Howard Iceberg is Kansas City’s rock shaman
It’s a Friday night, late March. A cold black wind blows up what feels like a deserted Main Street, but inside Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club, a happily inebriated crowd is bouncing to the sunny, Cali-dreamy pop of Steve Poltz and his band. Poltz, wearing a plaid shirt, buttoned-up vest and stingy-brim fedora, is known for co-writing Jewel’s loping 1995 hit “You Were Meant for Me,” but the end of tonight’s set is considerably jammier than that, provoking primal moves from the woo-hooing blondes up front.
Poltz and his band are the evening’s openers, but they draw the night’s biggest crowd. When Poltz finishes his set, a few of the sloshy girls decide to stick around for the second act: Kansas City’s Howard Iceberg and the Titanics.
The only thematic consistency between these two bands are the lead singers’ vests and hats. But where Poltz wears his like a Lilith Fair interloper, Iceberg looks like an Orthodox rock-and-roll elder.
His Titanics are some of this city’s most esteemed musicians.
On drums: Pat Tomek, of the legendary Rainmakers.
On bass: Scott Easterday, moonlighting from his own band, the Expassionates. Easterday also led an eponymous band in the 1990s and later was a member of Mongol Beach Party.
On lead guitar: Gary Paredes, who has played with Iceberg for more than 20 years. With his vaguely Ron Wood-like haircut, skinny black jeans and untucked white tuxedo shirt, Paredes looks as if he does, as Iceberg puts it, “know the entire vocabulary of rock-and-roll guitar.”
Also on guitar is Dan Mesh, a former sideman for Holler and Mike Ireland. Mesh, who has played at the Grand Ole Opry, is the quintessential rhythm guitarist, making no attempt to draw attention to himself. But he’s mesmerizing anyway, thanks to his Greek-statue face.
These guys are classics. And though they’re playing in front of a thinned-out crowd at a small club in a midsized Midwestern city on a forlorn Friday night, they make an enormous sound.
It’s centered on Iceberg’s voice, a rusty faucet.
Even when Iceberg lubes it with Jägermeister, that voice is grainy and searching.
He plays his guitar flat, like a dobro, even though he’s standing. And he’s chewing gum.
Such eccentricities fade to the background when one of Iceberg’s songs takes control of a room. That’s obvious as soon as the first one gets going.
“I Think About You” is a basic lost-love song with a simple refrain: You don’t even know that I’m alive/Oh, but me, I think about you/All the time. Easterday, who exudes a sad-man stage presence, doesn’t have a singing part, but he’s mouthing the words anyway, as though taking solace for his own broken heart.
Three songs later, a couple of Poltz’s remaining fans take advantage of the wide-open dance floor for a two-woman Bus Stop during the angry “A Love That Doesn’t Die.” (Iceberg and his Titanics inspire strange random dancing. A few weeks later, during one of Iceberg’s songs at a Haiti benefit at Crosstown Station, a middle-aged woman who has spent the evening listening to a Rolling Stones cover band will hit the concrete floor for some break-dancing spins in her white capri pants.)
The buzz from “A Love That Doesn’t Die” fades, and Iceberg introduces the next song.
“It used to be called ‘The Kansas City Waltz,'” he says. “But it’s not in three-quarter time and it doesn’t mention Kansas City. So now it’s called ‘Victim of Rock and Roll.'”
Howard Iceberg estimates that he has written 800 songs. He says not all of them are good, but a growing number of Kansas City musicians disagree.
For the past five or six years, Iceberg has been working on what he calls his “nonstop recording project.” So far, he has cut around 270 of those songs.
At last count, 170 of them include contributions from other area musicians.
“The list of Titanics is huge. It’s hundreds of people,” Tomek says of everyone who has played on an Iceberg recording. Tomek has engineered most of the recordings in a bedroom of his modest ranch house in south Kansas City. The project is a testament to the power of Iceberg’s songs and to his stature in the city’s music community. “It’s a lot of younger people,” Tomek says. “My impression is that they respect Howard a lot.”
