For Mark Cutler, making an album was a dream too long deferred.
He had been primed since the early 1980s, when he began weaving excellent rock 'n' roll in a small domain--Rhode Island--hoping that the bigger world outside would take notice and give him his chance.
Finally, last year, the chance arrived. After fruitless and increasingly frustrating years as singer, songwriter and lead guitarist of the Schemers, one of those classic regional bands whose number never gets called in the great pop lottery, Cutler finally had found his ticket.
His new band, Raindogs, had the sort of intriguing pedigree and unusual musical premise that was bound to draw attention.
The Boston-based band--which opens for Warren Zevon at the Coach House on Friday--began with a bassist and drummer, Darren Hill and Jim Reilly, who had played together in the New Orleans band, Red Rockers.
Transplanted to Massachusetts, they decided to form a folk-tinged rock group that would reflect Hill's Louisiana roots and Reilly's Irish background (Reilly also played in the Belfast punk group, Stiff Little Fingers). In a fortunate accident, they stumbled upon Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham playing off by himself in a pub across the street from their Boston apartment.
Cunningham was well known in traditional folk circles for his work with the Celtic bands Silly Wizard and Relativity. But after hitting it off with Hill and Reilly, he bought into their dream of making Celtic sounds that rocked. Raindogs set about wooing Cutler as their songwriter and front man. He joined early in 1987, and later recruited Emerson Torrey, his longtime guitar partner from the Schemers, as the fifth Raindog.
The result of all this multinational chemistry is a rock band that takes Cutler's root sources--the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams--and transplants them on Wuthering Heights. Cunningham's highland fiddle darts and soars and twists, lending new dimension to Cutler's melodically inventive guitar rock. That sometimes sweet, sometimes stormy backdrop supports Cutler songs about the moral choices that await us at every turn--the disappointments and derailments, the aspirations and unsatisfied hungers that make living such a precarious but involving business.
R.E.M.'s Peter Buck praised Raindogs after sitting in with them at a Providence club following an R.E.M. show late in '87. By last May, signed to Atco Records, Cutler and the other Raindogs were in a New York City studio with Neil Dorfsman, producer of Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms," one of the most successful albums of the 1980s.
Cutler was about to have his dream undeferred in a big way. And then one of those stubborn moral choices he was always singing about popped off the lyric sheet and into his life.
Early work on the album was not going well, Cutler, 32, recalled in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Dallas.
"(Dorfsman) started hinting about wanting to bring other musicians in. It was obvious he didn't think of us as a band" with a group personality that wouldn't brook the use of studio aces as pinch hitters.
That left Cutler in a dilemma. His own career album sales stood precisely at zero. Dorfsman, with a proven platinum touch, was telling him that by bringing in some polished outside expertise, he could have a hit.
"It is tempting to have this carrot dangled in front of you," Cutler said. "I was thinking, 'This guy's a heavy hitter, he could make me a heavy hitter.' But you have to think of how it weighs on your soul."
In the end, Cutler said, one of the veteran musicians whom Dorfsman was thinking of bringing in, drummer Anton Fier, talked to all the Raindogs and laid out the moral choices in stark terms.
"He said, 'Mark, it's up to you whether you want to be famous and feel terrible for a few years, or stick up for your band.' "
Cutler decided to stick up for the band. He got ready to place a call to Atco, telling company bosses that the label's untested new band wanted to fire its proven, blue chip producer.
"I said to the (other Raindogs), 'I think we should be prepared to have (Atco) drop us,"' Cutler said. "Luckily, it didn't come to that."
Label head Derek Shulman was unruffled, Cutler said, and simply recommended a new producer, Englishman Peter Henderson, whose best known credits included Rush and Supertramp, two bands that had nothing in common with Raindogs. Recording at an inexpensive studio outside Boston, Raindogs finished its debut album, "Lost Souls," without further incident.
"It was just that we were coming from different angles," Cutler said of the split with Dorfsman. "He was a very nice guy. It's just that he's a perfectionist, and I like a little imperfection, personally."
With the album done, Cutler at last could look forward to being on the upsurge, to enjoying for a while the top side of life, far removed from the mine field of hard choices and hard breaks in his songs. But Cutler's life wouldn't stop imitating his art.
