As a teen, I sort of had a feeling things were heading in the wrong direction. Although I was weaned on AM radio, like most of my peers, I eventually drifted over to the FM side of the radio dial. During the mid-70s this meant you were often subjected to the likes of terrible milquetoast supergroups, sprinkled in with the quickly fading guitar-based bands. Even all these years later, the word “supergroup” sends a slight shiver up my spine. Salvation, though, was just around the corner — and for me it couldn’t have come soon enough.
Despite that awful term, I do have to confess that it is fun to see driven, passionate musicians share that connection with others who chase the same muse. A point confirmed by the reunion of (certain) older groups, such as The Monks, The Sonics and The Remains whose shows made me wonder if it was indeed them or just kids in septuagenarian costumes pulling a fast one on us.
Well, these guys are not septuagenarians. Far from it. But, between them, they also share a similar deep, intrinsic passion for music. One honed only after many years of weathering the ups and downs of a typical career in music. It just so happens to be our good fortune that the music they love is 60s garage punk.
The Overdrive Five brings together Elan Portnoy, Ira Elliot, John Carlucci and Sam Steinig and came to be in much the same way most bands come about: a shared desire to keep playing the music they love. What makes this combo unique, however, is how each member effortlessly taps into the mojo that made them stand out in their previous groups. It’s like hearing the best of those bands times four (or “Five”).
Guitarist Elan Portnoy did his time in such combos as The Fuzztones, The Headless Horsemen, Bohemian Bedrocks and The Twisted as well as performing on stage with a vast array of legends such as Screamin Jay Hawkins, Mark Lindsay, Roy Loney, Hilton Valentine and Tony Valentino, to name a few. Drummer Ira Elliot not only played with Elan in The Fuzztones, Headless Horsemen and Bohemian Bedrocks but has also been an integral part of well-loved indie combo Nada Surf for the past 25 years. Currently, he also moonlights in the Hamburg-era Beatles cover band, Bambi Kino. Bassist John Carlucci was a member of the legendary 70s power pop band, The Speedies. In the late 80s, he joined the West Coast version of The Fuzztones and afterward found himself playing with the likes of Sylvain Sylvain, Lemmy, Dave Vanian, Nikki Corvette, Palmyra Delran and a slew of other acts. Rounding out the quartet, vocalist Sam Steinig and his trusty Vox organ started PA’s Mondo Topless in 1992 and continued for 18 years before forming the soul-tinged GTVs. Nowadays you’ll find Sam returning to his garage roots in Philly’s Kiss Boom Bah.
Not too shabby.
But don’t take my word for it: Below is the band’s take on The Shadows of Knight classic “I’m Gonna Make You Mine,” graciously provided by Elan, showcasing the power of the new band. To say this tune is exhilarating is putting it mildly. And this is just a studio demo. The band is currently in the process of setting up a few live gigs (and a European tour) in the months ahead. Stay tuned!
Like I mentioned in the previous post, cross-pollination was one of the things that made the NYC scene thrive. Despite the limited exposure that all the bands received, a small network formed in the East Coast of those “in the know” who were only too happy to share info, tapes and the like with other like-minded souls.
Thee Cellar Dewellers were one of those bands. Located in the small town of Carlisle, PA way off in Central Pennsylvania, the band was certainly off the beaten track. However, their proximity to Harrisburg enabled them to form connections that eventually led to them playing in NYC as well as other larger cities like Washington D.C.
I spoke to founder Jim Baetz about the NYC connection and what led to them making their NYC debut.
SSA: Thanks for your time Jim. Can you tell us the progression of the group from a local PA band to a touring band?
Jim Baetz: Here is a bit of a timeline. We somehow got in touch with Dino Sorbello from the Blacklight Chameleons in mid-1986. He is a Central PA native. I’m really not sure how, but he was the NYC person we were first in contact with, as far as I can remember. Probably close to that time, we reached out to Larry Grogan and Bill Luther because they both had fanzines we had read. We had put on a few shows here ourselves and had The Blacklight Chameleons play with us. That was October of 86. While The Headless Horsemen are listed on the flyer, they didn’t make the show. I believe PA’s The Cool Italians performed in their place.
Then, in March of ’87, NYC’s Secret Service, NJ’s Phantom V, along with The Cool Italians and Thee Cellar Dwellers played a local show here. This was about a month before our first Mind’s Eye show in April of 87. In total, I think we only played shows in NYC three times. Once at the Strip with the Phantom V and I believe, two Mind’s Eye shows. There is actually some video of us playing the first show with the Blacklight Chameleons. I will need to dig this up and have it transferred to DVD. I believe I still have it.
SSA: What were your impressions of playing NYC at the time? I’m sure the NYC bands were more than eager to have you come over and play.
JB: It was really exciting to do the shows there. New York was where you wanted to play and doing a Mind’s Eye show was about as good as it could get. Joey Ramone was at the show we did with The Cynics and The Blacklight Chameleons, but I believe he showed up after our set. I said hello and he seemed like an amazingly nice guy. As expected, he had plenty of people around him. That show was a blast. We were friends with both The Cynics and Chameleons—Ivy and Ann had set it up that way. They figured the night would have a great vibe. I feel they got that right. We did have a really strong night and a lot of fun after the fact.
SSA: You also mentioned you played The Strip. Now that must have been quite a different experience! It was more of a CB’s, dive-ish sort of place.
JB: The Strip was a little less fun. But still a good time. We played with the Phantom V. Unfortunately, I don’t have many memories of playing that show. Not sure how good we were or anything. I do remember the place being very old. But we did have fun because a bunch of friends showed up. We always ended up having a good time wherever and whenever we played out.
SSA: Did you have a chance to catch any other NYC shows?
JB: We attended a few Mind’s Eye shows and very likely others. Especially if the Cynics, Blacklight Chameleons or The Ravens from Philly were playing. We loved playing in NYC, but we actually played more often in DC.
SSA: Thanks so much for your thoughts, Jim. There is so little information out about Thee Cellar Dwellers that any sort of info certainly puts the era into better focus.
