No more Letters
The Cleos close out a Boston era
Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano
Sometime in 1995, I visited a shady record store and wound up paying 20 bucks
for a bootleg Letters to Cleo CD -- a good one, too: Babes in Paradise,
from the Paradise gig in September 1994 where they covered Weezer's "Sweater
Song" as an encore. That's when it hit me that this home-town band were on the
verge of making it: nobody bootlegs bands who aren't popular. It also struck me
that even though I'd first met these folks a couple years earlier, when they
were still wide-eyed about the Boston scene, and had maintained a friendly
relationship, even felt a bit big-brotherly toward them at times, I was also
turning into a fan.
Then again, Letters to Cleo, who announced their break-up last week, seemed to
be friends with everyone who came to the shows. Singer Kay Hanley's Dorchester
crowd was big enough to fill clubs in the early days; later on the band
remained the most approachable of local rockers. They were that kind of band,
and they played that kind of music. Their spirit was caught nicely in, of all
places, last year's teen comedy Ten Things I Hate About You: they're on
stage at a party singing Nick Lowe's "Cruel To Be Kind," with Hanley looking
especially alterna-rock glamorous. The star of the movie is fighting with her
boyfriend, and Hanley comes to the rescue by jumping off stage and singing it
directly at him. Sure, it's the kind of semi-cheesy moment that always happens
in teen-romance films. But it's the kind of thing you can imagine her doing in
Letters to Cleo embodied a period in local history that I'm already starting to
miss -- call it the great Boston pop surge. Never mind that the rest of the
country was still reeling over Nirvana's crash-and-burn and the imminent
decline of indie rock. Somehow Boston in the mid '90s wound up with more than
its share of warmth and optimism, guitars and hooks. The left-field success of
Juliana Hatfield and the Lemonheads brought the A&R types to town looking
for more, and it was there for the taking: Gigolo Aunts, Jen Trynin, Fuzzy,
Tracy Bonham. Everybody got signed; everybody got dropped; everybody more or
less survived (though Trynin's still laying low and the Aunts have broken up).
There's still good pop out there, much of it connected to the Q Division
studio. But the scene shifted after the commercial success that eluded all of
the above wound up going to a suburban metal band who stole their name from an
Alice in Chains song.
Letters to Cleo seemed among the most likely to make it -- and in some ways,
they did. They created three albums for major labels; they became TV stars for
a short while (when their "Here & Now" video was featured on Melrose
Place); they sold out their last few rounds of local shows. But pop success
is a tricky thing in this era of music-biz consolidation, and it's hard to tell
who's famous and who isn't. So it was that the Cleos did Ten Things I Hate
About You while they weren't signed to any label. And now that they've
pronounced their touring/recording career a dead issue, they still have enough
film and TV gigs to keep them going: Hanley is in Los Angeles doing vocals for
a forthcoming Josie & the Pussycats movie, and the entire band are
providing songs for a Warner Bros. cartoon series, Generation O -- about
an eight-year-old rock star who'll be voiced by Hanley.
For their part, the group members never seemed convinced that they were all
that big a deal. When I first interviewed them, in 1993, guitarist Michael
Eisenstein explained, "When I think of Boston bands who are popular, I think of
Morphine, or O Positive, or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones -- definitely not
Letters to Cleo." And when I phoned Hanley in Los Angeles last week, her
initial reaction was, "My God -- I can't believe that many people are
interested." True, nobody's really that modest, and the Cleos would
always admit under prodding that being rich and famous didn't sound too bad.
But they developed a talent that befits a band who deal in uplifting pop songs:
the ability to take things in stride.
In that sense, the quintessential moment in the Cleos' history may be their
appearance at South by Southwest. I don't mean 1994, when they played in the
wake of the "Here & Now" video and packed a big outdoor club. I'm talking
about the previous year, when they'd just signed their first publishing deal
and started work on their first album: they showed up in Austin ready to rock
the house, only to find out that their show had been canceled. I saw them at
the convention center that morning, and you won't often find a more frustrated
band. But I also caught a couple of them hanging out in the local clubs that
night. Having schlepped all the way to Texas, they were at least going to get a
little fun out of it.
So when they triumphed in Austin a year later, it was a moment they'd earned --
they sounded as if they'd stored up all their energy from the canceled show a
year earlier. By then their jangly pop sound was getting spiced by their love
for rowdies like Kiss and Cheap Trick. And Hanley, who'd never been shy on
stage, was now evincing a rock star's cool swagger. "Kay's my hero," noted the
woman standing near me -- this was local filmmaker Kaylyn Thornal, a long-time
friend of Hanley's who'd later direct the women-in-local-rock documentary
Payday. But on this night, she joined the local contingent in feeling
like a fan.
