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Spin Doctors: Miracle Cure

In the age of grunge, one band scores with a joyful noise

Spin Doctors

Mark White, Aaron Comess, Chris Barron and Eric Schenkman of Spin Doctors.

Steve Eichner/WireImage/Getty

Space Mountain would not come to the Spin Doctors, so the Spin Doctors have come to Space Mountain.

It’s a clear, breezy day in Orlando, Florida. The Doctors’ silver tour bus has pulled into the Disney World parking lot, and one by one the band members are straggling off and braving the sunlight, which is not a commodity they are entirely familiar with. The band looks like hell. Chris Barron, who’s ordinarily the repository of the Spin Doctors’ loopy, neo-hippie charm, reminds me of a high-school physics experiment in which the air is sucked out of a can and the can suddenly implodes. He looks haggard and underweight, and he’s pulling nervously at his beard. As we wander toward the Disney World ticket booth, the singer says: “I don’t want to be fifty years old and be out on the road with my voice all shot. I want to have kids. I want to grow vegetables. I want to be a potter.” Barron pauses. He looks down at his T-shirt, which reads, ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT, then says, “We’re not gonna tour like this forever.”

The Spin Doctors, who are based in New York City, will be on the road ten solid months this year, as they were last year and the year before that. Drummer Aaron Comess no longer bothers to rent an apartment, and Barron’s girlfriend, Monica, once said to the singer: “Is this going to be worth it? Are we going to have some time together, or should I just blow you off?” Monica has not blown Chris off, and it has all been worth it.

The Spin Doctors’ debut album – an irrepressible bit of home-grown, funk-inflected rock called Pocket Full of Kryptonite – was released in the summer of 1991. The album sold 60,000 copies to the band’s hard-core, post-Deadhead following. It then had a near-death experience, partly because the Spin Doctors’ record label, Epic/Associated, was busy making Pearl Jam famous. But WEQX, in Vermont, started championing the album’s acerbic, retro-fitted rocker called “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” The program director even wrote letters to Epic telling the label to wake up.

Last April the Spin Doctors got an astonishing second wind. “Little Miss” became the most requested song in the nation on album-oriented-rock stations, and the accompanying video was one of the five most requested videos on MTV. At this writing, “Little Miss” is in the Billboard Top Thirty, Pocket Full of Kryptonite has sold nearly a million copies, and a live record, Homebelly Groove, was released in November. All of which makes for one of the most unlikely, and hardest-won, success stories of the Nineties.

The Spin Doctors have been working at an amphetamine pace ever since Kryptonite returned from the dead. In October, just after a breakthrough performance on Saturday Night Live, the pace caught up with them, and the band canceled two shows for the first time in three years. Today was not supposed to be a bullshit day off, when the band members smoke pot and watch boxing videos as the tour bus careers from point A to point B, but an actual day off: a full eight hours in the Magic Kingdom eating junk food and storming Space Mountain. Now the Doctors are finally trudging up to the ticket window. They hear the monorail whoosh overhead. They see Disney World lie before them like the Emerald City. But the joke’s on them: Space Mountain is closed for the season.

There’s a long silence as the news sinks in. Then the band members and their crew begin interrogating the woman behind the plexiglass partition. Chris Barron wanders off. A few moments later, I find him leaning against a cement column and staring up at the monorail. I ask him how he feels.

Barron pulls at his beard. “The last couple days I’ve been kind of knackered,” he says. “I’m not a well guy all the time. I’m a bit of a freak, and I can’t keep things off my face. Last week we had eight 15-hour days in a row. Some of them were 24-hour days. You might be sleeping on the bus, and a bump might wake you up. Sometimes, I feel the life getting sucked out of me by this lifestyle. A friend and I went to a Chinese doctor, and he guessed our ages. He guessed my friend’s age right. But I was twenty-three at the time, and he thought I was twenty-nine.”

