by: John Stanton
Jeff Ross is playing the guitar and singing before an audience at the brotherhood, or sandbar, or Millie’s, or some other place where the word “venue” no longer means what it once did, back when he was playing lead guitar for lou reed, or sitting in with the post-bob Marley version of the Wailers, when a packed house was a packed house.
Iwant to make a difference,” Ross said. “And I absolutely think music can change things, can help somebody through a moment, or through a bad day, or maybe make them fall in love. One thing is certain. Music, good or bad, live or canned, is making a difference all the time. So, maybe I reach one person in a crowd of 20.”
This goes on seven nights a week. It is not unusual for a summertime bar to hire somebody to play a few tunes while people eat their burgers, drink their drinks and generally have a good time. What is unusual is to walk into such a place and find a guitar player displaying such mastery of his instrument.
What is unusual is for that guy to tell you, with a straight face, that he finds playing tonight’s gig as rewarding as gigs when he backed up big singers in front of crowds counted in the tens of thousands, rather than on two hands.
“They come in and say they came to see you play,” Ross said. “They stay for a couple of hours, when you know they could have had something to eat and gone home in 45 minutes. For me, and I mean this, it is vastly more rewarding than getting on stage with The Wailers, at Langerado (a South Florida music festival), in front of 24,000 people.”
But that is exactly what Ross says. And you get the feeling at 63 years old, after the big stages and big names, after the New York underground scene, after falling down and getting up more than once, this is exactly where he feels best. A singer/songwriter, sitting on a stool, with his guitar, in front of a microphone, playing songs for a small crowd of people.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “It was wonderful to play with The Wailers and I love that material, what a feeling that is. But the fact is, when I’m performing by myself in one of these island venues, then it’s just me and you. It just feels like there’s a significance to what I’m doing.”
There is a snapshot of Ross wearing a skinny Beatles tie, holding a big acoustic guitar, a couple of his girl cousins standing in the background. He is about 12 years old. He and one of his pals decided they were in a band, and called themselves The Dutch Boys, after those black caps that John Lennon and Ringo Starr wore, around the time the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” was in theaters.
It is a photo of a kid acting out his rock and roll dreams.
“I keep it around to remind me, in the middle of shows if I find myself not into it, or feeling sorry for myself because the audience is loud and not listening, that this is what I’ve always done,” he said. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do. And in many ways, this is as good as it gets.”
His parents were fans of Broadway musicals. This was in the late 1950s, in Manhattan, so there were plenty of musicals to choose from and they took their young son along.
“I was always fascinated by the lights, the hugeness of the sound, the inherent intimacy of the actors singing to you, and the vulnerability of all of that. It got to me right away,” he said.
“And so there I was at ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Annie Get your Gun’ and ‘Carousel.’ The symbiotic energy exchange between the performers and the audience really got to me, although I didn’t recognize at that time what it was.”
He remembers the first time he could actually play something on his guitar that made somebody, his parents, maybe even a girl, take notice.
“The first time you pick up a guitar and get a reaction from people, that’s when it hits you,” he said. “When you’re young there’s the idea you are only playing guitar to get the girl. Melody Maker magazine once said I was a typical aspiring rock star, with earrings, affectations, and let’s just say I was more focused on playing for the girls,” he said.
“That’s ridiculous. Sure, I was trying to get the girl, but also trying to get the gig, or the smile, or if it simply got through an afternoon of sitting by myself and playing it, then the guitar was what saved me.”
Ross was 22 when he found himself playing lead guitar for Lou Reed. The year before he had become a sort of unofficial guitar tech for Reed’s band, as they went out on a U.S. tour behind the “Rock and Roll Heart” album. It was 1976. New York City was broke, Son of Sam was on a killing spree, and Reed was the city’s street poet.
“Lou was a perpetual iconoclast and that included when it came to himself,” Ross said. “He had decided to fire his guitar players, and so he went out on the road with no guitar players. They were playing 3,000-seat halls and not filling them. When we got back he auditioned some of the real guitar players in New York, but somehow he landed on me.”
One story has Reed and a friend stopping by the young guitar tech’s apartment for an informal jam session that became a tryout. Ross has always thought that the decision to pull him up onto the stage was also part of Reed embracing the punk-music ethos. Unlike the other guitarists, Ross was self-taught. In the days of the emerging punk scene, being a trained musician wasn’t really a necessity.