JB: Thanks for being interested, I am still a bit surprised when people are interested in any of the bands I have been involved with!
Despite the strong NYC reception, Thee Cellar Dwellers existed for only a short while longer. A single exists on Get Hip Records but is now out of print. In addition, songs were also compiled for a full-length release, however, the deal sadly fell through. Seeing this as an opportune time to move on, the members went their separate ways soon after. Jim into a power-pop band called Needle Jack, Mike Schultz to college and the remaining three (Mark Ebling, Susan Mackey, Eric Ebeling) forming The Omega Men.
However, back in 1987, you’d be hard-pressed to find any more deserving band to support the mighty Cynics. The proof is in the track below. Also, as an additional bonus, Jim graciously provided a demo that never made it to vinyl. Huge thanks to William Luther who graciously provided the amazing live shots from a February 1987 gig at an American Legion Hall in Mechanicsburg, PA. seen up top, and below.
Minds Eye, April 16, 1987. Full Set List: Try It (The Standells), Those Lies You Told, I Can Only Give You Everything (Them), Hang Up (The Wailers), Psycho (The Sonics), She’s Coming Home (The Blues Magoos), Five Years Ahead of My Time (The Third Bardo), Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White (The Standells), Can’t You See, Hey Little Bird (The Barbarians), Dwellin’, Around and Around (Chuck Berry), Doin’ Me In (Gonn), You’re Gonna Miss Me (The 13th Floor Elevators), You Got No Choice, ENCORE: I Can’t Control Myself (The Troggs).
While the local groups I tend to focus on this site tend to lean towards the bands loved by the garage music followers of Manhattan, Jersey, and L.I., I often get the urge to feature other areas. In fact, quite a few East Coast groups happened to make their way through NYC during the 80s heyday. Some stuck around for a few years, others just as quickly toured and disbanded. While band styles varied wildly, the one thing all the bands shared was an intense desire to play “NYC”. A sentiment mirrored by locals that welcomed not just the new sounds but also people who shared the same interests as them. Something quite special in the pre-internet age.
Despite the fleeting nature of touring, these groups had just as much of an influence on the tri-state scene than one might think. While most came from neighboring states like Pennsylvania, Connecticut, D.C., and Massachusetts, every once in a while we would be treated by some bands who made the long trek from Canada.
The Gruesomes were one of those bands. Hailing from Montreal Quebec, the band instantly gained a strong local following after the debut of their first album, 1986’s Tyrants of Teen Trash. Due to their irreverent stage show, and relentless touring (as well as excellent songs) the band slowly began to get noticed outside of Canada. Their increase in popularity dovetailed into the release of their sophomore effort Gruesomania in 1987.
Soon after finishing the album, original drummer Eric Davis departed and was replaced by John Knoll. Without missing a (ahem) “beat”, the band soon embarked on their first tour of the USA. On Wednesday, May 20, 1987, the Gruesomes hit NYC and took the stage of Tramps at it’s original 15th St. location, sharing the stage with NYC’s Headless Horsemen.
When recalling this time bass player John Davis said “The Gruesomes show at Tramps (The Mind’s Eye) was our first ever gig in NYC. It was also our first gig with our new and understandably nervous drummer, John Knoll. We found the NY audiences, more than Montreal, to be very knowledgable about our source material, loudly commenting on each song as it was announced. We appreciated their wisecracks and banter with the band. We were delighted to see that the Headless Horsemen, whose records we always loved, were also funny and irreverent onstage like us! We have remained good friends with them to this day.
It was a source of pride for Montreal bands to get a gig in NYC – playing there gave us bragging rights back home on the local scene. We have played NY many times since, and have always had great memorable shows.”
As John mentions, the band returned several more times to the New York area and played Cavestomp! sponsored shows at Westbeth Theater in the West Village and The Village Underground.
Showing no signs of stopping, The Gruesomes have a 45 coming out in Spain and will be touring there from Feb 27 to March 9, 2020.
Alas, much like matters of the heart, that first experience always refuses to fade away. So, here in glorious monophonic sound is a song from that Spring night set in 1987 which gives you a taste of what the early young band was capable of…even with a nervous drummer.
Full Setlist:Je Cherche [Les Lutins], Cry in the Night, (Theme from) Bikers From Hell, Til The Following Night [Screamin’ Lord Sutch], Unchain My Heart [Ray Charles/Undertakers], Leave My Kitten Alone [Little Willie John], You Broke my Heart [The Vibrators], That’s Your Problem [The Outsiders], Bloodhound [Downliners Sect], Jackknife, Get Outta My Hair, No More Lies, Til the End of the Day [The Kinks], What’s Your Problem?, I Never Loved Her [The Starfires], I Can Tell [Johnny Kidd].
While Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco had the distinction of being the epicenter of psychedelic lifestyle and musical culture in the 60s, it’s pretty easy to forget that it not only existed but flourished in other parts of the US as well. Most famously exemplified by the myriad of Texas psych bands such as Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators and Houston’s Moving Sidewalks.
New York also had their fair share of such bands, such as the outstanding Blues Magoos. However, for the most part, they too occupied a small niche. Most likely since NYC was regarded by many in the music business as the penultimate soul/pop music town. Nevertheless, the faithful continued to plug away like lysergic sirens hoping to draw more converts into the fold.
Come the 80s you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone in NYC dedicated to this genre. Then you had South Central PA native, Dino Sorbello who singlehandedly gave the long-dormant psychedelic genre a kick in the pants.
As a youth, Dino liked the Doors and older Kinks stuff as well as “some band called The Beatles…” The summer of ’76 proved to be pivotal as his Harrisburg pal Billy Synth (and compiler of the famous Psychedelic Unknown compilations) turned him onto 60s garage and psych. Coinciding with the burgeoning punk movement downtown, Dino eventually found himself driving into Manhattan with pals to catch bands.
The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 made Dino move permanently to NYC. Seeking to establish himself in the music he loved so much, the choice was easy. “I grew up with this stuff, it’s the time/era I came here to live in.”
