Richard X. Heyman’s latest album, Incognito, reaffirms the veteran artist’s place in the pantheon of great American songwriters. OK, not the songwriters who are part of the (yawn) Great American Songbook, but the guys (and women) who have inspired others to take up their pens, cheap notebooks, weathered pack of Gitanes and start strumming their own hits. The garage heroes and heroines whose limited run singles we hold tight to our breasts or place on shelves so that they sit higher than all others. Hits, here, doesn’t necessarily mean a side that climbed to the top of the Billboard charts.
When Paul Westerberg wrote the whole “I’m in love/what’s that song?” bit in The Replacements’ classic “Alex Chilton,” he wasn’t just talkin’ ‘bout the late Box Tops/Big Star leader. It wasn’t just about “The Letter” or “In The Street.” He was (or might as well have been) referencing a whole run of tunes that showed up on homemade compilations passed hand to hand among friends and/or tracks that cropped up on regional/underground collections meant to capture a certain subterranean zeitgeist.
Chilton doesn’t have a corner on that market. You can find grown men today who’ll go clammy hands at the mention of Glenn Mercer or Bill Million. Others still might faint come mentions of The Raspberries or Shoes. There’s a whole industry now dedicated to deifying all those little bands who could. And that’s as it should be.
OK. Truth? It’s hard to place Heyman in exactly that category because doing so renders him an artefact. He’s not that. And yet he is one of “those guys” who simply doesn’t write bad songs, who doesn’t make bad records and who, those who love him swear, is someone you just have to hear. He’s someone you’d gladly travel hours out of your way to see at some run-of-the-mill club in East Orange or Erie.
He might know that. And he might choke at any talk that attempts to place him on a pedestal. So, why, then? His uncanny ear for lyrics, melody, harmony and his impeccable sense of rhythm seem like good enough places to start. And the fact that he writes music outsiders can latch onto even if the music doesn’t always announce itself as tunes for the fringe.
There’s plenty of backstory, too: As a teenager, Heyman founded the New Jersey outfit The Doughboys. If that name doesn’t exactly light the call-in line for non-fanatics, check this: Formed in 1963, the outfit summoned a couple of memorable tracks, including “Rhoda Mendelbaum” and “Everybody Knows My Name.” As teenage dreams turned to post-adolescent realities, the members scattered: Heyman took gigs drumming for Link Wray and Brian Wilson; former Doughboy Myke Scavone led the group Ram Jam through its indelible hit “Black Betty.”
Along the way Heyman began racking up solo releases. The single “Vacation” (1980) summons thoughts of a hyperactive Lindsey Buckingham or NRBQ rocking right at the edge of sanity. In 1987 he brought out the EP Actual Size, which paved the way for the following year’s Living Room!!! and a string of records that carried him into the 1990s, including a dalliance or two with something approaching minor mainstream success.
Based in New York City, Heyman continues to write and record from his home studio, reluctant to suppress his creative impulses. Speaking from his home on morning in Summer 2017, he’s more than ready to discuss the idea that some of his contemporaries have adopted: That no one wants to hear new songs.
“There’s been a glut,” he says. “As time goes on, more and more art is created and the old art doesn’t go away, so it just keeps piling up. You do have to separate the good, the bad, the mediocre. You also have this technology that takes away from peoples’ attention. They’re all over the place. But as somebody who likes to create, I don’t let that get to me. I sit down and write a song because it’s an emotional outlet. I just do it.” He adds, “When you do that, you want people to hear it.”
Heyman admits that he has an advantage in the cluttered musical landscape: A longtime fanbase that follows his work closely. “I hope they stay with me with each new release but you can only hope,” he says. “Once you put it out there, you have to wait and see what happens. Maybe people will find it on their own or through word of mouth. But I have to let go and move onto the next project.”
He adds, “For me, it’s always been about feeling good about the music. When I started there was always that dream of ‘rock stardom’ or ‘trying to make it.’ But those aren’t expectations people have anymore.”
A consistent element in Heyman’s output is not only the maddeningly tuneful quality of his songs but their rhythmic precision. Having started his music life as a drummer, he was soon fascinated by the percussive elements of the piano. “At first I thought, ‘Piano’s a percussion instrument?’ But then I’d read about why that was so,” he says, “and I figured, ‘I’m a percussionist, I should learn the piano.’” Though careful study on his own and then at school, he became more accomplished at the instrument. “Then I discovered guitar and that was a little more difficult. With the piano, you can hit the instrument and sound comes out. With the guitar, you’ve got to really invest your whole body into making those sounds. But I practiced a lot and once I could play various chords it just sort of fell together.”
Much of Heyman’s development as a performer and writer could be characterized in a similar way. He says that at age five he “instinctively knew” he should play drums. Though his parents were not musical, they indulged him in his wish for a snare drum, then, later, a full kit. “When I sat down I knew how to play,” he says. “It was like a reincarnation of somebody who could play in a past life. Even though I don’t believe in that, I still wondered, ‘Where’s this coming from?’”
He admits that he’s not one to go long periods of time without checking in with his muse. “I find that if there’s some sort of demand, it doesn’t matter how light, I tend to start writing,” he offers. “But sometimes I dream songs or things pop in my head. I feel as long I can sit down with an instrument, that’ll trigger an idea. It hasn’t dried up yet.” Composition, he insists, remains largely a personal endeavor.
For a moment, in the wee hours of the George H.W. Bush era, however, it seemed like wider acclaim might be within his reach, via the Sire-pressed Hey Man!. Arriving in stores the same year as Nevermind the album may have been out of its element despite topflight material such as “In the Scheme of Things” and “Falling Away.”
“When I started putting out my own records, that sense of ‘making it’ was still part of the dream,” Heyman offers. In addition to Sire, he’d also landed a contract with A&M (which re-released Living Room!!! in 1990). “I was thinking, ‘Maybe this will lead to something.’ But things changed. The good thing is that you put something out there and nothing will ever take away its quality, no matter how much or how little success it has. That music will always be there.”
Incognito represents Heyman’s staying power, with its powerful hooks and stylistic diversity, from soul (“Everybody Get Wise”) to the jingle jangle of the British Invasion and the Everly Brothers (“Gleam”); his ability to subtly cast light on important issues of our time comes to the fore via “These Troubled Times” and “In Our Best Interest” and, taken as a whole, we might come to recognize that Heyman’s greatest gift is providing for listeners that very thing he himself seeks in song, a sense of catharsis.