Rock Gods #52: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

We’ve got readers! And they’re disgruntled! We penned thousands of words of indignant responses to the recently received missive below (from an anonymous ex-fan now referred to in our household as “Mr. Ha”). But we were convinced, by you-probably-know-how, to stick with a graceful no-comment. Here goes:

“Do you have any idea how much of my life I wasted following rock bands because I thought they were smart, and because I convinced myself their music mattered?

“And it’s partly your fault. I was a susceptible little junior high schooler when I first started reading your column. I had too much acne to be popular, let alone be a performer myself, so I became one of those snotty rock scholars for the school newspaper.

“I thought I wanted to be you. Ha! Now I wonder if you even ever wanted to be you! Using your column to brag about having a girlfriend. Do I even need to use the word pathetic?”

Lest we turn this whole column into our petty little soap opera, here’s a saga that has nothing to do with closeness.

There is a lot of magnificent bus imagery in modem music, but don’t go talking about mass transit conveyances to The Argonauts, who missed a showcase gig on the city because the The Args had the not- actually-unbright idea of sending their gear on ahead with a roadie (whose car could fit all that, but no people on top of it), then catching one of these cheap tourist buses to the train station and taking the subway from there.

Plans thwarted when bus breaks down on highway. Guy with gear has to wait outside club in car, afeared of theft. Arg fans waiting patiently, fielding phone calls from the stranded band and stalling the club management. Reports start to differ at this point, as the united efforts fell apart and various factions began to point blaming fingers at one another. Just trust us, it didn’t end well. The Argonauts are currently in limbo. They’ve sailed out of sight, and we despair of ever hearing from them again.

It’s old school elbow- akimbo madness at Hamilton’s Sunday afternoon with Dementia Caregivers, Organ Transplants and Older Than We Look… Coming Of age, formerly RSVP, has changed their name but not their noise, and have been building a whole new base. That was their honest to goodness fan club running the merch table at their last Hamilton’s show. They’ve graduated, if you want to call it that, to Dollaire’s on Wednesday, with Create Good and its spinoff Serve Art…

Did you mean spicy or spiky?

For Christmas, I was given a little cactus from IKEA, to augment a coffee table I was also given. (What does IKEA call cactus? Why would there be a Swedish word for cactus? Who would attempt to grow a cactus in Stockholm?) Today, while I was tidying the coffee table,

But even before that I had purchased for myself a jar of Dona Maria brand Nopalitos—“tender cactus,” for eating. High Sierra around here. Both cacti have lived on—on table and in refrigerator. I hope the plant lives forever, but I didn’t mind speeding the demise of Dona Maria. Just didn’t have room for one more quirky refrigerator-door curiosity. Already got chutney, apple butter, Pad Thai sauce, Brewer’s Yeast, Probiotic tablets, lemon curd and potato water in there.

No room, for instance, for salsa. Had to make my own. And, as if on the cactus-strewn desert plain, lightning struck.

Chris’ Cactus Salsa

Somewhat drain one can diced tomatoes (I use the Del Monte Organic type, and that can is 14 and a half ounces) into a medium sized bowl . Add a handful of Dona Maria brand Nopalitos. In the cactus jar there is a hot Serrano pepper. Add that too. Chop up a small onion, and add that. Knock it into little pieces. (That’s what my Cuisinart magic stick is for. I love that thing!) Serve with chips, duh.

Rock Gods #51: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Our occasional coverage of his most lordly Big Deal Soft-Rock Star should not—EVER—be perceived as an endorsement of the man’s maudlin meandering heartswamping sludge. Our justification, since we know is required: if we deign (and we do) to elevate local musicians of the most limited and lo-fi means to the high status of Being Written About Herein, then we must open up the other end of the spectrum as well, and note the doings of the “Made It, But Didn’t Deserve To” as well. An EQ balance, like on your stereo.

Lord BDSRS, having sacrificed his once estimable metal chops (if believe his old junior high school buds) in order to become the wimp-pop-pimp he is today, has been giving interviews to major magazines again. These personal unloadings, he doubtless hopes, will render his forgettable new album memorable. It has a blues song or two on it, you see, and we must understand the suffering that went into them.

