3 months ago
If you happened to have a Discman in the early ’90s, there were myriad reasons to use it all day, every day. Just in 1991 alone, audiophiles saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, U2’s Achtung Baby, R.E.M.’s Out of Time, Metallica’s self-titled Black Album, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Pearl Jam’s Ten. The list of seminal records that were released that year goes on and on and on.
That summer, a New York City band named the Spin Doctors dropped their debut album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite—but to choice few ears. Getting their start as an opening act for Blues Traveler—a band that would strike gold three years later with their album, Four—the Spin Doctors gigged heavily, and were sort of a proto-jam band, spinning a mixture of jazz, blues, funk, and folk, the musical equivalent of a record store’s LP bargain bin.
Just the way the band looked had a different flavor than the grungy gods of Nirvana, California surfer dudes of Pearl Jam, or the heavily tatted brutes of the Chili Peppers. There was the rail-thin, delightfully non-clean-shaven lead singer, Chris Barron (an early Rolling Stone feature referred to him as the “Gumby Messiah”), who not only had a distinctive voice but also wrote highly poetic lyrics; a black-clothes-and-shades-favoring African-American dude, Mark White, on bass; a guitarist in Eric Schenkman, who sounded like he’d been wheeled in from a Led Zeppelin cover band; and drummer, Aaron Comess, who looked like he was straight out of a Grateful Dead bootleg VHS.
It would take another two years and the influence of an early loyalist at Manchester, Vermont, radio station WEQX to break the band. As Barron tells RealClearLife, the station did a listening party at a local record store for Achtung Baby, and more people ended up walking out of the store with Kryptonite that night. The band’s first big gig of note after the initial radio push was at a place called Bogie’s in Albany, New York. (Barron remembers a cold, upstate New York night, with lines snaking out the door.) That led to appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. Things just exploded from there. Kryptonite would spell gold and then platinum for the band, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard charts and selling five million copies by 1995. The album would also spawn a pair of hit singles, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes,” both of which garnered heavy airplay and memorable MTV videos.
They’d follow it up with a platinum-selling album in ’94, but quickly drop off the radar, as many ’90s alternative bands did.
Against all the odds, the original Spin Doctors lineup is still friendly all these years later—despite a few members temporarily leaving the fold. “We’ve had our ups and downs, personally, but it’s always been amazing, musically,” Barron tells RealClearLife. He tells us he looks at his bandmates as “siblings,” enjoying good bottles of wine and scotch with his brothers, going out to dinner with them, and doing a lot of laughing. “We know each other very, very well,” he says.
Maybe even more surprising is that Barron is still actually singing. He’s now survived and recovered from not one, but two bouts of a rare type of vocal cord paralysis—the first in 1999, the second just last year—during which he completely lost his voice. Of that last instance, Barron says, “When I came back from that, I had this sense of urgency; it really hit home.” To that end, Barron’s now talking up a storm and super excited about the upcoming release of his new solo record, Angels and One Armed Jugglers (out Oct. 20), which he crowdfunded via a Kickstarter campaign. (For $150 donations, Barron wrote fans a personal haiku; for $1,000, their very own song.)
He’s also stoked about the solo acoustic tour that he’ll be embarking on to support Jugglers, and he’ll be at the Rockwood Music Hall in NYC on the night of his album’s release date. Barron tells us the format isn’t that far from his roots, when he first moved to the Big Apple from Princeton, New Jersey, on a dare from a member of Blues Traveler. He would end up busking in the subway and playing between their sets until he hooked up with Schenkman. “By the time I met Eric, he had played every good rock song in a cover band 45,000 times,” says Barron.
Barron’s also on the cusp of two other major milestones: 30 years as a member of the Spin Doctors as of next year; and his 50th birthday, which he reflected on by listing all the ways he feels lucky:
“I’m married, and I’ve got a very cool wife; I own an apartment in Manhattan; I wrote a couple tunes that were played on the radio several billion times; I wake up in the morning and make really strong coffee and write three pages in a notebook, whether I write crap or something good—it doesn’t really matter, it’s an exercise; I practice guitar for hours a day; I take voice lessons; me and one of the other guys in my building emptied out a storage room and turned it into a gym, so I jump a lot of rope and try to stay in really good physical condition …[and] I make a decent living playing rock and roll.”
