Monday, December 30, 2013

In Memoriam: Charlie Chesterman

The Law: King Size Cigarette  
Scruffy the Cat: My Baby She’s Alright
[purchase a tribute/benefit album]

2013 saw its share of famous musical deaths, with Lou Reed probably considered the most significant. I find it more interesting to highlight some of the lesser known members of the musical community who passed on, and this year, in fact, I’ve already written about two, drummer Joey Covington and singer/songwriter Jason Molina (and I wrote somewhere else about Reed). I have a few ideas, and my schedule will dictate how many of them actually get written.

But I’m going to start with someone who I may have met, who has been in bands with people I knew in college, and whose death most of you probably missed, Charlie Chesterman. Although he lacked broad, mainstream recognition, Chesterman was an influential and respected musician. His obituary in the Boston Globe stated that his “dynamic performances as a singer and guitarist with the roots-rocking Scruffy the Cat were legendary.” Chesterman was a pioneer in that amalgam of punk, garage and roots music that became known as alt-country.

Chesterman was from Iowa, and eventually became the lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter for The Law, an early punk band that helped to create a central Iowa scene. I’m sure that I never would have heard of The Law, in the pre-Internet era, except for the fact that another member of the band, Kevin Hensley, was a couple of years behind me at Princeton, and was a WPRB DJ and staffer (under the name Billy Disease). Kevin brought The Law to campus to play gigs, and they were raw and fun and put on a great show. I may have met Chesterman during this period, but maybe not, but I was certainly impressed by his talents as a front man. Through Kevin, I own a copy of The Law’s “King Size Cigarette” single, and the “Instant Party” cassette. In researching this piece, I found out that Kevin works at a law firm that I have worked with as co-counsel. Small world.

I have to admit that I pretty much missed out on Chesterman’s next and most well-known band, Scruffy the Cat. At that point, I had graduated from college, and after a year as a paralegal, I went to law school, started working long hours as a Wall Street lawyer and met the woman who is now my wife. It was hard for me to keep up on music in those days in the same way that I did when I was in college. I was, I guess, tangentially aware of the existence of the band, which included two more people I knew in college, Stona Fitch (now a novelist and publisher) and Burns Stansfield (now a minister), but I can’t say I remember hearing them on the radio. But in the mid-1980s they were an integral part of the Boston music scene, and their 1986 EP, High Octane Revived, was the #4 EP in the prestigious Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. They were probably ahead of their time and never broke through to national popularity.

Following the breakup of Scruffy the Cat, Chesterman formed The Harmony Rockets and Chaz and the Legendary Motorbikes and also performed as a solo act.

Chesterman was diagnosed with cancer, and his popularity in the Boston music community was demonstrated by the way they rallied to raise money for him. There was a Scruffy the Cat reunion show, and the tribute album, which includes contributions from Letters to Cleo and the Young Fresh Fellows, that is linked to above (and which can also be downloaded here). He passed away on November 4, 2013.

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