Together with the late Wendy Wild, Dino started a band called the Mad Violets in 1982. The band was one of the few that proudly displayed its psychedelic influences for all to see. They were, as Dino puts it, “scratchy, frenetic, but truly a psychedelic, pop, garage, going-for-it rock and roll band.” One of the standout tracks on the outstanding second volume of Voxx’s Battle of the Garages compilation, Psylocibe, presents all of the bands’ strengths in a compact four minutes. Although becoming a favorite in the early days of the Dive, the band broke up at the end of 1984.
Dino’s next project was The Blacklight Chameleons, which came to fruition in 1985. As Dino adds, “Our original 4-piece did the first Voxx EP. We often played the Dive as well as other venues. Somehow, we dumb-lucked ourselves into an issue of Vanity Fair with Mary Ellen Mark herself taking an amazing photo. We used the magazine as our demo and got gigs all over the place! The usual lineup changes happened, but eventually, we landed Sharon Middendorf as our singer. We ended up playing in California a lot and Florida too. That lineup recorded the second album Inner Mission. Then, aliens kidnapped everyone and left me here to start a new group, Laughing Sky, because, you know, they were laughing when they flew away with my second band in a row.”
The Chameleons did make a stronger mark than The Violets by putting a more public face to the 60s scene. Not only did they perform frequently at Ivy Vale and Anne Doenas’ psychedelic light-show party, the Mind’s Eye, but the attention also got them on the cover of High Times magazine.
In an interesting footnote, Dino also played in the reunited version of the NYC 60s psychedelic band, The Third Bardo. Best known for their iconic song “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time“, which wound up on the critically acclaimed compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968. When I asked Dino about this he said, “I did play with The Third Bardo! They were legends to us in the 80s … like could they really exist in real life? But I met them at a Stony Brook show and joined them as thereminist when they heard I played one. I played with them on a local radio show on NYU and about half a dozen shows in the NYC area with them before they again returned to a scattered state. I was hoping to get them to record a new album, but that alas that didn’t happen.”
The bands Laughing Sky and Tripwave followed through to the 90s. Dino’s recent projects continued to mine the psychedelic plane by combining keyboards, guitar and theremin. Together with partner Jynx Lynx, the two-piece combine covers (such as Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”) with originals and entirely remake them into trippy, atmospheric sound tapestries that combine Jynx’s ethereal vocals and keyboards with Dino’s overdriven sounds on guitar and theremin. It’s a unique mix, but it works.
“I started playing music with Jynx after her band Bombshell broke up, she was playing solo shows and would have various guests playing, including me.” When asked what his goal was, Dino responded, “There’s no ‘goal’ other than to really be able to play the theremin as an instrument with a voice, instead of just sound effects. Jynx writes some pretty great songs, and I get a few of mine in there as well. We have plenty of room to be psychedelic and groove with the electric 12-string too. Seems like lately, with our new second CD out, Real Surreal, we’re getting pretty busy.”
As if Dino’s musical talents weren’t enough, he was also one of the few people at the time who embraced video in its earliest years and took it on himself to create a long-running Manhattan cable access show.
Tripwave! has been running on Manhattan cable since 2001 and, according to Dino, has been on the air in LA and Seattle/Canada too. He added, “Anyone in the world can watch it by going to mnn.org on Thursday nights at 11 p.m., EST, and selecting CH. 4. There’s a lot of one-of-a-kind videos I shot myself, psychedelic music past, present, and future, with nature footage.”
With the recent passing of psychedelic icon Roky Erickson, Dino plans on airing some performance videos he shot of his friend. The shows occurred in Pittsburg soon after Roky’s brother Sumner took over conservatorship and began nursing him back to health. A process most famously documented in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. As Dino noted, “I got to take him to Eat’n’Park for breakfast and even ran a big catfish grill for him on the roof deck one evening. I told him all about the NYC scene.”
It seems somehow fitting to end it here. With the image of the master of 60s Texas psych happily chatting with the disciple of 80s NYC psych, over a plate of eggs. Who says that there is no order in the universe? To keep abreast of all things Dino, visit his website tripwave.com.
While this blog has covered mostly garage music in NYC during a specific time period, it was by no means the only game in town. Hardcore, pop-punk and all permutations of “rock” existed as well. Out of the many choices available, one thing seemed to cross all tastes. Soul. And not the overly processed, slickly produced, over-sung type that was all the rage during the time, but the powerfully simple, stripped-down style of the 50s and 60s. As Philippe Marcade of the Senders so astutely pointed out. Soul and R&B was (and is) an essential ingredient in the musical stew that is NYC.
Around the time the infamous Dive began organizing “garage” shows, they also started booking “mod” nights. During these performances, it was not unusual to see hundreds of young kids decked out in parkas with a litany of Vespas parked by the curb, like mirrored steeds in waiting. Quadrophenia filtered through a subway grating if you will. And while the Mods brought along their own type of rocking bands, they also brought along something else. And that was a deep appreciation of 60s soul.
Into this atmosphere, the Empire State Soul Club was born. The brainchild of Connie T. Empress and Warren Lee, both avid lovers of 60s soul. They saw that something was lacking in NYC. As Connie puts it “We had discovered the soul scene in England and realized there was nothing like that here. ESSC was originally called Get On The Good Foot. We started doing a few nights at the Dive and Mudd Club, but the name wasn’t working for me. So, I came up with a new logo and name. Warren penned the Pinnacle of Soul line. We wanted to make an American soul club with member cards, badges, the works.
I started it off with that in mind on Monday nights at the old Tramp’s on 15th St. When we lost that venue, we rented out a loft. When we lost the loft, we went to Coney Island High. Warren was the one that found the North River Bar at 145 Hudson St. and that was our home for years. We believed that people here would like to not just hear, but DANCE to soul records.” Connie proudly added “we’re the club that launched empty wallets and full dance floors. From collectors to casual listeners—all were equal at ESSC.”
Sadly, Warren Lee passed away yesterday morning. However, instead of focusing on the sadness of his loss, I thought it would be best to focus on the incredible joy and community the ESSC brought to many New Yorkers.