Lordy! He was was leaving a bad marriage, which affected his newfound love relationship as well. He was doing a lot of drugs, drinking too besides. He hadn’t yet found his spiritual self (the specific denomination is lacking from the interviews—did no one ask?). His previous record—a love ballad, the thing he was supposed to be best at—hadn’t charted very high. Can we stop now? Is your heart broken enough?

How should we respond to this outpouring of erstwhile anguish? By looking around the Finch, a club Lord BS felt he was too important to play at even back when he was “starving” with a full-time delivery job and regular gigs at Dollair’s, whose owners were old friends of the family. Many of our acquaintances at the Finch will never know the troubles he’s seen, surely—they can barely afford to drink too much, let alone do heavy drugs. They have never had to worry about their derivative dashed-off insincere love songs not rocketing to the Top Ten. (To which of the wives was our Lord writing that bartchuster, anyhow? Did he care?) When the Finch bunch write love songs, they are not tradeable commodities. The names of the people they are about are usually right there in the lyrics.

The IDWs draw on the bathroom walls of the Bullfinch Thursday, with Choice Choice, Something to Remember, Bluest Angel, Gambler’s Luck, The Snob Sisters, Switchcraft, Commercial Caper, The Bully Girls (haven’t heard of them? They bare an uncanny resemblance to the aforementioned Snob Sisters), The Midas Mess, Feed Deed, Wing It and Drive to Distraction. It’s the first Annual “Sing For Your Crapper” marathon, where bands get booked for full sets as long as they help clean the legendary Bullfinch bathrooms. The bands in turn are using the opportunity to unleash fringe passions, risky side projects or just mess around. We’ll assess the damage—uh, the renovations—and keep you posted….

For Tomorrow We May Die—Diary of a College Chum #7:

Came home and there was nobody in the house. The first time that has happened since we all moved in. The TV wasn’t even on. The only sign of life was a saucepan full of old plastic razors cooking on the stove. The water had nearly boiled away, and the razors were starting to melt.

Was alone there for at least 20 minutes. When woke up later, after midnight, at least six people were banging around the place and all was well.

A Scene Not My Own

Playing for a Piece of the Door : A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975.

Shangri-La Projects, 2001.

As my own “Rock Gods” writing exercises suggest, I’m a sucker for local band lore. So much so that I don’t care where they’re local to. Whenever I find myself in a strange city, I make an attempt to search out a local-band anthology or two. That’s where real music history lies. I know this from having grown up in Boston in the 1970s and 1980s—the city may have been represented far and wide by Aerosmith, J. Geils Band, The Cars and—ugh!—Boston, but the real scene was beholden to bands like The Real Kids, The Lyres, Orchestra Luna and the majestic Willie “Loco” Alexander.

Some cities are lucky enough to have not just useful CD anthologies of their best local bands, but actual books itemizing key musical figures of the area. (The one for Boston is The Sound of Our Town by Brett Milano)

I found the scene-stirring volume on Kindle for ten bucks. Ron Hall loving chronicles a well-chosen 15-year chunk of Memphis music history. Rock was still developing then, so while local acts were often derivative of national or international ones (The Gants were so consumed by the British Invasion they apparently spoke in English accents and were presumed to be from abroad; other Brit-struck bands included The Peers of Carnaby and British Sterling), all the clichés hadn’t quite settled yet. There are tales of painfully nervous singers whose inability to look at the audience was misinterpreted as Brando-esque coolth, and the most fascinating fashion choices. “Tab-collared shirts were just out, so we all got them,” says a member of Tommy Jay & the Escorts (whose died-young leader is one of the most lauded local legends in the book). “The only problem was that all they had was medium and large, and they hung off us. They were banana colored, and we wore these burgundy ties with glitter on them.” Then there were The Robins, conceptualized by Ardent producer Jim Dickinson to cash in on the Batman TV show before that camp masterpiece even aired. Jim Gaston, a member of their back-up band The Avengers relates that The Robins “were Jim’s wife, Mary Lindsay Dickinson, and two of her debutante friends, Carol Johnson and Lucia Burch. … I think Dickinson briefly saw the Robins as becoming another Ronettes. They wore bat masks and designer outfits and were quite attractive and easy on the eyes, but alas, they couldn’t carry a tune and faded away quickly.”

