The Forgotten Triumph of East Side Digital Records

Music Features Jerry Joseph
The Forgotten Triumph of East Side Digital Records

Two of my favorite albums this fall have been Jerry Joseph’s Baby, You’re the Man Who Would Be Kingand Tom Heyman’s 24th Street Blues. As I kept listening, it dawned on me they were linked. Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who produced Joseph’s pugnacious, pub-rock anthems, had long ago produced three records for Heyman’s original band, Go To Blazes. Those latter discs were released by East Side Digital Records, a largely forgotten label that rostered much of the best roots-rock of the early ’90s.

It deserves to be remembered. ESD released one of the greatest albums of the decade—the Bottle Rockets’ The Brooklyn Side—as well as terrific records by Ambel, Scott McCaughey (later a fixture in R.E.M.’s tours), the Skeletons (later Dave Alvin’s band), Bill Lloyd (half of Foster & Lloyd) and Chris Stamey (of dBs fame). ESD was also home to the Blood Oranges, Terry Anderson, Barrence Whitfield and Jimmy Silva, four acts whose brilliant recordings never found the audience they deserved.

“I’d always been very excited about power-pop and ’60s psychedelia but with a rootsy influence,” says Steve Daly, who ran the label as a subsidiary for Rykodisc. “Top of the heap for me were The Byrds and The Beatles. When you listen to The Byrds’ ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow,’ it goes from country to folk to rock to psychedelia and back to country all in one song. How cool is that? I wanted to put out records like that.”

And he did. There were scenes all over the U.S. with bands making that music, but the big labels were caught up in post-punk, grunge, techno and hair-metal and weren’t interested. Daly scooped them up and often turned them over to producer Ambel to crystallize their potential.

“Steve was one of the best music guys I’ve ever worked with on any label,” Ambel says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “It’s almost criminal that he left music and got a day job. He knew where I was coming from. For people our age, rock ‘n’ roll is our classical music, and when you see how it grew out of country and the blues, you’re really opening up the box to an embarrassment of riches.”

ESD is the missing link between the roots-rock peaks of the ’80s (L.A.’s Los Lobos, Blasters, X and Dwight Yoakam) and the Aughts (Drive-By Truckers, North Mississippi Allstars, Dropkick Murphys and Lucero). Not only did the label keep the lantern burning, but it also issued music well worth checking out today.

“I looked at the roster of East Side Digital recently,” says Heyman from his current home in San Francisco, “and it’s amazing in retrospect, we fit in that niche with the Bottle Rockets, the Blood Oranges, Mark Spencer, Eric Ambel. There was a camaraderie; I took guitar lessons from Mark, and Eric produced our records. Those records were unbelievably great.”

In the 1980s, when recorded music was only available as a physical medium, it was difficult for U.S. fans to obtain cutting-edge discs available solely in England or Japan. Rob Simonds, co-founder of Rykodisc Records, founded ESD in 1981 as a way to make buying imports easier. Eventually, the label began to license albums from even smaller labels, and things got very busy at both Rykodisc and ESD.

Simonds needed someone to run the latter operation, and in 1991 he hired Daly, who had already been working with the Coyote and Caroline labels, While Simonds preferred artsy experimental music, Daly preferred American roots-rock, and the label moved in that direction.

“I like a lot of different kinds of music,” Daly says over the phone from his Minneapolis home, “and that rootsy American rock is definitely one of them. Once we had signed the Blood Oranges and the Skeletons to the label, though, we had a focus. Sometimes you don’t choose a direction; sometimes a direction chooses you.”

The first non-licensing project that ESD oversaw from start to finish was the Blood Oranges’ 1992 EP, Lone Green Valley, produced by Ambel. Like a rootsy, low-budget Fleetwood Mac, this Boston quartet had three front persons, each with a distinctive sound and sensibility. That proved both their greatest strength and biggest challenge. Bassist Cheri Knight was a wonderful country singer; electric mandolist Jimmy Ryan came out of the Celtic/bluegrass world, and guitarist Mark Spencer was a rock ‘n’ roller.

At times they resembled the classic Fairport Convention line-up with Knight providing the Sandy Denny songs and vocals, Ryan the Richard Thompson songs and vocals, and Spencer the Thompson guitar leads. But there was an undeniably American spin on this folk-rock sound. During their brief existence, they blended this welcome variety of styles with a consistently high level of songcraft.

