Not in my Job Description: Cover to Cover
By Mark Ellis
"Penny Lane" is in the ears of John Macionis, beneath the blue, suburban skies in his mind's eye.
His favorite by the Beatles is the penultimate song on B-Side Beatles, a Macionis album and the third in a series of classic-rock covers on compact disc recorded at the Blue Fish Recording Tank in Newark, Ohio.
Macionis has been a rock-and-roll aficionado since the 1960s. "The light never went out for me," he said.
He is a professor of sociology and Prentice Hall Distinguished Scholar as well as the author of the two most popular introductory textbooks in his field, including Sociology, in its thirteenth edition, and Society: The Basics, in its tenth edition.
B-Side Beatles and Back to the Boneyard Volume II, a collection of vintage rock tunes, are sold online (www.macionis.com) and at Gambier shops to help raise money for, respectively, the Lake George Land Conservancy, a land trust preserving the environment of the Lake George region in New York, and first-year scholarships at Kenyon.
Making music is what moves Macionis. A spacious room in his Knox County home shelters a bevy of classic amplifiers, a picket line of guitars in stands, and keyboards.
He helped start a band not long after he enrolled at Cornell University in 1966. He heard a distant guitar in a first-year residence hall and made a friend. They attracted a bass guitarist, a drummer, and a keyboard player. Macionis played rhythm guitar, did some singing, and became the "entrepreneurial force." The Dirty Old Banned was part of a lively music scene at Cornell.
"By senior year, we were a pretty good band. We did lots of versions of 'Midnight Hour' and 'Mustang Sally.' There was plenty of work, plenty of parties." The longhairs traveled to gigs in a black Cadillac hearse.
Macionis kept his guitar handy when he went on to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. After he arrived at Kenyon to teach in the late 1970s, he could be heard jamming with student bands.
Preparing for the Semester at Sea program in 1988, he stowed music gear on board, recruited students, and formed Captain Ahab and the All-Night Whalers. "That was our world tour," he said. "I reincarnated myself as Captain Ahab. I played lead guitar and sang. We actually played really well together." He repeated the act in 1994 in another tour with Semester at Sea, this time joining three male students and a female to form Four Hits and a Miss.
Still hungry to perform, Macionis later entertained friends by engineering a one-man band, playing guitar and adding instrumental effects through multiple amps. In 2007, after discovering the Newark recording studio, he banged out his first covers album, Boneyard. That experience taught him he could do much better, and he launched Boneyard Volume II, using his own arrangements for songs by Bob Dylan and the Kinks, among others, and enlisting the help of studio owner Celeste Friedman, who handled the engineering and sound mixing.
Vocals were layered over tracks of his electric and acoustic guitars, keyboard, and percussion. Friedman added some back-up vocals and keyboard work. The scene was set for covering the Beatles, seen in concert by Macionis in 1964, and for doing ever more sophisticated studio work.
"I gained an appreciation for the Beatles' songs. The brilliance is in the writing. The fun of doing it is getting a little bit inside that creative process," he said.
"And you start to realize just how good they were as a group. They played off each other. There's an interaction that begins to click. The bar gets set higher. Extra juice starts to flow. That's the sociology of it."
Macionis concedes that his voice is neither as gritty as Lennon's nor as lush as McCartney's, but the skillfully layered harmonies create a remarkable sound. Macionis and Friedman matched the contributions they made in the earlier recordings and shared in the arranging duty for the Beatles songs. Technical advances since the Beatles' heyday allowed for elaborate orchestration via keyboard, so all of the brass, including the trumpet solo, in "Penny Lane" comes via keyboard in the remake of that song, which consumed about forty studio hours.
Like many a mature rocker, Macionis now enjoys the New Age genre, "the kind of music that you just sit down and fall into a deep, relaxed state"-while his guitar gently sleeps.