It seems a lifetime ago that record label A&R types searched for the next Nirvana or Dave Matthews Band, nightclubs teemed with new bands and the “M” in MTV still stood for “music.” In the early 1990s, Portsmouth was poised to go national. The Seacoast town was, in the words of bass player Cam Gunn, “a unicorn, magic rainbow troll spot.”
Filmmaker Marc Dole documented those heady times, but his fascinating documentary, In Danger of Being Discovered, is as much about finding peace with what didn’t happen as it is about the fates that kept his hometown from becoming the next Seattle.
“The guys who were doing it back when are still playing music because they love to do it,” says writer Gary Fox, who covered the scene. “That’s success.”
But, oh, the near misses — Heavens to Murgatroid, a revved-up punk pop band with sufficient draw to sell out weekend shows at the Music Hall, sent a demo to Warner Bros. It passed and signed Green Day instead. Thanks to Gravity was years ahead of its time, playing acoustic rock with classical elements. The group signed a deal with EMI, only to see its champion at the label squeezed out in a power play, leaving a brilliant double album forever unreleased.
People around at the time remember Fly Spinach Fly, with a mix of metal, soul and hip-hop, as the best live band ever to come out of New Hampshire. 1993 footage of its 100-pound lead singer Bill X stage diving from a stack of amps is testament to that.
But the vibrant scene was in many ways doomed by diversity.
“What really intrigued me, everything was dynamic and interesting and fun, and the cross-pollination you ended up getting out of that,” Dole said during a recent phone interview. “I never would have gone to a Percy Hill show if they hadn’t also played with Fly Spinach Fly or Thanks to Gravity. Knowing they’re a jam band, I wouldn’t have seen them on their own.”
But what was a joy to experience was often difficult to describe to others, Dole says.
“It was a benefit locally for the fans, but when you’re outside the area trying to talk to an A&R guy you couldn’t say, ‘If you like Nirvana, you’ll like everything else coming out of this town.’”
Say ZuZu front man Jon Nolan agrees. For better or worse, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and others often were lumped together.
“You could brand Seattle,” Nolan says at one point in the film. “But there were a lot of different bands here, and so it made us perhaps uncategorizable.”
A few players from those days tasted success. Tim Theriault toured with Godsmack singer Sully Erna in support of his Avalon album. Al Barr, who began with Bruisers, now fronts Boston stars Dropkick Murphys. Guitarist Mark Damon now works with Pretty Reckless, fronted by Gossip Girl star Taylor Momsen; the band’s most recent hit is “You Make Me Wanna Die.”
Taking note of the few who made it got Dole thinking about the many who didn’t. Like Scissorfight, a raucous band that went to New York City to talk about a deal and got mistaken for janitors by security guards at MTV. Label honchos told Fly Spinach Fly, “white guys rapping over metal will never happen,” only to see Faith No More, Limp Bizkit and Korn hit it big two years after the band broke up.
Dole realized that a lot of the players were still on the scene — in the words of Jon Nolan, “these are musical lifers.” When it came to filmmaking, his story was also theirs in many ways. “I was trying to get discovered as a music video director the same way they were trying to get discovered as a band,” he says.
Many felt Groovechild had a better chance of breaking through than any of the Portsmouth groups. Some of the film’s most poignant moments revolve around the band’s lead singer, Jeff Bibbo. “I read all the stories on the Internet about Jeff’s addictions, and I knew from video taping shows that he’d lose it or forget lyrics,” Dole says. “It was almost like Kurt Cobain’s story — this amazing talent that comes from a dark, troubled home life.”
“I was a wasted front man who was somehow able to get up and perform, and some saw that as a marketing tool,” Bibbo says in the film. Though heavily courted by labels, Bibbo and his mates resisted. “To sign a contract would have signed away my creativity. They wanted us to record one song, three albums’ worth. One band member was afraid of being forced to wear spandex; we didn’t want Aqua Net sponsorship.”
It’s Bibbo who gives the film its soul, through a meditation on what defines making it: “To this day, people ask me, ‘Why didn’t you sign that deal? You guys would have been huge.’ Well, in my experience, in my life, we were huge,” he says. “So what is success? We were successful; we got to play music, we got to make people happy, create good memories for people … to achieve that is more valuable than anything.”