What’s brought these three 41-year-olds together at a Durham pub, even more than pitchers of Newcastle, is music. Two of the guys make music and have been doing so for over 20 years each. The third just tries to write about it.
The nearby dwelling of one of the music-makers doubles as a rehearsal space and mini recording studio, with guitars, records, and music memorabilia everywhere. (There also are sports mementos, including a shrine to his beloved but underachieving Orioles, located in the bathroom because “they’re in the toilet.”) One night some years back, the other music-maker met a woman who had come out to hear his band play in Milwaukee. He asked what the last two CDs she bought were. She responded that she had bought two that day, The Soul of O.V. Wright and a Louvin Brothers collection. He did what any guy in his right mind, or at least any guy at this particular table, would do. He married her.
Jeff Hart, the one with the half Beatles & Bob/half Brooks Robinson decor, first formed a band with high school friends in Garner. “Suburban boys with country accents who played loud pop music that had sort of a country feel to it ‘cuz we were Southern,” is how Hart describes that first group, the Hanks. A few years later, he founded a similar rugged pop outfit called the Ruins, which had close to a decade-long run before calling it quits five years ago.
Tom Meltzer, he of the “two CDs” ice-breaker, started in a cover band christened the Special Guests while at Columbia University in the early ’80s. “Every other band on campus sounded like Joy Division. … So we just decided we were going to model ourselves after Rockpile,” explains Meltzer, citing the straight-at-ya combo led by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. “Just play Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers.” Original songs gradually replaced the covers, members cycled out as graduate school won out over smoky dives, and those left standing renamed the band Five Chinese Brothers. “(It) wasn’t a much better name,” admits Meltzer. “We offended a lot of people, upset a lot of P.C. sensibilities, and disappointed a lot of people who thought we were going to be an R.E.M. cover band.”
Five Chinese Brothers released four smart, roots-celebrating albums before signing off after once too often being on the verge of breaking through. Frustrated, Meltzer took a couple years off from writing and playing music. For the Ruins, it was more of a case of, despite 1996’s terrific Glances from a Nervous Groom, being on the verge of being on the verge. After the Ruins’ demise, Hart took a different approach than Meltzer and immersed himself in music even more. He kept the monthly Songwriters Alliance going for a while, started a Kinks cover band, filled in on bass for the Two Dollar Pistols, and formed yet another band: the Brown Mountain Lights, a four-piece that uses the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a launching pad.
Meltzer has recently returned to songwriting, but from a fan’s perspective and with a focus on hooks and melodies. He’s an Aimee Mann fan, and his fondness for her work sent him back to the Nuggets box as well as longtime favorites like Big Star and the Kinks. Hart also looks to his music collection for inspiration, offering, “I’ll ask myself the question, ‘What would Tom Petty do here?’ or ‘What would Paul Westerberg do?’”
When Meltzer and wife Lisa moved to Durham, he and Hart became friends first, then frequent musical partners. They obviously click in both modes and form a first-rate duo on stage: a pair of displaced frontguys and top-shelf songwriters, kind of like Lowe and Edmunds gone acoustic. Next up for them is a Valentine’s Day show at The Cave, about which Hart suggests, “I’m thinking, Tom, since you’re the married guy, we should do like a point/counterpoint. You do the love songs, I’ll do the others.” I can see it. Meltzer plays the soul nugget “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” and Hart follows it with Elvis Costello’s hate letter to Margaret Thatcher, “Tramp the Dirt Down.” They could call it Violins and Vitriol. Or not.
At that, the recorder gets clicked off, glasses are freshly Newcastled, and the three of us talk about other important matters: Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” the Burt Bacharach box set, and Dusty in Memphis.