Rock-star dream hits middle age

August 26, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Charles Bissell does not look like a man who has made it. He is 40, graying, balding and recently laid off from his job at a Manhattan ad agency. He rents a room in a friend's house in northern Jersey and, on this night, he is wearing an orange pocket T-shirt and green shorts showing off pasty white calves.

His story could be a cautionary tale to any band that harbors illusions of making it big one day. Bissell has been there - the million-dollar contract offer, the swooning music industry executives - and he knows it is fleeting, and often not the path to good music anyway.

His band, the Wrens, was almost big once, back in 1996 when it put out a critically acclaimed album, Secaucus, and was offered a lucrative contract. But wary of the restrictive deal, the Wrens turned it down. Their label withdrew its support. Out of money, the Wrens called off their tour, returned home and took temp jobs. For two years, the only music Bissell could listen to was classical.

But because of what happened next, Bissell's story could also be an inspiration. He poured his misery and disappointment into his music, dissecting the band's struggle to stay together ("Poorer or not this year and hell's the difference") and laying bare his failed relationships in devastating detail.

The band took more than four years to make a new record, The Meadowlands, and when it came out last year it was hailed as a landmark. It made best-of-the-year lists in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, the New Yorker and elsewhere. The Wrens started selling out their shows. They had realized some of their dreams just as they were on the verge of letting them go.

"We figured out that what we thought was the goal wasn't really the goal anymore," Bissell said Tuesday night before a solo show at the Talking Head in downtown Baltimore. "The record wasn't really about letting go of dreams as about the price you pay for sticking with them, and where you draw the line at giving up on them."

Bissell is on a solo tour of sorts, but he prefers to think of the shows as Wrens concerts without the rest of the band. His bandmates, aged 34 to 41, can't play because they have day jobs. Two of them, brothers Kevin and Greg Whelan, work at Pfizer. Jerry MacDonald works in sales for an investment firm.

The whole band did play some shows this summer as part of its "Weekends Only" tour - because that was the only time they had off. Until recently, three of them shared a house in the Meadowlands, and they recorded the album in their living room on evenings and weekends, building the songs up and then tearing them down over and over across four years.

At times, Bissell wondered if anything he had to say was still worth saying.

"I became really depressed because I'm not an alcoholic, I don't abuse drugs, I haven't done jail time," he says. "I was like, `I don't have anything to write about.' But at a certain point I realized that the very fact that I'm sitting here at age 35 writing songs for a [expletive] rock album, making $13,000 a year teaching guitar, maybe that is worth something."

It is not what they had planned. Kevin and Greg Whelan started the band in 1989 in Cape May, N.J. Bissell and MacDonald soon joined and for one summer they were the house band on the ferry that ran from Cape May to Lewes, Del. They were fired after playing the graphic Pixies song "Debaser" to the senior citizens onboard.

They got a house together in Secaucus and worked on their music. Their first album came out in 1994, and their second in 1996. The music was fast guitar rock marked by smart and penetrating lyrics. They dreamed of being rock stars.

"At one time and for a long time, we definitely wanted to be, very much in quotes, `rock stars,' because that's the environment we grew up in," Bissell says. "You form a band, sign to a label, put out a record, tour, open for someone, and then headline at theaters and stadiums."

The Wrens were offered a contract that would have paid them at least $1 million over six or seven records, though much of it would have to be returned if sales didn't reach certain levels. Wary of locking themselves in and distrustful of the executive who offered the deal, they turned it down.

The music industry moved on, and the Wrens did, too, in their own way. They got regular jobs, got promoted. Two are married now. One had kids. But they wanted to make one last album. They weren't always sure who would put it out, or how it would find an audience.

Since its release last September, The Meadowlands has sold almost 30,000 copies - not really enough to make a living from, but still respectable and more than the band had dared to hope for. The album was released on the independent Absolutely Kosher label, run by a longtime friend of the band, the deal based on only a handshake. One of their older extended-play CDs is expected to be reissued in January. And work on a new record starts this fall.

The exceedingly modest Bissell still isn't inclined to believe it all.

"It has been very gratifying for us," he says, "and sometimes you feel weird because there are so many good albums that come out that you can't help but asking, Why us?"

He hopes that they could be successful enough to leave their jobs and be full-time musicians, but he doesn't believe it will really happen. And he's learned that there's nothing wrong with that. It might even be better that way.

One of the most searing and autobiographical songs on The Meadowlands is "Everyone Choose Sides," a summary of what the Wrens went through in those years of silence between their last two albums.

The song begins with Bissell, in a low growl, singing, "13 grand / a year in the Meadowlands / bored and rural-poor, Lord, at 35, right? I'm the best 17-year-old ever."

But it ends like this: "I'm back! I'm back! So sing to raise the blind up / I've walked away from more than you imagine and I sleep just fine."

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