A Detailed History of The Cucumbers By Jason Friend
Deena started out banging her head against her crib and by the time she was six was belting out songs at the piano. She studied a bit of violin, lots of classical piano, played percussion in the junior high school show tune pit band, and studied various forms of ethnic music (Balinese gamelon, Ghanain drumming), along with classical piano at college.
Jon grew up around music. His father, a Julliard-trained oboist, wrote music for movies and television (scores to the early movies of Stanley Kubrick, background music for Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island episodes, the score to Roots); his mother sang (with his father) in folk ensembles. His brother Joshua is an avante garde composer in Brooklyn. With a cherry red no-name bass, and a vox amp (with wheels) Jon played in a Monkees cover band with neighborhood kids at age 10. He later played in folk-rock duo in high school with another singer-songwriter friend, Mike Sternberg. He studied some jazz guitar in college.
Jon and Deena met in their freshman dorm at Brown Univeristy, and first performed on campus, doing folk and jazz standards acoustically, two voices accompanied by Jon on guitar.
Where the Name "Cucumbers" Came From
Jon started playing rock music again when he found college friends (Wes Moore and Dave Rabiner) doing private lipsynch performances of the Ziggy Stardust album in their dorm room over Wayland Arch; Jon drummed on a desk. They called the “band” the Wayland Wailers. When the three met after graduating and found themselves wanting to make music with no copy of David Bowie on hand, Jon suggested they make up their own songs. He played guitar, Wes drummed on books and called out song titles, and Dave sang lyrics he made up off the top of his head. They wrote six songs that night, including “Cucumbers,” which came about when Dave said, “Give me a topic.” Wes said, “Abortion.” Dave said, “Too serious.” Wes said, “Cucumbers.” Dave said, “OK.” Three minutes later “Cucumbers” was done. The Wailers “gigged” several more times, writing songs each time, including Hoboken Halloween, which the Cucumbers played live for a short time. (Wes is a playwright in San Francisco, Dave is a psychology professor at Duke).
Jon and Deena first played rock music together when Mike Sternberg visited them in Somerville, MA. Jon and Mike started to jam, and Deena didn’t want to sit around watching so she picked up a guitar. They taped some of the result. A friend invited them to a party that night and rather than stop playing they took their guitars and performed at the party. Aside from a few TV broadcast guitar lessons Deena took in junior high school, this was her first day playing guitar. Studying the tapes, Jon made note of a chord progression he’d played, and a riff that Deena had played over it. A few weeks later, Jon saw a few lines typed on a page in Deena’s manual typewriter; he sang Deena’s lyrics over the chords he’d found on the tape, and their first song, "My Boyfriend," was written.
Their third song came a few weeks later, when Jon picked up a guitar, started strumming a C# major chord and said to Deena, “Come on, let’s write a song.” She said, “What should I sing?” He produced an envelope he’d rescued from the trash that had some notes she written. She sang one side of the envelope, then the other, and they had “Susie’s Getting Married.”
In the fall of 1980 Jon and Deena gave up their jobs and apartment and went to Europe with two cheap, sturdy guitars, beginning their trip in Leningrad, where Jon’s brother was working for the US government. They made their way to southern Europe where they played on the street for several months, writing songs and meeting other street musicians. They decided that when they returned they’d move to New York City, buy electric guitars and start a band.
They moved to Hoboken in May, 1981, because 1) when they parked Deena’s car in Chelsea they were careless with the parking signs (Boston being a much more liberal place in that regard) and their car was towed and 2) Deena’s sister Ann, an artist, lived over Rocco’s on Washington St. They had no idea there was a music scene there, but soon stumbled across Maxwell’s, where they played their first gig as a threesome, with Tom Dugan on drums, at a benefit for local literary magazine Ferro-Botanica, in November 1981. They played the song Cucumbers that night, and a friend, Kevin Streiter, (co-founder of Hoboken second-wave band Love Henry), told them, “You guys were really great, but do yourselves a favor and never play that song Cucumbers again.” They heeded his advice.
