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Volume 77, Number 11 | August 15 - 25, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Richard X. Heyman and his favorite feline, Wheazy

Stray cats rocker finds his strut

By Lucas Mann

One of the most gifted minds in power-pop sat uncomfortably in his 10th floor apartment in the Seward Park Cooperatives. His air conditioner had busted just in time for summer, he was hot, and a little out of it from a previous night’s worth of insomnia.

While he may not seem like a rock ’n’ roller, Richard X. Heyman has made a quiet life out of being just that. In a music career spanning four decades, he has played with the likes of Brian Wilson, Ben E. King, and surf guitar god Link Wray. If you ever went to the Café Wha?, on MacDougal St. in the early ’60s to watch the house band The Dough Boys rock, you were watching a teenaged Heyman banging on the drums.

Now, as a singer/songwriter who has turned his back on the major label recording industry, Heyman has fashioned himself into a one-man band and record label. From his apartment studio, he creates music the exact way that he likes it — with the help, of course, of Nancy, his wife of 20 years and also his collaborator, business manager, and the engineer of his albums.

Heyman’s latest album, “Actual Sighs,” released in April of this year, positions him at a unique place in his life both musically and personally.

“I ran out of money on my first album, ‘Actual Size,’ so it became just a 6 song EP,” Heyman explained. “20 years later, when we were moving [to Seward Park from the East Village] I came across a box full of all these lyrics that I wanted to use at the time. Now that has become a 14 song album with the original six songs added on as well.”

The album is, in many ways, a metaphor for the way that Heyman has shaped his musical style: rooted in something classic, but always revisited in his own way.

“Everything’s great when you’re 12,” he laughed. “Anything happening then has such an impact on you. For me that was the ’60s. It was the Stones, the Byrds, the Beatles, Dylan, Motown.”

Heyman’s apartment, a collector’s paradise, speaks to his severe decade-ism. Tons of CDs from his childhood line the walls. Organized in drawers are videotapes of old concerts: The Band’s “The Last Waltz,” The Lovin Spoonful in one of their few taped performances, a rare Joni Mitchell recording. Heyman holds Mitchell in a place of personal reverence, saying he learned the piano by simply listening to the emotion she got out of it.

“Sure, he is influenced by the ’60s, but he always maintains his own originality,” Nancy is quick to point out. “Working in the studio can be painstaking, but he never ceases to amaze me. He’s got this ability to find little embellishments, little flourishes to put in songs that change them. [He has] a truly singular musical brain.”

That singular vision is in every facet of what he puts out, because all of what you hear is Heyman. He writes the songs, sings the melodies, and plays every instrument on his own albums. All the music recorded comes from somewhere inside his mind.

“It’s always a mystery where my musical abilities came from,” Heyman said. “When I was five I started pestering my parents for a drum set. At seven, I got my set and I sat down and could just play. Maybe I was a drummer in a past life or something.”

From there, Heyman picked up piano, then guitar, “by ear,” and was a touring and session musician on each instrument, as flexible as he was talented, yet never a huge star.

“I take the philosophy that music is not competitive,” he said. “It’s an art-form, it’s all about emotion. When I’m writing a chord progression, all of my influences and experiences are in my brain, but there’s nothing technical about it, I just have to find the right feeling.”

It seems only fitting that Heyman would have his own label, working meticulously with Nancy and trying to sell enough copies to break even, rather than stay at Warner Brothers, who signed him after hearing some of “Actual Size” played on New York radio.

The rest of his brief Warner Bros. tenure did not work out that well. In what he refers to as “the typical story of the big label not keeping their promise to a new artist,” Heyman’s critically acclaimed album, “Hey Man!”, didn’t sell millions, and as a result he lost the focus and support of the label. So Heyman did the only thing that made sense to him: He started his own.

“The appeal of Turn-Up [Heyman’s label] is total control artistically and financially,” Heyman said. “It’s always nice to be handed a pile of money by a major label, but it’s not the be all and end all.”

Indeed, in the early ’90s his focus began to shift away from music altogether and towards — brace yourself — saving cats, a hobby that had been growing into a passion for him since the ’80s.

“You know, it’s funny, he never really liked cats, but I wanted one, so I brought one home, and he just fell in love with it,” Nancy remembered. “And Richard, he never does anything in halves, he’s kind of extreme, so overnight he was the biggest cat lover in New York.”

Soon, Heyman was traipsing around lower Manhattan, climbing trees and boobie-trapping courtyards to save, neuter and house strays. He brought to it the same single-minded conviction that fueled his music career.

“Every courtyard in this city has cats that people don’t know about,” Heyman said, stroking Wheazy, his 14-year-old feline companion who responds to commands oddly like a dog. “The cat rescue started to take over my life for a while and I didn’t have enough time for music.”

Though still parentally proud of Wheazy and a lover and helper of all cats, Heyman has, for the most part, retired his traps and returned to whatever instrument strikes his fancy, which is at the moment a new electric piano.

“Right now I’m working on a piano album with a lot of strings and an orchestral vibe,” he said. “I’m really excited about it. I think it will surprise a lot of people.”

True, it might not be common practice to follow up the immensely catchy, straightforward rock tunes of “Actual Sighs” with a soft piano meditation geared to sound a bit like Joni Mitchell with strings. But that, of course, is one of the luxuries of being Richard X. Heyman: Common practice doesn’t really matter.

While performing some of his new piano tunes with a full orchestra this summer at Joe’s Pub in August, Heyman is also going the complete other direction and drumming on a new album with The Dough Boys, complete with stomping versions of old ‘60s songs, as well as a few new tunes.

“I’ve been playing with this guy since we were 14 growing up in New Jersey,” said Michael Scavone, The Dough Boys’ singer. “I’ve worked with Richard so much over the years. He’s one of the most creative people I know and he doesn’t pull any punches. He is so sure about the way he hears things in his head and he has to get them to sound that way. It can be stressful, but in the end, with his creativity and energy, he’s inspiring.”

Away from his instruments, accompanied by only Wheazy, Heyman does not look so imposing. His sports a shaggy, boyish mop of hair, and he still has the lanky body of a Mick Jagger or Jimmy Page. Now in his 50s, he has achieved something remarkable: he is still a working musician making the music he wants to make. This summer, he is getting back to playing live. On August 3rd, he played a Dough Boys show at the Baggot Inn, and on August 22nd, he has an intimate piano set at Joe’s Pub. He, Nancy, Wheazy and their newly updated home studio continue to be the most unique of family units. Nancy sees them only moving forward in the coming years, expanding the exposure of their mom and pop label by using all of the resources that the Internet provides them.

“The goal is always to get back what we spend…maybe even make a little money,” Nancy laughed. “And I want more and more people to be aware of his output. Now with Myspace [myspace.com/richardxheyman] and all of that, there’s so many more options. If we can sell 50,000 copies of every record he puts out, then hey, we could make a living doing this.”

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