When songwriter Mark Roebuck and friend Eric Schwartz starting performing original acoustic music around Charlottesville, Virginia in the late 1970s, they couldn’t foresee the long and circuitous musical journey yet to come. When talented guitarist Haines Fullerton caught their act in the spring of 1979, the three agreed to join forces in what would later become the Deal.
What has followed in the decades since is a long convoluted series of possible opportunities and releases that never really happened, a string of bad luck that might make any band consider changing their name to the Raw Deal. Here are just a few instances. In 1983, the Deal signed a five-album recording contract with then Warner Brothers label Bearsville Records. Later that year, they recorded an EP. Shortly after the completion of that EP, Warner Brothers ended its relationship with Bearsville. The label was left without any distribution outlet and the EP was never released. Dejected by the turn of events, Eric Schwartz and drummer Hugh Patton left the band by 1984 and suddenly, live performances for the Deal stopped.
The Deal, however, continued to record additional material. When Albert Grossman, head of Bearsville, headed to Europe in January of 1986, things were looking up. He assured them that he had lined up investors that would save the label and its acts, among them the Deal. He packed the marketing materials and tapes that should have secured the deal. But midway through the Concorde’s transatlantic flight, Grossman suffered a heart attack and died. All master tapes remained legally tied up with the erstwhile label and were never released.
So the Deal broke up in 1986. But with a little assistance from Big Star alumni Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton, the band did more recording in Memphis the following year. Those sessions were done “on spec”, but no major labels were interested. Finally, the group decided to independently release their only album Brave New World in 1987.
That self-release got great reviews. The Washington Post called it “remarkably self-assured pop classicism” and the Raleigh News & Observer termed it “one of the best independent releases by a regional band in years.” In 1988, on the basis of the song “Cinnamon Square”, Musician magazine named the Deal one of the 20 best unsigned bands in the world. Yet, that same year, the Deal again agreed to call it quits.
While some of the members went on to other musical choices (both Haines Fullerton and Mark Roebuck have written songs with Dave Matthews), sadly lead guitarist Haines Fullerton committed suicide in September of 1996.
In the wake of all that great unreleased music, Tom Bickel, avid long-time fan of the band, contacted Bruce Brodeen of Not Lame Records in 2001. Another fan, Tim Anderson, followed up by sending an extensive selection of Deal recordings. Now, in 2003, the music finally has been given a chance to be heard.
Goodbye September is that chance, and thank goodness for Bruce Brodeen and Not Lame, rescuing this from oblivion. This 15-track collection of demos and lost studio tracks is sweet and memorable.
At the basis of the Mark Roebuck songs is an acoustic sound, with harmonies, gentle folk rock that sort of predates the early sounds of the Posies circa Dear 23. Add to these well-constructed infectious ditties the kind of powerful lead guitarist you’d find in louder bands (Haines Fullerton) and you’ve got the winning paradox that is the sound of the Deal.
“Don’t Go Out”, a song about leaving, is almost Cars-like in its stutter rhythms, and features a superb dual guitar lead. “Rebel Girl” builds on a soft bass-driven beat and features great harmonies, perfectly placed as hooks, along with yet another searing lead from Fullerton.
To get a sense of Fullerton’s leads, remember we’re talking about a time period circa “Freebird” and those great trading Allman Brother leads, among others. Fullerton obviously was a student of these and then some.
While many of the tracks are only four-track recordings, the Deal manages to load up those tracks with as much as they can. On “DC-10s” you get percussion that seems almost phase-shifted, and obscure lyrics that may have made a lot more sense way back when (perhaps not even then). The chorus (“If this is all I have to live for / I want to die”) is extremely catchy, the harmonies work well, and Fullerton goes all out on his lead here.
Roebuck’s soft tenor is pleasant to listen to, and the soft harmonies work their way into your sub-conscious effortlessly. After several listens, you’ll have a hard time picking favorites: “Picture A Lady”, Pass Away”, “Maybe I’ll Just Keep You Hanging On”, and the string-laden “Cinnamon Square” are all possibilities.
“Marianne” sounds like it could be a Hollies song—the harmonies are that good. “Hopi” might be my current favorite, yet another ultra-infectious guitar-driven Roebuck creation, this one about asking a wizened Hopi for advice. “Strangers in Disguise” is very Posies-like and is built on great harmonies and wonderfully percussive guitar (and no drums).
The heavily produced “5:45” (later era the Deal, more techno/electronic) actually features a guitar solo by Todd Rundgren. The CD closes with the innocent youthful attempt that is the title song, sung into Eric Schwartz’s family stereo by a 17-year-old Mark Roebuck, poignant and sweet.
Perhaps with this release, the Deal finally will get some long-sought recognition, even after the fact. Mark Roebuck really knows how to write classic pop melodies, and the smooth harmonies from Eric Schwartz and impressive guitar leads of Haines Fullerton deserve a wider audience. Goodbye September is a true find, a collection of music that is sweet, soft, smooth and impossible to get out of your head after repeated listenings. Better late than never, they say, and that’s certainly the case here.
// Notes from the Road
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