Al Houghton, a college friend of Jon and Deena’s (and the founder and owner of Dubway Studios in Manhattan) joined on bass, and the band played gigs at every dive they could find in New York and New Jersey. The first official gig as a foursome was at Maxwell’s, opening for the Individuals, a Hoboken mainstay of the time fronted by Glenn Morrow (founder and owner of Bar None Records). The first actual gig, however, was three days earlier at the Show Place, a go-go bar in Dover New Jersey where they opened for a metal cover band called Redeye, whose singer asked them after the show, “We like to get red-eyed, do you like to get pickled?”
The Fake Doom Years
Al left to form his own band and Nels Johnson, of the defunct Delphobics, answered their Village Voice ad. At his audition he wrote the bass line to Flies (which appeared more than ten years later on Where We Sleep Tonight) but when the band asked him to join, he insisted he wasn’t good enough. Incredulous, they persisted and Nels finally relented. Nels and Delphobics bandmate Steve Neighoff had formed Fake Doom Records to put out their own records, and wanted to continue the label putting out some other music. They decided to start with the Cucumbers. Through a friend of Nels’, the band met David Young, an English guitarist who had spent several years in LA and New York as a sound man, guitarist, songwriter and engineer, and was interested in producing. His first production project was their first EP, recorded at Skyline Studios, where Dave was a house engineer, in the middle of the night. Engineering was David Lichtenstein, one of Skyline's finest house engineers. (Lichtenstein and Young both played in John Cale's band at the time.) The band finished recording at about 4 am, only to find that Steve Neighoff had used the soda machine in the lounge, which sent an electric jolt through the still new studio, putting a loud gash of noise in the middle of one song. The band had to wake Nels, who was sound asleep in the control room, but rallied to finish one more take. When the band finally went to breakfast, Nels, born in Marquette, MI, near Canada, began for the first (and last) time, speaking Canadian, repeating over and over, “Pretty fuckin’ nice, eh?”
Before the record was released, Tommy Dugan quit the band (gave no reason, just stopped returning calls…the band still wonders about that) and through the Village Voice (again) found drummer Yuergen Renner, born in Weil-am-Rhine, Germany, on the French-Swiss border, who came to New York in 1980 to play American rock. He was soon in six bands, but eventually left all but the Cukes. The Fake Doom EP, with a cover by sister Ann’s then-husband Frank Bosco, came out in late 1983. It was something of a critical success – all the New York critics seemed taken with Deena slinging licks on her Fender mustang in her cocktail dresses, most of which she bought at an estate sale in Newark. The EP also received a good deal of college radio play, enabling the band to begin playing out of town. Washington, DC’s popular alternative radio station, WHFS drew crowds to shows at the 9:30 club in DC and the 8X10 club in Baltimore. A bit later, WHTG on the Jersey shore drew crowds at the Green Parrot in Neptune, NJ.
Nels, a homebody by nature, quit when the band began to travel too much, thanks to the indie rock booking agent of the 80s, Venture Bookings in New York. The band found Charles Brian Hargrove,, who was playing in Ice Nine, a New York band that had been the last of the six bands that Yuergen quit. Brian joined just in time to record "Who Betrays Me…and Other Happier Songs," the band’s first album (all 26 minutes of it), on Fake Doom, which featured a painting of her native Poland by Deena’s grandmother on its cover. Engineer for the album was Roger Moutenot (producer of Yo La Tengo, engineer and mixer for Lou Reed, Roseanne Cash, Paula Cole and many others).
After the spring 1985 release came more short tours and good reviews, but Brian took off for a band that seemed headed for bigger things—they had a manager, for one. (The Cucumbers have never had a manager, a fact that they often regret talking on the phone from their dayjobs). Needing a bass player in a hurry, the Cukes turned again to their farm club, Ice Nine, and took guitarist John Williams, who had played a little bass and didn’t mind switching. (Jon later met Ice Nine leader Barry Smith and apologized). Two weeks later they recorded their minor key version of Otis Blackwell’s (OK, and Elvis Presley’s) All Shook Up, whose arrangement had been the brainchild of first-Cucumbers Tom and Nels. The band then set off for the south, and on arriving in Winston-Salem, NC, found they’d won a battle of the bands in New Jersey. Their soundman at the outdoor stage at Ziggy’s that night was Dan Griffin, who later became the band’s road manager and also produced the 2004 film 200 Cadillacs, whose soundtrack included All Shook Up and the Cucumbers’ own Blue Cadillac. The crowd was one of the largest the band had played for, and since John was so new, they only had material for about 50 minutes. They repeated most of it, and no one appeared to mind. A few weeks after that tour, Jon and Deena were married at Deena’s parents house in South Orange, NJ.
