AFTER FOUR DECADES OF INDIDE ROCK, THE CUCUMBERS SOUND AS FRESH AS EVER by Donny Levit
How Deena Shoshkes and Jon Fried found new inspiration in an old desk drawer.
Roughly 40 years ago, wife-and-husband music duo Deena Shoshkes and Jon Fried were playfully sauntering around Jersey City as they filmed a whimsical video for their take on Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up.” Known as the Cucumbers, the band was getting noticed by MTV and music critics alike. “There’s a danger that such bare-faced songs could turn cute or cynical, but the Cucumbers rarely succumb,” wrote music critic Jon Pareles. “More often, they’re both direct and artful – and as sincere as a smart pop band gets.”
By the mid-1980s, the Cucumbers were part of the burgeoning indie rock scene of Hoboken, one of the most notable in New Jersey music history. The once-iconic music club Maxwell’s had set up shop in the late 1970s to feature both local bands as well as punk and indie bands touring the area. The Cucumbers, Yo La Tengo, and the Feelies were some of the local groups that regularly played there. Bands such as Nirvana, R.E.M., and the Replacements passed through during tours, while Bruce Springsteen shot the video for “Glory Days” in the tiny but beloved venue.
Call their music indie rock, jangle pop, or alternative rock, the Cucumbers demonstrate a diverse range of styles and songs that they fostered throughout the 1980s and beyond. The band counts R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe as one of its fans and developed others throughout the country – including the Athens (home to R.E.M.) and Atlanta scenes in Georgia which shared a common thread with Hoboken’s independent music aesthetic. “There was always a connection to the Athens sound,” says Fried. In addition to R.E.M., Athens was the home town of the B-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, and countless others.
“We found a lot of fans down there,” says Shoshkes. “I think our biggest show ever was in Atlanta at the Metroplex. We sold it out.”
“That was a fun show,” adds Fried. “I remember at the end of that night...we’re packing up and there’s this guy looking around the floor. His glasses were broken. And his girlfriend says to him, ‘I told you not to slam dance!’”
By the 1990s, the couple had started their family. “Deena was about eight and a half months pregnant with our second child,” says Fried. “We were like a lot of people who lived in [Hoboken] and were moving because you need an extra bedroom or you can’t afford to live in the city. It was cheaper to move to Millburn.” The couple have spent their lives there ever since.
The couple raised two sons in Millburn: 32-year-old Jesse, who is a graduate student studying mapping and urban geography, and Jamie, a 30-year-old neuroscientist. “They’re both musicians – far more talented than we are,” says Shoshkes.
“Neither of them sought music as a career,” says Fried. “They certainly have the training and the musicianship, but they just saw too much of the lifestyle. There’s an irony: Parents traditionally tell their kids, ‘Don’t go into music! Do something reasonable!’ We said to them: ‘Go into music! Don’t do something reasonable!’ Maybe that was the wrong thing to say.”
Since Shoshkes grew up in South Orange, Millburn was somewhat familiar territory. “We were married on Mayhew Drive in my parents’ house [in South Orange],” says Shoshkes. “We were not the type to have a big wedding at all. We just wanted it very simple.” She attended both South Orange Elementary School and South Orange Junior High School (now called South Orange Middle School). “It’s funny…our sons both played in the Youth Orchestra of Essex County, which used to rehearse in the [middle school] auditorium there,” she says. “I would go to drop them off and pick them up and it looked exactly the same as when I’d gone there.”
Shoshkes graduated from Columbia High School before attending Brown University, where she studied composition and ethnomusicology. She met Fried during her early years at Brown, where they became creative and life partners.
Before they even called themselves the Cucumbers, Shoshkes and Fried collaborated on “My Boyfriend” – their song that would become a Cucumbers classic and make waves on the college radio charts. “I was playing these four chords, and Deena was playing the riff,” says Fried.
“I had a typewriter and was writing journal type entries or free verse,” says Shoshkes. “I pilfered it,” says Fried, with a laugh. “I looked at [the words] and I just decided I was going to use them for the song." The way Shoshkes and Fried share the story gives a sense of the playful exchanges that took place early on between the couple and remains evident when discussing their music and personal history.
“I was always a music person. My mother says I was rocking my head in the crib,” says Shoshkes, who started piano lessons at age nine. “I had a run in with the orchestra teacher in junior high school. She was very stern, and I didn’t have a lot of self-control.” Shoshkes played for school musicals and went into the city on the weekends to study singing, composition, and improvisation.
Growing up in Southern California, Fried was surrounded by music at an early age. His father, Gerald Fried, is a well-known Hollywood composer who wrote scores for television and film, including Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek, Roots, and Mission: Impossible.
