Sunday, April 29, 2007

Down to Earth—and leaving it

One of my favorite Raymond Scott compositions—and one of his few genuine pop songs—is "Coming Down to Earth." Scott composed it in 1936, before launching his seminal Quintette, but didn't record the tune until 1953, when it was released as a post-WWII orchestral period piece.

Rochester-based musician Dave Cross belatedly introduced me to the virtues of "Earth." Having heard only the nondescript RSO version, I couldn't understand why Cross cared enough to record the tune with his avant-weird band, Coffee, in the mid-1990s. Cross eventually sent a small stack of 7" singles with a skeletal but jaunty slide guitar take of "Coming Down to Earth" slotted between two Coffee originals. The arrangement (which clocked 1:06) was so radically different from Scott's, it was barely recognizable as the same composition. Yet Coffee retained the melody and structure, which gave me a deep appreciation of this pop gem.

The group later recorded a spooky synth cover of another little-known Scott 1950s orchestral work, "Naked City." I loved these recordings because they didn't attempt to recapture Scott's style; they reinvented Scott in a strikingly original way. Because of these imaginative takes, Coffee were invited to perform at the second (and last) multi-artist Scott tribute concert at New York's Bottom Line in 1997. (R. Stevie Moore joined them onstage.)

Several years ago I learned that Cross was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. Phillip Marshall, one of his Coffee-mates, dropped me a note Saturday evening:
Dave Cross lost his seven year battle with a brain tumor last Friday. He was instrumental in getting "Coming Down to Earth" recorded by Coffee, which was really a duo of Dave and Tim Poland.

Dave wasn't much of a musician per se. However he was wildly creative with sound and with organizing Coffee events. He flagged me down 10 years ago because he had received the sheet music of "Coming Down to Earth" from you. (I had my brush with fame playing guitar with the wonderful Colorblind James Experience.) Neither he nor Tim could read music so they had me figure it out. Dave had the impression that no recording of the song existed. I had no idea of Scott's intentions with the piece, and I heard it as a whimsical yet sentimental ballad.

When Coffee was invited to play at the Bottom Line, they again recruited me for guitar. We played "Down to Earth," "Caterpillar Creep" and "City of New York." The Raymond Scott songs were the only remotely tuneful or melodic music Coffee ever played.

Dave will be missed but his spirit will be present anytime a creative person responds to the urge to reach beyond their own limitations and make something happen.

There will be a memorial service in Penfield, NY on Tuesday, May 1 at 11:00 am in Linear Park where Dave always found fishing quite good.

Our condolences to Dave's family and friends. We hope Coffee's two Scott covers make it to CD release. They were among the first new recordings to demonstrate how Scott's vintage music could be revitalized for the 21st century.

The Happy Farmers (named for a Scott tune) were formed a year ago to support Dave when things were going badly for him. True to form, Dave forged on for another year! L to R: Adam Wilcox, upright; Phil Marshall, guitar; Tim Poland, guitar; Dave Cross, snare and cymbal.

1 comment:

  1. Just so you know, the picture was taken 4 days before Dave officially went on hospice. The four of us had just finished an hour of very loose, funny and happy music making. It was Dave's last time tapping his snare.

    The irony of it all is that I am employed as a hospice music therapist with Lifetime Care in Rochester and yes, I was given a referral to provide music therapy to Dave.

    I visited him 3 times before he died. During the 2nd visit, I played Down to Earth for him and his wife. I hadn't played it since the Bottom Line gig. The following day he died.

    I was not able to sleep that night and in the early hours of the morning I found myself writing lyrics to Down to Earth. They came out odd with a few cryptic Coffee references but I like the mood. I'll probably record it at some point.