Nick Tosches, Photo by Michelle Talich
The first work of Nick Tosches’s that I ever read was just this last year. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. How could I be in my late thirties and never had read anything by Tosches? Scram readers are an erudite bunch when it comes to all things rock-’n'roll, so you’ve all probably been fans since his early Creem days, and have no doubt read his books like Hellfire: The Jerry Lewis Story. For the completely pop culture set, you will recognize Tosches from his work as a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair, where his stories have included the meticulously researched origins of a screen saver, “Autumn and the Plot Against Me: The Mysterious Origins of a Windows Desktop Image.”
How did it all begin? I was at the Strand Bookstore searching through the medical section, as I’m currently going to technical school at Bellevue Hospital, when I saw a darkly stylish silhouette on the cover of a book called King of the Jews. I noticed the author was Nick Tosches and remembered the author’s name being mentioned by bassist and Dictators founder, Andy Shernoff. After spending my summer vacation reading this uniquely styled biography of Arnold Rothstein, I was hooked. The work delved deeply into subjects ranging from the preternaturally magickal beings known in Judaism as the Elohim, to several translations of Caesar’s famous expression as he crossed the rubicon, “The Die is Cast.” These may seem like tangential elements of style, but when you examine Rothstein, the Godfather of the Jewish mafia, then you should pray for a whole lot of angels ready to answer your call for help, and a shit load of luck because “the fix” is definitely in.
Afterward, I sought Nick out as a “friend” on MySpace and happily found he had a page. However, at the time it was being managed by a “fan” instead of the man himself. One night after some Jesus Juice I wrote a nice little nasty message (my favorite kind) to this fan, accusing him of masquerading as Tosches and being a fraud. The next morning I got a reply indicating I should pay more attention and look a little closer. Turns out the man himself had recently taken over control of the page, and so began my true friendship with St. Nick.
Deciding to work my way backwards through his catalog I then tackled In the Hand of Dante. This novel is a Great Work, and on Tosches’s MySpace page you can hear an audio clip of Johnny Depp reading from the first chapter. Shortly thereafter Nick posted a blog seeking someone to help out with his MySpace page in exchange for “all the beer you can drink.” I won the prize, and a day or two later found myself in his Tribeca apartment listening to “That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynrd and talking about everything from the slogan above the entrance to Auschwitz to the Gnostic Gospels. I brought along a copy of The Bellevue Literary Review as an offering, and left with, as he called it, a “bum-sized bottle” of scotch whiskey.
So now, after hoarding my favorite pen-pal for almost a year, it occurred to me that before either he or I get hit by cement truck (or a bicycle messenger), that you faithful Scram readers deserve a little Q & A. So here we go…
MB: The first book of yours I read was King of the Jews, about Arnold Rothstein, which featured the heady days of horseracing at Saratoga and the infamous “fixing” of the World Series. How can good-hearted sports gamblers get a fair shake if so many of these games/races may be fixed, and what sports do you get satisfaction from watching?
NT: Chariot races were probably fixed. It’s just another aspect that needs to be factored into gambling when the bet goes down. It’s sometimes intrinsic to the aleatory process. Mathematicians talk about the stochastic nature of gambling, the random-probability distributions or patterns inherent in it. But it’s not always a stochastic helix. For the gambler it can be a double helix, a double stochastic helix: the random-probability-pattern helix and the helix of the fix, which cancels out the other helix for the very, very few who are aware of it, but which only compounds the stochastic quandary for the vaster many, the outside-dope gamblers. It’s as they say, “fair” is where the hicks go to see the pigs race.
I sometimes get satisfaction from watching professional football, both the NFL and soccer, and sometimes from watching a good horse-race.
MB: Is sobriety the new drug? My relatives take presciption drugs like oxycontin and percoset. Am I an idiot for not shaving a few pills off the top? What gives you satisfaction?
NT: If you define sobriety as a state of calm and clarity, I don’t see too many people out there who are sober. The world’s on speed. I’m not necessarily talking about meth. Sure, there are people out there shooting, snorting, and popping speed, washing it down with Red Bull or whatever. But even those who aren’t seem to be spun out on some sort of culturally and cerebrally induced adrenalin overload. All these people jittering blindly down the street jabbering into cellphones. If a drunken, drug-addicted fool gets off the booze and the shit, he or she is still a fool, a sober fool maybe, but still a fool.
No, you’re not a fool for not shaving a few of those pills off the top. Though, even if you didn’t put them down your own gullet, you could probably make a few bucks off them.
Through the years I have been called both an alcoholic and a drug-abuser by various characters, both doctors and people who didn’t try to pick up members of the target sex by sticking stethoscopes in their breast pockets like foulards. Whatever. The truth is I get the most satisfaction from being clear and lucid–what I’ve defined as sober–and alcohol and hard drugs can never be a part of that. Never. But I also derive satisfaction from getting fucked-up, wading in oblivion, getting drunk and maybe snorting a little smack every once in a while, maybe a few times a year. There’s a price to pay for that, however, and I’m not talking in terms of dollars but in terms of physical and psychic after-effects. Calm and clarity are free, and if you can lead yourself to them, they in turn lead to further freedom, true freedom. I also enjoy one or two glasses of good wine now and then, a glass or two of really good wine, which doesn’t interfere with the calm and the clarity. Cheval Blanc. Margaux. Haut-Brion. If you want to get in my good graces, give me a bottle of any of those. I enjoy reefer sometimes, but I smoke it only very rarely. Lately my favorite cocktail, taken in solitude when circumstances grant me some time to relax, is a glass of cold milk and a Valium. My favorite drug is opium–real opium, good opium–but you can’t get it, not in this part of the world. So, yeah, I get my greatest satisfaction from calm and clarity, which, like opium, are hard to come by.
Nick Tosches with Opium Master Chiang
MB: What music gives you satisfaction from listening to these days?
NT: I listen to Bach cello suites. Only his cello suites. The rest of his shit: fuck it. A little Arvo Part. A lot of rock ‘n’ roll, mostly old stuff. I’ve got a playlist of sixty-five of my favorite rock-’n'-roll songs, Nick’s Picks, on my computer. Another playlist of thirty-five Stones songs. Another of twenty-six Dylan songs. I listen to whatever I want to hear at any given moment, whatever the breezes lead me to, whatever the demons demand.
MB: Who are your literary influences? Can you touch on your relationships with other journalists as well, e.g. Hunter Thompson, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer.
NT: My literary influences are, off the top of my head and in no particular order, Hesiod, Sappho, Christopher Marlowe, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Charles Olson, and God knows who else.
I never really knew Hunter.
Lester was a lost soul. If he wasn’t such a pain in the ass, I would have felt more sorry for him than I did. De mortuis nil nisi bonum…
Richard is one of the most brilliant characters around. We haven’t spoken much in the last few years, but that’s only because he now lives far away and I’ve become increasingly telephonophobic. Whether we talk or not, he’s still like a brother to me, and I love him. We went through a lot together: the best of it, the worst of it, and everything in between.
MB: You like Obama, but don’t you think that in the down and dirty world of politics that a two-faced hypocrite like Hillary Clinton is the best one to handle the snakes of Washington considering she is one? Which socio-political philosophy gives you the most satisfaction?
NT: “Like” is maybe too strong a word, but, yeah, O.K., let’s go with it. That said, I like Obama only because I so dislike the other two lying assholes. We need some new lying-asshole blood. Not that it will do much good: this country’s had it. But, speaking of old songs, don’t start me talking. And no, Hillary Clinton is not my hypocrite of choice. She is indeed one of the snakes, but she will not “handle” them in any way that is beneficial to anyone but her and them. But people are so fucking stupid that the whole situation is hopeless. Working-class flotskies in the sticks actually believe she’s on their side, one of them. I don’t know who should be shot first, her or them. Fuck it.
MB: I originally believed your name was pronounced TOE-sches until we met and learned it is pronounced TAH-sches. What is the origin of your name?
NT: The name is Italian, with distant roots in ancient Albania, across the Adriatic from Puglia, the only place in the world–in particular the village of Casalvecchio di Puglia–where my family name is common. My grandfather came to New York from that village in the late nineteenth century. In Italy the name is pronounced TAH-skes, because in Italian “ch” is a “k” sound. Here, though, yeah, it sort of rhymes with “washes,” or with the last two syllables of “galoshes.” That’s how I’ve always pronounced it, anyway. Some people who have known me for thirty years still fuck it up. I think I would sell more books if I had a more easily pronounceable name.
MB: The Pope was recently here and briefly apologized for the pedophile debacle. Recently 400+ children were taken from a religious compound in Texas under suspicion of sexual abuse. From Babylon to Boston humans don’t ever seem able to get enough satisfaction from sex to just call it a day. Can you talk about what satisfaction you’ve derived from sex and about humanity’s inability to get sexual satisfaction?
NT: Fuck the pope and fuck the rest of humanity. I have derived great and beautiful satisfaction from sex in my life. Lately, I’m getting old, and there’s not so much of it in my days or nights. My prick has moods of it own and goes on strike whenever it wants. And I’ve tired of the obligatory conversational preludes, and grown sort of jaded with the whole routine. These days, I’d rather have sex with a pretty girl’s legs, and even then only if the legs are exceptional, rather than the usual stuff. As the spirit of Aphrodite once whispered to me: gams are the one true god.
I wrote a song called “I’m in Love with Your Knees.” I remember unsettling some girl one night, telling her over dinner, “I prefer not to make love to the whole woman.” Sometimes I have more fun fucking with people than fucking them.
The other day I collided with a messenger in Times Square because we had both turned to stare at the same pair of legs while continuing to walk across the street.
Nick Tosches, Photo by Gardabelle.
What kinds of food and what beverages do you get satisfaction from consuming?
NT: Any food that tastes good and doesn’t make me feel bad afterward. No: simply any food that tastes good. Water is my favorite drink, then wine, the wine I was talking about before. I derive the most satisfaction from pork. I cook pork better than anybody else in the world. Pork beats all meat. I like a good steak. All sorts of fish. Everything. I’m an omnivore. You have to eat the flesh of your lessers.
MB: George Carlin once said the meaning of life was Plastic. Robert Anton Wilson said that the meaning of life was for the Universe to be able and see itself. What is your belief or beliefs about the meaning of life? What is the meaning of life and where/how/when do you get the most satisfaction out of life?
Nick Tosches, Coney Island, Photo by Frank Fortunato.
NT: It is human arrogance to feel that there can be any great depth of meaning in something as finite and fleeting as life. But if they’re into this shit, I would suggest that people look to the original teachings of Ch’an Buddhism, and, maybe even more so, to those lines in the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” When we figure out what this “what” is, we’re there, we’re free.
As to where, how, and when I get the most satisfaction out of life, man, the list is too long. When I’m right with it, it’s right with me. Sitting on the couch with a smoke and a cup of coffee. Lost in a storm in an unknown distant land. Loving. Being loved. Sitting on a busted fucking bench watching a bunch of stupid fucking pigeons. Colliding with that guy in Times Square the other day and ending up laughing. Walking down the street, seeing the sky subtly change. Feeling the immense blessing, the great gift, of every fucking breath. Pork chops with sauteed onions and potatoes. Everything. When I’m right, it’s right. To wait for it to work the other way around is a sucker’s racket.
Psyched Out: The Technicolor Web’s Online Sound Revolution
by Tony Sclafani
What is it about the psychedelic music of the 1960s that continues to intrigue new generations of people?
Maybe it’s because psychedelic music was a genre where almost anything went, and all possibilities seemed endless. Artists under the spell of psychedelia seemed blissfully unaware of commercial conventions, and were the first rockers to make full use of extra-long songs, nonsensical lyrics, massive distortion and sound effects.
Another reason for psychedelic music’s appeal is that it allows you to “travel with your mind,” as the Seeds put it on their psych-rock opus “Future.” During the psychedelic era, artists created their own little worlds for listeners to explore. Formula love lyrics gave way to songs about everything from jolly little dwarves to 30-year-olds who still played with toys.
Psychedelic music essentially offers a vision of a make-believe world that often seems a heck of a lot more fun than the real one. In the Psychedelic World, cyclists whiz by on white bicycles at midnight, you can hear the grass grow and the skies change from orange to marmalade (some women even have marmalade hair!).
No other music delved into the fantastic like psychedelia, and the genre couldn’t be less timely. The trend in lyrics today (especially in the country and rap genres) is to reflect goings on in the real world, not to create an idiosyncratic fantasyland. How can today’s teens get any escape from the often-harsh real world if even their music fails to provide that? True, there are video games, but their dog-eat-dog ethos is reflective of real-world strife. If you were looking for escape circa 1967, all you had to do was turn on the black light, stare at your day-glo posters and groove to the sounds of Clear Light or The Blues Magoos. Voila! A new world. Like, why go out at all?
Laugh at psychedelic music if you will. But it’s instructive to remember that when artists of any post-1960s era have looked to make big statements and take their careers to a new level, it’s psychedelia they usually tap into, for instance Prince’s “Around the World in a Day,” Robert Fripp’s “Exposure” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and “Beautiful Stranger” (directly referencing Love’s “She Comes in Colors”).
Psychedelic music is crawling all over the media landscape again these days, since this summer marks the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love and the Monterey International Pop Festival. And while it’s hard sometimes to know exactly where to start to get into this music (Blossomtoes? Ultimate Spinach?), there is a 24/7 source for psychedelic sounds, thanks to Internet radio.
The Technicolor Web of Sound (www.techwebsound.com) is an online station that serves up a non-stop selection of songs of vintage psychedelic origin. The station, which is powered by Shoutcast streaming technology, is run by Wisconsin native and music buff Paul Moews. Moews, whose name is pronounced as “maze,” was doing Internet radio back before most people even knew what it was.
“I started the station around 2000,” says Moews by cell phone while commuting to his job as an electrical engineer. “with one or two listeners max on a dial-up modem. I was excited when I’d get over three people listening at a time. Now I’ve got hundreds on there.”
Moews’ site stands out not just because of his micro-niche focus, but because his station has a Web site that provides details on the artists he plays (most Shoutcast Internet stations don’t have Web sites, much less intricately-designed ones). There are no disc jockeys, except when the station broadcasts a programmed show called “The Pop Shoppe,” put together by Oregon disc jockey Gregarious. What Moews has done is created a lengthy playlist that intersperses obscure tracks with vintage radio commercials.
“The playlist has been manually designed,” Moews explains. “There’s no randomness to it. It’s such a long playlist that when even I listen a lot of the time I still won’t remember what song is coming up next. One of the keys to its success, I think, is the transitions between the songs, and having the ads in there. If you were to do a random playlist, the ads wouldn’t work at all — you wouldn’t have good transitions. With the ads, you need to have three or four in a row to mimic an original or authentic FM station
What can you expect to hear on The Technicolor Web of Sound? Here’s a sampling of the Web site’s “most recent tracks played” list as of June 19, 10:30 a.m.: John’s Children’s “Desdemona,” Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne,” Bear’s “So Loose and So Slow,” Stone Country’s “Life Stands Daring Me,” Ill Wind’s “People of The Night,” Steppenwolf’s “The Ostrich,” The Charlatans’ “32-20,” Cosmic Brotherhood’s “Sunshine World,” Painted Faces’ “Black Hearted Susan,” Neon Pearl’s “Forever” and a Jefferson Airplane Levis Ad done by Spencer Dryden.
Moews’ music choices sometimes fall beyond the boundaries of psychedelia, which waters down the station’s appeal (for example, why is Led Zeppelin played at all?). But for the most part, most of what he plays is unheard anywhere else, especially on terrestrial radio stations. Even Satellite Radio is starting to shy away from potentially uncommercial formulas. Moews says he’s able to earn enough money to keep the station running free from any commercial considerations. If there’s anyone Moews takes his musical cues from, it’s his listeners.
“I gradually ended up getting a fan base that started sending me more and more music,” Moews notes. “My audience actually exposed me to a good percentage of what I play now. Plus, bands contacted me as well. I’ve received CDs from various bands, and not just obscure ones, some of the mid-level bands. And that’s exposed me to some music I probably would not have been exposed to if I didn’t have the station.”
Moews says he gets listeners as young as 16 who e-mail him and say “I love your station!” Moews himself also missed the first flowering of psychedelia, having been born in 1968.
“I wasn’t there, but I still like the music,” he says. “I’ve liked that type of music since I was in grade school — I heard it from a buddy that lived a couple of doors down from me who had a lot of older brothers (with psychedelic albums).”
As for the issue of the proposed royalty rate hike for Internet radio stations (set to take place July 15, 2007), Moews says he’s “riding it out to see what happens.” As countless news outlets have reported, there is still a chance Congress could step in and prevent the US Copyright Royalty Board from making Internet radio stations have to pay more in royalty fees (including retroactive fees) to the collection entity SoundExchange.
“It’s a shame that when internet radio stations â€¦ introduce thousands of people to music they have never heard before and actually generate more record sales, that the Record Industry still wants to charge us even more for our efforts,” Moews writes via e-mail when asked about the royalty situation. “It almost seems that they’re trying to suppress certain types of music.”
The Technicolor Web of Sound also helped spawn another radio station that’s probably its only competitor in terms of Web radio programming.
That station is called Beyond the Beat Generation (www.beyondthebeatgeneration.com) and it plays an array of 1960s garage bands so obscure they makes Moews’ playlist look like the Billboard top ten. It also has an exhaustive Web site with artist interviews, photos and even videos.
“I helped (Hans Kesteloo) set up that station,” Moews says. “He’s from Germany and he’s an avid collector. In fact he turned me onto some stuff.”
Like the Technicolor Web of Sound, Beyond the Beat Generation’s site has a rotating “song history” listing. On the Technicolor site, you can click on the name of the artist in the song history and get a biography. On the Beat Generation site, the song history listing tells you the label, serial number and release year for each record and also tells the hometown of the artist. And you thought you were obsessive about records.
Here’s a segment of the Beyond the Beat Generation’s playlist as of June 20, 2:37 p.m.: Jarvo Runga’s “Long Walk Home,” Phyllis Brown’s “Dead,” The Syndicate of Sound’s “Get Outta My Life,” The K Otics’ “Double Shot,” The Dawn 5′s “A Necessary Evil,” The Yardleys’ “Your Love” and Moving Sidewalks’ “Stay Away.”
If you don’t want to be relegated to listening to all this music on your computer speakers, you can send the audio signal to your stereo via a $20 device called the DynexÂ®-Portable Wireless FM Transmitter (which you can order online at Best Buy). For serious music fans, all of the above technology has pretty much made commercial radio stations irrelevant.
You can also take the MP3 streams from both these stations, dump them into your Winamp player, toggle between them, and never hear a familiar 1960s song for hours on end. It’s, like, a total alternate reality, man.
One of last year’s nicest surprises was a deluxe double-CD reissue of Absolute Grey’s 1985 debut album, Greenhouse. Absolute Grey was a four-piece from Rochester, a small city in upstate New York known mostly for its colleges and Eastman Kodak’s world headquarters. The Greenhouse reissue collects the original LP’s eight tracks and adds a bonus disc of live material. What’s fascinating is how dated it sounds now. I don’t mean this in a negative way. Some LPs are timeless; they could have been recorded any time in the past forty years and sounded fresh and new. Other albums end up date-stamped–you can tell exactly when they were recorded and what their probable influences were. Listening to Greenhouse, it’s easy to guess Absolute Grey’s influences: R.E.M., Dream Syndicate, Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention, perhaps a little Bay Area ’60s psychedelia. In other words, the typical things smart kids from small college towns were listening to in the mid-1980s. The guitar tones are jangly, and lead singer Beth Brown has clearly been influenced by Michael Stipe’s early moaning vocals. Many bands of the time had the same influences, but precious few took them out of the realm of imitation. Absolute Grey were one of those few. Rather than sounding embarrassingly derivative, Greenhouse sounds like a welcome dispatch from an earlier era.
The live tracks add a new dimension as well. Songs that were moody and pensive on record take on a much more raucous, discordant tone. They don’t sound like psych-pop avatars at all in person, but rather excited kids playing rock music for local friends and fans. It’s also nice to hear so many songs that previously existed on demos if at all.
Greenhouse remains Absolute Grey’s most celebrated release. The band continued on for a few more years, releasing the What Remains LP and Painted Post EP on Midnight and Sand Down The Moon LP for the Greek label Di-Di. The former members are now scattered between the East and West coasts. However, it looks like their story’s not done yet. Three of the former band members (minus guitarist Matt Kitchen) are planning to record new material under the Absolute Grey moniker. There are also plans afoot to issue Sand Down The Moon domestically.
Vocalist Beth Brown, drummer Pat Thomas, and bassist Mitch Rasor were kind enough to answer some questions about their early days. I have been wanting to do this interview for almost twenty years, when I first fell in love with Greenhouse via college radioâ€¦
Scram: Let’s get the basics out of the way first. How did the four of you get together?
Beth Brown: We were from Pittsford, one of the nicer, more sheltered suburbs of Rochester. I had been in a new wave band right out of high school in 1979 called Hit & Run. We did originals and some covers: Blondie, Patti Smith, the Cars, Tom Petty and Talking Heads. We did some recording, and one of our songs was chosen to be on a Homegrown record. Homegrown was a radio show on rock station WCMF in Rochester, which interviewed and promoted local bands. We played a record release party and were introduced to all the “cool” musicians from the city. Nobody knew who we were, but when we played all eyes were on us and we got a really good reception. Hit & Run only lasted a year. Some of the guys went off to college.
A few years later, I was living at my parents’ house when I met Matt and Mitch. I came home one night from working at the record store, and my younger brother was playing Dungeons and Dragons with a bunch of guys. Matt and Mitch were among them and I thought they were really cool right off the bat. They were in a band called the Cads (what a great name) with Matt’s older brother, Will. They were doing their own material and although they weren’t that great, there was something so artistic and intriguing about them. They knew I had been a singer in a band, and we decided to start playing together. They were seven years younger than me, but I didn’t care in the least. We tried out a few drummers and that’s when we found Pat.
Pat Thomas: Matt, Mitch and Beth had already been doing a bit of rehearsing when I met them. They had one original song. I saw an ad that Beth had put up in the record store where she worked. At the very least I thought I’d check out what Beth was all about, as I’d noticed her strutting through the record store.
Mitch Rasor: We made these stupid arty posters and put them around the city. They showed a frog playing lily pads and we said we were looking for a lily pad player. Some of the lily pad players we auditioned before Pat were truly bad. Pat came in with these tight mod striped London pants and a very 1970s porn star mustache. It was love at first sight.
Pat: My memory of that first rehearsal was that Beth was high-strung and intense, Matt was kinda shy yet friendly at the same time and Mitch had a certain charming confidence. For whatever reason I was into making music with these three people, even though they had no real songs yet.
Scram: I didn’t know until reading the Greenhouse liner notes that Matt and Mitch were so young. What was it like being in a professional band at that age? What did your parents/classmates think of the project?
