Wanna Be Like Mike?

Though it's still being defined, it seems to begin with Bruce Springsteen and it might just end with Michael Molina. The pontifications and delineations are oozing out of the media even as you read this, but the best definition is in the grooves of songs you've never heard, such as "Medicine Bow." Megawatt guitar licks electrify the wandering arrangement, vocals wide and wonderful pound the flesh, the lyrics smartly tell the story of "a victim of old ignorance and fear," a man of unpleasing color hanged, his corpse ignored while headlines announce "Darwin's Theory Banned" and the barbershop talk sticks to the weather.

"Medicine Bow" is a track from Michael Molina's latest demo tape, but its powerfully told and heart-jerking story, vaguely reminiscent of some old Pink Floyd take though it is, represents the style currently leading the rock pack into the new millenium. The list includes Vinnie James, Billy Falcon, Chris Witley, Will T. Massey, and even relative veterans James McMurtry, Steve Earle, and Peter Himmelman. Essentially, it's a guy with a guitar and something to say. Something old and new and sometimes the blues, something the culture machine can package, label, and market. In the past, this sort of artist, your Steve Forberts and Warren Zevons, never sprang up in such quantity.

"I think it's great that it's coming out," Molina says from his home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. "But I also think it's always been there beneath the surface. It's just that so many people don't know who these guys are. The serious songwriters do. I'm flattered you would put me in the same category, because I love those kinds of songwriters. On the other hand, I sure hope the record labels don't package all this together and give it a name. You know, call it `message rock' or something. If they say these artists are trying to preach, so be it, because it's better than most of the music coming out these days, and also to its credit is the fact that these guys are using roots rock. I saw Chris Witley on, of all places, VH-1. He floored me."

The fact that a mainstream video channel would air the raw-as-sushi slide guitarist is flooring in itself. Then again, Billy Falcon guested on The Tonight Show, and Time magazine recently ran a piece headlined "The New Troubadors," mentioning Witley, Massey, and some of the others.

Unlike the other new troubadors, Molina hasn't released a major LP yet, but like them his Springsteen-Dylan-informed sound is pure and real and tested by time. Lots of time.

His first tastes of music with soul came as a child in Miami. His father ran a club in Overtown back when Overtown was one of the hottest entertainment hubs in the nation. After seeing a young rocker named Bruce Springsteen a few years later, Molina locked into the notion of combining soul and rock. That methodology has hit the mark a number of times, like in 1987's "You Take." In that song Molina captured the pulsing, bottomless groove of soul, and also applied an electrifying rock guitar solo as the bridge. Southside Johnny couldn't have done it better.

A decade ago Molina became known to Miami rockers with his band the Coins. In 1982 a radio station dubbed the group South Florida's best, staging them at Gusman. The stratosphere beckoned. But if there was one thing holding the band back, it was their greatest asset - Molina's double-take vocal resemblance to Bruce Springsteen. Tapes of Coins live shows from the early Eighties could easily be passed off as Bruce bootlegs.

Naturally enough, it was at a Springsteen concert that Molina and the Coins met Rich Ulloa, an upstart manager who would go on to open Yesterday & Today records and back the Mavericks CD that netted that band a deal with MCA earlier this year. "The reason the Coins didn't get signed back then," Ulloa recalls, "is that they used bad judgment on leadership decisions; they didn't listen to me. We were all young. But I wasn't allowed to manage and it was a bad situation. But in retrospect, I'll tell you, I believed in them a lot. I was totally into them. And they were maybe good enough to get signed then, but they weren't as good as they could have been. When they clicked on-stage, when it all happened at once, it really really worked." There was no room in the market for another Springsteen, other distractions reared up, and the Coins split up.

Molina, the band's primary songwriter, told the Miami News in 1987 that after the bust-up he turned into "a couch potato." But in 1985 his best friend, Pat Galvin, persuaded him to return to music making. Three days later, Galvin was killed in an auto accident.

Molina pushed on, and in 1987 one-time Rolling Stone Mick Taylor invited him to Atlanta to audition. "Nothing worked out," Molina says today. "But Ray Harris was up there." Harris co-wrote "Medicine Bow" during the year Molina spent in Atlanta, but not much else was happening, musically. Personally, though, Molina became engaged, and soon headed to Marlton, a small town in New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia.

"I met a guy from England and started working on the latest demo tape," Molina says. "This is late 1989. I did a couple sessions, mixing mostly, with Johnny Thunders, met a lot of people, sent my demo tape out to the labels, and got some response."

Molina then moved to Bridgeport, where his wife has family and where he can more easily commute to New York City and knock on doors. "There was no scene in the Philly area," he says. "Everyone was more into heavy metal, pop, sugar-coated rock. So you can understand why my stuff didn't go over."

There's still label interest, but no deal, which is surprising in that an A&R person would have to be nuts to shun the potential exhibited by the powerful tracks on the rough demo. While "Medicine Bow" might be too intelligent (or, as they say, controversial) for radio play, denouncing, as it does, racism, other songs are AOR ready, though no less substantial. For example, the rocking "Walk Tough" draws from the hang-in-there, there's-always-hope well that irrigated Springsteen's work for so long: "I've got 47 dollars and this old guitar/Agent man tellin' me I won't get far," Molina sings in such a way you know it's true, not whining but defiant. "Yeah, my boss man says I gotta toe the line/Gotta punch that clock, do my nine to five." But that life's okay if you "Walk Tough."

The absolute leap-out-of-the-speakers, gotta-be-a-smash track is "The Band Played On," a doubly infectious piece that nods to another of Molina's influences, Bob Dylan, with its twisted imagery and intricate word play, beginning with the first line, "Moguls and mongrels fight in the canyons." A talent scout would have to be a few snorts short of a gram to ignore a song so rich and sticking, but then again, as its lyrics say, "Nero played fiddle while the piper collected/It's the 21st Century and I'm still disconnected."

With irons in the fire, Molina is already making tentative plans for a band. Long-time collaborator Ray Harris is still in Atlanta, but, Molina says, "If there's any signing, I want him involved. He's the greatest unknown songwriter in the world and the best bass player I've ever heard." Chicago-based guitarist Terry McInturff played on the demo. "When I heard him play the first time," Molina recalls, "I thought, Where's this guy been all my life?" And Molina also continues to work with guitarist Heppy Pettit.

"I'm dealing with the people who are interested in the demo," Molina says. "I'm trying to record a new set of songs to keep fresh. I don't want to sit on this too long. I'm going to California for a two-week project. And I'm waiting, hoping a decision is made."

Just as he wasn't attempting to be a Springsteen clone in his Coins days, Molina isn't about to hop on the New Troubador bandwagon. "At the time when we wrote `Medicine Bow,'" he explains, "I wanted to write something with a lot of gut. I didn't want it to be overt - stop racism and this and that. I thought it was something like a Dylan song, maybe. I always loved his lyrics, because even when a song was dated back to the 1800s, it would have a modern feel. When I was working with Mick Taylor, he had a live tape by Mississippi Fred McDowell, this guy who played with a soup bone on a slide [guitar]. That, and Dylan of course, is what inspired `Medicine Bow.'" The sad thing is that the public can't hear the song. Ten years down the road, and Michael Molina is still dancing at the outer edges of the big spotlight. There must be a better way. "Maybe, but I can't bend that far," he says. "I just can't go that commercial route, where I'm writing things that make me gag.

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Greg Baker