“A label had asked me to check out Uncle Tupelo as a three-piece at a New York club,” remembers Ambel, who got his start playing with the Del-Lords and Joan Jett. “I honestly didn’t like them, but I thought the opening band was awesome. That was the Blood Oranges, which had a really cool sound and two legitimate lead singers, which I liked, even though people in the industry didn’t. I wanted to do something with them, and it was the first thing I did for Steve.”

Ironically, it was Uncle Tupelo’s manager Tony Margherita who sent Daly a cassette demo by that band’s guitar tech, a guy named Brian Henneman. “All I had to hear was Brian’s voice, banjo and lyric on the first verse of the first song, ‘Early in the Morning,’ and I knew I wanted to work with them,” Daly recalls.

“If anyone personifies Midwestern American values as a songwriter, that’s Brian. He had pretty much completed the first Bottle Rockets album, so I sent them to John Keane in Georgia to finish it up. But I knew I wanted Eric to work from scratch with them on the second album.”

That was The Brooklyn Side, a roots-rock masterpiece on the order of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, Los Lobos’ Will the Wolf Survive or the Drive-By Truckers’ Decoration Day. The Bottle Rockets were able to marry country-music storytelling to rock ‘n’ roll muscle as few others have, and the tuneful songs evoked American working-class life at the end of the Reagan-Bush Era in the specifics of speeding tickets, TV sports, single mothers and used cars.

“Lynyrd Skynyrd is a rock band with a country singer,” Henneman told me in 1999, “which is the same kind of deal as what we’re doing. It’s like putting Merle Haggard in front of Bad Company; Haggard and Ronnie Van Zant always seemed pretty much the same to me. A singer like that makes a rock band more interesting than just having your traditional rock singer strutting around…. Van Zant or Haggard is like someone I might meet at the gas station—what a thrill to see someone like that on stage.”

As the Bottle Rockets took off, ESD sold their contract to Atlantic Records, giving the smaller label some much needed capital to pursue new projects. Atlantic re-released The Brooklyn Side and funded the follow-up, 1997’s Ambel-produced 24 Hours a Day, a solid album but not as special as the first two. The band released eight more studio albums on indie labels—five of them made with Ambel—before breaking up amicably in 2021.

“It’s a measure of how good a singer Brian is that I didn’t realize at first that he didn’t write all the songs,” Ambel says today. “Tom Parr the other guitarist wrote and so did his brother Bob and Scott Taylor who weren’t even in the band. I liked that the band was part of a community that contributed to the music. The Brooklyn Side, wasn’t just a document of what they’d been doing live. We rearranged the songs and really made a record. My lawyer Josh Grier said, ‘You’ll still be getting producer jobs 20 years from now based on that record.’ He was right; I’m still getting jobs because of it.”

Among those jobs were records by Ryan Adams, Steve Wynn, Marshall Crenshaw, Mojo Nixon, Jimbo Mathus, Kasey Anderson, Love Riot, Emily Duff, Satah Borges and seven more Bottle Rockets albums. One of Ambel’s finest productions has just come out this fall: Jerry Joseph’s Baby, You’re the Man Who Would Be King. Joseph has been making records since 1987—most often as a solo artist or as the leader of his band the Jackmormons, but recently he has achieved a new creative peak.

On his 2020 album, Beautiful Madness, Joseph was backed by the Drive-By Truckers with that band’s Patterson Hood as producer and the band’s former guitarist Jason Isbell as a guest. It was a very political album, with Joseph assuming the personas of dead confederates, heroin addicts and murderers, Randy Newman-style, to shine a light on evil as conventional protests never can. Making the songs even more diabolical was the contagious roots-rock and cocksure singing.

The sequel, this year’s Ambel-produced album, has a different focus and a different sound, but is just as powerful. The songs were written during the pandemic and confront the pressures the plague applied to neighborhoods, families, marriages and individual psyches. The songs at first evoke the doubts that creep into isolation and then push them back with a rock ‘n’ roll roar. On the album’s best song, “20 20 Moons,” an anguished, organ-fueled Joseph pleads with a fed-up lover: “Twenty ways that I’ve been wrong, twenty ships you could be on, twenty times I’m begging you to keep me hanging on.”