Mitch: My parents were completely supportive. We practiced in their basement; they came to many shows. My mother and I had a ritual of going out to lunch downtown and buying a new set of Rotosound bass strings the day before every gig. The band was the antithesis of the conformity, geographic isolation and intellectual frostbite of high school. Because of the band, most my friends were older, more educated and better medicated. People in school were not aware of the band; it was a different world based in the city compared to the suburbs. Ironically, after the freedom of the band, the travel, attention and camaraderie, I found my first year at Oberlin to be restrictive and confining, even though it was a place of incredible musical experimentation, politics and intense friendships.
Scram: Pat,where are you from originally, and when did you hit town? What was your musical background prior to the move? Did you have designs on forming a band in Rochester?
Pat: Like Beth, I was a few years older than Matt and Mitch. I grew up in Corning, NY, and moved to Rochester in June 1982 to work at Kodak. Before Absolute Grey, I was in many garage and cover bands. I’d also written and recorded some of my own songs, which had a strong Lou Reed/Bob Dylan vibe. When I first moved to Rochester, I was actually searching for a prog-rock band to join. I wanted something more along the lines of early King Crimson and Brian Eno. My taste has always been all over the map, but just before I hooked up with Absolute Grey, I’d gotten a bit tired of prog and really started getting into the Dream Syndicate as they reminded me of my big faves, the Velvet Underground.
Scram: Please describe the Rochester music scene of the time. It sounds like a friendly, close-knit scene. Did touring bands make it through town often? Did you have a supportive radio station or club scene? A good record store?
Mitch: I look back on the scene with some nostalgia because in hindsight, Absolute Grey was very hip in one area code. The scene was a close group of bands, friends and weirdoes brought together by the music. Rochester did not have real artistic depth, but it was an important stop on the national tour circuit between Cleveland/Chicago and New York.
Pat: There was a great record store, the Record Archive, where Beth worked. They stocked a lot of indie-rock, etc. (Now the store is kinda lame.) There were two great college radio stations, WITR and WRUR. A club called Scorgies, where we often played, had tons of great touring bands–Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, Rain Parade, dBs, the Neats, Love Tractor, Let’s Active, Lyres, the Three O’clock, Game Theory, Alex Chilton, True West. We often opened up for these bands and/or hung out with them. Most of the local bands were cool to hang with; we had a special relationship with Invisible Party. They made one hard-to-find seven-inch single, but later split into two separate bands called Lotus STP and the Ferrets.
Beth: The Replacements graced the Rochester stage with their presence several times.
Mitch: Rochester was not Los Angeles, but in our isolation we created something cool, which in some ways makes it actually more meaningful and culturally critical. Our critical mass was always about to unravel. It was more like fending off extinction than trying on a lifestyle for size. I prefer the edge of things.
Scram: Did you feel naive or isolated in Rochester?
Pat: I felt very isolated. I knew in my heart that if the band was based in New York or Boston, we’d have gotten much more press, a better record deal, etc. This is why I begged the others to do more touring. We did a few mini-tours, but everyone (well, at least Matt and Mitch) had other things they wanted to do with their time.
Mitch: I did not feel as naive then as I do now. I thought we could do anything. That is the attitude you have to have. Listening back through our veil of influences I can hear the naivete, but we were 15, 16, 17 years old, and most kids at this age can’t even masturbate properly. As I like to say, we somehow rose above all the opportunities handed to us in life to make meaningful music.
Scram: How soon after forming did you start recording? At what point did you feel ready to make an album?
Mitch: This question is really for Pat. He brought both musicianship and professionalism to the band.
Pat: The basic time line goes amazingly quickly. Band forms in October 1983 with no songs. In January 1984, we play our first shows with all original material; in April 1984 we record our first demo tape in a home studio; in July 1984 we record Greenhouse. In December 1984, Greenhouse is released. Pretty amazing when I look back on it. I guess it was all that youthful energy.
Mitch: I cannot see how we could have recorded and proceeded more quickly than we did. We really saw ourselves as musicians at varying degrees of the tortured artist scale. Pat was probably the most tortured, but also the most professionally ambitious. It was almost as if Matt and I couldn’t be bothered with commerce. That was naive, but then again I was living at home, my father was an executive, I belonged to not one but three tennis clubs. I mean, why would I have to think about commerce in practical terms? I could master my serve and volley game and compose music.
Pat: It was the members of [local band] Personal Effects who suggested we make a record. I think they were talking about a single, and I quickly decided that wasn’t good enough–I wanted a whole LP! I tracked down a decent studio run by Dave Anderson, raised some money and we went for it. We didn’t have any idea exactly what were doing in that studio and Dave knew just a bit more than us. Somehow it worked.
Scram: How did the songwriting process work? Did everyone bring in songs, or were you more into jamming?
Beth: Mitch did the majority of writing and introduced a lot of ideas and we would build upon them. I wrote the melodies and lyrics. Mitch wrote a lot of lyrics, too.
Pat: Beth and Mitch were a good songwriting team. We were all a good support to that.
Mitch: Each song was a bit different, but to my recollection I wrote most songs on the guitar and bass and Beth and I split the lyrics. Of course, the same songs or ideas could have been a total disaster if Pat and Matt did not flesh them out through hours of rehearsals. The songs are not that unique, but Beth brought real feeling to them. She made the band in many ways.
Pat: Early on, both Matt and Mitch seemed to come forward with song ideas, but after awhile, Matt brought less ideas to the table and Mitch brought more. The key thing, as I remember, was the whole band worked on the arrangements of the songs and whipped them into shape. It was rare that someone would walk in with the whole song totally mapped out from start to finish. We didn’t jam much, but we certainly jammed on actual song ideas and structures to finalize the song arrangement.
Scram: Were you trying to emulate a specific sound or approach? Who did you feel your peers were?
Beth: As a singer I was not trying to sound like anybody else, but I’m sure we alI had our influences. Our peers were local bands like Invisible Party and Personal Effects.
Pat: When the band started, none of us had really heard the Paisley Underground bands. We didn’t map out a sound in advance; we just plugged in and started playing. As time went on, we seemed to discover bands that we felt sounded similar to us. People would point out bands that they thought we sounded like, from the Jefferson Airplane to Echo and the Bunnymen to various Paisley Undergrounders. I think R.E.M. was a strong influence on us all. I certainly felt we had something in common with other East Coast bands such as Dumptruck or Salem 66, but mostly I looked towards the West: Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, True West, Clay Allison and others. I was pleased when I found out that 28th Day were listening a lot to Greenhouse as they started developing their own sound and songs.
Mitch: I don’t think we were trying to emulate any bands in specific, besides maybe churning through secondary source influences like Chronic Town, Heaven Up Here, Entertainment! and Seventeen Seconds. We knew we had something that was ours. The bass had a melody role along the lines of Joy Division/New Order, rather than holding the bottom with the kick drum. The guitar often sounded like Echo and the Bunnymen. Thank god Pat and Beth had better taste in music and introduced us to Fairport Convention, Big Star and Suicide. I remember Pat doing this solo Suicide type thing at a 24-dance marathon, of all things, and people were dropping like flies.
Scram: Please describe the sessions at Saxon Recording.
Pat: Saxon was a friendly goofy guy named Dave Anderson several years older than us, with an 8-track reel to reel, half way decent equipment, located on the third story (the attic) of a large old house. He and we learned as we went along. He was easy to work with and cheap, so other bands like Invisible Party started going there. Without Saxon, I’d say probably less records would have happened–I certainly don’t remember any other local studio trying to get our business. In many ways, our April 1984 demo tape and our final album, Sand Down The Moon, sound the most like Absolute Grey did live, as they were recorded by my pal Bill Groome in his kitchen and living room in Corning, NY with fairly crude equipment (in comparison to the slightly better pro equipment at Saxon). Bill had more of an ear for what we were trying to do, I think, than Dave did.
Mitch: We had no idea what we were doing in the studio, and our “greatness” got lost somewhere between the mics, the mixing board and the compressor of the month. Sometimes I wish a young Jim Dickinson or Joe Boyd was running a studio in Rochester when we were around. Not only would the albums sound better today, but I can imagine our songwriting, as influenced by the recording process, would have been more fine-tuned. Not to be rude, but I think the recording process was an unrecording of our sound. I don’t mean stripped down and direct in the style of Steve Albini, but that when we walked into the studio the band was left at the door.
Scram: What made you decide to re-release Greenhouse? What was it like going through the old live and studio tapes?
Beth: This is a pet project that Pat did on his own. He’s the Keeper of the Absolute Grey Flame.
Pat: Now that we live in all digital world, I felt that if Greenhouse wasn’t put out on CD, there would become a time when it wouldn’t really exist at all, as if it never happened. I remember something John Lennon said about when he heard a Beatles song on the radio: he said it brought him back that session, who was doing what and who said what, just like a time machine back to the actual recording session. It was little bit like that going back to the original reel to reel multi-track tapes of Greenhouse. I’d never done that before, and here I was hearing us talk between songs from 20 years ago. I was hoping to find some outtakes. I knew that there weren’t any unreleased songs, but I was surprised to find no other versions of the same songs. For example, we did record a version of “Memory Of You” in the studio during the Greenhouse recording, but it wasn’t on the master reel. I also found out that we slowed down the tape down when Beth overdubbed her vocals and for the mixing. In other words, we recorded some of the songs very fast in tempo in the studio (probably because we were nervous) and we must have realized later that the tempo was too fast for Beth to sing on top of it. The live stuff was interesting, as again I hadn’t listened to it in years, but I for one was very happy with the overall sound quality and performance.
Beth: I think when you’re in the studio you have a tendency to try to play everything perfectly, so that’s your focus. When we played live it was all about excitement and energy and putting on a good show. You can hear the difference.
Mitch: Thankfully there are live recordings of the band, but to this day I believe live shows and studio recording are very different playing and listening experiences and should be kept that way. The studio is a totally controlled environment, and it is a pretense to think otherwise. In the end, I wish there were better studio recordings of us with less of the direct acoustic guitar sound and more full bass tonesâ€¦ but as I listen to the remastered Greenhouse right now, the recordings were not complete failures.
Pat: Frankly, when we went in to record Greenhouse we had no idea what we were doing from a studio or production point of view, nor did some of the people recording us. I think performance-wise we were successful, soundwise we were not. I remember spending hours trying to capture our live electric guitar sound in the studio; we tried about a dozen different amps and guitars and none of us were ever satisfied. We felt that Greenhouse didn’t really sound like “us”–and “us,” at that point, was our live show. I remember many Rochester fans being disappointed by the sound of Greenhouse because they knew what we really sounded like live. But outside of Rochester it didn’t matter.
Scram: How come there are so many early live tracks that were left unrecorded? How come gems like “Watching Waiting” and “Candy Canes” never made it to official release?
Mitch: I can specifically remember my Spanish teacher (who also played some keyboards on Greenhouse) asking me why “Candy Canes” was not on Greenhouse. I said it was too stupid and obvious. We thought the songs had to be long and minimal, like “Notes.” To a certain extent, we were right. “Watching Waiting” was our first real song, and I think we were sick of it by the time we got around to recording the first record. Also, if I remember, we recorded “Watching Waiting” and “Candy Canes” on our first cassette/demo tape release and we simply wanted to record the latest songs for the first album.
Scram: Give me your memories of the live version of “Getting Me Down.” Beth sounds drunk; true?
Beth: I was often drunk at shows, but so was the audience. It will be a new experience to play out with my new band without imbibing first. I don’t know what I’ll do with my nerves.
Mitch: We were not notorious drunks by any means, but I do remember a show when we were so drunk we kept making mistakes. Finally I dropped my bass and started spray-painting it. I then announced that people could get their money back at the door. Quite a few did.
Scram: Who was Pet Casket, referenced at the end of “Getting Me Down?”
Pat: Alex Chilton hadn’t toured for many years, or least hadn’t come through our neck of the woodsâ€¦ it was a couple of months before Feudalist Tarts. In the meantime, the legend of Big Star had grown, so we (a couple of the bands in Rochester, mainly Absolute Grey and Invisible Party) were all super eager to open for Chilton at Scorgies. We decided the only fair thing to do was to form a one-time-only supergroup with members of both bands, plus Bob Martin from Personal Effects. That way we could all be Chilton’s opening act! Instead of playing our own songs we mainly played covers: Velvet Underground, Beatles, etc.
Scram: Absolute Grey seems to have had a relationship with Dream Syndicate; you covered “Tell Me When It’s Over” live, and Steve Wynn has fond memories of you. When did that begin, and how long-lasting was it?
Mitch: Pat was the Steve Wynn connection, although we all loved Dream Syndicate. One of my favorite concerts of all time was a Dream Syndicate show at Scorgies. At the end of the set, the owner jumped up on stage and yelled “open bar,” and there was this tidal wave of people to the back of the room. Then the band started playing encores. Last week I was eating dinner with the band New Year, and bragging to Chris Brokaw that I saw and knew Steve before he played with him as part of Come. Chris quickly put me in my place and said that he met Steve in 1983. But I have fond memories of being backstage with Steve, smoking pot and studying for a test the next day. I don’t think he remembers anyone in the band but Pat.
Pat: Early on, like a lot of people, I really got hooked on Days of Wine and Roses and sought Steve out. He saw a like-minded soul and welcomed me into his life, giving me his home phone number and really supporting my own projects, such as the solo recordings that I did outside of Absolute Grey. When Steve broke up the Syndicate, that relationship continued with Steve playing on some of my own songs and recordings. We did some shows together in the US and Europe. Most recently, I produced two Dream Syndicate reissues for Rykodisc–digging thru old tapes (I hold a good chunk of the Dream Syndicate tape archives), writing liner notes and picking unreleased songs. Currently I’m co-producing a Best of Steve Wynn solo CD.
Scram: How much touring did you do outside of Rochester?
Pat: In April 1985, we played CBGBs. In July 1985, we went to Albany, New Haven and Boston. In August 1985, we went to Toronto. We did a few other adventures such as Hamilton College and Buffalo. In August 1987, we did Albany, New York and New Haven.
Mitch: I wish we had done a full European and US tour at the time. Maybe a road show with the Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade.
Scram: What were local shows like? What kind of crowds came to see you?
Beth: We had a lot of fans. It was a huge party scene. There were a lot of local bands and we would go to each other’s shows and meet a lot of people. A lot of kids from Matt and Mitch’s high school would come and see us.
Pat: We’d draw a couple of hundred people easily, mostly between the ages of 16 and 22. We got a lot of local airplay. Then when the drinking age went from 18 to 21, it made it hard for those 21 and under kids to sneak into shows. Scorgies went of business because of that change.
Mitch: The live shows were special events: entertaining, visual, loud and memorable. Two filmmakers/photographers were quasi-band members, which was Pat’s nod to Andy Warhol’s Factory. We created events. We played in all-white modernist galleries with films projected on every surface. We played in crowded, wonderfully disgusting college living rooms with beer everywhere. We even did a guerilla-style acoustic tour of Rochester laundromats.
Beth: When we had our first record release party there was a blizzard. It was snowing hard with no sign of stopping. I was so worried that no one would venture out to see us, but when we walked into the club it was totally packed!
Scram: After Greenhouse came out, you signed with Midnight Records, at the time more of a garage label. How did that come about? How do you feel about the way they promoted/distributed you?
Beth: I had only met J.D. Martignon one time when Pat and I visited Midnight Records in NYC. He looked like a real creep and didn’t say two words to me. Sure enough, as soon as he had my number, a drunk J.D. called me one day and made several inane and inept passes at me over the phone. I think he thought I was gonna jump up and hop a flight to NY to go sleep with him so he’d actually do some work promoting our record on his small-time, crummy label. What a sleazebag. Being on Midnight was a huge mistake. We could have put the record out ourselves and Pat would have promoted it in spades compared to what J.D. did. Midnight ruined our momentum.
Pat: I think Beth’s story says it all. Again, it was me networking, this time with the wrong guy, but sadly J.D. was the only one who showed any real interest in signing us.
Mitch: As a business venture it was a fiasco, but at that age and even today there is a certain cachÃ© in being signed to a label, no matter how small. Truth is we did a better job promoting ourselves, holding marketing package parties and letting Pat use his phone at Kodak to call anyone who would listen.
Scram: After Midnight, you signed with Di-Di, a Greek label. How did that come about? (I don’t remember ever seeing those records in a US store!)
Pat: Somehow the Greeks liked us freaks. Absolute Grey was popular in the Greek underground from the beginning, due to some crazed fanzine editor. So, this fanzine guy hooked me up with his Greek pals, for better or worse. Mostly worse, as the label in Greece was… I don’t what it was, but it was something, I can tell you.
Scram: In fact, it sometimes seems like Absolute Grey was better-known in parts of Europe than in your own country. Did that bother you, or perhaps amuse you?
Pat: We had support in England via Acid Tapes releases and Bucketful Of Brains magazine reviews, then there was the Greek thing. We seemed to get airplay in France, got reviewed in Italy.
Mitch: We were thrilled, but always wanted or thought we deserved more. The fact that we were better known and respected in Europe is good dinner conversation more than anything. I was in London a couple of months ago for meetings and it did not hurt that the day before there was a review of the Greenhouse reissue in the London Sunday Times!
Scram: You released an album and an EP under the Absolute Grey name. Painted Post, however, is as a two-piece. What happened with the band between What Remains and Painted Post? Was it a “breakup” per se? How did you reconcile for the last album, Sand Down The Moon?
Pat: When the band started, Matt and Mitch were both in high school. As What Remains was being made, they graduated and began making plans to go off to college. Beth and I begged, pleaded for them to delay college for just one year to see if we could make a go of it as a band, do some touring, trying to keep the whole thing rolling. They refused–no surprise, really, from Matt, as his heart was never 100 percent into the band, but without Mitch we didn’t have a band. Mitch was young and headstrong, and felt that going to college was where he wanted to be. So, in my mind, the band was pretty much over. I had left Kodak and had no reason to stay in Rochester without doing the band. When Mitch got to Oberlin, he sort of freaked out and realized how much the band meant to him. He asked me if I’d stay and wait in Rochester for him, doing the band during the summer and school breaks. I had no desire to wait for Mitch to come home for the holidays–plus, as I explained to him, touring schedules and chances to grow don’t fit around school breaks. What if we got offered a tour for the following week after school started again? So I split for Copenhagen for a year of reading Kerouac and William Burroughs, hanging out in Danish cafes, and developing my own songwriting.
What Remains came out in spring 1986 while I was in Denmark. I received an official letter from “the band” (now down to Beth and Mitch) telling me that Matt had quit and I was being kicked out, and that the $1,000 that was sitting in the band’s joint bank account was being kept by Mitch and Beth to fund the band’s future. That was the part that pissed me off the most, as I should have received a check for $250 with my kiss-off letter. Ironically, Mitch now said that he was ready to tour. But he and Beth never found anyone they were satisfied with–and the band played no shows without Matt or me.
Beth: Painted Post was a Mitch/Beth project. Mitch and I kept in touch when he was going to Oberlin. We made the record one summer when he was home from school in Rochester. I’m not sure where Matt was but I think he was out of town, too, and not available. We happened to all be in town when we made Sand Down the Moon, but it was after we had officially broken up. It was like a short-term reunion album.
Mitch: Basically, Beth and I were the two songwriters from the band and we stuck it out for a while through the mail and then made a record. An overlooked record, fortunately.
Pat: When I got to back to Rochester in early 1987, heads had cooled out a bit and Beth asked me if I could handle playing some percussion; she and Mitch wanted to play acoustic shows to support Painted Post. When Matt heard I was back, he seemed eager to rejoin. The next thing we knew, we were back together for one long summer of 1987, a short tour, writing more songs (or I should say, learning songs that Mitch had already written and a few bits from Beth as well), and to record what I think is our best album (besides Greenhouse), which is called Sand Down The Moon.
Mitch: I wrote the Sand Down the Moon songs during my sophomore year and the following summer we somehow got back together to play. Again, Pat has the complete annotated transcripts. It was a great time. We played some drunk shows that summer after a tour promoter screwed us and then at some point I mixed the album in the town of Painted Post, NY, of all places. I think this record gets closer to what we were like as a band. Not because I mixed it, but because Bill Groome recorded it.
Pat: By this time, we knew what we wanted from a recording. Beth was kinda pissy the whole summer as she knew it was the last go-around, but other than Matt and Mitch getting on my nerves from time to time (and me on theirs), I enjoyed myself for the final fling.
Scram: When did the band break up for good? What circumstances precipitated it? What regrets, if any, remained? Are there any unrecorded/unreleased songs from that time?
Beth: The band’s demise came when it was time for Matt and Mitch to go to college. The band was just something for them to do in high school, but it meant a lot more to me and Pat and we wanted it to continue. We should have agreed to take a long hiatus to do some living and then gotten back together so we had new, fresh ideas to put on the table. I think we had a good chemistry as a band and wrote naturally and easily together. I would have been very interested to regroup, but the others showed no interest. Everyone lives in a different state, two in the east and two in the west, so we can’t easily get together.
Pat: In my mind, the band broke up for good at the tail end of August 1987. We drove in two cars coming back from a short tour–Mitch and me in one car, Matt and Beth in the other. When we arrived back in Rochester, Matt and Beth had already gone their separate ways. I never saw Matt and Beth for many years after that. I dropped Mitch off at his house, and didn’t see him in the flesh for awhile either. Mitch and I kept in contact, however, and either argued about old bullshit and tried to torture each other or discussed our own separate music careers. I always respected Mitch as a musician, and I helped get a few of his solo CDs released in Europe. The one thing that the Greenhouse reissue has done has allowed Mitch and me to really drop the old shit and get together again as both friends and artists.
Mitch: It is sort of a blur, but I think Pat started making his own music and found a life in that and I also think he moved out west and got things rolling with his Heyday Records label. I then proceeded to start recording my own records. They did well, and now Pat and I have active lives as musicians (mine has been inactive while raising twin girls the last three years, but I will record with a new band this winter). I also went on to graduate school and got into the arts, and there is only so much time. Pat and I still play music everyday and Beth is working on new material. I could see us making a CD EP, but only if it was about now.
Pat: I think Mitch realized how much the band meant to me when I surprised him with the new Greenhouse by sending him a few. I didn’t tell him in advance what I was doing. The CD also showed us how little Matt really cares about his past. He’s not bitter, it’s just not important to him, nor does he play guitar anymore.
Scram: Pat, you moved to San Francisco and formed Heyday. (A belated thanks for releasing Barbara Manning’s Lately I Keep Scissors, by the way.) Where did life take the rest of you after the band–not just musically, but otherwise?
Pat: Just wanted to say I’m working on a Barbara Manning Scissors box set. There’s a ton of out-takes, demos and live material from the Scissors time period.
Beth: I went to art school in Boston. I had a child in 1995 and opened an artists’ cooperative gallery in the Berkshires, Mass. I had a renewed interest in music in 2000 and started playing guitar and writing songs. I’m now pursuing doing a studio project and forming a band.
