Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Saturday, January 14, 2012
Max Monroe's mother told him he was born on the highway somewhere between Baltimore and Richmond. He even has two birth certificates, one issued by Maryland the other by Virginia, to prove his "dual citizenship". After spending the early part of his life shuttling back and forth, Max finally left the Charm City for good in 1973 to settle in Richmond.
In the winter of '75, Max was 19 and residing at the Earle Hotel at 10 West Main Street. One day the desk clerk rang his room to let him know he had some visitors. Waiting downstairs were three guys he knew from the Jackson Ward neighborhood he grew up in, Watusi, Bee and Pop, the Cheatham brothers. The Cheathams had already been in some local bands. Starting as The Naturals, they had played at the legendary Sahara Club (2900 North Avenue). As times and styles changed, the group mutated into something called Rich Gypsy And The Wax Dollar Bills. Now the three brothers were standing in the lobby of The Earle trying to recruit the final piece for their latest brainchild. "What's the name of the band?", Max asked. "The Trash Company!", they announced. The first gig was already set for the following week.
Max was a perfect fit for the concept. Since getting his first guitar at age 11, he had always gravitated towards music that was adventurous, different. He taught himself to play while listening to The Beatles and The Stones alongside Soul music. Sly and The Family Stone, and later Graham Central Station, would have a huge impact. By the time he hooked up with Watusi, Bee and Pop they were all heavily under the influence of Funkadelic. It would be the basis for their partnership and the template for the band, not only in terms of sound, but look and style.
The Trash Company was unveiled on Valentine's Day night at a talent show at their old stomping grounds, the venerable Maggie L. Walker High School. The band's line up was: Max on vocals and guitar, Watusi (Linwood Cheatham) on guitar, Bee (Victor Cheatham) on drums, Pop (Gregory Cheatham) on percussion, Fisto (short for Mephisto, AKA: Tyrone Claude) on keyboards, and Wounded Knee, a guitarist of Native American descent, who liked to call himself "The Chickasaw Buzzsaw". As if the image of this ragtag crew wasn't enough to process, they were joined on stage by their cohort Wolf, a dread-locked free spirit with a black belt in karate as well as a penchant for sleeping under city bridges. As Wolf introduced The Trash Company he emptied a garbage can full of paper into the first few rows of the stunned auditorium. The band launched into a jam they had just written that week, the faculty freaked, the curtains drew closed, and it was over as soon as it had started.
After this inauspicious debut, the band gigged sporadically, rarely or barely getting paid, seldom venturing outside of the neighborhood. Meanwhile, at the eastern edge of Jackson Ward, the Richmond Coliseum was a regular stop for major touring acts. The Cheatham brothers attended their share of those concerts. Watusi was the point man, looking like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Bootsy Collins, he had a charisma and persuasiveness that allowed him and his brothers to make it close to the stage. Once up front, Watusi, Bee and Pop would bust out some dance moves that soon turned into full on routines, entertaining fellow concert goers as well as the performers on stage. This show inside of the show had become a thing of legend. The three would often be invited backstage, becoming friendly with heroes like Larry Graham and Hamilton Bohannon, hanging at after parties on tour buses or at downtown hotels. Rumor has it that George Clinton took such a liking to the Cheathams that he proposed doing a project with them, which, of course, never materialized. Max would tag along sometimes, but he was more interested in devoting time and energy to his own music. He had became more focused on writing songs, and started to assert himself in the direction the band was taking. He wanted it to go somewhere.
In spring of 1979, The Trash Company headed up Broad Street to Alpha Audio to cut a record. The session lasted about six hours, yielding three finished tracks, all written by Max Monroe: "Silly Girl", "Honey Babe" and what would end up being used for both sides of their single, "Come To Me Softly". Max sang, played the guitars and bass, while Bee played drums. Watusi and Pop contributed the eerie chimes, which were actually the sound of a toy xylophone run through a ring modulator by engineer Carlos Chafin (who later became President of In Your Ear Studios). The backing vocals were supplied by Bee's wife Florence Cheatham and Robinette Gravely, niece of U.S. Navy pioneer Admiral Samuel L. Gravely. The tapes from the session were left at Alpha Audio. The whereabouts of those 8 track reels or whether they still exist is unknown. For now, all we have is the 45.