There are many, many misfires like the Robins in Memphis rock history, and Hall (an avid record dealer and collector who runs the Shangri-La shop for like-minded music mavens) immortalizes these adventures as glowingly as he does the tales of bands who did in fact hit it big, a varied list of chart-toppers which includes Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, The Box Tops, The Gentrys (“Keep On Dancing”), The Hombres (“Let It all Hang Out”), The Mar-Keys (“Last Night”),

And the Knowbody Else (better known after they moved to California and changed their name to Black Oak Arkansas).  Ardent Studios, of course, was also the birthing grounds of Big Star—named for the grocery store across the street. How local-pride can you get? Big Star never had a hit, though a ferocious worldwide cult grew around them. Hall mentions plenty of bands which may have only dented the national charts (such as The Short Kuts with “Your Eyes May Shine” and “Born on the Bayou”) but were longtime superstars in the Memphis frat-party scene.

Hall narrows his survey to only bands which managed to release something on vinyl. In some scenes, that would be a high cut-off point; lots of extraordinary bands never made it into a studio, or did but had little to show for the experience. But for Memphis, the rule fits, since besides Ardent the city boasted the Stax (and its all-star session players led by Steve Cropper), plus numerous other worthwhile studios besides. If you were a popular Memphis band and didn’t release a record, you just weren’t trying. At the same time, it’s amazing that so many bands who gigged so frequently, which simultaneously attending high or college, working day jobs and/or starting families, were able to save enough money and time to cut records besides.

As Hall plows alphabetically through the dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians, the stories tend to become repetitive—appearing on the big local TV dance party show, playing  at the ribbon-cuttings of new department stores, opening for national acts, breaking up when members went to college or got married. But the enthusiasm, the sheer wonderment of living through that era of teen rock, is consistent no matter who’s talking. This is a book of wild-eyed wonder, exciting memories and hometown pride—on the stage, behind it, deep in the throng of fans, and decades onward in the heart of a nostalgic record dealer.

