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Turning Up The Rock And Roll Station
Joe D'Urso
... on any given night the best band in the world is somewhere in a garage and basement and no one will ever know or hear them. - Joe D'Urso
by Matt Mrowicki
 [Chorus and Verse] March 2002 Feature: Joe D'Urso
Joe D'Urso at Home in Steeltown (January 29, 2002)

Musicians bring life to their chosen instrument, filling the air with sounds to stir-up emotions in their listener. Songwriters add a lyrical turn-of-phrase to offer insight into those emotions. Storytellers help us all relate to those emotions, or introduce us to new ones we haven't yet experienced. Joe D'Urso is all of these and more. He also rocks. Hard.

Joe D'Urso started out as a music fan, with a job typing contracts for famous musicians at the booking agency where he worked. He grew up raiding his sister's record collection, discovering bands such as The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and the Doors. He went on to major in communications, with minors in English and poetry, at Fredonia State College and wound up with a dream job in the music industry. While many people would have been content to brush against fame and creative success at the hundreds of concerts Joe was able to attend, he was not satisfied watching others perform while he sat in an office typing up their contracts.

Like the hundreds of bands who formed after seeing The Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night" in the 1960's, Joe and a friend left a screening of U2's "Rattle and Hum" promising to start a band of their own. They had a few things to overcome, such as learning how to actually play guitar, but the seed was planted and Joe finally had a creative outlet to produce the music he wanted to make.

Joe D'Urso and Stone Caravan has evolved into a classic American band, working hard and producing great albums while putting it all out every night on stage to a devoted legion of fans who were earned one at a time.

Joe has also become noted for his charity work on behalf of numerous organizations. It's been written that one of ten he shows he plays is a charity performance. Not only does he offer his musical talents to these events, he has done the heavy lifting by organizing several "Hungerthon" shows, on behalf of World Hunger Year (www.worldhungeryear.org), at venues such as The Stone Pony and the Tradewinds.

JD&SC has released six albums since their 1991 debut 45-10 Pearson. Their most recent is rock and roll station, which Joe confesses can be described by two dirty words: "concept" and "rock and roll". The twelve tracks on this disc are each introduced by a radio dj, setting the tone and stage for the performance to follow. The album is laid out to reflect the rise and fall of the listener's emotional mood through a typical weekend (or, perhaps, a typical life). Beginning at 8 am on Friday morning, the day starts off with the rocking "Rock In the Sun". By early Saturday morning, one is wondering "Where Does Love Go?". By the end of the weekend, one is left alone to the stirring reflections of "Never Missed You More": It's time to reap the seeds that we have sown.

The album, and Joe's songwriting, is wonderfully faithful to a basic human paradox. While many of the songs are reflective, melancholy and deal with themes of lost loves and good times past, they are each infused with a hopeful spirit, and sincere desire to learn from past mistakes for a better future and an optimism that success, happiness, love and, maybe someday, even a really great new rock band, will make everything worthwhile.

Joe D'Urso at the Boardwalk in Sheffield (January 29, 2002)

Joe took a break from his successful European tour (Italy and the United Kingdom will never be the same!) to spend some time with Chorus and Verse discussing his last album, the state of rock and roll in America, his musical career, and how the future looks for all of them.

How did the concept for rock and roll station, having radio disc jockeys record introductions for each song, develop?

It was something that had been running around my head for 4 or 5 years. I really miss hearing the DJ's I grew up listening to. They had more of a relationship with the band or artist and weren't just reading the fact sheet that the record company had supplied. I also thought that the introductions would help move the clock along over the two day period in which the CD takes place.

It sounds like a logistical nightmare to put together those ten introductions. Who wrote the script for the introduction to each song, or did the disc jockeys wing it? How were the disc jockeys selected to participate and how was each piece recorded?

I wrote the scripts but each DJ added their own personality and flair to each introduction. I chose each DJ based on the song and script. There was no one else in my mind to close the CD, which takes place at 4 am on Saturday Night/Sunday Morning then Vin Scelsa, cause he was the guy I modeled it on! Also, Meg Griffin is a tie into the late Allison Steele, who went by the name "The Night Bird", as she did the overnight jock spot for years. Meg's voice has that same quality of warmth that Allison's had. I did the same for each DJ. I thought "who would work best in the morning, rush hour and evening" and then approached them on the idea. All the DJ's were great to work with and not one of them charged me a single penny for their time and involvement.

