Meet John Dunbar. He is a native New Yorker living in Brooklyn. This is his town. He knows where to find the best knishes. He knows the fastest route to get from Woodside to Park Slope. But when he sings, a very different persona emerges: that of a man adrift -- the native who feels like a perennial transplant, displaced almost to the point of needing directions in his own home.
The Man Who Never Learns is his latest in a series of excruciatingly eloquent releases that explores the human landscape with a busted compass.
He is such an admirer of Ray Davies that any fan of the Kinks will instantly feel familiar with Dunbar's music. Both are skilled storytellers and wordsmiths, who sing with dry, vulnerable vocals. Both are preoccupied with loss, losing and losers. However, Dunbar ups the ante in an interesting way: whereas Ray Davies identifies with the little man struggling for self-fulfillment, John Dunbar identifies the remains of the little man after his struggle for self-fulfillment has crushed him like an insect. Or to put it another way: if Andy Rooney were to channel Jean-Paul Sartre, he might ask: "Ever notice how life goes on, even after all hope is lost?" Dunbar has dedicated his musical career to this question.
At a very young age, Dunbar turned to music as a shelter from a fractured family scene that he says is too weird to describe. "Things have happened in my lifetime that probably affected me in horrible ways. I had some childhood things that are really awful. I was jaded at five. I think music saved me from being like who knows what." Although never in step with his surroundings, he swears he wasn't a weird, lonely kid. "I had a lot of friends and was the class clown." His career in music got started when his sister's boyfriend heard one of his songs and liked it. He asked Dunbar to join his band.
In the early '8Os, he was breaking in with bands like Bach Hazard and Chef Of The Future (after The Honeymooners episode), writing songs and developing his stage presence. At age sixteen, an uninsulated mike stand electrocuted him on the stage at CBGB's, which the crowd appreciated. But performing lyrically ambitious tunes in rock venues proved frustrating: "I started writing these songs, he recalls, "but nobody would listen to the words. Nobody cared." He started playing solo, acoustic shows at open mikes and accrued enough material for a full-length release. But Dunbar, a totally self-taught musician, felt too naked to fling himself at the public without a band, so he invented one. Taking their name from the John Kennedy Toole novel, A Confederacy Of Dunces released Tsk, Tsk, Tsk in 1989. The personnel of the band were simply friends and fellow musicians that Dunbar had credited as having contributed. The truth was that John wrote all the songs, played all the instruments and sang all the parts.
The disk garnered a favorable buzz and an actual Dunces band had to be created to support the CD around town. But soon it was time for the sophomore release, and once again it was all Dunbar. Or almost all Dunbar. Tsk, Tsk, Tsk had earned respect in the music community, and the second disk, 1991's Dunces With Wolves, would feature actual contributors, most notably Phoebe Legere, who turned in some wonderful accordian counterpoint in "How She Used To Feel."
Both disks display Dunbar's facility at marrying a short story to a melody. His insight into human relations is something of a gift, especially when it comes to a female's perspective. In "8 Months Ago," he tells the story of a woman about to become a single mother who falls head over belly in love: "His smile drives her so mad, and he'd make a great dad. Everyday her crush on him can't help but grow. Where was he 8 months ago?" Not since Chris Butler wrote for Patty Donahue in The Waitresses has a man expressed the female sensibility with such assuredness.
Dunces With Wolves received significant acclaim. Comparisons to Squeeze, Crowded House, and, of course, The Kinks, were pouring in. Everyone expected the Dunces to be signed, and they would have been, were it not for the band's lawyer misplaying his hand with a big indie label. He scared them away, and later, in 1994, A Confederacy of Dunces were confederated no more.
Now the well-dejected man, Dunbar moved to a new flat in Brooklyn and began work on his next album. Because he didn't want to annoy his new neighbors, he left his drum kit alone and worked within spare, hushed arrangements. What emerged was a melanholy, yet highly charged sound; personal, without being in anyone's face; striking so close to home that the total mood felt like a shadow cast over one's own heart. In early 1996, he released The Man Who Never Learns, and its fourteen songs represent the most distressed, yet dignified, response to everyday torment ever crafted by anyone working as a singer/songwriter.
