Telling it like it is

Israel prepare: Spin Doctors frontman is coming.

Chris Barron Spin Doctors 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chris Barron Spin Doctors 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s so convenient to treat a pop star’s sudden rise to the top and dizzying descent to anonymity with a one-dimensional, Trivial-Pursuit-punch-line sort of callousness; with sold out arenas and gold albums being a thing of the past for the perennial “where are they now” one-hit wonders, it’s also easy to forget  that their lives – and careers – do carry on, even though the details aren’t splashed across headlines and their faces aren’t constantly on MTV.
Chris Barron has witnessed the glare of teen idol adulation and theobscurity of one-night stands in tiny clubs. And having experiencedboth, the former lead singer for The Spin Doctors would prefersomething in the middle – but he’ll take what he can get.
Almost 20 years after enjoying a short run as the singer of one ofAmerica’s top rock bands – with 1993’s seventh best selling album,Pocketful of Kryptonite, and two giant singles, “Two Princes” and“Little Miss Can’t be Wrong,” –  the 42-year-old Barron is soldieringon, doing really the only thing he knows how to do well – make music.
“I was always very ambitious, but it was never my ambition to be superduper big,” said Barron last week from Key West, Florida, where he wasperforming at a songwriters’ showcase sponsored by his publishingcompany, BMI.
“My aim was to make a living playing music, and not to have to work inany other jobs. I had a lot of jobs. I started working at age 14,before it was even legal to work, at my friend’s father’s ice creamshop. And I pretty quickly got the idea that I didn’t want to end upwith a mundane kind of job. And I definitely wasn’t office material – Iwas never going to be someone who was going to rise the ranks in a bigcompany. So it was sink or swim for me with music.”
BARRON HAS not only kept afloat with music, he rode a huge tidal wavewith The Spin Doctors. Formed in New York City in the late 1980s, thequartet, featuring Barron, guitarist Eric Schenkman, drummer AaronComess and bassist Mark White, became known as a good-time party jamband, a more commercial version of the ultimate ’90s stoner bandPhish. 
For Barron, it was the pinnacle of a life that began in 1968 in PearlHarbor, Hawaii, where his father, a Vietnam War veteran, was stationed.
“I don’t remember much about Hawaii – I was just a baby. I went toelementary school in Australia, and then we moved to New Jersey, wherewe stayed. That deleted all those romantic places,” laughed Barron. “Iwas always interested in music – from an early age. I took guitarlessons when I was eight or so.”
Barron enrolled for an elective course in music theory inmiddle-schools, and his eyes were opened to the possibilities inherentin songwriting.
“One day my guitar teacher came in and I showed him something that Ihad taken from a Fleetwood Mac and a Harry Belafonte song and combinedtheir chords. I didn’t even know if I was allowed to do that. But hesaid, ‘that’s the way to do it. Pretty soon, it will turn into a song.’
“‘That’s it? What about writing down the notes and giving notations for the melody?’
He said, ‘Do you think Bob Dylan or John Lennon can read music?’ Thatwas an eye opener for me. Until then I didn’t think anyone could writea song – I thought you needed something like a pilot’s license. It wasalso a blessing, because I’ve never been good at figuring out how toplay other people’s songs. I could always sing them, but I couldn’t sitdown and figure out the chords to a song on the radio. So making yourown tunes was a great option.”
By the time of Pocketful of Kryptonite, Barron had gotten thesongwriting thing down, and with its success, the Spin Doctors weresuddenly everywhere, from headlining the HORDE festival to appearingwith Elmo on Sesame Street. And then they were nowhere. Their nextalbum Turn It Upside Down, while selling nearly two million copies, wasconsidered a let down. Within a couple years, guitarist Schenkman hadquit and the band’s third album, 1996’s You’ve Got To Believe inSomething, sunk like a lead zeppelin.
