same players. Tony, Bruce and Keith. We’ll see how it goes from there.  Been thru a ton of changes. Been in the woodshed trying to figure out my music. My voice. My guitar. I don’t have to do anything for money. I don’t have to sing and play for money. I can play and sing what I want to learn. Try new things. Go and hang. I would like to do this gig better than before. I’d like to really do it well. I’ve got a bunch of material that is very challenging so I have to reach to improve. I decided that each song we do has to have personal meaning to me. If a song doesn’t entertain me it probably won’t entertain anyone else. I’ve been trying for something different with this band. I’m trying to bring my feelings to the music and have the audience connect to the music and the feeling. It’s the only real way to do it. Time off has given me a new perspective on how I want to do this work. Can’t be the same old. So it’s a new day. Trying to keep my head together and put in the work to make it go. 

The Covid-19 order and George Floyd murder and protests

Before all this went down I had a nifty little plan to start doing solo shows in nursing homes after I retired from my dayjob. I was going to be booking a ton of gigs with the band and branching out into sideman work again. But my plan was not to be. I had underestimated the big picture. I retired from the dayjob and got used to being at home.
Covid-19 is scary and I know a few people who have gotten very sick from it. So far I’ve avoided it. Got used to fear and face masks. Timing grocery runs for midweek mornings with the least amount of customers in the store. Not driving. Anywhere.
George Floyd. What a terrible way to die. 38th and Chicago face down on the street. Shouldn’t be the reality but it is the reality. I felt again offended and sad all at once. It’s the oppression that has been here all along. Can’t put on a facemask and have this all get better with a vaccine. What to do? I did some cleanup at riot damaged locations, went down to 38th and Chicago. Got on my knees where George Floyd face was on the street. Prayed to not forget.
There is a lot to learn from this but it takes remembering Tycel Nelson. Remembering the doctrine of white supremacy is baked in. Remembering that I forget in the safety of my priviledged environment that others are not safe and are not given the same opportunities that allowed me to have a good job, healthcare, access to loans, housing and education.
Things ain’t what they used to be. My band and the music has always been about love songs. I’m good with that but it’s obvious that love songs are not enough. I am in the process of rearranging my priorities. Going back to the basics. Going back to the woodshed. Learning. Practicing. Reaching out and having conversations. Getting grounded in my relationship. Doing my program. Giving back. This is going to take some time to figure out. I don’t have it figured out and maybe I never will figure it out but I’ll have to learn as I go.

After the Christmas Show.

There’s this one regular who gives me cards and checks for tips at the gig. I’m fairly sure this person is not rich and lives on a fixed income. The tips are generous. Very Generous. Having this kind of support is so unusual and surprising. The Christmas show was a longtime desire of mine to do. Just playing the tunes with the band and singing the songs was fulfilling. But the response from the people and this special supporter made me think about how I don’t really understand how this musical and social experiment wrapped up as a dance band on once-a-month Wednesdays affects people. I know how it affects me. Stage fright, Rehearsals, Planning! I breathe and have feelings because I have to breathe to sing. It’s unavoidable. I never thought I had an effect on others because of the music. Perhaps I’m not as alone on this musical path as I often feel I am.

Here’s a piece written by Dan Emerson that appeared in Maple Grove Magazine October 2019

Joe Demko of Maple Grove never attended college, but he has received a priceless, Ph.D.-level education in music and the music business from many teachers—some of whom are familiar names to music fans—names like Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Benny Goodman, Willie Murphy and Bruce Henry. In six decades as a working musician, Demko’s had some memorable encounters with the famous, near-famous and wanna-be-famous.

         Demko, 65, grew up in north Minneapolis and Coon Rapids. He was 13 when his father gave him a cousin’s hand-me-down, “terrible Danelectro knockoff” guitar from Sears and a Montgomery Ward guitar amp. Like most kids at the time, he alternated listening between KDWB and WDGY, then the dominant Top 40 radio stations, playing guitar along with records. “One of the station’s turntables was slightly slower, so I would have to retune my guitar when I switched stations; that got my ear ‘tighter,’” Demko says. He eventually started playing in garage bands in the neighborhood.

        In the late ‘60s, Demko got a $10-a-week job at a bakery, saving enough to buy a coveted (used) Fender Bassman amp. Two neighborhood brothers, who had a working band, Bill and Dennis Melton, came looking for the Bassman amp, and Demko joined them as the Holy Smoke band’s new, 14-year-old guitar player. “Back then, we had to play polkas, schottisches, country music and the pop tunes of the day by people like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Iron Butterfly …,” he says.

