It was 1990 and I was handing out my Dr. Funk Adult Coloring Book outside Wetlands, likely in advance of a Blues Traveler show, when I met the big, beaming, broad toothy smile of Billy Jay Stein, keyboardist of The Mad Hatters. He introduced himself, expressed how tickled he was by Dr. Funk, and I was quickly enlisted as the band’s artist working on creating their logo. I went on to do virtually all of their artwork post-Mock Turtle Soup, their original 1989 demo as The Mad Hatters, until they disbanded in 1994 as The Hatters, Atlantic Records recording artists.
Billy’s overture was a spectacular, ego fueling way for this artist to land a job, but it reinforced some of my own stupidity. My relationship to art-for-hire was always out of whack. One of the main reasons I chose not to study art in college, for example, was because the idea of spending four years in an art conservatory working on projects assigned to me by professors only to prepare me for a career doing projects assigned to me by corporate entities seemed torturous and depressing. And it is a depressing thought, but not really a legitimate one. I had always enjoyed drawing for its own sake; if there was something I wanted to draw I found satisfaction doing so. As a child, or in high school, whenever I drew something on behalf of someone else I found the process painful. I would procrastinate and suffer my way through it; it wasn’t the same liberating creative process I had when I simply felt inspired. Also, I was shy when it came to self-promotion, so I adopted the platitude that to self-promote was phony and pathetic behavior; tacky. If I was a talented artist, I reasoned, people would see that and seek me out. Now it still rings true to me that self-promotion can be tacky, but I was pretty damn lucky to have a gig like The Hatters come along and hire an unknown simply on the basis of being in the right place at the right time. So was it truly luck or even talent that got me noticed? The expression, God helps those who help themselves, is apt; what was handing out Dr. Funk if not self-promotion on some level? Dr. Funk clearly landed me The Hatters, most of who took to calling me “Doctor”.
The original band The Mad Hatters included Adam Hirsh on lead vocals and guitar (he also wrote most of the songs and lyrics), Adam Evans on lead guitar, Bill Stein on keyboards, Antonio Ramirez on bass guitar and Bill Rives on drums. Their manager was their biggest fan, an affable fellow and my primary contact over the years, Peter Malkin. The Hatters were a jam band (more in the mold of The Allman Brothers Band than the Grateful Dead) in a scene of dozens of jam bands, but they were my jam band, and I could proudly say that I was their artist. I created flyers mostly, as well as a couple of backstage passes and two t-shirt designs over those years, including the original frog motif and the later Thunderchicken design. The pay wasn’t very high but it was decidedly better than most of my other jobs at that time, The Hatters were repeat customers, and there was always the promise that the band could land a record deal. If they made it, I would make it, too. If they had an album, I would get to create an album cover. It was very motivating for me, especially in that I believed in them, they were good, they were getting better, and I thought they had a realistic chance of making a big splash.Atlantic Records took an interest in The Mad Hatters, and things evolved in short order: David Sonenberg and D.A.S. Communications, Ltd. became the managing agents over Peter Malkin; Antonio Ramirez was replaced by Jon Kaplan on bass guitar and Bill Rives was replaced by Tommy Kaelin on drums; the name of the band shortened to The Hatters, since there was another band who already owned the rights to the name The Mad Hatters. I have no idea if any or all of these changes were amicable or mercenary — I was their artist not their confidante - but the band was signed by Atlantic Records and went on to record two albums, Live Thunderchicken and The Madcap Adventures of The Avocado Overlord, in 1993. Their sound had also developed — they sounded awesome, better than ever. They all looked like rock stars, and it was looking as though they were going to become rock stars.
Peter Malkin broke the news to me that Atlantic Records had their own artists; I would not be drawing album covers after all. He had advocated for me, the band had advocated for me, but they were powerless in the decision. Who could expect them to jeopardize their written contract with Atlantic Records to honor their verbal contract with me? On Live Thunderchicken my credit reads: “logo and other fun stuff”. The cover simply uses my logo design over a circa 1920’s photograph of three well-dressed young men, one pretending to pluck a broomstick like a banjo or something.
Live Thunderchicken was recorded live at Wetlands, in the same template as another, better known Atlantic Records recording artist jam band, the Spin Doctors. John Popper of Blues Traveler appears on the Live Thunderchicken album, both singing with Adam Hirsh and playing harmonica on a song called Sip of Your Wine. At the request of The Hatters, I created a t-shirt to be sold in conjunction with the album, an image of the Thunderchicken himself, with both front and back designs. The character does not appear on the album’s jacket, and the album itself contains no reference to the Thunderchicken.
When Peter Malkin broke the bad news to me, he did have some good news, too. I would write the lyrics and liner notes for The Madcap Adventures of The Avocado Overlord, there was a modest payday to be had. It was a nice gesture, and I set to work creating “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” fonts, wanting to offer a sampling of directions from which to choose. I joked with a friend that I hoped Atlantic wouldn’t want anything close to Chris Baron’s illegible chicken scratch (of course, by having actually written the lyrics, his scribble was pardonably authentic). When I showed my fonts to the art director, Lynn Kowalewski, she shook her head and predictably asked me if I was familiar with Pocket Full of Kryptonite. What a sinking feeling. To get into the right frame of mind, I took myself out to Wetlands, sat at the end of the bar in the chaos of crowd noise and live music, drank heavily, went out for frequent pot smoke breaks, and freed myself to just let shit happen. If I made a mistake, who gave a rat’s ass, I crossed it out and kept on writing lyrics. Let it fly. It looked like crap to me, but it’s exactly what they were looking for. I believe the word Lynn used was “perfect” when I brought the lyrics and liner notes in. They are the result of one evening of wonderful, distracting debauchery.
I’ve included my rendering of the lyrics in small part because of the story behind them, and in greater part because I still think Adam Hirsh’s lyrics and songs were special. I maintain that The Hatters were better musicians as a group, musician versus musician, when compared to many of their better known jam band peers on the scene; but The Hatters never recorded a big hit like the Spin Doctors or built up a fan base like Blues Traveler. Atlantic Records didn’t invest in them, and the dream died on the vine. You can still listen to them on youtube.com, but The Hatters are remembered as “an above average jam band” when I scan the web for info.
I saw Tommy Kaelin last year, as he often plays with The Westside All-Stars, a somewhat malleable collection of early 90’s jam band spare parts still rocking it in NYC two decades later. Seems there has been talk amongst the former band mates of an on-stage reunion of The Hatters. That’s one night I’d lace up my dancing shoes again for. The “Doctor” would definitely be in, ready to “refill your prescription of the most feelgoodious kind”, and hopefully get to draw the poster.
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