Mitch: I have a studio and house in Maine and a studio and apartment in Basel, Switzerland. Not Williamsburg and London. There is something liberating being outside of what everyone thinks is important. I mean, people in my town wear trucker caps with absolutely no sense of irony and I am grateful.
Scram: Perhaps the biggest news is that Absolute Grey has reformed to record new material! How is that coming along?
Pat: Well, it’s a two-step process. The first step is that Mitch and I are going to remix Sand Down The Moon and release it on CD, probably under the title of For Some Reason. In my mind, this is like a new album, as pretty much no one outside of Greece has ever heard it. Secondly, Beth has written a batch of songs that I think would be really good with Mitch coming in and helping her finish them off. Beth and Mitch haven’t really spoken much in the past couple of years, so there’s a getting to know each other again process going on, which as I write is moving along nicely. Not because we don’t want him, but Matt won’t be involved in any new recordings (his choice, not ours). It’s a safe bet that Chris Brokaw would be playing guitar, which is totally fine by me.
Scram: Beth, I read that you’re planning to release some solo songs. Please elaborate, and let us know where we can find them.
Beth: I’m living in Ithaca, NY right now, but I plan to move to Rochester in the spring of 2005. I’m working with some musicians there who are old friends and I will be recording my album with Dave at Saxon. It will probably sound quite different from Absolute Grey. My voice still sounds good after all these years, possibly even better because of my life’s experience. The album will be most, if not all, my own material.
Scram: In the 15-odd years since Absolute Grey broke up, there’s always been a small groundswell of interest in what you did. Have you had experiences with people tracking you down or approaching you about the band?
Pat: I often don’t think we made much of an impact, and then I’ll get surprised. A Google search will show a few bands being compared to us, which is cool. One funny experience was in the early 1990s was watching this English indie-folk duo Evergreen Dazed play in San Francisco. I heard a song that seemed oddly familiar; it took me a few minutes to realize they were covering a song from Painted Post. As Byron says in his liner notes, because we never over-hyped, we never wore out our welcome in people’s minds. I certainly was honored that well-known music critics like Byron Coley and Jim DeRogatis still felt Absolute Grey worthy of their time and attention in 2003 to write liner notes.
Beth: There are still people in Rochester who are fans, so I’m looking forward to playing there. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of support.
Mitch: Pat has more connections with people interested in Absolute Grey. He was the most notable member.
Beth: As I said, Pat is the official keeper of the flame. He keeps our memory going.
Mitch: Pat is much more involved with music. My life is consumed with running my urban design/landscape architecture studios (www.mrld.net), teaching, showing my work, writing, raising my daughters and working on a new record every couple years. It is interesting to note the current wave of indie-folk artists would not have been heard through the din of post-rock a couple years ago. I hope now that people are more aware of other music, Absolute Grey might get some more attention. And for me, the music I keep making is just an expansion of the music I wrote with Absolute Grey. I have not really changed styles or instrumentation. I hope the songs are better. My daily life with music and musicians is still very satisfying and recent tours have been fun. I enjoy the process more now than in Absolute Grey because most of the pretense is gone and it is just about making music.
(This interview originally appeared in Scram #20)
Rock Gods & Famous Monsters
Gary Lucas interviewed by Michael Bloom
Gary Lucas in Denmark, photo Jonathan Kane
On Friday March 23rd, guitar virtuoso Gary Lucas brings his band Gods & Monsters, including Jerry Harrison on keyboards, to Safari Sam’s in Hollywood. I only become aware of Lucas back in January while attending a book release on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for Steven Lee Beeber’s The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk. Gary was on a panel with Beeber, punk auteur Legs McNeil (Please Kill Me) and writer/professor Vivien Goldman (The Book of Exodus). Lucas mentioned his love of Famous Monsters magazine on the one hand, and his nuevo soundtrack for the 1920 silent film classic The Golem. Since the panel was about Jewish punk, my question concerning Richard Meltzer’s influence on the era sparked his interest. When I got home and went to his website, garylucas.com, I discovered the immense latitude of this artist, and realized Scram readers would enjoy a full-length interview. Little did I know it would include stories about his experiences with everyone from Lester Bangs to Aleister Crowley. Here it is.
Gary Lucas with Yale Marching Band 1972, Photo by Jeff Johnson
You studied at Yale. Did you major in music?
Actually I studied English literature at Yale: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Victorian novels, stuff like that. I took one music theory course there for exactly one class, before quitting: when the professor played a recording of what is essentially the pop schmaltz tune “Love is Blue” (derived from a portion of Prokofiev’s “Lt. Kije Suite,” which is what he actually played), and asked us to write out the chords and bassline by ear, I knew a formal study of Music there certainly wasn’t for me–especially when one keyboard virtuoso jumped up front of the class, sat down at the piano, and proceeded to play it back perfectly to the class, by ear…I can read and write music okay, but prefer not to….it gets in the way for me, and I generally don’t need to for what I like to do with it…as Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) used to say: “Music is just black ants crawling across white paper…”
Captain Beefheart was one of your musical influences, and you later became his friend and bandmate. What specifically about Beefheart’s music ‘inspired’ you?
I think the moment I became “possessed” was when I really listened to Trout Mask Replica a couple times…and having first drawn a blank on it outside the obvious spoken-wordjazz of “The Dust Blows Forward” and “Orange Claw Hammer,” couldn’t really get a handle on it. But gradually the structural beauty and sheer awesome “overwhelming technique” on display sank in, probably around my third listen to “Ella Guru”, which was the closest thing to a “pop song” with a hook I could readily grab onto…and I was smitten. This was after my initial sheer bewilderment/first acquaintance with the $1.98 cut- out of Strictly Personal which was just too grungy sounding to my ears after the surface prettiness of polished studio psychedelia like Sgt. Pepper, Traffic, “Good Vibrations,” Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle and other classics of the era I was enjoying…just sounded kinda amateurish and muddled on my first coupla listens, so I filed it away quickly, not to replay it till after cracking the code to Trout Mask. After that everything by Beefheart was sheer gravy, especially Safe as Milk and Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which I inhaled next (at the same time!) up there in New Haven in 1971…
You were a musician and “writer”, as well as Radio Station Manager at Yale. Can you talk about the early rock criticism that may have also influenced you…Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and/or others? Did you ever get to meet these early pioneers? Any experiences you can share?
Actually, I was the Music Director at WYBC, Yale’s radio station, following in the footsteps of Mitch Kapor (early computer geek/visionary who invented the Lotus Spreadsheet and promptly retired at an obscenely young age)…and yep, I wrote music criticism while still in high school for Cogito, the Nottingham High underground paper, which was banned from being sold on the school premises by the reactionary administration. I remember reviewing Jeff Beck’s Truth and the Incredible String Band’s Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter albums for them…later at Yale I wrote for the Yale Daily News about Family, an English band I loved, and also wrote for Zoo World, a tabloid-sized newspaper rock mag out of Florida trying to take on Rolling Stone, a few articles/ reviews about Beefheart, about my experiences playing electric guitar with the Yale Symphony Orchestra in Vienna in ’73 performing Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” a review of King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, said review of which was reprinted in the booklet accompanying their Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson and is the only negative review in there!
My favorite music writers of my youth were definitely Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, they really blew my teenage mind with their outrageous and hilariously abstruse over-intellectualized analysis of what is essentially something as basic as the air one breathes (what music really is, or rather, its primary constituent). Richard was definitely much more tongue in cheek, Sandy more formally clinical in his approach, but together they represented a new NYC Jewish-intellectual driven (piss)take on what was hitherto considered to be, basically, packaged goods one consumed without too much thought beyond the fanboy enthusiastic gush of Crawdaddy editor Paul Williams (who I also liked, don’t get me wrong)…Lester, when he appeared on the scene, I instantly pegged as a sub-Meltzer derivative/disciple, but he quickly took up the cudgels on behalf of the music the Man can’t bust sincerely and with much brio, and exponentially expanded in stature, in my eyes, when Richard and Sandy more or less bagged it from the diurnal (diurinal?) grind of reviewing– Richard evolving into a general across the board cultural pundit once he got bored with what he saw as an essentially played-out medium (rockaroll) by the mid-’70s, Sandy morphing into a hip and witty lyricist/producer/Svengali for the Blue Oyster Cult and later the Dictators (Richard of course was along for the occasional lyrical ride with him). Those two were the best, in my book, and still remain so in the Golden Age of Rockwrite (Nick Tosches is up there too, there were a few more I dug also like John Mendelsohn…
I encountered both Richard and Sandy personally at different times, on different occasions–strangely enough, never together at the same time– Richard first, when he came up to Yale in my sophomore year there for some stoopid symposium on rock criticism (or something like that). We bonded and I later crashed at his pad on Perry Street (actually right down the street here in the West Village where I’ve lived for about 30 years now) a couple times when I’d come down to NYC for some r and r, he and his girlfriend at the time Roni Hoffman were always gracious that way in letting me stay at their place. I remember him keeping small dead animals in aspic (well, Jello) in his fridge as part of his overall avant- aesthetic, and a squawking nastyass parrot that, uncaged, used to flap and fly all around their apartment and occasionally excrete multicoloured, multitudinous parrot shit which streamed down a large mirror he had propped up against one wall in his front parlor and congealed into long colorful bas-relief Crayola-like streaks and strips on that mirror…their tv was on constantly, and the toilet didn’t flush too good there…
Sandy I met at the first (and only) Rock Writers of the World Convention in Memphis in ’73, basically a gigantic freebie gig for every dissolute no-account rock critic who could muster some kind of critical rep to get themselves on the Stax Records invite list. This was also where I first met Lester– Sandy blew into Memphis one night there on the heels of some BOC gig somewhere in the general vicinity and we had cheeseburgers and talked to the wee hours. He impressed me mightily with his intellectual acumen and world-historical overview, totally brilliant and slightly crackpot conspiracy theories on everything under the sun and then some, I liked him a lot…both were as intellectually challenging/intriguing to chat with as reading their writings..
Lester later became a friend when I moved to NYC, and my best tale about Lester is when I had him and a bunch of folks like John Morthland over to listen to a first pressing of Beefheart’s Doc at the Radar Station album which I was helping to promote as Don V.V.’s erstwhile manager/guitarist–after hearing me perform my solo tour de force “Flavor Bud Living” on side two, Lester asked benignly: “So, which part were you playing, Gary, the top or the bottom?” “That was all me, Lester, in real time,” I replied…confounding the ear of the great Lester Bangs was one of the best testimonials I ever received to my guitar playing.
Jeff Buckley was a member of the earliest version of Gods & Monsters. You also co-wrote a few songs with him on his album Grace. Can you talk a little about your experience writing with him?
Jeff Buckley with Gary Lucas, 1992, photo by Chris Buck
Sure, it was profoundly easy, in a way…much easier than a line by line thrash-out with another collaborator– I would first come up with fully realized instrumental compositions …motifs, chord structures, rhythms intact, all there…mail them or play them directly to Jeff…he’d go away, sometimes for months, usually just weeks…and damned if he didn’t always come back with PERFECT lyrics and a PERFECT melody line that sinuously entwined/enshrined itself inSIDE the matrix of my instrumental, for all time…only once or twice did he offer any modification at all to the basic underlying music, such as asking me to repeat one section of “Mojo Pin” to stretch it out to double verse length because he had more lyrics that he wanted to fit in that section…and he added a vocalese section over the bridge to “Grace” when he came to ultimately record it for his one and only official Columbia studio album (which, incidentally, was named the #1 Modern Rock Album in Mojo last year, their criterion being any album released since they began publication in ’92… Number One, my honeys– over Radiohead, U2, Dylan, Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, Outkast –over any other artist/album you might care to name…and yep, I co-wrote 2 songs on that album, the title track and the opening track–actually I wrote about a dozen songs with Jeff Buckley–and five of them still haven’t officially been released…several of them as good, if not better, than those hits of his that I’m known for…
Jerry Harrison produced the latest Gods & Monsters album Coming Clean and appears with you in your upcoming show in LA. Can you talk about what it is like to work with him?
Jerry’s a cool customer, very diligent, a bit of a technocrat– and a good guy to have in your corner, another renegade Ivy Leaguer (he and my bass player Ernie Brooks were roommates at Harvard before joining the Modern Lovers)–he has a way with sound I totally respect…also a way with a keyboard that treats the sounds he produces more like sonic architecture than music per se..
How many different instruments do you know how to play? What do you think about “odd” instruments like the theremin? Are there other “extraordinary” instruments you know about?
Basically I can play the guitar really well… and also several different brass instruments not so well (my primary brass instrument was French horn, which I was more or less forced into playing having scored a perfect score on a musical aptitude test that our fascist band leader had all the kids take in order to winnow out those with enough inclination to fill the ranks of the school band and orchestra…French horn was hard enough, as if you look at a photo of me closely it will become apparent that I barely have enough upper lip for a really good embouchure! I can also play a little trumpet, baritone horn, Euphonium…also bass, a bit of rudimentary piano, harmonica, percussion, vibes…you know, if I had some of these instruments lying around my place and had lots of free time I could get much more proficient on many of them I’m sure, as I have a really good ear and am naturally “musical” by nature…but due to lack of space and general boredom with the rote mechanics of “practicing” I choose/chose not too, would much rather read, for instance…or waste hours on the computer…the guitar pretty much says it all for me, a virtual orchestra at your fingertips.
Theremin–I actually had a brainiac/certifiable genius friend attempt to build one for me in high school after getting fired up to possess one after reading about Lothar and the Hand People in the pages of Hit Parader (the ur-Crawdaddy, and the only music mag worth reading before that , and later, Rolling Stone, in the mid-’60s…at once both laughable and fantastically “wrong” lyrics throughout its pages, which was the primary reason most people bought it for!…but actually, for me, it boasted spot-on reportage of early progressive/psychedelic weirdness a’sproutin’ in the music biz courtesy of editor/writers Don Paulsen and Jim Delehant….anyway this genius friend (a Harvard boy, natch) never got my theremin really working, it basically squawked and made uncontrollable rude noises, waving your hands in front of the antennae basically made the cacophony worse (this mad scientist is now an ordained minister and high mucky-muck in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church–he was actually married in a mass Moonie wedding ceremony at Madison Square Garden in the mid-’70s).
Extraordinary instruments–Percy Grainger, whose music I like alot and have covered in the past (a solo guitar arrangement of “Children’s March” a/k/a “Over the Hills and Far Away”, on my compilation album Operators Are Standing By) reportedly invented an electronic gizmo in the ’50s which produced sliding glissando tones–which sounds like a proto-theremin to me…
Your side project the Golem is quite interesting. The Golem, or a humunculus, is a creature born out of the mythology of Jewish mysticism; and is steeped in both kabbalistic and alchemical traditions. Do you have any interests in these areas of magick? Do you have much knowledge of Aleister Crowley, and other mystics who have influenced musicians such as Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana? Are there any mystics you think are worth exploring?
Gary Lucas plays his live score to The Golem at 2003 Venice Biennalle, photo by Riccardo Schwamenthal
Yep, I have read a bit of Gershon Scholem and a smattering of the classic texts, but find them pretty unreadably dense and, well, boring, to tell you the truth–as I do alot of overtly religious texts of any persusaion…I’m sure Madonna and Britney and Paris know alot more about Kaballa hthan I do!…I’m interested in the concept but in a much more culturally curious way, rather than as an actual practitioner–the way I heard it, Kabbalah was an area of Jewish philosophy reserved for elderly tzadik-types who could only be entrusted or could only handle the discipline of studying it thoughtfully after years of preparation (that’s what my brother the Orthodox rabbinical student told me anyway)…not something for the casual browsing bourgeoisie…but hey if watered-down Kabbalah ushers in an era of world peace, I’m all for it…alchemy too– yes I like looking at alchemical art and reading stories about Paracelsus and such,and have perused texts in the past– but not to the point of obsession…Crowley of course I find fascinating, having read several biographies, piqued by Colin Wilson’s classic account in his book The Occult…I loved Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend which I read coming down from acid in Taipei after fireworks and a wild motorcycle ride the night of the actual Bicentennial…I certainly am aware of Jimmy Page’s interest in Crowley regalia/property. This could have further propelled me to investigate him as I used to dig Jimmy Page alot as a player/producer/composer (I’ve been called “the anti-Page” by Roy Trakin in Hits–hey, I am NOT anti- Jimmy Page!)…
Mystics I like? Wyndham Lewis would have abhorred that appellation…but check out his book The Wild Body, esp. the essay “Inferior Religions;” also his novels Tarr (the original version), The Apes of God, Self Condemned and The Childermass–critical philosophy such as “Time and Western Man,” “Men Without Art”, and “The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator”–plays like Enemy of the Stars and The Ideal Giant–magazines like his Blast and The Tyro–and all of his paintings and drawings, which are fucking unbelievably beautiful–and tell me Lewis is not a mystic genius, and a prodigious one, right alongside James Joyce and other seminal 20th century modernists (Joyce was a peer and a friend of his actually)– shamefully unsung…Don Van Vliet is another one, for sure, and I have the distinction of turning Don into a rabid Wyndham Lewis fan and partisan…in music, Arthur Russell was pretty damn intuitively on the mystic wavelength…there are very few others…
What is the last really good book you read, and who are some of your favorite authors?
A Terrible Love of War by the Jungian scholar James Hillman–essential reading to make sense of our current precarious teeter-totter on the lip of the abyss… Isaac Bashevis Singer my favorite author, Ulysses my favorite book…I also like Knut Hamsun, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jim Thompson, Phillip K. Dick, Saul Bellow, Lewis of course, Isaac Babel, Apollinaire, Nabokov…. I’m sure I’m leaving some out here…
What kind of food and drink do you enjoy?
I love Chinese, Indian, Italian, deli, steak w/ frites–I’m easy…I love sweets and chocolate too much…I don’t drink really…but occasionally like to sip liquers (Becherovka, Slivovitz, Amaretto)–my favorite Scotch is Laphroaig (10 years aged smoky single malt)
Gods & Monsters has been around for some time, in many incarnations. You developed the title before the movie with the same name, I presume.
Yep I came up with it from the same source that film derived its title from (the original Bride of Frankenstein,where fruity Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Praetorious toasts maniacal Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein with the immortal line: “To a New World of Gods and Monsters!” Used to run it as a sample in our show, right after our little “Ride of the Valkyries” heavy metal fanfare…
Gods and Monsters live at the Bowery Poetry Club 2007, photo by Eva Apple
photos courtesy Gary Lucas
The Rezillos: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow
by Keith Bearden
The past is dead. Completely. The best we can hope for is to smell the stink of its rot. Mostly, it is quickly reduced to dust and ash, and with more time, invisible atoms. We can look at the pictures, and hear the sounds, but we cannot make it alive again, no matter how hard we try. Nostalgia, the longing for a past time or event that one was not around for, or was too young to fully comprehend at the time, is a spiritually poisonous trap. To fixate on the past is to deny one’s very existence?it negates present reality and inevitably fuzzes up one’s future destinies. And yes, I am as guilty as the rest.
Musically speaking, the truly vital sounds of today?those with the most cultural relevance, that are open to new talent and are alive and changing?are electronica and hip-hop. Yeah, I hate them, too, but it’s a fact. I think more of us will like them twenty years from now, when they too are dead and concerts are full of our fellow saggy white culture vultures, not threatening dark-skinned youngsters or beautiful ones who remind us of the popular kids in high school. At the halfway point, there are plenty of current bands that draw from the past and add to it, or at least recombine old stuff in a fresh way. The Asylum Street Spankers play my beloved ’20s and ’30s novelty jazz, but also mix in modern country, folk, punk?ferchrissake, they even rap. And it works. Even Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard’s new music sounds current.
Make no mistake: Can’t Stand The Rezillos is an enduringly amazing record. We all should be so lucky to be part of anything so fantastic in our years on this globe. Along with Rocket to Russia, it shares the title as the perfect ’77 punk record. Guitarist Jo Callis’s songs are witty and tuneful, vocals?split between Fay Fife’s songbirdisms and Eugene Reynolds’s cartoon rasp?are excellent, production is clean and punchy (always double track your guitars, kids), and no two songs sound alike. Following a posthumous live LP, the band dissolved. Fay and Eugene continued their sci-fi/drive-in/comic book vision with the poppier Revillos, whilst Jo took The Human League to the top of their popularity.
Twenty-four years after their breakup, here they were on their first US tour. And their reputation as a terrific live band remains unscathed, despite shitty sound at the otherwise wonderful Warsaw club deep in Polish Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They really rocked out, with Eugene Reynolds adding rhythm guitar, Fay dancing and giving it all, and a kilt-wearing Jo Callis keeping it crunchy just like he should. The new songs were good. But something about it all made me sad, and I was not the only one.
At one point my friend Jenn leaned over and whispered, ‘It’s good, but I’m having a Rolling Stones moment.’ God strike me dead if she didn’t nail it. We sneer at Mick and Keef dragging their elderly asses across the globe every few years, decade after decade. Sure, they (reportedly) still put on a good show, but why? Why recycle your past glories for the 5000th time and bore everyone with new material that we all know is painfully substandard? ‘Do not repeat, in spite of encores,’ as H.P. Roche wisely opined. The bigger question however, is why those who snicker at the Stones will gladly lay down greenbacks to see some near-dead Sun Records alumni, burnt-out Nuggets relic or graying Max’s Kansas City vet down on their luck. They all push the same ‘good ‘ol days’ button that draws in bald fatties with ponytails to the Tampax Arena to see the one remaining living Allman Brother. That last image sound horrifying? Beware, my friends, as the Buddhists say, ‘We become what we despise.’
We can’t blame The Rezillos for wanting to play, no more than we can blame our parents for wanting to dance to their wedding song or revisit their honeymoon cottage. ‘Making music is fun,’ said Jo Callis before the show. ‘This tour is all about us having a good time together after all the squabbles have been put away.’
The audience was, in a word, telling. Punk crowds in the ’70s and ’80s were composed of adventurous (inevitably male) music heads, college kids and a few oddballs. Today’s Warped Tour/ Lookout! acts bring in lots of young teens, the perfect audience for punk’s reactionary piss and vinegar, and tons of them are girls. Not women, you irate feminist types?we’re talking 12-year-old girl children. The Rezillos show was packed with studied suburban Euro-punk wannabes, perfect caricatures?right down to the T-shirts of bands they’ve probably never heard (The Varukers?) or that were never that good to begin with (the Vibrators) ?of a time and a continent not their own. They are to punk what Fonzie was to a ’50s hoodlum. To help fulfill their fantasy about the good life before they were born, here was an authentic ’70s ‘punk’ band (a posthumous US tag, the band itself never considered themselves that?they started off covering Connie Francis and Nat ‘King’ Cole, for fuck’s sake). And these pre-fab punks loved every minute of it’ as long as the band played the hits. When Fay launched into a new (quite good) girl group-style ballad, they trotted off to the bathroom, mystified and offended that that anyone might like a song that doesn’t have a shouted chorus. And to remind us how old punk rock really is, there were graying couples in their fifties and sixties, draped in Dockers, golf shirts and Wal-Mart corrective eyewear, looking for all the world like grandparents chaperoning the Punk Rock Prom. (But if you were thirty when you dug the band at their one-off unannounced CBGB’s gig in 1977, do the math?how old would you be now?) Completing the set were record geeks like moi, hoping to could consummate live what they’ve dry humped on vinyl for years and years. But as I said before, the past is dead. We can fantasize about it forever, but it will never be as it was, or more accurately, as we imagine it was, or should be.
