City Paper is not for tourists
Before its demise, Kramerbooks & Afterwords’ Arlington outpost sporadically sponsored talent contests at which the top prize was an in-house dinner for two. As with most amateur hours, overwhelming audience indifference was the rule. But one night last fall, the apathy was temporarily suspended when a performer, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, took his turn at the mike and offered up “Cinderella,” a Top-40 hit from 1976.
“I’d heard that song a million times, and I could sing along with the guy—”Cinderella can’t you see/I don’t want your company,’ ”, recalls local coffeehouser Will Geer, who would take the stage next. “But I couldn’t remember who’d done it.”
The singer finished up, walked offstage and opened up his guitar case—and Geer’s memory. “There were all these Firefall stickers stuck all over it,” Geer says. “And I’m thinking, “OK, that’s who did it.’ But then I started wondering, “Why would a guy want Firefall stickers all over his guitar case?’ ”
It’s a reasonable question. Despite being responsible for a slew of ultradurable melodies (“Cinderella,” “You Are the Woman,” “Just Remember I Love You”), Firefall has been a buzzword for ’70s pap almost since its inception. Editors of the 1979 edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, for example, nailed the combo as “country rock middleweights” adept at “pleasant but dull” offerings. The battering has continued into the ’90s: “What’s next, a tour by Firefall?” asked a Houston Post reviewer after the Eagles’ reunion show in that city last summer. Not long ago, the Sacramento Bee invoked the band’s name after a characteristically embarrassing local appearance by first brother Roger Clinton: “Here is somebody who hasn’t turned on a radio since…the heyday of Firefall.”
Why would somebody proclaim allegiance to a band deemed so utterly uncool? Larry Burnett, the performer who piqued Geer’s interest, has his reasons.
Burnett was an original member of Firefall. He penned a chart-topping single. He partied with ’70s icons like Steve Miller and Fleetwood Mac. He owned three homes. He drove a Ferrari. He played the Capital Centre. Plain and simple, Burnett was a wimp-rock god. “I still hear my songs in elevators a lot,” he chuckles.
Most people in Burnett’s shoes wouldn’t be chuckling. On paper, he’s a mess.
The millions Burnett earned as a musician were squandered long ago. At 43, he’s legally bankrupt and recently divorced. These days, he earns his keep as a courier. Yet Burnett declares that he is in the midst of the most personally satisfying period of his life. Nights like the Kramerbooks open mike (though another performer snagged the free dinner passes) are responsible for his new-found contentment, as is the realization that a songwriter’s happiness isn’t tied to fame or fortune, neither of which have anywhere near the half-life of a good hook….
For most of his adolescence, Burnett bounced between his mother’s home in Alexandria and his dad’s digs in Ventura, Calif. He dropped out of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria after the 10th grade, and began running with a crowd on the West Coast that shared and nurtured his zeal for intoxicants (he claims to have started shooting heroin and drinking booze on the very same day—as a 14-year-old) and music, which was at in full flower when he made what he thought would be a permanent return to the D.C. area in 1971.
He was working as a cabbie when his big professional break came, by way of his appearances at the Cellar Door’s Sunday night hootenannies. Unbeknownst to Burnett, a sound man at the then-esteemed Georgetown venue was in the habit of distributing tapes of the amateur acts’ performances to touring bands who played the club.
One big name who got Burnett’s tape was Rick Roberts, a former Flying Burrito Brother who’d relocated to Boulder, Colo. Roberts liked what he heard and began calling Burnett and asking him to share songwriting duties in a band he was forming. After more than a year of discussions, Burnett was ready to join up with Roberts when drugs got in the way.
“I hadn’t talked to Rick in a while, but he happened to call me one morning just a few hours before I was supposed to show up in court to face some drug charges,” Burnett recalls. “He was excited, telling me he wanted to get the band started right away. So I told him, “Well, Rick, I might be a little tied up for the next five to 40 years. If you don’t hear from me, go ahead and start it up without me.’ Turned out I had a good day in court, and as soon as I left the courthouse, I walked up to a pay phone, called Rick, and said, “I’ll take that plane ticket. I’m coming.’ ”
In Colorado, Burnett hung out and jammed with Roberts and the other musicians he’d imported for his project, including former Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne bassist Mark Andes and ex-Byrds drummer Michael Clarke. It wasn’t long before the jammers got major-label attention. “To tell you the truth, from the start, the thing about Firefall that attracted the industry people wasn’t our music,” Burnett confesses. “It was because we had so many “exes.’ We were known as the band that had an ex-Burrito Brother, an ex-Byrd, an ex-Spirit, etc. They liked our résumés, and that’s why they were coming to us.”