Guided by innocence rather than irony, Dunbar exhibits a strangely naive skill in his arrangements. In "Sometimes You Win (Most Times You Lose)," he gives his guitar a nervous, skittering solo, as if it were a hungry rodent foraging in an abandoned house. The doo-wop vocals backing "Insecurity Guard" are deliberately off-key; the piano he plays in "When You Woke Up" is so out of tune it could have been left out in the rain. After the disk's completion, the self-esteem-challenged Dunbar realized he had turned a corner, and struck a peace treaty with himself. "I appreciate the people that aren't overly successful," he says. "People I've started playing music with have given up on it because they realize, 'Hey, I'm not going to be a star,' but that's not the point. If you love it, it's a necessity. If I didn't do this, I don't know where I'd be. I'd be worse shape than ever, not that I'm in great shape to begin with. The only thing that keeps me going is thinking about the next song."
Lately, there have been numerous "next songs." Eighteen of thirty songs he wrote for The Last Hand Laundry In Chinatown were used in the production that ran at La Mama in May 1996. The show is looking forward to a revival later this year. The Konks is a kind of homework project Dunbar uses to keep his skills fresh. It does for the Kinks what The Rutles do to the Beatles -- he plans to release a Konks single later this year. Dunbar has been asked to do music for a children's animation piece titled "Going North," as well as a contribution to a new age band called "Kinski." He admits it's more than one person should handle. He does all this because he has to. "It's a necessity. If I didn't I'd be a loser for sure."
Despite this abundance of solo activity, Dunbar felt the tug to be in a band again. His new band is called Iffy, and they are laying down the basic tracks for their first record, Close Calls With Happiness. Ever true to himself, Dunbar is exploring new frontiers in lost causes. "One of our new songs, 'To Be A Jerk,' opens with a line that goes, 'I'm not too bright, but I'm not as dumb as I would like to be.' That sums me up. I'm not as dumb as I want to be. Maybe one day I will be."B -- Mark Keating, Sound Views #44, 01/97
The coolest way to succeed in pop music lately is to sing about what a failure you are. Everyone does it, from the Posies (who named their debut album Failure) to Matthew Sweet ("Sick of Myself") to Green Day ("When I Come Around") to, of course, Beck. Greenberry Woods named their second album Big Money Item as a cynical prediction that it would go straight to the cut-out bins, only to become a "big money item" in years to come. It did and it will.
Now former Confederacy of Dunces leader John Dunbar offers the definitive why-bother album, The Man Who Never Learns (Heartpunch). But from the disturbing cover -- an Egon Schiele self-portrait that bears more than a passing resemblance to Dunbar himself -- to the press release citing Nilsson Sings Newman and Robyn Hitchcock's I Often Dream of Trains as inspiration, it's clear that this is not your garden-variety I'm-a-loser effort. Fans of the Dunces will recognize it as the logical fullullinent of Dunbar's emulating the original luckless troubadour, Ray Davies.
When you meet him, the 31-year-old Dunbar may seem a tad neurotic, but hardly like the desperate creatures who inhabit his songs. He's self-deprecating to the point of nearly fading into the wallpaper; "Being with me is like standing in line," goes a line in one of his songs.
A native New Yorker, his folks took him as a child to see the Rascals, and the Beatles at Shea. Better still, he says, "When I was really young, my father was a limousine driver, and he drove all these famous rock stars. I got to meet Sly Stone. I was really into Sly & the Family Stone as a kid, and I got to meet them backstage. Their drummer, Andy Newmark, came over and gave me his drum stick. 'Cause they all loved my father. He drove them for a week and he knew all of them.
"My father's actually in The Song Remains the Same. You see him at the end, when Zeppelin get into the limo and leave. He s only in it from the neck down, but that's my father driving the car away...He drove John Lennon a lot too, and Elton John. He always talks about one time John Lennon and Elton John were out one night, bombed, and supposedly Elton John mooned Lennon. Then Lennon kept singing, 'Elton John has a big bon-bon.' Whatever that means. He sang it the whole night."