“He’s the best songwriter in Kansas City, and I’ll stand on Chad Rex’s coffee table in my Chuck Taylors and say it,” says Tony Ladesich, formerly of the bands Pendergast and Sandoval. An esteemed songwriter and filmmaker himself, Ladesich is riffing on Steve Earle’s famous quote declaring Townes Van Zandt the best songwriter in the world and promising to stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his cowboy boots and say it.
For his part, Rex says of Iceberg: “I’ve always said he’s one of my favorite songwriters ever. Not just in Kansas City.”
Iceberg’s songs have catchy choruses and melodic turns that somehow sound familiar; his lyrics are simple yet powerful, and he’s good with rhymes.
He writes in the classic verse-chorus-bridge song structure, Tomek notes. “Most songwriters don’t seem to do that anymore, or they write pretty convoluted extensions of those ideas. His writing would have made sense in the 1950s, and I hope it’ll make sense in the 2050s. I suspect it will because there’s a reason so many songs have been written in that kind of structure.”
Someday, a long time from now, when Iceberg “goes somewhere else, existentially speaking,” Ladesich says, “there will be a picture of Howard on the cover of every fucking magazine in this country. Howard’s going to move on to another existential plane, and someone’s going to find out about him and unearth this material.”
Barry Lee, the longtime host of KKFI 90.1’s Signal to Noise, puts Iceberg “in that lineage with Mark Twain and regional writers who were not only satirists and good writers but part of a Midwestern literary tradition.” He adds, “His writing has philosophy behind it, in addition to a tune that will not get out of your head.”
“People are eager to work with him,” Easterday says. “He doesn’t have to do anything but ask, and people are like, ‘When do we need to be there?'”
There’s this other thing about Iceberg’s songs, Easterday says, and he wonders how Iceberg does it.
“As a songwriter, I try to do it, too, and that’s to write about something you’re not experiencing — or something that you’ve experienced a piece of but you want to flesh that out, fulfill that emotion. I know he doesn’t have firsthand experience of all the things he sings about. But I am constantly impressed by how thorough and believable they are.”
The songs come to him at a rate of two or three a week, Iceberg says. His process is both mysterious and methodical.
“I keep a fairly blank mind,” Iceberg says. “My mind is a lot less full of stuff than I think most people’s minds are. I think I’m a little bit like a radio receiver.” Reading interviews with other songwriters, he has learned that “people who write pretty good songs believe — not in a hokey way but in a genuine way we don’t understand yet — that there’s a collective unconscious that we can tap into.”
He has traveled to Canada, China, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, England (a London label put out one of his albums), France, Guatemala, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Portugal and Spain, visiting some of those places many times.
His home office, on the second floor of a gorgeous brick Victorian on the city’s West Side, overflows with popular best-sellers as well as obscure, difficult literature.
“I read a ton of stuff. I listen to a ton of music — all kinds of music. That’s what’s bouncing around in my head, at least on a subconscious level. You put enough of that stuff in the stew, let it submerge there, then it just pops out.”
When that happens, he applies himself to the craft of songwriting.
“I’m very pure about it. I don’t approach it to write what’s popular or what someone wants to hear.” But he might write about a topic that’s in the news or in response to something that an acquaintance is going through. He’ll be inspired after hearing another song’s odd chord change or a cool drum riff.
“The reason that my songwriting hits in a lot of different areas is because I write different songs for different reasons. Sometimes I’ll settle for a trite lyric because that song isn’t about the lyric — it’s because I wanted to write this song in a minor key with 3/4 waltz time.”
If a song speaks the truth, he says, it will contain some level of universality. “I try to put stuff in there that most people will say, ‘I know just what that feels like’ or ‘I know just what he means’ — whether it’s in a funny way, quirky or poetic. I’m not just rhyming spaghetti and confetti because they rhyme. I want there to be some underlying thought or emotion there. I want to entertain myself and other people. I’m trying to connect with other people.”
