David Zollo: Musician for Hire

Musician David Zollo | Photo by Sandy Dyas

Iowa City – It’s two hours before showtime. The band is just setting up. The sound system could use help; the crackle of distortion pierces the relative silence inside the Mill as the buzzing wait staff preps the back bar of this longtime Iowa City folk-blues club.

Tonight’s performance is sold out.

On stage, David Zollo unwinds behind his keyboard. With a cigarette dangling from his lips, he takes his piano for a test drive and sings a few lyrics. But the feedback persists. While sipping from his glass of Maker’s Mark bourbon, he reaches under the keyboard to fiddle with the amp jack – a little electrical tape and all’s good.

This is routine for Zollo. Whether playing solo or, like this night, with his band the Body Electric, he plugs in more than 200 nights a year. After 18 years as a working musician, dilapidated sound systems are just part of the scene.

“I’m fortunate in that I have a real equanimity to how I look at these gigs,” Zollo said. “Certainly some are better than others, but I love the work and usually can find something edifying at any show.”

Zollo continues on a career path that is getting harder to follow in an age where CD sales are plummeting and digital downloads are becoming the norm. Yet touring, or “gigging,” remains the great equalizer for megastars and emerging talent alike. Artists with the ability to play live, who are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stay out on the road can recoup lost revenue from music sales, sell a few CDs from the stage and maintain careers as professional musicians.

That adds up to about 50,000 miles annually for Zollo.

“I love to travel and meet people, so the road isn’t that hard for me. My trouble, as recently evidenced, has been substances,” Zollo said.

There always is temptation waiting at each stop on the road.

For the Piano Man, temptation is always waiting at each stop on the road.

It’s not that drugs suddenly became an issue for Zollo. They’ve been present since the start of his career, but success, a crazy schedule and endless touring can hide a lot from a person’s family, until the problem becomes unmistakable.

Zollo’s addiction reached that point in February 2008. Prior to a show in Dubuque, police arrested him on a warrant from Iowa City, charging him with a variety of narcotics-related offenses, stemming from his attempted purchase of heroin from an undercover police officer.

This incident was compounded when a few weeks later Zollo fell asleep at the wheel while returning from an early morning radio show in Decorah and  swerved off the road, crossing both lanes of traffic before crashing into a ditch on the opposite side of the road.

Amazingly no one was injured, but it did give Zollo a moment of clarity to recognize he needed help.

He went down to Nashville for 30 days of residential treatment at Cumberland Heights, a center for chemical dependency that caters to musicians. He got cleaned up, cut a plea deal on the criminal charges, then dusted himself off and went back to playing music.

“People fill that time, that hole, with different things,” Zollo said. “Some with women, some with booze, some with gambling. For me, dope was the thing.”

At 39, the road miles are visible on his face. The life of a working musician doesn’t come with sick leave or matching 401k; play or starve, there’s no in between.

As the show at the Mill is about to begin, Zollo slips off his shoes, preferring the natural feel of playing barefoot. He interlocks his hands and first stretches his arms out in front of his chest, palms outward until his knuckles crack. Then he stretches his hands over and behind his head to limber up his shoulders.

The left leg gets moving, pounding the stage as he counts off time before easing into the first song, “For Hire:”

“When it all came down caught me unaware, I started picking up on all the 1,000 yard stares, sent out to me by the stiffs and the squares on the wire.

Well I looked to the right but my friends was gone, don’t know what I done but it must have been wrong, now all I got left are these silly little songs and I’m for hire, well I’m for hire.”

Zollo behind his keyboard like on so many a night, leading his band the Body Electric.

Zollo behind his keyboard leading his band the Body Electric. | Photo by Julie Staub

It’s during shows when Zollo can actually relax, and unwind through his own boogie-woogie style of piano playing.

His shoulder-length brown hair falls into his sleepy eyes, but nothing can conceal the easy smile he shoots the guitar player once the band gets cooking. Let the therapy begin.

Zollo began playing the piano at 3. He attended the Preucil School of Music in Iowa City, one of five institutions in the United States that teaches the Suzuki Method, emphasizing memorization and ear training.

Music was in his blood, coming from his grandfather, Payson Re, who led the orchestra at New York’s famed Stork Club from the 1930s to the ’50s.

By Zollo’s early teens he was entertaining gatherings at his parents’ house with spot-on covers of Ray Charles and New Orleans legend Huey “Piano” Smith.

College briefly interrupted Zollo’s musical progression, but in 1991, during his senior year at the University of Iowa, family friend and Iowa blues piano legend Patrick Hazell overheard him playing in his father’s home office and declared him ready for the stage.

That was the end of college for Zollo. Hazell arranged a spot for him in a benefit show at the Deadwood in Iowa City, and Zollo dropped out cold turkey, 14 hours shy of a degree, without regret.

Within six months, David, now 22, joined four other musicians – guitarist Ruairi Fennessey, Darren Matthews on slide, bassist Dustin Conner and percussionist Brad Engeldinger – to form High and Lonesome, an uptempo Southern-styled rock band, fused with an alt-country twist, that played original tunes.

