I was a chess-club geek, a freak, an outsider forever looking in and at the cliques that ruled my high school, not so much fascinated with them but, instead, disdainful and distrustful. In my eyes, those "cool" kids were simpletons, too concerned with keeping up appearances than keeping up their grades. And while they traded in phone numbers, dates and dances, I traded in books, stories, scripts and, most of all, dreams. See, Frank was going to be a rock star and me, me I was gonna learn to fly; he took off for the spotlight -- me, I took off for the sky. In other words: During our teen years, Frank Brown and I knew each other. I use "knew" in its loosest sense, though. If we had a conversation beyond 9th grade, it was one born of necessity, not want. On both our parts, I hasten to add. We ran in different circles, dreamed different dreams.
I say that so folks know I'm not pushing a "friend" here. Fact is, after we graduated in 1983, I didn't think of him for a good seven or eight years.
Then, in 1990 or 1991, I saw Frank -- fronting Flight of Mavis -- open for legendary rock eccentric Alex Chilton at Philadelphia's Chestnut Cabaret. Brown and band achieved something few opening acts in Philly succeed at: They captured the audience's attention and affection, whipping out tasty concoctions that served up equal parts feedback and catchy melodies. Small wonder, then, to discover their influences. "We loved NRBQ," recalls Brown. "If anyone was my mentor, it was Terry Adams. He opened everything up!" Other influences consisted of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Ramones and Nirvana. I saw 'em a few other times in the years that followed, the highlight--for me, at least--being WXPN's annual Singer-Songwriter Weekend.
Why? They didn't just perform Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere"; they made it their own. Yet, as confident as Flight of Mavis was on stage, their lone studio recording, 1991's six-song Spools, is tentative at best, the arrangements stilted and sparse and a tad too reminiscent of R.E.M. Not bad, in other words, but not great, either. So, no, I didn't approach Frank. What would I have said? "Hey, you're great live, but. . ." Puh-leez. If I was him, I'd have slapped me upside the head.
|Buzz Zeemer LIVE on Walnut St.-Philly-1996. Tommy Conwell, Ken Buono, Frank Brown, Dave McElroy|
Flash forward to the present: Flight of Mavis has metamorphosed into Buzz Zeemer and, aided by local legend Tommy Conwell, have become one of the area's premiere purveyors of power pop. "Tom was a fan of Flight of Mavis. He offered his services at a time when we needed a guitarist for a gig. It worked out so well, he wound up sticking around. His role is to take as much advantage of the holes I leave for his solos. . . and he does. He's the musician in the band."
Power pop? Eh. It's a lousy term, I admit, one that does a grave disservice to Buzz Zeemer. They're so much more than that. For evidence, folks need look no further than their 1996 release Play Thing or their last album, Delusions of Grandeur.
Released in late 1998, it's one of those rarities in today's disposable pop culture: An album that grows stronger with each listen. For example, consider the glorious, guitar-driven "Giving It All." "It's just about being a bit fed up," Frank says, allowing that it's difficult for him to enjoy his own songs. "You're always thinking about something you might have done differently." Perhaps that's true. But to these ears? With Conwell's guitar winding and whirling around Frank's impassioned, somewhat bitter vocals -- about love gone sour? Dreams derailing?--it's a damn near transcendent moment. "Would I have it any other way?" he asks, before declaring,
"I'm just giving it all I got / If I could I'd give it all away..."
There is no other way, of course. You give it all you got, rope-a-dope the tough moments and wait for an opening to launch a counteroffensive. "Sometimes it feels so long ago," he sings in "I Get This Feeling," a wistful song that opens with a wink at the nostalgic memories old friends invariably share. "It has a nice vibe," Frank concedes, displaying a disarming modesty. "That song sounds mature but it's probably the oldest one on there." Uh-huh. Just when you think that's it, the nostalgia transforms into a bittersweet paean to a former flame:
"I get this feeling when I hear your name/and after all this time I don't know why"
In print, I suppose, the lyrics seem somewhat plain, but Frank's aching vocals (not to mention Conwell's chiming guitar) lift it, and Delusions of Grandeur as a whole, into required listening for Rock 101. In short, as I've written elsewhere about other artists, albums and songs, "you're there, wherever there is."