Asa Brebner (whose music you can sample by scrolling to the bottom of this link), former guitarist of a Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers lineup, and most famously with Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, but who I knew only briefly as the frontman and songwriter for Asa Brebner’s Idle Hands, died on March 10, 2019, about a year ago.
I learned about it through MOTO’s current bassist, Julia McDonough, who posted the news online.
I knew Asa too, but I didn’t meet him through MOTO, who I briefly played bass with in 1988-1989. I became acquainted with him before MOTO’s mastermind Paul Caporino made his way to Boston around the year 1987.
I wasn’t going to write anything about it until my brother sent me the photo that you see in the thumbnail picture above.
Pictured in the photo is the master tape for a recording made by Point Counterpoint, my college band. We were named after the Aldous Huxley novel, though none of us had read it, and played in Boston clubs in the mid-1980s to audiences almost exclusively made up of our friends. We had a few original songs, and wanted to record them, but we had never been in a recording studio before, and wanted a producer to give us some much-needed guidance with both the songs and the recording.
Asa Brebner wound up being our producer, and I’d like to tell the story of that experience. I’m sure this is a story that few if any of Asa’s friends know anything about. It was certainly a forgettable experience in his life, one of those minor occurrences that recording angels don’t bother to transcribe into the history of one’s life, but one in which I got to know a really good person.
In my junior year in college, 1986, at Boston University, I took a writing class taught by Del Brebner, Asa’s mother. Del was undoubtedly the best writing teacher I’ve ever had. She gave a lot of good writing advice and was always positive and encouraging, but most importantly for me, she was sensitive and experienced enough to understand that fledgling writers needed space, and that any ego that artists of any kind showed was something used as a suit of armor guarding their sensitivity. Del perceived my sensitivity, and gently guided me in the direction I needed to go.
I may have told Del, or I may have written in an essay, that I was in a band, and she informed me that her son was in a band that was called Asa Brebner’s Idle Hands. It was a new band at the time, and I went to see them after Del told me she’d mention me to Asa.
I went to see the band and liked them a lot. I believe they played at Bunratty’s that night. Their songs had great hooks and memorable lyrics. Basically they were a rock band playing pop songs, an approach that I very much miss hearing these days.
After their set, I introduced myself to Asa. He was very friendly and approachable. He thanked me for coming to hear the band. Though Asa had been around the Boston music scene playing in bands that drew big crowds, his current band, like any new band, needed support, and he was genuinely thankful that I had come. We talked about music for a while and bonded over that. I think I was a bit starstruck that he had played in Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Point Counterpoint loved the first Modern Lovers album in particular (which Asa wasn’t on), and Jonathan Richman in general. We covered Road Runner, a Boston anthem.
I went to see Asa Brebner’s Idle Hands quite often, and talked to him a lot after the gigs. Asa briefly became something of a big brother to me. I was 20 years old at the time, so Asa would have been around 32.
He talked about his experience in music, and while he was enthusiastic about music, he was bitter about the industry. Asa Brebner’s Idle Hands was being rejected by record companies for reasons like their look wasn’t right. The band’s look wasn’t something that concerned Asa. He just wanted people to hear his songs. He would often bitterly refer to success in the record business as SUCK-cess.
I don’t remember Asa ever coming to hear Point Counterpoint play live, but he very well may have. In fact, he MUST have! When I asked him if he’d produce Point Counterpoint’s recording, he didn’t hesitate to say “Yes.” He even chose and booked a studio for us in Cambridge, which I no longer remember the name of. He was really taking charge, and I thought we were going to get a great-sounding recording. I was pretty excited about it.
I asked him why he was going out of his way to help us like this when he had so much to do with his own band and any other gigs he got, and he answered, “Because you’re a real person,” and he went on to say that he wanted to see people like me succeed. I think he really longed for the naive honesty I gave him at the time. He wasn’t a person who tolerated fakeness.
Asa’s energy and expertise were on full display for the first of the two sessions. This involved all the boring setting up and miking of the instruments. It took quite a while. We managed to lay down basic tracks for all of the songs at that session, and would do any overdubs and the final mix the next week.
The story, sadly, doesn’t have a happy ending. The next week the band appeared at the studio enthusiastic to hear what we’d all come up with in Asa. I remember it was pissing rain outside.
We sat and waited in the studio with the engineer for about forty minutes, and when Asa still hadn’t appeared, the engineer called him up. “Yeah, where are YOU?” he asked. They talked briefly, and the engineer (whose name I don’t recall. I don’t think he ever told us!) informed us he was on his way.
To his credit, Asa showed up, but he was drunk to the point of barely being able to stand, and it was only around 8pm. The engineer propped him up in a chair while the band recorded. We made all of the decisions, and when the engineer asked Asa what he thought, he just gave a thumbs up. Every time he was asked, just a thumbs up. He barely spoke at all, and really played no role in the decision making on that night.
Anyway, we got the final mix done and everyone went home. We were still pretty thrilled to have a recording, though it hadn’t turned out much differently than if we’d done it ourselves.
We sent it out to get reviewed, but the review we received was so malicious that we could only conclude that it was in revenge for some unknown slight. It was one of those things where if we were good at spin, we could have advertised it as the recording that offended Boston. We didn’t have an audience outside of our circle of friends, though,
The band carried on until we all graduated, then we went our separate ways. I wound up with the master tape, and one of the other guys had the multitrack.
I don’t think I ever saw Asa again after that ill-fated second recording session. I imagine he felt bad for letting Point Counterpoint down, and the band was feeling like it needed some distance, from him so my last memory of him was his drunkenness and incoherence.
But that’s not my abiding memory. What I remember most was his kindness and encouragement, and his telling me that I was a real person. That was high praise coming from someone like him, and I never forgot it.
If I’ve managed to capture some of the dimensions of Asa’s personality despite having only known him for a short time, it’s because he gave all of himself quickly and without restraint. It’s a quality Del seemed to have, too. She must have passed it on to him. I think of myself looking at them like the East German taxi driver looking at Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez in Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train, saying, “What a nice family!”.
After hearing about Asa’s death, I was reminded of my writing teacher Del, so I looked her up and found that she had died on March 28, 2009, at the age of 91. I’m pleased to know that she lived such a long life, and it sounds like she spent it doing things she loved.
I’m going to have to dedicate my next novel to Del and Asa. Their kindness didn’t change me on the spot, but they laid a foundation that I could build on for the rest of my life, and for that, I am deeply grateful.