While digitizing some old cassettes, I ran across this gem of a performance from NYC’s own Optic Nerve. Centering on more folk-rock stylings, the Nerve were unique among the plethora of harder sounding NYC bands. Bobby Belfiore, Tony Matura and Orin Portnoy formed the core of the band throughout its existence, supplemented on drums mainly by Ken Anderson, Greg Clark and Frank Max. This performance is taken from a show at Neither/Nor bookstore on 703 East 6th St.
Located in what was once the wastelands between Ave C and D, Neither/Nor was a launching point for much of the literary talent in lower Manhattan during the mid-80s. The bookstore occupied the ground floor of an old, dilapidated loft building, which amazingly survives to this day. No small feat considering that directly opposite the building in the 80s one would have found just open lots strewn with rubble. Neither/Nor not only served as a artistic oasis for the community, it also nurtured future talents such as Joel Rose and Nuyorican poet and playwright Miguel Piñero.
The Optic Nerve went on to have one of their songs immortalized on the Children of Nuggets box set alongside the likes of The Cramps, Lyres, The Hoodoo Gurus and other equally important contemporaries. At Neither/Nor though, they were just another local garage group scraping by and playing their hearts out to a small, but passionate, fanbase.
It didn’t take much to push me. Especially after seeing images and reading about Burger Records‘ yearly festival Burger Boogaloo for several years.
When it comes to music festivals, pretty much everyone I know is unanimous in skipping the hassle of the big organized festivals. While my own tastes seemed to follow groups that have traditionally played in tiny clubs or smaller venues, it was only recently the phenomena known as the “reunion” shows has forced me to slightly reassess that preference. Normally, I doubt anyone can pass up seeing a favorite group one more time, but that dedication is sorely tested once you have to do it alongside 25,000 people.
Garage music in general has never really translated well to these settings. Not too much money to be made from 100-person festivals in 1985! However, that was just in the U.S. Not so oddly, our friends across the Atlantic thought differently. Bands like The Headless Horsemen and The Fuzztones, both of whom regularly played to crowds of 50–100 people in NYC, were invited to play huge European festivals. Even more impressively, on bills that drew tens of thousands of people.
And while the U.S. “alternative” festivals eventually caught on in the early 90s and attracted some amazing talent though the years, garage punk really wasn’t what brought the masses.
That all changed with the unlikeliest of people.
While the classic rock strains of Bruce Springsteen is enough to send the most seasoned punk fan running, not many would expect a person immersed in that world to champion garage punk. Little Steven Van Zandt, longtime guitarist for the Springsteen band, however, took on the thankless task of promoting the genre via his radio show. While I do tend to question some of the criteria which Steven uses to label music “garage,” there is no question that his heart was in the right place. More impressively, Van Zandt also put his money where his mouth is by helping organize a sponsored garage music festival in NYC in 2004. While he did succumb to having to book popular indy rockers The Strokes to bring people in, for the most part 90 percent of the acts were groups from garage music’s past and present. Needless to say he lost a ton of money…
But, I digress. I’ll cover this event in further detail a future column. It truly deserves its own post. For now let me just say that, at that time, the idea of a “good” punk festival that did not put promoters in hock and did not fall into the trap of becoming this unstoppable merchandise-fueled juggernaut seemed difficult to impossible. Since then, thankfully, things have changed. Many other mavericks have organized smaller garage music festivals both here and overseas to much more success.
Burger Boogaloo is one of those success stories. While I believe this is its ninth year, the festival has lost none of its original spirit. And just as important, it has managed to attract followers who are just as protective of this. Not only is the talent is top notch, but the environment is also oddly familial. With older and younger fans all pretty much congregating in this massive “be-in” for lack of a better word. The festival credo, “Gather all ye outliers, weirdos and rebels and celebrate the spirit of rock and roll,” pretty much sums up the whole ethos. Prices are on par with other festivals, but for that, you get not just great music but also a great day (or days) out. Much respect to the organizers, Total Trash Productions, for proving that such things are still possible. I mean, even The Damned’s Captain Sensible amusingly noted from the stage, “Hope to see you guys soon…What a nice festival!”
This year’s festival did not disappoint. Quite amazing considering that the previous years headliners were original punks, The Buzzcocks,Iggy Pop, X and Redd Kross. Mighty big Docs to fill if you ask me.
The location was, as it was in the previous year, Mosswood Park, one of the smaller city parks in Oakland. Many pointed out to me that the city has changed quite a bit, but still it runs into the same issues that many urban areas have to grapple with. Unfortunately, in this case, this meant moving some homeless encampments out of the park for the weekend. Something which caused a bit of a stir in the news. To sooth the critical attention, festival goers were encouraged to donate to the homeless organizations in attendance at the festival. Certainly a worthwhile endeavor.
The two main staging areas for the acts, The Toxic Paradise stage and the larger Pleasure Pier, were on opposite sides of the park. While in between you had your usual festival staples such as veg and non-veg food options, vendors and the ubiquitous porta potties. What it didn’t have was massive amounts of humanity. Food and drink were easily obtained and even the bathroom lines were pretty reasonable. People were generally in a good mood, and even seeing entire families in attendance made me think this was just a typical weekend outing—that happened to have live music.
Without going through the entire lineup, I’ll jut say that the experience was a fantastic one and every single person in the place, both onstage and off, seemed genuinely happy to be there. That was even obvious during the sets of the few harder punk bands. No scuffles, no one was hurt and once the group finished…you just saw smiling people leaving the area.
Band highlights? Where to begin. Personal favorites were of course The Mummies (who pretty much have never done a bad show in their existence) as well as garage trash punks Traditional Fools, Italian glam rockers Giuda, SF’s Flakes, and Japan’s pop punks Firestarter.
