Pop Philosophy

Paying tribute to the near-forgotten Dom Leone

Tribute albums are usually reserved for well-known artists like Leonard Cohen, the Velvet Underground, and -- God help us -- John Denver. Occasionally, however, someone decides to put out a tribute to a relatively obscure songwriter, in the hope that other people will discover the musician's dust-bunnied genius. Take, for example, Guy Capecelatro. The Portsmouth, N.H., landscaper/musician is putting together Guess Who This Is, an album of 25 Dom Leone songs performed by San Francisco groups such as the Buckets, Warm Wires, Virginia Dare, and Fuck.

Who is Dom Leone and why has no one here heard of him? Part of his obscurity lies in the fact that he died of cancer in 1989. In addition, he'd been part of the underground music scene in New England, perhaps not the best-known source of Bay Area music. Originally, Leone left an engineering job in Ohio to write fiction in a cabin in Vermont, then moved to Portsmouth to join Ed's Redeeming Qualities, a band of University of New Hampshire fiction writers that formed in spring 1988. Ed's also featured Dom's ukulele-playing cousin Dan Leone (now a food critic for the Bay Guardian), violinist Carrie Bradley (currently fronting altrock group 100 Watt Smile), and bongo beater Neno Perrotta (who moved back to Ohio in 1991). The combo's calypso/folk sound and clever lyrics soon netted it the Boston Phoenix's award for Best Folk Band and got it a gig as curators of a weekly cabaret event called "Ed's Basement." One recurring audience member was the Breeders' Kim Deal, who later recorded Dom's heartfelt country weeper "Drivin' on 9" for her 1993 album Last Splash.

Even after the band moved to San Francisco in 1990 and swapped Perrotta for multi-instrumentalist Jonah Winter, Ed's continued to record Dom's songs. Listening to compositions like "Lighthouse" from 1991's It's All Good News, it's easy to see why. Equal parts sorrow and dark humor, the song tells the tale of a quiet boy unnerved by the advances of a neighborhood girl: "She sat next to me and built a lump of sand/ She said it was a castle/ She said that we could live there/ I said I had my own house and she said she burned it down." Both his songs and the short stories he published in The Quarterly (which you can usually find in used bookstores for a buck; it's well worth the price) contain wonderfully detailed moments and an "aw, shucks" sense of melancholy.

"There was something about his writing," Capecelatro says via phone from his New Hampshire home. "He captured these funny little stories about being a human, with a mixture of the poignant and the sad."

Capecelatro met Dom at a Portsmouth hootenanny in the late '80s, when Capecelatro was in a "quasi-funny" folk duo called Bob & Guy. "[Ed's] mix of funny, literate lyrics and amateurish musicianship totally won me over."

Last year Capecelatro pulled out his old Ed's tapes to transfer them onto CD. "I was struck by the power of Dom's songs and decided it was time to try and get them out to a wider audience," he says. He contacted Dan Leone and Bradley -- Ed's split up in 1996 but still reunites occasionally -- and suggested a tribute album that would benefit the Dom Leone Writing Competition, a contest for children in Youngstown, Ohio, that was set up by friends and family. In June, Capecelatro compiled a CD of Dom's songs and sent it to bands, choosing groups with members who knew Dom or who might share an appreciation for his work. "I was amazed by the response," Capecelatro says. "Even if they didn't know him, they loved his sense of humor and his view of life."

To date, all the songs have been recorded and received by Capecelatro; now the discs just have to come back from the mastering plant. (Sadly, no one chose to cover "Caucasian Spiritual," which includes the immortal line, "I punch nuns/ I punch nuns/ I believe in Jesus Christ/ But I punch nuns.") For its part, local group Granfaloon Bus has taken to playing its cover, "Bad Memories," during live shows. The band had better watch out, though, or it'll have an experience similar to Capecelatro's. "I usually throw in some Dom songs when I play, and people always ask about them," he explains. "It's great, except they never ask about my songs."

All of Ed's surviving members perform on Guess Who This Is, while Dan's brother, Joe Leone, and other artists created original drawings for the jacket. Capecelatro hopes the whole project will be finished in the next two months; a local benefit show is in the planning stages. In the meantime, he is offering a CD-R of Dom's originals, complete with artwork and lyrics. Send $5 to Guy Capecelatro III, P.O. Box 1332, Portsmouth, NH 03802, or contact him at pamandguy@mediaone.net.

 
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