The long, hard journey from punk rock to jazz pop
As music critic and verbal shrapnel-thrower Lester Bangs keenly observed of great success in the music business: “Once you’ve made your mark on history, those who can’t will be so grateful they’ll turn it into a cage for you.”
There’s, apparently, no cage strong enough to hold punk legend Bobby Adams. After more than two decades of playing hardcore music with the iconic band 7Seconds, his ears now ringing more or less permanently, Adams is exploring whole new worlds of music. Whole new planets in whole new solar systems, actually.
Adams is trading in the three-chord progressions and machine gun-beats of punk to weave the intricate fretwork of smooth jazz. At least for now.
Take it back
“7Seconds is not over,” he says, dressed in a zipper-neck sweater the same color black as the huge 7Seconds tattoo on his forearm. “In no way are we finished.”
Adams wears a goatee and knife-like sideburns. His eyes are clear. They don’t strain or look off in any direction for words when he speaks. He’s serious and committed.
In fact, 7 Seconds—now label-mates with bands they helped inspire and the bands inspired by them, such as gypsy-punks, Gogol Bordello—is scheduled to play Chicago’s Riot Fest on Nov. 17, sharing the Saturday bill of the two-day show with the likes of Naked Raygun and Stiff Little Fingers.
At least in his auditory nervous system, 7Seconds is going to be playing forever, no matter how old or settled down Adams, now 38, or the rest of the guys get.
“I can still hear [drummer] Troy back there breaking cymbals and making sawdust and a huge wall of Marshall amps over here,” he says, exuding a comfortable confidence. Twenty years of punk takes a toll on a body. “It wrecks your knees jumping around with Les Pauls, pogo-ing, jumping off of drum risers, getting pissed off and stomping around,” he says.
But these days, Adams’ Ipod is filled with silkier, less grating seductions: Norman Brown and Chuck Loeb, for instance.
Often derided as the “Is that your new record or am I just on hold?” crowd, Adams’ could care less. He finds smooth jazz a soothing tonic to years of 100-decible jam sessions.
To be sure, smooth jazz is ambience music, about as far away from punk as anyone could get in a single lifetime. It’s got an upscale, polished, country-club. Jazz “purists” hate it because there’s no improvisation. A genre invigorated, if not defined, by the likes of Kenny G, critics charge that the music has the edge of a wet paper towel folded in half. That it trivializes funk. That listening to it makes one feel they’re about to be sexually pleasured by a middle-aged black man. That it’s esoteric yet completely accessible, yet there’s nothing to penetrate. That it’s a welter of crap.
Critics have said even worse about punk.
Take it on
Bobby Adams says his inspiration for the harmonic vernacular of the genre comes from riding 100 mph through the desert with his motorcycle club. He’s currently working on a piece called “Desert Trippin,” which can best be described as instrumental R&B, trance-laced, prescription-strength smooth jazz. There’s a lot of repetition and development of themes that have the self-described perfectionist considering and reconsidering every single guitar note on the album. The songs are soundtracks to certain events, places and times, geographical in every sense.
One song, “Misty Blue,” is about a bartending friend who recently passed in a freak accident. Hardly the stuff of Muzak.
Adam’s foray into his personal post-punk world started innocently enough. While on tour with 7Seconds, Adams says the band members often found themselves in hotel rooms, flipping through the channels. There was something about the Weather Channel that Adams liked. It was the music played during the local forecasts.
“I started looking around for that kind of music,” he says. “It was upbeat and familiar.”
In a world where he was around thousands of kids who would give their life to stand on stage and be a true-life, punk-rock guitar god, Adams wanted to hear his stuff being played during local forecasts.
For years, Weather Channel watchers have been exposed to smooth jazz artists like Dave Koz, Brian Hughes, Norman Brown and others without really knowing it.
“Smooth jazz is what my parents listen to,” says Adams. “I’m just really into it, as well.”
In fact, on Oct. 9, the network is issuing the first two CDs in a planned series on Midas Records, featuring smooth jazz forecast favorites.
Adams experimented with the new genre jamming on stage at open mic nights at Burg’s Victorian Bar in Sparks.
Someone would come up with a bass line, and Adams admits that, at first, he was lost.
“I’m a hardcore guy,” he says with a laugh. “What do you want me to do with that?” But the music soon came naturally for him.
“I’ve always been interested in all kinds of music,” he says. “Deep down, I just loved playing guitar. I’ve been depriving myself a part of my music for 22 years now by playing only punk rock.”
Take it over
Adams is happiest sitting in his home studio writing music for his new side project. He’s already surpassed his original goal of 11 songs with a recent creative jackpot of 15.
“The best thing that could happen in the next year? My album comes out with a No. 1 song on the smooth jazz charts,” he says. “I just get a good feeling about it. Making the music. Playing the music. I’m really familiar with it. I grew up on it.”
Adams, now married with three stepchildren, has worked many day jobs in his life. From parts mechanic to room service waiter to slot tech. He even sold Toyotas for a while until he couldn’t take it any more.
“They’d put you in a room and yell at you for not selling enough cars,” he says, describing a Guantanamo-like scene of managers gone power-mad.
“I just can’t work for anybody … I hate punching a time clock, and I hate getting up early.”
Despite being one of the originators of the hardcore scene, Adams says his royalty checks amount to little more than a pittance.
“I definitely can’t live on them,” he says. There are albums that he played on from which he’s never seen a single cent.
That means he’s got bills to pay.
And the best way to do it, for Bobby Adams, is with his guitar.
He says he hopes to premier the new work at True Love Coffee House in Sacramento sometime soon.