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Rise and Shine
You’ve seen the commercials on television. “Remember the ’80s?,” some dork with a goofy grin gushes. “Sure, we all do.” A procession of tinny New Wave hits and equally shallow Top 40 smashes follow, all on one supposedly remarkable CD.
But if you were a fan of Cincinnati-made music in the ’80s, then what you remember is The Bears, the first inductee into the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame. A masterful Pop band, The Bears consisted of Adrian Belew and Rob Fetters on guitars and vocals, Bob Nyswonger on bass and Chris Arduser handling drum duties (replacing the group’s original drummer, the late Larrie Londin, who backed out because he didn’t want to tour). Fetters, Nyswonger and Arduser began playing together in high school in the Toledo suburb of Sylvania. As The Raisins, Fetters and Nyswonger were at the top of the local scene throughout the late 1970s and early ’80s with drummer Bam Powell and keyboardist Rick Neiheisel. (Arduser had been their first drummer.)
Belew, who grew up in Cincinnati, Ludlow and Florence, made a name for himself on a national level, backing up esteemed figureheads like Frank Zappa and David Bowie with his fluid, remarkably experimental guitar work and taking on the role of frontperson in the legendary King Crimson.
When The Bears formed in 1985, the talent meshed together to create an inescapable soundscape that updated the principle behind The Beatles’ revolutionary Revolver album: great Pop tunes with a leaning towards musical and studio invention. Before splitting around 1988, the group left the world with two insanely memorable records — The Bears and Rise and Shine — a slew of rollicking, joyous live shows across the country and a legend that’s best remembered for the wonderful songs that came out of the era.
The way Fetters and Belew interact — whether on stage, in the studio or on the couch writing songs — is a result of a longtime friendship. The duo first met in the 1970s, when Belew’s Nashville-based band Sweetheart crossed paths with The Raisins on the Southern bar circuit at which both were diligently plugging away. The bond was sealed in 1977 when Belew was in Los Angeles, rehearsing for his first Zappa tour, and Fetters was following an obsession of his heart.
“I was in L.A. because I fell in love with a girl from L.A.,” Fetters recalls. “And she dumped me. I was there about two days with her, and it was not working out. She liked Jackson Browne’s brother better than me.”
Fetters’ plane home didn’t leave for a while, so he decided to call Belew, with whom he was only vaguely aquatinted. The two took a stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, talked about and played music into the night and decided to take in a show at the famed Hard Rock club, Whisky A Go Go.
“We walked in and saw this guitar player who played a lot of the same things that we would play,” Belew says. “Especially what you call right-hand tapping, where you play the guitar with the tips of the fingers of your right hand. Rob and I, we thought we were the only two guys in the world who did that. And here’s this other guy up on stage with this totally unknown band who was doing the same thing. We got a big kick out of that. Well, it was Eddie Van Halen, and shortly thereafter they, of course, exploded into a huge band.”
The acquaintanceship quickly turned into a “lifelong friendship,” as Belew says. He went ahead to work with, among others, Bowie and King Crimson, while Fetters and Nyswonger were discovering regional success with their hit “Fear Is Never Boring,” a song that appeared on The Raisins’ eponymous, Belew-produced debut from 1983.
According to Fetters, even with the band’s phenomenal area success and a diverse, edgy album under their belt, there were irreconcilable differences within The Raisins’ camp.
“We were getting ready to make our second record,” says Fetters, “and there was this dissension in the band about working with Adrian producing again. To be honest, I think it had a lot to do with the fact that my songs were going to get recorded and theirs weren’t. And they all wanted to be equally represented.”
The problems didn’t look like they were going to be resolved, and Fetters wanted out. But before telling the other members, he discussed his decision with Belew.
“I told Adrian, ‘I think I’m going to quit this band,’ ” Fetters recalls. “And he said, ‘Well, if you’re quitting, let’s start a band.’ ”
Belew was going through his own life changes at the time. King Crimson had broken up, and Belew’s eccentric, schizophrenic solo music was becoming darker and more serious.
The Bears were born in 1985 with Nyswonger handling bass chores and, after Londin decided to stay in Nashville and take care of his session work and drum shop, initial Raisins’ drummer Arduser on board. With Belew’s recognition, the band began touring without a record contract — “We were turned down by every major label,” says Fetters — but eventually signed to the I.R.S. subsidiary Primitive Man Recording Company, or PMRC. Get it? OK, it was funny in the ’80s."
The group’s debut in 1987 was a Pop gem that received praise from Rolling Stone and People magazines, among others, and the group’s wildly enjoyable live shows amassed a dedicated following.
As Belew describes it, The Bears made a simple career plan and stuck to it. “We thought, ‘We’ll give this about five years, we’ll go out and really work hard and tour incessantly, we’ll see if we can make it pretty quickly and, if we can’t, we’ll stop,’ ” he says. “That was the plan. Unfortunately, it ended in the wrong way, with the band not making it hugely big.”
Aches and Pains
The group began its touring duties behind 1988’s Rise and Shine, but towards the end things simultaneously fell apart. The group saw little financial payback for its work, often ending tours only to see the roadies receiving checks for substantially more money.
“(After the tour) we stopped, we went back and tried to regroup and around the same time I started making a solo album which turned out to be Mr. Music Head,” Belew says, referring to his fourth solo effort. “I wrote a song called ‘Oh, Daddy’ (an eventual hit single and video) and I got, from that song in particular, a record deal with Atlantic. I had to make the decision whether I could continue to go in debt being in a band or try to start up my solo career properly.
“There was really not much of a choice when you have a record that is climbing up the charts and on the other hand you have a situation that doesn’t even have a record deal.”
