A Traveler’s first steps
Something must have been in the water — or in the air — in the Princeton school system in the late 1980s.
The musical bar may been set first in 1984 when Trey Anastasio, who had attended Princeton Day School, started a college band in Vermont that became Phish, a Grateful Dead-influenced jam band that flourished through the 1980s and ’90s.
Back at Princeton High Chris Barron was one of the kids jamming with his classmates. Princeton, at the time, “was the wall we were all banging our heads against,” as Barron said in an interview many years later — a place where there was nothing to do except form bands and play music at parties. After high school Barron went to college for a year, studied poetry, and then dropped out to form the Spin Doctors, the highly successful rock band that made the cover of Rolling Stone in 1993.
One of the people Barron jammed with was John Popper, who started out as a bad trumpet player in the high school jazz band but then switched to harmonica and began forming rock bands with friends. Barron was in one of the Popper ensembles in high school, but (as Barron said in another interview) got kicked out for being “a pain in the ass.”
Meanwhile Popper fell in with Chan Kinchla, a guitar player, drummer Brendan Hill, and bassist Bobby Sheehan. They ultimately became Blues Traveler, opening for the Rolling Stones, becoming the musical act that appeared more than any other on the David Letterman Show, and still records and performs with a legion of loyal fans.
And these rockers were not the only ones developing as performers. Laurie Berkner, another participant in the Princeton High music program, went to Rutgers, became a pre-school teacher, and realized the power of music to gain kids’ attention. She soon became a star on the children’s music circuit. Michael Showalter became a writer and movie actor, who appeared most recently in “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” and “The Baxter.”
Of the musical bright lights Popper may have been the last to arrive on the scene. The family, which included seven kids, moved to town in 1983 from Stamford, Connecticut, when Popper’s father took a pharmaceutical job at Squibb (now Bristol-Myers Squibb). By then young Popper was already playing the harmonica — a pursuit that became passionate when he saw the 1984 movie, “The Blues Brothers.” As Popper said later: “I realized, Oh, that’s what you can do with a harmonica!”
Given the subject matter — especially a rock and roll band — the artistic impetus at times can be hazy and has to be gleaned from various sources. But one seminal work concerning Blues Traveler is the new memoir by John Popper, with the indelicate title “Suck and Blow: And Other Stories I’m Not Supposed to Tell,” written with Dean Budnick, a music writer and editor-in-chief of Relix magazine, and being published by Da Capo Press (www.dacapopress.com). Herewith some excerpts from the Popper autobiography, along with some collaborative material from other sources:
Adapted excerpt from Suck and Blow: And Other Stories I’m Not Supposed to Tell by John Popper with Dean Budnick. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
“Moving to Princeton was like being in a Spielberg movie: it was a pristine, beautiful bubble amid the rank of highways of Central Jersey, where the sports teams were terrible but the studio band would win award after award in every jazz competition from there to the Berklee College of Music. The musicians were the hot shits, and the lead trumpet in the jazz band was kind of like the quarterback. It was in Princeton where I would meet the other guys in Blues Traveler.
“It was in Princeton where my moment arrived. I was the third-string trumpet player in the beginner band. I had landed there after I did really well on an untimed SAT in the special ed class where they had placed me after the move from Stamford. I had shitty grades, and they were going to send me to a school for the learning disabled, but then they tested me and discovered that I had college-level reading and comprehension skills.
“They decided they needed to somehow connect me with school. The remedial teacher saw me playing harmonica in the parking lot, so she sent me to the high school band teacher, who explained, “We don’t really have harmonica here. We play big band jazz. Is there any other instrument you’d like to play?” I said, “I dunno — trumpet?” because he had one there and it looked shiny. So he said, “Great,” gave me a trumpet, and kicked me out of his office.
“They sent me to the trumpet teacher, who gave me homework — it was a complicated instrument and you have to learn the rudiments — but homework was something I had given up back in eighth grade. Needless to say, I did not flourish at the trumpet.
“I was resigned to playing third-chair trumpet and having my trumpet teacher yell at me and wag his finger until this one day in the JV band when we were playing Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science.” It was our first opportunity to really get to solo, and the band teacher went around the room pointing to different people. I did my crappy trumpet solo — I could barely play the damn thing — but also had the three harmonicas in the trumpet case and, luckily, had one in the right key. So I held it up and he said, “Yeah, sure, give it a try.”
“… It was like the moment in The Natural when Robert Redford gets his hand on a baseball bat. It was a defining moment, and right away almost everyone in school knew my name — “Hey Popper! You’re that harmonica dude!” And basically it’s been that way ever since …”
While Popper’s memoir concentrates on his Studio Band exploits, he was not limited to that extracurricular activity. In the 1986 Princeton High yearbook he appears additionally in at least eight other photographs, including on the “baby picture” page, in the choir, the drama club, and playing harmonica in the school talent show. His senior class picture appears under one word only, “Popper.” His statement is similarly to the point:
So, I’ve got no reason to hang here. It’s been fun. To Mr. B, thanx so much for starting me, Studio Band # uno. Bren, my best ‘droogie’ or however the hell you spell it, we were always closest.
BLUESBAND REIGNS!! Band, you know how I feel. To my other friends, musicians, or otherwise, you were all Rock + Rollers in your own way … Everyone else my harmonica says goodbye! Wait for me Voodoo Child! SEE YOU IN THE LITE.
