Life is But a Comedy
By Garret K. Woodward
It was New Year’s Day 2001. Having just left his downstate hometown, 21-year-old Will Scheifley stepped off a Greyhound bus and into the city of Plattsburgh, the frigid North Country air hitting him in the face like a frying pan.
The only person he knew in Plattsburgh was his sister, who was going to school here. It was a fresh start of unknown possibilities, the beginning of a personal, creative and musical journey in “The Lake City” that’s now entering in its 18th year. Lead singer/acoustic guitarist and songwriter for the Shameless Strangers, Scheifley fronted arguably one of the most iconic and raucous outfits to ever grace the stage in and around Clinton County.
“The whole music scene in Plattsburgh in those days? It was all about entertaining. It was a free-for-all. We were all shameless strangers back then — you can’t get that back,” Scheifley said.
In 2002, Cody Reid (bass) was seeing a woman who lived with Scheifley and Mike Dashnaw (electric guitar) in downtown Plattsburgh. The trio immediately hit it off, jamming out and kicking around some ideas for songs. But, Reid soon relocated to Florida for a few years, only to find himself back in Plattsburgh in 2005.
“When I came back, Mike and Will had been playing that whole time, writing and rehearsing songs together, mostly Will’s older stuff,” Reid said. “We started playing for a couple weeks and we needed a drummer. So, we brought in drummer Bill Bougill and it wasn’t much longer after that we played our first show at Maggie’s.”
A legendary bar of drunken debauchery and melodic chaos, Maggie’s was located at 124 Margaret Street. Though it closed several years ago, and the property has since been a revolving door of businesses (Mama J’s Kitchen & Bar, Chefy’s Bar & Grill), Maggie’s was, in essence, a place for lovable weirdos and off-the-beaten-path folks. That, and whoever wanted to get their fill of cheap beer, fried food and odd times in an “anything goes” establishment before venturing another block towards Woodstock’s (now Bono Lounge) and the Monopole when the clock struck midnight.
And for the first few years of their existence, the Shameless Strangers held court at Maggie’s, steadily developing a style of rollicking folk-rock layered in a thick tongue-n-cheek attitude that was completely their own, and with a sense of self that only had one motto in mind — “always have fun.”
“I was looking for words and lyrics that could explain the musical magic quickly. I just like to describe people, places and things, situations I found myself in. It comes from daily life, everything I absorb around me,” Scheifley said.
Onstage, the Shameless Strangers were exactly what their name suggested. It was about letting loose, finally not giving a shit what was on your worrying mind that day, and just trying to make a connection with those around you — known or unknown, with the band the catalyst for those interactions.
“I liked the definition of ‘shameless’ and the definition of ‘stranger,’” Scheifley said. “And I think that’s what I personally felt like at that time. I felt the music was really good when you heard it the very first time. You’ve never heard of us or any of our music, and you’re just there at our show, it’s the perfect kind of name because the music speaks for itself.”
“If you really analyze Will’s lyrics, they’re really bold,” Reid added. “There’s pop and catchy elements, but if you really listen, there’s just a certain amount of fearlessness about the music and the band — getting out there and not being afraid of saying something, and not being afraid of having a good time.”
Lyrically, the band was all over the map. When Scheifley says he turned everything around him into songs, he meant it. Some melodies would reference celebrities, ranging from David Letterman to out-of-nowhere NBA sensation Jeremy Lin to iconic actor James Earl Jones.
Other tunes were about weird love, oddball characters, recreational drug use, bizarre situations solely unique to the city of Plattsburgh, or simply just pushing the notion that the only way to survive daily life was to possess the most important trait in doing so — a keen sense of humor, where you’re able to see the humor in everyday life.
“It was all about not taking anything too seriously,” Scheifley said. “There were nights where Lucid would be at Woodstock’s and we’d be at the Monopole. And we’d switch between bars during the set breaks. One time we actually just switched instruments and venues mid-show. It was so out-of-control — you just had to be there.”
“We did one show at Higher Ground in Burlington, where a bunch of Plattsburgh bands did a showcase there,” Reid noted. “One of the musicians in the showcase was caught smoking a joint out back before the show and the cops rolled up. They were going to arrest us, but the venue said we were in the band playing and they let us go — the power of rock-n-roll, man.”
Eventually, the Shameless Strangers simply faded into the landscape of the North Country. Reid took off to Nashville, Tennessee, and worked in the music industry for several years, while Scheifley and Dashnaw did semi-regular solo shows together.
But, with Reid’s recent return to Plattsburgh, the trio (joined by drummer Chris Shacklett of Adrian Aardvark and Lucid) started the old engine back up that is the Shameless Strangers, with sporadic gigs becoming more regular in the last year.
“It’s still just as fun to now play again with Mike and Will,” Reid said. “And people always remember the fun, the good times, and the energy. But, it’s not a nostalgia thing. It’s something where it immediately brings me to this emotional place that means so much to me, a time I remember, but haven’t been part of in so long, and it’s happening right now, right in front of me, once again.”
When asked about the legacy of the Shameless Strangers, both Reid and Scheifley paused for a moment, reflecting on not only the band and its place in North Country musical lore, but also thinking back and looking over their shoulder at their own journey — from there to here, and here to who knows where.
“In the end, life is a tragedy, but it really is a comedy,” Reid said. “And I’d rather look at the comedy side of it all instead of the tragedy.”
“It’s the people, and being able to entertain as many people as possible,” Scheifley said. “I work for the news. And with that, I see all the bad stories, all the things people are worried about. I see that perspective of fear and sadness, and I’m able to write songs to counter that.”