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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Man Behind King Cool: Donnie Iris’ Chief Counsel

Posted By on Wed, Feb 3, 2010 at 8:37 AM

Check out this week’s Scene for a profile of Mark Avsec, the Cleveland musician-turned-attorney who co-wrote “Angel Love (Come for Me),” the first single from the new, expanded reissue of Santana’s Supernatural album.

Avsec penned the song with Texas guitar hero Mason Ruffner and Cleveland blues veteran Alan Greene, who had been Avsec’s bandmate in Breathless. Avsec’s biggest, best-know music project, however, was Donnie Iris and the Cruisers. Avsec continues to co-write, produce, sing and play keys on Cruisers albums.

In the early ‘80s, the Cruisers had a small string of top-30 singles. Filmed at Blossom, a live clip for 1981’s “Love Is Like a Rock” landed the band on MTV for a spell. The group fared even better on hard rock radio, where songs like “Ah! Leah!” cracked the Top 20 and are still in steady rotation. Testifies WNCX 98.5 FM DJ Michael Stanley, “Anywhere I go in the country, there are seven or eight [Cruisers] songs I can play that people will recognize.”

The Girl Songs, early songs collected on MCA’s 2001 comp The Best of Donnie Iris: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection:

Avsec and Iris wrote some great love songs in their various projects. In the Cruisers, if they referenced a girl’s name, it was an unusual one — see “Ah! Leah!,” “Merilee” and “Agnes.” Avsec says the offbeat names weren’t strategic. At first, in fact, “Ah! Leah!” wasn’t about Leah.

The first draft of the lyrics that became “Ah! Leah!” were about Russia invasion of Afghanistan. The background lyrics “Here we go again” were all that survived for the version that’s still in rotation on the FM dial.

“When I write songs,” explains Avsec, “it’s easier to have a girl’s name, like ‘Roxanne.’ It makes it very personal.

“It’s hard to write lyrics,” he continues. “My best songs, I write the lyrics first, but I usually write the music first — then it will suggest something to me. It’s craft. ‘Merilee,’ I don’t know, maybe it suggested itself phonetically. ‘Ah! Leah!’ started as a chant, like the Wizard of Oz with the monkeys and the soldiers, ‘Oh-wee-oh.’”

“Agnes” starts with Iris telling a smooth story about the beginnings of a disastrous love triangle between him, a bar waitress named Agnes and her hothead boyfriend, Louie.” Avsec says neither he nor Donnie were “Agnes” kinda guys. “It’s just a story,” saya Avsec. “Donnie wasn’t Donnie Iris then. He was still putting together that persona.”

“That’s The Way Love Oughtta Be,” from 1981’s King Cool :

Between the band’s tight groove and Iris’ ecstatic outburst at the end, the song might be the Cruisers’ best overall performance — which isn’t to say they nailed it in one take.

“I used to strip songs all the time,” recalls Avsec. “We’d spend all this time working on the songs, getting 100 tracks, and it wouldn’t work. I’d day, take it down, get rid of it all. I did that [song] four or five times.”

Cellarful of Noise, “Shuck and Jive,” from 1988’s Magnificent Obsession:

By 1984, the Cruisers were on the outs with label MCA. Locked in litigation, the band was forced to go on hiatus, but Avsec’s creative juices were flowing. He holed up in his basement with his keyboards, a four-track tape deck, and electronic drums. He’d invite friends like Greene and drummer Kevin Valentine over for a project that became Cellarful of Noise.

Cellarful’s self-titled 1985 debut was pure pop bliss, catchy, archetypal ’80s synth-rock. Iris joined the band for its second album, 1988’s slicker, more labored Magnificent Obsession. CBS Associated released both albums, but the band never played live, and remains a neglected footnote in Avsec’s catalog. Both albums are out of print, but if you look, they’re easy to find as downloads.

If the basic description sounds interesting, but the clip above turns you off, the first album is still worth your time; Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” doesn’t have shit on “Can’t Squeeze Blood from a Rock” and “The Price of Love.”

Six degrees of Cleveland: Avsec, a career keyboardist, was a passing acquaintance of Trent Reznor from keyboard store Pi. When the Cruisers lineup split, bassist Albritton McClain and Valentine — who would later play with Kiss and Cinderella — joined Greene (as Alan Greenblatt) in poppy, synthned-out group the Innocent, with a young T-Rez.

“Poletown,” the title track from the Cruisers’ hiatus-ending album, 1997’s Poletown: “That was inspired by a case I studied in law school, an eminent domain case in Detroit, where the city destroyed a whole Polish-Catholic neighborhood to make way for an auto plant. I found I still had something to say. It might be my favorite Cruisers record.

“Let’s Go Tango,” from 2006’s Ellwood City: This departure appears in two versions on the Cruisers’ most recent studio album. “In David Lynch movies, he does these weird juxtapositions,” says Avsec. “That’s what I did on that one. We recorded that as a jam in the studio. I thought of the lyric. Donnie was into going to Florida, in Miami. People would dance on tables. It was very Spanish.”

“With This Ring,” from 2006’s Ellwood City: This piano-driven ballad sounds like a throwback to the 1950s tunes that inspired Avsec to write and perform. “That was a more personal song,” says Avsec. “It’s based on an old Beethoven melody. You never know how the songs are going to come out. I liked the melody, but thought I could write a better song.”

“Angel Love (Come For Me),” from Santana’s Supernatural (Legacy Edition):

“[Alan Green and I] wrote that for some songs he was working on in the early ‘90s. Mason [Ruffner] heard it, and he liked it. He asked if I minded if he wrote some new lyrics for it. He’s friends with Carlos [Santana]. He played it for him, and Carlos started playing it live. We’d heard rumors that he had recorded it or was planning to record it for the [Supernatural] album, but it didn’t come out. The melody comes through. His version is very close to ours.” —D.X. Ferris

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