The Spin Doctors decide to blow off the Magic Kingdom and go to Epcot Center instead. Barron shakes his head. “I’m definitely gonna get me a classic Mickey T-shirt,” he says and then disappears into the crowd. Guitarist Eric Schenkman lags behind to take care of some business at a pay phone. Schenkman has a series of polite but intense conversations with folks at Epic Records, each one punctuated by the surreal refrain “No, you can’t call me back. I’m at Disney World.” The Spin Doctors have always had a few supporters at Epic, but only recently has the company thought of the group as anything other than road dogs. When Epic put together the packaging on the band’s first release – an out-of-print live EP released in early 1991 and called Up for Grabs – it used a photo of six people, apparently not knowing that there were only four guys in the band.

The Spin Doctors came of age with a generation of rootsy, jam-oriented bands like Blues Traveler, Phish and Widespread Panic, all of which took part in last summer’s seven-hour HORDE shows (the acronym stands for Horizon of Rock Developing Everywhere). The bands have a handful of things in common, including the fact that none of them were born to be styled (“Image Schmimage is my personal business motto,” says Barron). The groups all thrive on live music. They all tour until they drop and then tour some more. But the bands sound entirely different and make different use of the improvisation tradition handed down by the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. Blues Traveler, for instance, offers brute force, where the Spin Doctors offer agility. Traveler frontman John Popper grew up with Barron in Princeton, New Jersey, and he remembers wrestling with his old friend in high school. “I used the big-guy method, where you basically fall on your opponent,” he says. “But Chris was all wiry and hard to catch.”

In concert, Aaron Comess and bassist Mark White turn out a churning, propulsive beat that hits you squarely in the chest. Guitarist Eric Schenkman, whose playing can be cool ‘n’ jazzy or fat ‘n’ mean, invokes Hendrix and the various Yardbird gods. Then there’s the scruffy Chris Barron, who insists: “I’m not a jazz cat or a technical cat or any kind of cat at all. I’m just a rock & roll singer.” Barron is the key to the band’s live shows. He occasionally makes use of props – a skull, a sword, et cetera – but his own goofy, preternaturally limber dance moves are more striking. “I call Chris the Gumby Messiah,” says Diane La Verdi, who directed the “Little Miss” video. “He has this Jesus sort of look, and he has no bones.”

The Spin Doctors have distinguished themselves from their road-warrior peers by writing priceless, five-minute pop songs like “Little Miss,” which has been taken as an un-politically correct kiss-off to an ex-girlfriend. They’ve also penned a trio of sublime underdog anthems: “Two Princes,” “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” and “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me?).”

Early on, however, the Spin Doctors lived in Blues Traveler’s considerable shadow. They opened for the Traveler on a regular basis, managing to pick up some career advice and to siphon off some of that band’s young, swaying, tie-dyed following. But while Blues Traveler’s debut album sold 285,000 copies, Pocket Full of Kryptonite got a chilly reception, particularly from alternative radio. Epic decided the band wasn’t ready for prime time and gave the Doctors some money to launch their never-ending grass-roots tour.

“A lot of the time we hid from Epic how hard this stuff was,” Barron remembers. “We’d be like ‘We’re out in the van! It’s no problem at all!’ We put up a front because we wanted to be their badass band. But the van was death, man. A slow form of death.”

Richard Griffiths, the president of Epic/Associated Records and a longtime supporter of the band, speaks frankly about this period. “There were only a few believers in the company,” he says. “The Spin Doctors couldn’t have been less trendy if they tried. They had nothing to do with the Seattle thing, and we were concentrating very much on Pearl Jam. So I made a conscious decision not to oversell them to everybody in the company. The whole game plan with the Spin Doctors was to develop them very naturally and very organically. At one point I would have been happy selling 50,000 records. Now, I think we’re going to do 2 million.”

These days Epic is going great guns in support of the Spin Doctors, although some staffers feel the band could stand a make-over. “There have been some complaints,” says Franky LaRocka, who signed the band in 1990. ” ‘They don’t have any tattoos! They don’t have any weird-colored hair!’ People said: ‘Try to get them to dress up for Saturday Night Live. They look like a bunch of ragamuffins!’ My answer has been ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.’ ”

Right now, Schenkman looks every inch the ragamuffin in a GREENPEACE T-shirt, bandannas and battered jeans. When he finally gets off the phone with Epic, he sums up all the foregoing matters in a single sentence: “Now that we sell records, we have to deal with a record company that has opinions.”

