Singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Isenberg’s career really began when he borrowed a friend’s Kay acoustic guitar back in 1962. A few years later he would get together with some friends who would form The Blues Feeling. The Blues Feeling was one of the first Midwest “garage bands”.
By 1968 Isenberg took The Blues Feeling’s drummer Rusty Vest, and the bass player Mike ‘Sully’ Sullivan and formed The Ratband, whose wild stage antics and flashy guitar techniques made him a star in the Midwest. The local musical movement involved several artists who would go on to bigger and better things. Isenberg explains: “There was Suburban 9 to 5 with Gary Ritchrath – who later helped form REO Speedwagon, Greg Williams and the Buster Browns – who would later be with Head East, Dan Fogelberg” and others who “were all recording over at Jerry Milam’s Golden Voice Studios at one time or another, making records that are collectible now.”
Isenberg is best known as the leader and founder of The (Pekin, Illinois-based) Jets. The Jets original roster included Isenberg, Graham Walker, Greg Clemons, Greg Wilson, and Randy Kohtz. The band’s premiere single “Be For Me” written by Isenberg in 1968 and released on the Marigold Records label in 1973 climbed to number 13 on the local WIRL chart.
Isenberg and The Jets also were included on a double album sampler on Twin Tone Records in 1979. This led to the band racking up two hits—Isenberg’s “Lover Boy” and “Paper Girl”. The album was digitally remastered and released on CD more recently. Isenberg also earned the WWCT FM 106 Basement Tapes Award in 1982.
Two years after the band disbanded. Additionally, he also scored a regional hit “This Is For You” which was also included on the album. In 1995 Isenberg would move to Los Angeles. His signature sound would soon be catching the ears of others in Hollywood. In 2010, however, he would release a 9-track solo CD titled Tarzan’s Woods.
Tarzan’s Woods is a concept album along the lines of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Isenberg wrote this specific group of songs and slotted them into a specific order in order “to tell a story, create a mood” and inspire “an image in the listener’s mind.” While Isenberg states: “I wrote the entire album for the baby boomer generation of Pekin, Illinois, my home town, as well as the Class of ’71 of Pekin Community High School” he may seem to limit his audience.
In truth, many music fans could appreciate this work. Isenberg adds: “It was written as a multi-directional album and was inspired by the boomers of my area and dedicated to them because of our shared experience, but the target audience know’s no age bracket or locational constraint.” Indeed, the album has a universal theme.
Isenberg elaborates: “The main theme . . . is that each of us tries to find a place of solace in our lives . . . where we can escape the world for a while and find peace within ourselves.” Tarzan’s Woods is actually an actual location where Isenberg himself found solace as a kid.
Isenberg who could see the woods from his childhood home said he named the area Tarzan’s Woods because as a baby-boomer kid he was a big fan “of those Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies, and even as a little shaver, I was known around the neighborhood for my big Bowie knife like the one Tarzan always had strapped to his side. The woods to me became my ‘jungle,’ and I named them Tarzan’s Woods.”
The inspiration for the album, however, also has its roots in other areas. Isenberg continues: “Part of the story comes from actual events, part of it from my wild imagination and my love of science fiction.” He also cites the “alternate reality” of “living in Hollywood”, poet Mick Farren and “a crazy street person . . . known to MANY in Hollywood as ‘Wolfie,’ believed to have been an executive type in Hollywood who finally cracked under pressure” and constantly claimed: ‘The past will collide with the present’.”
Isenberg says that according to the above-noted sources in December of this year the Aztec clock will run out and the Galactic Grid will fragment resulting “in the collision of all the realities”. It is this eventuality that is explored in the album. The lead-in, “A Walk In the Sun”, intentionally reminiscent of Isenberg’s past performances and inspirations, concerns a 1960s rock show somehow conflicting with events such as the more violent Woodstock 2 due to a crack in the grid.
The second selection is “Front Page News”. This draws upon Isenberg’s personal experience as a member of a generation who once partied hearty unaware or perhaps unwilling to admit that they would ever grow old. It includes some humorous albeit at times obvious lyrics considering the subject and in some ways is one of the best cuts here.
“Yes I Do” is the next number. It returns listeners to a simpler time when most musicians focused on simpler themes such as young love. Again Isenberg expertly imitates and expands upon music from a specific era to effectively and tell his tuneful tale.
The title track, “Tarzan’s Woods”, takes the “Critic’s Choice” here as Isenberg slows things down a bit in a piece very vaguely reminiscent of perhaps Pink Floyd. Highlighted by some subtle bass work by Jason P. Chesney, Isenberg signals of a coming storm in which the very threads of reality are shaken while at the same time reflecting back on his childhood hideaway as well as making adult observations and perhaps letting his own present-day frustrations bleed through here.
“Talking Monkeys” follows as a sometimes Beatles-like ditty of destruction penned by Tom Walker. This is the only track not written by Isenberg. It focuses on social issues such as “the question of faith and . . . technology’s battle with the truth of existence” as Isenberg puts it.
The blues-tinged “No Replacing You” and the near melancholic “So Long Ago” follow continuing the story of Isenberg’s character. It focuses on the speaker’s future and a “world that boomers have all known and loved” as the past explodes into the present. Interestingly, the latter track includes the students at Isenberg’s alma mater Pekin Community High School.
“Nine” is appropriately the next to last cut. This interesting instrumental indicates “the end is near” as reality is slowly shaken and the bell tolls for thee (as well as the rest of the world.) The closing cut is “Just Another Guy”.
The song is both heavy and yet humorous as Isenberg sings of his CD doppelganger who attempts to warn everyone but is unfortunately viewed in his words “as nothing more than an over imaginative fool”. Still, “he knows what’s coming and mimics the cynicism and sarcasm of his detractors” as the famous Aztec clock runs out and the speaker bids farewell to the universe as we know it.
In an era when the 99-cent digitally-sold single runs rampant, this return to an actual concept album is both nostalgic and surprisingly refreshing. Personally, your crusty chronicler is looking forward to what Isenberg promises is the next part of a trilogy the upcoming album In Rena’s Room.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.