There were other notable shows, like a two-night stand at the Paradise in 1998
where they played virtually every song in their repertoire. And there were
other frustrations: guitarist Greg McKenna now admits that of their three
major-label albums -- 1993's Aurora Gory Alice, 1995's Wholesale
Meats & Fish, and 1997's Go (all on industry bigwig Irving
Azoff's Giant label, later renamed Revolution) -- each of the last two sold
about half what the previous one had. Nevertheless, I'd maintain that the
intensely hooky Go is the best of the lot. The band were never big on
kissing up to the industry (try asking them about their short-lived Budweiser
sponsorship), and they always maintained that their association with Azoff
didn't do anybody any good. They proved it by releasing the Sister album
last year through Wicked Disc. Although it was largely just a reissue of their
embryonic demo cassette, it's now on the verge of outselling Go.
It seems fitting that Letters to Cleo played their final show to help out a
friend: they headlined the Mikey Dee tribute/benefit at Axis on May 4. And they
didn't steal the occasion by letting on that it was a farewell. "I hope it
wasn't lame that we didn't play a proper last show and do every song we ever
wrote," Hanley says. "I know this is a cliché and I know that people in
bands say it all the time, but when Greg [guitarist Greg McKenna] and I started
the first incarnation of this band, in 1988, there was never any ambition to do
anything but play. Opening for O Positive on Thursday at T.T.'s -- to us that
was the pinnacle. The other cliché is that you stop doing it when it's
not fun anymore. For me it's not fun anymore and it was only going to be a
matter of time before people would be able to see that, and then we'd look
stupid up there on stage."
The band took a hiatus last year when Hanley and Eisenstein had their first
daughter, Zoe Mabel. During that time the members took up various projects that
will likely continue. Bassist Scott Reibling produced a few local bands; now
he's just signed on to do the Gravel Pit's next album. McKenna started doing
demos for a solo project. And drummer Stacy Jones, who left to join Veruca Salt
in 1996 but has bounced back into the Cleos line-up a few times since, now
fronts his own band, American Hi-Fi. Jones also recruited Eisenstein and
Reibling to play on his former Veruca Salt bandmate Nina Gordon's solo album,
Tonight & the Rest of My Life (Warner Brothers). Indeed, after a few
years of revolving drummers, Letters to Cleo played their last gig with the
surprise addition of Orbit drummer Paul Buckley.
For Hanley, things never quite came together after the hiatus. "We had started
writing a new album, which we were going to work on this summer. And we started
playing again, doing a bunch of out-of-town college shows. And that was when I
said, `This is completely unacceptable.' We played one Buffalo show where we
hopped into the Winnebago with the baby, forced her to sit in there, then drove
back and hit a snowstorm -- it was fucking terrible. Then there was a show at
Penn State where I had to leave her with my mom, and I sobbed the whole time.
And that made me rethink my priorities."
Not everybody in Letters to Cleo is as ready to call it quits. McKenna admits
that he still loves the band and hopes Hanley will change her mind. Meanwhile,
he's keeping their name alive by putting together a live album and a
B-sides/rarities album. Add in the Generation O soundtrack and there
could be three Cleos albums over the next year. "There's nothing in life that I
like better than playing with these guys, so it's going to be hard for me to
play with anybody else. For me it was a really painful process when we finally
severed it. I know that Kay is going to be huge, just monstrously big when she
puts out a solo album. I mean, my project could be huge too, but I kind of
doubt it. For me, writing words is going to be the hard part, because I worked
so long with Kay and she's so good. I think I'm still looking for her approval.
I can hear her saying things like, `You rhymed fire with desire, don't do
As for Hanley, she is indeed laying plans for a solo album. "My idea is to put
it out in an unostentatious way on a small label. I can decide later on whether
I want to be a pop star or not." Of course, there's no shortage of folks who
will happily point out that she's been one for years.
LTC on CD:
The Letters discography
* Sister (self-released cassette, 1992). Later reissued on
Wicked Disc, this tape included embryonic versions of later hits and a couple
traces of their ska origins.
* Crush (CherryDisc, 1993). Flagship local pop compilation
that included "I See."
* Aurora Gory Alice (CherryDisc 1993, Giant 1994). The hit
album with "I See," "Here & Now," and "Big Star."
* Wholesale Meats & Fish (Giant, 1995). Longer songs,
* Go (Revolution, 1997). The most upbeat and '60s-inspired
album, with no song longer than four minutes.
* The Craft soundtrack (Sony, 1997). You won't hear it in
the film, but they covered the Cars' "Dangerous Type" with ex-Car Greg Hawkes
* Ten Things I Hate About You (1999). There wasn't a
soundtrack album, so rent the film and tape their covers of Nick Lowe's "Cruel
To Be Kind" and Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me."
* Jawbreaker soundtrack (Warner Bros., 1999): New version of
"I See" probably done for contractual reasons; it sounds just like the
The Cellars by Starlight archive