BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Raised in Brooklyn and Long Island, Gary Douglas’ musical foundation was built on the solid rock of all-time classic acts that included Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Later, he built upon that base by adding additional influences that included the genius of David Bowie, the grit of Bruce Springsteen, the heaviness of Black Sabbath and the angst of Big Apple punk heroes The Ramones and New York Dolls. Music was his life, but would it be his livelihood? Not yet.
The jury was still out on how Douglas would pay his bills until he decided to temporarily ditch his dreams of making money performing for crowds in favor of arguing the law in front of a judge and jury as a lawyer. Thankfully, Douglas eventually changed course, turning in his briefcase in exchange for a guitar case and is back pursuing his lifelong passion of playing rock and roll. Today, Douglas is making his case for songs over summations with the release of his current album, Keepin’ Faith. The evidence that Douglas’ decision to get back to making music was, well, sound, lies in the 12 songs that make up this fine collection which finds him and his bandmates guilty of one thing: making quite a rockin’ ruckus.
Your latest album is titled Keepin’ Faith. Let’s dive into the 12 tracks on this record, starting with the U2-meets-Bob Seger pedal-to-the-metal album opener “My Desire.” Is this a cautionary tale warning people that you can’t always get what you want?
I don’t know if it’s cautionary; it’s all stream of consciousness. If I had to go back and rewrite it I’d fine-tune and focus a little bit more, but it’s about somebody’s quest in life and frustrations going down the road of life, and not always getting what you want – that is true. But it’s also a little bit of hope where he’s got this strong desire and passion about things. It could be desire for things in life, but he also sees a candle in this woman’s window and he thinks maybe they can get it right together. So it’s like, can she also feel that desire? It’s trying to find someone to share the frustration of life with.
Speaking of sharing, can you share where the seed for the song came from?
I was watching Jason Bonham [on TV] on some live rock and roll fest and I was really digging it, and so I was just in that mood to write a riff rock thing. That just popped out of my head and the rest I think I wrote in three minutes, start to finish. You know, sometimes they come easy and its stream of consciousness, and sometimes, you must intend to write a song about something and then when you finally sit down with a pen and paper it just pops into your head. “My Desire” was definitely the latter.
Sonically, track 2, “To Be With You,” sits in the Bruce Springsteen school of gritty guitars, pulsating piano, and lyrically it leans on themes of mending broken hearts. Is this all fair to say?
That one is a deeply regretful song. It’s about regretting a relationship that did not work out. It’s about the heartbreak of love, but it’s in a major key so it was like a real feeling of, it’s good to have at least lived and loved, or something like that. But it’s definitely a regret song of, you know, I wish I would have done it differently, type of thing. Some of the lyrics are about, if I could do it again or turn back. We ended up with two broken hearts and I’d do it all over again.
What I took away from track 3, “Faith (Renewed),” is that the character is a non-believer trying to find faith from a source other than God. Am I on the right track there?
Pretty much right on the button… In fact, when I introduce that song when we play it live I talk about faith as a powerful thing; faith itself, and not necessarily in God or a higher power. Faith itself can be powerful. Faith in people, yourself, in belief, in whatever it is: in overcoming adversity. You don’t have the answer in front of you, and just persevering in the face of not having the answer in front of you is what faith is in my mind.
It seems the search – this time for simple peace of mind – continues on “Out On the Highway.” Talk a little bit about this song.
That song was inspired by a combination of two things. One was we were on a tour a year ago, summer 2014, of 20 some odd cities and it was a long haul, and we were out on the highway, so that was probably somewhere floating in my mind. But I was also struck by some folks that I know from West Virginia and that area who had had some tough times, you know, struggling to get ahead in life and s**t happens to them. And so I felt that kind of pain, of their pain, and just like, there’s gotta be a f***in’ better way than making a living like this. And so I’m just leaving. I’m leaving and I’m gonna find it, and that’s the search. There’s gotta be something better than this, something better than getting blown-up in a coal mine or having some dead-end job.
In the circa late 60s sounding “Stop Bringing Me Down” you appear to be trying to shed yourself of folks spreading negativity. Are you generally an optimist?
I don’t know. I’m definitely not a negative person; I’m always pretty upbeat – but realistic. I’ve had my share of people who, in many different aspects of life, who either just want to burst your bubble, or outright undermine you. So that’s my f**k you to them. And I was just in a kind of 60s psychedelic mood when I wrote it.
Another album highlight for me is the slinky blues rocker “Lord I Try” which reminds me of John Lennon’s “Well Well Well.” In general, how autobiographical is this album?
This album is all about the feeling that I experience in life (laughs). So it’s totally from me. I’d say there are characters, you know, and sometimes I just write outright, and a couple that are on there I’m just having fun. But usually it’s inspired by some kind of feeling that I’m trying to grapple with. And [as for] the John Lennon “Well Well Well,” you’re one of the few people that have picked up on that. If you hear it, like when I originally demoed it on my iPad, I was going for that barebones type of thing. I’m just pointing out that it’s interesting because if you heard the original demo that I made of it, it was clearly like John Lennon’s “Well Well Well.”
