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.
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.
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).
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.
As a teen, I sort of had a feeling things were heading in the wrong direction. Although I was weaned on AM radio, like most of my peers, I eventually drifted over to the FM side of the radio dial. During the mid-70s this meant you were often subjected to the likes of terrible milquetoast supergroups, sprinkled in with the quickly fading guitar-based bands. Even all these years later, the word “supergroup” sends a slight shiver up my spine. Salvation, though, was just around the corner — and for me it couldn’t have come soon enough.
Despite that awful term, I do have to confess that it is fun to see driven, passionate musicians share that connection with others who chase the same muse. A point confirmed by the reunion of (certain) older groups, such as The Monks, The Sonics and The Remains whose shows made me wonder if it was indeed them or just kids in septuagenarian costumes pulling a fast one on us.
Well, these guys are not septuagenarians. Far from it. But, between them, they also share a similar deep, intrinsic passion for music. One honed only after many years of weathering the ups and downs of a typical career in music. It just so happens to be our good fortune that the music they love is 60s garage punk.
The Overdrive Five brings together Elan Portnoy, Ira Elliot, John Carlucci and Sam Steinig and came to be in much the same way most bands come about: a shared desire to keep playing the music they love. What makes this combo unique, however, is how each member effortlessly taps into the mojo that made them stand out in their previous groups. It’s like hearing the best of those bands times four (or “Five”).
Guitarist Elan Portnoy did his time in such combos as The Fuzztones, The Headless Horsemen, Bohemian Bedrocks and The Twisted as well as performing on stage with a vast array of legends such as Screamin Jay Hawkins, Mark Lindsay, Roy Loney, Hilton Valentine and Tony Valentino, to name a few. Drummer Ira Elliot not only played with Elan in The Fuzztones, Headless Horsemen and Bohemian Bedrocks but has also been an integral part of well-loved indie combo Nada Surf for the past 25 years. Currently, he also moonlights in the Hamburg-era Beatles cover band, Bambi Kino. Bassist John Carlucci was a member of the legendary 70s power pop band, The Speedies. In the late 80s, he joined the West Coast version of The Fuzztones and afterward found himself playing with the likes of Sylvain Sylvain, Lemmy, Dave Vanian, Nikki Corvette, Palmyra Delran and a slew of other acts. Rounding out the quartet, vocalist Sam Steinig and his trusty Vox organ started PA’s Mondo Topless in 1992 and continued for 18 years before forming the soul-tinged GTVs. Nowadays you’ll find Sam returning to his garage roots in Philly’s Kiss Boom Bah.
Not too shabby.
But don’t take my word for it: Below is the band’s take on The Shadows of Knight classic “I’m Gonna Make You Mine,” graciously provided by Elan, showcasing the power of the new band. To say this tune is exhilarating is putting it mildly. And this is just a studio demo. The band is currently in the process of setting up a few live gigs (and a European tour) in the months ahead. Stay tuned!
Like I mentioned in the previous post, cross-pollination was one of the things that made the NYC scene thrive. Despite the limited exposure that all the bands received, a small network formed in the East Coast of those “in the know” who were only too happy to share info, tapes and the like with other like-minded souls.
Thee Cellar Dewellers were one of those bands. Located in the small town of Carlisle, PA way off in Central Pennsylvania, the band was certainly off the beaten track. However, their proximity to Harrisburg enabled them to form connections that eventually led to them playing in NYC as well as other larger cities like Washington D.C.
I spoke to founder Jim Baetz about the NYC connection and what led to them making their NYC debut.
SSA: Thanks for your time Jim. Can you tell us the progression of the group from a local PA band to a touring band?