“It was a difficult time,” admitted Barron. “Our popularity was on thewane, our guitar player left, which was disruptive to what we wereabout. It’s all about chemistry, and you just can’t take out one guyand insert another even if he’s a great player. When Eric left theband, it was extremely disruptive, although the fact that he leftsuggests that we didn’t have much of a trajectory left. If somethingfalls apart, it doesn’t have a trajectory.”
BARRON CHALKED up the band’s demise to losing the focus on music that brought them together in the first place.
“The band lost its cohesiveness because it was so much easier foroutside influences to take effect. In the beginning, we were in controlof our aesthetics, but as we got big, there was much more outsidepressure, and you end up making decisions that might be lucrative, butnot the best decisions,” he said.
“Looking back, we should have held back more, kept things on a smallerscale and moved slower. One change that came about that affected us wasour following. We were always a college rock band; people would getloaded and come see the band. But when you get a hit, and you’re on MTVa million times a day, you attract a younger set, and our audiencesbegan to become much younger. So we had hippies and 10-year-olds in thecrowd. We didn’t know how to react – it wasn’t ours anymore.
But you can’t go to MTV and say, ‘hey, stop playing our stuff!’”
Barron, whose daughter had just been born during the tumultuous period,responded to the crash by immersing himself in music, honing his guitarplaying and writing songs. Although he’s kept The Spin Doctors namealive and various permutations of the band still occasionally perform,Barron has mostly concentrated on developing a solo career focusing onhis roots rock and soulful voice. He’s bringing his show to Israel forthe first time on Tuesday, at the Jerusalem Student Day celebration inIndependence Park, where he’ll be performing some songs with localfavorites Monica Sex, and on Wednesday night in Tel Aviv for a soloacoustic show at the Barby club.
“I’ve always wanted to come to Israel – it’s an absolute dream cometrue,” said Barron. “But I’m not a good Jew – I was never barmitzvahed. My brother’s more of a practicing Jew and he was jealouswhen I told him I was coming. He’s a better Jew than I am.”
Barron appreciates the irony of appearing in Israel as a nostalgia actand having college students singing along to songs like “Two Princes” –which were recorded when they were babies – while at the same time he’strying to reestablish himself as a viable singer/songwriter.
“I used to walk into a mall and 300 kids would surround me forautographs. There were times when I just wanted to buy socks and notdeal with that. But I’ve always been grateful to the fans and wasalways happy to sign for them and appreciate the acknowledgement – evenif could be somewhat disruptive,” he said.
“Now it’s more selective. On my way to Key West this week, the securityperson at the airport gate said, ‘Are you the singer for the SpinDoctors? Oh, my god!’ I gave her a guitar pick with my name on it.Those are nice moments. My girlfriend says she sees people looking outof the corner of their eyes at me sometimes, trying to place me.”
BARRON EXPRESSED no interest in returning to anything resembling the level of notoriety he enjoyed with the Spin Doctors.
“I had that and I don’t want it again – it’s hectic and stressful andturns you into a commodity,” he said.  “Here you are, a smart andengaged person, and there are people all around you who see dollarsigns when they look at you. It’s kind of a perilous lifestyle.
“I would love to have more of a cult kind of thing going on, ratherthan be a huge mainstream success. I  wouldn’t mind having the audienceof someone like Ryan Adams; a comfortable following, where I can fill adecent-sized room.”
But whether it’s appearing in front of 50,000 or 500, Barron remains aneternal optimist. And it’s his positive outlook that has enabled him tonot only appreciate his past accomplishments, but to be grateful forhis current status as a lifelong professional musician.
“I try to focus on the bright side. Here I was, just a kid from NewJersey who never went to college. I had a great ride with a couple hitsongs and I’m continuing to play music for a living. For me, the cup ishalf full, not half empty,” he said.
“I’m grateful I haven’t had a real job since I was 20, I have abeautiful daughter and a girlfriend, I’ve got 26 guitars on my wall,and I’m still making records. I’m making a living, I’m here in Key Westand it’s sunny and beautiful. I’d have to be an a**hole to complain.”