2003 - Getting "Serious"

2003 – Getting “Serious”

So, my 4-year plan at Brooklyn College had turned into a 5-year plan due to lack of careful planning and my absorption in classes that interested me over meeting requirements. While I was getting a little lazy around schoolwork, I was determined to at least go out with a bang musically. My close friend and muse Larisa Vasilakis had asked me to compose an original piece of music for her graduate student recital which I gladly agreed to.  

In the beginning of January, I took a memorable trip to Florida with Larisa, her sister Victoria, plus friend and fellow musician Kane McCollum. My life was often in party mode, and I ended up with a cold on the flight down and disembarked feeling lousy. I soon felt better in the warm weather and pleasant atmosphere of Amelia Island where we stayed. Kane’s parents were our gracious hosts. They provided us the incredible opportunity to spend a day and night on the beautiful and sparsely populated Cumberland Island about an hour’s boat ride away. There, we saw animals living in the wild including hawks, armadillos, horses, turkeys, and more. We encountered no paved roads. It felt like the wilderness, yet we stayed in a lovely house and were able to eat a fancy dinner at the one hotel in that part of the island, which seemed to be a converted old manor house. That night we hung out with a young Alaskan chef who led us in complete darkness through the night forest to the beach. We started a campfire and sat around, smoking marijuana, and enjoying this special experience. I had just met Victoria for the first time a few days before. I sat next to her and felt enchanted by her attractive and life-loving presence. We spoke at length, and I had the feeling that she was perhaps a soulmate of sorts[1]

I was underway working on Larisa’s graduate recital piece. I demonstrated the piece to her by strumming chords and humming the melody. I guess it sounded ok, but what I was hearing in my head was richer and more elaborate. Often, I used my guitar and singing abilities to compose instrumental music which may have been more effectively conveyed had I been adept at piano. My guitar-vocal-based approach however helped produce a composition style all my own. 

Upon returning to Brooklyn, I had come down with the travel-with-friends bug. In contrast to sun-soaked Florida, I and a different group of friends including sisters Kitty and Vicky Davis went on a spontaneous bus trip to a very cold Boston, MA for one day only! It was long, cold, exhausting, and fun.  

On Tuesday, February 11th, I performed an acoustic show at 169 Bar in Chinatown, NYC. Bob Henson accompanied me on percussion making the show fun and lively. After the gig, I was one of the last people to leave. I packed my equipment in Mom’s car nearby. The car wouldn’t start. Cold, tired, and stranded in Chinatown late at night I went into the middle of Pike Street to try and hail down a car to ask for help. I must have looked like a crazy person and was not surprised most drivers refused to even look at me. Somehow I received a tow to a gas station and got repaired enough to drive home. 

By mid-February the rock-pop outfit Gravyboat, which I was playing in, had changed our name to District 22[2]. On Friday, February 28th we hit the stage of The Elbow Room with a late-night show. According to the promotional email sent by our leadman Greg Danetti there were to be executives from Sony there that night who “needed some impressing”. We were starting to feel like a band and gaining rapport with friends and supporters. Though we only played one gig before that, our rehearsals tended to be open to friends, so several people had already had a chance to hang out with us and see us perform our music.

I was fairly established as a musician who could adapt to a client’s needs and perform for a fee as a hired hand. Aside from playing the occasional gig and earning some money in a guitar and flute duet with a talented flautist Kristy, I would also perform solo classical guitar performances at Brooklyn College events for a decent fee and free food. 

Bob Henson helped to get me a fun gig performing in the pit band of Our Lady of Guadalupe Youth Theatre Company. For a couple of weekends in March, I played bass in the orchestra for Bat Boy the Musical. It wasn’t Broadway, but it was fun and entertaining. The kids could act and sing. And the band was comprised at least halfway of hired hands, like me, so it was quite tight and in-sync musically. The experience was enough to satisfy my curiosity about life as a Broadway musician (many a musician’s “dream job”). My curiosity was fulfilled. It was fun yes, but could I imagine myself playing the same show every day for weeks, months, possibly years? NO WAY!! Sometimes after these shows I went with Bob to hang with talented pit band guitarist Vlad in his Bay Ridge basement, smoking hookah, partying and listening to music. It was there I heard Russian heavy metal for the first time. 