Dark, moody loner folk rendered with soul and laced with surreal imagery, "Come To Me Softly", tells of a fleeting encounter between a drifting man and a mystery woman. He's stirred from sleep to follow her siren call. "Come to me softly / Come to me sweetly... Touch Me." She takes his hand yet remains out of reach. Is she real? Do they know each other? Through the haze there seems to be a history, a checkered past. "Tell me what you need, baby / I won't make you bleed this time / Tell me what you need, baby / I'll show you how to feel this time." There is something very real, deeply personal at the core of what at first blush seems like a fantasy.
The Trash Company "Come To Me Softly"
Despite the psychedelic overtones of "Come To Me Softly", with it's visions of pixies and a purple lady, Max Monroe never experimented with drugs, never even really drank, neither did the Cheatham brothers for that matter. The best explanation for the vividly abstract quality of Max's music is a condition known as synesthesia, which allows Max to perceive words, numbers, and sounds in terms of colors and textures. Jimi Hendrix, Duke Ellington and Stevie Wonder are among those also said to have had the same condition. In Max's case, he can even see colored halos or auras around people.
"Come To Me Softly" doesn't sound quite like anything else of it's era, or anything since, really. You could say it was ahead of its time, or maybe its time still hasn't come. A little off-kilter, definitely hard to classify, the uniqueness that distinguishes it, also hurts it on some level, at least in terms of trying to promote or sell it. But even though it doesn't fit neatly into a specific genre, it's one of those records that grows on you the more that you listen to it. All it needs is a chance.
The eye-catching 45 with its swirling "Kinky Blu" QCA label, was sent out to a number of record companies as well as an array of influential producers and artists in the industry. Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire sent back a nice hand-written note of encouragement. Frank Sinatra even replied with a signed letter of thanks. Country star Jerry Reed was not so kind. He felt so strongly about the record that he took the time to mail it back to Max... shattered into pieces.
The new record showed a band that had grown out of trying to be Funkadelic's kid brothers, but it did little to change The Trash Company's fortunes. They seemed snake-bitten, or at least unable to get out of their own way. More often than not Max found himself on a different page from the rest of the band. As the decade of the 80's rolled in, the only thing left to do was to part ways. The Trash Company continued for a while without Max, toning down and mellowing out, even performing at the outdoor family friendly event June Jubilee next to the downtown Marriott. A few years after departing the band, Max received a strange call from Hong Kong, of all places, inquiring about the "Come To Me Softly" 45. To this day, he still doesn't know how someone on the other side of the world heard his record, but a deal was struck and the remaining copies (most of the 500 pressed) were shipped. What became of all of those records remains a mystery. At least someone out there, way out there, appreciated his music.
Looking back on his time with The Trash Company, Max's bond with Watusi seems to mean more to him than anything else that came out of the band. The two were like brothers, they had their differences, but years of shared experiences, good and bad, forged a connection between them that seemed unbreakable. They liked to think of themselves as Mick and Keith. Watusi was Mick, the face of the band, the showman, the ego. Max was Keith, the de facto leader of the band. They were the Glimmer Twins without the excesses. Years after The Trash Company, Max and Watusi reminisced about that February day back in '75 at The Earle when Max joined the band. Watusi confided: "We could tell you were a vampire cutthroat pirate like us... hell, man, you completed the band!"
Although they didn't hang out with the same frequency they did when they were in the band together, Max and Watusi still collaborated occasionally. In the mid-80's Watusi dropped by the old Earle Hotel to help Max with some songs he was working on. One of the tapes that survived from the little Bell & Howell cassette recorder is the haunting "He's Only A Man". At the time, Watusi was really into the B-52's and even removed strings from his guitar in tribute, although it's kind of hard to clearly make him out through the pulsating waves of reverb. The result was the stark edge Max had envisioned for The Trash Company. To this day, Max much prefers it to "Come To Me Softly".
Ever since Max knew him, Watusi had a thyroid condition which produced a goiter on his neck. He would cover it with scarves or buttoned up shirt collars, but after well over a decade of not taking care of himself, Watusi's condition had progressed to the point that it could no longer be ignored. Max recalls walking into the emergency room of MCV Hospital with Watusi and seeing the horrified expressions on the nurses' faces. The size of the goiter looked like the extreme type of case you'd only see documented in a medical publication. The nurses made him sit in a wheel chair and immediately wheeled him away to see a doctor. Watusi was very nonchalant about the whole thing, amused by all the fuss, cracking jokes all the while. That was Watusi.
He received treatment, and his condition seemed to be under control, but gradually Max saw a change in Watusi and their relationship. They were spending less and less time together. They had drifted apart. Max attributes it to the toll that thyroid disease had taken on his best friend, physically as well as emotionally. His mood and psyche were altered by the illness. After years of health struggles, Linwood "Watusi" Cheatham left this world at the age of 47, September 3, 1996. He will always be remembered and loved for his larger than life personality and is still greatly missed. "The guy was magic," Max remembers, "I saw him perform hypnotism on people just by walking into a room."
