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The Side Man in the Center… Mike Visceglia

Written by Guest Columnist and Award winning Jazz Vocalist, Melody Breyer-Grell

Electric Bass player, Mike Visceglia is a mainstay side man to the likes of Suzanne Vega – having participated with many well known artists such as John Cale, Jorma Kaukonen and Flo and Eddie -from an early age.  He has toured most of his professional life and has wound up; happily back in New York, with his own studio, acting as a producer, musical director and composer while still playing all the time. He is almost the “Mayor of the Biz” having contacts with most of the “A List” musicians as well as the more grass roots strivers.  He is also active in Bass Immersion clinics, which are one-day bass intensive clinics and performances, featuring some of the world’s top practitioners. Not to forget, he has just finished recording a new CD with Vega. It is part of her “Close Up” series called “States of Being”, coming out next spring.

Mike and I had a very fortuitous meeting.  It started out with my random meeting of his wife Brenda in our local dog run.  I had heard her talking about how excited she was as she was going to see her first performance of “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera.  While shooting the breeze and regarding all sorts of music she mentioned that her husband was a bass player.  I decided to give him a call on a whim and as I was dialing the number, I realized that his name was familiar and then ‘googled’ him.   Our conversation was one that goofy movies are made of.

Melody – Hello is this – wait hold on – I am on my computer.  Mike, ah your wife, sorry what is her name? – just met her, she told me to call you and you won’t believe this – wait, my name is Melody and even though I did not realize this before I placed this call uh —I reviewed you for a magazine, I mean I reviewed Suzanne Vega and get this, I very rarely talk about a side man, actually I think most of them play too loud, but you – you were so good that I actually wrote a whole paragraph on you.  Do you want to hear?

I actually started reading him copy of the review I penned about Vega at the Allen Room of the prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Mike – Ok Hello Melody, nice to hear all this.  Thank you, it is always good to hear good press.

Why he did not hang up on me, showed that he was the kind of guy who could cull a grain of sanity out of a nutty experience – he was normal to the point of it being abnormal!

He let me explain that I was a critic and reviewer for certain publications and blogs and despite my initially chaotic approach to him, he agreed to an interview upon reading some of my articles.

What I found out chatting with Mike was that he is in one of the most enviable places that a working musician can be – he actually has had work – enough to be constantly employed by the top bandleaders and artists in the from the 70’s until the present, his big gig being the bassist and for the Suzanne Vega Band for over some 25 years.

We soon met, punctually (wow) at Gramercy’s landmarked Pete’s Tavern and chewed that fat for a bit.  The more I spoke to the sharply turned out professional, the more interesting his story became in its simplicity and directness.  This was not a burnt out rocker but a solid, feet on the ground professional.  He had the manner of a trustworthy surgeon with great bedside manner.

Our time passed so quickly that Mike agreed to meet me at my abode in a few days and  gave me the chance to read some of  his  entertaining and instructional book, “ A View from the Side” and listen more to his music, including the lovely CD he just recorded with singer Fiona McBain.

Me –  So let me get this straight, you have been playing and touring for over 30 years and you seem to have no vices at all, at least none that I can pin down.  Did you ever go through a period of the usual substance abuse or at least smoke a cigarette?

MV – No, None of that stuff appealed to me and I quickly saw what it did to so many others in the music field.

ME – Did you ever consider doing anything else but being a musician?

MV –No – maybe naively, I never worried about security, money or anything.  I never even analyzed it till now. I was born in the East Village and moved to NJ when I was 5. When I was 15 we moved back to the city (Queens).  Getting out of Jersey helped.  No distractions.

ME– So Dad really helped you…

MV – My father himself never came to terms with his choice of not becoming a musician, so his grooming me to become one was completely vicarious. We were not rich, but all the money we had went to me and my siblings to support our schooling and hobbies. My dad became a “hospital administrator.”  I always felt there was an emotional, if not financial cushion…

Me – There is a very humorous situation your Dad put you in so you could go “pro”.

MV – Yes. He had heard about a vacancy in a garage band and agreed that they could actually use our garage to practice in if they took me on—I was 12 – I had just started playing!!!

ME -What influenced your choice of the bass guitar?

