Breakthrough Eludes Cult Rocker : Music: Veteran Jules Shear, playing Saturday at the Coach House, still hopes that critical acclaim will translate into mass acceptance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took 16 years, but Jules Shear finally has achieved something that even cultlevel rockers like himself usually enjoy from the start: recognition in his hometown.

Shear, 39, lit out from Pittsburgh in 1973 and headed to Los Angeles as a 20-year-old aspiring pop-rocker. While he hasn't attained mass success as a recording artist, he has earned the sorts of credits that usually make one a big deal in the eyes of the folks back home.

Since 1976, Shear, who will play a solo acoustic show Saturday at the Coach House, has released six solo albums (including the excellent new release, "The Great Puzzle"), and four others with the bands Funky Kings, Jules & the Polar Bears and Reckless Sleepers. Along the way, he has consistently received critical plaudits as a songwriter who combines an ear for alluring melodies with a knack for observant, literate lyrics.

Shear's own albums haven't been big sellers, but hit covers of two of his songs should have made him a hometown legend years ago. Cyndi Lauper's reading of "All Through the Night" reached No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart in 1984. Two years later, the Bangles hit No. 10 with Shear's "If She Knew What She Wants."

Speaking over the phone Tuesday from San Francisco, Shear said that the lingering case of hometown neglect finally ended last week when he played his first headlining concert in Pittsburgh (the tousle-haired singer said his only previous Pittsburgh tour stop came in 1978, when Jules & the Polar Bears opened a show for Peter Gabriel).

"In Pittsburgh my records would always get good reviews in the local papers, but they'd never mention I'd ever lived there. I think they didn't know," he said.

That neglect might have said something to do with the downcast "you can't go home again" theme of Shear's 1989 song, "The Once Lost Returns."

The once lost returns, but there are no parades downtown.

The once lost returns to the disrespectful frowns

That prove his last remaining roots unbound.

Shear's actual return proved to be much warmer than the one he'd imagined in the song.

"It was amazing. It was so different," he said. "The Pittsburgh Press, the newspaper I delivered as a kid, ran a great article focusing on the fact I grew up there: 'Jules Shear Returns.' I did a radio interview, I was on the news. I had a good time with it."

"Most of my shows, the audience is made up of die-hard fans. They've been following my career and they show up knowing all the songs. In Pittsburgh, because of all the press and hoopla, there were twice as many people, but they weren't familiar with anything I'd ever done. But it went really well."

Having broken through a hometown's indifference, Shear is still pushing to break through to a mass pop audience.

"It's the No. 1 priority, I suppose. I don't know what else I can do about it, except go out on the road and play shows, which I like doing anyway. I want (commercial success) to happen, but if it was ultimately the highest priority in my life I would have made a record with hip-hop beats or something. It's obviously not as much of a priority as that. I want to be successful on my own terms.

"I made the record I wanted to make, that represented me making good music rather than thinking about how it would fit into the Top 40. You have to accept the consequence that it's going to be a tougher row to hoe."

Shear's return to Pittsburgh took him back to his beginnings as a songwriter. After his show, his old best-buddy from high school came backstage. From 13 to 18, Shear said, he wrote songs at a furious rate, but was too shy about performing to show them to anybody but his pal, Fred. Shear would record his songs on a reel-to-reel machine and give them to Fred, who would respond with written critiques.

"I had an instinctive feel for music," said Shear, whose father was a postal worker. "I was drawn to it from my first memories. I can remember a song I made up when I was 5 years old. I can remember how it goes, but I'm not going to sing it to you. I remember in first grade making up a poem and wanting to have it printed in the school newspaper."

That poem triggered Shear's first confrontation with the thornier side of the creative life. School authorities assumed that such a precocious work must have been copied, and little Jules wound up being trundled off to the principal's office for a lecture on "the seriousness of plagiarism." Shear thinks that episode may have had something to do with his reluctance to play his songs publicly until his college years, when he began performing in coffeehouses.

As a recording artist, Shear has done his share of borrowing, recording tunes in open tribute to Roy Orbison and Brian Wilson, writing chiming numbers evocative of the Byrds (so much so that Roger McGuinn capped his 1991 comeback album, "Back From Rio," with a rendition of Shear's eloquent "If We Never Meet Again"), and sometimes adapting a nasal-husky vocal approach that echoes Bob Dylan.

"Anybody working in the American pop-music spectrum was influenced by people," Shear said, but influence needs to be "filtered through (one's) own individualistic brain, so that it would come out being like (oneself).

"I think anyone can do it, if they allow themselves to. That's the beauty of individual personalities. People try very hard sometimes to fit in, and they end up sounding very much like somebody else. You have to allow yourself to be influenced, but filter it through yourself."

Shear's professional career began after he headed to Los Angeles on a summer vacation after his junior year in college and never went back. He began hanging out at "hoot nights" in the Los Angeles clubs, where aspiring songwriters could get up and showcase their work. "I would see all these other songwriters and think, 'These people are not that good. I've got a shot with this.' "

Shear's first shot came in 1975 after he caught the ear of two more experienced singer-songwriters at one of the hoot nights. One was Jack Tempchin, who had written the Eagles' hit, "Already Gone." The other was Richard Stekol, who had been singer-guitarist of Honk, the popular Orange County band. Together they formed the Funky Kings, released an album on Arista Records, and toured as opening act for Hall & Oates.

