Musical Interlude – The Optic Nerve @ Neither/Nor 1986

While digitizing some old cassettes when I ran across this gem of a performance from NYC’s own Optic Nerve. Centering on more folk-rock stylings, the Nerve were unique amongst the plethora of harder sounding NYC bands. Bobby Belfiore, Tony Matura and Orin Portnoy formed the core of the band throughout their existence, supplemented on drums mainly by Ken Anderson, Greg Clark and Frank Max. This performance is taken from a show at Neither/Nor bookstore on 703 East 6th St..

Located in what was once the wastelands between Ave C and D, Neither/Nor was a launching point for much of the literary talent in lower Manhattan during the mid 80s. The bookstore occupied the ground floor of an old, dilapidated loft building which amazingly survives to this day. No small feat considering that directly opposite the building in the 80s one would have found just open lots strewn with rubble.  Neither/Nor not only served as a artistic oasis for the community, it also nurtured future talents such as Joel Rose and Nuyorican poet and playwright Miguel Piñero.

The Optic Nerve went on to have one of their songs immortalized on the Children of Nuggets box set alongside the likes of The Cramps, Lyres, The Hoodoo Gurus and other equally important contemporaries.  At Neither/Nor though, they were just another local garage group scraping by and playing their hearts out to a small, but passionate, fanbase.

California Dreamin’

It didn’t take much to push me. Especially after seeing images and reading about Burger Records‘ yearly festival Burger Boogaloo for several years.

When it comes to music festivals, pretty much everyone I know is unanimous in skipping the hassle of the big organized festivals. While my own tastes seemed to follow groups that have traditionally played in tiny clubs or smaller venues, it was only recently the phenomena known as the “reunion” shows has forced me to slightly reassess that preference. Normally, I doubt anyone can pass up seeing a favorite group one more time, but that dedication is sorely tested once you have to do it alongside 25,000 people.

The Fuzztones supporting The Damned in England. July 6, 1985 (courtesy Link2Wales.com)

Garage music in general has never really translated well to these settings. Not too much money to be made from 100-person festivals in 1985! However, that was just in the U.S. Not so oddly, our friends across the Atlantic thought differently. Bands like The Headless Horsemen and The Fuzztones, both of whom regularly played to crowds of 50–100 people in NYC, were invited to play huge European festivals. Even more impressively, on bills that drew tens of thousands of people.

And while the U.S. “alternative” festivals eventually caught on in the early 90s and attracted some amazing talent though the years, garage punk really wasn’t what brought the masses.

That all changed with the unlikeliest of people.

Poster for Little Steven’s Festival.

While the classic rock strains of Bruce Springsteen is enough to send the most seasoned punk fan running, not many would expect a person immersed in that world to champion garage punk. Little Steven Van Zandt, longtime guitarist for the Springsteen band, however, took on the thankless task of promoting the genre via his radio show. While I do tend to question some of the criteria which Steven uses to label music “garage,” there is no question that his heart was in the right place. More impressively, Van Zandt also put his money where his mouth is by helping organize a sponsored garage music festival in NYC in 2004. While he did succumb to having to book popular indy rockers The Strokes to bring people in, for the most part 90 percent of the acts were  groups from garage music’s past and present. Needless to say he lost a ton of money…

But, I digress. I’ll cover this event in further detail a future column. It truly deserves its own post. For now let me just say that, at that time, the idea of a “good” punk festival that did not put promoters in hock and did not fall into the trap of becoming this unstoppable merchandise-fueled juggernaut seemed difficult to impossible. Since then, thankfully, things have changed. Many other mavericks have organized smaller garage music festivals both here and overseas to much more success.

Burger Boogaloo Lineup 2018

Burger Boogaloo is one of those success stories. While I believe this is its ninth year, the festival has lost none of its original spirit. And just as important, it has managed to attract followers who are just as protective of this. Not only is the talent is top notch, but the environment is also oddly familial. With older and younger fans all pretty much congregating in this massive “be-in” for lack of a better word. The festival credo, “Gather all ye outliers, weirdos and rebels and celebrate the spirit of rock and roll,” pretty much sums up the whole ethos. Prices are on par with other festivals, but for that, you get not just great music but also a great day (or days) out. Much respect to the organizers, Total Trash Productions, for proving that such things are still possible. I mean, even The Damned’s Captain Sensible amusingly noted from the stage, “Hope to see you guys soon…What a nice festival!”

This year’s festival did not disappoint. Quite amazing considering that the previous years headliners were original punks, The Buzzcocks, Iggy Pop, X and Redd Kross. Mighty big Docs to fill if you ask me.

The location was, as it was in the previous year, Mosswood Park, one of the smaller city parks in Oakland. Many pointed out to me that the city has changed quite a bit, but still it runs into the same issues that many urban areas have to grapple with. Unfortunately, in this case, this meant moving some homeless encampments out of the park for the weekend. Something which caused a bit of a stir in the news. To sooth the critical attention, festival goers were encouraged to donate to the homeless organizations in attendance at the festival. Certainly a worthwhile endeavor.

The Pleasure Pier stage in the early AM.

The two main staging areas for the acts, The Toxic Paradise stage and the larger Pleasure Pier, were on opposite sides of the park. While in between you had your usual festival staples such as veg and non-veg food options, vendors and the ubiquitous porta potties. What it didn’t have was massive amounts of humanity. Food and drink were easily obtained and even the bathroom lines were pretty reasonable. People were generally in a good mood, and even seeing entire families in attendance made me think this was just a typical weekend outing—that happened to have live music.

