A musician's 'Passion'

Juneau songwriter's latest rock album is a 55-minute ride through pop, rock, quiet instrumentals

Posted: Thursday, June 30, 2005

Juneau songwriter George Wallace was born and raised in Philadelphia and came of age musically in the mid-to-late 1960s. It was a fine era, and a fine location to listen to the radio. From far away, you had the Beatles, and the second and third waves of the British Invasion. Nearby, of course, was Motown.

"Part of what was cool in the late 1960s was the way radio was," Wallace said. "The stations offered you a format, and there was a little more freedom of movement. What you really had was programming from hour to hour."

It must have been a lot to process for a kid who was just starting to write his own songs. And almost four decades later, in a musical career that's taken him to major-label Manhattan and the curious nether-regions of so-called "space music," Wallace is still paying a sort of homage to his radio.

His latest album, "Passion Play," is a 55-minute ride through pop, rock, quiet instrumentals, mid-tempo meditations and atmospheric meanderings. Wallace recorded the album at his Twin Lakes home studio and plays most of the instruments himself. Bill Paulick (French horn), William Todd Hunt (clarinet and tenor saxophone), Jon Hanson (trumpet) and Marti Early (piccolo) helped out.

"I wanted to do an album that offers a program and not just a bunch of songs," Wallace said. "I wanted to create a record that goes from point to point and doesn't stay in a certain dynamic range or within a certain couple of decibels, so that I've really put you through the ringers by the time you're done listening. I'd like to think that it takes you places."

Wallace's musical career has taken him a variety of places. He worked on his own songs through the 1970s, occasionally playing in session work, and eventually made a timely connection with a musician who was hooked up with some of the executives at CBS Epic.

"He was a known quantity at the label, and I came along once with a couple of tunes," Wallace said. "It was a very prolific period for me, and one song jumped out at them, 'Back at 17.' For a few minutes, I could do no wrong with those guys."

CBS Epic had just released Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall," among other things. In a whirlwind two weeks, Wallace joined the roster too. He signed in early 1980 and began work on an album on May 15, 1980. The project dragged on for months, and CBS ended up spending somewhere in six figures.

"Heroes Like You and Me" came out in the spring of 1981 and scored good reviews in the trade magazines but didn't sell enough to recoup the label's production costs.

Wallace also didn't have a band, a pattern that's followed him for most of his recording career. Jim Bralower, now an independent producer, played some drums for him. And a former neighbor, Mark Rivera, helped out with saxophone. Rivera has gone on to work as music director for Ringo Starr, Billy Joel and Elton John.

"I was brushing up against that part of the business which I didn't have much affinity for or pay much attention to," Wallace said. "I have a lot more savvy about it now than I used to. Back then, I was like, 'What do we need promotion for?'"

Wallace went back into the studio, this time a smaller outfit in Philadelphia, to record a second album. "What It Is" was never released. Wallace's relationship with his manager was deteriorating, and he was soon dropped from CBS.

"I take 51 percent of the blame," he said. "If I knew then what I know now, it would've made a difference in my relationship with the label."

Wallace spent the next three years writing for Screen Gems, a New York-based publishing company. He was asked to write something along the lines of Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll."

"I took it home and turned it and shook it around, and out came, 'I'll Show You,'" Wallace said.

The song was eventually recorded by Ted Nugent, but that was Wallace's one publishing fling with a major artist. Screen Gems' New York office dissolved in 1984, as the company refocused in Los Angeles.

"I decided to keep going; I just can't stop," Wallace said. "I realized I could do everything at home with what modest equipment I had and make it sound believable. I just needed to be honest about it and learn from the companies' lessons."

In 1984, Wallace began writing "space music" - instrumental long-form songs with atmospheric washes of chords, plenty of echo and reverb, few notes and a sparse approach to instrumentation.

"I was interested in works that would take longer than three minutes to experience," he said. "I was looking at some spiritual things in my life, some new books. I wanted to do something different than crash-boom-bang music."

The first piece was an hour-long epic called "Sacred Earth," a four-part concept based on the elements - earth, air, fire and water. He sent a cassette copy to "Star's End," a program on University of Pennsylvania station WXPN that specialized in "space music." The program chose it as one of the best works of 1985.

"Communion" came out in 1987, followed by "Garden of Dreams" in 1991 and "Frontiers" in 1993. "Space music" was developing an audience across the nation, and Wallace's work was being played on WXPN, as well as stations in the Southwest.

"New age music got a bad rap," Wallace said. "A lot of stuff that came out sounding like new age was just really bad music. There are some of us out there who were trying to do something really musically interesting, and we got lumped in with the bad new age stuff."

In 2003 Wallace reconnected with his first love and moved to Juneau. They married last August, by which time Wallace was already well into "Passion Play."

The record came out in June, but Wallace has no plans to tour. He's connected with a promotion company in California, which will try to push the record for radio airplay.

"It's about stuff I feel passionately about, and it's an encouragement for listeners to feel things again," Wallace said. "I think we're so used to getting screamed at by the frenzy, or we're hooked on television. It's an invitation to remember that we can turn down the racket and we can feel things and be sensitive to things.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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