As far as the pros: Both DEVO and The Damned delivered tight sets, which was even more impressive when you consider that both acts have been around (in some manner) for a bit over four decades. Something The Damned especially had fun mocking. Captain Sensible: “Eh, not bad for a bunch of old farts…oh no, I mean you guys…not us.” Dave Vanian, after Sensible donned a banana suit and gave an unexpectedly long song intro: “I keep looking at him and all I see is an old fruit.”
As the last chords of Sensible’s guitar (on Jello Biafra no less) faded into the cold, humid Oakland night, it was hard not to feel a vicarious sense of accomplishment for everyone involved in the project. No bones about it, this was a difficult thing to do. And the fact that it appeared so easy on the surface just reinforced that hard fact.
Many thanks to David Greenfield, Greg Gutzbehal, Aya Cuzner, Jim DeLuca, Real Boss Hoss, Laurent and Sunny, Lisa and Suke and the myriad of folks and bands who made my time spent in California pretty damned Neat, Neat, Neat.
Oakland, California is definitely one of those places that can get easily overlooked. Sure, it had Berkeley and a storied history of social activism, but it tends to get forgotten in favor of its flashier next door neighbor, San Francisco. However, for many years, it quietly served as the home base for the garage music scene in the Bay Area. All the things that brought the New York music and art scene to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn are at play here.
Of the many happenings in this fair city, Burger Records’ yearly fest, Burger Boogaloo, has been one of the highlights of not just the Bay Area but also the rock music community in general. This year’s line-up proved no less impressive an array of seasoned veterans and hungry up-and-comers. Devo, The Damned alongside, The Rip Offs, Japan’s Firestarter, Italy’s Guida, and on and on.
Starting this year’s celebration, however, was DJ Sid Presley‘s opening night meet and greet at the Octopus Literary Lounge. Presley, the nom de plume of impresario David Greenfield, has been one of the leading forces of bringing talent to the city. A charming fellow, his optimism easily evident in even a small chat with him. Not only are his shows immaculately curated: He also has some of the best posters I have seen in quite a while.
The Octopus Literary Salon is quite an interesting venue. Smaller than I expected, it’s a small storefront in downtown Oakland. As Presley related, the promoters of Burger Boogaloo approached him and asked him to organize an opening party. However, once he secured the small space (which doubles as a cafe during the day), much to his surprise things started moving quicker than expected. Several of the bands he asked to perform asked him if it was OK to bring along friends. Some touring in the area from abroad. Before he knew it, he had secured an international line-up of talent.
Opening the show were The Teutonics, followed by SF’s own The Ogres, featuring a member of The Phantom Surfers. They were quickly followed by Spain’s Ramona and France’s Jon and the Vons. Closing up the night were Boston’s Muck and the Mires. The atmosphere was celebratory, and the vibe was one of good fun and camaraderie. A hallmark of the Oakland scene.
As if to prove my point, on my way out I noticed a member of The Teutonics talking to friends and fans. Walking over I enthusiastically mentioned how much I enjoyed their show and to look for pics on my blog. Before I knew it I was quickly handed a 45 and profusely thanked in a similar fashion. I’d be remiss not to give this fine band a plug. Although this single isn’t on Bandcamp yet, do drop by their page here and sample the other musical offerings.
Next post will wrap up the California coverage and its back to our usual NY fare.
Several years back when the idea of creating something out of what I had accumulated crossed my mind, I agonized over how to go about presenting it. In fact, I agonized so much that it turned into the proverbial monkey on my back. Should I put up video? What about sound? How can I arrange the news clippings? The only thing that was fixed were what bands I felt were important to highlight. Through the years, that focus turned into who the members were that were in these bands. Figuring that they would be able to tell their story much better than I could. This idea morphed into the blog you are now reading.
When it came time to speak to former band members, Peter Stuart was at the top of my list. Not only for the fact that he was an astounding bass player but also for the fact that The Tryfles led to yet another beloved NYC garage-punk band, The Headless Horsemen. With Peter’s involvement in both, it’s not rocket science to guess who played a key role in driving both these well-loved bands.
With that in mind, I found myself at vintage guitar headquarters Retrofret on a recent weekday evening to have a chat with the maestro himself. This portion of the interview will center on the beginnings of the penultimate NY garage band, The Tryfles, and eventually work its way through the creation of The Headless Horsemen.
SSA: Peter! Let’s start at the very beginning.
Peter Stuart: Sounds good to me! I’ll start the whole Tryfles thing by saying that John Fay’s ambition for The Tryfles was that we make a record that’d be worth a lot of money someday. This was John’s stated mission. So, while I don’t know what The Tryfles 45 is worth nowadays, it’s certainly worth more than the $3 that it cost us when it was made!
SSA: Can you touch on how each of you guys met? I know you were friends with future Fuzztone and Headless Horseman Elan Portnoy since high school.
PS: John Fay and I were the basic nucleus of the group. Ellen O’Neill and Lesya Karpilov were both friends of mine that I sucked into the band afterward. As far as groups go, The Tryfles were very much a designed band. Much in the way the Byrds were. In fact, Roger McGuinn is my hero because he designed, or, I should say, he “picked” people. He didn’t intentionally select great musicians: He’d say, “Oh, that’s an interesting person,” or, “I just met this guy on the beach. He has a Beatles haircut, and he plays the bongos: He’s my drummer.” He’d put together a band of personalities, not a band of musicians. And The Tryfles were absolutely a band of personalities. It was intentionally set up that way.
Initially, I was friends with Ellen’s brother and sister who I had both met in the late 70s. Oddly enough, at a high school gig where one of my bands played. In fact, not only did they all go to school there, their mother even taught there! Through family connections, I met Ellen, and we began hanging out in the early 80s. She’d been kind of a teenage hanger-on throughout the late, late 70s rock scene. By the time I met her, she was attending college but still heavily into music. We would often end up going to gigs together. Not as boyfriend or girlfriend but more like good pals. We built our friendship on this.
