By Joseph Hess
By Joseph Hess
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Flash back to a certain Let's Active concert in the late '80s, a time when fiercely original bands gave "college rock" a good name, and nearly every group that played Mississippi Nights was worth the trip (or at least the trip home). As the band played songs from Afoot and Cypress, the Jet Lag crowd was in full swing, Mitch Easter's guitar playing pushed jangle into new vistas and the entire band kept perfect time. The opening band that night was the then-ubiquitous Stranded Lads, Andrew John's old combo, and were the perfect segue for Let's Active. "We were very simple then," he says. "We just played the songs. We didn't have a lot of instrumentation. It was that way because that's when I first started playing, and I could just play enough to get by."
John is still going, thanks both to persistence and, more important, his being a songwriter who's prolific without being soporific. "People say, 'Put your best songs on tape,'" relates John. "Well, I don't know what my best songs are. I've just got a bunch of songs, you know. I just keep writing songs and writing songs." He finds the process of composing elusive if beguiling. He reasons, "The melodies are kind of in the air for anybody to take. But the words are what come from the soul. The melodies simply help me say what I want to say."
When it comes to rock & roll models, John cites what are not so much predictable influences as ones that endure. "The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, early Aerosmith," he offers without thinking twice. He says the Beatles' White Album was a pivotal household favorite that still gives him chills, particularly the John Lennon songs. "I thought it was kind of spooky," he reveals through a laugh. "I thought I was being bad listening to it. I was listening to it before I knew about Manson, and it scared the hell out of me."
Humbled into a blush, John admits that of all the comparisons used to describe him, his favorite is "John Lennon, of course. When people say I sound like John Lennon, I really like that." And of course you can hear this influence; John's new songs, like his older ones, reveal a Beatles angle that captures the Fabs' politely freaky later work, not the Brian Epstein days of matching suits and clashing screams. It shows how far back his roots go in an era where yesterday doesn't come fast enough. "I do my own thing," he says, smiling.
For Andrew John, St. Louis is just a home base, a fact rendered practically ambiguous by the Web. So John's best hope is to tap into the burgeoning pop community whose residents are scattered across the Internet. To this end, he's sent his CD to Not Lame, the label, distributor and sanctuary for renegade pop guns living in a melodically blank generation. He hopes to be added to their catalog, where kindred spirits are arranged alphabetically. He's also tried his hand at simulcasting his live performances over the Internet, but, says John, "The main feedback I got is that everybody who tries to log on to it has so much trouble that it hasn't really seemed to work yet for anybody."
His upcoming New York gig started with a few impromptu performances, but John now has a following there -- people who show up every time he plays Manhattan and ask when he's coming back. "My mom's friend -- her daughter's a songwriter," he explains. "We went to a couple of open mics together up there." He says that now he could play there once a month, were he able to make the commute. John evokes the day when a singer/songwriter could pick up his guitar and carry his message across the country. "I don't follow any trends," he says with a polite confidence. "I don't follow anything, because I wouldn't know what the hell was going on, anyway."