Unicorn Times, November, 1976
HAPPY THE MAN
We are only men
we eat, we speak our fancy wordy ways,
but down inside the person acting out the part.
The place where we all stay.
There is a heart, where all are one,
a place away from time.
Direct our thoughts from there
freeing with the laughter, a doorway
to the light.
-- Frank Wyatt,
"On Time As A Helix
of Precious Laughs"
In September of 1975, the Washington area was introduced to Happy the Man (HTM), a group which now consists of five musicians and five closely associated technical people. The setting was WGTB's second and last Pandermedia, an outdoor twelve hour concert broadcast, celebrating the conclusion of the annual fundraising drive for the station. Happy the Man appeared as the final act. This was the beginning of a relatively brief but eventful period for a band with a sound not common in the Washington area.
This sound carries on lead guitar and lead vocals, Stan Whitaker, who spent his high school years in West Germany; Mike Beck, formerly from Ft. Wayne, Ind. on "precision percussion"; Kit Watkins, originally from Harrisonburg, VA, on keyboards, flute and recorder; Frank Wyatt, originating from the Gaylax, VA area, doing keyboards, saxophone, flute and backup vocals; and Rick Kennell, hailing from Ft. Wayne, on bass.
The concept of Happy the Man first arose in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Stan was playing in a band there called Shady Grove, and he was touring the American army and airforce bases, doing original music along with Gentle Giant and Genesis tunes. Rick was stationed in Germany at the time, and he attended one of their gigs. After the show he started talking with Stan about the music of such groups as Van der Graaf Generator and Genesis. Stan remembers the occasion and explains, "We were all flipping out because nobody in 1971 and 1972 was into those groups."
However, Rick had a year and a half left in the army. When he was released, he and two musicians he had played with in Fort Wayne traveled to Harrisonburg, VA to meet up with Stan who was at the time attending Madison College. One of these musicians, Mike the percussionist, remains with the group.
By this time Stand had already come into contact with Frank -- they were teamed together as roommates at Madison College. Kit was attending Madison as a day student at a mixer. One night when Kit was playing in a band from Harrisonburg called Passage, Stan and Frank were impressed by the music programming that had been prerecorded during the breaks. Kit had recorded the tape using King Crimson and Yes -- and from this encounter, along with the arrival of Mike and Rick from Indiana that same week, emerged what we now know as Happy the Man. Since that time, two lead singers have come and gone, each causing a good deal of consternation as they left, finally placing the group into an instrumental context, where they remained until quite recently.
Rick explains, "Right after Cliff (their first lead singer) left, we did a multi-media show with dancers at the Black Friar Dinner Theater -- just the five of us -- and then we though seriously about finding another singer, so we contacted a singer we knew, formerly with a Ft. Wayne and called Ethos (who now record for Capital Records) and that was the beginning of Phase II, with the second singer."
That, in turn, lasted six months. In June, 1975 the second singer left the group and the band decided to focus on instrumental music. August found the band migrating to a smaller house in Arlington. Within a few days a rehearsal room was set up in the basement. Daytime jobs were obtained, and the band met in the basement every evening to practice -- all instrumental music -- what is now referred to by the band members as Phase III. Stan termed it, "Instrumental City."
Among the tunes being played at the time were "Portrait of a Waterfall", "Open Book without Words" (actually a much shortened version of the Blackfriar performance), "Stumpy Meets the Firecracker in Stencil Forest" and "Leave That Kitten Alone, Armone".
"Armone" contains about four lines of vocals which Stand and Frank were doing together. After the group started getting gigs at local spots in Washington, including the Bayou, The Old Fairfax Movie Theater and the Cellar Door, the importance of vocals started to creep into the band's consciousness. Kit explained, "Now we have vocals because got feedback from most record companies that we lacked vocals and they weren't interested because of that. Arista, (more on that later) was also that way, but not quite as heavy."
Stan's voice was improving steadily, and Frank, for a while, stopped joining in with Stand during "Armone". And then it became apparent that, that on his own, Stan could carry it, very well in fact. As a result, Frank went up to his attic room, where he keeps his trunk full of lyrics, and songs with vocals started to be rehearsed. Two new tunes, "On Time as a Helix of Precious Laughs", and "Upon the Rainbow (Befrost)" appeared in the HTM repertoire. Stan's voice continues to grow as more lyrics are being introduced and as he and Frank work on their voices with the help of voice coach Donna Sholar.