It’s obviously working. But Iceberg is humble.
“I’ve been lucky enough that people who are better musicians than I am have seen something in my songs and come along for the ride and offer their services.”
When they do, singers with prettier voices carefully wrap harmonies around Iceberg’s voice, making the whole thing beautiful. And with so many area musicians contributing, the recordings sound uniquely of Kansas City.
“It’s turned out to be such a blast working with these musicians,” Iceberg says, “that I feel like I’ve captured a moment in time in Kansas City.”
It’s a remarkable accomplishment considering that Iceberg’s main focus for most of his life has been on something other than music.
Iceberg was born Howard Eisberg in May 1947, to a housekeeper mother and a salesman father. They lived near 20th Street and Prospect, then moved south. The family always had enough, he says, but still seemed to struggle. He went to junior high and high school in the Center School District, back when that part of town felt like distant suburbs.
Paredes remembers sitting in the school lunchroom and seeing Howard, two years older, walking down the hallways. Even then his hair was distinctively fuzzy. (Paredes says his high school relationship with Eisberg has been “overblown”; they recognized each other around the city’s live-music clubs in the mid-1970s and didn’t start playing together until a few years after that.)
Eisberg hit college during the Vietnam War years. On a full-ride scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis, he earned extra money by loading trucks and playing poker. And like many of his fellow students, he thought about changing the world.
For him, that meant going to law school.
“Those were the last days of the Warren Court, and people were very politicized by the state of events. There were lots of us who wanted to use the law, or whatever field they were in, for change. So I went into law thinking that I would do class actions and all of that.”
After law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he formed the Kansas City Law Collective with nine other lefties. “We did everything from race discrimination to sex discrimination to prison-law reform, women’s rights, gay rights, First Amendment issues.”
When Jerry Mitchell, a 19-year-old college student from West Plains, Missouri, was sentenced to 12 years in prison over $5 worth of dope, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws asked Eisberg to take the case. “It was so horrendous that we jumped right in,” he says.
The case went to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled against Mitchell in 1978. “We lost, but we did get a couple of Supreme Court justices to write strong dissenting opinions,” Iceberg says. Ultimately, Mitchell was released early, which Iceberg attributes to all the media attention — including his own picture in Playboy (with his clothes on) and appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and CBS News.
But hippie days were ending.
“As the composition of the [U.S.] Supreme Court changed and moved drastically rightward, it became clear that you couldn’t use the Supreme Court to make the kind of change that I was interested in,” he says. “The more you pressed local cases to the Supreme Court, the more you were going to get adverse results that affected the whole country, not just your region.”
Feeling the urge to go out on his own, he left the Kansas City Law Collective and grew more interested in immigration law. He worked on political-asylum cases, going to trial to keep people from El Salvador and Iran from being deported to countries where they might be killed.
“I got to be very good at it,” he says. “There weren’t that many people doing that kind of work. It wasn’t anything I ever dreamed of doing during law school, but it kicked in for me on a lot of different personal levels.”
All four of his grandparents had been immigrants, Russians who had escaped the early 20th-century pogroms against Jewish communities.
Immigration law, he says, was a way he could help people who didn’t have someone to speak for them. And meeting with people from other countries all day, he says, “was like a window to the world.”
He also was an adjunct professor of law at UMKC and Washburn University.
Lawyering took 50 hours a week. Music was a hobby, something that could get him away from law for a while. He liked hanging out with musicians, and there were these songs that kept coming to him.
He remembers the first time he heard Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog.” It was playing on the radio as he walked down a flight of stairs at home. “I must have only been, like, 9 years old — just a little kid. On the one hand, it was a guy singing about a doggie. On the other, it was this rockin’ beat that I’d never heard before.”
He also remembers singing along to the Everly Brothers. But he didn’t pick up an instrument until he left college for a year to become a military medic — his strategy for staying out of Vietnam.