Jim Baetz: Here is a bit of a timeline. We somehow got in touch with Dino Sorbello from the Blacklight Chameleons in mid-1986. He is a Central PA native. I’m really not sure how, but he was the NYC person we were first in contact with, as far as I can remember. Probably close to that time, we reached out to Larry Grogan and Bill Luther because they both had fanzines we had read. We had put on a few shows here ourselves and had The Blacklight Chameleons play with us. That was October of 86. While The Headless Horsemen are listed on the flyer, they didn’t make the show. I believe PA’s The Cool Italians performed in their place.
Then, in March of ’87, NYC’s Secret Service, NJ’s Phantom V, along with The Cool Italians and Thee Cellar Dwellers played a local show here. This was about a month before our first Mind’s Eye show in April of 87. In total, I think we only played shows in NYC three times. Once at the Strip with the Phantom V and I believe, two Mind’s Eye shows. There is actually some video of us playing the first show with the Blacklight Chameleons. I will need to dig this up and have it transferred to DVD. I believe I still have it.
SSA: What were your impressions of playing NYC at the time? I’m sure the NYC bands were more than eager to have you come over and play.
JB: It was really exciting to do the shows there. New York was where you wanted to play and doing a Mind’s Eye show was about as good as it could get. Joey Ramone was at the show we did with The Cynics and The Blacklight Chameleons, but I believe he showed up after our set. I said hello and he seemed like an amazingly nice guy. As expected, he had plenty of people around him. That show was a blast. We were friends with both The Cynics and Chameleons—Ivy and Ann had set it up that way. They figured the night would have a great vibe. I feel they got that right. We did have a really strong night and a lot of fun after the fact.
SSA: You also mentioned you played The Strip. Now that must have been quite a different experience! It was more of a CB’s, dive-ish sort of place.
JB: The Strip was a little less fun. But still a good time. We played with the Phantom V. Unfortunately, I don’t have many memories of playing that show. Not sure how good we were or anything. I do remember the place being very old. But we did have fun because a bunch of friends showed up. We always ended up having a good time wherever and whenever we played out.
SSA: Did you have a chance to catch any other NYC shows?
JB: We attended a few Mind’s Eye shows and very likely others. Especially if the Cynics, Blacklight Chameleons or The Ravens from Philly were playing. We loved playing in NYC, but we actually played more often in DC.
SSA: Thanks so much for your thoughts, Jim. There is so little information out about Thee Cellar Dwellers that any sort of info certainly puts the era into better focus.
JB: Thanks for being interested, I am still a bit surprised when people are interested in any of the bands I have been involved with!
Despite the strong NYC reception, Thee Cellar Dwellers existed for only a short while longer. A single exists on Get Hip Records but is now out of print. In addition, songs were also compiled for a full-length release, however, the deal sadly fell through. Seeing this as an opportune time to move on, the members went their separate ways soon after. Jim into a power-pop band called Needle Jack, Mike Schultz to college and the remaining three (Mark Ebling, Susan Mackey, Eric Ebeling) forming The Omega Men.
However, back in 1987, you’d be hard-pressed to find any more deserving band to support the mighty Cynics. The proof is in the track below. Also, as an additional bonus, Jim graciously provided a demo that never made it to vinyl. Huge thanks to William Luther who graciously provided the amazing live shots from a February 1987 gig at an American Legion Hall in Mechanicsburg, PA. seen up top, and below.
Minds Eye, April 16, 1987. Full Set List: Try It (The Standells), Those Lies You Told, I Can Only Give You Everything (Them), Hang Up (The Wailers), Psycho (The Sonics), She’s Coming Home (The Blues Magoos), Five Years Ahead of My Time (The Third Bardo), Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White (The Standells), Can’t You See, Hey Little Bird (The Barbarians), Dwellin’, Around and Around (Chuck Berry), Doin’ Me In (Gonn), You’re Gonna Miss Me (The 13th Floor Elevators), You Got No Choice, ENCORE: I Can’t Control Myself (The Troggs).
