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Tohu Vavohu

(1983-1985)

It is perhaps fitting that my first band took its name from the biblical term for the chaotic state of the universe before Creation started to get organized.  The band was formed when Moshe Kaufman, a fellow student at YUHS, found out that I was taking guitar lessons, and talked me into buying an electric guitar.  His goal seemed to be to get me to play the chords to various Led Zeppelin songs while he played the solos over them.  After a few sessions, we thought it would sound better if we added a drummer (we were wrong).  Over our original basement rehearsal tape I wrote "Mess in the Basement", which we later translated to "Tohu Vavohu".

Although playing through the solo for Stairway to Heaven for ten minutes might sound interesting as a concept, it was actually dumb and boring.  So we decided to start playing songs instead.  Being nice Yeshiva Boys™, we naturally gravitated to Jewish Music.  We began to lament about how universally lame Jewish Music was at the time.  It seemed we had a choice of Polka, Disco, or Cantorial styles of music.  There was nothing that was even remotely interesting to us as musicians (such as we were).

It was around this time that our thoughts about Jewish Rock began to coalesce.  We thought, "Why can't we play Jewish Music that is as interesting to us as, say, Led Zeppelin, or the Cars, or the Kinks, or the Police," or the other various rock bands we enjoyed listening to at the time? 

Mind you, this was in NO WAY an attempt to be rebellious.  A lot of bands have come out in recent years playing Jewish Punk, where the goal seems to be to make the music sound as ridiculous as possible.  This was not the case with Tohu Vavohu.  We just liked playing Rock N Roll.  We loved loud guitar solos and distortion.  We just wanted to keep playing the music we loved, and fuse it with Jewish themes, and play to audiences that would appreciate the same things.

We began by taking standard Jewish Umpah songs and changing the beat to rock, adding Zeppelinesque guitar solos and trying to tighten up the arrangement.  We later wrote original songs, usually patterning them after various styles of rock bands or songs that we liked.  We also wrote "shlock" tunes, where we changed the words to standard English songs (this was before Shlock Rock).

We went through several personnel changes.  Mark Wildes became our drummer, and we added keyboards, first Stephen Escott and then Moshe Wechsler.  We tried out different lead singers, and they all had their various problems, so it was decided that I would sing as default until we found someone better.  We never did.

Also at some point, Moshe Kaufman decided that one of us should play bass, and that person was me.   So he leant me a beat-up old bass and I taught myself to play. 

So now we had a standard rock outfit consisting of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards.  Our first gig was the first Queens Purim Parade.  This was my first time playing in front of anyone other than the drummer's parents.  But we rehearsed like crazy and I didn't feel as nervous as you would expect.  In all, about 10,000 people came by the grandstand and heard us play.  The sound was awful.  There were no stage monitors, so I couldn't hear myself sing.  I assume I was quite off-key.  But it came off fine, and after that, nothing really phased me onstage.

The Jewish Rock theme understandably limited our venues, but we played a bunch of interesting gigs, including one at Central High School for girls, a battle of the bands where out of the 3 bands that played we came in a close third (we lost second place to an off-key children's choir), and one memorable show for a group of mentally challenged adults.  I'd have to say that was our best audience ever. (See picture above.  No, that's the band, not the audience.)

Of course, any band that plays original music eventually gets the recording studio bug, and we were no exception.  I did my research, buying a book about the recording process, the concepts of basic tracks, overdubbing, etc, and then promptly went on to find the cheapest recording studio I could.  I forget the name of the place, but it was a seedy 8-track studio in Brooklyn run by a chain-smoking guy named Pete.  We recorded a 3 song demo there, including one original and 2 cover tunes (you can hear them here).

In retrospect, the recording session was probably the smartest thing I ever did with that band.  It preserved our sound, but also got us noticed.  And for me, it paved the way for future band affiliations, including Kesher, Shlock Rock, and Kabbalah. 

Shortly after the release of the demo, Lenny Solomon told me that his bass player was leaving Kesher, and he needed a replacement, so I started playing gigs with him (some concerts and NCSY Shabbatons).  Then I got approached to join a new band, which would eventually turn into Kabbalah.  Tohu Vavohu quietly dissolved. 

I learned quite a bit from Tohu Vavohu.  In some ways, the band was about style over substance.  We had a logo and matching jerseys.  These types of things would come to be less important to me in future iterations.  On the other hand, Moshe was an incredible guitarist, and that style of arrangement and songwriting would stay with me for many years.  I learned about band management, recording and performing, and developed a certain artistic integrity.  I decided at that time that I would never use studio musicians on a recording, that if you buy one of my albums, that you would hear me coming out of the speakers, and I've managed to stick with that over the years.

 


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