Hello, Goodbye: Another Anthology From ’80s Roots Rockers Scruffy the Cat
As far as final chapters go, Scruffy the Cat’s isn’t too shabby. It just took a long time to get written.
In the case of the ‘80s Boston-based roots rock band, it wasn’t a matter of writer’s block. It was timing, technology, bureaucracy and that biggest bugaboo of all, life.
This week, 26 years after Scruffy the Cat’s last record hit the shelves, Omnivore Recordings is releasing The Good Goodbye: Unreleased Recordings 1984-1990. It’s a 23-track collection of outtakes and unreleased material including six soulful tracks recorded in Memphis that never got picked up by any label. The Good Goodbye (out Sept. 16) comes on the heels of last month’s 38-track digital-only release Time Never Forgets: The Anthology (’86-’88) compiling the band’s two LPs and two EPs.
“It’s really nice that it’s finally out there,” said Scruffy’s former bass player, Mac Stanfield. “We’ve had people say, ‘Why can’t we find this on iTunes?’ We’d say, ‘We don’t own it, it’s not our decision.’”
Call the music roots rock or cowpunk or any number of things, Scruffy the Cat had a devoted fan base that has been waiting for a long, long time. With the playful, romantic and sometimes melancholy lyrics of frontman Charlie Chesterman and the seering guitar of Stephen Fredette, Scruffy the Cat was a mainstay on the college circuit and toured maniacally.
Scruffy’s catalog of two EPs and two LPs came in 1986-88, with some ending up on critics’ lists in the New York Times and the Village Voice. Yet the band always stayed under the radar, with music that was hard for mainstream radio or MTV to categorize. Scruffy shared bills with the Replacements, Los Lobos and the Pogues. An up-and-coming band, Hootie and the Blowfish, opened for them.
Scruffy the Cat’s first “hit,” a harmonica-heavy “My Baby She’s Alright” got some MTV play and the album it was from, Tiny Days, fared well on the college charts and critics’ lists. Another single two years later, “Moons of Jupiter,” made the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. But that was about it beyond the popular, energetic live shows.
From Punk to Soul
Part of the reason the band flew under the radar was that Scruffy’s music was hard to categorize. The band started in punk rock, then moved to a twangier sound helped by the banjo and accordion of Stona Fitch. A couple years later, Fitch was out and Stanfield’s older brother Burns was in on piano and Hammond organ, giving the band a more soulful sound.
“We’d be interviewed and asked to describe our music and I’d think, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to say?’” Fredette said. “There was a lot going on.”
The music, still hard to categorize, still holds up. It’s helped by the fact it doesn’t sound like it was recorded when it was recorded, said Pete Weiss, who worked on engineering and remastering both re-releases.
“They just automatically ignored the trends of the day, the little sonic things that can give you a musical cue that something is from the ’80s,” Weiss said. “They liked guitars, they liked good basic rock and roll guitar sound and Charlie was an immense fan of Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and the early Beatles. That’s pretty pure stuff.”
It was Chesterman who was the heart and soul of the band. He, with Stanfield, came to Boston in the early ’80s from his hometown of Des Moines with his band the Law, an outfit that had been dubbed “Iowa’s first punk rock band,” a claim no one has disputed in the years since.
(from left) Stona Fitch, Charlie Chesterman, Stephen Fredette, Mac Stanfield, Randall Lee Gibson IV. Photo by Wayne Viens.
Chesterman wrote about girls and cars, sometimes at the same time, with lyrics like “long and lean like a Cadillac, supercharged like the Batmobile” from “My Baby She’s Alright.”
Last November, Chesterman died of colon cancer at age 53. That set into motion the final steps in getting Scruffy the Cat’s music to the market again, a process that had begun almost since the band broke up in 1991. Relentless touring – 751 shows by Fredette’s count – and not getting renewed by their record label, Relativity, helped bring the curtain down on the band. And Scruffy the Cat’s music never saw the light of day again.
