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It's a Wonderful Life 

Jim Greer fights the shrinking music scene and an indifferent industry with a smile and a song

Wednesday, Nov 15 2000
Meet Jim Greer, one of the most sincere, idealistic, and committed people you're likely to come across in the music business. Much like the hero in the Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Greer just recently came to understand that his chosen field of expertise thrives on greed, corruption, and mediocrity. Also like Mr. Smith, Greer's conviction to fight against those evils -- whether through releasing his own records or working as an activist for artists' rights -- is naive and heartfelt enough to move even the most cynical soul.

On his new album, The Big Thieves Jail the Little Thieves, Greer asks the kind of big, existential questions that artists and philosophers have been pondering for eons. When talking about the record, however, Greer speaks with the fervor of someone who's just discovered the meaning of life.

"Part of why I am saying the big thieves jail the little thieves is because I think it's a crucial responsibility of ours to be hyper-aware of why things are the way they are, to question authority. And I think that many people don't question things at all, they just take it all at face value," says Greer, 29.

Greer owns and operates his own label, Fortune, which releases his own work (he has two previous albums, Lucky Day and Rover Songs) as well as compilations and albums by local groups Gun & Doll Show and 20 Minute Loop and Portland artist Herman Jolly (of Sunset Valley). To help cover costs, he puts in an honest night's work pouring drinks at the Paradise Lounge. And though he was recently evicted from his living space (a week after getting the similar boot from Downtown Rehearsal), Citizen Jim turned what could've been a debilitating experience into one with a silver lining.

"Overall, the [Downtown Rehearsal settlement] is a huge victory for us because we got the $750,000 and we got it through the approval of Tom Ammiano and Gavin Newsom," he says cheerily. "Personally, I would never rent a commercial building month to month and expect it to be there forever. [The eviction] seemed inevitable. Plus, the people who were living there were pretty much breaking the law, so it was hard to sympathize with that."

After serving as an integral part of the tenant settlement team, Greer joined the Nov. 5 Million Band March. Driving the Gun & Doll Show truck, he led the estimated 1,000 protesters from the Mission to Civic Center for the Take Back San Francisco concert.

"It was a blast," he says. "I am so honored to have come here from Ohio, gotten involved in the music scene, and, within a couple years, be driving the truck leading the protest march." Clearly, when the world throws Jim Greer lemons, he's the guy making the lemonade.

Since his evictions, Greer has decamped to Oakland, where he found office space ("I couldn't just shut down ... I had three new records coming out!") and a new living situation. Though he has yet to find a practice space for himself and his new band, Visitor Jim (a cross between Led Zeppelin, ELO, and Weezer, he says), he's predictably sunny about that outcome too.

Greer takes his job as an artist -- which he sees as asking tough questions but not necessarily offering answers -- more earnestly than most. The fact that he's mining philosophical territory familiar to other artists doesn't seem to bother him.

"Sometimes I think, "What would [creatures in outer space] think if they were watching us?'" Greer says. "One thing I've realized since Lucky Day and Rover Songs is that everybody who causes everybody else trouble in the world is not innocent. Everybody is guilty. That realization and the idea that we all have original sin and are all at fault and all we can do is watch the sunset and be happy today is not a new idea. But it is for me."

Greer characterizes his latest album as a reflection on the dark tea time of the soul, though frankly, it's hard to imagine this moon-faced man having had a bad day in his life. But he says that he was forever changed when he read Tolstoy's War and Peace this year. "I heard it was a great book and I thought maybe I should read it. And it totally changed my life -- I can never go back to where I was before I read that book."

Greer says the space-age bachelor pad number on Big Thieves, "In the Nightfall," came straight from War and Peace, while the breezy tune "Perfect Trees" alludes to Adam and Eve in the garden. The loopy hip hop of "This Is What I Mean" is about his marriage. At times his melodies evoke the quirky pop of They Might Be Giants, the classic rock of the Beatles, and the beat-driven genre blends of Beck. By wrapping his so-called deep thoughts in an easily accessible pop song package, the fusion works.

Greer's unabashedly good attitude was born out of a fairly normal childhood in Hudson, Ohio -- an upbringing that stands in contrast to the many artists who take solace in music because their lives are messed up.

Greer's parents played banjo, piano, and guitar as the South County Singers; the duo once appeared on the TV show Hootenanny in 1969. Jim still hasn't seen the episode -- not only had he not yet been conceived but television was off-limits in the Greer household.

"We weren't really allowed to watch a whole lot of TV except for M*A*S*H. Church was on Sundays till I was about 12. We went to church because it was peaceful and nice, and there were friends there and it was a place to be a community. But [since my parents] didn't make me go, when I turned 12 I said, "I'm done.'"

Over the next few years, Jim started recording instrumentals on a four-track with a friend and composing what he calls "strictly cerebral, long, dance kind of songs" on a borrowed keyboard.

"By the time I graduated from high school, I had a couple hundred hours of tape logged, and had learned how to program drum machines." While he played rock 'n' roll during his days at the University of Virginia, it wasn't until he moved to San Francisco with two of his college buddies "to make it" that he really got going on his professional career.

"They just wanted to get signed, and I said, "Guys, we are never, ever gonna get signed. Just trust me, I know. We need to make our own records.' They said no, and I said, "Screw this,' and made Lucky Day."

Shortly after that, he found himself working at the Paradise Lounge as a booking assistant; through contacts, he wound up doing keyboard work with hip hop combo Dr. Octagon and the cracked lounge outfit Tipsy. "Meanwhile, I just wrote tons of songs and started putting out my own records," he says.

It was at the Paradise that he also hooked up with singer/songwriter essence. "I used to give her a hard time about her songs," he says. Greer wasn't the only one baiting her; SF Weekly's Riff Raff column ran a series of trading cards of essence in various poses and costumes.

"I was frustrated at the press just focusing on my looks and not my music and was complaining to Jim," says essence. "He said, "Why don't you write a song about it?' So we did, and they printed the lyrics in the Weekly."

The pair take songwriting lessons together from Bonnie Hayes, a local songsmith who's penned chart hits for Bonnie Raitt and Huey Lewis. Several of the co-written numbers will end up on essence's RCA debut next spring, currently in the making in Mendocino. Bill Botrell of Sheryl Crow fame is producing; Greer plays some piano and guitar and also engineers.

"It's been the greatest experience of my life, working with [Botrell] and writing songs with essence," he says, without a hint of insincerity.

Greer also recently reissued singer/songwriter Herman Jolly's downbeat and beautifully dissonant solo record, Mad Cowboy Disease. Though the album came out two years ago to little fanfare, this time critics have roundly endorsed it.

"I don't care if nobody wants to buy his records," Greer says. "I'll buy them and I'll sell them and I'll tell everyone I know to buy them.

"When people [like Herman] come along, you just know. I started Fortune with one band, the Gun & Doll Show, and now I have six releases. It's like a co-op because everyone has to sell their own records at shows, but I'm making my own musical family. ... The last time I went home -- I have three older sisters -- we all sang for hours. [Playing music is] the most important thing to me -- it's the thing. That's more important to me than making money."

Jim Greer may not be the first person to discover that life is neither something to be tied up in a neat package nor a mystery that needs solving. But his infectious enthusiasm -- both on his records and in the streets -- often makes his ideas and ideals seem brand-new. Like Capra's Mr. Smith, he suggests that, with the right attitude, anything's possible.

About The Author

Denise Sullivan


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