I was born in the sixties, in Springfield, Missouri. The younger part of my childhood was spent there and in Kansas. I describe it thusly: Like many children of heartland Suburbia during the 70’s, I had no inkling that my country was smack dab in the middle of its longest war. I knew about kites, swimming holes, tadpoles, picnics, Big-wheels, Ultra Man, Mr. Rogers, baseball cards, the Moon-landing, and my grandparents’ farm in the country. I didn’t know about Viet Nam, political protests, Kent State, or Watergate. I did however learn about race, poverty & segregation when my school had an exchange program with another school from Kansas City. Also, my dad used to take me down to the YMCA to play basketball. Though my parents never talked politics (Mom=democrat/Dad=republican) there was one thing they agreed on: teach the kids by example, to treat people well, and that racism is a fraud.
I was born “John Shipe,” but my mom re-married early, and my name was changed to “Schwartzman.” By the time I was 9, my family was in the S.F. Bay Area. At 12, I tried to learn guitar. It didn’t take. Baseball and soccer came more easily than transcribed versions of “On Top of Old Smokey.” (However, I did learn the intro to Boston’s “More than a Feeling,” and the wicked riff from “Play that Funky Music.”)
We soon moved to the Portland area (Oregon). More baseball, more soccer & basketball. Finally, at age 17, I got a classical guitar for Christmas. (I was a Yes fan, so I thought a classical guitar would send me on the path to mastering pretentious British Art-rock.) At first, all I learned was a bunch of Church tunes. Then, for a high school English project (Lord of the Flies), I accompanied my friend Matt Emlen on his “Evil Nature of Mankind Blues.” It was my first blues solo. I shredded…cheddar. In May of that year, I played “Wild Thing” for Stephanie Tromley at the Prom Queen ceremony–with Matt, my friend Tod Kelly, and Mike Walker who would later join me in college forming bands like Mission District and The Renegade Saints.
In College, at the University of Oregon in Eugene–home of Ken Kesey–I read a lot of books by dead white males, took a lot of creative writing courses, and formed a band called The Couch Potatoes with Warren Dexter (whom I had known since I was 13). We played The Doors, Eric Clapton, Z.Z. Top, Beatles, et cetera et cetera. I sucked miserable ass, and so did Warren, but with great passion! Our first drummer, Matt Reynolds, was awfully skillful. (He would later do stints with both Mission District and The Renegade Saints.) Our second drummer, Doug Nary was good too. (I heard a rumor that he played on tour with Kenny G–probably backed him up on the classic smooth jazz hit, “The Note.”)
In 1986, I took some time off in Walla Walla Washington–to chase a girl, and to make a real attempt at becoming a true musician. I finished my first real song: “Know By Now,” a love song. In Walla Walla, I didn’t become a great musician, and I didn’t get the girl. But the song was worth the whole summer’s effort. And subsequent bands got a lot of mileage out of it.
Meanwhile, in my absence (and Warren’s), Matt Reynolds was briefly re-forming the Couch Potatoes with a young Coos Bay rocker named Al Toribio. When I returned to Eugene, the Shipe musical family tree was taking root. Matt and Al and I started jamming. Then one day, I asked Mike Walker if he had enough free time from his Deadhead band Nine Days Wonder (with Dave Coey) to form a new band that would be “a little bit more mysterious and intense.” Yes, he did, especially if we would cover Santana. He introduced us to our bass player, Jeffrey Powell, a dreadlocked Rasta Man who preferred reggae, but who was happy to help us out. We practiced in a rental space down by the railroad tracks. The homeless rail-rider dudes would sneak in and jam-out to our excruciating loudness. Jeffrey laughed, “This is like the Mission District.” So that’s what we called it, and we played Claptana tunes for the last half of the 80′s.
Backing up a bit. Mission District and The Renegade Saints didn’t form very quickly. Before actually having a band, Al and I were spending a lot of time as an acoustic duo. (There are some… shall we say “adorable?” …bootlegs still extant.) Like our then-acoustic contemporaries, “The Strangers,” (from Eugene’s Greek contingent), we made use of a little venue called “Arnold’s Hideaway,” on East 19th Street (now the Agate Alley Bistro). In an inspired personnel move, we borrowed Nine Days’ rhythm guitar player/vocalist Peter Bach. As Toribio, Bach & Schwartzman, we competed with the Strangers for the title of best Crosby, Stills & Nash rip-off. (Admittedly, I think TBS drank too much PBR to win a CSN contest, but we gave those Frat Boys a run for their money. Our big number was a version of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” in which I faked the Spanish or Italian or whatever with non-sensical pseudo-accent Stills-like-NOT!-wailing!)