After Fake Doom released All Shook Up in spring 1986, with a cover painting by Hoboken artist Tim Daly, the label exploded like some Spinal Tap drummer, and the band began peddling a demo tape they made with studio time they’d won in the previous year’s battle of the bands. Profile Records, flush with cash from the hits of Run DMC, decided to expand into indie rock, and A&R man Gary Pini called the Jon at his proofreading job at One Park Avenue in New York, interrupting what was an otherwise quiet day on the job. A contract was signed, and the label agreed to the band’s demand to record again with Dave Young producing, this time in London, where Dave had returned to manage a recording studio in Kentish Town. The band took an (unheated) flat nearby in the winter of 1986-87, and recorded an album they wanted to call Fractured Fairy Tales but the name had been used before and so they went the eponymous way.
When they sent in the near finished tracks, Profile noticed for the first time that the song My Boyfriend, which they asked the band to rerecord, included a sexually ambiguous moment when Jon sang the second verse, repeating the same words of the first verse (and the last verse) about the boyfriend. This had been something of an accident, coming about because Deena had written only one verse, and Jon had written the melody, but it was quite popular with critics (“a send-up of pansexual chic,” said the Village Voice). The Cucumbers, however, decided it was time for a second verse and wrote one, although in retrospect it might have been better to stay with pansexual chic.
The song and video (that cost as much as the entire album budget) broke into the commercial media a bit (they know that My Boyfriend aired on Christmas Day, 1987, at about 3 pm because many many people apparently supplement their yule log with a little MTV). Some commercial stations played My Boyfriend. There was a People magazine write up with photo (live in Iowa City), a review in Rolling Stone. There was a winter tour through the south, Midwest and Northeast (the Holiday on Ice tour) and a summer tour (the Vanned Vegetables tour). John Williams performed several miraculous van repairs. Yuergen, without being familiar with the song, played a rather unexpected series of solos to Wipe Out in front of a raging drunk crowd in Auburn, AL after Auburn prevailed in the Auburn-Georgia game. Biggest crowd (expressly for the Cucumbers): about 600 in Atlanta (Jon hyperventilated singing Tiger in a single breath and briefly blacked out on stage); most hardy crowd: about 60 in Portland, ME who snowshoed and skied through two feet of snow to get to the Tree Café; most hospitable crowd: Amelia’s in Iowa City, where several U of I students brought their Cucumber party (complete with cucumber sandwiches) on the stage.
In 1988, the band expanded to include two horn players, Brett Ollerenshaw (sax) and Steve Foreman (trumpet) and a keyboardist/percussionist, Bill Weisbach. The 7-piece Cucumbers played several local shows, including one at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, NJ, the night the Cucumbers picked up the NJ Music Award for best upcoming national band. The big band recorded a few songs at Skyline with Rogert Moutenot and Knut Bohn producing.
The Profile album sold well by Fake Doom standards, but not by commercial standards, and while Profile while wasn’t interesting in putting out another album, they did let the band out of their contract in early 1989. By now, Venture Bookings was no more. Soon, Deena and Jon were expecting a baby, and with the band losing steam, John quit, but not before they recorded 10 songs in two days at Mixolydian Studios in Boonton, NJ, mostly live, about half with horns. Deena was 8 months pregnant; on one song (Something Dangerous) she overdubbed banjo in a denim maternity dress, looking like some long- lost country cousin.
