Safe European Home: Overseas Vinyl

The Bohemian Bedrocks
The Bohemian Bedrocks at The Dive. left to right: Orin Portnoy, Bobby Belfiore, Elan Portnoy, and Ira Elliot. Photo courtesy www.cheepskatesmovie.com

Sadly, like much of the history of early rock and general in general, it was the young kids of Europe to first notice and then support U.S. punk bands. Taking this principle to heart, NYC bands have found greener pastures touring Europe for the longest time. Often coming back with tales of how they would suddenly find themselves playing to thousands of people at outdoor festivals. Only to then jump on a plane, arrive in NYC a few hours later, and then play to the same 20-50 familiar faces the following week.

A perfect example of the Euro connection in regards to NYC garage bands was The Headless Horsemen. In 1987 a Dutch label, Resonance Records, showed a strong interest in releasing their first LP. However, once the record came out, the label then pushed the band to release an EP the following year. Essentially, using up songs that were slated to go on their second full length. Although the EP was solid and a great addition to their catalog, it didn’t sell well. While the band still toured successfully, the combination of fewer tracks at an LP price didn’t help their cause at the merch table. The record did make it stateside but, priced like an import, that too quickly disappeared. Soon Resonance went out of business.

Another NYC band with an interesting Euro connection was The Bohemian Bedrocks. A short-lived mid-80s group that contained members of both The Fuzztones and the future Optic Nerve. While the band both played out and recorded original material, their material was never released. After a year of performing, half of the guys went back out on tour with The Fuzztones while the other half became the aforementioned Optic Nerve. The Bedrocks ceased to be. (Some rare images from the Bedrocks live gigs, can be found on David Herrera’s informative site chronicling the Dive nightclub. Link HERE.)

Come 2012 though, Germany’s Screaming Apple Records came to the rescue. While they were only too eager to release the tracks by this quasi-supergroup in Europe, the import was hard to find in US stores. Even now, years later, while I was on a hunt for a new copy, I only found overseas vendors selling them.

Thankfully, this was not the end of the story for both records.

To say I was caught by surprise when Elan Portnoy revealed he had copies of both these imports (as well as the 1st HH LP and Rarities LP) for sale, is putting it mildly. Judging by the responses on his FB page, I was not alone. A quick email to Elan confirmed that he had “been sitting on these for a long time. Ever since they came out!” One week and one Paypal payment later, the records arrived.

Headless Horsemen Bohemian Bedrocks Records
Fuzz in a Box: Recently unearthed copies of the Headless Horsemen’s Gotta Be Cool EP and The Bohemian Bedrocks LP.

Hearing them now after so many years is an experience unto itself. On the one hand, you’re glad that finally, they’re a bit more widely available stateside. Then again, it’s hard not to feel a bit wistful to hear both groups at the prime of their existence, playing their strongest material to a (then) limited audience.

Alas while we cannot turn on the Wayback Machine, we can easily order these records once again. They certainly do not deserve to be stacked away in a storage container somewhere, unheard and more importantly, not enjoyed. Not only do they represent a specific time period in NYC, but also a moment in time where every member of these bands was concerned with just one thing. Making you have a lease-breaking, no-holds-barred good time. And that dear friends are as good a reason as any to crack open your billfold.

The Headless Horsemen’s Self-Titled 1st LP, You Gotta Be Cool EP (Resonance Records), and Demos and Rarities LP (Dangerhouse Skylab) are available for purchase along with The Bohemian Bedrocks LP (Screaming Apple) from Elan Portnoy. $20/LP, $15/EP. Postpaid (US). For more information contact Elan at elanportnoy(at)gmail(dot)com.

I Don’t Fit In

Paul Collins. Photo ©Rob Overtoom. Courtesy Hozac Records and Books.

Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White, I’m Not Like Anybody Else, Five Years Ahead of my Time. The misfit world has long been a unifying factor in the music scene. For every megastar with beaming Chicklets smile, you have hundreds of thousands of faceless guys and gals slogging through a career with a fair share of crappy motels and substandard meals. It’s rare to walk up to a music fan who cannot reel off a laundry list of supremely talented individuals who subsist hand to mouth—if they’re lucky.

Part of the reason d’etre for this blog was to highlight those NYC folk who’ve gone through this or are currently going through this. While many musicians have somehow found a balance, others are not so lucky. Something I’m reminded of constantly. And even out of the success stories, it’s hard to measure what the definition of “success” is.