District 22 was developing our style and our “social lives” at the studio for long hours every Sunday. We were fortunately in good stead with the owner of Electric Plant Studios and were given permission to rent the studio for the whole day on Sundays when he would normally be closed. We got a discount and Vee got a little extra cash on his day off. These rehearsals were a bit of a cloudy haze often involving marijuana smoking, drinking and junky food – all par for the course in the lives of most rock band musicians. We did our best to keep the studio clean out of respect for owner Vee. As for the smell we left behind, well that’s another thing. Sorry Vee!

On March 21st, District 22 returned to our now-familiar performance venue located in Manhattan’s West Village, The Elbow Room[3]. The emcee, a tall strong-voiced African American welcomed the crowd with a demanding and friendly growl “Make some fucking noise!!” and the crowd cooperated nicely. We rocked that night! District 22 performed again a week later at the midtown Manhattan night club Tobacco Road with fellow groove rock band Karmacycle. 

This was a very fruitful and active time for me as a musician, performer, and guitar player on many levels. While I was doing my best to prioritize this fun and promising new rock band District 22, I kept the wheels turning with the other aspects of my musical life. It was evident to me that each aspect of my diverse life fed into the other so that my musical development was exponential. 

Vee from Electric Plant held a Showcase at the Wicked Monk in Bayridge on April 27th. I performed acoustically accompanied by Aftab Motoyama on saxophone and Patch Salvino on percussion. Patch was also on the bill that night as a solo singer-songwriter act and Aftab and I backed him up. I proudly wore muttonchops and my Electric Plant Studios t-shirt with blue jeans and a $5 pair of comfy red sneakers – always a bit of “an original” with fashion. 

A few days later was the Composer’s Concert of the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music in Levenson Hall. The piece which I had composed for Larisa Vasilakis debuted. It was in three movements and entitled “Impossible Things”. The group performing that evening was a sextet including myself. All six members of this group were also involved with my second solo album Cornucopia. The piece was performed a second time as the closing piece at Larisa’s Student Recital two weeks later. 

Graduation day was on a bright and sunny morning at the end of May. Mom and especially Grandma Loretta couldn’t have been prouder. I was the first Sheridan to graduate from college. I was alongside a few college friends that day including Larisa, but I couldn’t help but notice the absence of one good buddy, Dave Z. He couldn’t make his college graduation ceremony because he was focusing on his music career and was occupied as such. I respected his priorities though I wished he could have been there.

Saturday, June 14th, proved significant in a few ways. For starters, two bands that I was currently playing in were on the same bill at Brooklyn’s rock club L’amour: District 22 and Plush (the Stone Temple Pilots tribute band). I was quite busy: first with guitar and backing vocals, and then with bass duties. It was a thrilling night and both bands were tight. Secondly, an acquaintance came up to me after the show visibly excited by the evening and offered me a job at Brooklyn College. And, though we may not have realized it at the time, this was District 22’s last performance together, making our time together as a band just over one year.

In late June I visited Norway with Mom and Jason Hills. This was the first time abroad for Jason, and so a big deal. I enjoyed returning to Norway, being with its nature and family-based atmosphere. It was unique to have a friend along sharing the experience. We did get on each other’s nerves but overall, this trip strengthened our friendship. Of the many photos we took in Norway, a few would come to make up the album artwork for my sophomore album Cornucopiawhich we were in the process of finishing up. A cousin set up a gig for me to perform a solo set at a local bar in Farsund called Pakhuset. The stage was a loft-style 2nd floor overlook. The crowd was basically appreciative, and some drunk guys requested I do an encore of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” which I had already played. 