In the spring of '76 the band hooked up with Bob Steinhem, who along with managing them, also spent a great deal of time in search of A & R people to listen and ideally, to experience Happy the Man in a performance setting. It was an exciting, though confused, time for HTM. Many different recording company people were attending their concerts and the band was more or less in limbo about their future.
One incident worthy of noting during this time was the June 26th visit by Peter Gabriel (former lead singer with Genesis) to Arlington. Kit recalled, "We had a connection with one of the roadies in the Genesis troupe and he gave us the connection with Peter and Genesis's manager who was looking for bands for Peter. So, Peter looked at us."
(At this writing, Peter is recording with studio musicians in Toronto, Canada, and he still does need a band for touring, although a tour is planned in early '77.)
Meanwhile, on August 4th, HTM auditioned in New York for Clive Davis, and on Thursday, September 23, 1996, Happy the Man signed a one year contract with Arista Records, with four yearly options.
Reflecting on the last year, Stan explained, "We started off in the country (Harrisonburg, VA) to get the music right. We got the music right and moved to the city to get where we had to get professionally -- and once we got that taken care of, we found a house big enough for us back in the country."
Happy the Man has recently relocated to a sizeable piece of farmland in the scenic Virginia countryside near Winchester. For the past few weeks HTM has split its collective focus between fixing up their seven bedroom villa ("Happy the Manor"), and working on their performing disciplines. They had purposely avoided public performance during this interim period, a lapse that ended October 15th with a one nighter at the Psychedelly, followed by a return engagement at the Cellar Door for two nights the following week.
Needless to say, signing a five-year contract while moving from the urban to the rural extremities of the area can evoke a hefty share of changes upon any group of people, and Happy the Man was not spared its portion. But things did settle into a positive space, and the group is now hard at work on development of recording and performing techniques and refinements that they feel are necessary as they embark upon the "big time".
Their so far superficial contact with the record industry has opened new worlds to them, but also pointed out areas in which they found themselves deficient. Realizing this, the group has begun the difficult process of relating to the industrial giant in human terms. At this writing (mid-October), the group and Arista's A&R Dept. are in the process of selecting a producer for the first album. The record studio(s) to be used then will be chosen by the producer in consultation with HTM and Arista. Unfortunately, no DC area studios are currently under consideration, since none are considered adequate for Arista's plans for the album. Several major studios in New York are being scrutinized, as well as those in London. As Kit sees it, "If we decide on London, we would probably record at Trident or Abby Road, which may seem a bit extravagant, but it's really cheaper to record over there -- the prices are much less per hour compared to New York, and the exchange rate for the US dollar is real good right now."
After the album's completion, the group will seek attachment to a talent agency most likely a New York based firm, for the purposes of touring, both in the US and in Europe. Technical nightmares are in the anxious minds of the HTM stage staff, since there is little likelihood of the group being a headliner on their first major tour> Serious work is being done by the tech staff to streamline their touring and setup procedures, as well as minimize the compromises that will be necessary when they do appear as an opening act on national tour.
Ed Kenestrick, HTM's director, explains, "The headlining act will determine the lighting setups and the stage spaces as well as the amount of time that will be available for us before the shows. We're not planning to do very much in the way of special effects at first, but just keep our stage lighting at the level where we like it. Our stage lighting fits into the music in a pretty precise way in that Steve Meeks works with the musicians and rehearses with them, so that our lights run almost as though they have another score along with the music. It's going to be different for us to integrate that into somebody else's lighting an dimmer board setup. We want to do the best show that we can do, and we'd rather try to do a little less and really do it right, than to dry to do more than we can handle at the moment."
Kit adds. "We won't have the finances to really do very much more than the music and basic lighting on the first tour either."
Meanwhile, the musicians have been preparing themselves in the area of stage presence, one performance aspect which they feel the have neglected in the past. ("The largest crowd we've ever played for was the CSAR benefit at the Warner Theater, about 1200.") Here again the group turns to the experience of Ed Kenestrick. "We're just doing some work that any artist who had to go on the stage would do; a dancer would do it, and actor would do it, and we feel that maybe musicians should do it too, in order to relate, not just cleanly to the audience, but also to the same sense of sophistication that exists in the music in the first place. We work on body awareness, and we have a section we're just calling performance class where we just get together and discuss the problems of performance. We try to work out exercises that will help the people who have to be on stage to develop their awareness and their technique, and the bag of tools that they have to work with, so that they are prepared deal with a live stage situation." The sessions run daily, from two to four hours each.