Auditions for John’s replacement began in the summer of ’89. One of those auditioning was an acquaintance of John’s who (they found out later) had long been interested in playing with the Cucumbers; and when John mentioned he was quitting, he called the band. Kurt Wrobel, with a music degree from Montclair State, was doing studio work and playing in several bands. He arrived in the Jersey City industrial basement that held the Cucumbers’ rehearsal space with a Gibson Thunderbird, an enormous bass that made an enormous sound, especially when played with Kurt’s enormous energy. Jon, Deena and Yuergen agreed that he was just too much, and began playing with someone else, but found they kept talking about Kurt and smiling every time they did so. They soon told Kurt they’d changed their minds, and the new foursome played a few shows before Deena and Jon’s first son was born.
It’s Never Over
Sporadic gigs, and some modest attempts to shop their unreleased material eventually petered out, especially when Deena got pregnant again. Family life took over. Deena met Alice Genese (bassist for Gut Bank, Sexpod, and other bands) at Church Square Park in Hoboken, where they both were watching their toddler sons run around. They decided to form a rock band for children with Betsy L. and began playing matinee shows at rock clubs including Maxwell’s and the Knitting Factory. Yuergen officially quit in 1992. The Cucumbers seemed on the way out. .
In 1993, Jon got a call from Ray McKenzie, a New Jersey musician and Wall Street currency trader, who, with John Williams, was thinking of starting a label. Ray was a Cucumbers fan, and when John told him about the unreleased material, he called the remnant Cucumbers and asked if they were interested in reforming and releasing that material. When he got an indifferent response, Ray asked if they minded if he played the material for some people at the CMJ music convention in New York that summer.
Without the band knowing, he booked them a showcase gig and told them about it a few weeks before the date. Jon and Deena put together a short set on two acoustic guitars, and that was all it took; a contract was signed with Ray’s label Zero Hour; Kurt was still available, despite having formed a thrash metal art band, Vas Defrens. Drummer auditions turned up an old Fake Doom labelmate, Dave Ross of the Gyros. As the band began performing again, Jon and Deena did home studio versions of five songs to add to the material in the can; Where We Sleep Tonight was released in 1994. Ray flew the band to several cities around the county (Miami, Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco), the band drove to several more, and they began rebuilding a following. They recorded a follow up album in 1996-7.
Hard times befell Zero Hour, and since the band could not tour enough to sell sufficient numbers, Ray reluctantly decided not to release the album, but he did give the band the master tapes, even paying for a mastering session so they could readily release it elsewhere. At their next show in New York, a semi-acoustic performance at the Sidewalk Café, they met Linus Gelber, who had recently started Home Office Records. He’d enjoyed Where We Sleep Tonight, and with months another deal was done, and the Cucumbers released Total Vegetility in 1999.
Demands of family life kept touring to a minimum, and again band momentum waned. Dave left to go back to school and play with Barbecue Bob and the Spareribs. Songs were being written, but gigs, as an acoustic trio, were rare. The next Cucumber angel arrived in the form of Tom Lucas, who worked a few cubicle rows from Jon at a publishing company in a suburban New Jersey office park. Tom, a South Orange musician, ran a recording studio in his basement, and, a long-time Cucumbers fan, offered the band some recording time for the fun of it. By 2001, they had decided to make an album, with Tom co-producing. They took their time, and by the time it was done two years later, the Cucumbers had been through two more drummers. EdNo (a long-time Hoboken scenester) joined in late 1999 and recorded many tracks with Tom and the band. EdNo left and Kurt set about auditioning drummers himself. After screening several phone calls from a surprising array of personalities, he found Steve Villano. A Teaneck native, Steve started playing professionally in the early 90s to pay his way through school in southern New Jersey, playing in Atlantic City casinos with disco and rock bands. After a ten-year interlude as a tanker truck driver, he returned to music. Steve recorded the final sessions for All Things to You.
From Fictitious to Fiction and Other Things
When it came time to mix the album, a call went out to Roger Moutenot, who’d had a hand in most Cucumbers releases in one form or another. He mixed the album at his studio in Nashville, TN, and he and his partner in Fictitious Records decided they would like to release the album.
By this time, Jon was putting most of creative energy into fiction writing and Jon and Deena were spending more time as roadies for their sons’ bands than their own. Roger’s partner at the label decided to take all the money from the label’s small back account, buy a car and leave town without a forwarding address, and thus ended, sadly, Fictitious Records. That was pretty much it for the Cukes.
