CMU grad Jimmer Podrasky bounces back from rough times
February 27, 2014 12:00 AM
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jimmer Podrasky has a new album and a few marketing problems, not the least of which, he says, is that "I can't seem to get people to listen to it, because I think a lot of people think I'm dead."
And then there are the people who vaguely remember his name because they vaguely remember the band he was in, the Rave-Ups.
The album, his first in 24 years, is aptly titled "The Would-Be Plans," as the ones he left Carnegie Mellon University with in 1980 didn't pan out like he envisioned.
The frontman for the Rave-Ups has had a bumpy ride that hit bottom a few years ago when he found himself living with his teenage son in a 20-year-old car in the driveway of a friend's house. Obviously, he was a shell of the young blond rock-star hopeful who left Pittsburgh with all the potential in the world.
"The thought of leaving Pittsburgh," the Natrona Heights native says, "and thinking I was going to go to LA and make records was insane. Even now when I think about it, I must have been crazy. The odds are against you a billion to one."
It wasn't easy from the start. The Rave-Ups never had the cozy situation of fitting in in their original hometown.
"We weren't going to be playing with the [Iron City] Houserockers," he says, reflecting back on that scene, "because we weren't good enough. We weren't going to be playing with Norm Nardini and the Tigers, and they probably saw us as a crappy punk band."
And yet the Rave-Ups weren't punk enough or arty enough for the fledgling punk scene, despite sharing space at the Electric Banana, The Decade, Fat City and house parties alongside the Cardboards, Carsickness and The Five. "The only band we were close with was the Shakes. Carsickness, we weren't close with, and Reid [Paley, of The Five] hated my guts."
"When the Rave-Ups were doing what we did," the singer says, "there was no such thing as No Depression or alt-country or, what's even worse, what they call Americana music. Even when we signed with Epic, I knew deep in my heart these guys don't know what to make of us. It wasn't that we were making this unusual music that was groundbreaking. I kind of saw it as 'Hey, I'm a big fan of Bob Dylan and the early Rolling Stones and the Beatles and I'm going to mix it all together.' So I kind of saw it as a retro-thing, but it came out the way it came out, and because there was no genre to put it in, they did use words like cowpunk or roots rock. We were a little too rock for the country stations and certainly a little too country for the rock stations."
The Rave-Ups graduated and left for LA that summer of '80 but returned after a few weeks. Mr. Podrasky went back on his own and formed various incarnations of the band in the early '80s, during which time the cowpunk scene was flourishing on the West Coast with, among others, the Beat Farmers, Long Ryders, Green on Red, Gun Club, Blasters and even X.
The Rave-Ups were working in the A&M Records mailroom when they released their cult classic debut "Town and Country," led by the cocky college radio hit "Positively Lost Me." In what has become just a piece of trivia, in the movie "Sixteen Candles," the name of the band scribbled on Molly Ringwald's notebook is The Rave-Ups. That's because Mr. Podrasky was dating her sister Beth, who also had a bit part in the film.
Molly took director John Hughes to see the Rave-Ups in a club, leading to a Rave-Ups cameo and two of their songs in the 1986 hit "Pretty in Pink." That could have set the Rave-Ups up pretty but for one thing: They did not appear on the soundtrack.
"I couldn't understand how we could sing and play two songs in a movie and not be on the soundtrack," the singer says. "That just didn't make any sense to me. We weren't making money to where we could quit our day jobs. There wasn't anyone in power at A&M that saw the Rave-Ups as anything but the mailboys. I vividly remember rolling up posters for 'Pretty in Pink' and seeing those bands on the soundtrack and it didn't have the Rave-Ups and it was heartbreaking, and I carried that for a while even when we signed with Epic and quit our day jobs.
"As a songwriter, that soundtrack sold millions. If I had just one song of the two I wrote on there, I would have had a little nicer life. But the odd thing is, the Rave-Ups are barely on the screen -- if you blink you miss them -- and yet when they talk about 'Pretty in Pink,' they kind of talk about the Rave-Ups, which I still find amazing."
"Pretty in Pink" made the Rave-Ups prime for the majors, but because of a legal dispute with their indie label it took a while to release their major label debut, "The Book of Regrets," on Epic. The 1987 album was more a critical than commercial success (typical of cowpunk bands), while the 1990 follow-up, "Chance," got some play with the single "(Respectfully) King of Rain."
About that album title, it was named for the baby boy he was raising with Beth.
"When Chance's mom and I split up [when he was about 2], we did the joint custody thing but as the months and years went on, she was there less and less," he says. "It got to the point where he was with me most of the time and I had to tell the Rave-Ups, 'I can't do this. I wanna keep doing it, but I've got my back against the wall.' I had a more important job to do. I was really only good at one thing in my life and that was songwriting, but there were enough songwriters in the world and my son needed a dad. I ended up trying to raise him myself."