Because of the Covid-enforced solitude, Joseph wrote the songs on acoustic guitar and harmonica. He had planned to record them that way, but when the Oregon songwriter got to Ambel’s Brooklyn studio, the two men needed some rock ‘n’ roll to counter the worried sounds of the folk versions. The acoustic guitar and harmonica were retained, but they battle it out with a muscular rhythm section—and the back-and-forth gives the record its drama.

“Jerry’s lyrics are personal,” Ambel points out. “He reads a lot, and that seeps into it. He sent me the demos as YouTube clips. So the whole time I’m listening to the song, I’m looking at the guy’s face. He doesn’t hedge his bets with third-person songs; he’s talking from himself to you. I wanted to set him up so the listener wouldn’t miss any of that. I hope the listener feels he’s singing directly to them. The harmonica added a lot more Jerry to the songs; it went with his voice and the mood.”

During the pandemic, Ambel launched his own “Shut-In Singles Series.” Every month or so, he would release a new song on Bandcamp—usually his own ESD-like take on a favorite song by Neil Young, J.J. Cale, Nick Lowe or the Rolling Stones. He never tried to duplicate the original versions but always tried to add an interesting twist that would justify a new version. Last year he gathered them up into an album called You Asked for It.

“Before the pandemic,” he says, “I did a lot of gigs here in New York. A lot of people came to most of the gigs, and I liked to have something new so they weren’t hearing me run through the same set every time. The Stones did two versions of ‘Honky Tonk Women,’ but neither referenced what I would call honky-tonk music. I thought, ‘Wow, I could give this song a honky-tonk shuffle and put it in a different key and do my own version.’ People loved it from the first time I did it at a gig.”

Tom Heyman photo by Lauren Tobak, courtesy of Hello Wendy PR

In addition to the Bottle Rockets and the Blood Oranges, Ambel worked closely with a third band at ESD. Go To Blazes, a Philadelphia quartet, boasted two songwriters: Ted Warren, a lead singer who played rhythm guitar, and Tom Heyman, a lead guitarist who didn’t sing at all.

“Go To Blazes was an incredible band,” Ambel recalls. “I called them the Evil Monkeys, because they lived in a band house like monkeys. It just seemed like a real rock ‘n’ roll band. It wasn’t a project; they were living it.”

“By the time we got to East Side Digital, with two albums under our belts,” Heyman adds, “we were actual songwriters; we were more ambitious. We belonged there. The first good song I ever wrote was ‘Bloody Sam,’ about the last days of Sam Peckinpah, on our first East Side Digital record. I still play that song.”

That first ESD album was 1994’s Ambel-produced Any Time … Anywhere, a reflection of the quartet’s brawling, Stonesy, bar-band origins. For the follow-up, 1995’s And Other Crimes, Ambel coaxed the group to follow translate their love of the Band into more relaxed, countrified, mostly acoustic arrangements of three originals and covers of songs by Lou Reed, Gordon Lightfoot and the Byrds’ Gene Clark.

For 1996’s Waiting for the Crash, Ambel and the band integrated the two sounds—the garage-rock attack and the hillbilly understatement—into a satisfying roots-rock whole. Heyman’s “New Morning Sun” was a workaday lament awash in Gram Parsons’ country-rock influence. Warren’s “I Know” confesses heartbreak in the drawling, fatalistic verses but then hints at an angry defiance in the noisy, distorted guitar break.

“Eric helped us a lot with the songwriting,” Heyman says, “trimming the fat off, finding the one thing in the song that’s great and making that real big. He had a really strong aesthetic, and that really helped us. He’s a leader in the studio, incredibly fun and incredibly funny. He understood bands, and he knew how to focus us. There are studio things I learned from him that I’m still using.”

By 1996, however, time was up for both the band and the label. Rykodisc got bought, and ESD was orphaned. Both labels had grown really big really fast, and when the returns for unsold albums came in, the companies choked on the lack of cash flow. Simonds wanted to downsize and focus on his love for Scandinavian folk music.