But not entirely. In 2005, a neighbor, John O’Neil, whose son played in one of those bands with one of Jon and Deena’s sons, sent Jon some “scribblings” he’d been writing on the train about raising another of his other sons, this one diagnosed with autism. Jon set some of those scribblings to music; Deena set others to music, and Jon and John formed a non-profit, SingSOS, with the goal of producing a CD of the music they’d written and giving the proceeds to autism awareness and advocacy groups. Through long-time Cucumber friend Dan Griffin (see above), they met Mike Visceglia, bassist for Suzanne Vega and many others (that wonderful bass lick in the chorus of Vega’s hit Luka is Mike’s doing), who produced the CD. The list of artists singing the songs John, Jon and Deena wrote includes Jackson Brown (reuniting with Valerie Carter), Dar Williams, Olabelle, Marshal Crenshaw, Jonatha Brooke, Don Dixon and Marti Jones, Dan Bern and Mike Viola, Teddy Geiger, Christina Courtin, Kelly Flint, Ari Hest, Richard Julian, and yes, the Cucumbers. The album also featured a recitation by James O’Neil, who inspired the project. (James is now in college, but that’s another story – and quite an inspiring one.) The CD, Songs of the Spectrum, came out in 2010. Jon, Deena and John performed some of the songs at the UN as part of Autism Awareness Day in April, 2010.
In addition to reuniting here and there to play reunions shows with John Williams and Yuergen Renner, Jon and Deena also recorded a song they wrote with Chris Dickson, founder of the Rent Party, a concert series based in South Orange and Maplewood , NJ, where all proceeds go to feed the hungry in the surrounding community. Deena connected Chris to many of the bands in the area, helping lift the series off the ground, and Chris asked Deena to help pen a theme song. When she found out he was thinking of a trashy, bar room , shout-along number, Jon got involved. The song Rent Party was born.
In later 2015, Jon and Deena produced a recording of Light Shines Through, a Deena composition they’d been playing at the annual Holiday Banding concert in Hoboken to raise money for charity around the holidays; featuring Julio Fernandez on lead guitar.
Deena: the Band, the Producer, the Prolific
Meanwhile, Deena’s been writing, releasing, and performing music under several names, including Deena, under which she’s released two albums, Somewhere in Blue and Rock River. (No worries, Cucumbers fans, Jon appears on both, playing guitar and singing harmony.) She’s also released an EP Love and Sex and Rock and Roll under the name RockDownBaby, letting her dance party studio whiz self take over entirely. She’s fronted the band Deena and Laughing Boys, featuring Tom Lucas and Ed Iglewski, and has many musical collaborations and writing/recording projects in the works, many finished and awaiting release.
In 2016, Deena worked with Scott to create digital remasterings the Cucumbers Fake Doom vinyl releases. So if you want another shot at that send-up of pansexual chic, it’s waiting for you.
Band Members Through the Ages
These were/are Cucumbers:
2005-Present Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Recorded various singles for various projects
2002-2004 Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Kurt Wrobel Steve Villano Recorded part of All Things to You (2003)
2000-2002 Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Kurt Wobel EdNo Recorded part of All Things to You (2001-2)
1994-1999 Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Kurt Wrobel Dave “LG” Ross Recorded Total Vegetility (1996-7)
1992-1994 Deena Jon Completed Where We Sleep Tonight (1994)
1989-1991 Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Kurt Wrobel Yuegen Renner
1985-1989 Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Yuergen Renner John Williams (and sometimes Brett Ollernshaw, Steve Foreman & Bill Weisbach) Recorded Where We Sleep Tonight (partial, 1989), The Cucumbers (1987), All Shook Up 12” (1986)
1984-1985 Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Yuergen Renner Charles Brian Hargrove Recorded Who Betrays Me…and Other Happier Songs (1984)
1983-1984 Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Yuegen Renner Nels Johnson
1981-1983 Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Tom Dugan Nels Johnson Recorded Fresh Cucumbers EP (1983)
1981 Deena Shoshkes Jon Fried Tom Dugan Al Houghton