I hate using a cliché, but Paul Collins’ career definitely exemplifies one to a T. He’s a survivor. A quick Google will lead you to Paul’s many achievements in the power pop realm (as well as his sometimes contentious relationship with fame, and former bandmates.) Still, Paul is a pro. One cannot exist in the industry for over 40 years without having—not just a strong backbone—but being a bit ornery as well.

Yet, everyone has to decide when it’s time to call it quits. And Paul has recently decided to gracefully close out his powerpop career with not just one, but two career highlights.

I Don’t Fit In is not just an autobiography, but also an overview of the heady time he was a member of The Nerves and The Beat. Two of the genre’s most exemplary and revered groups.

Discussing the book with Paul not too long ago he mentioned that it was in the planning stages for the longest time. Tracing its roots to when he was in Spain and going through a particularly difficult tour. The book started off as a semi-autobiographical exercise complete with anonymized names. While he did find someone to publish it in Spanish, he found no takers for an English language version. Disappointed, but undeterred, Paul eventually relocated back to his hometown, NYC, and continued to record and perform.

In 2018 however, Hozak Records label owner Todd Novak approached Paul and asked him if he would be interested in publishing his story. The indy label, long known as a haven for supporting new artists had started a book imprint and was experiencing some success publishing artist autobiographies. Teaming him up with writer Chuck Nolan, they reworked and added to Pauls’s original notes to create the definitive roadmap of his musical journey.

“Adding the bow tie to the package” (as Paul put it) is the release of Another World, a remastered collection of archival material that had only previously existed on personal cassette tapes that Paul had held onto for years. When I asked if there would be a volume two he replied “Nope, that’s it!” His assuredness made me realize how serious he was in commemorating this chapter of his life in the most positive way. And for someone like Paul Collins, that seems sorta fitting. I can’t imagine him saying goodbye on a less than stellar note.

Paul Collins Band at Naba, Osaka, Japan. March 2011. Photo © Jeff Cuyubamba

In 2011 I happened to find myself in Japan as The Paul Collins Band made their first appearances ever in the land of the rising sun. While I completely understood how the band was respected in the US, I was totally unprepared for the outpouring of support they would receive on this short tour. While all the sets started with an enthusiastic audience, they always ended with a smiling, sweaty, beaming mob waving their arms and looking like they experienced the second coming.

The fans go nuts for Paul in Osaka. @Jeff Cuyubamba

While the band was razor-sharp, much of the success was in the way Paul slowly built the crowd into a frenzy. What’s funny is that while I was amazed, Paul just smiled and took it in stride. As if he knew that this is what performers do. You just put on a great show for your fans. A fact further emphasized by what happened the following day. While my head was still buzzing from the enthusiastic crowd response, I asked Paul what his highlight was from the previous day. He replied excitedly that it was having the most delicious soup in the basement of the tallest building in Tokyo.

You can order I Don’t Fit In from Hozak Records and Books at this link. Another World can be ordered from Bomp Records here.

Talk About The Passion

Peppermint Lounge Ad October 1984. Designed by Marlene Weisman.

In the midst of all this craziness going on around the world. It’s nice to be reassured of some things.

Like most folks, this situation has given me some time to dive back into things that I’ve put off forever. In this case, it’s scanning old negatives that haven’t seen the light of day in over 30 years. Neatly filed away in glassine envelopes, the hundreds of negatives I accumulated documented all the things that a young person with a bulk roll of Tri-X and unlimited darkroom access could ever wish for. To my surprise, scattered amongst images of my Queens neighborhood, college pals, photo experiments, and pets I discovered some of my first forays into live band photography.

There were some nice finds among the various band shots. For instance, I found a couple of images of legendary hardcore punk band Ism playing the small rathskeller in my college’s student union building, Marshall Crenshaw touring behind his first record there, as well as an unknown (but somehow familiar) mystery rockabilly band.

R.E.M.’s 1983 gig at Queens College. Let’s Active never did play. Boston’s Neats filled in.

Now while Queens College really wasn’t a stop for bigger bands, it did amazingly get some reasonably well known smaller groups to play on campus like The dbs, Robert Gordon, R.E.M., and surprisingly, The Ramones. Whose performance in the plushly upholstered Colden Auditorium left in it’s wake a plethora of broken seats. There certainly was no stoppin’ the cretins from hoppin’ that night. That little incident effectively banned ALL rock bands from performing the auditorium for decades. Nevertheless, the Student Union was always available for gigs.

