Pete Townshend, who recently came through town as part of the Who's latest reunion tour, is rock's most prominent sufferer of ear problems; years of exposure to loud noise has left him with tinnitus, a condition that causes a persistent ringing or roaring in his ears. But his ailment is mild compared to the one that's stricken John Porcellino, owner and operator of Denver's Spit and a Half imprint and former leader of the Felt Pilotes, a charming and enjoyable act previously profiled in these pages ("Pilotes of the Airwaves," April 13, 1994). Whereas Townshend can still play guitar on stage with his group, however, Porcellino has been forced to give up music entirely, at least until his condition improves. His ears are so sensitive, in fact, that he can no longer put a telephone receiver up against them without feeling profound discomfort. To take a call, he must switch to a speaker phone and insert a pair of special earplugs.
"This whole thing started about a year and a half ago," Porcellino says. "The eustachian tubes are pretty much the inner ear, and their purpose is to pressurize and to depressurize--in other words, to equalize pressure. And in my case, they all of a sudden stopped working properly. When I'm exposed to something loud, my inner ear pressurizes, but then it takes days or hours or sometimes a week to depressurize. I feel like I have a balloon in my head all the time." This reaction can be triggered by practically anything, Porcellino says, but he points out that he's especially susceptible to certain types of music. "I can't listen to anything that's very loud, and even if I turn it down, there are some things that don't work. I can listen to classical music and old jazz and Frank Sinatra, who's always been my favorite. But I can't listen to anything harsh, like hardcore or anything really heavy. I really miss listening to my Neil Young records."
The situation was only exacerbated by Porcellino's attempts to play with the Pilotes. By spring of this year, it became obvious that live appearances were simply out of the question. The band's long-planned CD project was jeopardized, too, but Porcellino and his compatriots (including Doug Mioducki and Steve Jacobek) desperately wanted to finish the disc. With the assistance of Apples frontman Robert Schneider, who recorded the first seven tracks at his Elephant Six studio, and Gary Flori, charged with overseeing three other cuts, they succeeded: Wonderful Summer was released a few short weeks ago, and it captures everything that was wonderful about the Pilotes. "Silver Light" and "Song of Love" are catchy, keening pop, while "Like a Storm," "Good Night" and "One Eye Open" are beautifully melancholy. Sometimes the Young influence is a bit too prominent for its own good--"Say Goodbye" is an apt example--but the occasional shortfalls are compensated for by "Long Night" and "June My Dear," a pair of sonic epics that lap at a listener like the moonlight tide. These purely gorgeous efforts stand as an appropriate memorial for the group.
Although Porcellino is proud of Wonderful Summer, he can't listen to much of it: "There are some songs that are just too much for my ears," he acknowledges. He has similar difficulty with the sounds on a couple of the most recent Spit and a Half projects--Dirty on the Shovel, by Flywheel, an Australian trio that makes entertainingly straightforward guitar pop, and a split seven-inch (featuring Cat's Miaow and Stinky Fire Engine) that's part of Spit and a Half's Australian pop series. As such, Porcellino's enthusiasm for the label is waning. "There hasn't been as good a response as I would like," he concedes, "and that, combined with my condition, is making me think about how long I want to keep doing it."
Fortunately, Porcellino has no intention of cutting back on his other creative projects, including "King-Cat" comics, which he's been producing since 1989. (The illustration at the top of this column is on the inside cover of the fiftieth edition of his creation.) He also plans to keep Spit and a Half's publishing and distribution arm shaking. "I've been putting out little self-published or independently published magazines and books for four years now, and that's been much more satisfying and successful than the record label has been. That's probably where the future lies."
In the meantime, Porcellino isn't sitting around grumbling about the hand he's been dealt. After seeing a raft of ear specialists who pretty much waved the white flag, he's finally found a doctor willing to treat him. There's been no major improvement so far, but he insists that "I don't really miss playing that much. The thing about our band is that we were all really good friends, and we're still really good friends. And that helps."
Wonderful Summer is available at area record stores. To receive a catalogue of other Porcellino products, write to: Spit and a Half, P.O. Box 18510, Denver 80218.
In a column that appeared in our July 11 issue, I lauded the appearance of Club Mecca as "something that the Denver-Boulder area has never really had--an all-ages, no-alcohol, after-hours hip-hop club." Unfortunately, the area is in the same boat now as it was before its opening: The venue, at 1360 College Avenue in Boulder, locked its doors for the last time on November 2.
Craig Smith, director of CU-Boulder's Program Council, served as Club Mecca's manager, and now he's been pressed into service to deliver its eulogy. Why? Because Mecca's official owner, Robert Territo, disappeared about a week before the closure. When asked if Territo left a trail of debt in his wake, Smith says, "I'd really rather not talk about that, but I think the answer is obvious if you put together that he vanished and the club is shut down." Money issues aside, Smith sees the demise of Club Mecca as a major negative for young Boulderites. "We gave people who didn't have anywhere to go a place," he notes. "I don't know where they're going to go now."
In Smith's view, the space ultimately failed to pay for itself because Boulder students were thirstier for booze than for hip-hop. "We did really well with special events--like the shows with Tha Alkaholiks, Hurricane and the Roots--and we did great on the weekends, too. The problem was the weeknights. You have to draw the 21-and-up crowd to make it, and in Boulder, people are apparently still most concerned about alcohol. I mean, why go out during the week unless you want to get drunk? We thought that kind of attitude was changing, but apparently we were wrong--and in the end, even the packed houses on the weekend couldn't make up for the shortfall the rest of the week."
Smith hopes that other venues keep hip-hop happening in Boulder. And while he admits that Mecca never became a breakthrough club, he's still proud of what was accomplished. "We weren't around for that long," he says, "but we really invigorated a scene that needed it."
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More invigoration. On Thursday, November 14, Medeski, Martin & Wood visit the Fox Theatre. On Friday, November 15, Fourth Estate, Indica Gypsys, Martha's Wake and soon-to-be-a-Californian Beth Quist showcase at Area 39. On Saturday, November 16, Face to Face puts its best face forward at the Ogden Theatre, and Steve Hahn demonstrates the proper uses of the Chapman stick at the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts, 111 Cannon Street in Lafayette. On Sunday, November 17, Laurie Dameron hosts a CD-release party at Fiske Planetarium. On Monday, November 18, the University of Colorado celebrates "Mingus Day '96" with an appearance by the Mingus Big Band at Grusin Music Hall (call 492-8810 to learn more). On Tuesday, November 19, Space Team Electra and Abdomen share the bill at the first Pulp magazine band night at the Key Club, and the Suicide Machines end it all at the Mercury Cafe, with the Swingin' Utters and Pinhead Circus. And on Wednesday, November 20, the Bluebird Theater is the place to find Pork. It's the other white meat.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com