It probably would’ve been a better night for me if the pre-show interview had gone better. The Rezillos were hungry, tired, and Fay was worried about the show and possibly losing her voice. I won’t bore you with transcripts of it all, but singer Eugene Reynolds (who did not want to be called Alan Forbes, his real name) avoided quite a few questions: he didn’t want to talk about his love of Indian motorcycles, him allegedly threatening Seymour Stein to get out of their record contract with Sire, or the inter-band conflict/ romance that broke them up. Fay was mad I wasn’t asking her questions and then when I did (about her post-band career as an actress) she refused to deluge any names of projects, tapped her fingernails on the table and looked mad. When I tried to lighten it up by asking what music she was listening to currently, she got bored and went to eat, refusing to sign my copy of their first 45. Drummer Alistair ‘Angel’ Paterson (now an architect in Germany) and guitarist Jo Callis were unbelievably sweet, however. But nobody would talk about William Mysterious, the ex-Silly Wizard member (real name Ali Donaldson) who played amazing bass guitar on the band’s one studio LP. I know he wrote for cycling magazines after he was in the band, had a 1982 solo single and produced the Waterboys’ first 45. Original Edinburgh Art School-era bassist D.K. Smythe (now a research geophysicist) says he suffered from a bout of mental illness, but has recovered. But except for that, his stage name has proven to be highly prophetic.
NOTE: To approximate Fay’s brogue, pronounce Liza Minelli ‘Leeza Minalli.”
SCRAM: So why did you all get back together?
JO CALLIS: We were asked to do a spot at the Edinburgh Hogmanay festival over New Years. It’s a very big thing?like 200-odd thousand people partying in the streets. People come from all over the world. Originally we were supposed to do like fifteen minutes, but the interest was quite phenomenal, and we pulled together over a half an hour at very short notice. We had about three days of rehearsal.
SCRAM: Did it surprise you all how much people were interested?
JO: Yeah! And it really surprised us all how much we liked doin’ it.
SCRAM: You are working on new material?
JO: Yes. We actually recorded some new songs four or five years ago, when we tried to get back together then, but the recording didn’t come out quite right. Back then, people had too many things going on in their lives. Now is a better time.
SCRAM: Why do you think there is such an interest in the band now?
JO: I think people are wising up to the fact that music, except dance music and some R&B, I mean rock music, for the past twenty years, has been shite! All this New Metal. Limp Bizkit and what not. Bunch of spoiled white kids angry because daddy didn’t let them have the car that night.
SCRAM: Frat boys who think it’s rebellious to say ‘fuck’ on a record. I think someone should give those brats an encyclopedia: people have been saying ‘fuck’ since the 10th Century.
JO: They should call those records My First Beer. I keep waiting for that shite to go away?but it hasn’t. Luckily it’s not as popular back home as it is here.
SCRAM: Punk was always angry, but it was also witty, and self-deprecating.
JO: Punk was upbeat! And it had good songs. But it took you blokes in the states 20 years to catch on! What with bands like Blink-182 and Green Day. Only now are people really digging what went on back then. So the timing was right to return triumphantly. (laughs)
SCRAM: I know the Revillos have toured off and on as late as 1996. Will the bands co-exist?
EUGENE REYNOLDS: No. I think that would just confuse the issue. We’ve done as much as we can with that band.
JO: But when the New Romantic ’80s revival takes off next year, you can get another tour going!
EUGENE: We made a point not to do Rezillos songs when we were with the Revillos. But later we started doing some at the end of our set, and that’s what lit the fuse, made us start thinking about doing it again.
SCRAM: Eugene, why your stage name? Why not just Alan Forbes?
EUGENE: I found these black spy sunglasses in the sand on a beach, and I tried them on, and I just felt a different persona take over. And it was Eugene Reynolds. And then I found them for sale at a little corner shop, and I bought the whole stash. They became Rezillo glasses. I’ve never seen them before or since.
SCRAM: Didn’t you sell them through the fan club?
FAY FIFE: No, he used to toss them into the audience!
EUGENE: I did get one set back! So if any of you old fans still have some, toss them back when you see us next. I’m down to two, and don’t know what I’ll do without them.
SCRAM: America thinks of you as a punk band?do you feel that way?
EUGENE: No. It was coincidental. You have to put it into perspective?we had this band in 1975 (as the Knutsford Dominators-ed.) before there was such a thing as ‘punk’. We predated it. In those days, if you weren’t part of the old guard dinosaur rock, you were punk rock.
SCRAM: You toured with the Ramones, and they had a reputation for picking opening bands that they knew would not upstage them, and hating bands that did. Did you have any experiences like that?
JO: I think the unfortunate thing for them is that for the tour before that, the Ramones walked on water in Britain?they could do no wrong. And the British press loves to build you up to tear you down. And on that tour it happened to them, and the press favored us.
EUGENE: They had an extremely obnoxious tour manager, who would hide our guitars when we were supposed to go on. Then they put Generation X as a buffer between us. And we would get scheduled to go on 20 minutes before the door opened.
FAY: (not remembering) What??
EUGENE: So people would be coming in the door and we’d be finishing up our set.
JO: They thought Generation X would suck, and make them look good. But that didn’t happen either, so they got into friction with them as well.
SCRAM: You were very big in England?your album was Top 20. But you never made any money. Why was that?
EUGENE: We only made one record. To make any money you have to make album after album. We found out too late that we never should have broken up if we wanted to make any money.
JO: (defiantly) This band was never about making money in the first place!
EUGENE: The thing about now is that I feel there is unfinished business to take care of. That’s why we are back together.
JO: We separated into camps. It wasn’t harmonious. We weren’t a happy magic family.
FAY: But now it is a happy magic family.
SCRAM: Fay, do you still have all the costumes you designed for the band?
FAY: No! They all rotted away from the sweat and dirt!
SCRAM: One of the amazing things about both bands were the outfits, which got progressively more elaborate with the Revillos.
EUGENE: We thought that was a piss-take. The Revillos were an extreme, more out-there version of the themes we explored with the Rezillos, and the costumes reflected that. To a certain extent we wanted to be so comic book and weird that our crowd became smaller and more fanatic and we alienated the rest. Now that we are the Rezillos again, we’ve had to relearn how to go back to the subtler form. To use the analogy of a horror film: the bad ones you see the monster in the first five minutes, in the good ones you hardly see it at all. We don’t want to show the monster too much. Did you know the name comes from a comic? On the cover of The Shadow #1, the cafe is called Revillo Cafe. We changed the v to a z, and then back to a v…
SCRAM: With the Rezillos, were there any songs you recorded but never released?
JO: There was one track, an out-take.
EUGENE: And plenty of songs we wrote but never recorded.
FAY: (pointing to head) And there are songs in here that have never come out yet…
SCRAM: What kind of music are you listening to now?
JO: Lot of electronic music, dance music. House music. UK garage. I think Basement Jaxx are the best rock music in Britain right now, and they’re all electronic.
EUGENE: I like ‘The Mix’ by Kraftwerk. Listen to it on headphones?it’s an incredible aural experience. But mostly I just blast Led Zeppelin or listen to my girlfriend play guitar.
SCRAM: Putting out a new album?
FAY: Perhaps. We’re planning to make a plan, if that makes sense… there’s no master plan.
Everybody knows Terry Jacks’ 1970s tear-jerker hit, “Seasons in the Sun.” But not enough people know that prior to hitting in big with “Seasons,” Jacks, along with his then wife Susan, recorded some mind-bendingly innovative and infectious trippy soft rock, under the name The Poppy Family. Fewer still realize that, after the demise of The Poppy Family (and the couple’s marriage) Susan Jacks released four solo albums – warm records with that 70s AM radio sound so many contemporary indie bands cultivate.
Susan Jacks is a raving beauty, with flowing blonde hair and beguiling, feline eyes. She is also a gifted vocalist, some kind of cross between Karen Carpenter, Tammy Wynette, and Dusty Springfield. Whether delivering The Poppy Family’s warped pop lyrics, crooning classics, or belting out a heartfelt Country and Western number, Susan brings a combination of tenderness and strength to the mic every time.
Susan, who is currently in the process of getting back to her singing career after a long hiatus, had the following chat with me over an e-mail exchange:
SCRAM: You were singing on the radio at age 7 – did you come from a musical family?
SUSAN JACKS: I was the only one who sang at that time. Later, one of my brothers dabbled in singing but never made a career out of it. Another brother became a bass player and played with bands in the Vancouver area. He played bass in my band when I appeared at the World’s Fair in Vancouver in 1986. One other brother, in my opinion, should have pursued a career but never did…. he had a beautiful voice.
SCRAM: You had your own radio show at age 13, and were a regular on a TV show at 15. Did you feel that you were destined to be a public performer? Was there someone (family member) steering you that way? Did you ever feel that you just wanted to be a “normal” little girl or adolescent?
SJ: I was never fixated on being a public performer but I was always singing and it was a very large part of who I was and my way of expressing who I was. My mother was the one who steered me into public performing. To be honest, initially I was more interested in climbing trees than becoming a professional singer. But more and more as I began to sing in front of people, as soon as I got a taste of that connection between me and the audience I knew it was what I wanted to do.
SCRAM: As a young girl and a teenager, did you expect to make a career out of singing? If so, did you see yourself as a solo performer or as a member of a band?
SJ: I had never thought of being a part of a band. When Terry and I started performing together, I had asked him to accompany me on guitar for an Elk’s Club Meeting I was to perform at. It eventually evolved into a “band” situation.
SCRAM: Please tell me your memories of the formation of the Poppy Family. Reading about the band, one gets the impression that things came together pretty quickly, but was it really that way?
SJ: It happened fairly quickly but there was a process. After initially performing with Terry as my guitarist, we appeared for a while as a duet, later bringing in a lead guitar player, Craig McCaw. We decided we should have a group name and went through a number of names but finally settled on “The Poppy Family”. Later, Craig introduced Satwant Singh to us. Sat played tablas, East Indian drums, which gave us percussion other than the tambourines and other percussion instruments I played in the group. Sat’s tablas, along with Craig’s guitar/sitar (a sitar is an East Indian “guitar-like” instrument), helped give us our unique sound.
SCRAM: The Poppy Family scored a major hit with the song, “Which Way You Going, Billy?” In his track notes to the Poppy Family’s A Good Thing Lost compilation, Terry mentions that the two of you fought over your vocal delivery on that song, and he suggests that the performance of yours that went on the record was, in part, a result of that friction. Do you remember it that way?
SJ: Unfortunately, I didn’t have control over any part of the release of the A Good Thing Lost CD, including the track notes. When I read them, I called Terry and expressed my disapproval of the “re-writing” of our history. He told me his versions made better stories… sheesh. At any rate, he is correct in that I didn’t end up recording the vocals on the day we laid down the band tracks. I believed the song was going to be very big and wanted to give it everything I had. We had gone all day, I was tired and just wasn’t nailing it. We both knew it so we decided to leave it for the night and come back fresh the next day. There was no fight.
SCRAM: After the success of “Billy,” the song and the album, a lot of odd changes took place within the band. For one, your next album, Poppy Seeds, was quite different from the debut record. The first album was psychedelic pop, and the second had more of a country feel – you did a Merle Haggard cover, and some of the originals had a country sound and style. Was this a conscious decision on you and/or Terry’s part, to change your sound and style in this way? Weren’t you afraid of losing the audience you had gained with the single and the first record?
SJ: By the second album, Terry had let Craig and Satwant go from the band. What had become our signature sound was no longer there. Terry made the decisions in terms of the songs we recorded and, although we worked closely together as far as production goes, the musical direction we took was his decision also. At the time, I had very little influence over Terry. I missed Sat and Craig immensely, as well as the musical “edge” we had developed in the formative years as a group. Nevertheless, Terry was my husband and I trusted him to do the right things for us.
I’m not sure why Terry made many of the decisions he did. I hated the fact that we weren’t touring very much. I loved it on the road, being in front of a live audience. We were asked to appear on the last Ed Sullivan Show but Terry declined. I’m still trying to figure that one out….
SCRAM: What was it like to be a female recording artist in the early ‘70’s? Did you feel discriminated against, or isolated, in any way?
SJ: I was the “chick singer”….and I was married to the “leader of the band’. Women hadn’t yet made it out of the stereo-typical role as supporter and the “weaker sex”. Nothing made that more clear to me than when I left Terry and applied for a gas credit card. I was declined because I had no husband listed on the application. By the way, I ended up getting the card because I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I don’t remember having any specific role models but that experience, along with having to face the music industry, a predominantly male driven industry, as a single and inexperienced woman, I learned quickly that it really was a “man’s world” at that time.
Being a woman in the music industry has always been a challenge but things started changing for me as time went on. I was earning respect as a songwriter and a producer. In a business that’s run predominantly by men, you learn to adapt to the rules of the game. I ultimately found it to be a fun challenge.
SCRAM: Were there other bands or artists that you and Terry felt a kinship with during the Poppy Family years, or did you feel more that you all were out on your own?
SJ: At the very beginning of the Poppy Family days, we went down to Los Angeles to try and get a record deal. We didn’t get one on that trip, but we ended up meeting the Beach Boys and became friends with some of them. Years later, we went back down to Los Angeles to produce a single for them. Al Jardine and I wrote the vocals and Terry took them into the studio. Unfortunately, it was never finished due to the lack of availability of some of the guys so we came back to Vancouver. The song was “Seasons in the Sun.”
SCRAM: In 1973 you and Terry divorced, and in that same year you released your first solo album, I Thought of You Again. But Terry wrote many of the songs on the album, and he produced it – wasn’t this really just the third and last Poppy Family album?
SJ: Shortly before I left our marriage, Terry and I had recorded two separate solo albums. Mine was “I Thought of You Again” and his was “Seasons in the Sun”. After we had returned from our attempted recording session with the Beach Boys, I convinced Terry to record the song with his vocals. He was a little reluctant but we went into the studio with me producing his vocals and, as we had always done with the Poppy Family sessions, I assisted in the production and mixing of the song. In a way, nothing was different than it had always been. Terry made the decision that we would drop the group name for my releases but he had always released the songs he sang solo on under his own name.
SCRAM: Then you made the album Dream in 1975, and this time Terry was not involved at all. Was it scary to go out on your own like that? Tell me about the legal struggles you got into with Ray Pettinger, Terry’s business partner, and how it affected the distribution of the Dream record.
SJ: I was unbelievably excited to do the Dream album. I was anxious to move on as a vocalist and explore new musical territory. Terry had formed the Goldfish label with Ray Pettinger while we were still together. When I left the marriage, our two solo albums were to be released on that label. As time went on, Pettinger wanted to buy out Terry’s interest in the label and I loaned the money for him to do so. He changed the name to Casino records and began to recruit artists for the label. However, I never received the money back and my Dream album became a casualty of the lawsuit that ensued.
SCRAM: You next released an album in 1980. This was Ghosts, and here you were back to working with Terry. He wrote some of the songs, he produced the record, and you did a new version of an early Poppy Family song, “Beyond the Clouds.” How did it feel to be working with Terry again? Was there any talk of you two working together musically regularly? Any talk of reforming The Poppy Family?
SJ: Working with Terry again was interesting but rather stressful. He was never easy to work with and I now had a new life with a husband and son so my patience was definitely stretched to the limit. A few months before, he had approached me to sing a song he wrote called “All the Tea in China”. He had put another vocalist on the song and told me he wasn’t pleased with it. I agreed to sing the song and Terry later informed me that he had negotiated with CBS records to not only release the song as a single but also to have him produce an album for me. Regarding a Poppy Family reunion concert or tour, there has been talk but nothing has come of it yet.
SCRAM: Also on the Ghosts album, Ted Dushinski, a former CFL football player, is listed as your personal manager. Ted was your second husband. How did the two of you meet? Was Ted involved in the music business, or artist management, before meeting you?
SJ: I had been the victim of some pretty despicable characters in the industry and Ted and I felt it was in my best interest to be protected by a “barrier” of sorts. He had never been involved in the industry but I knew that my well being was the most important thing to him, something I had never had before. We had actually met through mutual friends in 1977 while he was still playing football.
SCRAM: What strikes me most on the Forever album, released in 1982, is how well you interpret classic songs, like “Baby, I’m Yours” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Did you ever think of recording a full album of 1950s and 60s songs?
SJ: I loved doing some of the older songs. I’m in the middle of negotiating a recording contract at the moment and one of the first things we are talking about doing is an album of ’60s and ’70s songs.
SCRAM: What prompted your move to Nashville in 1983? Was it hard to be away from your home country?
SJ: Bruce Allen was managing me for a while and helped to sign me to a recording contract with a company in Nashville. I was excited about being in the center of the songwriting capital of the world and a part of the hottest genre in the music industry at that time. Country music was huge. I was a little concerned that I would be forced to give up my pop/soft rock roots but country music was beginning to be more influenced by mainstream pop and that prospect was very exciting. I missed home very much while I was in Nashville but my music and other business endeavors kept me pretty occupied.
SCRAM: You wrote songs for a publishing company for the next five years. This was new for you, right – you never wrote any of the songs on The Poppy Family’s records, or your own solo albums? Had you been writing songs before, but never recorded them? What was it like to write songs and have other people record them? Did you have a craving to record the songs yourself? What were some of your favorite versions of songs written by you and recorded by others?
SJ: I had been writing for many years but not professionally. When I moved to Nashville, I found that there was a whole system to songwriting and that if you paid attention to what artists and producers were looking for in terms of song structure and themes, you would become a better writer as far as getting your songs listened to and hopefully recorded. I went to every songwriting seminar and songwriters night to learn from the best, and even from the not so good. I ended up getting a writer’s deal with a publishing company and got some minor cuts but nothing major. I produced other artists recording my songs and it was always very exciting to hear another artist’s interpretation of one of my songs. Unfortunately, my catalog of songs ended up being tied up in the dormant company for a number of years until recently when the company graciously released the songs back to me. I’d very much like to record some of my own songs and will probably end up doing just that before too long.
SCRAM: You then went on to manage a publishing company, then you became V.P. of a computer consulting company, before becoming Executive V.P. and part owner of a telecommunications company. You were now functioning at a high level in the business world. How did it feel to be working in an area so different from music? Did you long to record and perform through those years?
SJ: My evolution into the business world is still a mystery to me but it has served me very well. I continued to do some music during the past few years but the corporate world is very demanding and I found myself doing less and less music. It wasn’t until Ted got sick that I slowed down enough to realize that it was the music I wanted to do more than anything. I’m now back into it full time and loving it.
SCRAM: You’re now back in Canada, in Vancouver. What prompted the move? Are you still involved in the telecommunications company?
SJ: I had been wanting to move back home for some time but it was hard to leave when I was the co-owner of a company in Nashville. When Ted was diagnosed with lung cancer, we knew that his prognosis was not good and we immediately started talking about the possibility of moving back. I eased out of the daily routine of the company and we made plans to move back. I’m still an owner in the company but don’t work in the telecommunications side of things.
SCRAM: What are some of the highs and lows you’ve experienced while performing in front of an audience?
SJ: I remember performing in Cyprus in a concert hall that had the Greeks on one side, the Turks on the other side and the United Nations in the middle. Terry told me it was the first time there had ever been a concert with the Greeks and Turks in one building. It was magical because you could hear a pin drop… and it was a fabulous audience! The lows would be the times when personal issues made it very difficult to go on stage.
SCRAM: Have you had any role models in your life, either in the music business or otherwise?
SJ: I’ve had many role models for many different reasons, both men and women. Probably the person I admire most for her tenacity and survival instincts is my mother. She took on the responsibility of looking after the eight of her children when the marriage ended with my father. That meant working two jobs and whatever else it took to keep us fed and a roof over our heads. She’s pretty amazing.
SCRAM: Do you know of any Poppy Family video footage in existence? I saw a clip of you and Terry doing a lip-synced version of “Billy” on a TV show, but other than that, finding video footage of the Poppy Family seems to be next to impossible.
SJ: I was actually sent some footage by someone through my website. It’s wonderful that some of these things are available. I’ve heard that there is also footage somewhere from the national TV show I was a regular performer on in Canada called “Music Hop.” I’m looking into that now.
Visit Susan Jacks online at susanjacks.com
See The Poppy Family play “Which Way You Goin’, Billy?” on youtube
Harvey Sid Fisher is a man of many facets: actor, model, clotheshorse, golfer. But it is as an entertainer that he has made his greatest mark. Had he retired after penning the twelve Astrology Songs that make up his debut video and album, we would consider ourselves fortunate to obtain an interview with him. But there’s much more to Harvey Sid than just the bully-bull-bull and “sign of the crab, handle with love.” His recent duets for fighting couples and “Bloodlines” (unofficial anthem of the city of Los Angeles) suggest that there are many more surprises in store from this vibrant and unique artist.
Harvey Sid was recently interviewed by his friend Doug Miller in a noisy macrobiotic restaurant in L.A. We are also pleased to bring you the reminiscences of Gregg Turkington, the visionary who first shared Harvey Sid’s work with a wider audience when he released Astrology Songs on his Amarillo label in 1995.
Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you: a great entertainer and a great humanitarian, Harvey Sid Fisher!
Scram: Hello Harvey.
Harvey Sid: Hello machine.
Scram: You first burst on the scene in 1989 or so, when the Astrology Songs video came on public access. What were you doing up until that point?
Harvey Sid: Well, I wrote the Astrology Songs about ‘86 or so, and in ‘87 I wanted to record them. I don’t know if I want to paint a sad picture of how I couldn’t get any backing or any breaks, or nobody wanted to record it, nobody thought it was any good. Astrology Songs! And I’m trying to tell ‘em, “Hey, it’s the world’s largest religion! How can it go wrong?” So nobody gave me any money, and I didn’t have any money. But I lucked out. I got a TV commercial for Continental—
Scram: Is that acting?
Harvey Sid: Yeah, acting in a Lincoln Continental commercial, and it paid for me to record the album. I went into recording studios and musicians’ garages and kitchens at $15 an hour and got the album done for around $3000. And recently I just put back-up vocals on it, which I’ve always wanted to do, ‘cause my voice has been so alone for all these years on Astrology Songs, and I love back-up singing.
Scram: I’d like to hear that. What had you been doing musically up until that point?
Harvey Sid: Up until Astrology Songs, I’d been playing the radio. And singing in nursing homes, cover songs like “Hava Nagila.”
Scram: When did you make it to Los Angeles?