While the local groups I tend to focus on this site tend to lean towards the bands loved by the garage music followers of Manhattan, Jersey, and L.I., I often get the urge to feature other areas. In fact, quite a few East Coast groups happened to make their way through NYC during the 80s heyday. Some stuck around for a few years, others just as quickly toured and disbanded. While band styles varied wildly, the one thing all the bands shared was an intense desire to play “NYC”. A sentiment mirrored by locals that welcomed not just the new sounds but also people who shared the same interests as them. Something quite special in the pre-internet age.
Despite the fleeting nature of touring, these groups had just as much of an influence on the tri-state scene than one might think. While most came from neighboring states like Pennsylvania, Connecticut, D.C., and Massachusetts, every once in a while we would be treated by some bands who made the long trek from Canada.
The Gruesomes were one of those bands. Hailing from Montreal Quebec, the band instantly gained a strong local following after the debut of their first album, 1986’s Tyrants of Teen Trash. Due to their irreverent stage show, and relentless touring (as well as excellent songs) the band slowly began to get noticed outside of Canada. Their increase in popularity dovetailed into the release of their sophomore effort Gruesomania in 1987.
Soon after finishing the album, original drummer Eric Davis departed and was replaced by John Knoll. Without missing a (ahem) “beat”, the band soon embarked on their first tour of the USA. On Wednesday, May 20, 1987, the Gruesomes hit NYC and took the stage of Tramps at it’s original 15th St. location, sharing the stage with NYC’s Headless Horsemen.
When recalling this time bass player John Davis said “The Gruesomes show at Tramps (The Mind’s Eye) was our first ever gig in NYC. It was also our first gig with our new and understandably nervous drummer, John Knoll. We found the NY audiences, more than Montreal, to be very knowledgable about our source material, loudly commenting on each song as it was announced. We appreciated their wisecracks and banter with the band. We were delighted to see that the Headless Horsemen, whose records we always loved, were also funny and irreverent onstage like us! We have remained good friends with them to this day.
It was a source of pride for Montreal bands to get a gig in NYC – playing there gave us bragging rights back home on the local scene. We have played NY many times since, and have always had great memorable shows.”
As John mentions, the band returned several more times to the New York area and played Cavestomp! sponsored shows at Westbeth Theater in the West Village and The Village Underground.
Showing no signs of stopping, The Gruesomes have a 45 coming out in Spain and will be touring there from Feb 27 to March 9, 2020.
Alas, much like matters of the heart, that first experience always refuses to fade away. So, here in glorious monophonic sound is a song from that Spring night set in 1987 which gives you a taste of what the early young band was capable of…even with a nervous drummer.
Full Setlist:Je Cherche [Les Lutins], Cry in the Night, (Theme from) Bikers From Hell, Til The Following Night [Screamin’ Lord Sutch], Unchain My Heart [Ray Charles/Undertakers], Leave My Kitten Alone [Little Willie John], You Broke my Heart [The Vibrators], That’s Your Problem [The Outsiders], Bloodhound [Downliners Sect], Jackknife, Get Outta My Hair, No More Lies, Til the End of the Day [The Kinks], What’s Your Problem?, I Never Loved Her [The Starfires], I Can Tell [Johnny Kidd].
While Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco had the distinction of being the epicenter of psychedelic lifestyle and musical culture in the 60s, it’s pretty easy to forget that it not only existed but flourished in other parts of the US as well. Most famously exemplified by the myriad of Texas psych bands such as Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators and Houston’s Moving Sidewalks.
New York also had their fair share of such bands, such as the outstanding Blues Magoos. However, for the most part, they too occupied a small niche. Most likely since NYC was regarded by many in the music business as the penultimate soul/pop music town. Nevertheless, the faithful continued to plug away like lysergic sirens hoping to draw more converts into the fold.
Come the 80s you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone in NYC dedicated to this genre. Then you had South Central PA native, Dino Sorbello who singlehandedly gave the long-dormant psychedelic genre a kick in the pants.