“That wasn’t something I could do,” Daly admits, “so we were happy to part ways. He was gracious enough to buy me out. We weren’t encumbered with any existing contracts, and I kept the sound recording rights to a few albums. Good things run their course, and when the course is over, it’s still a good thing. I couldn’t have asked for a better career in the music industry.”

The Blood Oranges had already splintered by this point. Knight made a lovely solo record for ESD and another for Steve Earle’s E-Squared label before retiring to grow flowers. Ryan turned his attention to his side projects: a bluegrass band called the Beacon Hillbillies, an Irish-folk band called Sunday’s Well and another roots-rock outfit called Wooden Leg (featuring Spencer and Morphine’s Mark Sandman). ESD released records by all three groups.

One of ESD’s most impressive and least recognized acts, Jimmy Silva, had already died in 1994 at age 42. ESD had released his third album, Heidi in 1991 and reissued his first album, Remnants of the Empty Set as part of the same disc. Silva got help from such longtime friends as the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey and the Smithereens’ Dennis Diken (both of whose bands covered Silva’s songs). But it was Silva’s sparkling melodies, fable-like lyrics and beguiling guitar figures that made his take on the jangly folk-rock sound more original and memorable than any of the Byrds’ other heirs.

Go To Blazes, stranded without a label after nine years of work, decided to not start over again from scratch. Heyman followed a girlfriend out to San Francisco and married her. He quickly found work there with Chuck Prophet, Alejandro Escovedo, John Doe and others as a capable guitarist who could also play pedal steel. And he never stopped writing songs. But now, without Ted Warren around, he had to learn how to sing them himself.

His impressive new album, 24th Street Blues, reflects his evolution as a singer and a songwriter as well as his deep roots in San Francisco’s Mission District after living there for 24 years. Playing acoustic guitar with an understated roots-rock band—and sometimes with just piano and percussion—Heyman uses his lyrics to describe his working-class neighbors caught between real-estate speculators and the unhoused—and uses his twangy melodies to fill those portraits with sympathy.

The title track remembers a recent time when the local bars’ “neon glow was just so hypnotizing,” but “now the scaffolds rise, the buildings fall.” And on the heels of the renovation crews comes the city’s sanitation workers in “Tyvek suits and rubber boots” to power wash the sidewalks and send the homeless scurrying away with their shopping carts.

Other songs zoom in on specific characters such as “Barbara Jean,” the barmaid whose “dreams begin to fade like that tattoo on her shoulder blade,” and “Sonny Jim,” the former party guy now living in “a single room, a single bed, a hotplate and a bathroom down the hall.” There’s the pot dealer with a “Hidden History” of loving the narc’s daughter, and the farmworker who drives from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job in a “White Econoline” van. The words in these songs deserve their place out front, but every low-key, cinematic arrangement provides just the right backdrop.

The new album comes with a 60-page, sheet-music book illustrated by the songwriter’s wife Deirdre F. White—a good idea, because these songs invite interpretation by other singers.

“When I was a kid, my way of learning guitar was I went to the music store and bought the songbook,” Heyman says. “When I wanted to learn the songs from Harvest, I got the songbook, which looked just like the album but with extra photos. My favorite songbook was one that collected the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead; each song had a bespoke artwork. When it came time to do this record, I wanted to do something special for the physical copy, so I added the songbook. I love the artwork; it captures this neighborhood so well.”

Ambel made only one solo album for ESD, but he considers 1995’s Loud & Lonesome his most personal album. Not only did he co-write 11 of the dozen tracks (with the likes of Kevin Salem, Jon Dee Graham, Dan Baird and Dan Zanes), but he also struck just the right balance between muscular, cathartic rock ‘n’ roll (the Loud) and introspective country/folk (the Lonesome). Recorded as a trio with Blood Oranges drummer Keith Lervreault and John Mellencamp bassist Andy York, the disc is the epitome of the label’s emphasis on no-frills presentations of good songwriting with a forceful thump.

In fact, Loud & Lonesome would have been a good motto for East Side Digital. During its brief existence, it proved again and again that heartfelt songwriting could not only co-exist with propulsive bar-band music but actually benefit from it. The storytelling injected some substance into the good-time music, and the abrasive guitars knocked the sentimentality off the confessions. It was the best of both worlds and is well worth revisiting today.

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