MV- I first fell in love with the sound of the nylon string guitar when I was 10 – having heard records by Brazilian and Flamenco guitar players.  My father got me lessons with a local classical guitarist and the right hand technique set me up for the bass, as it is similar. The choice of the bass guitar was happenstance as that it fit the “needs” of a garage band rehearsing in my house. Up until that point I never thought of playing the bass…

MV– So I see from your book, that your father was quite a guy, kinda larger than life.

M – You could have written a book about him, he was quite something. He was an extremely larger than life personality. My friends would come to our house to hang out with him.  He was a like humorous sit-com character, heart of gold type of guy.  He did need to be in control and he was always the life of the party –the center of attention.

Mike explained to me that his dad did what many of our parents do.  He decided that family was the thing, although he was a talented musician – a sax player.  He went out and became the first person in his family to graduate college— while working full time. He earned a business degree, went to IBM School, becoming a computer systems administrator.

ME – You never considered the options to a life dedicated to music?

MV – The timing was very good for me as my draft card lottery number was low and then the war in Vietnam ended. Being born in 1954, I was old enough to enjoy the “golden age” of rock. Horizons for pop were huge around the time of Woodstock.

ME-I have noticed a synchronicity that occurs with successful people in the arts.  They have all the ingredients – talent, good timing, and luck. You seemed to have had the perfect storm.  You were always gigging as a teen, and then got your first tour at 22.  How did you get it?

MV –  It was my friend Bruce Kulick- (who later went on to play guitar with Kiss) that recommended me to his brother Bob, also a guitarist, for my first tour with John Cale (of Velvet Underground fame.)

So I gathered it is all is smooth sailing until I read about young Mike’s entrance into the hard realities with a funny-tragic story of the “The Last Chicken in the Shop” ala Ozzie Obsboure.  He was touring with John Cale and wrote about it in detail in his book.  To make a long story short Mike and the band were traveling though the English countryside, on the way to a gig and the tour manager decided to stop at all the farms along the way till he emerged with a live chicken!  Mike feared for the worst –  but after being assured by the manager and Cale that all was ‘ kosher,’ the show ended with a  grand finale of Cale’ s hacking up the chicken during a metal version of “Heartbreak Hotel!”   And that was it for him and that band, as he, the drummer and two techs quit on the spot.

ME – The chicken incident – was that the worst of it on the road?  Was it all easier after then?

MV – Well, then there was the forming of “Vital Parts” – a band with Jorma Kaukonen – from The Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.  This was supposed to be a democratically run band whereby all proceeds are put in an account and at the end of the tour we would divide the net profit but –due to “malfeasance” there were no funds at the end of the tour.

ME – HMM – I can just imagine what that malfeasance was!  But you were still game, even after the chicken incident and the tours where you ended broke.

So when did things start looking up?

MV – From 1980-84 –  the “Turtles” (Flo and Eddie) tours had more structure and stability- and were a lot more fun!

ME – Well that was a great break, I loved those “Turtles.”  And when did you hit it with soon- to- be iconic, Suzanne Vega?

MV – In 1985 Suzanne was forming a band after her first record and I was simply recommended to her by my friend, guitarist Jon Gordon.  We got along and from that meeting – we were on the same wave length and still are.

According to Mike’s book, his musical relationship with Vega was the cornerstone of his career.  He was in for the recording of the hit tune “Luka” and has been touring with the star for over 25 years. They have been friends and confidents and seen a lot of the world and life together…

ME – So even with all this touring you managed to get married.

MV – Actually twice!  I met my second wife Brenda, first at a gig in Boston, but she was not really available to me as she was digging out of a past relationship.

Then in Australia I met the woman who was to become my first wife.  She relocated to London, but I was in New York.  Meeting across the Atlantic that much was expensive!  We married in NY and she did not move to NY for a year – and when she did she decided she could not live in New York.  We were married for 3 disjointed years and got unmarried.  I was playing for Suzanne for the whole time.

Me – How did you get back with Brenda?

MV- I got back with Brenda about a year after my first marriage broke up. The only number I had was for her mother. After numerous tries her mother answered and was thrilled to hear from me and gave me Brenda’s number. She was living in Boston and in a bad relationship. We started seeing each other and she then moved in with me in NYC.