John was going to high school at the time. I forgot where he went, but he went to one of those quirky private schools. He’d been in the early version of The Outta Place with Orin Portnoy, and I think Shari Mirojnik. He, Orin and Shari had a band called The Disturbed.
SSA: Was this around 1982?
PS: Yeah, around that time.Elan Portnoy was the one who first introduced me to John Fay. In fact, Jordan Tarlow, Elan and John all went to the same high school. As you noted, I had already been friends with Elan for years. In fact, we’d played in a couple of bands together. Once Elan introduced me to John, we hit it off right away.
SSA: The meeting of two like minds. What were you doing musically around that time?
PS: At the time I was playing in blues bands. It’s funny because while I’d get them to do some stuff that I like, I had to play endless Muddy Waters jams. Now, I love Muddy Waters, but I really don’t like white kids playing Muddy Waters songs unless they’re really good at it. And these people weren’t really good at it!
SSA: That’s pretty funny. So, while you were active musically, you still weren’t doing the music you liked. Why the inertia?
PS: You know when you get into a lull in life? Well, that was where I was at that moment. I’d been in a band in 1979, 80 that looked like we were going to get signed. We had a publishing contract and everything. And, as the way it often does, the whole thing was torpedoed by our guitar player, my best friend, who just balked and quit.
So, instead of being in this signed band making records, I was working at a record store. I was in this miserable fat period of life, just buying bass guitars and feeling sorry for myself. And I couldn’t seem to meet anybody who wanted to do what I wanted to do, which was play 60s rock ‘n’ roll.
That was when Elan happened to bring John to my record store. He and I started to talk about records and how we both owned a Danelectro bass. We immediately bonded.
SSA: That was the connection.
PS: That was the connection. We start talking, and I found out he was into doing the same thing I wanted to do. And, god, I must have been 22 or 23, and he was around 17. John was actually going to graduate high school in the summer of 1984. His family was then planning to move to Seattle.
One day I convinced him to guest in a silly 60s frat rock band I was playing in called Life of Leisure. He came up, did a couple songs, and it was the best we ever sounded. So, after that show both of us had the same idea: “Screw these guys. Let’s start our own band.”
Around the same time, John kind of got kicked out of The Outta Place.More accurately, they had reformed without him. You know, I love John like a brother, but he was not the easiest guy to get along with sometimes back then. I know Orin was also not the easiest guy to get along with either. My impression was that there was a bit of friction there.
[John Fay later elucidated a bit on this period: “Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of ‘street smarts’ and Orin and Sherri did, which I think was necessary. Additionally, I also had to deal with control freak parents that wouldn’t allow me to play out—it might have been the first gig but the band didn’t have Andrea Kusten or Mike Chandler yet . . . So that spelled the end of that. This is where I think the friction mainly lay.”]
As luck would have it, right when he and I start hanging out, The Outta Place started playing at the Dive. One day John tells me, “Hey, this band I used to play in is playing at the Dive. Ya wanna go?” While this sounded intriguing, my initial reply was “So, what’s the Dive?” This was how we first saw The Outta Place with, I believe, The Mad Violets on the same bill. That first visit to the Dive happened in October or November 1983. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the exact date. But, I do remember that, as soon as John and I walked in, we were immediately transfixed. Both of us thought, “This is kind of cool.”
SSA: Getting back to Ellen, how did she get involved?
PS: So, after John and I hooked up, I introduced him to Ellen. The three of us went to see a screening of The Monkees’ Head at her college. John and Ellen immediately hit it off. At that point, she was just getting into playing drums. In fact, Iactually helped her buy a drum kit. I remember riding out to Queens on the subway with her on the day she bought a beautiful Rogers kit from this cranky old guy who lived in a basement full of drums. Unfortunately, she had no clue how to play it! But, I’ll give her this: She sat down, and within six or eight weeks, she could keep a beat enough to back a band.
By this time, John and I had already had our first rehearsal of what was to become The Tryfles with my drummer friend Richard Matthews. Now, Richard was a Keith Moon fanatic that thought there were only two drummers worth listening to in the world. Keith Moon and Elvin Jones. So, you have Richard, and then you have John, who is a really, really good, tight rhythm guitarist. Then you had me, stuck in the middle. Needless to say, it just didn’t work.
I told John that I had a friend who’s just starting to play drums and was really eager to be in a band. No frills, just basic stuff. The next time we went to the studio we invited Ellen. And lo and behold, it actually started to sound like something.
[At this point Peter hands me a few mimeographed sheets labeled “Tryfles Family Tree.”]
And here is The Tryfles Family Tree. It was made sometime in 1986 for a fanzine, whose name escapes me. It perfectly charts where we were at that time. Can’t ask for more than that, can ya?
We did only one rehearsal with Richard’s Keith Moon-style drumming. Which, if we were better, might have worked. However, Richard was also a difficult person as well. So, we ended up making the right decision. With three intense male personalities, the band would have been doomed from the get-go.
When Ellen sat down and started drumming—”Boom, bang, boom, bang, boom, bang”—she was perfect. Her strong desire to be in a band enabled her to succeed where technically better drummers couldn’t.
Nevertheless, we still sounded thin. That’s what made me think of Lesya Karpilov, who I worked with at the record store. Now Lesya is really, really brilliant, a bit wacky and the most intense personality that I had ever met. I totally fell for her the second I met her. My first impression was that this girl is a rock star. Her whole persona was just so spot on. Ironically, I ended up having to convince her to join.
Now, keep in mind that this is a high school girl of 16, who had already stopped attending high school and was working in a record store. There was nothing that could phase her. She already had this persona.
SSA: What was her persona? Tough girl?
PS: It was this whole cooler-than-anyone rock chick. Chrissie Hynde was her role model. The whole eye makeup and hair thing. At the store, both of us would sit behind the counter and sing along to records. I was pleasantly surprised to find out she really had a good voice!