“I went to basic training and studied how to take blood pressure, deliver babies, administer morphine and all that.” A Jehovah’s Witness played harmonica constantly, which drove everyone crazy, but Iceberg liked the way it sounded in the echoey barracks. When he got out of the Army and went back to school, he got his first harmonica, for 25 cents from a pawnshop. “It probably wasn’t the cleanest harmonica in the world.”
He hung out with the folkies and blues players at the old Foolkiller. He bought a dulcimer and a rack for the harmonica and started learning old Carter Family songs.
“Within a month, my own songs started popping out. They were really goofy, funny, I guess, and simple at first.”
He made cassette tapes and gave them to his friends, and when people heard his songs, they liked them. Slowly, he started performing with other musicians at coffeehouses and parties.
Some Kansas City Art Institute kids who played in a band called the Splinters — Iceberg thought they were cool — heard one of his tapes and offered to back him up, but they also wanted to know if he played accordion. He didn’t but told them that he did and that he’d get back to them in three weeks. “I ran around town to find an accordion. I opened for them. Then they would back me up on my songs. I would play my dulcimer, then I’d play accordion for them — just wheeze some chords. It wasn’t anything fancy, but at least it fit in with their music.”
He began taking his own music more seriously — and barreling toward rock and roll.
“I needed a bigger sound to play with other people. The first thing I did was electrified my dulcimer.”
With help from Jim Baggett, the founder and owner of Mass Street Music in Lawrence, he began modifying guitars to be played flat, like a dulcimer. This produced the sound he wanted, but it created problems if he wanted to change keys — dulcimers don’t have fretboards like guitars.
“I sat down with a guitar chart book and a dulcimer chart book and wrote my own charts for this hybrid instrument. That’s what I play today. I don’t recommend it for anyone.”
He says he tried to learn the guitar but never had the discipline. “I’ve stubbornly stuck with this. It’s a somewhat different sound, and it enables me to switch keys very easily without learning a bunch of different hand formations.”
All of which helps him keep up with new songs as they come to him.
He credited his cassettes (and later his CDs) to Howard Iceberg and the Titanics, with “the Titanics” referring to whoever was in the room playing with him. By now, there have been so many Titanics that he can’t remember them all. “People come up to me and say, ‘Hey, my dad was a Titanic.’ I’d say, ‘Who?’ And I won’t recognize the name.”
His legal practice is still busy, though now, because immigration laws are more restrictive, he mostly works on cases for universities and high-level professors and researchers. And he has started giving much of his work to Judy Bordeau, his younger partner at Eisberg & Bordeau.
Since going part-time as a lawyer, he says, “I’ve really tried to turn myself into a musician.”
Iceberg has put out highly produced, commercial-sounding CDs, including 1998’s Hindu Equations. But he found that the process took too long. He’d spend a year recording a dozen songs, and by the time he was finished, he would have written dozens more.
Now the process is low-fi, informal, fast.
He has no plans to release an album and he still doesn’t sell CDs. But a couple of years ago, he made an exception and agreed to sell at least 150 copies of a compilation called November Nights.
The fact that the CD exists speaks to Iceberg’s role as a life force in Kansas City music.
Abigail Henderson of the Gaslights remembers Iceberg from his Wednesday-night gigs at the Grand Emporium, nearly a decade ago. “He was this amazing songwriter with this crazy voice and this amazing way with words, and I was completely enamored with him,” she says. Henderson wasn’t in a band; she was mostly messing around with a guitar in her apartment by herself. “One night, I asked him, ‘I wrote these songs — would you listen to them?’ I played him a cassette in my car. He said they were good, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, Howard said they were good!'”
One of the songs she taught herself to play guitar with was Iceberg’s “Play Me a Slow One,” a breakup lament from the perspective of a torn-up man in a barroom.
“I told him how much I loved it because it’s beautiful — tragic but beautiful.” Later, when Iceberg saw her at shows, he invited her onstage to play it with him. One night at Davey’s, opening for John Doe, Iceberg saw Henderson in the crowd and invited her up. Henderson’s fierce harmonies changed “Play Me a Slow One” from a breakup song into an argument for reconciliation and connection.