Technical classes are being conducted as well. Ed continues, "We're talking about hardware there, and how to deal with theatrical hardware and the tools that are available and what we can do with them."
Stan muses, "Ideally, we want to be our own act and be able to create a total concert experience that makes people float out of the hall when its over."
One apparent root of the success of Happy the Man has so far achieved must be attributed to their collectivity: sharing of work, acknowledgements of each others strengths and weaknesses, and a strong feeling of solidarity and equality among both the musicians and the support staff, are all manifestations of this.
That staff consists of Ed Kenestrick, who in addition to his position as director handles with HTM refers to as "Media", otherwise known as projections and ambiences of all sorts; Steve Meeks, who creates and executes the stage lighting, with the group in conjunction with Kenny Bailey, who generally fits the bill of Stage Manager; Wayne Garber, who handles sound for the group in association with Dale Pace, formerly with Atlantis Systems, and Eric Smith, who has recently been added as Road Manager. (Another recent addition is Mark Holms, who will do art work and design for the group. Currently on the west cost studying holography, we will return this winder to work closely with the group. Other artists who are familiar with the music of HTM are encouraged to submit their work to the band.)
Most of the technicians are also musicians, and, in fact, made many of their initial contacts with the band through musical rather than technical associations. Consequently, each treat their field of work as a performing art, both in practice and in performance. When asked to compare their ideas with past concerts the have witnessed by other groups, the band unanimously cites the Paul Winter Consort and some earlier Genesis tours.
The core of HTM today is their music. Above and beyond all other attributes, it is unique. Yet paradoxically, it strikes the ear in a pleasant and familiar way, despite its peculiarity. It is this phenomenon that has apparently attained for HTM some what of a cult following in this area, after only a year in the city. From a tape recorded in their practice room in Harrisonburg with four inexpensive microphones, a small Revox tape deck and a lot of luck, to occasional air play and not so occasional gigs, it didn't take long for interest to be raised in HTM's music. There is obviously something special in their music, defying description, yet amazingly potent, especially when experienced live.
The source of this music, in its initial conception comes from Frank, Stanley and Kit. Yet by the time a song is totally ready for performance, it has undergone painstaking arrangements by all of the band. Kit adds, "Our influences are from a lot of progressive British rock and American jazz, and classical music. But we work a lot together on the texture and overall fullness of the sound, and tell each other what we think parts need to make them sound good, since we all seem to have opinions about what sounds good. We work on what each person likes or thinks sounds good in a song, until we're all happy with it."
Much of Mike Beck's percussion work would seem random and improvised, yet every bit of it is set down and rehearsed. Although much provision is made for solos, very little of the music the band currently plays in concert is improvised (with the exception of an occasional jam during extended sets at a club gig).
With the recent shift of emphasis back to songs with lyrics, Frank's literary talents and Stan's vocals are playing an important role in the current composition of the band. Only a small potion of the songs that each member has written are ever attempted by the band due to the time each tune takes to work up by the group, not to mention the prolific nature of the individual composers' skills. What seems to bother the band members even more, however, is the realization of how little of the music they are now doing will be able to be included with their first album. American record manufacturing standards -- within the budgetary limits Arista has set for the first LP -- will not allow more than 23 minutes of music to be reliably pressed on to an LP side. But that will, hopefully, still allow them to include eight tunes that they had hoped to have on it.
As with almost any band, bringing the songs to life in concert is the real thrill for HTM, musicians and technicians together. The band anxiously awaits the opportunity to perform for audiences everywhere, and hope it will receive the warm reception it feels here. At present, they all consider the DC area home for them, and speculate that they will continue to do so.
It goes without saying that all of Happy the Man's awarenesses are acutely tunes in to what the future holds for the group. Specifically, Rick and Stan are anxiously awaiting their change to check out their respective new bass and doubleneck guitars, currently being custom constructed for them by Paul Smith of Annapolis. At 20 years of age, Paul has recently assembled axes for Peter Frampton, Ted Nugent, and Al di Meola.
Kit is busy charting out overdub plans and other recording session preparations designed to save time (= money) in the studio. Frank is turning much of his efforts towards composition, especially more lyrics writing, while Mike is continuously concerned with seeking out new methods of producing tonal and atonal percussive sound through strictly non-electrical means.
Happy the Man could become one of the more successful acts to spring from our robustly talented environs; right now, they're a band on the move, beginning what they readily acknowledge to be their long hard road.