As a youth, Dino liked the Doors and older Kinks stuff as well as “some band called The Beatles…” The summer of ’76 proved to be pivotal as his Harrisburg pal Billy Synth (and compiler of the famous Psychedelic Unknown compilations) turned him onto 60s garage and psych. Coinciding with the burgeoning punk movement downtown, Dino eventually found himself driving into Manhattan with pals to catch bands.
The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 made Dino move permanently to NYC. Seeking to establish himself in the music he loved so much, the choice was easy. “I grew up with this stuff, it’s the time/era I came here to live in.”
Together with the late Wendy Wild, Dino started a band called the Mad Violets in 1982. The band was one of the few that proudly displayed its psychedelic influences for all to see. They were, as Dino puts it, “scratchy, frenetic, but truly a psychedelic, pop, garage, going-for-it rock and roll band.” One of the standout tracks on the outstanding second volume of Voxx’s Battle of the Garages compilation, Psylocibe, presents all of the bands’ strengths in a compact four minutes. Although becoming a favorite in the early days of the Dive, the band broke up at the end of 1984.
Dino’s next project was The Blacklight Chameleons, which came to fruition in 1985. As Dino adds, “Our original 4-piece did the first Voxx EP. We often played the Dive as well as other venues. Somehow, we dumb-lucked ourselves into an issue of Vanity Fair with Mary Ellen Mark herself taking an amazing photo. We used the magazine as our demo and got gigs all over the place! The usual lineup changes happened, but eventually, we landed Sharon Middendorf as our singer. We ended up playing in California a lot and Florida too. That lineup recorded the second album Inner Mission. Then, aliens kidnapped everyone and left me here to start a new group, Laughing Sky, because, you know, they were laughing when they flew away with my second band in a row.”
The Chameleons did make a stronger mark than The Violets by putting a more public face to the 60s scene. Not only did they perform frequently at Ivy Vale and Anne Doenas’ psychedelic light-show party, the Mind’s Eye, but the attention also got them on the cover of High Times magazine.
In an interesting footnote, Dino also played in the reunited version of the NYC 60s psychedelic band, The Third Bardo. Best known for their iconic song “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time“, which wound up on the critically acclaimed compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968. When I asked Dino about this he said, “I did play with The Third Bardo! They were legends to us in the 80s … like could they really exist in real life? But I met them at a Stony Brook show and joined them as thereminist when they heard I played one. I played with them on a local radio show on NYU and about half a dozen shows in the NYC area with them before they again returned to a scattered state. I was hoping to get them to record a new album, but that alas that didn’t happen.”
The bands Laughing Sky and Tripwave followed through to the 90s. Dino’s recent projects continued to mine the psychedelic plane by combining keyboards, guitar and theremin. Together with partner Jynx Lynx, the two-piece combine covers (such as Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”) with originals and entirely remake them into trippy, atmospheric sound tapestries that combine Jynx’s ethereal vocals and keyboards with Dino’s overdriven sounds on guitar and theremin. It’s a unique mix, but it works.
“I started playing music with Jynx after her band Bombshell broke up, she was playing solo shows and would have various guests playing, including me.” When asked what his goal was, Dino responded, “There’s no ‘goal’ other than to really be able to play the theremin as an instrument with a voice, instead of just sound effects. Jynx writes some pretty great songs, and I get a few of mine in there as well. We have plenty of room to be psychedelic and groove with the electric 12-string too. Seems like lately, with our new second CD out, Real Surreal, we’re getting pretty busy.”
As if Dino’s musical talents weren’t enough, he was also one of the few people at the time who embraced video in its earliest years and took it on himself to create a long-running Manhattan cable access show.
Tripwave! has been running on Manhattan cable since 2001 and, according to Dino, has been on the air in LA and Seattle/Canada too. He added, “Anyone in the world can watch it by going to mnn.org on Thursday nights at 11 p.m., EST, and selecting CH. 4. There’s a lot of one-of-a-kind videos I shot myself, psychedelic music past, present, and future, with nature footage.”
