Out of Our Tree, Eh? The Gruesomes Visit NYC

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.

John Davis, Bobby Beaton, John Knoll (background) and Gerry Alvarez of The Gruesomes on stage at Cavestomp! 2000 at the Westbeth Theater, 151 Bank St., Manhattan. Friday, November 3, 2000.
Gerry Alvarez, Bobby Beaton, John Knoll (background) and John Davis of The Gruesomes on stage at the Village Underground, 130 W 3rd St., Manhattan. Saturday, October 27, 2001.

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].

Groovin’ on an Inner Plane

Dino Sorbello and Wendy Wild of the Mad Violets, 1983. Photo by Lisan Lima Seiroty, courtesy of Dino Sorbello.

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.

The Blues Magoos

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.”

The Mad Violets. Courtesy Dino Sorbello.

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.

The original ’85 lineup of the Blacklight Chameleons. Left to right: Bill Ebauer, Andrea Kusten, Noreen Lewis and Dino Sorbello. Photo by Greg Pokorski, courtesy Dino Sorbello.
Inner Mission LP.

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 1987 version of The Blacklight Chameleons. Left to right: Sharon Middendorf, Bill Ebauer, Marilyne Doherty, Peter Lewis, and Dino Sorbello. Photo by David Hamilton, courtesy Dino Sorbello.

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.

High Times cover and inset article clipping of the Blacklight Chameleons’ Sharon Middendorf. Photo by famous lensman Andre Grossman. Courtesy Dino Sorbello.

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.

Jynx Lynx and Dino onstage. Photo by Eileen, courtesy Dino Sorbello.

“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.

NYC Memories: Sumner Erickson, Roky Erickson and Dino Sorbello with Jynx at the Empire State Building, June 25, 2007. Photo courtesy and © Dino Sorbello.

Warren Lee and the ESSC

The Empress, Eddie Floyd, Warren Lee and Jeff “The Chef” tearing it up at an ESSC. Get on up Big Bird! Photo courtesy Connie “The Empress” Frances.

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.

Ad for a sixties night at Danceteria, December 30, 1984. With WNYU DJ’s Capt. Weems and Warren Lee. Courtesy of Waterloo Station fanzine.

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.

The Empire State Soul Club button. Courtesy of Lee Michaels.

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.”

Warren Lee on the decks at the Empire State Soul Club. Mercury Lounge, Summer 1994. Photo courtesy of William Luther, Jr.

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.

Paint It Black You Devil

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.

Collector Andrew Krivine.

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.

Museum Director Chris Scoates and John Lydon meet the press.

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/

My Life is Right: Alex Chilton in NYC

John Reinert.

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.

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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.

Alex Chilton at Irving Plaza 1984.

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.

Flyer promoting Alex Chilton’s 1987 stint at The Knitting Factory. shakesomeaction.nyc archive.

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.

Alex Chilton’s November 1987 NYC area gigs. shakesomeaction.nyc archive.

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.

Alex Chilton at the Leonard Street Knitting Factory.

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.

Official CD of the intimate candlelight concert.

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.

A plethora of tickets stubs from Chilton’s NYC gigs. Including the candlelight show. shakesomeaction.nyc archive.

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.

Alex Chilton at Maxwells.

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.

Paul Westerberg and Alex Chilton performing Little GTO at Maxwells. Photo ©Ted Barron.

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.

A flyer from the set of concerts held at the WTC. The Box Tops performed here. shakesomeaction,nyc archive.

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.

My flyer from the first Big Star reunion show at Tramps.

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.

Alex Chilton of Big Star at the Masonic Hall, Brooklyn NY. 2009.

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…

-March 2010

Presenting…Los Saicos

Left to right: Rolando “El Chino” Carpio, César “Papi” Castrillón, Erwin Flores and Francisco “Pancho” Guevara.

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

The Man Who Started it All — Crypt’s Tim Warren

Tim Warren Berlin
Chatting in Berlin with the Crypt-keeper. Tim Warren. Roky, Tim’s faithful hound, lies beside him.

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.

Unnatural Ax
Boston’s Unnatural Ax, Photo Courtesy of the Music Museum of New England.

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.

The original scrapbook list of the 1976 Real Kids loft recordings. Courtesy Tim Warren.

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

SSA: Wow

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…

The response to Tim’s reel-to-reel salvage mission. Courtesy Tim Warren.

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.

Bad Music Seminar
Program for the Bad Music Seminar at Shelter Studios, 1988. Art by Pete Ciccone.

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.

Jack Starr
Jack Starr at the Bad Music Seminar, 1988.

SSA:  Hahaha.

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.

SSA: Right.

Chris Such and the Savages
Chris Such and the Savages at the Bad Music Festival. Photo by Jillian Jonas.

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.

NY Daily news article
NY Daily News article on the Bad Music Seminar 1988

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 …”

Peter Lugers
The Peter Lugers sign. Photo courtesy of http://endoedibles.com

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.

Billy Childish of Thee Mighty Caesars, Bad Music Seminar, Shelter Studios, NYC 1988.

“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.

SSA: Hahaha.

Tim: SoI 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.

SSA: Amazing.

