RICHARD X HEYMAN
Tiers/And Other Stories
Richard X. Heyman’s ambitious new release Tiers/And Other Stories affirms what his longtime admirers have known for years: the veteran singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and DIY recording pioneer is a world-class artist whose effortless mastery of popular music idioms is matched by his uncanny knack for infusing classic styles with timeless emotional truths.
Those abilities have won Heyman a fiercely loyal grass-roots fan base and reams of critical acclaim over the past two and a half decades. All Music Guide called him “perhaps America’s greatest unsung hero of power pop, a songwriter of uncommon talent and intelligence and a one-man rock band without peer,” while the Hartford Courant proclaimed him to be “a true heir to [Brian] Wilson’s mantle, amid an ocean of pretenders.” Rollingstone.com praised Heyman’s “hooks galore and ebullient melodies, and lyrics revealing the emotional power that pop can pack into its brevity,” while the Chicago Tribune observed, “Heyman creates something fresh from his influences rather than parroting them.”
The two-CD, 31-song Tiers/And Other Stories (on the artist’s own Turn-Up label) marks a creative watershed for Heyman, consolidating many threads of his prior work while venturing into fresh new musical and conceptual territory. The project — which Heyman regards as two separate albums packaged together, rather than a double album — finds him largely diverging from the jangly, guitar-driven style for which he’s best known, in favor of a more eclectic approach that encompasses the baroque symphonic textures of “Hot on the Trail of Innocence” and “Agnostic’s Prayer,” the languid country balladry of “Good to Go,” the gospel-inflected R&B of “The Real Deal,” the haunting atmospherics of “Birds” and the jazzy vibe of “Horizon” and “Game Stays the Same.”
While the music covers compelling new ground, the new songs’ autobiographical lyrics mine some essential universal insights out of Heyman’s own experiences. Tiers is a deeply felt song cycle recounting the tangled but ultimately triumphant story of the early stages of his relationship with Nancy Leigh, his wife of 23 years as well as his bassist and frequent recording collaborator. And Other Stories picks up the story with the couple happily settled in New York, via a set of songs that reflect Heyman’s strongly held beliefs on life, love, loss and a variety of other topics close to the artist’s heart.
“I hate to bring up the c-word, but Tiers is what they used to call a concept album, or a rock opera,” Heyman confesses. “Tiers is a chronological story, but And Other Stories is more like lifestyle songs, with topics like September 11th, mortality, losing friends and family members, the baby-boom generation, and our love of animals and animal rescue. All of the stuff in all of these songs is meaningful to me, and hopefully there are some things in there that will be meaningful to the listener as well.
“I didn’t set out to write a bunch of autobiographical songs,” Heyman continues. “The music, the melodies and the chord progressions led me to the words. It wasn’t until a few songs in that I realized I was telling our story. I’d never written like that before. With one or two exceptions, these songs were written in the order they’re sequenced. I really got emotionally attached to this music, and I found it cathartic working on and listening to these songs. But they’re songs, and they’re not meant to be 100% factual. I mean, how can you write a totally non-fictional account of events that has to rhyme every other line?”
Releasing a two-disc set containing 132 minutes’ worth of challenging new music is a fairly audacious move in an era in which pop culture is geared towards instant gratification and limited attention spans. “I didn’t give it that much thought; I just started writing these songs and couldn’t stop,” Heyman asserts, adding, “We also recorded another whole album’s worth of songs that didn’t get included.
“For me, the biggest difference between these albums and my earlier ones is that nearly all these songs were written in one fell swoop, and that most of them were written on piano rather than guitar. The thing that really sparked this project was the purchase of a new electric piano, a very basic Yamaha sampled keyboard with built-in speakers. With one push of a button, I could play it without any plugging in wires or other setting up. I think that instant accessibility inspired me to start writing songs. The first thing that came from that was ‘Hot on the Trail of Innocence,’ and after that I started writing a song or two a day.”