Dunbar says his thing for the Kinks started very early. "I remember exactly how I got
to like them. I had a really strange childhood, and for some reason I had to live with my father's best friend's mother. Don't ask. I was just thrown around. Anyway, her name was Lola, and this was around the time that I was six years old and 'Lola' was a hit. I used to walk around and sing to her, 'La-la-la-la-Lola.' They used to yell at me for singing it. That's a bad song. Don't sing that.' So of course I had to find out what this bad song meant." His first Kinks album was Everybody's In Showbiz, and it went on from there.
It's impossible to listen to Dunbar without being reminded of Village Green-era Ray Davies -- and no surprise that he's got a Rutlesstyle side project called the Konks. Still, he denies that he's obsessed. "I'm not one of those Kinks freaks. Those people -- I see them at all the shows I go to. They're just really annoying. I just love Ray Davies' work, but I'll leave it...I had the opportunity to meet him the other night. My sister works at the Harley Davidson Cafe, and there was a party for him there. I didn't even go up to him. Because I don't want to meet him. I love the guy, but what if he's an idiot to me? It would ruin the music...Although I must admit, when I left the party my sister gave him my CD. Whether it's a coaster right now, whether ifs in the garbage, he has it."
In the '80s, after doing time in mostly-dire bands with names like Bach Hazard and Chef of the Future (from The Honeymooners) , Dunbar went solo, playing area folk clubs and working on his songwriting. "The way that the Dunces came about was that I had all these songs, and I felt that it was time to release something. I met Richard X. Heyman around that time, and he had just put out his own record [Living Room], and he kind of inspired me to do that."
He played all the instruments himself but didn't want to come off "like the poor man's Todd Rundgren or Prince," so he invented a band. On that first album (Tsk Tsk Tsk, '89), "I credited my friend as the drummer. He lived in California, he didn't play drums; he's a graphic designer somewhere. Another friend of mine played a few chords on a couple of tunes, so I credited him as the guitarist. And another friend who could play bass but doesn't live here -- I put him down as the bass player."
Later he formed an actual Confederacy of Dunces to play around town, but when the time came for a second album, Dunces With Wolves, he did it all himself again. Dunces With Wolves earned good buzz and an interest from a big indie label -- until, Dunbar says, the Dunces' attorney scared the label away with demands for big bucks.
Since the Confederacy disintegrated in '94 he's gone wholly solo. The Man Who Never Learns is his quietest, softest and most personal record. The stronger emphasis on his vocals was a risky move -- think Chris Stamey or Mitch Easter if they'd been born in the Bronx. Once you get used to the idea that here is a man who refuses to take voice lessons it grows on you, like cheap Scotch. Dunbar's depth of conviction also helps to make his vocal limitations easier to take. Like on the title track, where he sings of a man who "works hard" for all the heartache he earns.
By day, Dunbar works in Brooklyn for Time Warner Cable, repossessing cable boxes from delinquent customers. Not exactly the sort of day job most musicians would long for, but Dunbar takes it in stride. "To tell you the truth it's great, because as far as being a writer goes, you can't beat entering people's little lives for five minutes and leaving. I'm telling you, it's great fodder for material, man."
And sometimes the job and music cross in a different way. "I got a work order one day, and I see it says 'Lori Carson.' Well, you know, I've had 'Jimi Hendrix, I've had 'Paul McCartney. I have a guy named James Brown almost every week -- 'Hello, is James Brown there?' So, when I saw 'Lori Carson' I thought, That's great Didn't she just open for Counting Crows at the Beacon?'
"So I go there, I ring the bell, and I think it is Lori Carson. I walk in, see the acoustic guitar, the little four-track recorder. I say, 'You're the Lori Carson?' She's like, 'You know me?' I'd heard that she was really angry with the cable company -- the printout I had said, 'customer irate.' But suddenly she was so nice to me. I said 'I'm really sorry about what happened with the cable.' She said, 'Oh, don't worry about it. I'll put you on my mailing list.'"
And did he do his duty?
"I got her box," he says.
-- Dawn Eden, New York Press, 1997