“My dad was studying at Juilliard and hanging out in the village with some artsy people – one of whom was Stanley Kubrick,” says Fried. “Kubrick was still a photographer for Look Magazine, and he said [to my dad] ‘Would you write music?’ And my dad said, ‘Well, I’ve never written any movie music.’ And Kubrick said, ‘Well, I’ve never made a movie.’ So my dad wrote the music to Kubrick’s first half dozen movies.”
Fried’s first band was a Monkees cover band with neighborhood kids. “I wanted to learn the bass. I wanted to be Peter Tork [bassist for the Monkees],” he says. “My dad got me a bass and an amp and I had my first gigs at age 10 playing Monkees covers.”
But when it comes to influential bands that inspired Shoshkes and Fried, they’re quick to tell a story about the Talking Heads. “It was 1978 and they came and played Alumnae Hall [at Brown University],” says Shoshkes. “It was a revelation.”
“We realized that nerdy college people could write rock music,” adds Fried. “We were discovering punk and new wave. And we realized we could write our own songs.”
Since the formation of the band in the 1980s, Shoshkes and Fried have been the consistent core of the band while being joined by an assortment of talented musicians for recording and touring. That list includes Brian Hargrove, who played bass for the band in 1984-1985. He’d later change his name to Brian Hardgroove and become the bass player for Public Enemy. “Everybody brought something special and wonderful,” says Shoshkes. The most recent line-up includes drummer and Maplewood resident Yuergen Renner as well as bass player and South Orange resident John Williams. The couple have always worked closely with music and recording collaborators in both Maplewood and South Orange.
Cucumbers’ bassist John Williams invited Shoshkes and Fried to get involved in Maplewoodstock during the festival’s earlier years. In addition to performing as the Cucumbers, Shoshkes played the festival with another project of hers called Deena & The Laughing Boys. “Everybody in those days played in three or four bands,” she says.
Shoshkes and Fried also got involved with Rent Party, the live music series which donates its proceeds to fighting hunger. The couple credit Rent Party founder Chris Dickson for introducing them to local bands. In turn, Shoshkes introduced Dickson to singer-songwriters she was working with in a Saturday Afternoon Song Swap that she founded with Maplewood musician Rebecca Turner. The music series originated at Café Meow, a Springfield Avenue coffee shop which closed over a decade ago.
Even during the pandemic, the Cucumbers have released music. In this particular case, the songs were pulled from the desk drawers in Shoshkes and Fried’s home. “We are always recording. And so we would finish things and if they weren’t released, we threw them in the desk drawer,” says Shoshkes. Their 2021 release is aptly titled The Desk Drawer Tapes, a collection of a dozen songs that span their career between 1988-2005. And once again, the couple looked to a talented Maplewood neighbor to help them out.
Scott Anthony, a mastering engineer who owns and runs Storybook Sound, has worked on Cucumbers projects for some time. “He’s a Renaissance man,” says Shoshkes, who met Anthony when he was running sound at Maxwell’s in the 1990s.
“It’s really interesting because in the '90s, we saw the dawn of the internet,” says Anthony. “[The Cucumbers] smoothly made that transition from a pre-internet identity to being available on the internet. Deena continued to write solo stuff, and I think staying active and keeping the community flag up has made it easier for them.”
Fried’s writing career took off in his 40s, so he credits Shoshkes for being the one to keep him playing music. “The call to be a writer was too strong,” says Fried. “I’ve only written a handful of songs in the last couple of decades, because my creative energies are in fiction writing. If Deena hadn’t been out on the scene and inviting me to back her up and hadn’t introduced me to everybody in the Campfire Flies, I wouldn’t be making music today. I am so grateful.”
Founded almost five years ago, the Campfire Flies is a sextet which Shoshkes describes as a group of musicians living “parallel lives.” In addition to Shoshkes and Fried, the band includes John Baumgartner, Toni Baumgartner, Matt Davis, and Ed Seifert – a gifted assemblage of seasoned Jersey musicians. And they credit Fried and Shoshkes for their collaborative energy and deep generosity of spirit.
“I’ve introduced new material to countless bands I’ve been involved with over the years and I always found it to be an almost painful experience, even when the other folks were good friends or even family. There’s just something about introducing a new musical idea to a group of people that puts you in a pretty vulnerable place,” says Speed the Plough co-founder and Campfire Flies member John Baumgartner. “But that’s never the case working with Jon and Deena. They’re just so open to something new, so patient, so encouraging. While they’re known for their pretty boundless energy, they both have a very deep understanding of how music works, how parts come together, and how to help the song progress to places you never would have imagined. Those are some rare gifts and I’m always happy to be on the receiving end.”
To hear music by Deena Shoshkes, Jon Fried, and the Cucumbers, go to this Spotify playlist compiled for Matters Magazine readers.
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his indie rock and jazz shows on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.