The Man Who Never Learns is his latest in a series of excruciatingly eloquent releases that explores the human landscape with a busted compass.
He is such an admirer of Ray Davies that any fan of the Kinks will instantly feel familiar with Dunbar's music. Both are skilled storytellers and wordsmiths, who sing with dry, vulnerable vocals. Both are preoccupied with loss, losing and losers. However, Dunbar ups the ante in an interesting way: whereas Ray Davies identifies with the little man struggling for self-fulfillment, John Dunbar identifies the remains of the little man after his struggle for self-fulfillment has crushed him like an insect. Or to put it another way: if Andy Rooney were to channel Jean-Paul Sartre, he might ask: "Ever notice how life goes on, even after all hope is lost?" Dunbar has dedicated his musical career to this question.
At a very young age, Dunbar turned to music as a shelter from a fractured family scene that he says is too weird to describe. "Things have happened in my lifetime that probably affected me in horrible ways. I had some childhood things that are really awful. I was jaded at five. I think music saved me from being like who knows what." Although never in step with his surroundings, he swears he wasn't a weird, lonely kid. "I had a lot of friends and was the class clown." His career in music got started when his sister's boyfriend heard one of his songs and liked it. He asked Dunbar to join his band.
In the early '8Os, he was breaking in with bands like Bach Hazard and Chef Of The Future (after The Honeymooners episode), writing songs and developing his stage presence. At age sixteen, an uninsulated mike stand electrocuted him on the stage at CBGB's, which the crowd appreciated. But performing lyrically ambitious tunes in rock venues proved frustrating: "I started writing these songs, he recalls, "but nobody would listen to the words. Nobody cared." He started playing solo, acoustic shows at open mikes and accrued enough material for a full-length release. But Dunbar, a totally self-taught musician, felt too naked to fling himself at the public without a band, so he invented one. Taking their name from the John Kennedy Toole novel, A Confederacy Of Dunces released Tsk, Tsk, Tsk in 1989. The personnel of the band were simply friends and fellow musicians that Dunbar had credited as having contributed. The truth was that John wrote all the songs, played all the instruments and sang all the parts.
The disk garnered a favorable buzz and an actual Dunces band had to be created to support the CD around town. But soon it was time for the sophomore release, and once again it was all Dunbar. Or almost all Dunbar. Tsk, Tsk, Tsk had earned respect in the music community, and the second disk, 1991's Dunces With Wolves, would feature actual contributors, most notably Phoebe Legere, who turned in some wonderful accordian counterpoint in "How She Used To Feel."
Both disks display Dunbar's facility at marrying a short story to a melody. His insight into human relations is something of a gift, especially when it comes to a female's perspective. In "8 Months Ago," he tells the story of a woman about to become a single mother who falls head over belly in love: "His smile drives her so mad, and he'd make a great dad. Everyday her crush on him can't help but grow. Where was he 8 months ago?" Not since Chris Butler wrote for Patty Donahue in The Waitresses has a man expressed the female sensibility with such assuredness.
Dunces With Wolves received significant acclaim. Comparisons to Squeeze, Crowded House, and, of course, The Kinks, were pouring in. Everyone expected the Dunces to be signed, and they would have been, were it not for the band's lawyer misplaying his hand with a big indie label. He scared them away, and later, in 1994, A Confederacy of Dunces were confederated no more.
Now the well-dejected man, Dunbar moved to a new flat in Brooklyn and began work on his next album. Because he didn't want to annoy his new neighbors, he left his drum kit alone and worked within spare, hushed arrangements. What emerged was a melanholy, yet highly charged sound; personal, without being in anyone's face; striking so close to home that the total mood felt like a shadow cast over one's own heart. In early 1996, he released The Man Who Never Learns, and its fourteen songs represent the most distressed, yet dignified, response to everyday torment ever crafted by anyone working as a singer/songwriter.
Guided by innocence rather than irony, Dunbar exhibits a strangely naive skill in his arrangements. In "Sometimes You Win (Most Times You Lose)," he gives his guitar a nervous, skittering solo, as if it were a hungry rodent foraging in an abandoned house. The doo-wop vocals backing "Insecurity Guard" are deliberately off-key; the piano he plays in "When You Woke Up" is so out of tune it could have been left out in the rain. After the disk's completion, the self-esteem-challenged Dunbar realized he had turned a corner, and struck a peace treaty with himself. "I appreciate the people that aren't overly successful," he says. "People I've started playing music with have given up on it because they realize, 'Hey, I'm not going to be a star,' but that's not the point. If you love it, it's a necessity. If I didn't do this, I don't know where I'd be. I'd be worse shape than ever, not that I'm in great shape to begin with. The only thing that keeps me going is thinking about the next song."
Lately, there have been numerous "next songs." Eighteen of thirty songs he wrote for The Last Hand Laundry In Chinatown were used in the production that ran at La Mama in May 1996. The show is looking forward to a revival later this year. The Konks is a kind of homework project Dunbar uses to keep his skills fresh. It does for the Kinks what The Rutles do to the Beatles -- he plans to release a Konks single later this year. Dunbar has been asked to do music for a children's animation piece titled "Going North," as well as a contribution to a new age band called "Kinski." He admits it's more than one person should handle. He does all this because he has to. "It's a necessity. If I didn't I'd be a loser for sure."
Despite this abundance of solo activity, Dunbar felt the tug to be in a band again. His new band is called Iffy, and they are laying down the basic tracks for their first record, Close Calls With Happiness. Ever true to himself, Dunbar is exploring new frontiers in lost causes. "One of our new songs, 'To Be A Jerk,' opens with a line that goes, 'I'm not too bright, but I'm not as dumb as I would like to be.' That sums me up. I'm not as dumb as I want to be. Maybe one day I will be."B -- Mark Keating, Sound Views #44, 01/97