"My mother died (last October) just after the album was finished," he said. "I felt like God was saying to me, 'You got what you want, now you gotta pay something back.' Losing your mother is pretty heavy. You have to work it out. But I think everything works out. You have no choice but to deal with it."
It wasn't the first time that a deep loss had attended a rite of passage for Cutler. A few days before he was born, his father died in a car wreck. Shortly before he graduated from high school, the stepfather who had encouraged his early steps into rock 'n' roll also died. It's not hard to guess where the dark, roiling currents in Cutler's songs come from, the theme of being haunted, alienated or betrayed that runs through "Lost Souls."
What makes the album special is the conviction that, as Cutler said, you have no choice but to deal with it. In Raindogs songs, life throws wicked curve balls but the batter never bails out of the box. Instead, the sense comes through that it is sweet and fitting to be up there swinging, even if fate has the game rigged.
Even so, "Lost Souls" never minimizes how painful it is to be playing out the innings of an unfair game. Even when he tries to invoke a sense of home and hearth, on the countrified, splendidly melodic "This Is the Place," Cutler starts thinking about the ghosts that haunt the tenement neighborhood he regards so fondly.
With "May Your Heart Keep Beating," Cutler says he set out to write an affirmative benediction for the whole world: "May your heart keep beating, may your pulse stay strong/May you run for miles, may your life be long." But in creeps the uneasy, all-too-realistic clincher line that undermines those heroic hopes with a sense of life's inevitable frustration: "I used to run for miles myself."
"You have to throw a little of the pain in there," Cutler said with a laugh.
In the album's leadoff track, "I'm Not Scared," Cutler hints that the ability to comprehend life's pain in a work of art somehow is one of the keys to making it more bearable. The song is something like an epic poet's opening invocation to the Muse. With his knack for addressing broad subjects with lyrics that are plain spoken yet resonant, Cutler describes how sustaining the creative process can be.
I'm not scared of a shadow, I'm not scared
When the sun comes up I'll see what's there
Take it out of the shadows, bring it into the light
Send it down to me--I'm not scared.
"It's a statement of self-reliance and inner strength," Cutler said. Those qualities are reaffirmed in "Cry for Mercy," in which the weakness and inadequacy that dog us in daily life are transformed, in a song, into grounds for a moral stand.
The song, Cutler said, "is just a true story. It's a way of working out guilt. I saw a thing happen, and I didn't do anything about it. We were walking back from a rehearsal in South Boston, and there was this gang of kids beating up on this street person. A taxi driver came by and said, 'Cut that out,' and then drove on." Cutler said he began to criticize the driver for not doing anything to help--until the realization that he and his band mates also had done nothing sank in, and spurred the song.
"I could have done something--if I wanted to get killed," Cutler said. "That's why (the lyric) says, 'There are cowards and there are fools.' I didn't want to be a fool, but I ended up feeling like a coward."
Near the end of the song's surging march, with Cunningham's fiddle sounding a heraldic call to arms, Cutler imagines average people reaching down to find some sustaining courage in the face of malign forces.
There are cowards and there are fools
And in between there's people like me and you
And if you're pushed hard enough
You either jump off the bridge or you just get tough
And fight them off, you fight them off.
Singing about such matters as moral crises and the nature of creative inspiration is not the conventional ticket to success in the music business. Cutler said he sometimes wonders whether his songs are too philosophical or abstract.
"That always occurs to me. You do have doubts, 'Am I getting too heavy here?' I ask the guys in the band and they say, 'Yeah, it's heavy, but it's good.' "
Cutler says the priority now is to probe deeper into the possibilities of Raindogs' blend of folk strains and muscular rock. So far, for instance, the debut album and 45-minute opening slots on Zevon's tour have not given the band a chance to indulge its penchant for extended instrumental improvisations.
"Right now we're satisfied with it, but we know we're going to grow," Cutler said. "Right now we feel like we're just scratching the surface of something, but that down the line we're going to do something great."
Raindogs open for Warren Zevon Saturday night at 8 and 10:30 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $19.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.