Schenkman and I take the monorail into Epcot Center, where for the first time he looks like a man on a day off. We hang out in Mexico. We stroll through England and Japan. We pay a visit to Spaceship Earth, the Living Seas and – Schenkman’s favorite – the Universe of Energy. Then, over drinks in China, the guitarist says: “The thing about the Spin Doctors that I love above all else is that no matter how many records we sell, we’ll still do something radical, like a thirty-minute jam. It’s stubborn, and it may fuck us up for the rest of our lives, but we’ll do it, and we’ll keep doing it.” He pauses. “And that makes me really fuckin’ happy because it means that we’ve got a chance.”

Eight hours later, the Spin Doctors are back on the bus. Comess is wearing a yellow Pinocchio hat with a red feather. Barron is wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, which he will wear for the next four days. The Doctors swap Epcot Center stories – Barron was a little freaked out by a journey into the heart and lungs – and men throw in a boxing video and smoke some pot. (Two of the band members don’t touch the stuff, but the other two trail smoke the way Pig Pen trails dust in Peanuts.) They also take advantage of the lull to run down some relevant biographical data.

Chris Barron spent his earliest years in Australia and – after his parents divorced and his father remarried – went to high school in Princeton. The twenty-four-year-old singer says that he was “a weird, freaked-out artist kid.” He listened to Bob Marley and Buddy Holly. Eventually, he fell in with John Popper, who used tohang around school playing harmonica and eating pencils. After a year at Bennington College, where he studied pottery, Barron moved to New York City. He enrolled in the New School’s fledgling jazz program, played solo shows for ten dollars in tips and roomed with his Blues Traveler buddies.

“We used to sit around getting all philosophical,” Popper remembers. “We used to talk about what it takes to be a rock & roll musician, and we decided that you’ve got to be a samurai at something. I was a samurai with my harmonica. Nobody else could touch me. Chris was a samurai with his pen. He wrote these amazing lyrics – lyrics with all these, like, literary references. Chris used to have a song that mentioned Machiavelli. And I’d never really read books or anything, so I used to stand in the crowd and shout, Who the fuck is Machiavelli?'”

Eric Schenkman, who is twenty-nine, grew up in Toronto, where his father was a cellist and his mother gave flute lessons. By the time the guitarist was ten, he’d already been through a Beatles phase and a Zappa phase. After graduating from high school, Schenkman played with the Dead Heroes, a local country-punk outfit. When he was twenty-one, he suddenly quit music, moved to New York without so much as a guitar and pursued a BA at the New School. “Inevitably,” he says, “I met up with this punk rocker named Tommy who needed a guitar player, and I said, ‘No, no, no, yes.'”

Aaron Comess grew up in Dallas, where for a time he was “a huge Kiss fan.” When he entered his teens, the drummer turned toward jazz. He attended a performing-arts high school, the same school that produced Edie Brickell and New Bohemians and the trumpeter Roy Hargrove. After graduation, he says: “I was playing in jazz groups and blues groups and doing some cheesy-tuxedo wedding gigs. And that’s when I realized I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut, because I was playing with older guys who’d just sit there cracking jokes about their wives.” Comess, whose tastes now run to Coltrane, Ellington and Monk, spent a year at Berklee College of Music, in Boston. In 1988 he, too, found himself at the New School.

By 1989, John Popper, Eric Schenkman and Chris Barron were working together in a band called the Trucking Company. When Popper turned his attention to Blues Traveler full time, Schenkman and Barron hooked up with Comess and launched the Spin Doctors. The group’s first show was at a Columbia University frat house. “After that gig, Eric got back to his house at 9:30 in the morning,” Barron remembers. “We carried his amp to the top of the stairs. And he lived on the fifth fuckin’ floor. When we got to the top, we just laid down on the landing. Eric’s like ‘Look, man, this is the way it is. Do you want to do this?’ And I just started laughing. It was 9:30 in the morning. The fuckin’ sun was coming through the window. And it was definitely gonna be work, but it was real. So I was like “Yeah, man, let’s do it.'”

