Alas, after three CDs and a decade of memorable performances, the Health & Happiness Show has decided to call it quits.
"When I started the band, I was 30," Mastro said last week. "I just turned 40 and I've moved out of Hoboken. Life has really changed over the last decade and it seems better to go out on a high note."
The band will play their farewell performance, christened "The Last Drunk-Eyed Waltz," at Fez (380 Lafayette St., Manhattan) on Friday, April 6 at 8:30 p.m.
Despite having endured over 20 years in the music industry - writing songs, performing live, producing albums and selling guitars - James Mastro has a surprisingly sanguine quality about him. Perched on a stool in the center of his store, he seemed at peace as he pondered his life.
Born in Springfield Ohio, Mastro and his family moved to suburban New Jersey when he was 4 years old. Fortuitously, Mastro's puberty coincided with New York's renowned punk rock period. In lieu of varsity baseball and afternoons at the mall, Mastro spent his formative years at CBGB watching bands like The Ramones and The Talking Heads.
In 1979, when he was 20 years old, Mastro moved to Hoboken and joined the Bongos, a successful guitar-based pop band. He remained with the Bongos until 1985, when he left to start his own band, Strange Cave. By the late '80s Mastro was so immersed in the area's music scene he even chose to dwell above Maxwell's, the mile-square-city's music mecca. "Our only kitchenware [was] pint glasses from the bar," he said. "We just walked upstairs with our beers." By the time 1990 rolled around, however, Mastro had grown weary of the industry. "I was tired of the music business," Mastro said. "I always say music and business are the two worst words to put together. It just wasn't fun anymore. We were playing more for record company execs rather than our friends - always looking for that elusive deal."
In search of a catharsis, Mastro started jamming with Health & Happiness Show co-founder and drummer Vincent DeNunzio.
"Personally and professionally, it wasn't the best time of our lives," Mastro said. "I was 30, single and fairly miserable. So, Vinnie and I just started these kitchen table jams. We would get together, get some beer and play some Hank Williams."
Mastro and DeNunzio named their rootsy combo the Health & Happiness Show. And while the appellation was meant to be ironic, the real irony came when the union eventually brought its members not only health, but happiness. During the '90s, the band recorded three albums and toured extensively. They were even the subject of a seven-page Rolling Stone fashion/feature spread. "It was really refreshing because it all happened unintentionally," Mastro said.
Concurrent with his band's success, Mastro opened The Pigeon Club, a local recording studio where he produces albums for up-and-coming musicians, and the Guitar Bar, Hoboken's first vintage guitar shop. Mastro's personal life has also improved since his "fairly miserable" days. He recently moved to Glen Ridge with his wife and two daughters.
"The Health & Happiness Show started as a healing process," he said. "Vinnie and I were both really disillusioned. It's been 10 years and the therapy is complete."
Like sausages on display in an Italian deli, vintage guitars dangle in the window of the Guitar Bar, tempting music lovers to taste their sounds. And taste they do. Last Wednesday morning, 30 minutes before the store was to officially open, James Mastro had already sold two sets of guitar strings and an electric guitar.
One of the reasons he is dismantling the Health & Happiness Show is so he can write a sitcom set in his store. "The material is so obvious," he explained as an elderly man who lives above the Guitar Bar languidly loaded his groceries onto a dumbwaiter in the rear of the store. "It'll be like High Fidelity in a music store." Mastro might also be able to incorporate some of the Health & Happiness Show's more memorable moments into his script, like when the band opened for Johnny Cash in Washington D.C.
"That was a dream," said Mastro. "And after the show they were like, 'Do you want to meet Mr. Cash?' and we were like 'Duh?' So we went into this room full of senators and congressmen - because Johnny Cash is like royalty they all go to see him - and they were giving us their business cards and saying things like, 'We really liked you boys.'"
The band's low point occurred in 1995 when, en route to a gig in Nashville, they were involved in a car accident. While nobody was seriously injured, the Health & Happiness Show canceled the rest of their tour, and the experience seems to have had a lasting effect on Mastro.
"I remember every second even though it only took three," he said. "An experience like that makes you realize that most things in life are inconsequential."
Post-Health & Happiness Show, Mastro plans to focus on studio production work along with his sitcom, but he will also continue to perform live. This spring Mastro will spend several weeks touring Europe with his former idol Ian Hunter, of the '70s British glitter-glam rock band Mott the Hoople.
"I was a huge Mott the Hoople fan," said Mastro. "They're probably why I started playing guitar. So, it's really come fully circle. At 40, I feel like I'm 13 again."
Giddy elation obviously agrees with Mastro, whose accomplishments prove, once and for all, that you don't have to be miserable to produce quality work. Than again, maybe not.
"I feel at peace for the first time in my life," he said. "Now it's time to make a disco record."