That age milestone has also made him reflective about his career, telling us he looks at it as a series of three drawers: “There’s the f—ing-awesome-loud-rock-and-roll-band drawer, where I’m in this band the Spin Doctors; I also have this side-project with these three Norwegian rock stars called the Canoes—sort of like the Eagles meets Glee; and then I’ve got that drawer in the kitchen that’s got that stumpy little Phillips-head screwdriver and the electric tape and the box of kitchen matches—the utility drawer—and that’s my solo career.”
Right now, though, we’d like to reopen Drawer No. 1. During our hour-plus interview with Barron, we dug extremely deep into the Spin Doctors’ hit song, “Two Princes,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. (Yes, his publicist said he’d like to talk for hours, and we obliged. “Just go ahead now,” we said to ourselves.) Below, find out—in Barron’s words—everything you didn’t know about your favorite ’90s love song, as well as some nuggets about the making of Pocket Full of Kryptonite.
When and Where ‘Two Princes’ Was Conceived
“I was 19 years old, and it was 1987. I went to Bennington [College] for one year, and then my dad’s ex-wife, who is the nonfictional figure behind ‘Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,’ spent all my college money on a Ferrari Dino, a mink and lynx coat, and cleaned out my dad, and I had to leave college after a year. I moved back to my hometown [Princeton, New Jersey], and I was working at a kitchen in this terrific restaurant called the American Diner.
“I was sitting at the top of the stairs in this little room that I rented in this house, and nobody was home. I had a yellow legal pad and a Sheaffer fountain pen, and I just wrote down: ‘One, two princes kneel before you/princes, princes who adore you.’ And I was like, ‘That is stupid.’ But I was embarking on the [daily] writing technique that I described earlier. One of the finer points of that technique is the idea of a ‘creative voice’ and an ‘editing voice’ in your mind. So the creative voice is just this toddler, who’s running around finger-painting and sticking his finger in an electric socket, and the editing voice is the bouncer at the bar who throws everybody out at the end of the night. You don’t want that guy, that voice. In the beginning, you want to turn the volume down on that voice. Like, ‘Shut up, editing voice.’ Once you have the body of the idea written, and it’s time to revise, then you want to bring that bouncer in, who’s going to be, like, ‘No, that line’s not good enough. You need to rewrite that line.’
“But then when I played [‘Two Princes’] for people, they went nuts. And then I played it for the Spin Doctors, and they were, like, [mishearing lyric], ‘Marry him, marry me/I know what a Princeton lover ought to be’? I was like, ‘No. A prince and lover ought to be.’ It was originally in G, and Eric transposed it to D, which was a more comfortable spot for my voice, and he threw that minor chord in. And Aaron came up with that [intro] fill, and the band did their own arrangement of it.”
The Origin Story of the Song’s Scat Line (Begins at 00:40 of the Kryptonite Version of Song)
“I’ve been playing the guitar for 40 years, and now, I’m finally playing some sh-t that I think is really interesting. I’ve never been a virtuoso guitar player, and I came to songwriting because I couldn’t play other people’s songs, and I couldn’t solo on the guitar. I used to do a lot of scatting throughout my set when I was first starting out, because it was a way for me to introduce a melodic element into the music without having to embarrass myself trying to take a guitar solo.
“[The scat line] probably did, to some extent, come from John Popper [of Blues Traveler], because he turned me on to the Blues Brothers and from there, I found Cab Calloway. I think the scatting is a Cab Calloway idea. In the studio, when I was doing the scat solo, John Popper was there while I was doing it. So in terms of the actual final product on that recording, John Popper was instrumental.”
How ‘Just Go Ahead Now’ Got Into the Song
“Before I ended up on that stairwell that afternoon, I’d been at work, and this young woman that I’d known in high school called me on the phone and asked me to meet her that evening. We’d had a bit of a falling out, and it was the first time we’d spoken since; we’d been friends and almost been romantically involved and never quite got there. But I really liked her a lot.
“So I walk out of work, and I’m wondering what all this means, and I run into my friend David Wilder’s big brother Mike-it—we thought he was the coolest Mike, so we called him Mike-it—and he was like, ‘Hey Chris! How you doin’?’ And I was like, ‘Man, you know, this girl just called me at work.’ And he was like, ‘Well, just go ahead with that.’ And I was like, ‘But I think she might be mad with me.’ And he was like, ‘Just go ahead now.’ Everything I was saying he was just like, ‘Just go ahead now.’ So I get to the top of the stairs [to write the song], and I’m like, ‘One, two princes kneel before you/princes, princes who adore you … just go ahead now.'”