Not only is the radio concept very original, but the album is laid out in an almost emotional map of an entire weekend, starting out with the optimistic promise of a sunny Friday morning, and concluding with a melancholy Sunday before dawn. This fits in well with many of your favorite themes as a songwriter as well. Was this an original part of the concept, or did it start to develop as you chose the set list for the album?

I think it kind of developed on its own. I have historically always started off with a bang, then end very mellow, with each prior CD. Not quite sure why, but it could have to do with the promise of a new day and then either the melancholy or the wisdom of looking back on that day/event after it has passed. Yeah, sunny Friday morning into the hazy, foggy early Sunday morning kind of sums it up.

Your bio discusses fond memories of sitting and listening to the AM radio and waiting for your favorite song to come on. Are there radio stations you still look forward to hearing as you tour around the country? Does college radio manage to retain that renegade vibe that made 1970's radio so ambitious? Have you found radio programming in Europe different from the United States?

I look forward to hearing any radio show that is alive! Programmed radio is dead energy. It leaves no room for improv or having a DJ ride a moment based on the current news and events of the day. Playing music and acting or not reacting to everyday events is insane. It's almost as insane as not reacting to the event itself. As writers, these events effect the process and as listeners it works the same way. But, somewhere along the line the bottom line and the bottom dollar became king over the art form of music and as long as these goes on music, and the people it affects, die a long, slow death artistically.

JD&SC Rocking the Boardwalk in Sheffield (January 29, 2002)

Europe, especially the BBC in the UK, doesn't have to deal with commercials and they also have shorter shows [that] only run one to two hours, so you get big bands mixed [into] pop music mixed into country mixed into talk which keeps everyone on their toes. I like the fact that a 12-year-old kid isn't only hearing Britney, but may hear some old Hank Williams and the Beatles. That can't be a bad thing in my book.

Is it becoming harder for people to discover new bands and music since radio and other forms of mainstream music distribution are so carefully preprogrammed?

Without a doubt! There is only so much room and that is worked out between record companies and, at this point, Clear Channel, which owns something like 1,200 stations or more! A DJ cannot step out of line and play something that he or she heard recently that blew their mind, which is crazy. It's become so corporate that the word "corporate" doesn't even capture the essence of its blandness.

You wrote all of the music on rock and roll station, except for a cover of Neil Young's "Powderfinger". Can you explain the story that song is telling, and how you decided to add it to the album?

"Powderfinger" is a story I [have] been singing for years and finally decided to tell it on record. It's one of Neil's finest songs as it describes a boy trying to fight off outsiders. That's a vague description, but I feel that [it] is the guts of the song. Lyrically it's either about a battle in Canada, or the U.S. Civil War. I've heard it explained both ways, but to me it's just a boy or man trying to protect his family the best way he knows how and will give his life for it. Doesn't get much more dramatic or emotional than that.

"Older Dreams" is a song you could be singing to almost anyone. You often write about themes that are universal, a bittersweet combination of the sadness of loss and the sweetness of nostalgia. When fans talk to you at shows about their favorite songs, do they share stories about relating to specific songs and reflecting their messages into their own lives?

Yes, sometimes they do. It's often the sadder songs that people relate back to their lives, especially if the lyrics aren't event specific and are more universal. I don't care if you're 45, 35, 25 or 15, we as a society tend to romanticize the past. I know I certainly do. As much as I really do like where I am standing at the present time, I do look back and say quite often "what would I have done if I had the chance to react at that same moment again." Some people don't like to look back, cause it hurts, but you can really move forward a lot quicker if you do take some time occasionally to look back.

When you write, are you feeling the emotions behind a song at the time you are writing? When penning a song such as "Never Missed You More", a melancholy reflection of people and times past, are you actually sitting somewhere at the gloaming and writing what you feel at the time, or are you able to bring back those impressions and put them to paper and guitar when you have free time to compose?