Thinking about our band situation, I approached John and Ellen and told them about this girl who I work with who I think would really make this band. Immediately Ellen said, “I don’t want to be in a band with another girl,” and John said, “I don’t want to be in a band with another guitar player.” I basically told them that we’re were going to try this anyway.
So, Lesya comes in, and she and Ellen hate each other instantly, and she and John hate each other instantly. But in an odd way, they all realized that BANG! The Monkees. Two girls, two guys. The look was perfect, and it sounded like something as soon as we started playing. It was just one of those times when everything jelled. We were rough as shit…but it worked.
SSA: Thus, The Tryfles were born. Was this around the time of the Dive video that Anthony “Tony G” Gliozzo shot? I seem to remember you telling me this was the second live gig by the band.
PS: Yes, in fact, in that video you linked to on your site, you’ll notice that the sound is a bit strange. It’s almost like you can’t tell that it’s “He’s Waiting” by The Sonics. The reason for that is, between the time we rehearsed and the time we got onstage, we somehow were not in the same key! I’m playing in F, and the rest of the band is playing it in E. It’s the most discordant thing musically possible.
In many ways, it’s apropos that The Tryfles are immortalized this way. If this isn’t a Tryfles moment, I don’t know what is. Four people up there playing their hearts out…in different keys.
Stay tuned for Part II! Extra special thanks to Peter Stuart for his time and ephemera and West Coast operative Greg Gutbezahl for his photos. Visit Greg’s photo site here!
Given its proximity to the northeast, Canada has always provided (and still provides) a way for local musicians to perform outside of the country. In the heyday of the garage revival, bands like The Gruesomes, Les Breastfeeders, and King Khan (among many others) continued the legacy that mid-60s bands like The Haunted and The Ugly Ducklings began.
What Wave fanzine, based in London, Ontario, was one of the handful of fanzines that sprung up in the wake of the 80s revival up north. Besides offering the latest on live gigs and LP releases, What Wave was unique in that it also provided limited edition cassette tapes in issues.
I’ll let editor Dave O’Halloran take over here and explain how his fanzine came about:
“What Wave zine was started by Al Cole in the late 70’s/early 80’s and he did the first 4 issues. He was burnt out, needed a change or something. He offered it to us in the fall of 1984.
I was reluctant as it sounded like a lot of work. My wife Rena, an English teacher, though was all for it. We had just come back from NYC and were just amazed at the bands we’d just seen; The Fuzztones, Pandoras, Tryfles, Slickee Boys, Fleshtones (we were HUGE Fleshtones fans and still are!) and so many more. I remember going to Venus Records and Midnight Records and just flipping out over the 60’s comps and 80’s garage combos. We felt like we were in a wasteland in colonial London Ontario Canada.
So, with a bit of convincing from Tony and Gerard of the Montreal band Deja Voodoo, Rena and I took over What Wave. We started with issue #5 in the fall of 1984 and went right through to 1996 with issue #22. Starting with issue #10, almost all came with either a cassette or a 7″ record. It was our way of getting the music out to the fans. Once we started including cassettes, the zine started to sell quite well for awhile.
Whenever we went down to NYC, we’d bring a full suitcase of WW zines and trade them at Midnight Records for records. The suitcase would always come home full of vinyl!! Records we couldn’t find in Canada as owner J.D. Martignon used to bring in all kinds of cool stuff.
Once we had kids though, starting in April 1990, things really slowed down….just not enough energy, and time. Additionally, a lot of the bands were moving towards grunge and CD’s began taking over. The few issues that we were able to squeeze out between our daughter Erika’s birth and 1996 began having longer and longer breaks between them.
We did do a last edition (#24), The History of London Ontario Combos, that came out in 2012 in conjunction with Graphic Underground: London 1977-1990, a celebration of the posters, zines, and ephemera of London Ontario up to 1990. This was an actual curated museum exhibit and brought a lot of attention to that era of music and art. There is even a museum gallery book by curator Brian Lambert called Graphic Underground: London 1977-1990 in which there is a chapter on WW zine….some of our posters are in there.”
While going through some old cassettes I actually found a few tracks from one of Dave’s compilation tapes, labelled “Live in London“. The song that caught my attention was a Headless Horsemen track with none other than future journalist Celia Farber on drums. According to HH bassist Peter Stuart, this show was during the band’s first tour of Canada. Dave was kind enough to send a few images from his archives as well as a few additional thoughts.
“That whole show was recorded at Key West, London Ontario 7/25/1986 and yes, Celia was on the tubs!! I was told it was a great show by my wife Rena who attended, took pics and did the recording. Also playing on this show, Link Protrudi and the Jaymen! The next night, the HH were in Hamilton (between London and Toronto) where I finally got to see them for the first time and Rena the 2nd. I distinctly remember meeting the band before the show and one of them remarked (I think it was Peter) that I looked just like a guy from the Creeping Pumpkins….musta been my bowl haircut! There’s a live recording from that night as well, but I don’t see any images in my files and don’t remember Link Protrudi playing that night either.”
So, here is the Headless Horsemen from back in 1986 playing the Flamin’ Groovies classic, Shake Some Action. Many, many, thanks to the What Wave Archive and What Wave editor Dave O’Halloran and his wife Rena.
As has been mentioned several times, there were very few labels that really supported the fledging garage punk sound of bands in the 80s. For sure Greg Shaw’s Bomp/Voxx Records made great strides in showcasing straight ahead rock and roll in all its various forms. But amongst labels that dedicated themselves purely to garage sounds, only our European friends really were at the forefront. Germany’s Glitterhouse and France’s Eva were among the few that delivered manna from heaven for the dedicated on a regular basis. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that it took a transplanted Frenchman to make the first strides in releasing garage music from NYC.