Harvey Sid: 1969. I’m from New York originally, so I’m AC/PC—that’s bicoastal.
Scram: (sounding baffled) And that stands for…?
Harvey Sid: Atlantic Coast/ Pacific Coast.
Scram: Very clever. So had you joined in on the East Village music scene when you were in New York? Were you a folk troubadour?
Harvey Sid: Only later, maybe in the 1970s or something. I dabbled a little bit there.
Scram: Any good memories?
Harvey Sid: Memories… yeah, I played places where the old incense was still permeating through the atmosphere. Clubs. Light places, dark places.
Scram: Do you feel that you picked up any of Mr. Zimmerman’s energy?
Harvey Sid: Well, I’ve been—back in the early sixties I used to write songs in tin pan alley. And they used to say, “Harvey, you oughtta listen to this guy Bob Dylan. He’s a lot like you” or “He does songs kinda like you do,” or something like that. So, I dunno, because of my voice maybe—I’m not that great a singer. Also I’m not a great guitar player, but I tell the audience, “I’m the only guy that knows the words to these songs; that’s what I’m doing up here.”
Scram: True. I met your brother once, at Canter’s. He was out here from the East coast, I guess. Are any of your other family members musically inclined?
Harvey Sid: My brother used to sing in places. He had a nice voice, but unfortunately he never took the trouble to learn one complete song. It was a problem for a singing career.
Scram: There’s been a lot of interest in the dancers in the video. Have you kept in touch with them? Have their careers benefited from being in the Harvey Sid Fisher Astrology Songs video?
Harvey Sid: The answer is no, and maybe, I don’t know. I don’t keep in touch with them. I know where they are and I can get in touch with them, and I’m hoping that I could score some successful amount of money, where I could say thank you to the girls financially. As a bonus. It’s not like I owe them anything, but—
Scram: So until then we’ll keep out of touch with them?
Harvey Sid: Yeah. I’ve had people ask me, they call me from the country or the mountains, or the south. I had one call, “could you come to the Blue Mountains and play at my wedding—and could you bring the dancing girls with you?” I said, “Lady, if you’ve got the money, you can have anything you want.” She never called me back.
Scram: So your back-up singers [Lena Marie and Caroline Avgeris]—do you conduct them with an iron hand, or do they manage to get loose sometimes? Is there some competition with them at all for the limelight?
Harvey Sid: Oh yeah, they are definitely individuals. Each one is a star, and I just give them a lot of rein. I don’t control them at all. I used to try and keep them from taking over the show, but it’s hopeless. They’re just too… (long pause) outgoing. And I wonder sometimes when I sing if anybody’s looking at me. Not only are they back-up singing, but they also have dance moves that are very magnetic. People kind of can’t take their eyes off them. And they love doing these dance moves which I have nothing to do with. They go and have these secret get togethers—
Scram: They work out their own choreography?
Harvey Sid: Yeah, and it’s great fun.
Scram: So you’ve had the opportunity to do some touring in the last year or two. Can you tell us about some of the tours you’ve been on?
Harvey Sid: Well, I’ve been in San Francisco, New York. I have a band in Boston that plays with me when I’m in New York, and we go up to Boston and play up there. I’m gonna do a wedding in Santa Fe in August. That should be a big event. There’s a band there that’s gonna play with me, and back-up singers.
Scram: Do you find that East coast or West coast audiences are more receptive?
Harvey Sid: Well, they say a man is not a prophet in his own home. L.A. is a very difficult town to get an audience in, to watch, to listen. They say there’s more bands in L.A. than there are traffic lights. But San Francisco has been very good. I get good crowds there and they sing along with me, they dance to my songs. They throw underwear at me! And that’s just the guys. (chuckles)
Harvey Sid: New York is very good also. Boston, I have fans there. And I keep getting people from all over the country who order videos, and they always ask me when am I gonna come to their little town and I play. And I tell ‘em, “Set something up. Have guitar, will travel, y’know?” Just get me a gig! I would like to find a booking agent or a manager or agent or a lawyer or—I’ll take a same-day cleaner! Somebody who’s gonna get me out of the hole for the rest of my life.
Scram: You always do look very sharp, especially in that white tuxedo. Can you recommend a good dry cleaner?
Harvey Sid: No, I’m not a—there’s certain people in this world who know the best pizza, they know the best Chinese food, the best dry cleaner. It doesn’t matter to me. It all looks good to me, wherever I go.
Scram: You have a song called “I Want My Mommy.” Was that song ever played in the presence of your mother? And if so, what was her reaction?
Harvey Sid: No, and none. My mother was not alive to hear “Mommy.” But I’m sure if she were, she’d get a kick out of it.
Scram: Now here we are at a microbiotic restaurant. I know microbioticism means a great deal to you, Harvey—
Harvey Sid: Macro.
Scram: Did I say micro? Macro. Can you tell us a little about macrobioticism? Sell the Scram readers on it, if you could.
Harvey Sid: Macrobiotics has been very good to me. I started around seventeen years ago. I had some aches and pains. I went to some macro meals; they tasted good. Went to some lectures; they made sense to me. And I pursued it. My aches and pains to my surprise went away, so I’m a big believer in the good this diet can do. Seventeen years ago people were laughing at me, that I was eating stuff that resembled dog food, or whatever, brown rice. And y’know, over the years, the standard American diet—SAD, sad diet—has kind of been backing up into macrobiotics. Y’know, how we have rice cakes, rice milk. And Reagan, when he had trouble with his back, his doctors, front page, said “he can’t be eating steaks and hamburgers for a while.”
Scram: Who woulda thought that Reagan would get the macrobiotic ball rolling?
Harvey Sid: Well, we never really know how we serve. We never know our true value, and the true good we’ve done. And sometimes we never will. I talk to one person about macrobiotics and they give me a blank stare, and someone behind me is listening in, grabs me by the collar, taps me on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me, can I talk to you?” So, you never know where your good is going.
Scram: Check. Can you fill us in on your career as an actor and model?
Harvey Sid: My career as an actor has had its ups and downs. One day I’m on bread and water, next day nothing.
Harvey Sid: I’ve gone from relative obscurity in show business to total anonymity. Modeling has been pretty good to me in that it’s paid for a few golf balls and kept me alive. I used to be one of L.A.’s top 10,000 photographic models; now as I age I become maybe one of L.A.’s top 10,000,000 photographic models.
Scram: Have you ever modeled shoes?
Harvey Sid: I’ve modeled everything, shoes, pants, shirts, underwear, boots, booze and babes.
Scram: Okay. On the acting front—or just being on stage in general—would you consider yourself a ham?
Harvey Sid: I’m a restricted ham. I’m more of a cerebral ham. But on tour you get some drugs or booze in me, I’m sure I would probably go a little crazier. The problem is I don’t do drugs or booze. So I’m kinda a conservative ham.
Scram: You love to entertain.
Harvey Sid: I love entertaining people; I love making them laugh. I say to an audience, “If I could just make one person smile in this room… then I’m in deep shit, I’m bombing, I’m in trouble!”
Scram: (strangled laugh) I’m not going to ask you about your discography, since that’s all online.
Harvey Sid: I’m also a screenwriter; I’ve written six screenplays, and have not sold one yet. I’m kind of at the crossroads of my life right now. I’m at a stage where I’m starting to think of what else, or what, to do, or if there’s anything more I can do. I may write another screenplay I had an idea for, or also I might do some street singing, busking.
Scram: Do you have a particular corner in mind?
Harvey Sid: No, no. But I know wherever I play I will make friends, and maybe sell a CD here or there.
Scram: You told me someone was talking about making a documentary about you. What’s the story on that?
Harvey Sid: It’s a couple of film people, young guys, who find me interesting. So we’re going to be meeting again maybe in a few days to throw around a few ideas of how to do this. They want to shoot it and maybe enter it into film festivals.
Scram: Follow you around playing golf, doing auditions? Play a few gigs, tell a few jokes?
Harvey Sid: Yeah, but no bathroom, no shaving, nothing like that.
Scram: Okay, I have one more question. Maybe the most important Harvey Sid Fisher composition is “Bloodlines,” a very socially conscious, wonderful song. And seeing as this is going to appear in Scram magazine—who is it in that song who “boldly told you scram?”
Harvey Sid: Everybody.
Scram: (laughing) Okay, thanks Harvey!
Although Doug had been strictly instructed to keep his interview under twenty minutes in length, because the editrix was unwilling to transcribe anything longer, Harvey Sid became inspired as he finished his macrobiotic meal, and insisted that the tape recorded be switched on again.
Harvey Sid: I want to talk about things that are important, things of value to me, or to people out there who are looking for answers.
Scram: Beyond what your Astrology Songs can tell them?
Harvey Sid: Yeah, answers to terrestrial questions. It’s not an easy—I haven’t thought it out yet, how to present it. Maybe I might present my thoughts in a screenplay. But a lot of my thoughts are in my songs. I don’t write these “baby baby baby” love songs. “My heart is aching, my heart is breaking, I’m dying, I’m crying.” These people don’t need love, they need an ambulance!
Scram: So are there thoughts in your songs that you have not yet conveyed? The tape’s rolling here, Harvey.
Harvey Sid: Well, I can’t—I don’t know if I want to open up this can of thoughts yet, at this point. I’d love to talk about life and solutions and things that could help people. If only I knew anything, I would talk about it.
Scram: You’re too modest. Now you have a song for a movie coming out.
Harvey Sid: Yeah, I’m at present working on this movie that I’m performing in. There might be a bit part for me and some stand-in work, and it’s called Double Take. It’s written by the guy who wrote Midnight Run. He’s also directing. He’s a friend of mine that plays golf with me. So there was a possibility of there being a second song in the movie, that I wrote for it. It has to be a real dumb country song. “The dumbest country song in the world,” were the requirements. So I wrote a song called “Take Your Love and Shove It Up Your Heart.” But they won’t be using the second song, so I’ll just be doing it at my gigs, and maybe record it someday. I’ve been pretty busy the last two weeks with this movie.
Scram: You’ll be on camera?
Harvey Sid: No, it’s stand in work and extra work, it’s not acting. But they may find a bit part for me to play. It’s got Fernando Jones and Eddie Griffin starring, two very funny guys. It’s a story about mistaken identity, action-comedy.
Scram: Right on.
Harvey Sid: Y’know, I was thinking the other day, how bad you start feeling when—for instance, I thought Astrology Songs would make me a billion dollars. And you start to think about where you should be and where you’re not and where you are. And it’s not even close. But then I think, if you take away what you want, remove what you want, and you look at what you have, it’s not so bad. Life is not so bad. I have an awful lot. Good golf game, friends, talent, health. Live in a good country. I can do anything I want. I don’t have to answer to a dictator. Or a mean wife. So don’t think about what you want, and what you have is quite a lot.
Scram: Anything else?
Harvey Sid: One of the things that’s going on is I have a contract with a new website that’s coming online. They’re going to use my video of Astrology Songs. It’s called Voxxy.com. Vox means voice, and the two x’es are for the female chromosome. It’s going to be for young girls, and Jennifer Aniston is going to be the spokesperson for it. It’s not up yet, but you’ll be able to punch in an astrology sign and see my video for your astrology song. It’s coming up sometime this summer. And I’m going to be at Taix Restaurant June 17 at 11:15 PM, which is 1911 Sunset Blvd., near Alvarado.
Scram: You’re there about once a month.
Harvey Sid: Yeah, I’ve been doing that for about a year or so. And I may be doing it at Silver Lake Lounge; I’m waiting for word on that. So that’s what’s going on with me. There’s nothing else going on, but my confidence is high. My confidence is in-de-fat-igable! I don’t know why, but I guess I’m human and I’ve fallen apart where weaker men would have crumbled. I’m on a compilation CD coming out of Connecticut. The song that I contributed was “F-word.” I used to scream “f-word” on the golf course instead of the four letter word, when I’d miss a two-foot put, and I thought, wait a minute, this would be a good song. People come to my gigs and ask me to sing it. Perhaps one day some of my other songs will be more popular than my Astrology Songs.•
A selection of Harvey Sid Fisher recordings and videos are available on his website, where you can also find dates for upcoming performances.
GREGG TURKINGTON REMEMBERS
Dealing with Harvey Sid Fisher was a great experience. After being thoroughly fascinated for a couple of years with a 5000th-generation copy of the Astrology Songs video sent in to the offices of Breakfast Without Meat by a fan, I approached Harvey about the possibility of releasing some of his music. Though years of being hoodwinked in Hollywood and New York made Harvey a bit wary at first, I was eventually able to gain Harvey’s trust and proceed with the first-ever vinyl and CD issues of his classic Astrology Songs. While we at Amarillo Records did not have the resources to sell a million copies of the thing as Harvey had hoped, I am glad we were able to help increase the public’s awareness of Harvey and his unique and entertaining vision. It should go without saying that Harvey is a colorful character in person as well as on stage—I remember eating breakfast with him at a Beverly Hills restaurant when a well-known actor walked in the door, wearing dark sunglasses. Harvey asked me who he was, not remembering his name, and I told him: it was James Woods. As Woods passed by our table, Harvey leapt up, grabbed his hand, and said “Jimmy! Jimmy! How are you! Harvey Fisher!” To my surprise, James Woods greeted Harvey warmly and with familiarity and they chatted briefly, after which Harvey told me that they were old friends and had studied acting together… True Harvey Sid Fisher fans are no doubt familiar with his dogwalking scene in Lethal Weapon 2 and his featured role as a doomed senator in the obscure film Time Bomb, but I hope in this interview you can procure more information from him about his earlier acting credits on TV shows such as Marcus Welby M.D. and Kojak, or how he financed the Astrology Songs recording with royalties he made appearing on a luxury car commercial. Singer, songwriter, golfer, actor, model, devout macrobiotic, and authentic Hollywood personality—Harvey Sid Fisher is the real thing! The man deserves a star on Hollywood Boulevard—or at least a permanent spot on The New Hollywood Squares. And if you have a chance to see Harvey Sid Fisher live in concert—don’t miss it!
‘Without anxiously departing’: talking with Kevin Junior of the Chamber Strings
interview by Kim Cooper & Margaret Griffis
from Scram issue #11
It’s entirely too rare that the will to rock and a way with jewel-like melody turns up in a single body. Scram is a proud supporter of such anomalies, and also endorses anyone who wears a rooster haircut at century’s end. You may know of Kevin Junior’s work with the Mystery Girls or Rosehips, or backing up Epic Soundtracks towards the end of his life. His Chamber Strings are terrific, brash, tasteful, swaggering, and sweet, and their Gospel Morning record was one of the finest things to come out in the last couple years. Kevin met us before his band’s Los Angeles debut at Spaceland one summer evening, and impressed us very favorably, because even though he was hallucinating, his manners were pristine.
(as we set up the recorder Kevin is telling us about how he was abused by the management for smoking at the club the night before)
MARGARET: So, how was Long Beach, other than that they attacked you?
KEVIN: (chuckling) Terrible! They were just mean to us.
KIM: Was it the audience, or the club?
KEVIN: There was no audience, but if there was maybe they would have been mean, too.
MARGARET: Maybe that’s why they were mean to you.
KEVIN: Yeah. Well, they were mean before there was any proof of an audience. It was really comical. But the three shows before that were good.
KIM: How long have you been touring?
KEVIN: We’ve been to Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.
KIM: Well, tonight will be better; this is a good bill.
MARGARET: There’ll be people here.
KEVIN: I’m looking forward to it.
KIM: Everybody loves the Lazy Cowgirls.
MARGARET: And you can go in there (gesturing to the space-themed airlock room above the main club) and smoke.
KIM: Yeah, you can smoke as much as you want in there, and the smoke just sort of hovers under those… satellite dishes.
KEVIN: That’s real good.
MARGARET: The smokers’ ghetto.
KIM: So, you ran away to England, huh?
KEVIN: Well, I didn’t, I just went over there to do some work, basically. I kept coming back. That was where Epic was. When we were first working together there were European tours to be done, and then it became a problem for him to come over here.
KIM: Did he have convictions?
KEVIN: He just never got work permits. He never made any money either, in These Immortal Souls and things–
KIM: But he played shows?
KEVIN: He just flew into Minneapolis airport and got into a bunch of trouble, ’cause they’re kind of yokels there. They really don’t have much else to do.
KIM: (in a weak attempt at a Midwestern drawl) ‘That guy looks weird, let’s hassle him.’
MARGARET: (better, but not by much) ‘What are you here for, son?’
KEVIN: Yeah, so they completely interrogated him and caused some problems. He was supposed to be allowed to come back a year later, but they kept turning him down for some reason.
KIM: But you didn’t have any problems going over there?
KEVIN: No, no. I like going over there.
MARGARET: They don’t pick you out of the crowd and…?
KEVIN: I got detained once, but–
KIM: Where, in London?
KIM: Were they mean to you?
KEVIN: A little. (chuckles)
KIM: (hoping for a Midnight Express-type story) What did they do?
KEVIN: Well, they just made me sit there for four or five hours after I’d been on a plane all night. That’s pretty mean.
MARGARET: Watching to see what you did. (what he passed, more likely)
KEVIN: They just didn’t believe why I was in the country, and once I sorted all that out it was fine.
KIM: Did they bring you a cup of tea?
KEVIN: No. But the last time I flew into Berlin, and they didn’t even ask for my passport!
KIM: In Berlin you’re normal looking!
MARGARET: (faux innocent) What trouble could you be up to in Berlin?
KEVIN: Every kind of trouble there is you can get into in Berlin.
KIM: I was in a riot in Berlin. I was over there staying with some friends who were squatting in the mid-eighties, and George Bush flew into town that day, so the police decided that there would probably be trouble. So they actually caused a riot: they blocked off this street where all the kids were hanging out anyway and wouldn’t let anyone leave, and then started beating people up. It was quite a scene. If you stayed inside a cafe you were all right, but if you went outside you were fair game. They were just chasing kids up and down the street.
KEVIN: Oh my god, how frightening.
KIM: Yeah. And after a couple hours my friends and I were bored, so we took our American passports and walked out and said, ‘We’d like to leave, please. We got here by accident.’ And they cross-examined us, they asked us what high schools we went to! Then they let us leave. (chuckles) So, have you been recording with Jim Dickinson yet?
KEVIN: No, I wish. We haven’t actually been contact with him, but that’s who I want to do the next record. We’re waiting till we figure out when it’s gonna be. Then we’ll get on our hands and knees.
KIM: I saw the Memphis plates on your van, so I thought that’s where you’d come from.
KEVIN: No, just coincidence. We got the van in Chicago.
KIM: Maybe it’s a good omen.
KEVIN: I really wanna do it down there!
MARGARET: Have you been?
KEVIN: Uh-uh. I’ve always had a fascination with Memphis, but I’ve never gone. It’s better, ’cause I want a reason to go down, instead of just as a tourist. I wanna work. I dunno, even if Jim Dickinson doesn’t do the next record, it’d be interesting to go down there with somebody else. Like Ron Easley’s studio or something.
KIM: Are the songs written? Your record came out quite a while ago.
KEVIN: Mostly, yeah. The longer I have until it’s time to record is probably for the best. If I’ve got twelve songs ready to record and they say ‘You can’t do it for another two months,’ that’s okay ’cause I might come up with something that’s better than anything we’ve got.
KIM: How many songs do you write in a year?
KEVIN: It depends. The first six months of 1998, I didn’t write one single song. It’s the longest stretch of my life, since I became a musician. But it was just ’cause I was going through all kinds of really bad personal stuff, and I couldn’t muster it up. Once I got past that, it started flowing.
KIM: You also had a lot to work with.
KEVIN: Yeah, exactly, and it’s hard to write songs in the middle of all that. When you’ve got a perspective’
KIM: You might not ever want to hear those songs again then! (laughter)
MARGARET: Unless it’s the blues.
KIM: Real deep blues.
MARGARET: In Memphis that might be good.
KEVIN: (chuckles) Yeah. It’s like ’60s Memphis soul is really the stuff I’m most impressed with. I think the next record will incorporate a combination of ’60s soul and Phil Spector, Brill Building pop production and arrangements.
KIM: You gonna play with an orchestra?
KEVIN: It’s definitely gonna be a string-heavy record, I know that, and brass and piano are gonna be on there quite a bit, too. Sorta the way Gospel Morning was, just a wide range of styles. And I’m just trying with each album to dig deeper into that, just explore as much as I can with all the influences I have. I think it’s possible to make it sound compatible, too, and not like a different band on every song. So if I’m trying to get Phil Spector and a Memphis ’60s soul sound, maybe it’ll end up sounding like Gamble and Huff or something. (chuckles) I dunno, we’ll see.
KIM: Just don’t be tempted to actually ask Phil Spector to do it.
KEVIN: (laughs) We have the same birthday.
KIM: Really, when’s that?
KEVIN: Day after Christmas.
KIM: We just interviewed Johnny Ramone, and he had a few stories to tell, even after all these years.
KEVIN: Oh, I’ll bet he did!
MARGARET: The man leaves a lot of stories in his wake.
KEVIN: I mean, if someone said ‘Phil Spector’s producing your album’ I don’t know how you could possibly turn it down, even though it might ruin your record or ruin your’
KIM: Life! He’s never actually killed anyone as far as I know.
MARGARET: Just kidnapped them.
KIM: And put strings on their records that they didn’t want. But you wouldn’t mind that. Johnny was really unhappy that there were strings on his record.
KEVIN: Oh, I’d love that. I might be mad if Johnny Ramone played on my record! (laughs) I love the Ramones, but I just can’t see a part for Johnny to play on my next record.
KIM: Maybe triangle?
KEVIN: Yeah, he could do that.
KIM: He doesn’t wanna play anything anymore, he’s completely retired. How did you meet Epic and (brother) Nikki (Sudden, of the Jacobites)?
KEVIN: A mutual friend introduced me to Nikki, and when Epic started coming ’round for his first record we met up. I just introduced myself. I really liked his first solo album, a lot. We got on really well and started hanging out when he’d come to town. Eventually he called me, when Sleeping Star came out, and said he wanted to have a band play with him, and tour Europe. So we did that and then just kept playing together. It worked out well. And before Epic died I did some stuff with Nikki, on one of his records, and did a few shows here and there. After Epic died we did a couple tours together, and recorded a record called Red Brocade.
KIM: Is that a Nikki record, or the Jacobites?
KEVIN: A Nikki record. It’s basically the Chamber Strings as his band, but it’s not really the same record anymore. When he took it back to England he just remixed the whole thing, wiped the drums off half the tracks ‘ I don’t give a fuck about it now.
KIM: Is it out?
KEVIN: (bored) Mmm-hmm. But, yeah, those days are pretty much over. Me and Nikki still get on, but it just takes too much time away from what I’m doing, and I’d just much rather I was concentrating on the Chamber Strings instead of doing someone else’s thing. But we just did a tour with Nikki in April, May, in Europe for six weeks, so that was a nice way to top it off. I’d never say never, we might do something again, but I can’t see it happening for a while.