Somewhere in that mix was a brief relationship with "Beverly Hills 90210" star Shannen Doherty. For years, he was getting by with a job as a script reader for the William Morris Agency while doing the odd Rave-Ups reunion. In 2009 he was part of a massive layoff in Hollywood.
It coincided with his biggest challenge yet as a father. "Chance went through a bad time late in his teens and early 20s," with drugs, he says. "It hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn't know what to do. I was in pretty bad shape myself. I had lost my day job and I was broke as could be."
It was around that point that they ended up in the car, prompting Chance's maternal grandparents to step in to care for him. "I'm beholden to Mr. and Mrs. Ringwald," the singer says, "because they saved Chance's life."
On one particularly bad weekend, a downer phone conversation convinced a relative back East that Mr. Podrasky was suicidal and he was hauled off by police for three days at a mental hospital.
"It was all based on someone calling them from the other side of the country," he says. "Based purely on that, I got handcuffed and carted away, no matter how I tried to tell them, 'Look I'm not suicidal, I'm just in a really bad space right now, I'm worried about my son, I'm broke, my dog just died.' It was a perfect storm of bad [stuff]."
Broke and destitute, he had an offer for help and a chance encounter with, of all people, cousin Oliver from "The Brady Bunch," Robbie Rist.
"I was literally at my wit's end," he says. "One night I was in Ralph's grocery store, walking down the aisle of the frozen foods section, and I saw this guy and his girlfriend or his wife and they were kind of staring at me. The guy said, 'Hey, are you a musician?' I said, 'I used to be.' He said, 'You used to be in the Rave-Ups, didn't you?' I didn't recognize him from that child actor, that little John Denver-looking guy, but we became friendly and he lived in my area."
Mr. Rist, a musician himself, became part of an effort, along with an old friend from Natrona Heights, Ed Sikov, as executive producer, and drummer-producer Mitch Marine (of Smash Mouth and Dwight Yoakam's band), to get Mr. Podrasky back into a studio. He had a lot of music lying around.
"I never stopped writing songs, even when I was raising Chance," he says. "I didn't play, I didn't have a band anymore, I didn't perform, but I was always writing songs and I had really wanted to do another Rave-Ups record."
The Rave-Ups were up for the occasional reunion show, but not interested in working out new material.
"That kind of got on my nerves," he says, "because I don't consider myself a great singer or a great performer, but I did care an awful lot about the songwriting part."
So, he went into the studio without the Rave-Ups but with songs that pick up where the band left off more than two decades ago. Even though he's 55, the grainy voice is unmistakable and there's a youthful swagger that will surprise people.
Even when he writes about some hardships -- "Empty," "Would-Be Plans" -- there's more rock than self-pity. The poppiest song is the Ramones-inspired gem "She Has Good Records" that he wrote back in '79 and probably played at the Banana.
"We just never recorded it," he says. "It's silly, just a pop song about writing pop songs. The Rave-ups never got around to recording it, but I knew there was something catchy about the song and I kept it my back pocket."
In this tough market for new records, he could have taken the path of least resistance and called it a Rave-Ups record -- evoking memories of Molly's notebook -- but it didn't feel right.
"I care too much about the Rave-Ups," he says, noting that he even keeps in touch with the original Pittsburgh version. "I just couldn't do that to my friends. I know business-wise it was a much smarter decision. I couldn't do it to the Rave-Ups and couldn't do it to the Rave-Ups fans, because even though I wrote those songs and sang them, those guys played that stuff, they were the band, and if they weren't on the record, I didn't feel comfortable calling it the Rave-Ups. I knew that if anyone listened to it and wanted to write about it they certainly would bring up the Rave-Ups and they would bring up Molly Ringwald and 'Pretty in Pink' and A&M records and Epic, and the strange thing is, now that I finally released this thing, those three guys in the Rave-Ups want to play with me all the time now, they want to play these songs."
He doesn't have the wherewithal to take a band on the road, thinking the best he can do is a solo tour of house concerts. He hasn't set foot in Pittsburgh since the Rave-Ups played Graffiti in 1990, as his parents both died more than 25 years ago.
These days he's barely making ends meet.
"I'm on the edge of eviction almost every month, and I'm still living hand to mouth, but at least I'm making music again."
And doing his best to not be bitter.
"It's not going to help me to be angry or whatever. I carried it with me as a younger man for quite a while, but as I've gotten older ... show business is ugly, and the Rave-Ups aren't the only band that was like, 'Hey, how come those guys weren't big?' The history of modern music is riddled with bands like that. A lot that I really loved."
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