In August of 1975, Roberts and company accepted an offer from Atlantic Records. The band’s eponymous debut was released the following spring, half its songs Burnett compositions. Thus began a five-year, five-album run as MOR biggies.
“I had that same illusion that everybody in that world has, that this—the money, the band—was going to go on forever,” he says. “It didn’t.”
Drugs hastened Burnett’s departure from Firefall. While the band was recording what would be its last album, Clouds Across the Sun, he was in a Boulder hospital, hooked to an IV, and getting a 30-day dose of penicillin to rid his body of an infection caused by all the needles he’d inserted into his arm. “Nobody told me, but while I was in the hospital, I was kicked out of the band,” Burnett says.
Firefall itself disbanded without touring to support Clouds. Concert revenues weren’t all that disappeared: The amount of Burnett’s quarterly songwriting royalty checks went from five figures to “maybe enough for a tank of gas.” His cash flow dammed up, Burnett had to sell off all the material goods Firefall had brought him to pay off his debts. By 1982, along with being out of money, Burnett was also out of Colorado and out of the music business.
He moved back to the D.C. area and into his sister’s basement, worked several restaurant jobs, and did more drugs. Without the band, Burnett was in freefall. He hit bottom in August 1985, when a happy-hour’s worth of heroin and gin caused acute liver failure. The poisons sent through his body settled in his quadriceps, and 14 pounds of leg muscle had been destroyed before doctors figured out what was going on.
Burnett couldn’t walk for a year, and claims to have given up all drink and drugs for good after the experience. But his troubles weren’t over. After rehabilitation, he took radio jobs and was fired from them all. He tried selling real estate, but says that his income in that endeavor never came close to matching his “outcome”—hence his bankruptcy petition. He got married, but last July his wife filed for divorce. It was around the time that his marriage fell apart, Burnett says, that he determined that his priorities were all screwed up.
“I basically just accepted that nothing I’ve ever done has worked out,” he says without a trace of self-pity. “Nothing but playing music. That’s really all I have, but for years I had put it in the background. I decided to change that.” Following his epiphany, Burnett started writing songs again, and even gave performing a try. After a Sunday-night open-mike last November, Burnett met Susan Butler. As he walked offstage, she was there to greet him, not with a hello or “Great show!” but with a question that took Burnett by surprise.
“I asked him if he had a manager,” says Butler, adding that she had no idea who the singer was. Burnett, of course, hadn’t had a manager since Firefall. Butler, in turn, had no experience in artist management. A onetime D.C. DJ, she’d recently returned to the area from Southern California. Yet with only minimal prodding, she convinced Burnett to allow her to play Tom Parker to his Elvis—to make relaunching his career her full-time job. Butler’s first act as manager was to order her talent to stop fraternizing with the hoi polloi: Open mikes were out.
This Monday, March 6, Burnett is scheduled to play the Music City Roadhouse in Georgetown. It’ll be his first paying gig in a decade-and-a-half.
Burnett’s new guru helped him put together a demo of recent material, and she lined up a showcase in Nashville for the end of this month. Though not keen on exploiting Burnett’s marketability as an oldies act, Butler knows that his connection to Firefall is a good springboard. And the timing of their hookup couldn’t have been better: By this summer, Rhino Records will have reissued all the Firefall albums that Burnett was a part of. (Clouds Across the Sun, recorded when he was in recovery, is the lone Firefall LP left out of the label’s catalog.)
“Our research isn’t scientific or anything,” says Rhino spokesman Stephen Peoples, “but the interest is definitely out there for Firefall material. Firefall kept coming up in discussions with Rhino consumers.”
Just as fortuitous, Brother Phelps, the critically acclaimed Kentucky Headhunters spinoff, is including a cover of “Cinderella” on its next CD, thereby improving Burnett’s credibility in the country music capital—and likely guaranteeing at least a few royalty checks sufficient for a tank of high-test.
Though he admits that an influx of cash would be nice, Burnett seems somewhat abashed by Butler’s confidence in his abilities, by her certainty that his career rebirth is a foregone conclusion. At this juncture in his career, it’s the intangible aspects of musicianship that preoccupy him.
“The economics of what we’re doing is one thing, the spiritual part is another,” he says. “And I’ve got the spiritual part taken care of. Now, for the first time, I treat my music as a gift. I play every day, I try to write every day. It may be hard for others to understand, but what that means is that no matter how bad things are around me, no matter what else goes wrong in my life, for at least a few minutes every day, I feel great.”