Former young Mod, ex-Insomniacs drummer and WFMU DJ Mike Sin said “Warren turned me to so many great tracks. He was always so friendly and had a great sense of humor. The memories I hold most dear are all the conversations I had with him when he was bartending at the Great Jones Cafe. For a period in my life there back in the ’90s, it seemed like I was strolling in that joint about twice a week, and it was funny to be greeted so many times with Warren’s smile and his “Welcome back, ya mensch!” line. I always ended up having a bunch of questions about particular songs and 45s that were in the bar’s jukebox, and Warren was an encyclopedia of generous knowledge.”
Another denizen of the Dive Mod nights and then subsequent ESSC alum, William Luther, Jr. added. “I first encountered Warren Lee when him and Weems DJ-ed a mod night organized by members of a NYC mod band called The Scene at Danceteria on December 30, 1984. I remember the date because it was like the gathering of the tribes as far as mods were concerned and I met so many people that night who I know to this day. Stepping into that room was like walking into a 60’s film set with mods everywhere, dancers on elevated podiums and Dobie Grey’s “Out On The Floor” pumping through the sound system. I did not encounter Warren again until the Empire State Soul Club rolled into Maxwell’s in 1988. A whole gang of us besuited mod types joined the ESSC that night and got our light blue membership cards and stylish Empire State building soul club badges and the stage was set. There were never any consistent DJ nights in New York at that time, it was more about bands. Finally, we now had an opportunity to dance into the wee hours to DJ’s spinning 60’s soul. In my opinion, there was never a better soul night in the Big Apple and there never will be! Eventually, I got to know Warren from their gigs at the Mercury Lounge and The North River Bar. He was always patient, kind and perfectly willing to indulge my barrage of questions about what he spun and was my go-to guy when I heard some British band doing a soul cover and I needed to know who the original was. In an area where snobbery and pretension eventually prevailed and everyone and their grandmother is a DJ, Warren Lee stood for what it was all about: an unpretentious guy who spun music not to impress or show off his records but to keep the dance floor packed. If Warren was spinning at the E.S.S.C. I was never at the bar I was always on the floor.” For more Warren check out Bill’s blog Anorak Thing.
Actually, Connie T. Empress continues to DJ at various clubs throughout the city and is currently working on an online tribute to Warren, Keepin’ the Faith.
While the 7″ DJ tradition lives on with many excellent DJ’s following in his tracks such as Jonathan Toubin, Mr. Fine Wine, The Subway Soul Club, Dig Deeper…etc., I am sure all would give a sincere tip of the hat to Connie and Warren. They kept our feet happy when our young minds had way too much to sort through. R.I.P. Warren.
The one thing I found out after starting this site is that archiving is not easy. The constant battle between doing something you are really passionate about with, well, actually making a living, never ends. A conundrum that hundreds of thousands of creatives struggle with every day. So when I met New York archivist Andrew Krivine, I was curious how he managed to tackle this existential crisis and also assemble an outstanding exhibition that was very obviously dear to his heart.
Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die at the Museum of Arts and Design in fact only represents a tiny fraction of his massive collection. A collection that is so large, Krivine himself was at odds with what to include in the exhibit. Fearing he would pick everything, he left the curation in the very capable hands of Director of Cranbrook Art Museum and Curator at Large for Design at the Museum of Arts and Design, Andrew Blauvelt. Their collaboration resulted in an exciting and vibrant exhibition that makes even jaded New Yorkers like myself, sit up and take notice.
Subtitled, Punk Graphics, 1976-1986, the exhibition presents the graphic design of the US and the British scene in a somewhat unusual way. Eschewing a timeline approach, the show carefully explains the overriding concepts embraced within the movement—regardless of chronology. An effect that serves to create a more cultural narrative.
An interesting addition to the exhibit are two headphone equipped turntables complete with a stack of influential punk vinyl. Cleverly allowing visitors an immersive experience into the way most fans were first introduced to this type of music. A seemingly insignificant, yet important thing that showed how deeply the curators thought about the environment.
As if to underscore that point, the small handful of the press invited to the opening were treated to a surprise appearance of one of punk’s original provocateurs, John Lydon.
Casually striding into the room and making himself comfortable by leaning against a glass case containing memorabilia, Lydon exuded an odd sereneness. One no doubt hewn from the tribulations of once being a spokesperson for disaffected youth….and surviving. Ever the muckraker, Lydon expounded on topics as varied as Britains music-hall humor in punk to his part in the Pistols graphics output. Despite the passage of time, Mr. Lydon’s charm is undeniable. The glint in his eye being the only clue to the enfant terrible that was “Mr. Rotten” A persona he was only too happy to display to those gathered for an open to the public interview conducted by punk historian Gillian McCain later that day. After all, would you expect anything less?
Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die – Punk Graphics 1976-1986 is on display now at the Museum of Arts and Design at 1 Columbus Circle in Manhattan, through August 18, 2019. https://madmuseum.org/
Now, while this site’s focus is pretty well defined, I do tend to be a little less strict when it comes to covering stuff on this blog. Case-in-point, a few weeks ago I ran across a live tape given to me by the late John Reinert. John was one of those people that literally everyone who went to a live show in NYC knew. With his ever-present baseball cap, smile, and ubiquitous cassette deck he recorded many local shows from various important bands that would have otherwise never been documented. Not only that, John was always very generous and often carried a bag with copies of his tapes to subsequent shows. Spreading the cheer like a rock and roll Santa Claus.
The tape I found was of the unpredictable Alex Chilton playing at Maxwell’s, in Hoboken. For those who are not aware of Alex Chilton, I implore you to check out this wonderful article written by Lindsay Zoladz that covers his ups and downs much more eloquently than I ever could.
Listening to the tape reminded me of a post I created on an old blog eight years ago, after I first heard of Chilton’s death. As Bar None has recently released some long out of print Chilton material (From Memphis to New Orleans and Songs From Robin Hood Lane) I thought this would be as good a time as any to dig it out.