When Peter Bach wasn’t around, Al and I swept up a local diva named Linda Raiden (Now Hannah.) She didn’t like my idea of a name for our folk trio–Libido League–so we settled on two others: Lazy Kind of Ecstasy and/or Back Porch Acoustic Balladeers. It was during this ensemble that I started to believe I could sing pretty well. And there is indeed one bootleg (a show opening for John Fahey) which supports that questionable thesis.
Eventually, that Deadhead band I mentioned, Nine Days Wonder, put out a fine album called “Left of Center.” Walker, Dave Coey, Peter, and Ben Sturgill were writing original tunes, so Nine Days warranted extra attention. This relegated Mission District to hobby status. Walker went on tour, Matt Reynolds had parted, and Jeffrey became busy with fatherhood and reggae music. Al and I were left recruiting new rhythm sections for Mission District. The talent came and went, fine musicians like Fred Van Vactor, Jeff Langston (now with Antony & The Johnsons), Dave Burrows (of Mare Wakefield’s team), and a saxophone dude Scott Berry.
Nine Days Wonder’s nine lives had to end eventually. And when it did, Toribio and Shipe had already given up trying to hold to Mission District together. (Somewhere during that band’s latter incarnations, I got tired of trying to pronounce my own name—Schwartzman–after several shots of Jaggermeister. I resorted to “Shipe.”) Al and I joined forces with Coey and Walker for a new beginning. We recalled Matt Reynolds from Economics-land to aid us in our all-out assault on the road. (He agreed to do it on the condition that he date the girl I had been writing songs about.) We called our new excitable band The Renegade Saints, hoping for a place in the national music landscape. The industry appeared to be celebrating the end of the goofy 80′s by returning to organic tastes from which it had taken a wrong turn.
That was the early nineties, a good time for true, independent rock-n-roll. Bands were getting signed like crazy. Audiences were willing to spend money on live music they had not seen before. Horde Tour and Lollapalooza were spreading real raw rock all over the country. We were gonna reap the benefits of this boom…and we almost did. Opening slots for Dylan, Blind Melon, and Hootie materialized for us. (Although we weren’t supposed to play electrically for the Dylan show, we snuck our drums and organ onto the stage while the road manager was out for dinner.)
Though we lost Matt somewhere along the way, his replacement, Andy Mitchell helped us make our big album (“Fear of the Sky”) and bring our music to the Midwest and the South. After Andy, in the Saint’s final year, we got help from consummate pro Mike Partlow, and Grunge-man Dave Austin who brought a heavy sound to the project just when we needed it most.
We were almost there, but the effort gave out, about the same time the record label gave out. One last recording, “Strong Medicine” (unreleased) was made on someone else’s dime–ostensibly a demo for the majors. (Maybe a subsidiary of Geffen, I can’t remember.) But that was all we had, Folks. You’ll have to see the journals for details.
I announced my departure from the Saints in the mid-90’s, to explore new sounds, to shrink my rock-star-sized appetites, to build up a bank account, and simply to calm down. We Saints scattered like apostles after Golgotha. Mike went to Asia. Al went to Europe. Dave went to Portland to form Kerosene Dream (with Bart Ferguson, the front man of The Strangers.) I stayed in Eugene to start fresh, working with guys like ex-Stranger drummer Ned Failing, and re-uniting with bass man Fred “the Red” Van Vactor.
At this point, late 90’s, I started working with Ehren Ebbage, who would eventually become the most active, hands-on collaborator in all Shipe projects, dropping into the project amid his own solo career and stints with Justin King, The Dimes, and The Floydian Slips. Ebbage co-arranged my first solo album, Sudden & Merciless Joy. (Produced by Billy Barnett @ Gung Ho studio, the sonic genius behind Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.)
The rest is Shipe solo history.