KIM: Do you think if Epic hadn’t died that you’d have your own band? Was that something you were working on?
KEVIN: I was working on it in between. My old band had broken up right when I started playing with Epic, and so for the first year I was just writing. Then I started splitting time with the intention that I’d be able to do this band and play with Epic when he needed me. I figured I’d just rearrange my schedule for it.
KIM: This group was in the states?
KEVIN: Yeah. We would have figured it out somehow.
KIM: We have jet flight now, so you can really do anything you want.
KEVIN: What’s that?
KIM: Jet flight ‘ you can go really fast from place to place.
KEVIN: Really? Oh, I hadn’t heard of that.
MARGARET: I heard about it on Art Bell.
KEVIN: I bet it costs loads of money, though.
KIM: That’s true. What’s your favorite conspiracy theory?
KEVIN: (long pause) I don’t know that many conspiracy theories. I know a lot of myths–
KIM: A myth will do.
KEVIN: Well, I guess the one that just came to mind today was that L.A. is such a horrible place –
KIM: Is that what they told you?!
KEVIN: (laughing) That’s the myth in Chicago!
KIM: And we like Chicago!
KEVIN: I’ve really enjoyed myself today, so…
KIM: What did you do?
KEVIN: I was real L.A. today: I went to do an interview outside, and we had smoothies (the Scram staff cracks up) on Ventura Blvd.–
KIM: You were in the Valley?
KEVIN: No, I thought it was — well, maybe it was.
KIM: (as if talking to a child) You were in the Valley.
KEVIN: And it was just really artificial and–
MARGARET: It wasn’t that bad, was it?
KEVIN: Oh, it was great, I loved it! It was like you could breathe out here, ’cause it’s so humid in Chicago. I was really enjoying just sitting outside and having some ice cream.
KIM: And no one pulled a gun on you, did they?
KEVIN: No, no one pulled a gun on me, and there was lots of trees and plants around, and it was just very enjoyable, actually.
KIM: Well, you can move out here if you want.
KEVIN: Yeah? I just might. I decided when I was in San Francisco a few nights back that I was gonna move there, now I’ll probably tomorrow think that I’m gonna move here.
KIM: (looking at the tour schedule) You’re going to Costa Mesa tomorrow ‘ don’t be swayed by Costa Mesa!
MARGARET: Oh, that’s a different world, as different from here as San Francisco is different.
KEVIN: I just wish I could spend more time in these places, but when you’re on tour you don’t really get more than twelve hours in a place.
KIM: Real snap-shot view.
KEVIN: Some places you don’t really get to see anything at all, but we got to see a lot of San Francisco.
KIM: Where did you play?
KEVIN: The Cocadrie. And we’re actually basing ourselves out of here for the next couple of days, so we’ll get to see more of L.A.
MARGARET: Go to Disneyland.
KEVIN: Oh yeah! I dunno if I’ll have time for that. I just saw the Capitol Records building and thought that was so neat. I only ever tour on the east coast and south and midwest, never have made it out here before. We had a tour booked earlier and it got canceled for whatever reason, but it’s nice to finally get out here.
KIM: What’s one of the most peculiar things to ever happen to you on these tours?
KEVIN: Well, I find it most peculiar that I’m able to stay awake for three, four days at a time.
KIM: Is that normal? Can you do that all the time?
KEVIN: I can’t do it when I’m at home. To me that’s extremely peculiar.
MARGARET: Without taking naps?
KEVIN: Hardly, yeah, just being pretty much up three days straight.
KIM: You do three days on and then you crash, as a cycle?
KEVIN: Mmm, and then when I crash it’s only five hours or something.
KIM: (laughing) Your metabolism is really twisted.
KEVIN: When I come home from tours I’m always just deathly ill.
KIM: How long have you been awake right now?
KEVIN: One week.
KIM: You’ve been awake for a week??!
KEVIN: Oh, awake! Away, I thought you meant. We just started this tour a week ago.
KIM: So are you at the end of a cycle right now?
KEVIN: Uhm, yeah, I don’t even know, I just know that I haven’t slept, like, properly, in a while. Several days.
KIM: Are you hallucinating?
KEVIN: I’m sort of always hallucinating. (everyone cracks up)
KIM: Margaret had a lucid dream last night.
KEVIN: What was that?
MARGARET: I started flying my truck around in the sky.
KIM: You wanted to fly, but you were driving, so you both flew!
MARGARET: (chuckling) An easy way to handle that problem.
KIM: I liked what you said about it, ‘It had a hundred thousand miles, so it couldn’t go too high!’
MARGARET: I’ll have to get the transmission looked at.
KIM: Your mechanic’s not gonna understand.
MARGARET: ‘Cesar? It didn’t fly high enough.’
KIM: Where are you from, originally?
KEVIN: Akron, Ohio. It’s a strange place to be from.
KIM: What’s it like?
KEVIN: It’s working class, and it breeds a weird group of people, I think. But we always seems to get good musicians there.
KIM: Who’s from there?
KEVIN: A lot of diverse people. There’s bands like the Dead Boys, and then there was the Raspberries’
KIM: They’re from Akron?
KEVIN: Cleveland. Actually, Akron ‘ I went to the same high school as Chrissie Hynde and Mark Mothersbaugh and Rachel Sweet.
MARGARET: (chuckling) At the same time?
KEVIN: (slightly exasperated) No, but they all went to this school.
KIM: Is it a normal public school?
KEVIN: Yeah. Aerosmith played there in 1972!
KIM: In the gym?
KIM: What’s the name of your school?
KIM: Firestone!? Like the tire?
KEVIN: Yeah, that’s where they made ‘em. Akron was the rubber capital of the world, so that just kinda sets a picture for you.
MARGARET: Maybe all that cookin’ rubber has done something to the gene pool?
KEVIN: Yeah, it left something in the air, I think.
KIM: Is rubber an artificial product, or is it made out of latex from rubber trees?
KEVIN: (flabbergasted) Wow…?
KIM: You didn’t learn this is school?!
KEVIN: I didn’t.
MARGARET: It used to be made from trees.
KIM: They used to milk the trees.
KEVIN: I don’t know where it comes from. I’m just glad it’s here!
KIM: When did you leave?
KEVIN: I left when I was about sixteen years old. Came to Chicago. And about a year later started a band, called the Mystery Girls, that sounded like T. Rex and the Flamin’ Groovies. And we couldn’t play.
KIM: When was this?
KEVIN: About 1987. We were just such outcasts at the time, ’cause everyone was either in a punk rock band or a heavy metal band. What we were doing was actually really different.
KIM: Antagonistic, I would think.
KIM: Did you look glammy too?
MARGARET: Did you get beat up?
KEVIN: Uh, we didn’t! People basically either loved or hated us.
KIM: They guarded you.
KEVIN: Yeah. There were plenty of people who thought we were pretty brave and liked it, and other people didn’t get it at all. But you know, anytime Johnny Thunders came to town, guess who go the opening slot?! (laughs)
KIM: How many times did you open for him?
KEVIN: Oh, just once, but if he’d lived I’m sure we would have gotten it the second time around too! (laughter)
KIM: Did he actually play the show?
KEVIN: Yeah, he did.
KIM: I think it was about one out of three towards the end.
KEVIN: That was a good experience, because we were all really young, and we couldn’t play our instruments that well. We were just learning how to write songs.
KIM: Who were the big bands in Chicago at that time?
KEVIN: At that time there weren’t that many at all. Hardly anybody had record deals. I think Material Issue and… boy, they were one of the only ones. The big bands were 11th Dream Day and Friends of Betty, who became Red Red Meat. Just any band that could get a record out, even if it was on an indie label, was considered a big band in Chicago! Like, us and Smashing Pumpkins were playing the same clubs to nobody. One day it all changed, but Chicago had really nothing to offer for a long time.
KIM: What was it that drew you to Chicago? Just the nearest big city?
KEVIN: Yeah, basically. I just wanted more culture in my life, and I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to get that living in Akron, Ohio.
KIM: You must’ve realized that from an early age.
KEVIN: Yeah, I did. The kids I went to school with, I couldn’t get any of ‘em into new wave or punk rock or anything. You couldn’t even get ‘em to listen to an unpopular Stones record! (laughter) They would never put on Goat’s Head Soup or something.
KIM: You must’ve been really lonely.
KEVIN: Yeah, that’s the whole thing, I just couldn’t relate to any of my friends there. And there were very few open-minded people. It’s still that way in Akron. Little groups of outcasts there.
KIM: I guess that you appreciate each other much more when there’s only three people that know what you’re talking about?
KEVIN: Yeah, it’s true.
MARGARET: A secret gang.
KIM: Well, I grew up in Hollywood, and I had a hard time relating to anyone, too. I think it’s like that anywhere.
KEVIN: Grass is always greener.
KIM: Oh, I didn’t think there was anywhere better! High school sucked.
MARGARET: Oh, that must have been really depressing!
KIM: Yeah, I was in the pop culture capital of the world and I couldn’t relate to anyone!
MARGARET: At least when I was growing up I thought perhaps somewhere else was better.
KIM: She grew up in Miami, so… we represent the gamut of America here.
KEVIN: Yeah, we do.
KIM: And we all turned out all right.
KEVIN: We should become president.
MARGARET: All three of us?
KIM: What was that Roman ‘ triumvirate, yeah. Okay, I’m in. (laughter) So after the Mystery Girls then you were with the Rosehips, right?
KEVIN: Yeah, that was an advancement for sure, ’cause I was really starting to want to be a songwriter foremost. Before, all I wanted to be was a guitar player. And I was forced into singing because the singer in the Mystery Girls quit after a few shows. But by the time the Rosehips came along I was really into songwriting and crafting and arranging things, not just going in with a four-piece band, bashing it out and mixing it in an hour.
KIM: You changed the name ’cause you felt like it was a misrepresentation?
KEVIN: Yeah, we just wanted to start fresh and leave all that behind, instead of breaking up and starting a new band to do that.
KIM: It was all the same people?
KEVIN: Mmm-hmm. That was really good for me, and I like the Rosehips’ record. But it did its time, ’cause we had been together for so long before that that we were all just frustrated. And I was starting to talk about Brian Wilson and all these other kinda different things that we’d never really incorporated in our music, and I think everyone was just kinda like, ‘What?!’
MARGARET: Back in Akron again.
KEVIN: ‘Not Rod Stewart? Not Steve Marriott?’
KIM: ‘Why would we wanna do that? No, that’s not right!’ (laughter)
KEVIN: The main influences for the Rosehips, we were really into the Stones and Faces and Humble Pie, Bob Dylan and the Only Ones, Ike and Tina Turner.
KIM: Those are great influences, but it’s kinda one-sided. It’s really aggressive.
KEVIN: That’s what I said. I’ve got so many other things in me. That’s not even one quarter of my record collection at home. I just knew if I got away from them I could do what I wanted and not have to answer to anybody. I could just play it myself if I had to.
KIM: Was it hard to make that break after such a long time?
KEVIN: It really wasn’t at all. It was just like a huge weight off my shoulders, and I was happy to do it.
KIM: And they were probably happy not to be hassled about Brian Wilson anymore.
KEVIN: Yeah (chuckling), maybe!
KIM: Are they still playing Faces music, or what?
KEVIN: No, actually. Two of the guys aren’t really playing at all, and the drummer’s playing in Cash Money, which is a Blues Explosion sort of band. (as if on cue, thunderous drumming erupts from Spaceland’s tiny stage, as the Flesheaters’ drummer embarks on a ridiculously ‘professional’ soundcheck.) Uh-oh!
KIM: (Explaining for the out-of-towner) Hey, that’s Chris D., L.A. punk rock royalty. You know I heard he was fired from being a substitute teacher for being too cruel? (Margaret cracks up)
KEVIN: But now I can say to somebody in the band, ‘Do you know this arrangement on this Dionne Warwick song?’ and nobody blinks an eye. It’s not kitschy–
KIM: You can translate what you’re hearing
KEVIN: –to them and it’s not out of reach. So that’s what I want.
KIM: I love the record, by the way.
KEVIN: Oh, thank you.
KIM: We do very few interviews, so you should feel flattered! Mostly we do historical stuff.
KEVIN: Oh, I do! I could tell from looking at the bands on the cover, it looks like you have really good taste in what you do. (Scram blushes) I wouldn’t interview very many new bands either. I wouldn’t know who to interview.
KIM: Would you like to give any fashion or etiquette advice to our readers?
KEVIN: (usually this question stymies people, but Kevin pipes up without pausing to think) Yes! If you’re in a band, don’t wear shorts onstage (laughter)–
KIM: What about hot pants, are those okay?
KEVIN: Yeah, sure, you can wear hot pants, I suppose. Don’t wear baseball caps onstage–
KIM: Or anywhere.
KEVIN: Yeah. (beginning to sound immensely jaded, so you just know he’s had to chastise bandmates for all of these sartorial offenses) Don’t wear a shirt with your own band’s name on it.
MARGARET: Onstage or at all?
KEVIN: At all!
KIM: That’s pretty bad. Okay, but what about if your band’s broken up and it’s your old band?
KEVIN: Maybe, it depends.
KIM: After five years or so.
KEVIN: We’ve got these t-shirts now, I’m so tempted to put one on, but…
KIM: You can wear it inside out!
MARGARET: What if you’re being ‘ironic’?
KIM: Ironic’s bad.
MARGARET: It’s bad?
KIM: Real bad.
KEVIN: It’s hard to see irony. But that would be probably the most ridiculous thing I could do, to wear one of the shirts with a picture of me!
KIM: That’s a nice shirt you have on (a tapered Western number in red and black); where did you get that?
KEVIN: Oh, thanks. I think I just got it at a vintage store.
KIM: Unfortunately Nudies’ is closed now so you can’t go there.
KEVIN: Yeah, I know. Actually I asked somebody right before I came out, being a big Gram Parsons fan, I thought maybe Nudies’ — I knew he died, but…
KIM: The wife kept it open for a couple years, but they didn’t seem to be adding to the stock, it was just getting sort of thin toward the end. And it smelled really bad in there! It smelled like some kind of cleaning solution.
MARGARET: But they did have the pictures on the wall.
KIM: I never found the Burritos’ picture though; I looked.
MARGARET: I did!
KIM: Did you?
MARGARET: I think it was low, and on the…
KIM: I was in there with my mom, and she wasn’t that into it.
KEVIN: Have you seen the new Gram tribute record?
KIM: Seen it but haven’t heard it — how is it?
KEVIN: Well, it’s not very good. But there’s a couple pictures I’d never seen inside with him and Nudie. One of them they’re sitting on his car, and the other it looks like they’re inside the shop.
KIM: Is he wearing the (notorious marijuana-leaf) suit?
KEVIN: Yeah! It’s not that suit, it’s a different suit.
KIM: Wonder whatever happened to those suits?
KEVIN: They’ve got pieces of it, on the cover. They thank someone for letting them use it. I dunno who. (the drumming gets obtrusive again, and we briefly pause the tape)
MARGARET: — damn, that’s loud!
KIM: That’s really loud!
KIM: Kevin, how do you get your hair to do that? (referring to his Keith ‘do)
KEVIN: Just get it cut a certain way. I don’t have to do anything else.
KIM: You don’t put anything in it?!
KEVIN: No, just take a hairdryer’
MARGARET: Dry it upside down.
KIM: Can I touch it? (does, to much giggling)
KEVIN: It’s too long, though. (more drums!)
KEVIN: (whispering) Stop it!
KIM: It’s not a stadium. What’s the worst band you’ve ever played with?
KEVIN: God, two nights ago, I think.
KIM: That’s just fresh in your mind. It can’t be the worst ever.
KEVIN: No really, it might have been this band. They’re called Vain. They opened up for us in San Francisco, a horrible heavy metal band. Two nights before that some horrible hippie band, a kind of Grateful Dead band. Oh god, I’ve played with some bad bands before!
KIM: So, we got your fashion tips; do you have any etiquette advice?
KEVIN: Yeah, I think you should definitely try to be less American at restaurants and follow some tips from the Europeans. Just have a more pleasurable dining experience.
KIM: You mean sit there for a very long time without anxiously departing?
KEVIN: Well, everyone’s just so quick to do things here. They want to get it all done and over with, and I think that it’s so much nicer to spend some time having a meal, and have red wine with it, make it sort of an event. In America, people just don’t care. They eat ’cause they have to!
KIM: You think they should take more pleasure in the small pleasures.
KEVIN: Yes! And I think that men should stop being rude to women.
MARGARET: You think they’re less rude in Europe?
KEVIN: Oh, I don’t know about that! Just in general. I’ve just been hanging out with some people lately who are extremely rude.
KIM: You’re just living with guys, right?
KIM: How many of you are there on the tour?
KEVIN: There’s five of us.
KIM: That must be a real scene.
KEVIN: It’s okay. They’re a good bunch of guys. They’re not too rude.
KIM: So that’s not who you were talking about, your bandmates?
KEVIN: (laughing) Oh, no! For goodness sake!
KIM: Here in L.A.?
KIM: (laughing) Who are you staying with?
KEVIN: I’m staying with a really good friend, but some of his friends are completely pigs, y’know!
MARGARET: Do they wear shorts and baseball caps?
KEVIN: No. I like ‘em, but they’re completely rude. It’s appalling for me to hear women referred to as certain names, y’know?
KIM: What are those names?
KEVIN: It’s not good etiquette!
KIM: Perhaps you could tell us what names not to call women by?
KEVIN: Um, don’t refer to them in body parts, I think that’s not really nice.
MARGARET: Is it okay for us to refer to other women like that?
KIM: I don’t think that’s all right. It’s crass.
KEVIN: I dunno. Guys think ‘ when some people just assume that just ’cause they’re a fucking fat pig that you are too! They assume that you wanna sit around and hear this kinda stuff come out of their mouths!
KIM: Well you have to speak up.
KEVIN: I just prefer to ignore it.
MARGARET: Then you’d be the target of their wrath.
KIM: They’d call you a girlie man.
KIM: But the girls’ll like you.
KEVIN: So those are my etiquette tips. Quit being rude and enjoy your food.
MARGARET: What kind of food do you like?
KEVIN: I like things that have been cooked by a person, basically. I’m just so sick of fast food. Thai food’s really good.
KIM: Have you had any good Mexican food since you’ve been in the Southland?
KEVIN: No, we haven’t ‘ yeah! we had Del Taco! (hysterics)
KIM: No no no no no no no ‘ you have to have proper Mexican food!
KEVIN: Oh, I live in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, so I haven’t been craving it.
MARGARET: They have very good Mexican food in Chicago.
KEVIN: Yeah, they do, especially where I live.
MARGARET: They don’t even speak English.
KEVIN: Yeah, a lot of ‘em don’t.
KIM: When did they come into Illinois?
KEVIN: I dunno. I think Chicago’s always had a heavy Hispanic population.
KIM: I know they’re in Detroit too. ? and the Mysterians are Mexican guys.
MARGARET: I always wondered how they got up there.
KIM: I think they started picking, seasonal fruit picking. Kevin, I think we’ve bothered you enough, perhaps. Is there anything you’d like to make known to the world?
MARGARET: Something you’ve wanted to tell all those people?
KEVIN: (nervously) Which people?
KEVIN: I hate you! Get out of my way! Please leave me alone!! (laughter) Oh, I dunno, I’ve got lots of philosophies, but it’s just, I’m bad under pressure.
KIM: Do you have a favorite joke?
KEVIN: At the moment I have a couple, but they are so rude that I am not gonna repeat them and have ‘em in print! I’m not gonna have that live with me the rest of my life. Let me think of an innocent one.
KIM: You’d rather be remembered as being nicer than you actually are.
KEVIN: Yeah, I would actually. Oh, they’re all so rude! I like rude jokes that are so over-the-top rude, they’re just so offensive, but people who say that stuff — (a visit from a little tour fairy interrupts) What’s this?
KIM/MARGARET: Drink tickets!!
KEVIN: (suddenly distracted) I’ll tell you later, when the tape’s not on.
KIM: You’ve got drink tickets, there’s no point in going on.
KEVIN: Yeah, maybe I will start drinking now. I’ve felt miserable all day. I drank about a gallon of red wine last night.
KIM: Oh! Did it come out of a box or out of a bottle?
KEVIN: No, out of a bottle. It was a good bottle of wine, but, yeah… I’m just irresponsible.
KIM: No you’re not; you’re on tour.
KEVIN: I take that excuse too much. (we flip the tape as Kevin is saying something about staying with people while on tour) I don’t care if you have to go to work tomorrow! Stay up with me! I’m not tired!
MARGARET: You’re a mischief-maker.
KEVIN: I guess so. I’ve got a big devil here (points to one shoulder, then the other), and one right over here.
KIM: (laughing) Two devils? C’mon! He doesn’t have any competition!
KEVIN: But they’re both really nice guys.
KIM: They’d like to be remembered as being nicer than they are.
true love, rock’n'roll & penny keno: dead moon talk:
kim cooper and doug miller listen
(from Scram #10)
I’m ashamed to admit that until recently I was not hep to the glory that is Dead Moon. Oh, sure, I knew ‘You Must Be A Witch,’ the blistering punk 45 by Fred Cole’s sixties band The Lollipop Shoppe ‘ but who would equate a drippy-psych name like that with the icy-tuff symbolism of Dead Moon? As it turns out, L.S. was a name dreamed up by their management ‘ the band was really called The Weeds!
Fred & Toody Cole are one of the great rock and roll couples, both for the uncompromising music they’ve made together, as The Rats and (since 1988) Dead Moon, and for the strength of their personal and creative bond. Having the chance to hear some of their stories before a show at Spaceland in late May was a hoot and an inspiration. They have a new album, Destination X, and it’s great, but for an introduction I’d suggest you pick up Hard Wired in Ljubljana. They are almost uncannily good live, as well as being the nicest folks you could hope to meet. ‘ The Editrix
DOUG: …And this is my 58th roommate, Mike. Mr. Cole and Mrs. Cole.
MIKE: Hello Mr. Cole and Mrs. Cole, pleased to meet you.
TOODY: [chortling] What respect! I’m impressed.
KIM: Oh, we’re very well-mannered, if nothing else. Fred, I gotta ask you about Deep Soul Cole ‘ is that true?!
FRED: Oh, god!
TOODY: [Cackling] Of course it’s true! We don’t create these rumors for nothing.
KIM: How old were you?
FRED: I was fifteen. It was Larry Williams, who played guitar on that, which was amazing. I played bass on record, and in the band it was me, a white singer doing a James Brown trip, jumping all over the place, with four kids my age who were all black.
KIM: Where did you live?
FRED: Las Vegas. Our manager was running all the R & B acts coming through Vegas, so we played with nothing except black acts.
DOUG: Did you play the Strip?
FRED: Nah, the Convention Center, basically. We were the opening slot for a lot of these different soul bands that came through.
KIM: Had you gotten together with these kids on your own, or were you put with them?
FRED: Mike Tell, who was the manager, just threw this band together.