But, as I searched my memory for a clue to the rockabilly band’s name, I kept coming up with nothing. Just as I was ready to admit defeat, I crouched over my light table and spotted the band’s logo prominently emblazoned on the negative image of the kick drum. Squeaky Clean.

Squeaky Clean by contrast weren’t as well known as the other bands I mentioned. At that time the band had been around for only a year or so and had just released an EP and were doing the usual NYC club rounds. Somehow a copy of their EP wound up at the college’s newspaper office where I was the photo editor. That, in turn, led to someone writing about them and yours truly winding up in the rathskeller, camera in hand. While I was already firmly indoctrinated into 60s garage punk sounds, their 50s retro approach with an 80s twist nonetheless intrigued me.

Squeaky Clean EP, 1984.

After having ID’d them, curiosity led me to do a quick Google to see if there was any music online to further refresh my memory. I reasoned that if I could easily find a rare unissued 60s garage punk acetate on Youtube, there had to be something as pedestrian as an unknown mid-80s rockabilly band from NYC. To my surprise, what I found instead was the band’s website. Apparently, the group was still in existence.

After I picked myself up from the floor, I sent off an email to them and mentioned how I happened to come across their site. I soon received a nice reply as well as a quick recap of the band’s career from Glenn Manion, the band’s guitarist.

“We pursued our musical success fantasy for a number of years.  Our six-song EP that we put out in 1984  (right around the same time your pix are from, judging by hair styles, lack of glasses and PA gear) got some good attention even though we had no idea how to promote it.  We were a lot smarter when we released a full LP in 1987, but by then it was harder to stand out from other DIY records  (this was way before YouTube, remember). 

Suzanne Smithline, Michael J. Colombo, and Glenn Manion of Squeaky Clean performing at the Queens College Rathskeller, Flushing NY 1984.

We did win a “Best Unsigned Band” award in 1989, but by then it was clear that our sensibility was not in sync with what major labels were signing.
So we decided to keep on playing the music we love and try to find our own audiences.  We put a kid-friendly spin on our presentation and did school assembly programs.  We discovered that senior citizens liked our approach to old-school rock and roll, so we developed a presentation for them.  Basically we just kept at it, reinventing ourselves as the times required and learning how to do more types of music well.

We were never part of the club scene other than our own shows.  Once we started a family, hanging out and making the scene was no longer possible.” 

As an interesting side note, Glen mentioned that the band’s logo was created by their good friend, graphic designer, and artist, Marlene Weisman. While the band members weren’t involved in the eighties club scene, Marlene most definitely was. Her involvement led to designing many of the print ads, promos, and logos for bands and clubs during that time. Most notably, The Peppermint Lounge’s weekly ad for the Village Voice. A quick followup email to Marlene confirmed not just her involvement but also her kindness in offering to contribute some of her Pep ads to this site.

While Marlene moved from the music work to TV work and scored plum gigs doing the graphics for several well-known late-night shows, she still found time to create visual art in a city climate that does not cater to that. A point that was further driven home when Marlene mentioned that she was currently in the process of helping her non-profit artists’ group find new space.

While it’s too easy to wrap this up this post with the often-repeated trope of creative people following their muse despite the odds, it’s kind of hard to avoid it in this case. Amazingly, despite the hardships that both Glenn and Marlene faced in their fields, they still managed to hold onto what they loved to do. And if anything is a testament to the spirit of this site, that surely is. Kudos guys.

Below is a clip of Squeaky Clean performing an original, “Cops & Robbers”, on Manhattan Cable around 1984.

Satisfaction Guaranteed: Meet The Overdrive Five

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!

A NIght With Thee Cellar Dwellers

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?

Thee Cellar Dwellers on a bill with NYC’s Blacklight Chameleons October, 25, 1986. Courtesy of Jim Baetz.

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.

Cellar Dwellers, Strip 12-87
Thee Cellar Dwellers with Maine’s The Talismen at the Strip Dec 19, 1987.

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.

Minds Eye Poster
Minds Eye Show at Tramps April 18 with the Cynics, The Blacklight Chameleons, and Thee Cellar Dwellers April 18, 1987. Art by Ivy Vale.

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.

Cellar Dwellers, Strip 01-87
Thee Cellar Dwellers with the Phantom V (the surprise band) at the Strip, Jan 23, 1988.

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).

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