J.D. Martignon’s Midnight Records located on 23rd street between 7th and 8th Avenue, was the place you went to to pick up those aforementioned imports (as well as to hang out with other likeminded souls.) While the stories surrounding J.D. are the stuff of legend and enough to fill several posts, I’ll like to stick to one recent Midnight-related tale.
It all began with J.D.’s untimely death in September 2016. While his passing didn’t seem to warrant as much as an obit, many blogs did make note of his major contribution to the NYC garage music scene. I too jumped at the chance to post my favorite J.D. image taken way back in 2009.
Fast forward to August 12th of this year. While perusing through various Facebook posts one evening I ran across an odd mention by pal (and gracious blog subject) Bill Luther about an auction. As a record collector, it didn’t seem too surprising coming from Bill. What was surprising though was what was up for auction. The estate of J.D. Martignon was auctioning off not just some rare collector items, but many of his one-of-a-kind master tapes as well. Knowing several of the musicians who were involved in creating these records, the first thing I thought was to fire off an email to several mentioning the auction.
Within the space of several hours, word spread quickly amongst the Midnight bands. Various ideas began to be formulated in a attempt figure out the best way to handle the situation. After all, this would be the only chance many would have to reclaim their property. If anyone was to profit off of these tapes, it made sense it should be the people who actually created the music.
Interestingly, the auction house was a very reputable one. Rago, located in picturesque Lambertville, NJ. According to one person it was even featured regularly on Antiques Roadshow. While it was reassuring to know that they were on the up and up, it also made the possibility of a bidding war that much more likely.
After much discussion it was agreed that an organized effort was needed. Former Vipers guitarist, Paul Martin, empathizing with the plight that his former cohorts faced, agreed to be the point person. As a business owner, Paul had access to solid legal advice and began exploring ways to retrieve the Midnight tapes before they went up for auction. After a few days of hang-wringing silence (where even the tapes disappeared off the site) some good news materialized. If a contract was produced as proof of ownership, then the tapes would be happily returned to each individual band.
A few days ago Cheepskates member and Midnight artist Dave Herrera posted an update on Facebook. There, on his table, were several of his original master tapes. Mission accomplished.
To people familiar with the history of the NYC garage scene, its hard to not know about The Headless Horsemen. The band, which began as an loose supergroup of Fuzztones and Tryfles members have been a mainstay of the NYC 60s beat scene for, well, about 30 years. In fact their histories are so intertwined that in a future 2-part post I will cover the genesis of not just the The Tryfles but also the Headless Horsemen.
For now though, I urge anyone in the NYC vicinity to head over to Brooklyn Bowl this Sunday November 5th to take part in the bands 30th Anniversary celebration. Among the special guests are The Animal’s guitarist Hilton Valentine, and the great Roy Loney from the Flamin’ Groovies. Opening are Orlando, Florida’s The Belltowers, making their very first NYC appearance. To commemorate the event, former Dive denizen, photographer (and now creative director) Greg Gutbezahl created an astounding flyer. You can see some of his early work in the flyers section of this site.
Here is a clip from the vaults of The Headless Horsemen playing the late, great Continental Divide on February 9, 1997. A mere 10 years into their 30 year stint. And let me tell you…they STILL sound like this. Everybody shake.
Gritty New York. You hear that term so often that its already become a worn out cliché. Nevertheless, out of the hundreds of bands that can rightfully claim the title of being one of those “gritty” NYC bands, The Raunch Hands were one of the few that encapsulated the whole dirty, sloppy, happy, sadness and madness of this little burg. Sure The Ramones did the same, but by the mid-80s, the “punk” musical climate was changing. Songs were speeding up and becoming more aggressive. Worst of all macho jocks had started to notice and transform the quaint pogo-ing at gigs into full fledged testosterone fueled slam pits. Into this world the Raunch Hands were born. Carrying a youthful swagger they mined the soulful R&B underbelly and spit it back out in a maelstrom of booze and good times. If the city was going to hell, might as well have fun doing it. Not only did they bring the party, the Hands also did what few other NYC groups were able to do. Get recognized throughout the world and yet, remain purely an underground band. Mssrs Chandler, Mariconda, Tchang, Sulley and Brnicevic (not to mention later members Edison, Crowley, & Linzell) kicked up an unholy mess that has yet to be equalled.
I had a chance to chat with Michael Mariconda, guitarist of the RH, about those early years gigging in NYC.
SSA: Thanks Mike for taking a few moments to contribute your perspective on the garage scene in NYC. Naturally, my standard question for everyone is, how did you first hear about the scene?
MM: Basically, by getting the job at Venus Records in 1983. I was in contact with a lot of musicians that were coming in looking for records of Garage Punk. The post-punk new band scene was stale so all these great reissues started coming out. What do you do when the next crop of new bands suck? Go and listen to old records…and that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t rare to have Jeff Conolly and The Lyres, members of The Vipers, Fuzztones, Chesterfield Kings, Lux and Ivy, Greg Shaw and even Billy Gibbons dropping by to see what was good and for sale. Also people like Tim Warren, Billy Miller, Bruce Planty and our drummer Vince Brnicevic were working on their first volumes of 60s punk comps (all influenced by Nuggets but with much wilder and obscure bands) – Back From The Grave, Hipsville, Open up Your Door and What a Way to Die– all at the same time.
And Venus was where my pal who was well known in collector circles brought me. How did you get that gig? I recall you already knew quite a bit about music. In fact the reason I bought a Stones 45 from you was because after playing it, you mentioned (correctly, I might add) that it had a hotter mix than the LP version.
I was lucky I got that job as there were a lot of applicants. I tried to sell myself to the owner as knowing something about 50s R & B which I thought could be a market to sell to the Garage scene rather than just having another guy who was into Garage working there. Scott Curran hipped me to the idea of different mixes between mono and stereo LPs and French EPs or 45s pressed in various countries all sounded a little different. Added up to buying the same record 3 or 4 times.