With the recent passing of psychedelic icon Roky Erickson, Dino plans on airing some performance videos he shot of his friend. The shows occurred in Pittsburg soon after Roky’s brother Sumner took over conservatorship and began nursing him back to health. A process most famously documented in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. As Dino noted, “I got to take him to Eat’n’Park for breakfast and even ran a big catfish grill for him on the roof deck one evening. I told him all about the NYC scene.”
It seems somehow fitting to end it here. With the image of the master of 60s Texas psych happily chatting with the disciple of 80s NYC psych, over a plate of eggs. Who says that there is no order in the universe? To keep abreast of all things Dino, visit his website tripwave.com.
A 60s Peruvian garage band, on an NYC-themed blog? Yes, it does sound a bit odd, but allow me to explain. While the goal of this blog was to dig a bit further into the garage punk scene in NYC during a certain period of time. In a lot of ways, the posts are intrinsically linked to my own unique NYC experiences. And foremost among those is the odd combination of identifying as a native-born NYer, with 100% Peruvian parents. Each side seeming to contradict each other. Even more so when it came to music.
While the garage scene was a godsend for a kid looking to belong somewhere, it was also interesting to be in a situation where there were no other Hispanics…in NYC!! A situation mirrored by my good buddy Larry, who happened to be the only African-American at the time. While the scene was extremely welcoming, we could not help but be quietly wonder why we didn’t see others like us in that setting. It was only natural that the discovery of bands like Death and Los Saicos were really important cultural markers for us in those pre-internet days.
As I mentioned in a post two years ago, one of the highlights of a visit to my mom’s family home in Lima was a visit to the place Los Saicos used to hang out. Now marked by a small plaque. Which makes the following announcement all the more surreal, but just as meaningful.
On April 27, 2019, Bushwick’s Market Hotel, in conjunction with Rockass Online, and this website, will present César “Papi Saico” Castrillón performing with Los Sadicos. Tickets are on sale now and readers of this blog are encouraged to take advantage of the pre-sale, which ends this Friday, February 8th. Presale link HERE
During the 90s while Manhattan was undergoing massive changes, many musicians and artists took refuge in the low-rent, decidedly sketchy areas by the Williamsburg Bridge. As expected, within a few years the area became a small breeding ground for various types of cool music, Garage Punk being one of them.
Central among the watering holes favored by cash-strapped punks was Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern. An old-school joint where owner Rosemary Bleday held court and served locals for decades. Decked out with a supremely coiffed beehive, Rosemary was the stereotypical NYC tough lady with a heart of gold. A quality that endeared her to many. Most especially to the young musicians who had begun to call this area home.
Among those admirers were pop punks the Vacant Lot. Formed after the demise of legendary NYC garage rockers The Rat Bastards, the Lot took on a more melodic pop direction while the remaining ex-Bastards became the Devil Dogs. Delving deeper into the harder, in-your-face, garage sound.
This brings us to the What IV. An alias of the the Vacant Lot, the What IV was the defacto house band at Rosemary’s for several years. Existing between 1997 and 2005, the band consisted of Lot members Pete Ciccone, Mike Hoffman, Chris Raymond, and Greg Ginter. Rounding out the lineup was local pal, Karl Meyers (Main Drag Studios owner) on keys/sax.
As Pete relates “Rosemary asked us for years to play there, but the Vacant Lot was way too loud, so we created this band, which was all garage / beat / frat / eurobeat to play at a more barroom sound level. We played every holiday there for years, (Halloween, New Years, Valentines Day, etc.) along with a couple of other local bars and a few NYC dives like Siberia – avoiding clubs. We would do 5 or 6 sets and the start over once we ran out of songs or beer!” The project soldered on until all the members eventually moved out of Brooklyn.
These days Rosemary’s still stands. And from what I understand, still serves beer in styrofoam cups (for now). A perk many of the privileged folk who now live in that area probably find very “authentic”.
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.
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!
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.