I've always felt for me personally that the best songs put you in the moment. Actors talk about being in the moment and I truly understand what they mean. I know when I written a real good one when I get to the bottom of the page and I can't remember what I wrote exactly on the top. I know the emotion that I am feeling but I can't remember the words as I've gotten lost in the moment, be it sadness or happiness. Those moments don't happen all the time, but when they do it makes the songwriting process worth every single second.

Joe D'Urso

The spoken intro to "Rock and Roll Call" wonders if that song is a true story or not, but "The Ballad of Townes Van Zandt and Hawkeye Pierce" seems more like a retelling of an interesting evening. Is that song based on an actual event in Austin, Texas? How did those two names come together to create the song's title?

Well, it's certainly an interesting story, but not a true one as Hawkeye is a fictional character and Townes was certainly a very real one. It came about as I was in Nashville the day after Townes had passed away a few years back. I thought to myself that I wanted to write a song about him as he lived a life that seemed more folklore than true life, but the more I found out about him it was almost all true!

Hawkeye is a character from M*A*S*H that I always identified with, as he was antiauthority especially when the authority didn't make sense. But he was also a healer, someone who took great care of people and cared about people. My wife used to get up every morning at 6 am and I would put on the TV and watch 4 episodes of M*A*S*H in a row. One morning I was in sleepy daze and I got up, went over to my desk and wrote the whole story in one sitting. It was like the whole story was forming up in my head each morning and just finally came to the breaking point one morning. I was proud of the way this song came out as it was different from others that I had written and it brought out more of the storyteller in my songwriting. It was an interesting process to have these two "characters" meet and the response to it has been great.

"Rock and Roll Call" pays tribute to a number of rock greats, and the spirit they injected into their music. In the middle of the song, you name check "JD&SC" as "the Spirit of Rock and Roll". Do you feel there is a part of the rock legacy that bands such as yours are carrying on? Is there is a certain regret in the song that many people (symbolized by the caller) don't know many of those legendary performers and are missing the spirit of the music?

I think that kids will always discover the greats. If you really love music you will eventually read all chapters of the "music book" if you have the desire. Again, today's radio doesn't make it easy when New Kids on the Block are considered Old School! It's funny 'cause someone asked me if the JD&SC I mention in the song stands for Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort! I guess that works as well as they certainly have their legendary place in Rock and Roll. I put our name in there for a few reasons. One, Spirit was an old nickname given to me by an older songwriter friend that I met in Greenwich Village when I was first starting out in 1988 or so. I guess my enthusiasm and energy towards wanting to play live and just play music gave him the idea of Spirit. But more so it's in the song because I feel we represent the thousands upon thousand of bands and musicians who always played for the right reasons. It wasn't about the money or the fame. It was about something bigger. Something that they were trying to say and maybe never got the chance to properly say. I once heard that on any given night the best band in the world is somewhere in a garage and basement and no one will ever know or hear them. That is what I wanted to try and represent in that song. I know how lucky I am that people get a chance to hear my music but I know how easily I could have missed the boat.

Joe D'Urso and Lou De Martino rock out in Nottingham (January 24, 2002)

You end the album with "Chasing Ghosts in Rockland", a song that fights between letting go of the past to move forward with the future, and trying to accept the past as it is. Is your choice of that song as the finale an optimistic or pessimistic statement, and how you think it summarizes the "concept" of the album?

I guess 'cause it has a melancholy sound it's easy to say that it's sad or pessimistic, but I do say in the lyric "My future's before me." I think what I was trying to say is that here I am standing guitar in hand with more opportunities before me than I ever thought possible but why am I still looking back. Why am I chasing these ghosts of Rockland County that I grew up in. I think I answer myself at the end of the song ..."the mistakes of my past still haunt my future." I think, like most people, I'm aware/afraid of past mistakes and making them again. We should learn and move on and not make the same mistakes be it personal or professional, but as a society most of us can't always say that's true to form.

Have you ever performed the entire album, in order, during a live show? If not, are there any plans to do so?

Yes, the first weekend we released the CD we did the CD in full with three shows at The Turning Point in Piermont and one show at Desmond's in New York City. On each of the three shows the CD was our first set, we took a short break then played other JD&SC songs. I never got a chance to present the CD with full DJ intro's and channel static and switching, and I still would like to, but I will only be supporting this disc another 9-10 months so time is growing short.