How the ‘Two Princes’ MTV Video Unwittingly Launched a Fashion Trend
“You know why I wore that [Peruvian] hat and that sweater? I wore the hat because I bought it for $6 on the street, and I was broke, and I was like, ‘Damn, that’s kind of a funky hat.’ Then, we were making that video, and it was December, and it was not too cold during the day, but then the sun went down, and we were tired, and we’d been working all day, and they hadn’t really brought any wardrobe for anything cold. So the sweater belonged to the hair-and-makeup lady. I put on the sweater and the hat, came out of the hair-and-makeup [trailer], and Rich Murray, who directed the video, looked me up and down and then at the hair-and-makeup lady, and was like, ‘What the f-k?’ She just shrugged. He was like, ‘We don’t have time for this sh-t!’ But once he looked at it in the monitor, he was like, ‘You know what? I f—ing love this.'”
Why the Song Didn’t Hit No. 1
“Well, I know that we were up against ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ and it kept us out of No. 1 on Billboard. And I actually never heard that song until a couple of years ago. I was like, ‘What the f-k is this ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ sh-t?’ Nothing against Billy Ray Cyrus or anything, but I had never even heard that song. I’ve always had a friendly, [puts on snippy tone] Aw, that Billy Ray Cyrus guy thing about him. But then my daughter actually watched Miley Cyrus’ show on Disney Channel, and it was cool, because I was a single dad, and we would watch [Hannah Montana], and I told her, ‘That’s the guy that kept ‘Two Princes’ out of No. 1,’ but in a laughing kind of way. And she really liked that show. I liked that show, because it was a musician dad, with two kids, and the mom was just not in the picture. It sort of normalized our life a bit.” [After Barron divorced his first wife, he was awarded custody of his now 18-year-old daughter in 2005. Hence, his previous quote.]
How Superman Made It Into ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Blues’ (and the Album Title)
“My one year at Bennington, they had a work term, and I had a job in Providence as an intern at a radio station, and I was spending a lot of time with my friends at Brown University. I was totally broke. I came up with this ruse, so that I could eat in the cafeterias at Brown. I stole an apron, and I would walk through the kitchen, and then, come out, take the apron off, and then feed. I’m essentially an honest person, and I was not feeling very good about myself doing this. I come from an upper-middle-class background and had a very bad family situation and was not able to ask for money.
“So I’m sitting there [at Brown], and this beautiful young woman walks in, and she looked like Lois Lane. I’m looking at her, and my songwriter mind is always active, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s Lois Lane. But I’m certainly not Superman. Who am I?’ And it was like, ‘Boom! Jimmy Olsen.’ I wrote the beginning of that song when I was 18 that winter, and it was a bit insipid; I had ‘Lois Lane, please, put me in your plan/Lois Lane you don’t need no Superman.’ I had a basic chord progression and verses.
“Later, I found it in a notebook when I had moved to New York, and I was like, ‘Oh sh-t, this is a really solid song idea.’ I wrote, ‘Come on downtown and stay with me tonight/I’ve got a pocket full of kryptonite.’ When I wrote that line, I got this electric feeling in my toes. There’s this moment when you come up with the money line in a song, and you’re like, ‘Now, I have a song.'”
The Most Rock Star Purchase Barron Made During the Kryptonite Era
“It’s pretty well documented that I smoked a lot of pot, and I haven’t smoked pot since my daughter was born. So, 18 years. But back in the day, I used to get super high and go buy [music] gear. I got some really nice guitars and amplifiers along the way. But it turned out I bought the right stuff; I liked the really cool stuff.