And Anthony Biancosino, the director of the band program and “Mr. B” and later “Dr. B” to the students, urged the young musicians to broaden their experience by forming ensembles outside of school. As Popper recounts in “Suck and Blow:”
“In the fall of 1983 I approached the drummer for the Nassau Band and asked him whether he wanted to get together and rehearse. He was a freshman, only 13 years old, but he was up for it. His name was Brendan Hill, and that was the beginning of Blues Traveler.
“We called ourselves The Establishment and played in Brendan’s parents’ basement — you always go where the drum set is… . We would play Police and Tears for Fears covers, the Euro-punk-sounding shit that was going around in the ’80s, and I kept asking when we could play a song with a harmonica in it. So to appease me, we’d do a 12-bar blues, and it was terrible. Still, this was the first time I was in an actual band that would actually rehearse, and that part of it was cool.
“The Establishment never played anywhere other than the Hills’ basement, although we talked about having gigs. I kept challenging us to try something new, and Brendan agreed, but we took a lot of wrong turns to get there.
“… I decided we should call ourselves Blues Band. My thinking was that this is going to be what we are — we’re going to play blues … In early 1985, the winter of my second junior year, we expanded to a five piece with a new vocalist. Chris [Barron] was the guy I knew in English class, and we hit it off pretty much right away. We were 16 or 17, and all we did was talk about songwriting.
“… We’d go off into the Herrontown Woods in Princeton and smoke pot and write songs… The lyrics I was writing — and I still have this problem — took too long to get there. But Chris could really get to the hook really quickly and really cleverly. Sometimes he would get a little wordy and I would be a little more to the point, but that was the counterbalance we had…
“The problem was that we were way too rigid for him. We had band uniforms — we decided on blue jeans, a white shirt, and a thin black tie. It was, again, a little homage to the Blues Brothers. I was also borrowing from Studio Band, where we had uniforms.
“… There were two kinds of musicians, the kind Mr. B loved and the kind he hated. Brendan and I were in Studio Band, which Mr. B cared about, despite the abuse Brendan got from him. He saw good things for us … But as far as Mr. B was concerned, Chan and Bobby were potheads, and Mr. B put anyone he didn’t need in a practice booth with their instrument. He didn’t give them any attention.
“… Our music program rejected Chan and Bobby, so they did not have the musical rudiments beaten into their heads, while the program loved Brendan and me, so we did have those rudiments beaten into our heads. It was a good combination because Chan and Bob brought a sense of “Do what you want to do because it sounds good,” and Brendan and I brought a sense of “Here’s a section within a structure, and here’s where it has to go.” It was the combination of those approaches that made it good.
“I would also say that Bob Sheehan was the band’s first promoter… After we finally put him in the band, Bobby said, “We need a cool name like Blues Entity, because when we play right we become this extra entity.” Ghostbusters was on cable around that time, and there’s a scene in which Gozer announces, “The Traveler has come!” So we became Blues Traveler.
“The band was the first team I ever belonged to. At first they didn’t know what to make of me — they thought I was an antisocial belligerent — but eventually we became friends. The first girl I ever fell in love with was the alto sax player. I would have a crush on her forever and write tons of songs about her.”
The ‘weird mutant’ becomes big man on campus
The Princeton High School Studio Band extended its brand in the fall of 2014 when another Princeton High alumnus, Damien Chazelle from the Class of 2003, released his film, Whiplash, about an winning-obsessed college band director challenging his drummer to rise to seemingly unattainable heights. Chazelle, who had been a drummer in the high school’s Studio Band, later told the Echo that the drill sergeant-like band director (played by best supporting actor J.K. Simmons) was “definitely a proxy for a bandleader I had in high school. It was a very competitive jazz band that was modeled after professional bands. And I remembered being very terrified.”
How did John Popper handle the Studio Band presssure?
Mr. B was a great guy but kind of nuts,” writes Popper in his memoir, “Suck & Blow.” In the book Popper recalls his time with Biancosino and the Princeton High School Studio Band:
“The songbook was an advanced repertoire compared to most other high school bands … We played these aggressive competitive-style jazz songs with super-challenging time signatures, crazy-ass solos, and ridiculous horn parts. They were all written by some asshole at a music college somewhere who saw a business in creating weird things for high school bands that wanted to participate in the competition circuit.
“But even though Mr. B certainly could be intense, particularly when it came to the drummers, I escaped all of that. We’d play “Whiplash,” which Hank Levy wrote in 7/4, or “Chain Reaction,” which was in 13/8, and everyone else had to learn these very precise parts. But not me. I was free to make up what I wanted because there weren’t any harmonica parts written. There was no one to tell me if I was doing it wrong; there was no harmonica authority, there were authorities for all the other instruments, but I had this great autonomy.
“I was an attraction, and Mr. B would just point to me for a solo, and that’s all I had to do. I would watch my band leader yell at everyone else while I would just sit there. On the rare occasion when he did yell at me, it would be something vague like, “Could you make it a little more peppy?” or, more commonly, “Don’t be such a smartass.” That’s when I would excel; I would soar when they just left me alone. The key lesson was that there are times when you should fear authority, but you certainly don’t have to listen to it.
“… Then Mr. B put a few more rock songs into the repertoire within the confines he deemed acceptable. We did the Ghostbusters theme and “Lapti Nek,” the song they play in Jabba the Hutt’s palace in Return of the Jedi, which was a funk in E-flat, so I could jam on that. My harmonica was a selling point for letting him do this, and instantly I went from being a weird mutant into being the big man on campus. When you start out so antisocial, it’s a pretty lonely existence. I’d already made my peace with all of that. So to turn it around within the time I was in high school seemed to me like it was out of a movie. I felt like Molly Ringwald.”
To read Popper’s full memoir, purchase his book here.