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.

The infamous Might Caesars’ Sgt. Pepper rip.

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…

Tim and the van in Europe. Photo courtesy Steve Baise.

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.

Pt. 2  Coming in a future post!

 

Rosemarys and The What IV

The What IV at Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern, Brooklyn. New Years Eve 2004. Left to right: Jon Chalmers (Ex-Talismen), Greg Ginter, Chris Raymond, Pete Ciccone and Karl Meyers. At this gig, Jon was filling in for Mike Hoffman who was temporarily absent due to the birth of his son.

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”.

Bleecker Bob Plotnik 1942-2018

The record club gains another member. Word came today that venerable NYC icon and record store owner Bob Plotnik had sadly passed on. Bob’s store, Bleecker Bobs, was known worldwide for many decades for not just having an amazing selection but also for its legendary cantankerous owner. And while the tales spun by seasoned record buyers have centered on their treatment by Bob, surprisingly there are a small handful who did befriend him and dodged the majority of the wrath he inflicted on others.

My own experiences in his store were actually very limited as 1) his stuff was usually overpriced and 2) I was very aware of his rep. Still, it was kind of a kick to quickly pop in, scan his garage punk bins, realize I didn’t want to pay that much and scoot out before you got tagged.

In all honesty, my own interesting Bob moment came many, many years later and had nothing to do with his temperament. On April 15, 2001, Joey Ramone succumbed to lymphoma after a long widely-publicized 7-year battle. Having grown up listening to the Ramones, it was a sad moment for me. One that seriously marked the all-too-real passage of time.

The following evening while wandering downtown, I made a spur of the moment decision to walk by CBGBs. Purely as a gesture of respect. To my surprise, I was not the only one with that idea. Turns out a small group of punks had set up a small altar right in front of the club. I watched people singing, giving offerings and took a few photos for my own files.

Shortly after midnight, a private ceremony inside the club let out and guests began leaving the club. Spotting photographer Roberta Bailey, I quickly ran over and asked her if she minded me taking a photo of her in front of the club. Once that was accomplished I looked around to see if there was anyone else I could cajole into a shot. That was when I ran into friends Billy Miller and Miriam Linna. Having just left the service, they stopped and chatted with me for a short while.

All of a sudden Billy goes “Hey Bob!” and goes over to chat to a leather-jacketed Bob Plotnik quickly making his way through the throng of people in front of the club. Now, as anyone can tell you, Billy could charm the pants off of anyone. This moment was no different. Expecting a curt brush off, I was surprised to see Bob turn around, smile, and extend his hand. Billy being Billy, just grabbed Bob by the shoulder in a playful embrace.

Just at that moment someone to the left of me, also with a camera, pointed it at the two of them. Instantly recognizing a golden photo op, Billy swings Bob toward the camera all the while still embracing him. Within a half a second I also had my camera up and pointed it at this most unusual scene. Clicked the shutter, and wound up with this shot. A testament to the amazing Billy Miller, a man who could tame a cranky record store owner using just his smile. RIP Bob. RIP Billy. It’s getting to be a crazy party up there.

Billy Miller, Bob Plotnik
Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Bleecker Bob Plotnik in front of CBGBs April 16, 2001.

New Offerings from Crypt Records

As if there wasn’t enough merch on Boston’s Real Kids, Crypt Records label owner (and local boy made good) Tim Warren just released a couple of more deep digs into the Real Kids archives. See You on the Street Tonight and We Don’t Mind If You Dance deliver even more unreleased raw live material. And all this just mere weeks after the release of the super deluxe, Live at the Rat booklet/CD package. While the tapes on the two new CDs are sourced from early audience recordings, the sheer ferocity and passion of the performances are undeniable.

Manna from Heaven. The upcoming releases and Tim’s note.

Led by the master songwriting of John Felice, the Real Kids produced classic track after track throughout the mid to late 70s Boston punk scene to mostly local acclaim. Even though they did gain a cult following as the 80s wore on, they never really achieved the same level of recognition as other bands. This is something that the fine folks at Crypt and Norton have long sought to correct. While the Real Kids still occasionally perform (with Felice the lone remaining member), nothing really matches the intensity of their early years when the band burned with an unrestrained fury. Sadly, original members Alan “Alpo” Paulino and Billy Borgioli are no longer with us as both passed away from sudden medical issues within the past few years. That along with the ailing Felice’s tenacity makes the Real Kids musical journey all the more poignant.

Speaking to Tim a month ago, he emphasized how incredulous—and criminal—it was that the Real Kids never got their due. And as if to prove it, he blasted the test pressing of this release. “Isn’t this fuckin’ AMAZING!” I had to agree. So, to find these CDs in my mailbox a couple of days ago along with a nice note from Tim was a more than just a pleasant surprise.

For neophytes, I recommend checking out the classic first LP available as a remastered reissue from Norton Records. For the rest of us who already have a ton of Real Kids material, keep an eye out for this one. It should be hitting the Crypt mail order site soon.

Also coming soon to this blog, an exclusive interview with garage rock savior Tim Warren himself where he discusses all things Crypt as well as his NYC years. Stay tuned!