Without going through the entire lineup, I’ll jut say that the experience was a fantastic one and every single person in the place, both onstage and off, seemed genuinely happy to be there. That was even obvious during the sets of the few harder punk bands. No scuffles, no one was hurt and once the group finished…you just saw smiling people leaving the area.

Band highlights? Where to begin. Personal favorites were of course The Mummies (who pretty much have never done a bad show in their existence) as well as garage trash punks Traditional Fools, Italian glam rockers Giuda, SF’s Flakes, and Japan’s pop punks Firestarter.

As far as the pros: Both DEVO and The Damned delivered tight sets, which was even more impressive when you consider that both acts have been around (in some manner) for a bit over four decades. Something The Damned especially had fun mocking. Captain Sensible: “Eh, not bad for a bunch of old farts…oh no, I mean you guys…not us.” Dave Vanian, after Sensible donned a banana suit and gave an unexpectedly long song intro: “I keep looking at him and all I see is an old fruit.”

As the last chords of Sensible’s guitar (on Jello Biafra no less) faded into the cold, humid Oakland night, it was hard not to feel a vicarious sense of accomplishment for everyone involved in the project. No bones about it, this was a difficult thing to do. And the fact that it appeared so easy on the surface just reinforced that hard fact.

Many thanks to David Greenfield, Greg Gutzbehal, Aya Cuzner, Jim DeLuca, Real Boss Hoss, Laurent and Sunny, Lisa and Suke and the myriad of folks and bands who made my time spent in California pretty damned Neat, Neat, Neat.

NY Garage Heads North

Given its proximity to the northeast, Canada has always provided (and still provides) a way for local musicians to perform outside of the country. In the heyday of the garage revival, bands like The Gruesomes, Les Breastfeeders, and King Khan (among many others) continued the legacy that mid-60s bands like The Haunted and The Ugly Ducklings began.

What Wave fanzine, based in London, Ontario, was one of the handful of fanzines that sprung up in the wake of the 80s revival up north. Besides offering the latest on live gigs and LP releases, What Wave was unique in that it also provided limited edition cassette tapes in issues.

I’ll let editor Dave O’Halloran take over here and explain how his fanzine came about:

“What Wave zine was started by Al Cole in the late 70’s/early 80’s and he did the first 4 issues. He was burnt out, needed a change or something. He offered it to us in the fall of 1984.

Issue of What Wave #10 1986. Courtesy of the What Wave Archives.

I was reluctant as it sounded like a lot of work. My wife Rena, an English teacher, though was all for it. We had just come back from NYC and were just amazed at the bands we’d just seen; The Fuzztones, Pandoras, Tryfles, Slickee Boys, Fleshtones (we were HUGE Fleshtones fans and still are!) and so many more. I remember going to Venus Records and Midnight Records and just flipping out over the 60’s comps and 80’s garage combos. We felt like we were in a wasteland in colonial London Ontario Canada.

So, with a bit of convincing from Tony and Gerard of the Montreal band Deja Voodoo, Rena and I took over What Wave. We started with issue #5 in the fall of 1984 and went right through to 1996 with issue #22. Starting with issue #10, almost all came with either a cassette or a 7″ record. It was our way of getting the music out to the fans. Once we started including cassettes, the zine started to sell quite well for awhile.

Whenever we went down to NYC, we’d bring a full suitcase of WW zines and trade them at Midnight Records for records. The suitcase would always come home full of vinyl!! Records we couldn’t find in Canada as owner J.D. Martignon used to bring in all kinds of cool stuff.

Once we had kids though, starting in April 1990, things really slowed down….just not enough energy, and time. Additionally, a lot of the bands were moving towards grunge and CD’s began taking over. The few issues that we were able to squeeze out between our daughter Erika’s birth and 1996 began having longer and longer breaks between them.

We did do a last edition (#24), The History of London Ontario Combos, that came out in 2012 in conjunction with Graphic Underground: London 1977-1990, a celebration of the posters, zines, and ephemera of London Ontario up to 1990. This was an actual curated museum exhibit and brought a lot of attention to that era of music and art. There is even a museum gallery book by curator Brian Lambert called Graphic Underground: London 1977-1990 in which there is a chapter on WW zine….some of our posters are in there.”

While going through some old cassettes I actually found a few tracks from one of Dave’s compilation tapes, labelled “Live in London“. The song that caught my attention was a Headless Horsemen track with none other than future journalist Celia Farber on drums.  According to HH bassist Peter Stuart, this show was during the band’s first tour of Canada. Dave was kind enough to send a few images from his archives  as well as a few additional thoughts.

Ticket from The Headless Horsemen 1986 Canada Tour

“That whole show was recorded at Key West, London Ontario 7/25/1986 and yes, Celia was on the tubs!! I was told it was a great show by my wife Rena who attended, took pics and did the recording. Also playing on this show, Link Protrudi and the Jaymen! The next night, the HH were in Hamilton (between London and Toronto) where I finally got to see them for the first time and Rena the 2nd. I distinctly remember meeting the band before the show and one of them remarked (I think it was Peter) that I looked just like a guy from the Creeping Pumpkins….musta been my bowl haircut!  There’s a live recording from that night as well, but I don’t see any images in my files and don’t remember Link Protrudi playing that night either.”

So, here is the Headless Horsemen from back in 1986 playing the Flamin’ Groovies classic, Shake Some Action. Many, many, thanks to the What Wave Archive and What Wave editor Dave O’Halloran and his wife Rena.