For people who aren’t familiar, only two record stores in NYC really became the epicenter of much of the garage scene. There were others, like Freebeing and Bleecker Bobs, but the garage-genre folks tended to congregate at either J.D’s Midnight Records or/and Crackers’ Venus Records. Can you tell me a bit about the characters who worked at Venus while you were there?
I always got along with everyone who worked there, Scott, Bruce, Ron Rimsite, Bobby Cook, John Kioussis and the owner Bill Shor all characters for sure but they all had beefs between themselves and all disliked the owner. But, in general, I always enjoyed the job since the musician in me was learning so much about music. Being there was no internet, the only way to try to find out about this stuff was through magazines and people to talk to.
I remember attending The Raunch Hands first gig at 240 West and quite honestly being unsure what to make of it. Only that I wanted to hear more. If I recall correctly did you play a fiddle at that gig for a song or two? Could be just a hallucination.
Yeah I was playing fiddle and lap steel on a few songs in 84-85. Kinda gave that up as it became too much to carry around and too delicate to play after beating the shit out of the guitar for an hour. And the lap steel got stolen right before a gig and I had no money to replace it.
Those early gigs were pretty memorable in that literally everyone seemed to be trashed, the band, the audience. It just basically turned into the wildest house party you were ever at. There was a particularly memorable 2 set night at The Dive close to its demise that I’ll never forget. In fact, your manager at the time came up to me during the show and asked me why I was taping it!
Memorable? Hehe. I don’t remember too much. Part of it was the NYC 4 am bar closing time. No one had a car so no reason to stay sober. Gave everyone a lot of time to get drunk watching 4 bands. I remember when we started going on last instead of first I really had to pace myself to be in reasonably good condition to play. Chandler never did.
Tim Warren including you on Back From the Grave Vol. 3 was a stroke of genius. Although we didn’t know it at the time, he instinctively knew you guys fit perfectly into the whole idea of his comps.
People were pretty shocked there was a new band on there, and it was an instrumental. Crypt luckily picked us up after we got booted off Relativity after the 2nd LP…that got us to Europe and Japan and prolonged the band for a number of years.
The Hands stood alone in being the ultimate NYC band in terms of attitude, style and sound. Pretty soon others out side of the city started picking up on it. When did you get an inkling that this was starting to become more than just a local thing.
We never really had a concept when we started because we liked all kinds of music and wanted to try to incorporate all the styles we could. That confused a lot of people. Initially when I joined, the group was doing mostly Tchang and Chandler originals because the group didn’t have enough musical knowledge to try to cover a song, they always sounded terrible so they just wrote their own originals.
Chandler really had the pedigree coming from the Outta Place. His unique vocal spin on your R&B-based tunes really set the band apart from other bands who mined similar influences.
Yeah. We kinda stole him from The Outta Place, who I did like very much. We were fans of black R & B mostly. My favorite band in the mid 80s was Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. We started moving in that direction when Tchang started playing sax, so out went the fiddle and lap steel.
I have to ask you who came up with the “Hello, I am a Raunch Hand” card. The hand gestures on the back are what totally make it. I think I still have my band T-shirt with those graphics on it.
I cant remember who came up with it but it was a great idea..Cool you still have the shirt, I do too but it doesn’t fit-not that I gained weight…it shrank!
Finally, in closing, I have to ask you about Billy Miller. While most people know him and Miriam for the Norton label, I don’t think many know how essential he was to the NY music community. Especially around the time KICKS was their only main product. Personally, I feel his enthusiastic writing was what drew me more and more into discovering new sounds. And, if that wasn’t enough, he was a super-nice, wickedly clever guy. Everyone seems to have a unique story when it comes to Billy. What is your story?
Not one particular story but Billy was an amazing guy. Funny, easy going, great taste. I was lucky to have been asked to start The A Bones with him and Miriam and Mike Lewis and I was nervous as this was his follow up to The Zantees that had 2 amazing rockabilly guitarists The Statile Brothers so I had some big shoes to fill. I learned so much from Billy, always had the time to teach and share something about great old records. His death was tragic, a long painful one. So not deserved. His contribution to music was massive as was/is Tim Warren’s. Both of them have had a huge impact on my life.
To this day it’s still pretty amazing that people all over the world who appreciate garage music, in all its permutations, still fondly remember and appreciate The Raunch Hands. Despite all the good and bad things that happened that must be satisfying in some respects.
Yeah, very happy to see the music is still holding up, reaching new people and sounds a lot more spontaneous than a lot of recordings today.
Thanks again Mike. And please, if the RH ever do another gig in this lifetime…you have to cover Hong Kong Missisippi it’s the ultimate RH song that never was.
We might have tried that at a rehearsal but sounded so crappy we gave up on it! A future RHs gig unfortunately will never happen, I have 2 fingers paralyzed on my left hand and Chandler is having a very slow recovery from his bout with cancer. However, I still continue to produce bands and even have a new project in the works.
It gave me great pleasure to have a chat with New Jersey native, record collector, DJ and fellow scenester Bill Luther. Bill was around during much of the early heyday of the mod/garage scene and gave me his thoughts about those times from a distinctly NJ point-of-view.
SSA: Thanks Bill for taking a moment to share your memories of the NY/NJ Scene in the mid-80s. First off, when did you find out about this and who introduced you?
BL: My whole awareness of what was going on in New York City came because of Mod Fun. Their lead singer Mick London used to guest DJ on a local College radio station in Princeton near where I grew up and I read a lot about his band in local music papers. I got in touch with him through the radio station and eventually went to see them play live at Princeton University in 1984. In fact, their debut 45 was always being played on the local college stations WPRB and WRSU. Through Mick, I became aware of what was going on in New York City and by late 1984 my friend Rudie and I began making pilgrimages there to go to gigs that Mick would tell us about and sometimes even mail us flyers for.
Except for the bands that made their way to NYC, I have to say I’m totally in the dark about what happened across the river. Can you tell me more about the New Jersey Mod scene? Was there bleed over from Philly? I also recall that skinheads were pretty active around that time as well.