You've been touring Europe the past several months. In many ways, the album sounds very uniquely American. Has the record been well-received in Europe and you do think fans in countries such as Italy and the United Kingdom have made the same connection with the music as American fans?

JD&SC: Greg Leikins, Joe D'Urso, Sam La Monica and Lou DeMartino

I would say even more so than the American audience at this point. I am certainly more well-known in both the UK and Italy in the Rock and Roll/Americana scene than I am here in the States. It seems here in the States there is even an "in" crowd or clique among even the alt-country/Americana world. I've never been one to try and fit into "in" crowds and I'm certainly not going to try and do it with my music. I just go out there and give the best that I know how to give at this given time and people either get it or not. It seems lately that the Europeans have been getting it more and that may be as you suggested because it "sounds very uniquely American." I don't question it one way or another. I'm just glad that I have found an audience as I have been doing this for 11 years now and during the first 6 years [there] were plenty of reasons to stop doing it. But I held on and kept believing that I was on the right path.

You spend a great deal of time in the United States playing charity gigs, including shows that you help put together. Did you have the opportunity to do any of these shows during your European tour? Are there any special events upcoming for the remainder of 2002?

Yes, I have had the chance to do some benefit shows in Europe but not nearly as many as I would have liked so far. I was involved in two shows in December, one in England and one in Scotland, that saw money being donated to The Rainbow School for Autistic Children and World Hunger Year. I will do performing another show for The Rainbow School on May 17th near London, England and I hope to continue to mix rock and roll and charities together. It isn't a new idea by far but something that needs to continue ... at least in my world.

How does your charity work fit into your overall view of "the spirit of rock and roll"? Is the effort that you put forth to help these causes a form of "giving back" or do you feel that it is a natural extension of your music?

I think both. I realize how lucky I am that I get to do something I love. Now, Lord knows I don't make a lot of money at it by far but that still doesn't mean that I don't enjoy getting a chance to do the one thing I truly love to do. Not many people ever get a chance in their life to say that and I do appreciate it and the way I show it is by being involved in these concerts. So, in that manner it is giving something back and also trying to extend the good intentions of my music.

What songs have become the crowd favorites? Are there songs your crowds especially like to sing-along to? As a songwriter, how does it feel when people in the audience learn the words to your songs, and start to sing along? Do you happen to remember the first time this happened to you?

Crowd Faves: "Tell Me Why", "Rock and Roll Call", "Noisy Guitars", "I'm So Tired" (unreleased but a crowd fave in the UK), "Welcome Home" and "Numb". The crowds like to sing along to "Tell Me Why" and certain lines in "Noisy Guitars". It is obviously a great feeling when someone learns the words to a song you have written and then starts singing along with you. I first noticed this starting to happen around 1997 after I released Mirrors, Shoestrings and Credit Cards. It happens more often now, but I can honestly say that I never tire of it and I certainly don't think I will.

Cover Art for Joe D'Urso and Stone Caravan's

What are your recording plans for the next several months? When can fans expect new JD&SC material to be available?

Myself and the band have already started on the follow-up to rock and roll station as we just had a recording session in Hoboken, New Jersey last week. I will also be doing some solo acoustic tracks as well as the next release will be a double CD with one CD being a full rock and roll record and the other CD being a quiet acoustic record. Kind of gives you the option of what record you want to hear based on your mood at that given time and I have been writing a lot over this past year or so. We are hoping that the official release date will be January 2003 but I am hoping to have copies ready for December 2002 if all goes well.

If 2002 ends as well for Joe D'Urso as it began, the new album should be an extraordinary treat for fans. For more information about Joe D'Urso & Stone Caravan, check out their official web site at www.jdcaravan.com. Most of their albums, including rock and roll station, are available for sale on the web site, as well as many record stores and online retailers.

Matt Mrowicki
Matt Mrowicki [[email protected]], is an Internet entrepreneur and owner of Chorus and Verse. In 2002, he founded Impression Technologies LLC (www.imprtech.com) a digital design company offering website development, graphic design, online marketing, social media and technology consulting. He has been interviewed on topics ranging from how bands can best use their websites for promoting their music to current trends in social media. He has successfully launched over 100 websites and branding projects for clients and continues to develop new online opportunities and promote effective uses of technology and online media.
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