Joe D'Urso & Stone Caravan
New York-born Joe D'Urso took that leap of faith five years ago, when he quit his job with the booking agency where he typed contracts for Springsteen, U2 and Bon Jovi, among others, and set out on the unpredictable path of aspiring singer-songwriter.
D'Urso's latest accomplishment, "rock and roll station", is a CD with a unique concept. It reflects D'Urso's favorite teen-age pastime: turning the radio dial well into the wee hours of a weekend morning, and waiting for favorite songs to surface from the static. The CD, which features guest appearances from DJ fans who take turns introducing D'Urso's songs, is being called "first of its kind" and getting excellent, word-of-mouth reviews.
In many ways, "rock and roll station" is symbolic of D'Urso's struggle as an independent artist; he's waiting for his songs to rise above the static in a market saturated with heavily managed play lists that sound the same, one station to the next.
D'Urso's music, at turns rootsy and introspective (favorite themes are friendship, love lost and nostalgia for days gone by), or rocking and forceful ("Noisy Guitars" is a perennial crowd pleaser), has attracted a legion of loyal fans, some of whom drive hundreds of miles for an artist who doesn't always get top billing. For many, a second reward awaits after the show, when D'Urso spends time talking to his fans, many of whom he knows by name.
It is this fan base, and the dream, that keep D'Urso focused on the path ahead. He knew when he started that it might be a rocky one, but that hasn't tripped him up.
Yes, he's bigger in Europe than he is in the U.S. Yes, his voice and style are often likened to Springsteen's, an admitted influence. And yes, he isn't a millionaire. Not even close. If he were, he'd have money to hire a road crew and a bus. Instead, D'Urso and his band members (or just he and his Dad, when he performs solo) drive for hours, sometimes days, to reach a gig. They haul their own equipment in a van, set it up and break it down, and put on an energetic show. Some nights, the amount they're paid barely beats what they make on t-shirt and CD sales at a table manned by D'Urso's dad.
Despite a lack of widespread recognition and the absence of a padded bankroll, D'Urso almost never says no to a benefit gig; in fact, he performs one benefit for every 10 paying ones. It's rock and roll with a conscience.
How It All Began
D'Urso's love for rock and roll began when he was a kid, and his older sister's record collection opened him up to all kinds of music: Bob Dylan, Springsteen, Meatloaf, Tom Petty, the Beatles, Elvis, Bob Seger, the Doors and the Grateful Dead.
After graduating from Fredonia State College, with a major in communications media and a minor in English and poetry, D'Urso snagged a job as an assistant booking agent for Premier Talent Agency, where he typed contracts for U2, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Tom Petty, Leonard Cohen, The Pretenders, The Who and many others. Getting the job thrilled him. D'Urso remembers jumping up and down, thinking "This is what I've always wanted to do, work in the music industry."
Through his work, he met performers and attended hundreds of shows each year. Still, there was something missing; he wanted the next contract he typed to have his name in the performer slot. It wasn't long before he made the switch from one side of the desk to the other.
Late one night, D'Urso was waiting for a subway train to Long Island City, Queens, when he turned to his roommate and said, "We gotta start a band." His roommate said, "You gotta learn to play that guitar first, 'cause I already know how to play drums."
The two had just left the midtown Manhattan premiere of U2's rockumentary, "Rattle and Hum," and a quote from Bono -- "All I have is three chords, the truth and a red guitar" -- played itself over and over in D'Urso's head. It was, it turns out, the catalyst for D'Urso's new career.
For the next six months, D'Urso hibernated in his room at night, teaching himself to play guitar. He'd tried twice before, at ages 12 and 19, but this time, inspired by the story of a garage-band-turned-international-rock-stars, something clicked. D'Urso was in his early 20's, and finally on his way to realizing a long-cherished dream. Out came the notebooks crammed with poems and lyrics D'Urso had penned over the years (he started when he was eight); out came the songs.
"I played my own songs because I wasn't yet good enough to play anyone else's," D'Urso said.
Six months later, D'Urso's first band, "3 Chords and the Truth," played its first concert in a half-empty apartment building. D'Urso lived on the second and third floors, above a vacant first-floor apartment. Seventy people filled the building, from the ground up, with the music pulsing from the first-floor kitchen.
"We had amps on the stove and keyboards on the cabinets," D'Urso recalled. The band featured D'Urso on guitar and lead vocals, his brother-in-law on bass, his cousin on guitar and his roommate (the same one from the subway) on drums.
Soon, the band was playing smoky clubs throughout New York City, performing songs from their first record, "45-10 Pearson" (the address of the apartment building they first played).
D'Urso's first big gig was at CBGB's in New York City, and the most memorable event that evening wasn't taking the mic, singing his first song, or the applause that followed. It was something that happened earlier that day.
Hands stuffed into the pockets of a battered jacket, D'Urso was steaming through the streets of New York, trying to burn off some nervous energy, when he glanced into a Roy Rogers. There, sitting down to dinner, was Leonard Cohen, one of D'Urso's influences. It was as if God had sent D'Urso a sign.
"I rushed in, introduced myself and spilled my guts," D'Urso recalls. "And Leonard did the coolest thing. He put down his cheeseburger, stood up, took my hand, and with his other hand, patted my cheek. He said everything would be all right. It was like being blessed by the Pope!" (Some time later, D'Urso wrote a song called "Leonard Cohen," and received a handwritten thank you note for his tribute.)
And, true to Cohen's prediction, everything is all right. D'Urso's not famous yet, but he's doing what he loves, writing original songs, belting them out here and in Europe, and keeping an eye on the path ahead. No regrets, and only one complaint: that fewer and fewer radio stations are willing to set themselves apart by playing the music of independent artists. Even that's not enough to slow down D'Urso.