So, jumping on the Wayback machine, here is a post covering the saga of “Al” in NYC during the latter part of the 80s in NYC. Dedicated with much gratitude and fond memories of John.
The news of Alex Chilton’s death this past Wednesday came as a huge surprise to many, arriving as swiftly as a sweltering summer thunderstorm and leaving in its wake a collective shock throughout the semi-geeky, underground music world. As many have stated over the past several days, the man that melded pathos with gorgeous harmonies will no doubt be missed. If not just for his legacy but for the tenuous hope that you can carve out a successful creative career and still be fiercely dedicated to carving out your own path. In fact, the most eloquent and touching eulogy of them all was written by his close friend Paul Westerberg in the NY Times Op-Ed section the Sunday following his passing.
Chilton was a faceless entity to me until 1984. At that time I was fervently involved in the sixties garage punk scene in NYC and hightailing it to many performances all over lower Manhattan. So, when one of the city’s seminal garage bands, The Vipers, were slated to play at Irving Plaza, there was no doubt in my mind I was going to find myself there. It was a big show for the band. Having honed their act at a tiny club by FIT called The Dive, they now found themselves headlining this immense venue.
Upon entering the main hall, I came upon the opening band just starting their set. The songs were unfamiliar and when I asked someone who it was, they mentioned that it was the guy who sang “The Letter”. Having that as a reference point I figured he was an oldies act, sort of appropriate for a night consisting of 60s themed music. Camera in hand, I took a few shaky photos of the lead singer and watched. The more I heard, the less I understood how he fit into the whole picture. It was definitely a confusing yet interesting experience. He did close with “The Letter” though.
Fast forward about three years and I’m seriously in the midst of my Paul Westerberg/Replacements worshipping period, having been baptized by a show at CBGBs in 1984, The Mats (as us überfans called ’em) summed up everything my young self had experienced up to that point in my life. Anger, sadness, despair, hope….all in a compact 3-minute song. So, by the time 1987’s “Pleased To Meet Me” came out, us die-hards were all chomping at the bit for some more sonic autobiography.
It was around this time my fellow Mats concert buddy Lisa convinced me to go see an Alex Chilton show. Since the Mats sang about him on “Pleased To Meet Me”…then he MUST be good, the logic went.
So we headed to The Knitting Factory (on Houston St at that time) and bought tickets for the early set of Alex’s show. His release “High Priest” had just come out and Chilton was doing a 4-night stint to promote it, two sets each night. The opening band were The Gories, who I was later to find out were produced by Alex. Already fully familiar with the punkier aspects of garage music, The Gories proceeded to deliver a noisy, shambolic set that was itself to become what other groups would revere and strive for years later. This guy knows how to pick his openers I thought to myself.
Chilton, by comparison, was extremely laid back, but just as interesting. Fussing with the sound, turning down requests, he exuded this nervous energy that sort of kept me wondering what was going to happen next. I started to slowly understand why Westerberg and crew were fascinated by him. Here was a brilliant songwriter, basically screwed by the music business, seemingly turning his back to his sudden indie-cred. Very, uh, Replacements-like. Avoiding anything resembling his pop roots, his set consisted of old standards, R&B covers, jazzy covers and a very small handful of decent, if uninspired, originals. Yet, much like The Mats, flashes of brilliance would eek out in spite of himself. His guitar playing was second to none, and if he wanted to, esoteric jazz chords would fly out of his guitar with ease. We stayed for the second set.
That was the start of a long and amazing journey following the man. After that day Lisa and I caught the next night, and the next. On Chilton’s second trip through the city that same year we returned as well. We ended up catching him at every gig in NYC and Hoboken for the next several years. Even his bass player at the time Ron Easley once mentioned “Oh, it’s these guys again” when he saw us at one show. But, unlike other fans, we never approached Chilton or asked for his autograph. We didn’t want to become his buddy…we just wanted to hear him play. If Lisa and I happened to catch a bad show, instead of lamenting it, we’d stick around for the next set. Sure enough, nine times out of ten it would be better.
Now one could argue that his lack of professionalism was deplorable. A slap in the face of people paying good money to see him. True, but knowing his background of record label letdowns, lost opportunities, and shattered expectations (all before his mid-twenties!) it wasn’t too difficult to see how this came about. Being “professional” not only didn’t work for him but was also a sure ticket to misery. Take him or leave him…your choice.
When you see someone perform over and over again you also tend to see nuances of their personality emerge. It’s very easy to write off Chilton as jaded, surly and difficult. Which I am sure he was. Regardless, small things stick out in my mind about him. Like how once at The Knitting Factory, a music collector friend/roadie, Joey Decurzio made Alex come to him for a light instead of the other way around. Hilariously, the people around me were aghast…but “Al”, as Joey called him, took it in stride…even thanked him. No doubt because Joe treated him like any other guy.
Another time a solo show was in danger of being canceled because of a water break in the vicinity of The Knitting Factory (at that time in the Leonard St. location). When I walked into the club there were only candles lighting the interior since the power was out. I felt like I walked onto the set of “Interview with a Vampire”. As I stood around with a handful of hopeful fans, Alex came out and invited everyone into the candle-lit main room. He placed a stool in the middle of the floor and, acoustic in hand, asked for requests. Laughing when he could not remember certain “classic” Big Star songs, he did a short set of mostly covers and thanked the 30 or so of us for coming. Then, to my surprise, we had our admission refunded to us.
In another instance, I arrived early for a show at Fez, located underneath the Time restaurant in the East Village. Having never been there I wandered around the upstairs eatery before someone took pity on me and informed me the performance space was downstairs. Since the doors weren’t open yet I was told to come back. As I was leaving I turned the corner and ran into Alex Chilton trying to open a locked side door, beat-up guitar case in hand. He sees me and asks me how to get in. I told him I had to figure it out as well and showed him the entrance. Then, taking a page from Joey, I said “Oh, Al, what time are you going on? They wouldn’t tell me”. He stopped, thought carefully about it, and told me he was sorry because he also was in the dark about it. I thanked him anyway and we went our separate ways.