“I had only nominal skills and somehow that gave the band a punk feel,” Ross said.
“Lou had abandoned that kind of thing after his Velvet Underground days. Then the punk scene took off and things were pretty cool for a moment for the Lou Reed band. I go back and listen to some of it sometimes and think to myself that I played awful back then, but it didn’t really matter.”
The band went on a couple of world tours, including one performance that ended in a near riot in Denmark. Ross played lead guitar on Reed’s album “Street Hassle.” After the album’s release in 1978, Rolling Stone called it a “stunning incandescent triumph.”
Like most rock and roll stories, there came a moment when things just fell apart. They had finished a three-date set at The Bottom Line, in New York, and the two had a falling out.
“I was a kid when I played with Lou, and I don’t think I processed much,” Ross said. “At that age I wasn’t connected to the significance of what I was doing in any respect. I remember Lou was 36 years old, he turned 36 on our first world tour, and I remember thinking, ‘Why would anybody want to listen to this guy? He’s 36 years old.’ Just totally cavalier. No idea I was playing with the guy who would inherit the entire punk movement, as its godfather.
“By the end of those three shows Lou was angry with me about everything. He didn’t like the way I was playing. He didn’t like the guitar I was using. We had an argument. And if you’re a young punk kid, it doesn’t matter who you think you are. You’re in a fight with Lou Reed.”
Ross laughs to himself at the memory of his youth.
“I thought I quit,” he said. “I’m sure Lou thought he fired me. Basically, I’m a roadie suc-
cess story on some level.”
Ross spent much of the next two decades kick-
ing around the New York underground music scene, playing on albums for Metronome Records, Polygram and RCA.
He ended up coming to Nantucket for the same reason a good number of people once came here. It seemed like a good place to settle in and find a different life.
“I was in a typical rock star/supermodel marriage, even though I wasn’t a rock star and she wasn’t a supermodel,” he said. “But she was a working model and I was a successful rock musician so we tried to live up to those expectations.
“We had a child and suddenly the reasons why we lived like we did were no longer valid. I made some deliberate choices. I just couldn’t go out on the road anymore.”
He knew Felix Pappalardi, the former bass player for the band Mountain, who had produced “Disraeli Gears” for Cream. Pappalardi introduced him to a musician in a band he was producing, who had ties to the island.
“Felix talked about Nantucket all the time,” Ross said. “Then one of the acts he was producing had a great keyboard player named Chris Meredith, who was from Nantucket. Chris invited me up to work on some music.
My wife was about to become my ex-wife and move back to Finland, and I was about to get custody of my daughter. So, I moved here to work with Chris to do the audio on some software he was developing.”
That was 1999. By the next year Ross had decided Nantucket would be his new home.
“My first island gig was at The Rose and Crown,” he said. “I began playing at Starlight and Cisco Brewers. Now the brewery is like a rock festival and the Starlight is closed. But there are so many places to play now on island. People will say what are you doing playing in that restaurant? But you get connected to people.”
Eighteen years later, he is sitting in his basement studio, making a point to a visitor by playing a track from an album he recently recorded in Nashville.
The point is this: There is no sense in creating anything to please anybody but yourself.
“I’ve had five major record deals in my time, but you don’t have any of my records,” he said. “That’s because every time you signed a record deal, what they wanted really had nothing to do with what I was doing. So now I make music for me.”
The new album is called “Only Your Voice” and will be available soon at
http://www.jeffrossrocks.com The s.ingle, on which he is now putting the finishing touches, including Miss Fairchild frontman Travis Richard playing a drum called a djembe, will be ready soon for radio play.
These days it is the making of music, more than the selling of music, that Ross cares about. Maybe that is the lesson of a trip that went from performing for family members with the Dutch Boys, to playing with Lou Reed at The Bottom Line, to that bar stool in the corner of the upstairs bar at The Brotherhood.
“The simple fact that I am able to go out and play every day for an audience, and somebody in that audience will appreciate what I’m doing, possibly it will make a small difference in somebody’s day,” he said.
“I can’t overstate how important that is to me. Playing guitar is the soft bubble I can climb into. It’s my heroin. It takes me out of my very noisy head and puts me into a warm, comfortable place. I feel whole when I’m playing.” ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. His work appears regularly in Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.