Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Mass Tango

Ohio Records, 1988

It's a sad story and there are probably a million of them. The songwriter guy from some small town gets told by all his friends that he's really great and should go to L.A. or Nashville or NYC and make it big... and so maybe he saves up or gets a settlement or a rich Uncle leaves him some money and he actually takes a splurge and goes and rents some tiny little apartment on the Lower East Side, puts together a band of other folks looking to make it big. Of course, the ending of the story is for the most part pretty mundane. The band doesn't take off; the money runs out; the accountant runs off with the remaining money and the kid packs up a U-haul with his guitar, amp and unsold records and heads back to small town, USA, another willing victim of the American music machine.

Take Mass Tango, for instance. They were doing everything right according to the typical way to be successful in the late '80s - getting on the CMJ compilation (along with The Feelies and Bootsy Collins and American Music Club), playing CBGBs, getting on the New Music Seminar Official '87 N.M.S. tape. They were sending out their promos to the fanzines and radio stations (that's how I got it).

But sometime after the release of this record and before the World Wide Web, they disappeared and there's virtually no trace of them anymore. What happened to Ken Cushman, our earnest songwriter? Where's his cute-as-a-button keyboardist? (see below) Were they an item at one point? What's with the bass player - he sure doesn't seem interested in taking this picture. Did they like, love or hate Ken? Is Ken selling insurance now? Does he run the local music open mike night at the local club?

It's not that Mass Tango is awful. We've seen plenty of those. The songs are well constructed even if the sound terribly dated (it is 16 years later, after all). But that said, these songs are so predictable - you know when they are going to change chords, its verse-chorus-verse, repeat, wash, rinse. They lack any sort of brillance, even a promise of brillance. You listen to the lyrics and you find yourself completing the next line because the rhymes are just so obvious. Just, well... medicore - which isn't bad but it ain't good and it ain't nothing in a competitive town like NYC. Someone like 'em for a while if their press release is to be believed (playing "to packed houses at CBGBs... Limelight...") or at least booked 'em as their opening band.

Here's about the only song I could salvage from this record and I'm pretty sure it will be on the list when the day comes to start culling the iPod to make room for new stuff. It's one of those "long distance love songs" to some girl named Jane - and that pretty much explains Ken to me. So, here's to the singer-songwriter, maybe he's back with Jane, selling insurance and raising kids. Maybe he stops for a short time when no one is looking and sighs at his guitar amp gathering dust out in the garage - he long ago took all those unsold records to the dump to make way for his kids toys. Maybe he sighs at how much the world has changed - college radio is no longer a selector, small labels are thriving thanks to the Internet and young people don't have to go to the big cities to get listened to.

"Dreaming of Jane" - Mass Tango, 1988

Note: I know nothing about Ken Cushman, I'm making nearly everything up... for all I know he may be an NYC native but I'm pretty sure this story repeated itself many times over the years since that Victrola was invented. There is another band called Mass Tango. They play latin dance music (and are probably more aptly named).

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Saved Rounds:

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Bright Eye Pictures

I may be wrong but the only musician from Mass Tango that I could find still active was the keyboardist, Ms. Sara(h) Bell, whom I believe is playing with Chapel Hill's Shark Quest, an eclectic instrumental group that recently scored the acclaimed 2003 documentary Monster Road (winner of the Slamdance 2004 documentary prize) which is about the claymation artist Bruce Bickford and his father.

The music from Shark Quest is nice wallpaper music and shows a number of influences - eastern, classical, jamband, guitar-pop..- they released an album on Merge Records with music "inspired" by the film as well. You can check out cuts from the actual score here.

The movie, though, looks pretty damn incredible. Check out the trailer here - it will totally draw you in. It's playing in Annapolis later this month and I might just make the trip to go see it.


Dana said...

Oh wow, someone else who knows this band. I've been looking for any info on them for a long time, unsuccesfully. I like the album more than you: the 10/4 time signatures in the 1st and last songs are neat, and the awkward chord changes to Our Heads Are Spinning (the track that made CMJ) are pretty cool. I've been thinking of describing them as a cross between Christmas and early Game Theory, though not nearly as good as either of those bands. I hear a lot of potential in the record...strange that your site seems to be the only mention of it on the internet.

Jim H said...

Yeah, I might have been too tough. Oh, and I loved Christmas - I got to see them live and took some of the best photos I ever took of a band. Maybe MT needed another album or two to get it together. Its still a mystery what happened to them although I do think Sarah Bell went onto Shark Attack.

Anonymous said...

Ken was a friend of mine in the 80's. I miss him, which is why I found this link. In fact, before they found the bass player they played with at cbgb's and did the album with, Ken convinced me to play bass with him in Mass Tango ( I was a guitar player, so it took some convincing) once Sarah (a Julliard trained musician by the way) approved, which gratefully, she did. I unfortunately got long-term ill and had to quit. Ken is a great person and truly a creative soul. I'm sure he's still creating stuff for himself, he was too prolific for me to imagine him ever quitting. He used to take crazy lyrics of mine, or old songs, and recreate them with layers and textures and his drone gritty singing style, which was so personally entertaining to me, to hear his interpretation. He'd run off cassettes of these for me, which I still have collecting dust behind my old album collection. I think I still have a Mass Tango album in there, too. If you ever read this blog Ken, contact me! I'd love to catch up.

Dana said...

I'm not sure why I put in so much effort, but I've finally found out "whatever happened to" these guys...although apparently Ken really has gone missing. I couldn't figure out how to email, so hope you see this comment!

Will probably be writing a short piece on them for some mp3 blog or other...whoever will have me. Still feel like the extent to which they vanished from history is kind of odd...not a great record by any means, but better than many others.

Anonymous said...

Ken was my roommate for a while, and I had a lot of fun playing roadie at their CBGB gigs. The picture on the album was taken in the living room of our apartment. I agree with another poster that he is a truly creative soul. He is also just a great person and loyal friend. He actually did give up the guitar, and pursued photography among other creative endeavors. He hailed from the South (I forget where exactly), and before he formed Mass Tango, he was married to Mindy Jostyn. Together they had a band called the Cyclone Rangers, which played mostly cover tunes and toured as the opening act for Minnie Pearl. When Ken and Mindy split up, she got the rights to the "Cyclone Rangers" name, and actually made quite a name for herself touring with some big names ( I believe Mass Tango either put out a second album or was working on one when Ken decided to hang it up.

bestfamilyblog said...

Sarah Bell is, in fact, none of the things you claim she is today. She was not trained at Julliard, though she did graduate from Princeton. She now lives in New York with her loving family. She and her husband Gregg are still in love and they have two wonderful children. She also never was a part of Shark Attack. She does still love to sing and play the piano.

Ken has not gone missing! He lives in NYC and is quite content there. He was never linked to Sarah.

Mass Tango may have had a short run for it, but it was a nice one. They have stories to tell from their days in bright lights of CBGB's and albums to flaunt. Though they did not become a major musical sensation, they did enjoy it and not have beautiful lives they would not trade for fame.

Jim H said...

Whoops! Thanks for clearing that up, Anonymous.