I mentioned that the tone of “Lord I Try” is a little slinky; I describe “Midnight Angel” as a little spooky, reminiscent of Bruce’s “Point Blank.” Who or what inspired this tune?
There is a definite person who inspired that. That’s another stream of consciousness type of thing that just poured out, literally, in just a few minutes, and I guess it’s about this person in this guy’s life, and together they’re in a relationship, she’s his midnight angel, maybe even a bit fantasy, and the relationship depends a little bit on the white lies that she tells and all this kind of stuff, but it works for them. Until one day it’s just gonna blow-up and inevitably end.
Let’s hit pause for a minute on going through the record and get a bit of background bio info on you. Going back further in time, what artists were you most drawn to when you were growing up in Brooklyn and Long Island?
Oh, obviously I would say all the classics. Anything from Elvis Presley to The Beatles to the Stones to Jimi Hendrix to Dylan to Springsteen to Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses to Black Sabbath, uh I could keep on going. You probably got the picture. David Bowie. I was definitely into the whole punk rock scene there for a while, from The Ramones to the New York Dolls, Blondie; stop me now!
I started writing stuff the first time I took a music lesson because I found it pretty boring and tedious. My parents would yell at me for not practicing, cuz I would get sidetracked with just trying to do my own thing and make my own music.
What age were you when you first started?
I had to be about nine or 10. And then really writing songs started happening in my teens…I had my high school band and all that stuff.
I’d like to briefly visit your days as a lawyer. Are there any similarities between writing a closing argument and writing a song?
Exactly the same thing!
In what way?
Well for me, the way I went about it, I could never do a case unless it was something that had some kind of compelling human interest; something that’s important to more than just the people involved in the lawsuit or the case, or whatever. Music is about communicating a message on some visceral level, a feeling and connecting. Communicating and connecting. Doing a summation for a jury is about the same thing; communicating and connecting about some important message. I’ve had jurors crying and laughing, and that’s what you wanna do when you’re singing and playing music. You want people to have an emotional reaction. And it doesn’t happen every time you play a song or do a performance, and it doesn’t happen every time you do a summation. For me, the feeling, especially a live performance, is exactly the same, when I’m locked in and the audience is right there with us.
Speaking of the law, explain the significance of the title for “On Bradford Hill.”
So Bradford Hill is just sort of a tongue-in-cheek thing. In science there’s a guy called Bradford Hill, Professor Bradford Hill, and he has come up with these criteria to determine proof of something that causes something else. The idiots that are in the legal profession take this and apply it to law so that if it doesn’t meet the Bradford Hill criteria it’s not admissible if it’s something in science you’re trying to prove. And they always misinterpret it. Lawyers trying to figure out science is always a catastrophe. Anyways, so I just took the concept tongue-in-cheek, Bradford Hill, it’s a hill, it’s a place, where people go to find meaning in life. It’s a tongue-in-cheek play on words that most people don’t know unless they’ve ever heard of [Professor] Bradford Hill (laughs).
I’m curious about why you decided to seriously downshift the tempo for “On Bradford Hill” at around 3:50 in?
Anthony Resta, who’s the producer, he loved this song and the idea of it because he saw it as the search for proof of life out there in the universe and proof of a higher power. He’s always fascinated by science fiction and space travel. So he encouraged me with this idea, like, why don’t we just go for this different kind of thing, in a whole different direction, like pondering the universe.
So how does a boy from Brooklyn pen a great country rock number like “Over You?” To me it’s got the swagger of The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers.”
Yeah, I guess that’s how it happened. I have all this stuff embedded in my DNA, so I think “Over You” was sort of like a “Dead Flowers” influenced type of thing. But I can write country songs all day long; I got a million of ‘em.
You mentioned the producer, Anthony Resta, a couple of times. I understand you had a very hand-in-glove working relationship with him. What was the most important ingredient he added to the process of recording this record?
Giving it more depth, texture, focus and polish.
That would definitely be Frank Sinatra, and there’s a million songs of his, but just to take one I would say “That’s Life.” He’s one of those guys whose fame overshadowed their actual talent. He really was tremendously gifted and was a passionate artist, despite his own personal issues and reputation. Sinatra’s overall fame often diminished the simple fact that he was a passionate artist that was personable enough to touch people’s heart.
Okay, we’ve presented the evidence, now give me your best closing argument for why people should run out and buy your album Keepin’ Faith.
Well I would just say that these are songs about everyday life; the simple struggles of everyday life, the ups and the downs and the feelings that we have on a daily basis. I’m not trying to say anything profound or solve world peace. But if getting through the day and getting through life and trying to make sense of all of that stuff and the struggle of it is your thing, you might relate to the songs on this record. And if your thing is Americana and rhythm and blues inspired rock n’ roll, then this is an album that you should take a listen to.