“Adrian suddenly didn’t have time for The Bears,” Fetters says with no animosity. “It wasn’t like he hated us or anything. Adrian had an out, and he needed to take it.”
Even though the end was disappointing, Fetters and Belew have mostly nothing but good things to say about The Bears era.
“I look back on it as a magical fun band,” Belew says. “The music, I always felt, was a bit ahead of its time and later on was labeled Avant Garde Pop music. I kind of like that label. I’ve always liked the cutting edge of Pop music anyway. I think The Bears had the ability and capacity to formulate their own style of music, and I was proud of that.”
Since the intervening years, Fetters, Nyswonger and Arduser had been playing together as psychodots, performing to their old Raisins fans and picking up new ones on the Midwestern club circuit. They also went on the road a few times, opening for and backing up Belew, who had continued to make various diverse solo albums, produce and play with a wide range of acts (Nine Inch Nails, Jars of Clay) and rejoin a revamped version of King Crimson for a few records and a successful world tour.
By 1996, Fetters and the rest of the ’dots found themselves “spinning their wheels,” he says, playing to a handful of devoted fans on the weekends and “making really dangerous drives” to out-of-town dives in an attempt to spread the gospel. But, just like when Fetters called Belew about The Raisins split, Belew had a strangely familiar offer for his buddies and musical soulmates. The Bears would soon rise again.
“Why don’t we try to do a Bears thing?,” Belew eventually offered, and by the spring of this year the former psychodots were periodically venturing to Belew’s home near Nashville. The quartet would pass an acoustic guitar around, with everyone presenting a song. They’d then pick a song and head to Belew’s home studio to rehearse and record it. To date, the second generation Bears are five songs old and preparing to play in front of an audience as The Bears for the first time in nine years at the 1997 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.
“The plan was real simple from the beginning, and it hasn’t changed yet,” says Belew, describing the different outlook the band has now. “It was simply to gradually and casually make the best record that we can. And there isn’t anything beyond that. I’m not discounting the idea that we would play live and do even more records. But I think at this point we want to stay focused on making the best record the four of us together can make.”
Belew says the regrouping of the band finds The Bears a little wiser and mature, but with the initial chemistry firmly intact.
“It was really amazing to get back together because nothing had changed whatsoever in terms of our abilities to communicate and create together,” he says. “The chemistry and the interplay is still there, and it’s still fun. I also think that, in the intervening years, everyone has matured and the music has a heavier feel to it than what we were doing in the ’80s.”
Fetters, who works at the local commercial music studio Sound Images, has just released a phenomenal new solo effort, Righty Tight, Lefty Loose, which he plans to send to selective labels early next year.
Psychodots fans can rejoice at a ’dots reunion as well. The band is set to play at Top Cat’s on Nov. 28, and they haven’t ruled out more shows in the future.
“I really wasn’t intending on doing (a solo album) as a farewell to Chris and Bob,” Fetters says. “Because I feel like, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to play with those guys for the rest of my life.”
Belew could make a run for the “Hardest Working Man in Show Biz” prize. Recently, he’s been working on a steady stream of projects, utilizing all of his special skills. He’s just finished a solo album called Belewprints, an all-acoustic project with string quartet, acoustic bass, drums and piano. He’s started another electric solo effort. And he’s also been producing a band from Boston called The Irresponsibles, which Belew describes as “an excellent Pop band, kind of in the mold of The Bears or XTC or Crowded House.”
Most recently, Belew and Robert Fripp have been in Belew’s studio working on the next generation of King Crimson material as well as a second project called, appropriately enough, Project 2, as a trio with stick master Trey Gunn, where Belew plays guitar and drums, his initial instrument of choice.
In about a year, Belew fans can also look forward to a five-volume career retrospective called Dust, featuring around 90 tracks of rarities from each of Belew’s career phases.
Learning From Living
“It’s not so simple that you just make great music and that makes everything work out,” Belew says. “I learned a lot with the experience, mostly all positive things. I discovered I really like working in a group dynamic like The Bears, with those people in particular.”
“I think just the fact that I can be a working musician is a miracle,” he says. “There’s so many wildly talented people who are working at Starbuck’s. I consider myself very lucky that I’ve been able to make a living as a musician for as long as I have.”
The art vs. commerce dichotomy is a rough compromise for many artists to come to terms with. Creating musical, visual or written art can come with a cost, and a lot of artists have succumbed to the pressure, either throwing in the towel completely or tweaking their work to fit the standards of commercialism. But often the best artists are the ones who stay true to their vision despite all costs. As Fetters sings on his new solo record, “I ain’t gonna cry if the world don’t know my name.”
“I’ve known a lot of artists, and I mean musical artists and graphic artists, who just do fantastic work,” Fetters says, “but they don’t become rich and famous. But they still have this wonderful body of work to leave behind. My mom was a really good artist. She’s dead now, but my house is filled with her artwork and it’s just great.”
Belew has had his share of fame, but his ability to stay grounded and in touch with artists he works well with seems to be what he’s most proud of. Besides reuniting with King Crimson and The Bears, he’s also getting together on Wednesday for a show at Peel’s Palace with The Denems, a Beatles-heavy cover group for whom he played drums as a teen-ager some 30 years ago.
“It’s kind of like all the people I’ve worked with are coming back together, and I think that’s a good thing,” Belew says. “Here I am, I’m in King Crimson again, I’m in The Bears again and I’m playing with my first band ever again. Yes, it’s somewhat nostalgic, but it’s indicative of the kind of relationships you have. All the people I’ve worked with have remained friends and remained willing to work together again. That’s a nice thing.” ©
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