        In 1973, participation in an urban arts program led to Demko joining the Wolverines, a popular local orchestra of 20-somethings, who faithfully recreated the classic swing music of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Lacking sheet music for many tunes, learning to painstakingly transcribe songs off of old records “was an incredible education in learning to write music, understand harmonies and transpose (change keys) for saxophones and trumpets. I got the jazz bug in that band,” he says. (He had been interested in jazz prior to this time, but being in the band turned his head away from country and toward jazz.)

       One tune Demko transcribed was Hot Mustard, by Fletcher Henderson, a composer-arranger-bandleader of the Swing Era. The man, who would become the King of Swing, acquired Henderson’s charts, used them “and that’s how Benny Goodman got famous,” Demko says.(Goodman also hired Henderson as his musical director for some time.)

“One night, we were playing at Scotties on Seventh (downtown), and I saw a guy standing in the back that looked just like [Goodman]. It was him, in town to play at Orchestra Hall. After we played Hot Mustard, he came up and said, ‘Where’d you get the chart, kid?’” Goodman was on the entertainment committee for the upcoming Jimmy Carter-Walter Mondale inauguration. He returned the next night and offered the Wolverines members a spot playing at an inaugural ball, which they accepted. That January 1977 trip also hit gigs at Mickey Rooney’s resort in the Catskills and the Empire State Building.

       That year, Demko moved on to road gigs with a big band and then a country group. In 1978, he met the late Willie Murphy and successfully auditioned for Murphy and the Bumblebees, an unforgettably funky, horn-driven bar band. Six years earlier, Murphy had produced and the Bees played on the debut album of an aspiring folk blues singer-guitarist named Bonnie Raitt. Demko calls Murphy, “A musical genius, who could take a riff on guitar, another riff on bass, another riff on piano and a drum groove and put it all together like puzzle pieces,” he says.

       Around 1980, Raitt mentioned to Murphy that she was looking for a new guitar player. “Willie pointed at me,” Demko says. At the time, Demko was fighting a cocaine addiction—an occupational hazard of the bar band life—and told Raitt he wasn’t ready. He needed to get sober before taking on any new challenges. He entered a treatment program and got his life together in 1982.

[Joe Demko, a Minnesota musician whose six-decade career crossed paths with Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and many more famous acts.]

A few years later, the Bees were called to back Bob Dylan in a one-off recording session in Bloomington. Unfortunately, nothing usable resulted. “[Dylan] reminded me of Odetta, the great folk singer, whom I had done sound for at Williams Pub,” Demko says. “He had that same troubadour vibe …”

After the Bumblebees disbanded in 1984, Demko worked in duos and small combos, including one of Murphy’s later bands, the Angel Headed Hipsters. In 1988, he traveled to Russia as stage manager for the Minnesota-based band Women Who Cook. After returning, he quit a lounge band gig, deciding, “I couldn’t be a human jukebox anymore; it was a terrible way to make a living. I needed to get back to songwriting and do something else for a living,” he says.

In 1988, Demko caught a break. He was rehearsing for a Leiber and Stoller musical tribute to be broadcast on KTCA, and a sound engineer offered him a part-time audio tech job at Channel 2, leading to 30 years of full-time employment, which has been “a life saver. As a musician, I never had life insurance,” says Demko, who underwent a triple bypass operation in 1997. He also was able to hone his writing chops, comping incidental music and scoring several KTCA/TPT documentaries.

Having a day job freed Demko. “I don’t have to play anything I don’t want to. A lot of working musicians don’t have that freedom,” he says.

Demko’s current musical project is Radio Joe and the Jazzbos, a full-piece swing band he formed in 2012 that plays a number of his original tunes. He enjoys “finding ways to connect with a crowd that is mainly dancers. When they fill the dance floor, it’s a beautiful thing to watch,” he says.

Demko’s goal with the Jazzbos is to provide a show that creates “moments people can emotionally connect to,” an increasingly rare experience in this digital world. “They can feel what I feel, and we can share it together. It’s not the easiest thing to do, so I pull out all of the ‘show biz’ tricks I know to make those moments happen,” he says.

After he retires from TV, Demko plans to go back to solo performing, this time in nursing homes and memory care centers, singing evergreen pop tunes, like Happy Trails. “Music is a public service, and I plan to serve that market,” he says.

Sometime in 1981

It’s 2:30 am after a gig in Rock Island, Ill. There is nothing on tv in the hotel room except for a still about the weather, which has been rainy and lousy all day. The gig didn’t go that well. They didn’t dig us. They ate they drank but not our audience. I’m maybe half depressed. It had been coming on for awhile. I’m thinking that this  band is a dead end.

