Natrona Heights musician Podrasky hopes time is right for his 'Plans'
Jimmer Podrasky hasn't visited Natrona Heights in 24 years; his last trip home was for his father's funeral.
When he returns to the Pittsburgh region this week for shows at Pittsburgh Winery and Stage AE, he's hopeful his son Chance will be with him to visit the old neighborhood. Chance was only 2 when his grandfather died.
Podrasky is keen on showing his son the place where he fell in love with music. The place where he and Michael Kaniecki and George Carter bonded and eventually formed The Rave-Ups. The place where he started the arc of a most unlikely career, one of dizzying heights and unfathomable lows.
Podrasky admits that after his father died, he felt his connection with Natrona Heights was broken.
“There was nothing there for me,” he says. “My parents were gone; my grandparents were gone. It's not that I don't love Pittsburgh, but once they were gone ... . But I'm excited about coming back.”
Podrasky recently released “The Would-Be Plans,” his first album in 23 years, to critical acclaim.
When asked about the positive reviews and a renewed focus on his work, Podrasky says the reality of his situation has not changed.
“Financially, I'm still as broke as can be,” he says. “I just keep playing and moving. I never stopped playing, I never stopped writing and I never put the guitar away.”
Low down on the Rave-Ups
Podrasky founded The Rave-Ups in 1979 while he was studying at Carnegie Mellon University. When the band started playing the Electric Banana and The Decade in Oakland and Fat City in Swissvale, it wasn't embraced by its peers.
At least that's how Podrasky remembers it.
“I don't think the Rave-Ups were really well liked,” he says. “We didn't seem to fit in too well.”
Part of the problem was a limited number of places to play in Pittsburgh during the early 1980s, forcing the Rave-Ups to share stages with punk bands. While the Rave-Ups may have looked like punks, Podrasky, Kaniecki and Carter transcended any single genre.
“We wore our influences on our sleeves, and that didn't always go down too well with the other punk bands,” he says. “I think the only reason the Rave-Ups were part of that punk movement was we couldn't play very well.”
But some musicians were listening and paying attention. Greg Joseph, bassist and vocalist with The Clarks, says The Rave-Ups had a huge influence on The Clarks' music.
“Dave (Minarik, The Clarks' drummer) and I always admired how tight the kick drum and bass played together,” Joseph says.
“I think the Rave-Ups were not only an influence, but also an inspiration to bands like The Clarks, the 11th Hour and The Affordable Floors,” says Rod Schwartz, bassist for the now-defunct 11th Hour. “They showed us if you were a tight band with great song writing, you could get discovered, no matter what your zip code was.”
It wasn't until the Rave-Ups moved to Los Angeles that national attention came, even though Kaniecki and Carter left the band and were replaced by musicians from California. In 1985, the newly constituted group released the album “Town and Country,” which yielded a college-radio hit single, “Positively Lost Me.”
Then things got interesting. Podrasky started dating Beth Ringwald, the sister of actress Molly Ringwald. Molly Ringwald became a fan, leading to a shout-out in the film “Sixteen Candles” — the actress has the band name written on her three-ring binder in one scene — and an appearance in the movie “Pretty in Pink.”
But even at the apex of the band's popularity, Podrasky recognized his limitations.
“I have never been much of a player, and never have been much of a singer,” he says. “I think the only thing I had going for me was the writing. I wasn't going to impress anybody with anything else. I knew early on that I had very limited tools, and I had to make them work for me.”
“Jimmer's lyrics are very unique,” Joseph says. “His stories are interesting and very visual. Three of my favorite wordsmiths of all time are Jimmer, Steve Forbert and Elvis Costello.”
For the Rave-Ups, fame was temporary. While the 1990 album “Chance” — named after Podrasky's son — yielded the singles “Respectfully King of Rain” and “(She Says) Come Around,” by 1992 the band disbanded.
And Podrasky gradually disappeared from the public eye. He struggled at times and was briefly homeless.
Then, another Natrona Heights native came to the rescue.
Loop back in time
Ed Sikov, Podrasky says, “was always the smartest guy in the room” when they were kids. A few years ago, they reconnected via Facebook when Podrasky was trying to record the songs that would become “The Would-Be Plans.”
Podrasky had a producer, Mitch Marine, the drummer for Dwight Yoakam. He had musicians including guitarist Brian Whelan (also from Yoakam's band) and Ted Russell Kamp (of Shooter Jennings' band), who played bass, lap steel guitar and keyboards.
What he didn't have was money. Sikov, a writer, film scholar and lecturer, offered to pay for the project. Another loop back in time, another person from the past reaching out to him.
“Without Ed, it wouldn't have happened,” Podrasky says. “He didn't even ask how much it was going to cost. He just decided he wanted to do it.”
While “The Would-Be Plans” is a solo album, it hearkens back to Podrasky's work with the Rave-Ups. There are elements of rock and country and twang, but like a Tom Petty album, it is a tapestry of sounds, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
“ ‘The Would-Be Plans' seems to pick up right where ‘Chance,' left off,” Schwartz says. “ It's a pretty hard task to bring the listener up to speed on the last 24 years of your life in only 10 songs, but Jimmer nails it.”
When asked about the rave reviews for “The Would-Be Plans,” Podrasky hems and haws. He says Marine and the musicians on the record deserve credit for the music, that after he wrote the songs his job was to “get out of the way.” He gives credit to Sikov for financing the record. He even cites Kaniecki and Carter, his band mates from 30 years ago, saying “Had I not known them, I do not know where I would be right now.”
Asked again, he refuses to beat his own drum. It's just not the way he was taught to do things.
“I think ... a lot of it has to do with where I came from,” Podrasky says. “A lot it of was my parents and grandparents. They were all very, very good and decent and humble people. That's the way I was raised, that's the way most people I knew were raised growing up in Natrona Heights.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.