Night of the Phantom: The Fuzztones at The Dive

This past month has proved very surprising in the world of 60s bands. The Beatles released a track that eerily blended the living and dead fabs in a way that was both impressive and slightly disturbing. And then, just as surprising, their scruffier contemporaries also released an album’s worth of new material featuring their own departed band member. Showing that even in the afterlife, Charlie was sure as hell determined not to be not to be outdone by John and George.

While we here in NYC thankfully did not have any AI-enhanced posthumous releases, we did get something from a long-forgotten lineup of a classic NYC garage band, The Fuzztones. The story of The Fuzztones is a long one, what many often speak about are the band’s formative years in New York. Recorded in decidedly lo-fi fashion, the recording nonetheless shows the band firing on all cylinders and powerfully blasting through several (now) well-known songs to an appreciative audience of probably less than 100 people. All crammed into what was the garage punk equivalent of the Cavern Club in Midtown Manhattan, The Dive. And while the tiny club closed its doors in 1986, it’s still spoken about on the same level as its more famous brethren The Mudd Club and Club 57.

Eager to find out more about the era the recording was made in I reached out to Rudi Protrudi and Elan Portnoy, former singer and guitarist of the NYC Fuzztones lineup:

ShakeSomeAction: The recording is pretty amazing in that it documents a part of the Fuzztones legacy that sometimes gets short shrift. The NY years. Who recorded it?

Rudi Protrudi: Good question. I found it on the net – someone had posted it. I downloaded it, thought it sounded pretty good, and saw that the set we played that night contained three songs that we had never played before or since.

Elan Portnoy: I’m not sure. I do remember my brother Orin recorded some shows back in the day — could be him. It would have had to be an “air” recording since there was no board to do a “board” recording from!

SSA: Why release the recording now?

RP: Mainly because of those covers. “Numbers” by Terry knight & The Pack, “Run Better Run” by the Cheepskates, and “Help You Ann” by the Lyres. We also did “She Told Me lies” by the Chesterfield Kings that night, which we did do one or two times before or after that. On top of that, we played “Me Tarzan You Jane,” “It Came In TheMail” and “One Girl Man,” which most Fuzztones fanes never heard us do until the L.A. line-up recorded them, so I thought I should release the tracks as an album. I took it into a studio and beefed it up. I don’t remember if it was stereo or mono, but if it was mono I made it stereo – something you can do now with modern technology! In fact Radiation Records out of Italy will be re-releasing Leave Your Mind At Home soon, and I remastered that too, as well as making it stereo!

SSA: The Fuzztones’ love for covers was always evident. This recording contains some that were rarely if ever heard afterward. How did you guys pick them?

EP: The older stuff was found mostly in our record collections or on recommendation from Bruce and Scott of Venus Records who turned me on to lots of great garage punk comps. Also, we thought it’d be fun to do covers of contemporary bands, (i.e., Cramps, Lyres, Cheepskates, etc.) with whom we were often on the same bill. Kind of a nod to our buddies.

SSA: Do other live recordings from this time exist? I remember Midnight released Leave Your Mind at Home and the Screamin’ Jay excerpt from a NY show.

RP: I have so many live tapes from that time it’d make your head spin. I have live tapes and videos from every line-up of The Fuzztones from 1982 up to now. I also have quite a few videos of other bands from the so-called Garage Revival as well – many of which I took myself. Some of the 60s bands that got back together too: The Chocolate Watchband, the Monks, Electric Prunes, Pretty Things, ? and the Mysterians, Standells, Wailers, Trashmen. Screamin’ Jay as well….

EP: I have excellent quality recordings from FuzzFest ’84, which will be released fairly soon on either Misty Lane Records or Teen Sound Records in Italy, along with Tryfles, Mosquitos, Cheepskates, Vipers, and Outta Place. All killer, no Phyllis Diller.

SSA: When was the first time the Fuzztones played the Dive and how did that come about?

EP: In the summer of 1983, Dave from the Cheepskates told us about a cool little club on W29th St. So, we jumped at the chance to join them on an upcoming night. The vibe at The Dive was amazingly electric and the audience went wild. We returned to our favorite spot many times and always had a blast.

RP: My recollection is much more fuzzy. Michael Jay says it was his wife who tipped us off as she was a waitress there for a short while. But, to be honest, I don’t really remember.

SSA: The band was always a tight unit, how often and where did you practice?

Inside the Music Building.

EP: There used to be an old commercial building on 584 8th Ave., at about 39th or 40th St., referred to as The Music Building. The management rented rooms to many of the groups in NYC. We had a room on the 8th floor, formerly occupied by Madonna. When we moved in, we found the walls were still decorated with her silky, faded, multi-colored material. No air-conditioning and sketchy heat in winter, plus the bathrooms always smelled like a combination of dead fish and vintage kitty litter. Yet, it was affordable as long as we shared the space with The Outta Place and The Mad Violets. We practiced three times a week which got us tight pretty quick. A cool thing about the building was its proximity to The Dive; we would walk over after rehearsing on many nights. Sometimes, a bunch of us would split from The Dive and have casual jams at three or four in the morning back at the rehearsal room. Lots of records were recorded in that room such as Bad News/Brand New Man, The Bohemian Bedrocks LP, The Twisted 45, the Outta Place’s first EP and lots of demos.