Personal interactions like that filled out my portrait of the person many were all too happy to write off for decades.
Musically, surprises also abounded. Like suddenly deciding to kick out a frantic version of Warren Smith’s rockabilly classic, “Ubangi Stomp”, another night, the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” (with an audience member on guitar), and then one particularly memorable guest spot.
In November of 1987, a Replacements gig coincided with a Chilton show in Hoboken. Lisa and I naturally bought tickets for both. As soon as the Mats show ended at the Beacon theater we made a beeline for the tiny stage of Maxwells in Hoboken. I still remember Lisa coming up and saying excitedly “He’s here, he’s here” meaning Mr. Westerberg. Sure enough that night we were all treated to a fantastic version of “Little GTO” with Paul sitting in.
Near the tail end of Chilton’s solo tours I lost touch with Lisa for several years but still continued to attend the shows, running into other familiar faces from show to show. When his 60s soul/pop group The Box Tops announced a reunion, I was elated but also a little skeptical, having seen Chilton’s mercurial ways test the patience of even the most seasoned session musicians. I wondered how he would fare with his former bandmates. To my surprise, The Box Tops shows were among the most enjoyable gigs I ever saw. Chilton was smiling and genuinely happy to revisit this part of his past. If he had ghosts of that time haunting him from that period, they seemed to have been finally exorcised.
Around the summer of 2001, the city sponsored a summer music festival downtown that offered lunchtime music for the financial crowd. To my surprise, The Box Tops were slated to play one afternoon. Having a full-time job uptown though sort of left me wondering how to finagle my way into seeing this show. Finally, the day before the show I told my boss I had an urgent “appointment” and might be gone for a couple of hours that afternoon. The ruse worked and the next day I found myself downtown — at the World Trade Center Plaza. The gig was fantastic and as I looked over the towers looming over the sun-drenched stage I could not help but feel this was a great, great, day. All that would change just a few weeks later.
By the time the Big Star gigs came around the idea of an intimate Chilton solo gig was less and less likely to happen. The tradeoff though was, we did get a chance to hear those classic old songs once again. Except for “In The Street”, and even less frequently, “September Gurls”, none of the other Big Star tunes were ever performed by him when I saw him solo…at least in NY.
The last time I saw Chilton was November 2009 when Big Star made an appearance in NYC. The price was a hefty $35. A far cry from the $10 sets at the old Knitting Factory 23 years ago. Once my friend Paul and I were inside the large, ornate, Masonic Temple in Fort Greene, we shimmied our way to a good viewing spot. The immense crowds made it difficult to get close, but again, the music was what we were here for.
As soon as the band started you could tell this was going to be a special night. It was a few years since Big Star last played in NY and the anticipation of the fans helped percolate a good atmosphere. As those old familiar tunes washed over me once again, it was as if I was hearing them for the first time. That small intangible thrill you get when something deeply personal resonates was still there. And from the looks of the crowd, I was not alone. Apparently, the band felt it, too, as a haunting, passionate “Daisy Glaze” delivered by former Posie Ken Stringfellow all but confirmed it. It actually earned him a Chilton smile of approval. Impressive.
The closing one song encore (Todd Rundgren’s “S-L-U-T”) was adequate but the lights quickly went up as soon it was over. Alex was done. As we made our way out we passed a sweaty Jody Stephens standing by the exit, personally thanking the audience for coming. No doubt feeling a little guilty. As a Chilton fan, I’d experienced this before, no surprises here. I was just happy to have been transported to pop nirvana for that short while. Besides, I figured they’d be back for another show soon anyway…
A 60s Peruvian garage band, on an NYC-themed blog? Yes, it does sound a bit odd, but allow me to explain. While the goal of this blog was to dig a bit further into the garage punk scene in NYC during a certain period of time. In a lot of ways, the posts are intrinsically linked to my own unique NYC experiences. And foremost among those is the odd combination of identifying as a native-born NYer, with 100% Peruvian parents. Each side seeming to contradict each other. Even more so when it came to music.
While the garage scene was a godsend for a kid looking to belong somewhere, it was also interesting to be in a situation where there were no other Hispanics…in NYC!! A situation mirrored by my good buddy Larry, who happened to be the only African-American at the time. While the scene was extremely welcoming, we could not help but be quietly wonder why we didn’t see others like us in that setting. It was only natural that the discovery of bands like Death and Los Saicos were really important cultural markers for us in those pre-internet days.
As I mentioned in a post two years ago, one of the highlights of a visit to my mom’s family home in Lima was a visit to the place Los Saicos used to hang out. Now marked by a small plaque. Which makes the following announcement all the more surreal, but just as meaningful.
On April 27, 2019, Bushwick’s Market Hotel, in conjunction with Rockass Online, and this website, will present César “Papi Saico” Castrillón performing with Los Sadicos. Tickets are on sale now and readers of this blog are encouraged to take advantage of the pre-sale, which ends this Friday, February 8th. Presale link HERE
Life is pretty surprising. If you would have asked me a few years back if this site…or even this blog … would ever have gotten past year two I would have cut you a look similar to the one famed 70s TV sitcom in-law, Aunt Esther used to give to her equally infamous brother-in-law, Fred Sanford. Dated TV references aside though, it truly is a joy to find people kindly giving their time to keep this blog going.
Tim Warren is one of those people. Founder and sole proprietor of Crypt Records, Tim is one of those rare collectors who has dedicated their entire lives to making sure that people around the world share the same excitement that still drives him day-after-day. Working on an almost fanatical level over 30 years ago, Tim single-handedly was responsible for tracking down long-forgotten singles that even original 60s band members had little use for. Crisscrossing the country by car for months at a time, when the only means of communication was a pay phone and a stamped envelope, Tim amassed a catalog of killer songs that truly exemplified the wildest side of mid-60s teen fervor. The iconic Back From the Grave series of compilations were the fruits of his labor. Other comps followed that centered on exotica, greasy R&B, and assorted oddities but always with the Crypt level of quality. Even a stint of “modern” bands such as the New Bomb Turks, Nine-Pound Hammer, the Wylde Mammoths among others saw a home on Crypt Records as well.