Max never joined another group after The Trash Company, but he continued to make music for decades, behind the scenes. In the years immediately following the band, he diligently created new material and regularly submitted demos in the hopes of making it as a songwriter. A curt response from Capitol Records in the mid-80's contained the message "Some music was never meant to be heard." It was something that stuck with Max, but it didn't stop him. He continued to make his music, whether the world was listening or not. The seemingly endless stash of recordings from this thirty plus year period ranges from poignant acoustic ballads, to cathartic rock caterwaul, to out-there electro-funk and beyond. No matter what the style, there is something about each song that is distinctly Max. His music runs the gamut from vulnerable to abrasive to playful to just plain weird, but it's always genuine, always honest, always real.
A private man, Max enjoys keeping a low profile, but is by no means a shrinking violet. He has been very generous with his time as well as forthcoming with his thoughts and memories in helping us with this piece. As Max enthusiastically opened up his musical archives to us, it soon became evident with each new rough gem unearthed that this music deserved to finally be heard. A new single is due out soon from PPU and Steady Sounds to be followed by a full length LP of unreleased material.
Max Monroe stopped making music a couple of years ago, but he continues to write. He's been writing since childhood, and has two unpublished novels to his credit, Ugly People and Sexy Violence. Both are crime dramas, the former a period piece, the latter takes place in modern day Richmond and Baltimore with characters from his life experiences in those cities. Max still lives in Richmond, where he studies law in his spare time and goes fishing whenever he can.
The Earle Hotel shortly before demolition (1989)Photos courtesy:Joey Harrison.
10 West Main Street, Richmond, VA (1989)
Photos courtesy:Joey Harrison.
Photos courtesy:Joey Harrison.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
SoundLOY Productions will be premiering the documentary film "7 City Legacy" this Saturday at the historic Attucks Theatre in Norfolk. The film is a survey of the rich R&B legacy of Virginia's Tidewater region. The premier is open to the public and free to all with a pre-film reception at 7PM and a mixer after the documentary. More information is available here. Hope to see you there!
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
As best we can figure, scientists and mathematicians use "degrees of freedom" to assign value to variables in chemistry, physics and statistics. We continue to be stumped when it comes to finding answers about the group who recorded under this name at Richmond's Alpha Audio in 1976. On their solitary release, Degree Of Freedom diligently work two sides of an equation: one an epic sweet soul ballad with exquisitely woven harmonies, the other, a remarkably nimble instrumental funk workout. Two seemingly incongruent sides with a common denominator: precision. It all makes sense. What doesn't add up is how little is known about the talent responsible for this outstanding double-sider. Can anyone out there help us solve the puzzle?
Degree Of Freedom "Please Tell Me Why"
Degree Of Freedom "Vegetable Soup"
Monday, April 25, 2011
We just received word from filmmaker
Shanika Smiley that her recent piece on our friend Ray T. Jones will be featured on the April 28th edition of
Virginia Currents. The episode will debut on Richmond's PBS affiliate WCVE this Thursday at 8 PM. If you can't catch the local broadcast or want to watch it again, archived video should soon be available at the Community Idea Stations official website.
A truly fascinating story. Congratulations, Ray!
Sunday, January 2, 2011
Virginia Soul legend Lenis Guess makes his triumphant return to
Dig Deeper January 22nd at Southpaw in Brooklyn NY. Those who saw Lenis back in June 2009 (his first NYC show in over 20 years) can attest to how amazing he was. This month's Dig Deeper promises to be just as awesome. Come see a true master at work!
Funky Virginia will once again be represented by the Scorpio Brothers, spinning classic Soul 45's Commonwealth style, along with Dig Deeper residents DJ Honky & Mr. Robinson. A good time is sure to be had by all. Don't miss it!
Buy your tickets here!
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Our friends over at Plut records have out done themselves this time. On this two sided monster, not only do you get the the previously unreleased "A Taste Of Your Love" by the Symbolics (with backing from Shake), but also the impossibly rare "Stone Spanada" by Stone Love (originally released on the Lofton label). Both tracks were recorded in the 70's at Brockington & Guess Studio on 35th Street in Norfolk. The first few orders get the limited red vinyl versions!
Listen to some sound samples below!
Shipping for the 45 is $3.00 US and $6.00 world