Jason and I took a long bus ride from Kristiansand to Oslo with my cousin Erik. Besides pondering how I could make a future for myself as a singer-songwriter folk-rocker, I was also debating an offer that was recently presented to me. Three of my neighborhood buddies and fellow musicians Jack Lanza, Lou La Rocco, and Timmy Manhoff had a new heavy rock band and were looking to embellish their sound with some sonically charged lead guitar work. Enter yours truly. Lou had approached me one day and said, “Would you be down for ‘helping us’ by recording some lead guitar work for our new demo?” Translation: “Wanna join the band as lead guitarist?” Compared to what any of us had previously done in terms of recording they seemed to be taking things up a notch by investing in a decent recording with a local producer. I was impressed and a bit surprised by their seeming level of commitment to this new project. How could I not say yes? I loved playing lead guitar, and these guys were long-time friends. I got together with Lou and came up with some lead parts that he was happy with[4]

Anyway, back to that late June bus ride to Oslo. I was still playfully pondering my musical future. District 22 had been showing signs of lack of commitment for a while and so I did not see it as a real option. I was debating whether joining the neighborhood boys would be the right next move for me. Part of me wanted to say no, I’ll just focus on the Pencil People, yet I knew I did not have the resources or stamina to fuel my own ship. On the other hand, Lou, Jack, and Timmy were moving forward with determination and investment. I kind of subconsciously knew what my answer would be but was still toying with various scenarios as I traversed the countryside of Norway. 

Before I knew it, I was a paying fourth member of their new heavy rock group. No longer was I simply a friend helping things out, I was also chipping in for a quarter of band costs and committing myself to the project. How did I get myself into yet another “democratic” band even as my second solo album was in the process of being released? Hadn’t I had enough of this slow form of torture? Well, I had said yes, and when I give my word to something I dig in and do it and this was no exception. We agreed to call the band Levelsix. This time however, it did feel different. I had graduated college, so school was no longer a competing interest for my time and attention. I had come a long way and was now ready to be more “serious” than ever about my own chances at “making it” in the music biz. And I now had fellow bandmates who finally seemed to be on the same page as me in terms of dedication to the band. Yes, this time around things promised to be different.

As for Brooklyn College, even though I had graduated my days there were not over. I now had a part-time seasonal job at Brooklyn College working for the registrar. And so, I found myself at the Brooklyn College Student Union Building (SUBO) on the afternoon of Thursday, August 14th, wrapping up to leave work a little after 4pm when some of us noticed that the power was out. Outside there was a crowd of bewildered students gathered in the street wondering what happened. I ran into drummer buddy Cathal Murphy. We walked the three miles back to my place. It was hot. That evening we went a couple blocks up to Avenue S and sat in front of Jackie’s Delicatessen. The owner of Jackie’s was handing out beer and sandwiches rather than let it go bad from the lack of refrigeration. We were in a big circle, drinking beer and smoking weed. There were a few guitars and so we took turns playing songs. At some point cops passed by but we complied by pushing our beer bottles out of their line of sight and they drove on. It was very dark. Afterwards, Cathal and I took a brief walk through The Creek. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and so we couldn’t see the countless stars we were hoping to see in the absence of the city’s normally high level of light pollution. We slept in my extra hot basement apartment with no air-conditioning. With the heat and humidity and my head aching from drinking, smoking, and singing after a long day at work it was not easy to fall asleep.

The life of conservatory musicians involved interaction and helping one another out. It could get hectic for sure, but it was a valuable and character-forming experience. Cathal was a percussionist whose musical history involved being a speedy drummer and promoter of heavy metal bands in Ireland. Cathal recruited me on guitar and mutual friend Dave Z on bass to perform as a trio with him at his Master Recital on September 3rd at Brooklyn College’s Gershwin Hall. We played a fiery instrumental metal piece as the finale, “Bug Juice” composed by drummer Dave Lombardo.