Heyman’s extensive experience in delivering mini-masterpieces on a budget served him well in constructing Tiers/And Other Stories’ expansive musical settings. As usual, he did most of the recording in his home studio the Kit Factory, producing and playing most of the instruments himself, with Nancy Leigh engineering. “We did have other musicians contributing strings, horns and woodwinds,” he points out, adding, “but they would come in one at a time, seeing as how we only have one decent microphone.”
As much as it’s a stylistic departure from his previous releases, Tiers/And Other Stories is also a potent manifestation of the lifelong passion for music that’s driven Heyman since his days growing up in Plainfield, New Jersey. He began playing drums at the age of seven, and was proficient on guitar and piano by his teens. By then, he had already begun writing songs.
Heyman was still in junior high school when he achieved his first taste of rock ’n’ roll notoriety as drummer with the fabled garage band the Doughboys, whose raucous live sets won them a rabid following in the New York/New Jersey area during the second half of the 1960s. The Doughboys recorded a pair of singles for the Bell label, made multiple appearances on the local TV show Disc-O-Teen (emceed by legendary horror-show host Zacherle), shared stages with the likes of the Beach Boys, the Buckinghams, Neil Diamond and the Syndicate of Sound, and served as the house band at the Café Wha? in Greenwich Village during the summer of 1968. In more recent news, their song “Why Can't She See Me?” (written by Richard) was chosen as #3 Coolest Song in the World on Little Steven's Underground Garage Sirius XM channel for 2010! (Original Doughboys guitarist Willy Kirchofer, who passed away in 2005, is the subject of the Tiers/And Other Stories track “When Willy Played Guitar.”)
By the time Heyman reemerged as a solo artist in the late 1980s, he’d matured into a singularly distinctive songwriter with an uncanny ability to channel his vintage rock ’n’ roll influences into tunes that are both infectiously catchy and emotionally resonant. Those qualities were prominent on his self-released, home-recorded efforts Actual Size and Living Room!! Both generated considerable critical positive press and music-industry word of mouth, leading to a major-label deal with Sire/Warner Bros., which released the widely acclaimed Hey Man! in 1991.
Recording for a corporate label helped to win Heyman a wider audience and a higher media profile. But it also proved to be a frustrating experience, and it wasn’t long before he was back in indie territory, making and releasing his music on his own terms. His subsequent albums Cornerstone, Basic Glee, Rightovers, Actual Sighs and Intakes, as well as the EP Heyman, Hoosier and Herman (with guest vocalist Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits) chronicled Heyman’s ongoing musical evolution. Heyman also found time to release the career-spanning video retrospective X-Posures, and to pen his first book, the vivid rock ’n’ roll memoir Boom Harangue.
Having recorded within the major-label system and as a self-sufficient free agent, Heyman definitely prefers the latter route. “Back before there were state-of-the-art home recording systems,” he notes, “you had to record in a proper studio if you wanted to make a decent-sounding record. And to afford a good studio, you had to have a record deal. But now you can match the highest paid major-label artist sonically in your bedroom. The cat’s out of the bag now.”
When he hasn’t been writing and recording his own material, Heyman has also found time to work with an array of other artists over the years, including several of his musical heroes. He’s played drums behind Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, seminal guitar icon Link Wray, Left Banke leader Michael Brown and beloved indie troubadour Jonathan Richman. He also served as guitarist in Shangri-Las lead singer Mary Weiss’ band during her recent comeback, and played keyboards with soul legend Ben E. King.
In recent years, Heyman has juggled his own work with his activities as a member of the reactivated Doughboys, who first reunited to play at Heyman’s surprise birthday party in 2000 and have remained active ever since, delivering authentically raw garage rock ’n’ roll to old and new fans. The resurgent quartet has also released a pair of well-received new albums, 2007’s Is It Now? and 2010’s Act Your Rage, which feature several Heyman compositions.
But it’s Tiers/And Other Stories that’s currently the focus of Richard X. Heyman’s attention. “I suppose the theme of these albums, “ he concludes, “is that we all make decisions in life, and hopefully all those decisions lead us to a place we can call home.”