Someone happened to be videotaping the set.
In July 2008, Henderson got the grim diagnosis of rare and aggressive inflammatory breast cancer. Area musicians rallied, putting on an event called Apocalypse Meow. It has become an annual benefit and has given birth to the nonprofit Midwest Music Foundation.
Tony Ladesich drove much of the planning for that first event. “Knowing that Howard doesn’t sell CDs, I asked him to put together a few numbered editions of the complete Howard Iceberg recordings, and we’d sell them for a couple hundred dollars apiece,” Ladesich recalls. “I said, ‘Howard, you have to get all the recordings together and put them all out there.’ He said, ‘OK, maybe that’s a good idea — for Abigail.'”
After kicking the idea around, Ladesich says, Iceberg suggested that instead of putting out a limited boxed set of a couple of hundred songs, they would put out a 13-song CD. They also created a special DVD edition with the video from that night at Davey’s.
Iceberg still gets requests for duplicates of November Nights, which he burns one at a time and gives away. “I didn’t want to charge once the commercially produced CDs were gone.”
Now, nearly two years after her diagnosis, Henderson is free of cancer.
That live version of “Play Me a Slow One” is her only performance with Iceberg. But it’s just as much a part of Iceberg’s nonstop recording project as the songs produced in Tomek’s studio.
“I remember learning how to play it and then singing it and being so excited that I could sing with Howard,” Henderson says. “It’s weird that things came full circle.”
That observation wouldn’t surprise Ladesich.
“Howard is part shaman, part guru,” Ladesich says. “He’s a not-spiritual spiritual adviser to the songwriting community. He understands something on a deeper level than most people.”
Ladesich says he considers himself a student. “I will soak up any knowledge he cares to offer. The problem is, he will never offer any knowledge to you if you go to him as a student. Howard wants to meet you on a level playing field because he truly believes he has just as much to learn from anyone as he has to teach.”
Iceberg is now 63.
Part of the motivation for his nonstop recording project is simply to preserve his songs. “I feel like these are my last years when I’ll be able to. I don’t know how long my voice, such as it is, will last. I don’t know how long physically I’ll be able to do this.”
If there’s urgency in Iceberg’s effort to document the songs delivered to him by the collective unconscious, there’s also a lesson for anyone contemplating life’s journey.
“I was a lawyer all those years — I was not very accomplished as a musician. I didn’t feel I was capable of holding my own with musicians. I was kind of intimidated by approaching other musicians. But through the years, if you persevere in anything, your name starts to get known, for good or bad. I got to be a little better — at least I wasn’t embarrassing myself. Other people liked my songs, and people started saying, ‘Hey, I’ll play with you.’ I started working with better and better musicians, which taught me more.”
Now those musicians are learning from him.
When we asked Howard Iceberg if he’d like to post some MP3s for Pitch readers, he suggested these three, saying they “represent a lot of different contributors as well as different moods or styles.” He names names below.
“My own bandmates at that time: longtime co-conspirator Gary Paredes on guitar, Doug Osburn on bass, and Steve DiFranco (for eight years a member of notorious London ska band Bad Manners) on drums.”
MP3: “The Wrestler”
“Kasey Rausch (well-known local folkie) on guitar and harmony vocals, Rich Hill (well-known jazz pianist and member of music faculty at UMKC) on keyboards, Pat Tomek (former Rainmaker) on drums, Doug Osburn on bass.”
MP3: “Earth Safari”
“A Beach Boys parody. Mike Ireland (honky-tonk hero, appeared on Grand Ole Opry in Nashville about a dozen times), arrangement and vocals, most harmonies, bass; Dan Mesh (current bandmate, also has appeared on Grand Ole Opry) on rhythm guitar, harmony; Chad Rex (local excellent songwriter) on rhythm and lead guitar; Josh Mobley (Hearts of Darkness, and the Afterparty) on keyboards; Pat Tomek on drums and percussion.”