“A couple years ago, I was down in my basement, and there were just a couple of boxes that I hadn’t seen since I’d moved into my apartment; there were things that I apparently didn’t need and just put down there. I see this box, and I’m like, ‘The f-ck is in this box?’ So I open up the box, and there’s a bunch of bubblewrap, and I start to move it aside; I don’t want to make a big mess, because bubblewrap is all static-y and sh-t. So just slowly moving it aside, trying not to spill it out on the floor. I see a black Tolex top of an amplifier. I’m like, ‘Damn, this is an amplifier!’ It’s obviously a little Fender amp. Then, I move a little more of the bubble wrap and I see a blackface on the front of it, and now my blood is pumping and I have this stinging behind my nostrils and tickling under my fingernails and toenails. I see this blackface with a patina, so I know it’s an old Blackface amplifier from the ’60s. So then I just pull it out, bubblewrap’s flying everywhere, and I look at it, and it’s this ’60s Princeton Reverb amp.
“It’s not the most valuable amp. It’s not worth $1 million or anything. But it’s a f—ing awesome amp! Back then, they would put a stamp with a letter and a number on the inside of the amplifier on the label—and it’s hand-stamped, it’s this purple-blue ink, and that’s how you know what year it is, and it actually tells you what month it was made. So I go upstairs and I look it up, and it’s a 1964 Fender Princeton Reverb amp. And I have no memory of buying it.” [One sold last year via Heritage Auctions for $2,000.]
On Whether Barron Ever Gets Sick of Performing ‘Two Princes,’ and If It’ll Be in His Solo Acoustic Sets
“No, I don’t get sick of playing it, and I will be playing it [live]. People always say, ‘Do you get sick of playing ‘Two Princes’?’ And I say, ‘Do I get sick of people going nuts when I play a song that I wrote?’ I don’t blame journalists for asking that question, because I know that that is a really commonplace thing with people being, like, ‘Yeah, I hate playing our hit.’ But I’m lucky because it’s an uptempo tune, I happen to think it’s a decent song, it’s got an interesting melody, and a lot of interesting harmonic and rhythmic implications. So I never get tired. There are endless variations to f-k around with on that song. And when I say that, I’m not saying, like, people are going to come out and I’m going to be playing it as a bossa nova, I mean that there are subtle ways of fooling around with it that the audience doesn’t need to know necessarily that I’m making any kind of a variation in it. But I know. Added notes here, or goof around a little there.
“I’m lucky because it’s a good song. I like that song. A lot of people love that song. So many people have so many really nice stories, so it adds to the significance of the song for me. The song has meant a lot to me in my career; I’m grateful to that song. It bought me my apartment and it put me where I am today and it put me on the phone with you. But beyond that, just the other day, two very dear friends of mine had a baby, and we went to visit them, and the baby was, like, 14 hours old, and we [asked], ‘How did it go?’ and she didn’t have the easiest time with the pregnancy. But everybody was cool, and everybody was fine, and she was recovering, and they were like, ‘We did a playlist for labor, and your song came on, like, right when she started to push. We were so psyched; we couldn’t wait to tell you this.’ So I mean, dude, to have a song like that, that is really part of the zeitgeist of a particular time … that brought tears to my eyes. It’s such a cool thing. I feel really privileged and lucky to have written the tune that so many people have enjoyed and means something to so many people.
“Once or twice, I didn’t play it in a set, and one time, somebody came up to me and said, ‘Why didn’t you play ‘Two Princes’?’ and I was like, ‘I just didn’t play it.’ And she was like, ‘I drove 10 hours because I wanted to hear that song!’ Performers bow at the end of their performance, and that’s because we owe the audience something. It’s because they are the people that let us do what we do. The least I can do is play some of the tunes that people want to hear.”
What Barron Wants to Have Written on His Headstone (We Suggested a Footnote on ‘Two Princes’ and ‘Just Go Ahead Now’)
“If nobody ever remembered that I wrote songs, but I was remembered as a poet, I would be satisfied. To me, it’s all about the writing. But the idea of being remembered as the guy who wrote ‘Two Princes’ is highly satisfying. To be remembered at all! I’m psyched that it’s almost 2018, and 30 years from the band forming people are still interested in what I’m doing now while I’m still alive. But I don’t think I need to put it on my gravestone.
“Actually, what I was thinking of putting on my gravestone was a line from my great uncle Lennie, who owned a jazz club in Massachusetts called Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike—he owned it from, like, ’52 to ’72—[it was an] iconic, iconic jazz club. He was the classic hepcat impresario, and he had a bunch of lines that were so damned funny. When he would leave, he would hold forth his hand, and be like, ‘I have delighted you enough.’ So I was thinking of having that be my epitaph.”