     I turn up the sound on the tv. I’ts a loop of “Girltalk” by Kenny Burrell. At the time I didn’t know who the player was or the title of the song. I only knew it was the most beautiful, sweet soothing thing I’d ever heard played on a guitar.  And it played over and over again.

     Next day I’m driving back in the band van. It’s a long haul home. All I’ve got is an AM radio.  I flip it on and I get Karen Carpenter singing about Rainy Days and Mondays. That voice. I totally believed what she sang. She had that cutting honesty that says this is real. I listened and it too got in my head.

     I got a new amp. I can make the Girltalk sound come out. I’ve sang some notes that were real and honest. I think I’ll keep on this for awhile. It only took 38 years to get here.

A Good Love Song

People ask me” When is your CD coming out?” When I get it done is the usual answer. There are some songs in this collection which are so emotionally true and good, I’m amazed and gratified that the process has worked so well and the idea that was in my head is actually what is on the track. Other songs are less serious, novelty songs or story songs. Some romantic. Some honoring others or a moment in time. Taken as a group they are a portrait of who I am and how I feel and think. It’s a scary thing to put who I am out there. But it is the only real gift I can give as a songwriter. To be real and put it out there.

       If a CD falls in the woods does anybody hear it?  Performing is totally different than writing and recording. Performing is all emotion and energy. The effort is time based and when the gig is done it’s done. Recording and writing is about putting the song in a machine and trying to get the performance and message to come through. This requires a skillset and detachment that is impossible in performance.

      At this point in my musical career I can tell if what I write or perform is good or if it sucks. Production values can polish up a lame song, but in the end it’s not sticky and it’s still a lame song. Not everything I write is great and I have to accept that. Because I’ll never get to the great songs if I don’t write the bad ones out of my system. It would be swell if everything I write and perform is flawless and beautiful. Perfection might occur in the next life, but not on Planet Joe.

      There a million people who will tell you how to be financially successful in music. But a big part of that success means selling your time to get the money and approval. This has nothing to do with writing a good song. If anything its a deal killer. I’m just trying to write and sing a good love song.  Hopefully that’s what will be there when it’s all done. A good love song.

Songwriting will kick your ass.

It’s 6pm after an eight hour work day which was real busy. I sit down to cut a comp vocal at the secret studio. 10 takes to edit to make a good lead vocal from. It’s starts to go bad right away when the phone buzzes with a text about a gig I can’t do, but I have to take the time and answer it anyway. I text him back and start cutting the comp. Time gets eaten like candy working on music so I push to get thru it before I daze out. I get a completed track and start mixing it in.

   As it goes along I’m hearing it not work. Damn! So, I tweak it a little more. 8 o’clock then I try this and this and it kinda works but I play it back and. nope. not. good.  Maybe I pitch it here and here and. nope. Shit! By 8:30 I’m sucked down the rabbit hole. At 9:30 I give up. The song is on me like a bad movie on a first date. I bail out.

   Now it’s 4 days later and I think I know the problem. But I’ll have to resing it and change some lyrics to see if it will go. Maybe it will. This is not the first time I’ve had a song go wrong. I’ve been painted into this creative corner before. The song isn’t done until it’s done. It can’t be faked. So you say you want to be a songwriter? Go ahead, try it. Songwriting will kick your ass.

“My mind is going through them changes” Buddy Miles

I’m about four songs into the rough mixes for this next CD release. Twelve songs to go. Not all of them will make it to the mixdown and master. Been jamming time in to mix between work days, family stuff, mowing the lawn. You know. Normal stuff.

     Working on original songs that you have been the singer, writer, guitar player, arranger, chart scribbler, recording  supervisor, gear hauler, assistant engineer and scratch mix editor is not normal. Blowing into Paisley and rolling tracks until 9 in the morning isn’t normal either. But being the Artist is not a luxury of excess I can afford. I get an hour here and hour there to mix.

     My dreams, (not my hey have a hit record and be famous dreams), but my sleeping dreams are odd. It’s new dream territory where everything is much more colorful and nothing makes sense. It’s not even like a code telling me I ate too may tacos and that’s why I dreamed this wack stuff. It’s new. Nothing I’ve dreamed before.

     I knew this record was going to put me through changes, but they haven’t been what I expected. I’m letting go of what I thought the music was. Letting go of what I thought I was. I’m waiting for the title track to say “I’m here go in this direction!” Which will inform the other jobs of photo model, CD art stylist, track order and what to put on the one sheet. Do they still do one sheets anymore? This is why there is a music industry. Too many jobs for one brain to handle. 

     All I know for sure is that I won’t be the same after this project is wrapped up. Got to let the little songs fly out and go on their own. Once it’s done I’ll know what all these changes are for. But meanwhile, my mind is going through them changes.