Complimentary pass for The Fuzztones at The Peppermint Lounge Dec 1, 1984.
Complimentary pass for The Fuzztones at The Peppermint Lounge Dec 1, 1984.

SSA: As a sound person, playing at the Dive certainly must have had its challenges. I mean, it wasn’t decked out like, say, The Peppermint Lounge or Irving Plaza, sound-wise. What’s your recollection of that?

EP: Since it was such a small place, the sound system didn’t need to be too large to get the job done. A couple of vocal mics were pretty much the extent of it. I don’t think there was anything in the way of onstage monitors, at least not at first, but it didn’t matter. With crowds of people jammed into a little place like that mixed with cheap drinks at the bar (the drinking age was 18 but lots of younger kids were regulars), it was always a super-swinging party. Nothing like it since, really.

SSA: Oh and I’m sure people would love to hear what the “dressing room” was like. Not nearly as famously shabby as CB’s. But, even they had more room!

EP: The Dive’s “dressing room” was the abandoned kitchen behind the stage. And yes, it was pretty cozy back there. Sometimes, the place was so crowded, it was nearly impossible to get between the kitchen and the stage!

Bruce Planty at The Southern Funk.

SSA: Recently record collector Bruce Planty passed away. Bruce used to DJ at The Dive occasionally and was one of the first people who introduced many to these amazing records. His taste was exceptional. Do you have memories of Bruce at The Dive?

EP: Absolutely! Bruce was a great Dive DJ, that’s why we hired him to DJ at FuzzFest ’84. He worked at Venus Records downtown and always had something great to turn me on to. From the compilations he recommended, I found lots of potential covers for The Fuzztones to do. He was an important part of the whole thing, at least for me. RIP Bruce.

RP: Bruce had a cool record shop that we often frequented and turned us on to a few good tunes. We were already together and doing what we did before Venus Records was even in existence though. He DID offer to release our first single, “Bad News Travels Fast,” and we DID give it to him, but he sat on it for months. Meanwhile all the other NYC Garage bands started releasing records, so after about 6 months we gave up on Bruce and let Midnight Records release it. It was the best move at the time.

SSA: To close this out, there’s something I’ve always wanted to ask. On the “Brand New Man, Brand New Car” single, I always got a kick out of the screaming and yelling on that cut. It sure made you feel like it was some big party you were missing out on. Who was the peanut gallery?

Bad News Travels Fast/Brand New Man, Brand New Car MIdnight records single.
Bad News Travels Fast/Brand New Man, Brand New Car. Midnight Records 45.

EP: I had the privilege of producing that record and remember it well. We had a party in our rehearsal room at The Music Building with the intention of recording backing tracks for the Midnight Records 45 after everyone got completely trashed. I used a reel-to-reel tape deck borrowed from work and a couple of mics hanging from the ceiling. In attendance, I recall Gena Brower, whose plentiful, piercing screams can be heard on the record, Shari Mirojnick, brother Orin, Michael Chandler, Wendy Wild, Dino Sorbello, Jill Brown, Alicia Giambrone, Rene Laigo and probably more. It didn’t take much to fill that room. I added bottle-smashing sound effects and mixed the tracks with the needles pinned on the tape deck. I was shooting for a wild party/explosion sort of thing. One of my all-time favorites.

SSA: That was a Michael Chandler song. Did The NYC Fuzztones hang out with him often? He was a pretty great person. I’m sure you have a funny story about him.

EP: I have lots of funny stories about Chandler! He was a brilliant and kindhearted character with The Midas Touch when it came to writing lyrics. He had a great sense of humor and was always very friendly. The Outta Place and Fuzztones members were very close and frequently hung out together. My girl Shari and brother Orin were in The Outta Place and Deb was going out with Chandler at the time, so we all ended up in the same place on most occasions.

The Twisted 45 Cover
The Twisted 45 Cover

In 1984, my brother Orin and I were asked to make a 45 for Midnight Records as The Twisted. The A-side was Sheez Wycked and the B-side was The Thing, composed by Orin, myself, and Chandler one magic night in my parent’s living room. We had drums (played with chopsticks) guitars and a small organ. It was getting late and with a few cocktails in us, we couldn’t stand up. While the three of us lay on the floor, completely crocked, Chandler came up with the cool guitar riff while poking the little organ. I managed to roll over toward the tape machine and pushed record while Chandler kept repeating the riff. The next thing I remember, we regained consciousness with the sun shining brightly through the living room window, It felt as if someone had clocked me on the back of the head with an anvil. Ah, the good old days…

Thanks, Rudi and Elan for your thoughts concerning not just the release, but the atmosphere surrounding the recordings all those years ago. If you want to pick up “The Fuzztones at The Dive ’85” please head to Bandcamp

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