KIM: How long did you play with those guys?
FRED: About four to six months.
DOUG: Were you going to high school, or were you a ‘drop out’?
FRED: At that point I was in the Sophomore year.
DOUG: Anyone else have a band at your high school?
FRED: Oh yeah!
TOODY: Everyone played in a band ‘ or tried to play, anyway.
FRED: I was going to Western High School, but the following year I wouldn’t go back. My hair was way over my ears, and I had to cut my hair or get a G.E.D., so I got my extra credit.
KIM: Was this around 1965?
TOODY: Earlier than that, ’cause I graduated in ’66.
KIM: How did your folks happen to be in Las Vegas?
FRED: My mom got a job (chuckles) at Mercury Test Site, in atomic energy, for the bomb testing. She was a Fecal Tester! (everyone cracks up) Yeah, really, she picked up all the animal shit out there and tested it in the lab!
KIM: From the animals that were running around on the desert?
FRED: Yeah, she’d go out there in this radioactive suit and pick up shit all day long!
TOODY: And then work in the lab. They got paid big-time money!
KIM: Did she have to go to school for that?
TOODY: Nah, I think it was on-the-job training.
KIM: Fred, your band appeared in one of those motorcycle movies.
FRED: The Lollipop Shoppe, yeah. That was a crazy thing. Our bit was filmed over two weeks. We got put up in the Bakersfield Hotel’
KIM: They filmed it in Bakersfield?!
FRED: Yeah. They put us in the hotel and said we had room service.
TOODY: Which was a bad thing to say to five 17, 18-year-old guys! (laughter)
FRED: When it finally got done the film company wanted to sue us, actually. We had a $1300 bar tab, alone!
TOODY: That was hard to do in the sixties!
FRED: In the sixties drinks were a buck! They figured we had thirteen hundred margaritas.
KIM: Lessee, there were five of you… were you tipping or something?
FRED: Not really. We were just sloshed all the time.
TOODY: They were ordering shrimp cocktails!
DOUG: What time did you have to show up on the set?
FRED: Well, they’d just bring us out there on the truck every day, and then we’d hang out for about four hours. Then if they decided to film us that day, they would. And then finally the budget was so bad that they refused to sign a deal over to the Actor’s Guild, because I was being filmed singing. So they cut me’
TOODY: It would have been a ‘speaking role.’
FRED: So you see the band, and my tambourine’
TOODY: You can hear him, but if they showed his face on screen they would have had to pay him as an actor. Two weeks, and they have thirty seconds in the film, and you never see Fred. It’s just ridiculous. There were two songs on the soundtrack album.
KIM: What was the name of the movie?
FRED/TOODY: (in bombastic unison) Angels from Hell! (hysterics)
DOUG: Tombstone should re-release the soundtrack.
FRED: Hans at Music Maniac wants to do a Lollipop Shoppe album, and I didn’t want to just reissue The Lollipop Shoppe, so I’m doing a bunch of stuff with different tracks and things, and I’m re-issuing it as The Weeds/ Lollipop Shoppe. I don’t know what I’m gonna do yet, but I’ve got old photos of The Weeds’
TOODY: The way the band really looked before Hollywood got hold of ‘em!
KIM: You were The Weeds before you were The Lollipop Shoppe?
FRED: Same band.
TOODY: They went to this management company and he said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna go for the teeny market, so clean your act up! He took ‘em all in, got ‘em haircuts, little multicolored turtlenecks.
KIM: And is it ‘shop’ or ‘shop-E’?
TOODY: It’s ‘shop.’ The English spelling!
FRED: The manager [Lord Tim Hudson] was a disk jockey here in L.A. at the time, and he was the guy who was appropriately the vulture in The Jungle Book. Remember the two vultures, the one with the English accent? That’s him! I didn’t see dime one from that goddamn thing! (laughter) We were in England about four years ago, and someone goes ‘Is Lord Tim around here?’ ‘Oh yeah, he’s managing wrestlers now!’ Well, that’s gonna give him some protection, because there’s about twenty people out there who just wanna kill him!
TOODY: If you can’t get ‘em young and stupid, get ‘em big and stupid.
KIM: You guys had your own record label in the early seventies, right?
TOODY: We had two different record labels, and we named them after our music stores both times. The early punk stuff we did on Whizeagle Records ‘ we had a store called Captain Whizeagle’s at the time.
KIM: Where’s that name come from?
TOODY: It’s something Fred made up. He wrote a story for the kids about Captain Whizeagle’
FRED: And the Snake Troopers! (laughter)
TOODY: He likes making up names. And later, after we started Dead Moon, we had Tombstone Records. ’88 was the first release.
KIM: Have you always distributed them yourself?
TOODY: Early on we did. We sold some through Cargo, Get Hip and Dionysus and a lot of the smaller mail order distribution networks. Get Hip became the biggest, and I dealt with those guys the most. Now everything’s going through Mordam, cause we’re doing stuff on eMpTy, which has much better distribution than we ever had.
KIM: Meghan from eMpTy tells me that you’re building a ghost town.
TOODY: Well hopefully it won’t be a ghost town! We’re building it to lease it out as retail space.
FRED: It’s called Tombstone Territory.
TOODY: We did an addition to the store at first, in a western style with the false-front and the big wide cedar siding. Same with the new building, it’s like some country-western bordello. It’s got porches around it, staircases, the whole nine yards. And it’s turning out absolutely immense, I had no idea it was really gonna be this big till we started it. Cause you’re looking at prints on paper, it’s hard to get an idea of dimension. (laughs)
DOUG: Will there be a saloon?
FRED: Eventually, that’s the next plan.
TOODY: The Boot Hill Saloon. We’ve got about two acres to work with, so we still got some space left if we can get up the energy and the capital.
FRED: We’re doing all the building ourselves. We’re almost done with the framing, and that’s taken us a year. Toody does the 8D nails, I do the 16D.
KIM: That’s so cool. You got wooden sidewalks?
TOODY: Yeah, it’s got a wooden porch all the way around.
DOUG: I wanna see you in a toolbelt, Toody.
TOODY: (laughing) Well, my nail pouch broke.
DOUG: Do you guys sell used musical equipment?
TOODY: New and used both.
DOUG: When people bring in guitars to sell, isn’t it tempting to keep them for your personal collection?
TOODY: Every once in a while, but not much comes through. Years ago, when we used to have Whizeagle’s downtown, that stuff was all over the place. Unfortunately, because of the economy in Oregon, everything sold for quite a bit less and we had shitloads of dealers come up from California to buy twelve pieces at a pop ‘ and no sales tax on top of that! So a lot of the stuff from the Portland area ended up down here in California, or in Japan. It’s rare now that we see any ‘vintage gear.’ We’ve got a few things stashed. We love all the stuff that’s kinda worthless, real funky old Japanese stuff’
FRED: Vegamatic control switches, lots of chrome, action like a dog. (laughter) You gotta play with a pair of pliers to keep the strings down.
KIM: You guys were just down in New Zealand and Australia?
TOODY: Yep. About a week ago now.
KIM: Have any really wacky things happened on this tour so far?
FRED: Nothing except missing all the planes. We got into San Francisco and they had all of our gear but our kick drum. We had to come back the next day and get it.
TOODY: Luckily we had a day before we had to play. But everything went pretty smooth.
FRED: (laughing) Except customs wouldn’t let us back into New Zealand from Australia! We had to get a special visa for them to process us again.
KIM: You were going back to play some more?
FRED: We played one more show.
TOODY: You have to send your passports to the embassy, down here in L.A., and they do a work permit. They asked me if a single entry would be fine, and I go ‘Oh yeah, we’re just doing one entry from the states. I thought New Zealand and Australia are both Commonwealth countries, that can’t be a problem, right?
KIM: It’s just one country!
TOODY: Well, to us it is, but to them, it’s no-no-no-no-no! So we just got stuck waiting for about half an hour, they extended it, no big deal.
FRED: The first tour was a nightmare, because we didn’t know it was winter over there! It was the middle of summer here. They called us and said, ‘You guys have got to bring all your clothes, because it’s literally snowing here.’
TOODY: We were thinking ‘New Zealand, it’s gotta be tropical!’
FRED: ‘Bring everything you got that’s warm, ’cause you’re gonna freeze your asses off!’ They’re clear down by the South Pole. We had the vision when we first went over there that it was up by the Fiji Islands, that it was nice. Man! So we packed everything ‘ we wore everything! We put all of our clothes in the drums, just to try and get all our weight in on the plane.
DOUG: You brought drums overseas?
TOODY: We take everything; that’s our luggage.
FRED: We flew from Seattle down to L.A. We had long coats on, sweaters.
TOODY: (in hysterics) It was almost a hundred degrees!
FRED: We’re sweating bullets, and we can’t take the shit off ’cause we got nowhere to put it! We’re carrying guitars. And we get to L.A. Airport, everyone’s in shorts. We come walking in in these coats, I got my cowboy hat, sweaters on ‘ we are all just wet with sweat.
TOODY: And we’re getting looks’
FRED: ‘What planet did these assholes just come from?!’ Then we had the flight from hell: Seattle to L.A., L.A. to Hawaii, Hawaii to Fiji, Fiji to Auckland.
TOODY: It’s like being on a milk run.
FRED: Twenty-six, twenty-seven hours’
KIM: And you never took your clothes off?
FRED: We couldn’t!
TOODY: How’re you gonna take your clothes off?
KIM: How could you not?
TOODY: Oh, you can take your clothes off and stuff ‘em in the overheads, but then you’re stuck carrying all this crap around!
FRED: By the time we got there we’d been sweating so bad, we smelled like we had been on the road for weeks! We were mildewed! And we came off the plane and it was snowing in Auckland, and we thanked god we had those clothes! Cold as hell.
TOODY: Freezing the whole time. This one place we played on the south island, in Christchurch, the bar owned a backpackers’ hotel. They put us in the section they had been remodeling ‘ it wasn’t finished! All the other rooms were full.
FRED: So Andrew gets stuck in a room that doesn’t have a window in it, and his bed’s right under the window. He woke up in the morning ‘ he had about four inches of snow all over the top of his head! (laughter) We walk in there, and he was totally asleep. He woke up with the headache from hell, for six hours. ‘My brain is numb, man… fuck!’
TOODY: That whole tour we were freezing, no central heating. We’d go in someplace and they’d have this little electric thing about this big (holds hands six inches apart). Total fresh air freaks, the front door’s always open. You’d go out to have coffee and just be hovering over this steaming cup, trying to keep warm, and everyone else is walking around in short sleeves. That’s our biggest memory of that tour. It was wild. We played every dinky little town that country had ‘ we did like nineteen shows. You try to imagine how small some of those towns were. (Fred hits Toody up for drink tickets and wanders off to get some beer.)
KIM: When are you leaving for Europe?
TOODY: We leave August 12, and we’ll be there till October 5.
KIM: Who runs the store while you’re away?
TOODY: Three guys work with us, and they all play in bands too, so we just trade off time.
DOUG: They don’t play in The Dandy Warhols, do they?
TOODY: No! We know those guys, but they’re in real bands. (a moment of quiet, followed by hysterical cackling all around) One guy’s got a rockabilly band, the youngest guy’s got a white-boy-funk sorta band, and Kelly does a band called Junior Samples, warped country-western hillbilly truckstop stuff. They get the most gigs! (laughs)
KIM: So how ’bout that time you shot the bear? (laughter)
TOODY: Yeah, we had to, unfortunately. Didn’t want to!
FRED: That was a drag.
DOUG: Did you kill it, or just scare it away?
FRED: We had to kill it. And then we tried to skin the thing, and we had it strung up on a tree. Toody and I were out there with lanterns, sharpening a knife all night long, trying to cut through the skin. It was ridiculous. We got it cut all the way down to the crotch, stomach pulled open, tried to start gutting it, just couldn’t do it. We had been at it for five hours, cutting.
KIM: You just couldn’t cut it?
TOODY: They have such an incredible fat layer’
FRED: It’s unbelievable, you gotta constantly sharpen your knife. So anyway, we woke up in the morning with about twenty-five feet of intestines this big around just exploded out of the stomach, laying all over the ground. Smelled so bad you can’t believe’
KIM: Why, was it the gasses?
FRED: We dug a huge hole for this thing, as deep as we could get it, and just buried the carcass ‘ cut it down and buried it.
TOODY: It was really sad cause we were homesteading in the Yukon and we had two kids’
FRED: We wanted to at least use the skin’
TOODY: They were three and one and a half, so they were really little. A lot of the bears would come into town because the food supply was really bad. We were really worried about this thing going after the kids. It actually went after meat that we had. You know, you dig a freezer hole’
FRED: Two feet and you’re in the arctic tundra. It’s like a refrigerator. Anyway, it just kept circling the camp, and then started coming in at me, looking at it through a 30.06 with a scope ‘ not a night-scope, a regular scope. It’s getting dark out to where it’s really hard to see.
KIM: Were you guys in a cabin?
FRED: We were in a tent. We were still building the cabin.
TOODY: Out in the wilderness, middle of nowhere.
DOUG: How many bullets does it take to bring down a bear?
FRED: Four. Four 30.06 bullets’
TOODY: I felt so bad about it.
FRED: Hit it in the shoulder, in the leg, the head or something, and somewhere else ‘ anyways, four shots to bring it down. Scared the shit out of me. The thing was coming right at me at full gallop and it was about twelve feet away by the time it finally went down.
KIM: Oh my god!
FRED: Scarier’n fuck, man. It was gonna take me out. Big animal.
KIM: How big was it?!
TOODY: It was a black bear, a full-grown one. This is when we were both… twenty?
FRED: About twenty, yeah.
DOUG: That’ll teach him to fuck with Fred Cole! (laughter)
TOODY: Just about, but I hate killing animals.
FRED: I do too, man I really hate it.
KIM: You wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t have to.
TOODY: It was that kinda situation, unfortunately.
KIM: Did you ever dig it up and get the bones?
TOODY: It spoiled really, really fast ‘ it’s almost like pig.
FRED: And there’s so much fat’
TOODY: You have to freeze or do something with it real fast.
KIM: How long did you guys live up there?
TOODY: About a year. We’re driving into town one day and he goes, ‘Man, let’s drive back to Portland, visit your folks for Christmas.’ ‘Yeah! okay, cool!’ Seventy-two hours straight ‘ surprised the hell outta my mom! Had a great time, and went to go back home. And when we’d first gone through the border we’d told them that we were heading for Alaska ‘ which we were, his grandmother happened to live there at the time. But our car had broken down, and we met friends in White Horse, in the Yukon Territory, and found out that they would homestead to American citizens, and ended up staying there. So when we went to go back across the border they said, ‘No, you lied to us, you’re trying to dodge the draft, blah blah blah.’ They would not let us back across the border. We just had to leave everything, write all of our friends and say, ‘Yep! take whatever’s there!’
FRED: (chuckling) We had nothing except what we were actually wearing.
KIM: Then you went back to Portland.
FRED: Yeah, started work in a Manpower job, trying to get enough money to get some other stuff going on.
DOUG: You must have been in the thick of the draft. How’d you manage to avoid it?
FRED: ‘Cause she got pregnant the first time and I thought okay, that’ll get me out. And later they said you had to have two, so then she was pregnant again.
TOODY: They finally pushed it back, ’cause they’d gone through so many lotteries. So you had to have at least one child, and your wife had to be pregnant, four months, I think it was, with the second child.
DOUG: So he took care of that.
TOODY: He made it out by the hair of his skinny-skin-skin.
FRED: (drolly) I got busy. I was workin’ overtime. (laughter)
DOUG: Ask another question, Kim.
KIM: Oh, uh… hey, what’s your least favorite question to be asked?
FRED: I think mine is, ‘How does it feel to be a living legend?’
TOODY: Fred hates that.
KIM: There’s no answer to that one.
TOODY: We’re not… dead… yet.
DOUG: What about the question, ‘What does it feel like to get a tattoo on your face?’ [referring to the Dead Moon logo that Fred sports alongside one sideburn]
FRED: It hurts like hell. The first part is fine, but when they blacken it in it’s like they’re drilling through the jawbone. If you can imagine your worst nightmare with teeth, it’s about ten times that.
DOUG: Does it still hurt?
FRED: Only when I laugh. (chuckles)
KIM: When did you have that done?
FRED: Probably ten years, it was ’88.
TOODY: That was shortly after the band started.
FRED: We did it ’cause the guy’s tattoo parlor got fire-bombed, so we did a benefit.
TOODY: He lost all of his designs, and he was right by the club we played at all the time.
FRED: Yeah, they think the police may have done it.
DOUG: Why would somebody have a beef with a tattoo parlor?
TOODY: Who knows?
FRED: Anyway, he goes ‘Man, I can’t pay you anything.’ ‘We played a benefit, that’s fine.’ And he says, ‘I wanna give you all tattoos!’
KIM: Toody, did you get one too?
TOODY: Of course.
FRED: And I said, ‘Man, I refuse to have a tattoo!’ I always told myself I wouldn’t have one on my body. (Toody cracks up) ‘Cause it was the big thing right then, everybody was getting tattoos, I don’t wanna do that.
KIM: But it’s a gift, you gotta take a gift.
FRED: So I’d always promised I would never do it to my body, but… ‘I didn’t say anything about my face!’ (laughter) He goes, ‘That’s nuts!’ And I said, ‘Put it right here.’ ‘You’re kidding me.’ ‘No, no, it’s cool.’ Everyone thought I was insane.
KIM: But with your long hair it’s pretty subtle.
TOODY: I like it! And he found out afterwards it’s actually illegal to have tattoos on your face.
KIM: Yeah, you get those jailhouse tattoos, with the tears.
FRED: I have been marked ‘ for life!
DOUG: Now you can’t break up the band! (laughter)
FRED: Yeah, and I always go through customs, ‘Yeah, man, this is me.’ There’s nooooo doubt about it!
KIM: Fred, who are some of the bands that you remember playing with in the sixties?
FRED: Big Brother and the Holding Company and Moby Grape were the two favorite bands I ever played with. I played a lot of gigs with Moby Grape. They just knocked me out. Big Brother was killer, and I just really liked Janis; she was a good person. I couldn’t stand Jefferson Airplane’
KIM: I think a lot of people feel that way.
FRED: I played gigs with them.
KIM: You didn’t like the music or you didn’t like them as people?
FRED: I just could not stand Grace Slick, y’know? The music was okay, but she ‘ I just couldn’t stand her! And when Signe Anderson was in the band ‘ in my opinion, she basically stole Signe’s style. The Seeds were a killer band.
KIM: Really? They were good live?
FRED: One of the best bands live I’ve seen. The Doors were okay, but I just had a real problem with Morrison. We played a bunch of gigs with those guys. Love was killer.
KIM: They mostly played down here [in L.A.], right?
FRED: Yeah, and Vegas a couple of times too.
KIM: Tell us what Love was like.
FRED: I thought they were the most advanced band of that time.
TOODY: The Weeds introduced all of Portland to Love; we had never heard of them, and they were doing four or five cover tunes.
KIM: Like ‘Signed D.C.’?
FRED: Yeah, ‘Signed D.C.’
TOODY: ‘Mushrooms Falling.’
FRED: We never played a gig with The Byrds, but we used to go see ‘em at the Troubadour. Man, they were just so fuckin’ out of tune all the time! (Kim cracks up) McGuinn just could not keep that twelve-string tuned.
DOUG: Well, who can?
FRED: And I loved that stuff, we had all their albums, but live? Gene Clark was great, though. The guy’s vocals were just killer, but live ‘ sorry guys ‘ to me they really stunk. The best bands at that time were Moby Grape, Sparrow was really good’
FRED: They became Steppenwolf. We played a bunch of gigs with them at the Matrix, Western Front and stuff. Nicky [St. Nicholas, bass] really carried that band at that point.
KIM: Did you ever see the Music Machine?
FRED: Yeah, I played some gigs with them. I was never into them. I used to play on a revolving stage with those guys and the Royal Guardsmen, in Portland. All I remember is one band wore the gloves’
KIM: That was the Music Machine, they wore one black glove.
FRED: (disgusted) Yeah yeah yeah.
TOODY: He kinda hates gimmick bands! (laughs)
FRED: They just didn’t do anything for me. Reminded me of the Redcoats of Portland.
TOODY: There were a million Port-land bands who did a Paul Revere and the Raiders thing.
FRED: There’s a lot of bands that we played with that became kinda famous afterwards, but were just one-hit wonders, like Count 5. They were really nice guys. That was the only song they did that I was really into, ‘Psychotic Reaction.’
KIM: All their songs kinda sound like the Yardbirds.
KIM: I’m gonna go see the Chocolate Watchband reunion in a couple weeks.
FRED: Chocolate Watchband we played sometimes with up by San Jose. I don’t remember that much about ‘em except that I saw ‘em in a movie at one point, and they did a great ‘Milk Cow Blues’ that I always thought fucking kicked butt.
KIM: That was in Riot on Sunset Strip.
FRED: Cool! Electric Prunes were another one, we played with those guys a couple of times. They had the one song ‘Too Much to Dream,’ and I thought, ‘Man, you should have had the title ‘Too Much to Drink”! (laughter) Again, great song, but they had nothing else but that song, I thought.
DOUG: How about The 13th Floor Elevators, you ever play with them?
FRED: No, that’s one band that I always wanted to see, and I have a mutual friend that has lived with Roky for years. He’s sent us things from Roky’s mother’
TOODY: We’ve got his mom’s records!
FRED: She sings gospel, just Christmas country stuff. (laughter) We’ve corresponded with him, but we’ve never met each other. He hates to leave Texas. The times that we’ve played Texas he’s either in jail or nobody knows where he’s at. He’s pretty much a hermit, but what a great fucking vocalist ‘ killer fucking stuff.
KIM: He’s a great songwriter, too, even when he’s out there.
TOODY: Oh yeah. I was really impressed with ‘Don’t Slander Me,’ when that came out after not putting anything out forever. Right on, red hot, amazing.
DOUG: I still can’t believe he did that so recently; it’s so authentic.
TOODY: He’s still got it; whatever it is.
DOUG: He just needs somebody to hold his hand.
KIM: And he’s gotta stop stealing peoples’ mail.
DOUG: Ask a question, Kim; you’re the editrix.
KIM: Okay, do you have any advice for keeping a marriage together?
FRED: Do everything together! Work together, play together. If you can’t stand to be with somebody 24 hours a day, you got the wrong person. Seriously.
TOODY: That’s our motto, anyway. It’s what’s worked for us.
FRED: Yeah. I really believe if it’s the right person that they should be your best friend, lover, your sister, everything, all wrapped up in one. Your waitress’ (Toody chortles)
TOODY: I’m damn good at that!
FRED: Your house cleaner.
TOODY: You’re lucky I was brought up old-school, baby.
DOUG: But it wasn’t love at first sight, right?
TOODY: No, because he was the lead singer in a band that’
FRED: (quietly) It was for me, though.
