In his profession, timing used to be everything, says former Tubes frontman Fee Waybill, from the season a band’s album was released down to the record label’s promotional tools.
In the early 1980s, when the theatrical San Francisco troupe crossed over into the pop market with the album “The Completion Backward Principle” and MTV-touted single “She’s a Beauty,” its Capitol imprint had a healthy budget to spend on plastic T-shaped badges, matchbooks and drink coasters with the iconic tubular logo.
Whenever they arrived to a town on a tour stop a day early, the musicians — who had their own uniformed Bay Area softball team, The Tubesox — would schedule slo-pitch games, playing against local radio stations and/or rock magazines, promoting their concert in the process.
“We would play easy, let-‘em-hit-the-ball games, and all the girls would play,” he says, laughing. “And we’d get the radio station to do a live remote from the softball field.”
These days — especially in the COVID-19 era — things are dramatically different, says Waybill, 69, who recently came across boxes of those vintage Tubes matchbooks and coasters he had stockpiled in his Hollywood Hills home, where he and his wife have been sheltering in place.
“I don’t have any coasters or matches for my new record yet,” he adds, referring to his latest solo album, “Fee Waybill Rides Again,” his first in 24 years. Nor will there be any. And he has nixed plans for its release, since old showbiz schematics no longer apply.
He and his longtime collaborator Richard Marx finished the album in February, just before lockdown.
“My friends were saying, ‘You shouldn’t release this now. Wait. Wait until the pandemic is over!’” he says. “And I just went, ‘No, man, I can’t do it. I think it’s a good time to release it. People are stuck at home with nothing to do. Let’s give ‘em a little joy, let’s give ‘em some new music!’”
The project started seven years ago with a Marx-Waybill cowrite called “Faker.”
“Richard’s son Brandon played drums on it, and he played guitar, and it was this great, guitar-driven rock song,” says Waybill.
“And Richard said, ‘This is really good. Why don’t we do another album?’ My previous solo record before this was ‘Don’t Be Scared By These Hands’ back in 1996, so I said, ‘OK, great!’ So we started writing songs, and now, all these years later, we’ve finally finished it.”
How did the flamboyant Tube — who assumed the outrageous stage persona Quay Lewd, sneering edgy anthems like “White Punks on Dope” — meet mainstream arena-rocker Marx?
In 1983, The Tubes were in a Los Angeles studio tracking a high-pressure follow-up to “Completion” with producer David Foster, and the Chicago-bred Marx, then 18, had come to town to watch Lionel Richie record a tune he had written for him. But he really wanted to meet Foster, so Richie arranged for him to drop by the Tubes sessions to say hello.
“Richard came over to the studio and kind of sat in the back of the room, innocuously, and just didn’t say anything,” says Waybill, who wound up defending the kid from his guitarist Bill Spooner, who was angry over the interloper’s presence and wanted to call security.
“I just went, ‘Dude! He’s just a kid from Chicago! He came here to meet Foster, leave him alone!’” says Waybill.
And at the end of the day, Richard came up to me and said, ‘Man, thanks for standing up for me! I really appreciate it!’”
He confessed an admiration for the singer’s campy lyrics, proposed they compose a song together, which they did. The “Kojak”-inspired “Who Loves Ya, Baby?” appeared on Waybill’s first 1984 solo outing, “Read My Lips.” In 1989, Marx landed his own recording contract with the Manhattan imprint, and the two have been collaborating ever since.
Since the “Rides Again” material was created pre-COVID-19, there are some odd ironic moments, like the eerily-dubbed closing cut “Meant to Be Alone.”
“I mean, really, who would have known?” says the Tubes titan, who’s been spending his down time compiling his upcoming autobiography.
“I wrote that about myself, before my wife and I got back together. We got married, got divorced, got back together. We got back together four or five times. There were periods where I was living alone in a dinky house in Venice, and I was feeling sorry for myself and thinking maybe this was never gonna happen again.”
But he wasn’t fated to be alone. As he wonders aloud to himself what his working book title was, it’s his wife who calls it out from the next room: “Oh yeah, it’s gonna be called ‘Fee Waybill’s Guide to an Unknown Trail!’”