When a song idea presents itself, write it down right away: That’s how Chris Barron works, even if inspiration strikes while driving in one of the most congested metropolitan areas in the world.
About two years ago, Barron came up with a major piece of his new solo album’s title track from behind the wheel of his Crown Victoria. The singer-guitarist was crossing the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, heading home to Manhattan’s Upper West Side from Queens, N.Y., where he’d checked out a friend’s recording studio. It was just before rush hour on a cloudy autumn day, and as Barron looked across the East River toward the downtown area where he once lived, a former neighbor named Adelaide came to mind.
“When I finally started making some money with The Spin Doctors,” he recalls, “I got my first nice apartment: 11 Waverly Place. I lived in 4C; she lived in 4B. She would always lure me into her apartment and give me these sweet, disgusting liquors. And we’d sit at her kitchen table, and she would tell me these stories about being a hoofer — a gypsy on Broadway in the 1940s and ’50s.”
Thinking of Adelaide’s stories and the “mental collage of my life in show business,” Barron came up with “Angels and one-armed jugglers/sword swallowers and smugglers.”
“I had paper and a stubby little pencil like you use on a golf course in my glove compartment,” he says. “I opened up this spiral notebook and wrote those lines and the whole verse down on the steering wheel of the car.”
Finishing what would become “Angels and One-Armed Jugglers,” however, wasn’t fast or easy. The verse stayed in his notebook for a while, he admits. Then came the day when Barron stumbled across another piece of music he’d written that piqued his interest, but he wasn’t sure if it would fit with the verse or whether it was even in the same key.
“And I realized, ‘I’m going to Frankenstein these two pieces together, and that’s going to be the song,’ ” Barron says. “It’s one of those songs that has a beginning and an end; it doesn’t go through a cycle like a normal song does.”
A familiar (yet unwelcome) feeling
With a touch of humor, Barron points out that he is the tune’s one-armed juggler, a reference to him recently recovering from a paralyzed vocal cord — his second such setback.
“The first time it happened to me [in 1999], I had no idea what the hell was going on,” he says. “The second time, I woke up in the morning and knew my vocal cord was paralyzed. I had a bit of the flu, and I could feel it in my throat. This is going to sound weird, but I tried to belch, and I couldn’t close off my throat to create the vacuum to draw the air up from my stomach. I was hoarse, like you’d expect, and I could only whisper.”
Barron underwent a procedure last year in which he says a collagen solution was injected into the musculature of the paralyzed vocal cord to essentially move it over toward the other one. While the formerly paralyzed vocal is still largely immobile, Barron has regained vertical motion with it, but not lateral motion (and he can still sing Spin Doctors songs in their original keys).
Barron’s original plan for Angels and One-Armed Jugglers (released Oct. 20 on Chrysanthemum Records) was to make an acoustic album with minimal accompaniment. But when he relayed that idea to co-producer Roman Klun, “he would just give me this half smile and say, ‘Sure, whatever you want,’ ” Barron remembers. But after a while, Klun “would throw in these comments: ‘These songs are so big. These songs have such scope. These songs are so cinematic.’ And I agreed with him, and my preconceived notion of how this record should be started to give way.”
After Baron’s voice returned, he and Klun began to assemble a core backing group, reaching out to Shawn Pelton, the veteran Saturday Night Live house band drummer. “And once we brought Shawn in,” Barron says, “we went from 8mm film to 35mm film. Now we were painting landscapes. The whole responsiveness of the project changed. We shifted the focus to framing the songs out and making sure they were entertaining and portrayed to their best advantage.”
Throughout Angels and One-Armed Jugglers, Barron sounds much like the same guy heard on the Spin Doctors hits “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” but the new material reflects a few styles, images and emotions that aren’t necessarily the trademarks of his signature band.
“I got lucky with these tunes,” he says.
— By Chris M. Junior
Photo by Jesse Ditmars