Band members couldn’t get the rights to their recorded music from Relativity, and eventually the company was sold to Sony Music Entertainment.
“It just became a nightmare of legal headaches,” Fredette said. “And we didn’t have any money to deal with lawyers.”
In the late 1990s, Stanfield had the master tapes to unreleased Scruffy the Cat material, and he realized they were beginning to decay. He contacted Weiss and together they digitized the music and cleaned it up. The intent was to preserve it, not to release it. Even so, that’s the music that makes up The Good Goodbye. It includes some of the band’s earliest work in 1984, with a few jangly guitars that place it in its time, to horn-filled tunes recorded at Memphis’ Ardent Studios in 1989. The band shopped that final music to labels, but never found a taker.
“It eventually started getting called ‘The Lost Record’ or ‘The Unreleased Record’ but it really wasn’t,” Stanfield said. “We didn’t scour the Earth or anything to get lost recordings. They were just in my closet.”
A Feast of Scruffy
The Relativity catalog was a little trickier. It consisted of High Octane Revival (1986), Boom Boom Boom Bingo (1987), Tiny Days (1987), and Moons of Jupiter (1988). Even though Stanfield became a lawyer, he and his bandmates were never able to get rights to their music. They gave up, but a fan on a mission pestered Sony about it over the years. The fan, Eric Bradford, first approached Sony about acquiring rights to the music so he could release it himself but was rebuffed. He approached the company again before and after Chesterman died, and Sony finally agreed to a digital-only release and sprang for remastering the albums.
The end result is after no Scruffy the Cat for 26 years, there’s now a feast of it.
“It’s sort of a plus that the stuff hasn’t been available, as opposed to other people’s stuff has always been there and present,” Fredette said. “With us, there’s this 25-year gap and some people are able to hear it for the first time.”
The Good Goodbye is named for a rousing, piano-heavy song of Chesterman’s that closes the record, which will be released on CD and digitally. Stanfield is particularly proud of the last cuts on The Good Goodbye, recorded for a release that never happened. Fredette likes the early stuff, saying that despite the sometimes painful rawness of it, he and his bandmates sound young and ready to take on the world.
“There are parts of it that are kind of cringe-worthy to me, but I was of the opinion that you put it all out there and let people judge for themselves,” Fredette said.
Except for at Burns Stanfield’s wedding, the entire band never played together again. Fredette stayed in music until health problems, lymphoma, curtailed that. There was a 2011 fundraiser for Chesterman in Boston in which most of the band played four songs, but Stanfield didn’t make the trip from Iowa. He was planning to return for another full-band, full-set gig a few weeks later that never happened because of Chesterman’s health.
Finding a New Audience
Chesterman stayed in music after Scruffy the Cat, becoming a prolific writer and peformer in Boston with bands such as Chaz and the Motorbikes and the Harmony Rockets. A 24-song tribute CD “Chorus vs. Solo: A Tribute to Charlie Chesterman” was released in 2012.
The rest of the band went on to other things. Mac Stanfield returned to his hometown of Des Moines, where he is an attorney specializing in real estate law with some entertainment law. His brother Burns is a pastor in South Boston. Fredette has returned to school to study cartography and recently did a project in which he mapped Scruffy the Cat’s first national tour in 1987. Fitch is a novelist and launched a publishing company, Concord Free Press. Drummer Randall Lee Gibson IV is a master electrician.
The band members don’t expect to make much money off the new releases, which is fine by them since Scruffy the Cat never was a money-maker. Small checks come in from time to time for band members, including when an old episode of Futurama that uses 7 seconds of the song “Moons of Jupiter” gets played somewhere.
If someone were to hear a song and decide to put it in another TV show or movie, the band members would be thrilled. If Chesterman’s songs find a new audience, that would be great, too. Mostly, it’s a chance to put work they’re proud of out there, and maybe get a sense of where it is they belong even after all this time.
“What I’m hoping for is that people who have never heard the band before get an interest in it,” Fredette said. “That would be great. That’s the real way to find out what your place is in all of this. “