Fast forward three decades later and I find myself sitting in Tim’s apartment in Berlin. Alongside us, Tim’s doggie Roky quietly relaxes while a Real Kids test pressing cranks in the background. Apologizing for the volume of the record, Tim quickly pulls the needle off and ushers me into his home studio where we hunker down and listen to some live Raunch Hands material at an equally loud volume. As the cuts whizz by, I can’t help but be drawn in by Tim’s enthusiasm. ‘Ya gotta listen to this…isn’t that CRAZY!” We have a few laughs at the sheer outrageousness of some the tracks and then settle down for a chat.
SSA: Tim, thanks again for giving me some of your time. It took a little work to find you. You know nowadays everyone seems to be on Facebook, which is great for tracking down people but is a bit of a double-edged sword.
Tim:Everybody is on Facebook, but I’m not. Nevertheless, when I was doing the Real Kids research it became a necessary evil. One of it’s saving graces though was how it enabled me able to track down a guy who made live, reel-to-reel, tape recordings of many classic Boston bands at his loft. Stuff like DMZ, Real Kids, Unnatural Ax, all these bands, playing all the time at this guys loft. Amazing, right?
On Facebook I met this fellow who knew Real Kid Billy Borgioli’s widow. At first, I was a little hesitant of his connection, as many of these music-related friendships are very fleeting. To my surprise he turned out to be the nicest,most sincere fellow in the world. In fact, he had paid Billy’s widow thirty-five hundred for Billy’s old guitar that was only worth only about twenty-five hundred. Just a prince.
This fellow had rescued two big scrapbooks from the Borgioli’s (each band always has one guy with a scrapbook.) And within that scrapbook was where I first saw this list of songs. June 21, 1976… June 22, 1976. Two 7 1/2″ reel-to-reels and one 4 3/4″ reel-to-reel. All these live songs on tape. It got me thinking, who had recorded this? That evening I mentioned it to John Felice and he tells me that he thinks the tapers names were Dale and Monica. Unfortunately, he could not recall their last names.
Two weeks later, I’m talking with Jim Felice, John’s brother on the phone. Twenty minutes into our conversation I ask him ‘who are these people?’ I had emailed everybody in Boston by this time. Dale and Monica, loft on High Street, parties there with bands playing. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Nothing. Then, near the very end of our call, Jim suddenly exclaims “Gabriel! Dale Gabriel. His nickname was Gabe.” Dale Gabriel? Boom!
SSA: You found him.
Tim: I had found him and I immediately called him the next day
Tim:“Yup, that was me” Dale told me the next morning “I recorded all those bands on my reel-to-reel deck” blah, blah blah… “a Studer reel-to-reel deck too…great quality.” And I’m eating this up like crazy. Suddenly his tone changes and he reveals that two months ago, he had to downsize from a house to a condo. And as part of his downsizing efforts, the tapes ended up on the curb as trash.
At this point I’m thinking, I re-joined Facebook on April 9, 2017, specifically to reach out to people. Hating myself for doing it all along. And while I did send out requests for info on the mystery taper, I often got wrong information and ended up tracking down people months later that had nothing to do with those tapes. All I kept thinking was if only I had found him in April…
SSA:You would have…
Tim: I would have flown over to Boston and driven down to his home in Virginia Beach, VA and had Boston rock-and-roll history out-the-ass. I would have had, 20 albums let’s say, 20 albums of unreleased, live, bad-ass, rock-and-roll from Boston from ’76 to ’78. God. And to think that that shit was so casually discarded. I even emailed the waste transfer station with an image saying that this was what the reels would look like and that I was willing to pay a $5000 reward for them. Immediately they write me back saying that everything goes straight into the incinerator. You could have heard me scream in Germany. I just wanted to kill myself. Just fuckin’ kill myself. Cause, Christ, you know it’s history, that’s fucking history in a big way… crazy, crazy, crazy.
SSA: Getting back to the New York scene, can you tell me a bit about The Bad Music Seminar?
Tim: Oh boy, what a disaster! Pete Ciccone (Rat Bastards, Vacant Lot) and I decided to put that one together. As we were both obsessive Milkshakes and Mighty Caesar‘s freaks, our idea was to bring over Billy Childish believing that people would just show up. Yup, (laughs) we lost 45 hundred on that. We flew in The Gravediggers from California as well as outsider artist Jack Starr from Texas. Jack had just had an album released on Norton Records so we had him backed by the A-Bones. Perfect, right? It sounded like the Velvet Underground.
Tim: I wish I had the live tape of that. We probably have the reel-to-reels somewhere. I remember Billy Childish yelling “Hey, Peter Frampton!” to our sound man. He kept calling him Peter Frampton because the poor guy sported long, golden locks like Frampton.
Anyway, we brought the Caesars in and the idea was to have them come in and record. At the same time, record The Rat Bastards, The Gravediggers Mike Markesich (who authored the TeenBeat Mayhem! book) and The Double Naught Spies. That was the plan, and then as a bonus have these bands play live.
Tim: Pete chose half the bands, and I chose half. And, then we tried to find a space that ended up being Shelter Studios on W37th St. I had seen this article about Shelter Studios that described it as some sort of large techno loft smack in the middle of the garment district.
Jeff: It was a pretty rough spot. Most of these music studio-type places in that area were not equipped to handle large groups of people. The elevators alone were only made for three or four people.
Tim: It was insane.
Jeff: I had heard a rumor about Thee Mighty Caesars getting ahold of your credit card and going to town with it at Peter Lugers. Any truth to that?
Tim: No, no, no, no, no. Here’s the here’s the real story. This is the funniest shit ever. We had the band recording in Coyote Studios in Brooklyn when two of them, the bass player and the drummer, had to leave a couple days before Childish. Williamsburg back then you know was a wasteland. There was like, one deli in, 10 square blocks.