ME – So things have come full circle, you are back in New York after years of constant touring. What have you been doing?

MV – I am partners with my friend Zak Soulman in a company called Pryzm Music .He is a great guitar player from Israel. He can play anything from Mid-Eastern music to rock – he is also a great engineer, producer and mixer.

ME – Any interesting projects lined up?

MV -We are sort of full speed ahead with the producing of a CD for a 9 year old girl.

ME – What is special about this particular girl?

MV – She is unique in the sense that she is super smart – home schooled, a level 7 gymnast, a breath away from being at Olympic level.  She also displays an aptitude for music.  She’s fearless, charming, adorable, and goes to open mic sessions to play and sing. Her parents have exposed her to a lot of good music. She’s probably the smartest 9 year old I know – very precocious. Her father and mother wanted to give her a chance to play with world-class musicians. They want to open her up to the best cultural experiences that they can, not just athletics. I can do that musically, as I can call up great musicians for her to record with…

I found myself getting a bit twisted by the idea of a little girl getting such an opportunity.  I know all is fair but I had to push the envelope a bit here.

ME – Ok – well, hmm, I am kind of not digging this – what about talented people who do not have this type of backing; do you have any interest in them?

MV – Sure I do, in fact I mentor people quite often.

ME – (relieved) – excellent then.

He went on to tell me about his mentoring experiences – and they were many…

ME – Have you mentored people by giving technical advice, contacts – career advice?

MV – Absolutely, I mentored Doug Yowell- a friend of my brother Chris. Chris told me about him and we met and I saw the potential in him and pulled him into the NY scene where he is now a respected full time musician. He now plays drums for Suzanne Vega as well as many other fine artists.

Another person I mentor is a bassist named Margaret LaBombard – we met at one of my bass immersion day events.  She has gone from labor union office worker to a full time bass guitar player. She is hitting all the NYC clubs – “The Bitter End,” etc…..

ME– That is uplifting in a scene were so many people are so overly protective about gigs…

MV – I am also writing a story about colleague (Richard Gates) who ended up having a heart transplant after finding out that he had “cardiomyopathy.” This is an incurable progressive heart disease. His story is really exceptional.  He had surgery 6 years ago and now bikes from transplant hospital to hospital sharing awareness and giving hope to others waiting for hearts.

Wow! I was temporarily speechless.

ME- How are you looking to stretch yourself musically these days?  It is so hard to know what direction we are all going in…

MV – I want to live in the time we are in – be in this culture – not try to recreate a lost idea. Since the 90’s we seem to have run out of great musical ideas and have been on a downslide. There has been little interest or investment in new creative ideas. Even though the US is a world leader in music we’ve become either a cult of instant celebrity, or are just rehashing musical styles that were done much better 20-50 years ago.

ME– Ain’t that the truth. It’s got so I am a proponent of a complete Armageddon!! Even though I love my Lady Gaga!

MV – You mean storing up food etc. ahah

ME – Nah, don’t have the energy, if we go we go!

At this point we got into a very intense conversation about the literal end of the word and the cultural deadness we are going through.  His positive feedback on how we can go on sold me to the possibility that the end was not quite here yet!

MV – Well, in pop music there have been challenges to the status quo that have caused exciting creative waves almost every 10 years since the ’50s.  At the end of the ’50s you had the birth of Rock and Roll and Elvis – in the ’60s we had the Beatles and the British Invasion, culminating in Woodstock – at the end of the ’70s the punk scene took hold and at the end of the ’80s into the ‘90s the grunge scene was happening…but since then- nothing of interest to me. I’m waiting for the next wave to rear up to pull us out of the stolid epoch that we’re in now!

ME -Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

MV – Having a diverse music career, with some touring, production, session recording, teaching, playing live gigs around NY. Getting off the road, but if Eric Clapton calls, see ya.  Basically more control…

ME – How about your lifestyle then – any goals.

MV – Keep the balance of country and city.

ME – Horses?

MV – No!  Wife and dog in that order!

MB– But of course!

Our time was ending and I realized that we did not get into any of the technical aspects of his bass playing.  As I pondered on that fact, I realized its probably just best to listen to his music rather than analyze it…Enjoy! Maybe next chapter!

Visit online at www.mikevisceglia.com

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