I lived in a part of NJ that was closer to NYC than Philly so other than The Ravens I didn’t know of anyone from Philly in the 80’s. But I had a small little community of sorts with the Wojciechowski and Grogan brothers just one town away. We would all make these road trips to the Big Apple which, barring traffic, was an hour and change away. Later, after the Dive in ’87 we met loads of people from Harrisburg PA where there was a great scene with a whole lot of amazing bands like The Pallbearers, The Cool Italians, and The Cellar Dwellers. The latter two played the Strip and Tramps quite a few times. Skinheads were around at ska gigs and this NYC mod band called The Scene had a really big skinhead following, not the racist sort but there were young guys who—being skinheads—thought it was their duty to try and act like hard cases. That wasn’t fun. Especially because I was never a Fred Perry, porkpie wearing cookie cutter mod, so I avoided those gigs.
Where there any groups that you recall that never made that trek that you regret not getting a larger audience?
There were a lot of bands in my area of Central New Jersey but they were all bedroom bands, basically bands that played at parties or in people’s basements or shitty makeshift clubs. There were two really good bands in New Jersey who I don’t think ever really crossed over into New York. One was band called Lord John who had a very new-wavy Echo & the Bunnymen kind-of-feel about them but they were definitely very psychedelic and an excellent band both live and on record. They played The Strip once and did an amazing gig at The Mind’s Eye at Tramps with the Captain Whizzo Lightshow which was perfect for them. And from the same area of central New Jersey there was a band called The Laughing Soup Dish who unfortunately I never got to see live but they made an amazing single for Voxx records called Teenage Lima Bean that was a cross between the Pink Floyd and 13th Floor Elevators. I don’t think they ever made it to New York City either. And then there was a band who inspired both of those bands called Secret Syde who were very dark and hard but basically reminded me very much of The Prisoners from England but without a keyboard. Unfortunately I never got to see them live either because they sort of imploded by the time I came onto the scene.
A little known fact is that a small scene also occurred at the Bicycle Club in NJ. That was über-fan Martin Splichal’s basement wasn’t it? Can you tell me what that was like? Did any bands of note play there as well?
The Bike Club was started in Martin’s parents basement in Red Bank New Jersey in around 1985 with the PA system borrowed from the Woiciechowski Brothers (who at the time had a mod band called The Thursday Club). Martin had several bands including my own band The Phantom 5, The Thursday Club (whose members, brothers Dave and Bob, would later form The Insomniacs), Mod Fun as Lobster Fun (after Mod Fun had broken up!) and then a couple of other little local bands. I believe a band called a Shock Mommy’s played there once consisting of some former members of The Laughing Soup Dish; and Mick London once did a solo gig there! And that stayed happening for until Martin’s parents sold the house, it maybe lasted a year but definitely less than two.
Can you tell me how you wound up playing in the Tea Party and Phantom Five? What was the chronology there?
I formed the Phantom V with the Grogan Brothers: Larry and Chris and later their youngest brother Vince. It was just an idea to knock some stuff around. I met Larry through his fanzine “Incognito”. We both had fanzines and lived literally a town away from each other. Despite this we were completely unaware of each other’s existence until coming across each other’s fanzines in a record store in New Brunswick New Jersey run by Jim Babjak from The Smithereens. I finally met Larry for the first time at a Mod Fun gig at the Dive in 1985 and we became friends immediately. The Phantom 5 started playing in around 1985 but we never really played any actual real gigs mostly the Bike Club and this pay-for-play place in Rahway New Jersey called the mod Art Studio where lots of other bands played, coffee houses and even a youth club!!. I left the Phantom Five at the end of 1986 a few months after our E.P. on Mick London’s Making Tyme label. I’m not even sure why to be honest with you but within a few months of leaving I got together with Dave and Bob Wojciechowski whose band The Thursday Club had recently fallen apart. Mike Sin and I had been looking to form a Merseybeat influenced band for quite some time and Dave was a prolific songwriter so he and Bob had quite a back catalogue of originals to work with and no band so it was almost like a ready-made band! We played NYC once on a week night at Tramps with the Optic Nerve and the rest were just lame gigs at their college in New Brunswick. I stayed with them until almost 1988 and then a year later they became The Insomniacs.
There was a definite separate NY/NJ contingent but despite some differences in tastes we all seem to co-exist in relative calm. Possibly the whole “us” vs “them” mentality. I’m sure you got hassled as much for what you wore as many of the NY people did!
The really interesting thing is the whole us/them thing in New York only actually came from really hard core mod people that I met in NYC 1985! They seemed to regard us as sort of hicks and were especially hostile when Mod Fun started to become more Sixties Paisley psychedelic and less Jam/two-tone shoes. It was ridiculous because theres about 20 mods in all of New York City and Northern New Jersey. 10 of them hated everyone from New Jersey and anything not Jam/2-Tone etc. Pretty laughable in retrospect. We used to joke and call ourselves psych mods because that’s what they called us as an insult and took it as a badge of honor and we’d call them Jam mods. I think I recall detecting a certain level of snobbery among some of the New York garage scene people at first but I think once everyone got to know each other things were alright. I was pretty socially awkward back then and I was not extremely outgoing and there were people that I would see around for years before I ever got around to actually learning their names like you, Jeff Shore several other people among them! It wasn’t snobbery with me, I think it was just being completely shy and socially awkward!
I remember seeing the scooters and parkas when I used to go to Mod themed shows at the Dive. That really impressed me. I always wondered how they got through the Midtown/Holland tunnels…
Any of the mods I knew with scooters all lived in Northern New Jersey so it was relatively easy for them to get into Manhattan via the Holland or Lincoln Tunnel. I don’t think I knew a single mod in NYC with a scooter! I lived in central New Jersey and there was no way in hell I was going to ride a scooter all the way to New York City. I took my Vespa to Hoboken once and it was like Death Race 2000 getting there!