The boys toured the United States and Europe for two years, selling out venues of 800 people, often walking away with $4,000 a night. Zollo handled the business end of things. There was a band fund that took care of travel expenses and insurance; the rest was an even split, with a considerable sum going to recreational chemicals.

“Everybody said ‘yes’ to something, just depended on what their general interest of choice was” said Zollo.

On any given night High and Lonesome could be the best or the worst band you ever heard, depended on the quintet’s sobriety.

Zollo came off the road in 1994 to record his first solo disc, “The Morning is a Long Way From Home.” Bo Ramsey, a noted guitarist and producer from Iowa, who has collaborated with folk icon Greg Brown, Ani DiFranco and alt-country hero Lucinda Williams, took an interest in High and Lonesome and wanted to work with Zollo.

What began as an exciting opportunity took a dark turn when Zollo’s voice began to weaken during recording. His condition deteriorated over two weeks until his voice disappeared. Tests revealed tumors on his vocal cords – not yet cancerous but on the verge. Surgery was the only option, but with the distinct possibility that Zollo might lose his voice forever.

The successful procedure at the University of Iowa Hospitals lasted five hours. Luckily Zollo had retained health coverage under his parents’ policy, but this only lasted for a couple of months before he was dropped upon reaching his 24th birthday. Then the bills came.

While recovering he took up residence in a trailer on Greg Brown’s property, south of downtown Iowa City. The prospect of being unable to sing proved a heavy burden and left Zollo to confront mortal frailty and the bitter hole-card life had dealt him. Vulnerability and the warmth of denial led to more serious substance abuse.

Perspective can get blurry out on the road.

Perspective can get blurry out on the road. | Photo by Julie Staub

As if a scene from the Stones’ song “Dead Flowers” had come to life, Zollo retreated to heroin. He knew the warnings from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant about messing with the needle and the spoon, but that trip to the moon was intoxicating.

“Self-medicating is what was going on, no question,” Zollo said. “I was going through physical pain at first, but it was more psychic pain – the death of hubris.”

Cocaine, weed, pills and alcohol were co-conspirators.

It took two months for David to work through the turmoil and recover sufficiently before attempting to sing. He released his solo disc with the broken vocals to critical acclaim.

In the interest of trying to fight some demons and rehabilitate his voice, which would take five years, Dave hooked back up with High and Lonesome and hit the road for the next year, contrary to his doctor’s wishes.

About that time he met his future wife, Beth Oxler. Having recently returned to Iowa City from studying in France, this willowy brunette had become the fancy of Zollo’s eye.

She wasn’t part of the Iowa music scene and represented a life beyond the phenomenon of High and Lonesome where Zollo could find sanctuary. Oxler worked at ACT and also as a designer for local alternative monthly magazine Little Village.

Zollo and Oxler married in 1998 but have since separated. Their 6-year-old boy, Rocco, already rates as a talented drummer and AC/DC fanatic.

Since that first gig at the Deadwood in 1991, Zollo estimates he’s played more than 3,000 shows. He tends to stay within a five-state radius so that everything is drivable, and he’s usually able to secure a guarantee of $300 to $400 for a solo show and $500 to $600 with the Body Electric. Or he can take a cut of the door on bigger shows.

“I can’t complain. I’m making a living doing something I enjoy immensely, and I feel like it’s what I’m best at,” Zollo said.

Zollo continues to persevere through the disappointments, in particular seeing the record label he founded in 1994, Trailer Records, dissolve in debt.

Started in 1994, Trailer Records established international credibility for its solid stable of artists, including Greg Brown and Bo Ramsey.

Disagreement remains between these three friends over how it all went south, but between taking on too many artists and advancing funds for releases that were never recouped, the label took on lethal debt, and Trailer had to be shut down in 2005.

“I prefer to look at it like Trailer had a good run, and the work speaks for itself,” Zollo said. “I’m much more interested in the fact that I’m making work now that says something to me.”

A drink and a song my friends...

In Dubuque, Zollo shares a drink and a song with friends.

Relative sobriety has given Zollo a renewed vitality, and he’s focused on the completion of his latest album, the first since 2002’s “Big Night.” The new batch of songs taps into the darkness of his addiction and examines some of the lessons he’s learned the hard way – and some he’s continuing to learn.

“I’m a poor Dago child of hippie parents,” he said. “I don’t put much stock into conventional ideas or societal propriety or I wouldn’t be doing what I do. I’d rather live an interesting life full of joy, passion and some heartache, than a life I’m not connected to.”

Playing gigs in barrooms such as the Mill in Iowa City remains his best therapy. It’s on stage where Dave finds true bliss. No bills are due, the cell phone doesn’t ring and there’s no e-mail to answer.

“I get lost in the moment of playing live,” said Zollo. “I have no ownership over that moment. It’s a shared thing, communal, between me and the audience.”

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Published by: The Des Moines Register | 07-13-09

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