"I was very influenced by Richard in those days," Shear said. "He, more than anyone, encouraged me to work harder on the lyrics I was writing. And he was someone I could actually listen to, because I thought he wrote better words than I did. I would write lyrics and sometimes something good would pop out. But as soon as I had words in all the places where there were notes, I'd say, 'That's fine.' Working with Richard, I had to raise my standards. There was a really big shift in my writing at that point. I began paying attention to what I was saying and not just writing to have something to sing."

Today, Stekol, who lives in Laguna Beach, and Shear describe themselves as best friends who sometimes get together to write songs just for the fun of it, with no eye toward public performances or commercial release.

"It's like working out together or playing golf together and not competing," says Stekol, 43, who made his solo debut last year with a fine release on a fledgling Orange County label, BSQ Entertainment. (Stekol, who played guitar on "The Great Puzzle" album, will open the Coach House show for Shear, and the two are planning to perform some songs together.) Despite what Shear says, Stekol won't take any credit for influencing him as a lyricist.

"Me influencing him? No. We were hanging around together in a really interesting time in L.A., and we kind of walked over the hill together," Stekol said. "I sure didn't show him what to do. He's sweet for saying that, but it isn't true."

Shear spent the late '70s in Los Angeles with the Funky Kings and Jules & the Polar Bears, then headed to the East Coast. The '80s were eventful for him, even if the albums he released on his own and with the Reckless Sleepers were only cult items.

The hit covers of "All Through the Night" and "If She Knew What She Wants" (both previously issued on Shear's own albums) may not have made him famous, but they did enable him to buy a small apartment in New York City. In the late-'80s, Shear had a high-profile romance with Aimee Mann of 'Til Tuesday. The band's 1988 album, "Everything's Different," was largely a melancholy reflection on their breakup. Mann named names on one wistful track, " 'J' is For Jules."

Shear didn't get mad at the public airing of personal laundry. "I thought it was a good song, and a good album," he said. "That's very much Aimee's style--what she wanted to do all along was to be that confessional, ultra-autobiographical type of songwriter. I was well aware of that, and I was definitely fair game to be written about. Most of it was really good. My feeling was if it made for good songs, it was fine with me. I was surprised at the (mild) way I reacted. I felt a little bad I couldn't be outraged, because so many people expected me to."

Six months ago, Shear married Pal Shazar, a singer-songwriter he has known since his Los Angeles days (Shear co-produced two albums by Shazar's former band, Slow Children). They wrote and sang a duet on "Dreams Dissolve in Tears," from Shear's new album. For now, Shear said, he and Shazar will pursue separate careers rather than form a duo.

In 1989, Shear stepped out ahead of the now-fashionable acoustic-performance wave, recording "The Third Party," in which he sang and Marty Willson-Piper of the Australian band, the Church, played guitar.

Acoustic performance gave Shear the highest profile platform of his career. Realizing that commercial rock radio wouldn't play acoustic music, Shear conceived the idea of doing a cable television special to draw attention to his album. "We took the idea to HBO, and they said I wasn't famous enough." But contacts at MTV liked Shear's idea of having rockers get together for intimate acoustic-music byplay. In 1989, he signed on as the original host of MTV's "Unplugged" series.

"I'd never conceived myself to be a (television) host. I warned them from the beginning that I wasn't going to be jive about it. I was going to be me and let's hope it works out. We did 14 shows that first year, and it did work out. I got to play with a lot of people, and I don't think I was too unnatural in my role as host." Shear said he lost interest and left "Unplugged" after the format changed. Instead of having two guest artists interact, along with a host musician, the show now is basically a straightforward in-concert program featuring just one act per segment.

"The Great Puzzle," recorded with a full band, is Shear's first album since the national exposure of "Unplugged."

"This record is selling better than any I've made, and there are people who write saying they first saw me on "Unplugged,"' Shear said. But the television exposure clearly wasn't sufficient in itself to liberate Shear from cult status.

If Shear never finds the key to stardom, he seems like the sort who can accept it with a measure of equanimity. After all, one of the main themes of "The Great Puzzle" is learning to accept that there is no key to solving the riddles of love and life.

Shear ends the album on a downcast note in the John Prine-like "Bark," wherein a man and woman encounter an unbridgeable gulf that prevents mutual understanding. But the title track and "The Mystery's All Mine" hint that there's a sense of wonder in probing the unknowable.

"The important thing has to be the path" toward understanding, rather than the unreachable end of total illumination, Shear said. "I'm not talking about trying to get to the end of the path. I don't think it's necessary to know everything about somebody you're in a relationship with: 'I've figured them out. I know what makes them tick.' It's good for people to have these mysteries. People are complicated and there are private points in people that you'll never get to. That slow (if partial) discovery is a great joy."

Jules Shear and Richard Stekol play Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $16.50. (714) 496-8930.

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