Mark White, who joined the Spin Doctors some months later, is possessed of the band’s most prickly disposition, although he does try to calm star-struck fans down by telling them, “I used to work at McDonald’s, so just fuckin’ chill.” White is thirty-one. He grew up in the Bronx and Queens. As a child, he listened to his father’s reel-to-reel collection: Roberta Flack, Isaac Hayes, the Temptations and the Jackson 5. He spent his early twenties in a series of New York bands, then worked for three years in a mail room before auditioning for the Doctors.

“The Spin Doctors had the right attitude,” says White, who first played with Comess in a hard-core funk outfit called Spade. “We had our first rehearsal, and I was like ‘These guys know what they’re doing. They look a little freaky, but they definitely know what they’re doing.'”

Chris Barron has stopped pulling at his beard. Last night, the Spin Doctors played a gig in Jacksonville, Florida, then slept on the bus as it hurtled down the highway toward Atlanta. Now it’s six o’clock on Wednesday evening, and Barron and I sit down for dinner before tonight’s show. The singer looks better than he did in Orlando. He’s eating hungrily and bobbing around like a jack-in-the-box.

Interviewing Barron is not like interviewing anyone else. “I’m just this nerdy guy,” he says. “I like to drink caffeinated beverages and write kooky things down. If I was a crazy person on a funny farm, I’d be one of those guys with a butterfly net, one of those harmless dudes. It’s funny – you get around the big light, and people have things to say about you.”

In general, Barron is given to strange philosophical benders. He’ll tell you that his main objective is to create beauty. Hell tell you that he wants to go home, read his book on Celtic runes and be a potter and a poet. Barron likes to go with the flow, until he actually becomes the flow and he’s forgotten what the question is and even what city he’s in. At one point, Barron says: “I want things that can’t be held. I want time to go by in a cool way, and I want to talk to people and learn things about the place they’re from.” Later, he gives a five-minute discourse on the difference between rocking and rolling as they relate to Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky and the Spin Doctors.

Barron doesn’t want to come off as a moron rock & roller. But he does seem to be suffering from Lead Singer Syndrome, which is characterized by nagging questions of self-worth and a desperate need for privacy. On his way to this restaurant, Barron was surrounded by autograph seekers. He was clearly uncomfortable with the attention and told a fan who was hurriedly slapping him on the back, “I’m just a fucking-asshole-shithead dude like everybody else, man.”

Apart from general road weariness, Barron is struggling with the fact that his most famous song, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” begins with the line “Been a whole lot easier since the bitch left town.” Another of his songs, the perennial show stopper “Big Fat Funky Booty,” is a theme-and-variation ode to a woman’s backside: “It’s wonderful/Could I get a little more?/’Cause it’s about as wide/As my garage door.” Musically, both tunes are irresistible, but I get the feeling Barron rues the rambunctious, long-gone day he wrote those lyrics. Every night, in the middle of “Funky Booty,” the singer gives what amounts to a mea culpa for the Spinal Tap-ian lyrics, claiming the song is really about “beauty with a little b and beauty with a capital B.” Every night, he prefaces “Little Miss” by saying, “Here’s a song to remind you that you don’t have to be a woman to be a bitch.”

Now, in the restaurant, I tell Barron that both disclaimers sound lame, that “Big Fat Funky Booty” is clearly not about “beauty with a capital B” and that he sounds silly when he pretends that it is.

Barron, who is used to going with the flow, is taken aback. Other people’s opinions matter a great deal to him, and this will be rattling around in his brain for days. “Now I’m gonna be all self-conscious tonight,” he says, then pauses. “It’s funny. I have sort of backed off from some of the material. When I wrote ‘Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,’ I never dreamed it would be on hundreds of radio stations several times a day. So then you get to thinking, ‘Okay, what is a song like mis doing to people?’ One of the things I really admire about Bob Dylan is that he wrote great pop songs that were constructive. I don’t want to sing a song that degrades people who are traditionally degraded.”

Within the Spin Doctors camp, there’s a weird vow of silence with regard to “Little Miss.” Everyone swears they’ll never reveal who the song is about – they swear it before you’ve even asked. I tell Barron that if some people have found the tune harsh, it’s partly because they assume it’s merely a rant about an ex-girlfriend. I tell him I think it’s about someone else.

Barron eyes me warily. “Oh, yeah?”

I tell him it’s about his stepmother. “Nah,” he says. “I categorically deny it.” I cite the lines “Nobody upstairs gonna stomp and shout/Nobody at the back door gonna throw my laundry out.”