It bears repeating how hostile NYC in general was to not just the music but pretty much everyone who looked different. It’s hard to comprehend when you look back. What about that brawl that occurred outside the Southern Funk Cafe, next to the Port Authority? Do you mind putting that incident down for posterity?
The Southern Funk Cafe legend, interesting story. This was recently the subject of a roasting I received at my surprise 50th birthday party last year and its semi-legendary. Larry and Chris Grogan and I were standing in front of the Southern Funk Cafe in like September of 1986 which was around the corner from Port Authority on 42nd St. We were drinking beer in front of the club out of paper bags directly across the street from a seedy SRO hotel called the Holland Hotel. A cocky young African-American gentleman sauntered past Larry and slapped him in the stomach and said something to the effect of “Hey fat boy ” or something like that, words were exchanged and then Larry and this gentleman wound up in a brawl. Chris attempted to break it up and then, well, without sounding racist it basically turned in to ” jump on Whitey” and several people from the welfare hotel across the street basically came over and started beating the shit out of all three of us. I jumped in to help out and wound up with a nice goose egg on my head after getting bounced off the hood of a Cadillac. We got our asses kicked but we gave as good as they did and I think it was honestly 8-10 guys against the three of us. Eventually the cops showed up and basically said either everybody goes their own way or everybody goes to jail. It was pretty funny until I got home and realized this wasn’t a brawl with the jocks in my High School lunchroom this was the real world! Luckily, that never happened again. To be honest I don’t think I went to many gigs there after that, because I don’t think there were really too many more happenings, but it certainly wasn’t avoiding it out of fear.
I’d love to hear about your fanzine Smashed Blocked and how that came about. How many issues did you put out? The fact that it wound up in Teal Triggs’ controversial 2010 book, Fanzines as a Mod artifact was pretty surprising.
My fanzine Smashed Blocked was directly influenced by seeing Mick London’s fanzine Start. My friend Rudie Rosinski and I started a fanzine called Stranger Than Fiction (named after a song by the British neo-60’s band The Times) but after some minor disagreements I decided to go and start my own. Smashed Blocked ran intermittently from 1984 to 1986 with a brief return in 1989 and again in 1994. It was fun, ragging on bad records, not spelling properly, bad grammar, last minute crap written in pen before going to press. Fun stuff!
I know you had a great friendship with scenemaker Ron Rimsite from the late great Venus Records. He, along with a few other characters, really made the scene very special and entertaining. I think there are probably as many stories about him than, say, J.D. Martignon. What’s yours?
Ron Rimsite was my Guru! Like everyone I met Ron through Mick from Mod Fun. I immediately connected with Ron and he rather generously made me several cassette mix tapes which to this day I still treasure. These turned me on to a host of obscure British Sixties as well as European and Australian music. Many of the cuts were from Ron’s extensive record collection. Whenever we would go to Venus records Ron would always point out cool records and more times than often when we would check our bags we would leave the store to find he had slipped a few things in there. Everyone I knew in my world (except for Larry Grogan, the Mod Fun guys, and Mike Sin) seemed really put off by him. We were the only ones that actually really loved Ron! My favorite Ron story was probably the last time I ever saw him. I had a massive house party in a large old Victorian duplex that I was living in at the time in Lawrenceville, New Jersey around 1992. Ron drove down and showed up with a handful of 45s from his collection, handed them to me and said “I didn’t bring snacks, will this do?” And Ron was his usual entertaining and sometimes gregarious self . I remember a lady who shall remain nameless talking to him and Ron standing there and not even feigning interest and saying things in his nasally North Jersey accent like “Wow, that’s amazing” while staring off into space without blinking and the gal was completely oblivious and just kept on yakking. At the time I didn’t realize that a lot of the 45’s he gave me actually were quite valuable which made me appreciate him even more when I realized how generous he was. I’ve always wondered what happened to Ron because quite honestly he is really musically responsible for the music fan I am today. True story. If you out there Ron, I love you man!!
As a Latino who loved rock and roll, I know I felt a bit out-of-sorts in the general populace, but the garage folk and the mod folk were always very open and welcoming. I know my African American buddy Larry M. also felt similarly. It was one of the reasons we hung out as much as we did at these places. A sense of belonging—by NOT belonging.
I have a funny story about Larry M. I had an African American co-worker of mine who wanted to come check out the Dive so I told all of my friends that “hey this friend of mine from work is coming out tonight, he’s as black guy in a probably be wearing a peacoat his name is Keith if you see him you know introduce yourselves to him”. Well Keith never showed up but the funny thing was Larry did and he was wearing a peacoat because he had just gotten out of a Maritime Academy so all these friends of mine were walking up to him asking him if he was Keith and that’s how we met Larry! I really don’t recall ever seeing any sort of weirdness although it must have been very weird for Larry because I don’t think I really saw anyone African-American at the Dive before. Some of the mod/ska gigs in New York City were completely the opposite in fact what always interested me was most of the mod scene in New York City was made up of non-caucasian people!
Your scene days came to a close as you left for the army, but not your passion for the sounds. Its one of the things I can say about most of the people I knew during that time. We all moved on to separate lives yet there is still that passion in the music. Thanks Bill!
P.S. As if that wasn’t enough to convince you of the man’s dedication he also single handedly financed a reprint of the first Mod Fun 45 which you can pick up for a mere bag of shells here. I also encourage everyone to check out Bill’s blog on awesome 60s sounds. Anorak Thing.
If it’s one thing you can be sure of in NYC, it’s change. News came recently from Ms. Miriam Linna that the Norton Record Store in Prospect Heights will be moving to another location. You can read her announcement here. In the meantime, if you have never been to the store, what are you waiting for?? Pick up some wax and run into some colorful characters. This certainly is not your average record store!