When Month of Sundays (Bobsled), the second Chamber Strings album, was released in 2001, singer-songwriter Kevin Junior was hailed as a new pop savant of sorts - a ragged, rainy-day Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson's lost brother, last sighted wandering gray shores amid dingy drizzle and deep dissolution. So where has he been the past six years?
"I got kidnapped by aliens, basically," Johnny Thunders-look-alike Junior deadpans from his Chicago flat. "Yeah, I went through, well, a five-year Behind the Music sort of life."
But what music. The refined rejoinder to the Chamber Strings' sprawling, alternately rocking and contemplative, Exile on Main Street-like two-disc debut, Gospel Morning (Idiot Savant, 1997), Month of Sundays opens with an eerie, elegant piano refrain before plunging the listener into a gloriously wistful string of songs, imbued with beautifully blown-out, classic '60s orchestral-pop arrangements. They're harpsichord-driven, brass-laced, and jangling and touched by the glamorous, "Last Train to Georgia" sorrow and pity of civil rights-era soul-stirrers.
And what a life. After spending $200,000 to make Month of Sundays and doggedly touring, Junior discovered that his depression and grief following the death of close friends and collaborators such as Epic Soundtracks had morphed into an all-consuming drug habit. The band and Junior's 15-year marriage bit the dust, and the Akron, Ohio, musician was on the streets: homeless and struggling with his heroin addiction for five years, Junior was, at his lowest point, living in a cardboard box on the streets of LA's skid row. "Oddly enough, out of the few possessions I had, I kept a Japanese music magazine that I was on the cover of," he recalls. "Every once in a while I'd pull this thing out of my bag, lying on the street next to some guy, and say, 'Hey, look - it's me!' And he'd say, 'Nah, that ain't you.' 'No, it is me.' "
During that time, Junior's routine consisted of staying up for five days consecutively, shooting crack and heroin. He ended up in jail three times and tried to kill himself a dozen times. "It never seemed to work," the songwriter says. "I guess I was blessed with a really strong constitution, because I think of it now and I can't even believe that I'm sitting here talking to you." The end seemed near when Junior contracted endocarditis and was dragged into the hospital by another homeless man just in time.
Remarkably, he kept writing songs, he says, "whenever I hit a hotel lobby or found a guitar. I just kept them in my head." He returned to Akron and was invited by Soundtracks' brother Nikki Sudden to live in Berlin and tour and open for him. "But Berlin was the worst place for me," Junior explains ruefully. "It's the heroin capital of the world. You can't walk two blocks without that coming around, and I wasn't strong enough to quit. Nikki and I were really bad for each other that way." He finally moved to England and with the help of friends found a good doctor to help him clean up.
Upon returning to the States, Junior persuaded the rest of the Chamber Strings to get back together after at least one false start. (At first, Junior says, "we didn't even make it to the rehearsal room. I moved in with Anthony Illarde, the drummer, and within two months we ended up in a fistfight.") One successful, sold-out Chicago reunion show and one documentary (John Boston's For a Happy Ending) later, Junior is back in the rehearsal studio making demos to reintroduce labels to the Chamber Strings, and he sounds dazed and genuinely humbled when he confesses, "I feel like I got dropped back off on planet Earth again." *
To see For a Happy Ending, go to www.gloriousnoise.com.