TOODY: ‘ was fast becoming the top band in the city after, shit, a couple months. And I just thought he was the most conceited, arrogant bastard I’d seen.
FRED: I probably was!
TOODY: I thought he looked great, I loved the music, but it’s just like ‘ yeah, right! And he had absolutely a horrible reputation. I was a very nice Catholic girl at the time. It was like, ‘Stay away from this guy, he’s trouble.’
KIM: What was his reputation?
TOODY: He would nail anything that walked and said yes! (laughter) And not give up until you said okay.
DOUG: Don’t tell me he deflowered you?!
TOODY: Oh, fuck yeah he did! (laughs) Took him a long time; longer than anybody else!
DOUG: That is so sweet. I love a good love story.
KIM: So how did he wear you down?
TOODY: Believe it or not, once I actually got a chance to talk to him and get to know him, what really amazed me was that he was totally down to earth. He started telling me about his mom and his sisters, and playing baseball, and coming to Portland from Klamath Falls when he was fourteen ‘ just a lot of shit that usually it takes years to drag outta guys, without any prompting. And for whatever reason it just clicked right off the bat. That connection was there, and that’s what it really takes for any woman, knowing you’re letting yourself go. He virtually did that first. It was a matter of time after that.
KIM: How many years have you two been together?
TOODY: Our 32nd anniversary is June 12th. We’re goin’ to Reno. It’s a tradition at this point; it’s our favorite place to go.
KIM: Do you gamble?
TOODY: Hell yeah! Eighteen, twenty-four hours straight.
DOUG: You can get re-married there, too.
TOODY: We’ve already done that. We had a huge 25th anniversary bash out at the ranch.
FRED: We had a mortician who had never performed a marriage.
TOODY: He just buries people! He’s a musician that we know, and a preacher. I asked him, ‘Will you marry us,’ and he goes, ‘I’d like to, but I’ve never married anybody before!’
FRED: We’re the first couple he’s ever married in his life, and he’s about fifty-five. He and his wife have been together forever too, and they both sing country, so they wrote a song for us. We have a pool out in our back yard, with a diving board, and when we got done we turned around and took the plunge with all of our clothes on! So all the kids are going, ‘Is that what you have to do when you get married?!’
TOODY: That’s it!
FRED: ‘I’m afraid of water!’
KIM: D’you wear a wedding dress, Toody?
TOODY: Black! You gotta wear black the second time around.
TOODY: No veil, just a forties crepe dress ‘ I was kinda worried about it getting ruined, but it was fine. We had ourselves a time; it was really cool. We had all our family and every musician in town, and half the musicians from Seattle. It was awesome!
FRED: Kick in the ass. We even did a little bit of drinkin’ that night. (crazy laughter)
TOODY: Just some wine.
FRED: We got so shitfaced, it was fuckin’ ridiculous!
TOODY: So did everyone else.
DOUG: Has anyone in the band ever had a hangover?
FRED/TOODY: (in unison) Oh, no!
FRED: I don’t think so.
[the tape runs out as Toody is telling us where the world's best penny Keno machines are located, and we ask her to repeat the directions]
TOODY: It’s the Treasury Club in Sparks, Nevada. Right next to Reno. It’s in the heart of Sparks, on Victoria Avenue, which used to be B Street.
FRED: Just down the street from The Mint.
DOUG: The readers have to shell out four whole dollars for this issue of Scram, so let’s give them a tip.
TOODY: Cheapskates unite.
FRED: And if you’re into poker you can play penny poker, penny slots, anything ‘ it’s all penny!!
KIM: Penny arcade! So, do you have any closing words you’d like to share with our readers?
FRED: Your magazine’s pretty sixties-oriented?
KIM: Well, I’ve got a sixties bent, but we do all kinds of stuff.
FRED: Yeah, but everybody’s kinda into the sixties? Well, don’t believe all you hear about the sixties! (laughter)
KIM: You were there, right?
FRED: There’s so much bullshit that people have glorified about it.
TOODY: It’s just become a real romanticized version. To us it’s almost comical. It was one of the best times to grow up. It was the last age of innocence, and I thank my lucky stars that I was lucky enough to’
FRED: A lot of causalities. It depends on who you talk to as to how they felt about the sixties. Some people loved it, some hated it, some people didn’t give a shit. It was just another time.
TOODY: It was still a pretty exciting, chaotic time.
FRED: Yeah, there was a lot of shit that went down. I read articles and just go, ‘God! I was there ‘ that never happened!’ (laughs) Kids that feel like they missed out on something there, you’re not missing out on a thing. Shit’s going on right now ‘ live this! Because in twenty years there’s gonna be kids glorifying the nineties! And goin’, ‘Wow, man, aren’t you that legend from the nineties?!’ (laughter)
TOODY: Any time you grow up, I don’t care when, all through history, has been a cool time in your life.
FRED: Value that, never worry about what somebody else and another fuckin’ generation did, ’cause you ain’t never gonna be there anyway! Do your own fucking generation.
TOODY: We all go through the same shit at the same time, it’s just social things that change. It’s still the same experience, I think.
FRED: We used to glorify Bacall and Humphrey Bogart ‘ god, if we could have just grown up in the forties!
TOODY: It was so cool then!
FRED: Well, it was cool for them maybe, but you go back and look at what was actually going on then’
TOODY: Fuckin’ hard times.
FRED: What we had in the sixties was a lot sweeter than that, what’s going on now is probably sweeter than what was going on in our time. You gotta realize that for me to work, to support her and the kids, I had to put my hair up in net hats and hide my hair just to be able to work the minimum wage $1.19 an hour job. And I’d still have guys looking at my like, ‘Man, there’s something weird about you, I know it! What’s under that hat?’
KIM: (laughing) How long was your hair then?
FRED: Well, it was pretty long at that point. And wearing a stocking cap to catch a bus at five in the morning to get to a job that starts at seven for a two hour bus ride all the way through hell and high water, and banding boxes and shit’
TOODY: It was still a very prejudiced time. Nobody wants to remember that, but it was. (laughs)
DOUG: They wouldn’t have you think that. They make it sound like there was so much harmony going on there.
TOODY: Well, there was between the kids, but hey, we were in the real world. We weren’t in control, man.
FRED: There were a lot of jocks that chased me down the street wanting to beat me up. Three different times guys putting guns to my head, telling me they were going to kill me. A lot of violent shit.
DOUG: Toody told me you were a big track star.
FRED: Yeah, I was running at that time. I wasn’t a track star, but I did do a marathon when I was about fifteen.
DOUG: Getting in shape for the Deep Cole Soul?
TOODY: No, at that point he was gonna be a major league baseball star. He was a pitcher.
FRED: It was all I ever wanted to do.
TOODY: Yeah, until the Beatles came out!
Paul Vanase: Inside The World Of Baby Bones
Interview by Robert Dayton from Scram Magazine #22
I was on tour with my act Canned Hamm in Philadelphia. On one rare off night we were over at Tom of the record label Siltbreeze’s home listening to his primo collection of vanity pressings and other ephemera. At least I think it was Tom’s pad in Philly, there was a lot of beer haze. I do remember that sometime somewhere one record stood out amongst all the other curios for its’ hard to miss “IT” factor. This record had a black and white cover adorned simply with the hand drawn bubble letters “Paul Vanase in The World Of Baby Bones.” On the back cover were photos of this moustachioed man dynamically performing in lame, glitter stars on his nipples, makeup adorning his cue ball head. Who was this guy???? The copy loudly proclaimed “Baby Bones Is Here! Cosmic Spunk Is..Disco-Caba-Rock!” When the record played we knew that its’ self-described pastiche catch phrase couldn’t begin to describe the larger than life nature, a nature that naturally should be stature to match its’ grandure. Oh Lord. The song “Sticking Needles In Paper Doll Eyes” was delightfully and giddily disturbing, it made me want to dance around the room like Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” This tarnished glam with its’ strongly minced theatrical vocal fabulousness and aggressive ivory tinkling was difficult to forget. Fast forward a few years later, Canned Hamm was on tour playing LA. On an off night we were over at Gregg of the record label Amarillo’s home listening to his primo collection of vanity pressings and other ephemera… and so it goes…
I was lucky enough to have been given a copy of “Baby Bones” from Scram editrix Kim Cooper due to much pleading on my part. Turns out she had found an inexplicable bounty of 25 copies in a thrift shop!
There was no denying the alluring mystery of this record and the pull that it had on me. Such records can be like that, records that seem to encompass their own identity, that come out of nowhere, well, somewhere but it’s a time and place that seems distant, records that shine out from the mire waiting to be plucked, some made more mysterious through their low budget black and white covers and their most decidedly non-major label status.
Whilst strolling through a Klaus Nomi Yahoo group one day I asked if anyone had any info on this Paul Vanase as he and the Nomi seemed to share certain commonalities. I honestly thought that I was grasping at straws as I had found very little info on the world wide web about him. My asking for info was a dim, near random hope. Yet through my posting weeks later, shock of shocks, Paul’s own boyfriend contacted me. Not too long after that I heard from Paul himself! This was exciting news! I truly didn’t expect that I would be able to locate such a man. All is fine and tickled pink! Paul Vanase currently resides in Las Vegas after residing in LA and, prior to that, New York City for many years. The following interview with him was conducted through various e mail conversations during December 2005 and January 2006. Gentle readers, I must advise you to brace yourself for this interview’s tone, rendered in three sessions, as we will be floating in The World Of Baby Bones, brace yourself then relax and cast yourself adrift into this unique sphere.
RD: Your album has turned up in far flung geographical locales.
Vanase: After sparkling in the gutter glitter theatre and rock scenes how appropriate to end up in thrift stores coast to coast. My audience loves trash lol.
RD: Would you know why dozens of your albums have turned up in individual caches in thrift stores in LA several years apart?
Vanase: It seems to be timed to my moving about LA.
RD: What else have the musicians on the album done?
Vanase: Who knows.
RD: My copy says “Special Collectors Edition”- were there other editions?
Vanase: The first album prints for Baby Bones were the collector ones, the rest ran without the special words on it.
RD: The record says 1975 and 1978, why is that?
Vanase: Some of the songs were written in 1975 and some in 1978, and some from my Broadway show “Wonderful Woman.”
RD: How many copies were there?
Vanase: There were 5000 pressed if i recall.
RD:Tell me more about the Baby Bones stage show.
Vanase: Every now and then i make comebacks and give a new twist and sample of Baby Bones to the new generation that looks in wonder. My stage show was summed up by one critic, “A trendy new trend encompassing all the pop, camp, neo-dada and hypersexuality of the broadway and glitter rock scenes rolled into one.” I was an audiovisual fling with decadence. We gave sleeze a bad name lol. It was like a troupe of high school brats weaned on too many hustler magazines and rocky horror picture shows presenting an extravaganza under the direction of the marquis de sade.
RD: What exactly was the character of Baby Bones?
Vanase: Baby bones was a cosmic cartoon kinda character changing costumes and moods every minute to create various results.
RD: How was the Baby Bones character different than you?
Vanase: He isn’t.
RD: When you toured the show where did you take it?
Vanase: Yes, i toured the Baby Bones show in Boston at the Rat, Philadelphia, Provincetown, Fire Island, Virginia, Rhode Island, the Catskills and a homecoming in my hometown in Connecticut which they were not ready for. When NewYorkCity had nothing happening i would sneak out and take the show on the road.
RD:What types of venues would you play?
Vanase: We took the show to just about every top night club in nyc including at that time the Copa Cabana, Max’s Kansas Vity, Hurrahs, Studio 54, we were a house band at CBGBs playing there lots.
RD: It seems like you could have one foot in and one foot out of a multitude of scenes, am I correct in that assumption?
Vanase: The purpose was to bone all kinds of audiences from punk rockers to disco bunnies to sophisticated broadway and cabaret audiences. We just glitterized the populace wherever we performed. All the music was original so where we played didn’t matter. We just couldn’t play copy tune venues and lounges. In the punk clubs id start the show as a heavy rocker long hair and rip the long hair off and expose my skinhead and put slashes of blue on my eyes it was time to indulge in a cosmic orgy of boner music.
RD: Does anyone approach you today about Baby Bones?
Vanase: Only New Yorkers and LA people who want to be in a new show, or if i’m out and about in lame.
RD: Tell me about your love of lame.
Paul: I loved the lame, esp silver…it’s so bright and shiny. i wore it in all my shows. My favorite full body jumpsuit was made out of this wild latex material that was coated with gold lame and cut down to the crotch. Others showed tits, I bared my navel. It was the closest to being fully naked on stage. It was like wearing a playtex living glove.
RD: How much lame did/do you own?
Vanase: Enough to fill a broadway stage.
RD: Do you still wear silver lame?
Vanase: Only to the Miss America 2006 pageant. It’s the first glamorous affair Las Vegas has hosted.
RD: Vegas must be a goldmine for lame! I hear that the thrifting there is amazing!
Vanase: Not really, LA is still the thrifting mecca unless you are into old casino uniforms.
RD: What exactly is the song “Sticking Needles through Paper Doll Eyes” about?
Vanase: It’s about my childhood.
RD: I notice that there’s a song called “Broken Chances 2” on your album. Was there a song entitled “Broken Chances 1”?
Vanase: Yes, it was much slower with a haunting melody.
RD: Did you release any other records?
Vanase: We did a 45 rpm called “electroshock me baby”- very headbanging scream.
RD: You had also told me that you were picking up master tapes of some recordings! What recordings are these?
Vanase: I have master tapes for a whole new opera, I’m working on getting cds made and doing a babybone show in vegas at the Onyxxx theatre. It will have a lot of video and art I’ve created also intertwined in the production. I’ve been asked to DJ at the liberace museum- now that could be an interesting event lol. More later I’m off to Planet Hollywood where I now work. Also I work at Luxor, I’m in the Attractions and Entertainment dept. We have Carrot Top and Dame Edna right now with Hairspray opening in Feb. It will be fun to see Harvey Fierstein since we both go back to the Glines Theatre. I remember I was doing “Glamour Glory and Gold.” I took over Robert De Niro’s role cuz he was going to Hollywood to do Taxi Driver talk about years ago lol. I opened the Glines Theatre with my show “A Drop In The Pudding”, a gay morality play. When I left nyc for hollywood Harvey worked with John Glines on his show. OK I’m off for now.
(Before the next interview session happened I was contacted by one Richard Holm. He found me through the exact same posting that I had made on the Nomi group where Paul’s boyfriend had found me! Richard’s e mail was most informative. He wrote, “Paul was one of the leading gay-glam actors/singers in NY of the late 1970′s and was part of the scene that included the Cockettes, Brenda Bergman, Candy Darling, Divine and Jackie Curtis….
He was Robert DeNiro’s understudy in an early off-off-Broadway play and then produced several musicals – culminating in Wonder Woman…
I was fortunate enough to camp-out on his sofa when I first went to NYC (we both went to the same high school in CT). Baby Bones was more than a ‘vanity album’ – since there were no commercial opportunities for obviously gay acts at that time – everyone self-produced. I produced his Electroshock single, but his standout work was ‘Sticking Needles through Paper Doll Eyes’. He had lots of gigs in the punk/glam scene at the time and he got some airplay – so it was definitely more than just a vanity pressing…
My personal favorite memory of Paul was the night that he took over the role in “Women Behind Bars” that Fanny Fox originated at the Truck and Warehouse on E. 4th Street…. The show featured Divine who always took her final stage bows dressed in the gown she made famous in ‘Pink Flamingos’. Well, Paul had found a fabulous second-hand baby blue gown that was even better than Divine’s and, since he took his stage bow first, stole the show in his ‘more-than-divine’ gown… so when Divine finally came out for her bows – there was nothing more than polite applause….
Paul was fired before he even left the stage… but he had made his point…
Paul moved to LA in the 80′s and I haven’t heard anything since but its great that people have re-discovered him…”
With the arrival of that delightful e mail our next interview started ecstatically:)
RD: Paul, this fellow named Richard Holm emailed me and he wants to contact you.
Vanase: Wow, i can’t believe you found Rich, he knows the baby bone saga as he was my right hand man and the most wonderful friend i love and have missed for years thinking he was lost in a mist. I can’t wait till I tell him my new album is ready to go. I smell a creative juice. If you get his email or phone please forward it to me and vice versa, we need to make an obscure new film. Since I’ve been in hollywood my expertise lends itself toward that mode. Well i’m more than excited. You should write my biography and I have lots of connections in the publishing field after writing episodes of Fantasy Island with my other producer Charlene Keel. She brought me to la to do my rock opera “Cosmic Spunk” at the odyssey theatre. Those were the days- the mayor Tom Bradley came to see my midnite premiere, the Oingo Boingo Danny and the go mickey Toni Basil protege Janet Roston got my show up and running, all helped my endeavors. Oh yeah, “Torch Song Trilogy” was Harvey Fiersteins’ show that John Glines produced after i left nyc. Not bad, huh?
RD: What caused you to move to LA? Was it to do the “Cosmic Spunk” opera?
Vanase: My agent shipped me to LA to open my new opera “Cosmic Spunk” in ‘82 maybe. LA was ready for something different….
LA people know of Baby Bones and Club Fuck and The Ass Club. Baby Bones did lots of raves in the late 90’s. The Weekly gave it hot pick of the week in their music picks. That stage show featured a costume for every song with so many props that the stage caught fire one night- a stuffed dog poodle got accidentally placed on a floorlamp lol oops. We dedicated our shows to things such as rain, Paris, and ants that went marching one by one.
RD: What is the Cosmic Spunk world?
Vanase: Cosmic Spunk was a new wave shock rock opera that opened to rave reviews, a double page welcome in the LA Times announced the shockido, my new wave haircut at the time. It was my Babybones spit curl in pink, sometimes blue. The show ran for months. The Sheiks of Shock backed up the insanity. Guest stars were Darlene Love (of Phil Spector fame), Zelda Rubinstein (the Poltergeist lady), Rita Jenrette (the Wilbur Mills White House steps concubine). I was then on the TV show “The Book Of Lists” with Bill Bixby, Leslie Uggums and Ruth Buzzi. That’s where I found my good fairy LA Weekly founder and editor Cindy Randall. Then my producer Charlene Keel was doing the series “Rituals” and she suggested I write for TV. Which led to my writing for “Fantasy Island.” Herves’ ranch was at my disposal.
RD: You co-wrote episodes of “Fantasy Island?” Whaaaat? Tell me more!
Vanase: I ghosted scripts for my producer, Charleene Keel, for 2 seasons.
RD: Do you have any anecdotes about working with Divine? Jackie Curtis? The Cockettes? It seems like an interesting exciting scene sprang up from that period that you were very much a large part of.
Vanase: Anecdotes by the millions.. do you mean who was sleeping with who or quality entertainment at its’ best? divine was divine, i wasn’t eating no dog shit. It seemed you had to eat shit to be a star in those days. Jackie Curtis was flying high as usual and never changed her panty hose, he was a brilliant writer and I was blessed being on stage every night with the Warhol elite. The Cockettes arrived in nyc and I found myself in some limo going to the jungle putting dresses on over our combat boots. Anyone could be a cockette you just needed the ——— etc lol. I was hanging with Ruth Truth and Roller Rina in the angeles of light posse. nyc had Charles Ludlum and Hot Peaches in the spotlight. During that time i was covered in glitter during that minute. I remember having to go to the local corner store to buy 3 gallons of homogenized milk so Candy Darling could take her infamous milk baths. More in a minute, I gotta go to the fashion mall.
(Natch, the interview had to take a break and that’s understandable as good fashion is important, especially when it is from a mall that caters to such needs, we resume-ONE WEEK LATER- like nothing happened though something must have happened, something like fashion purchases!)
RD: A new Baby Bones show? Wow! Will you be performing live with a band? Is the music operatic? Or is it an opera in theme? What’s the theme of the new opera? Can you give away any tantalizing details?
Vanase: More. All i have to do is take my master tapes to the studio and turn them into vinyl or cd. The new album is textured opera music that ranges from hard rock to industrial opera if ever there was. The theme is searching for lost combat boots while sitting in a past circle. The opera takes place in circles of color past, present, and future; sort of a man of la mancha gone astray. There’s a psychedelic fly that lands and under its’ wings protrudes a me me fashion show all done in silhouettes of chartreuse green. Other details include a Bonnie and Clyde gangster scene ala 1920s flapper. The song “Bring Me Back My Dixie” is honky tonk cabaret .
RD: Tell me more about the new recordings.
Vanase: I feel like i’m gonna end up like Edith Massey The Egg Lady, running an antique store in Silverlake someplace where fans will come, sort of like a pilgrimage to view past decadence. So i should gild my combat boots silver and begin act one and create the 06 scene lol. The new album was created live in the backroom of a famous sex club in Silverlake la. I would arrive at 3 am and musicians would be everywhere plugging in wires and kinda pushing me outta the way. When they finally got set up they would hand me a mic and begin playing live and i created the melody lines and words. Along with my producer Leon we labeled the sessions from a to z so there’s 26 live sessions from the studio. I remixed the best takes and created the story line and i think only I understood where the concept was being developed into. Bands like Ethyl Meatplow and Drance and Sean De Lear and X and The Cramps even Sade visited the studio. Even Johnny Depp was around. It was the la underground scene lol.
RD: When was all of this done?
Vanase: The new stuff was created late 90s while i was running the ASS club in la. We were featured in National geographic as a tribe like culture of people. Now find that one in your excellent investigative exposes lol. The new album is created live- so live it took hours to edit. There’s so much material on it, choosing the songs was kinda mind blowing. The cast will be spontaneous and whoever is in the now will become the apparent cast. I love to cast people who are themselves already and just need a bit of fine tuning.
RD: When did you DJ in LA?
Vanase: I’ve djed every club in la from the early 90s till 2001 then i became a recluse and resurfaced 4 years later in vegas. I was offered an airline job yesterday so ill be able to fly around and glitterize america and all its foreign ports. You decide: coffee tea or baby bones. It’s all insane wild and wonderful and i’m just waiting to land into the hearts of all who need a touch of glitz to their lives.
RD: Anything else you want to add?
Vanase: There will be a last question I’m sure. I love digging into my past and pulling people out of the woodwork. Your excitement brought friends back into my life i thought were dead. And I also found out some were actually dead and that was sad. But it’s like a 25 year gap so i send out love to Charlene Keel my producer, Marcos my guy who got me my first dj job, Mark Mullhal my video producer, and Robert who picked up on a babybone whim and wrote an article that got me off my butt and back into the studio. Oh yeah, i can’t forget Dane who answered the yahoo posting, who brought us together and started this whole event, and Kim who has a great mag for this kinda stuff. That’s all for now, thanks, Paul
(Paul has recently sent me a postscript/life scoop telling me, “I got a job at Wynn las vegas in the entertainment dept. I’ll be working the shows “La Reve and Avenue Q and the new Bette Midler Theatre, too. I guess that’s why i love vegas. It’s fast furious and back in show biz lol. Now that’s up to the minute, Paul.”)