Barron pulls on his beard.

I know that Barron’s father has since divorced the woman in question. I ask what his dad thinks of the song.

Barron can’t help but smile: “He loves it.”

Estimates vary as to the size of the last Spin Doctors show in Atlanta. Some put the crowd at three, some at seven. This evening, the Doctors play to a joyous, sold-out, thousand-seat room. Over the past six months, the band’s following has broadened in every direction. The Doctors’ greatest challenge, in fact, will be to balance their love for free-flowing jams with their MTV-weaned audience’s love for what Barron calls “our white-bread hits.” But the band members sloughed off the early Deadhead label, and they’ll slough off the Top Forty label, too. “We got put in a box, and we walked out of that box into another box,” says Schenkman. “But that’s what the Spin Doctors have been about since the beginning – box jumping.”

Tonight, the Spin Doctors have something for everybody. They turn out fairly literal versions of “Two Princes” and “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues,” but then Comess takes an inventive, good-sized drum solo, and White does some nice, uncharacteristically melodic bass work on a gorgeous tune called “Sweet Widow.” Barron is in fine form. Watching his sly and campy theatrics, I remember John Popper telling me not to worry too much about the singer’s mood swings. “Make no mistake,” he said. “Chris Barron is a showman.”

One of tonight’s tunes is an infectious, reggae-tinged number called “House.” The chorus runs simply, “This is my house/If you don’t like it, just get out.” The verses are improvised nightly. This evening, Barron makes a mess of the first verse but quickly recovers: “Sometimes this song, it gives me trouble/You’ll see a verse end up in rubble/But the reason for that is/I have to make them up, like a wiz.” By the third verse, everybody in the theater is singing along, and Barron sends me a musical message that he’s feeling 100 percent again: “This is kind of a holiday/Just gotta make sure Jeff thinks we’re okay/Ah, allow me to demonstrate/Or at least to reiterate/This is my house/If you don’t like it, just get out.”

Barron has a couple of surprises left. He doesn’t apologize for “Little Miss.” And when it comes time for the iffy beauty-with-a-capital-B interlude in “Funky Booty,” the singer steps up to the microphone and comes wonderfully and utterly clean with seven simple words: “This song is about big, fat butts.”

Over the next few months, the Spin Doctors will tour England, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii. They’d like to join Blues Traveler on next summer’s HORDE II Tour, but if their manager has his way, they will have sold 3 million records and be doing an arena tour instead. Musically speaking, John Popper will always be Chris Barron’s big brother. Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Spin Doctors have outpaced Blues Traveler. Epic’s Richard Griffiths once asked a friend at Blues Traveler’s record label for advice on how to break the Spin Doctors. “Three weeks ago my friend rang me up and asked what I had done to make the Spin Doctors happen!” Griffiths says. “We had a laugh, and we agreed that when the next Blues Traveler record comes along, I’d send him my marketing plan.”

Asked if there’s any awkwardness between Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors now, John Popper insists that he feels “like a very proud foster mom.” He says the Doctors will be “the Nirvana of our little scene and open a lot of doors.” He says, finally, that “you don’t sound like the Spin Doctors and not get noticed.”

Mark White, the Spin Doctor most fiercely proud of the band’s success, says: “I did everything I had to do to become a musician. I stuck to all the rules, and I broke a lot of the rules. I wore the same clothes every day. I fuckin’ went three days without eating. I ate bread and water. Spaghettios. Kool-Aid. I did the whole nine yards, man.”

White moved into a new apartment not long ago. Eventually, he’d like to get a car – a black Corvette convertible. When he talks about that car, it’s with a kind of awe, and I swear he’s talking about the Spin Doctors and what happened to them in 1992.

“A car is a phenomenal thing,” White says. “You get in it, and in twenty minutes you can be so far away that you can’t walk back. I will never, ever get used to that. I don’t even have a driver’s license. I taught myself how to drive in Ithaca one night. I took the van out when everybody was asleep, and I was bored. I drove all the way up this mountain, man. And twenty minutes later I’m at the top of the mountain, and I’m thinking, ‘Shit, I couldn’t even walk back if I wanted to.'”

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