So anyway, I’m getting ready to drive them out to JFK for their flight home and they come up to me “Ah Tim, you know we’d really like to get a great meal, at a steakhouse, or something …”
I quickly recalled that every time I go to Coyote or went across the Williamsburg Bridge on my way to the pressing plant in Long Island City, I passed this steakhouse sign. It always made me wonder ‘whats this Peter Lugers?’ And as I’m not in that income level, the name meant nothing to me. So I mention this to the owners of Coyote, Albert and Mike Caiti, that these guys want to go to a steak place. They were like “Well, there is Peter Lugers, it’s really good.”
So, I drive them over to Peter Lugers. And I tell them that I have to head back to the studio and I’ll come back about an hour and a half to pick them up and then we’ll head to the airport.
An hour and a half later I come back, and I don’t see them. Great. Here I am, dressed like a bum, still wearing the same clothes for three days because of this frantic schedule, running around looking for these guys. I hesitantly walk into Peter Luger’s in a fuckin’ ripped shirt looking like something the cat dragged in.
“Excuse me, um, I left three English gentlemen here at the restaurant about an hour and a half ago.” “Oh yes. Come with me.” The maitre’d led me in and there they are, sitting in front of a huge plate of bones with grins a mile wide. “Is, everything OK?” “Yeah! Relax, relax!” And, boom, there’s another hundred and fifty dollars down the drain. Another cash outlay, more bleeding. At first, I thought they were going to lead me into a back bathroom where I’d find them washing dishes or something.
Tim: So, I laid out a hundred fifty for the meal.
SSA: And they got their steak.
Tim: Yup. So, it wasn’t them maxing out a credit card. It was only me looking like a bum, walking into Peter Lugers.
SSA: And just paying them.
Tim: And, paying the bill LATE. When I get back to Coyote they asked me where I took them. I said, “Oh, this place called Peter Lugers.” “WHAT!!!!! That place is really expensive!” It wasn’t that they recommended Lugers, but from my viewpoint, it didn’t seem like a big deal at first. That area was all prostitutes back then. You’d have the Hasidim getting blowjobs in their cars from the crack whores under the Williamsburg Bridge. I was thinking, it can’t be that posh you know, but it is! Hahaha. But I would not have known because I didn’t live on that income level where I could just go out and eat steak for 50 bucks. We were happy with a dollar slice, you know? But yeah that was the story with the Caesars and Peter Lugers.
Tim: But the Bad Music seminar thing, was chaos and a cluster fuck. I mean we tried to get some promotion. I did a mailing to all my mail order customers since you know, there wasn’t an Internet.
In the end, nobody really cared. Nobody. Actually, when Childish got back to England, they recorded there. In reality, the Mighty Caesars had broken up long before the seminar. When I originally reached out to Childish I asked him, “Do you mind just coming over for a one-shot reunion show for two nights in New York?” “Sure.” I followed that up with, “Hey, you guys wanna record an album?” “Yeah, sure.” Boom. So after the gig they went back to England and recorded John Lennon’s Corpse Revisited. Pete Ciccone and I did the Sgt. Peppers dis for the cover with all the serial murders, and put that out
Come October 1988, the Raunch Hands recorded the Payday album. And when the album came out, nobody was buying in the States! Nobody. So I just figured, let’s try out Europe. Hahaha .. twenty thousand dollars later…
I lost a lot of money on that first tour because I bought a van in Holland. I also bought a dual back line, bass amp, two guitar amps, blah blah blah blah, drums, all that shit. And shipped it over to Europe.
SSA: Man, good luck!
Tim: But, hey, it gave the Raunch Hands a second life. They were dead on the fuckin’ vine you know. I was glad I was able to resuscitate their career. They weren’t getting anywhere since it was all grunge at that point. 1988 was the birth of all that Soundgarden and Led Zeppelin imitation stuff. And it was bad. I remember there was a deejay on college radio station WNYU, this English guy. We’re sitting there in the studio and I’m hearing this thing that sounds like Led Zeppelin to me. Awful stuff, but the DJ is falling over himself “Wow, did that sound just like Robert Plant?!” I’m thinking to myself, and…this is a good thing? What did punk rock do for the world? Hahaha. It’s all over! So yeah, that was the climate at the time.
During the 90s while Manhattan was undergoing massive changes, many musicians and artists took refuge in the low-rent, decidedly sketchy areas by the Williamsburg Bridge. As expected, within a few years the area became a small breeding ground for various types of cool music, Garage Punk being one of them.
Central among the watering holes favored by cash-strapped punks was Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern. An old-school joint where owner Rosemary Bleday held court and served locals for decades. Decked out with a supremely coiffed beehive, Rosemary was the stereotypical NYC tough lady with a heart of gold. A quality that endeared her to many. Most especially to the young musicians who had begun to call this area home.
Among those admirers were pop punks the Vacant Lot. Formed after the demise of legendary NYC garage rockers The Rat Bastards, the Lot took on a more melodic pop direction while the remaining ex-Bastards became the Devil Dogs. Delving deeper into the harder, in-your-face, garage sound.
This brings us to the What IV. An alias of the the Vacant Lot, the What IV was the defacto house band at Rosemary’s for several years. Existing between 1997 and 2005, the band consisted of Lot members Pete Ciccone, Mike Hoffman, Chris Raymond, and Greg Ginter. Rounding out the lineup was local pal, Karl Meyers (Main Drag Studios owner) on keys/sax.
As Pete relates “Rosemary asked us for years to play there, but the Vacant Lot was way too loud, so we created this band, which was all garage / beat / frat / eurobeat to play at a more barroom sound level. We played every holiday there for years, (Halloween, New Years, Valentines Day, etc.) along with a couple of other local bars and a few NYC dives like Siberia – avoiding clubs. We would do 5 or 6 sets and the start over once we ran out of songs or beer!” The project soldered on until all the members eventually moved out of Brooklyn.
These days Rosemary’s still stands. And from what I understand, still serves beer in styrofoam cups (for now). A perk many of the privileged folk who now live in that area probably find very “authentic”.