I was recruited once again in September by Our Lady of Guadalupe Youth Theatre Company. This time I played bass in their pit band for Godspell. It was another fun experience playing with a competent group of musicians and a talented group of young actors and singers in which these songs were engraved in my brain for better or worse by forced repetition.

Levelsix rehearsals were moving along at a good pace and now we were ready to play our first show. We played Peggy O’ Neil’s sports bar in Coney Island late on November 7th. We were handing out our three-song demo by then. Local music reporter and friend of the band Timmy V wrote up the show for the Brooklyn College Kingsman in an article “Level Six Rises Up In Coney Island”. His colorful writing style lent itself toward creating a sense of importance around the event. Among other supportive commentary he wrote:

. . . This quartet may have just what it takes to one day become legends. Level Six is a heavy hitting, and musically provocative rock band hailing from Brooklyn, NY. 

. . . This group has several elements which are alien to many bands today, but that are characteristic of true artists: emotionally charged music with a definitive statement and purpose, members who are gifted with true musicianship and who are dedicated performers, and songs which make definitive artistic assertions. 

. . . Level Six is ready to make their mark.

It was a rough show, but a good one. We got the ball rolling and performed once more before the year was out, at Acme Underground in Manhattan on December 13th. Before I could really focus on Levelsix however, I still had unfinished business to attend to as a solo artist. 

After one cancellation over the summer, the CD release party for my second solo album Cornucopia was rescheduled to be the weekend of my 23rd birthday in late December at the Wicked Monk. The Pencil People would need to rehearse and I’d have to make that happen. One of the huge drawbacks of having my own band was that I was responsible for virtually everything: booking and paying for the studio, coordinating schedules, arranging for pickups, borrowing Mom’s car, promoting, and asking for favors from human beings and the rock n’ roll gods in the hopes that in the process everything would somehow work out. This is to say nothing about keeping up my own guitar and vocal abilities and staying relatively healthy all while juggling a social life, family issues, private students, gigs for income and who knows what else.

Drummer Bob Henson could not make our crucial Pencil People pre-show rehearsal. I called in a favor with Dave Evans. He saved the day and made the rehearsal, which was an awesome high-energy jam. Just one example of how the Pencil People had a friendly revolving door policy[5]

The day of the big show arrived. I had an annoying head cold including a nagging sore throat. I felt miserable but decided the show must go on. Fortunately, once we hit the stage, adrenaline kicked in and I felt great. The band played well, and Bob was familiar enough with the material that the show itself went off smoothly with him behind the kit that night despite not rehearsing with us for the gig. The crowd was very colorful. Dave Evans emceed. Larisa Vasilakis performed “Traveler”[6] with me on her viola. Several CDs were sold, and it felt like The Pencil People vision had been realized in its fullest form. Happy 23rd Birthday John Henry!

Right after the show I lapsed back into feeling quite sick and needed several days to recuperate my health. 

 


[1] Shortly after that experience I penned a tune called “My Great Escape”[1] which speaks to this spellbound experience on this mysterious island. To listen online, search: John Henry Sheridan “My Great Escape”. It is the 8th track on my second album Cornucopia (2003).

[2] District 22 is the name of a school district in Brooklyn, NY. Everyone in the band attended school in district 22. Also, around this time putting a number in a band name was somewhat in vogue so altogether it felt right. 

[4] This was not the first time that Lou and I worked together in this way. A few years earlier I assisted the same three guys with their band at the time, Nestaria, by putting some strange keyboard melodies on top of their music and providing some aggressive lead vocals. We performed once together in that format at a mini rock festival in Staten Island (circa 1999).

[5] I had originally wanted to call my solo band The Glass Children, but it sounded a bit too serious. Since I could not require strong commitments to without paying anyone, I was always penciling in musician’s names for gigs and prepared to switch the lineup whenever someone couldn’t make it. And so, I went with the more fitting band name: The Pencil People. 

[6] To listen online, search: “Traveler” John Henry Sheridan. It is the 9th song on my sophomore album Cornucopia.

Leave a comment