Rock Gods #50: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

The Ballad of Sunrisers’ Fall

As told to Artie Capshaw

“I’m telling this one last time. The only reason I’m telling it again is because they thing out there that I’m some sicjk loony rock star… loon. And I was never that. Never was. I was a businessman. That’s what I thought I was doing.
“It doesn’t seem that way now. Those other guys fell as hard as I did, you could say—but when I formed The Sunrisers, I was picking the best of the best. Then we rehearsed twice a week for three months until we played out. There wasn’t another band in those days with our… determination. This was a plan.
“Our first show, nobody really knows about it. Everybody thinks our first show was our last show, but there were three. The first one was a party on the U. for a friend. A frat party, sort of, so we did mostly covers, then brought out our own stuff when everybody was drunk enough. I’m not about the vanity, but it went well, no question. There were a few guys who came up to us afterwards, blown away, like serious fans. Some of them were at our second show, when we opened for, you know, Mr. Magnificent you call him, at the Bull.
“We weren’t officially on the bill. We just asked if we could play at 8 o’clock, and nobody minded. Quite a few people there. I remember some of them thinking we were a national act on a tour, maybe part of a package with the headliner. Not sure where they got that idea, but I thought that was great. I mean, that meant people though we were already good enough to be signed or something.
“I was walking on air, walking on air. But I also got that this was new. I hadn’t fronted a band ever. I’d studied for this like a test. Training myself, creating moves, trying the words ten different ways.
“My day job then was in sales, and that’s how I approached the music. I was selling something. I know how crass that sounds, but that’s how I felt. The whole other rock thing, some spaced-out [bleeped homosexual epithet] grooving to the vibe in his own little world, who cares, no respect—I hate bands those guys, guys like that.
When we did the final show, it was staged as if it was our big introduction, so we actually wrote this song, “Splashy Debut.” I know how dumb that sounds, so you have to trust me, I was being ironic or whatever—I was acknowledging how over the top this all was, especially for this town. Seriously.
“Which is why… OK, we’re into I think the fifth song—‘Time to Fly,”’ which I later rewrote for another band, and it even got played on the Sports Channel. Not a bad song if I do say so. The song proved itself. I’d been trying to write simple rock lyrics, realizing how much I’d been overwriting, overpreparing. It’s a dopey lyric in a lot of ways—‘I’m tryin’ to find the time to try to fly.’ Why I’m proud of that lyric is that I wrote a flying song that refuses to rhyme ‘fly’ with ‘high’ or ‘sky.’ Intellectual, see? [Laughs.] Overthinking even when I’m dumbing down.
“Anyway, I’m in to the final chorus and I’m going to hit this campy high note and nail the whole gushy power ballad section just like I’d practiced. Spread my arms out just as the guitar solo finishes up, big transition. Got to start singing then, spread my wings, like literally, do the rock star theatrics.
“But—and I keep stressing this, don’t I? I had a careful idea of what would be too much. I’m really just spreading my arm, right? But as everybody knows, here’s what happened:
“I lost my balance. I admit it. Big freaking freak accident. That’s important, because all the stuff I got blamed for, it’s like people think I went on a rampage. My arm hit something—microphone stand, cymbal, guitar neck, one of those pipes in the ceiling, I really have no idea—and I probably twisted my body a bit and hit something else or something, and I just went down. I know I took the chord organ with me, and the coat rack with the costume changes on it. But I swear I have no idea how that lamp fell, which of course is all anybody wants to know. But it did, and it landed on that off-duty fireman who’d brought his teenage daughter to the show, and the rest is history. I will still testify, just as I did in court three months later, that nobody really got hurt—If anyone did, it would be me. But there was other testimony, and there were fines, and the city reduced the capacity of the club [from 125 to 100]. There were surprise inspections for months afterwards. And there was a short fence built around the stage, which lasted for three years or so, until IT hurt somebody.
“More to the point, the other bands never went on that night. A month later, they’d both be huge, then four months later they’d both be dead, without ever having played in our town.
“You hear that the band broke up that night. That’s not exactly true. We had no idea how much damage we’d caused, or how long one guy can drag out a lawsuit for personal injury, aggravated assault and whatever else the charges were. You know I’m still legally constrained from talking about that case. I can only mention the events that led up to it. That’s the real legend.
“So the monument to my band The Sunrisers… the legacy of the best-prepared, best-rehearsed, most all-star band I ever had anything to do with was the step they build between the bits of fence so the band get up there—the step that’s still there even though the fence isn’t—on which somebody wrote ‘Sunriser’s Leap.’ And every time it fades, somebody writes it on there again.
“Even that, I got self-critical about. I thought it should have been ‘Sunriser’s Fall,’ you know? Better symmetry.”

Thanks for the confession, Mr. Russ Cicero.
Making fresh history on wobbly stages this week:
Saint Overboard—in which the beloved Bullfinch gets dunked and a famous old friend finds a new alias this Thursday—is a multi-band project among Pair of Pink Socks, Bathystol and Loretta Chose Life…. Hamilton’s frat-friendly party bands same night includes Plays With Fire and Lady Valerie (with Kane Luker from Sundry Persons on guitar)… And at Dollaire’s, should you care? Beware! Hoppy! Hoppy! Hoppy!

I Baked Vienna Bread Yesterday

It’s Kathleen’s favorite of all the breads I bake. It is soft as you please inside, with a crust that’s hard as a rock. Not unlike a skull, I suppose.
My mother was born in Vienna, so my expertise with this loaf could be considered genetic. I got the recipe from Dolores Casella’s indispensible A World of Breads (1966, David White Co.) and I follow it practically to the letter.
You use twice the yeast you ordinarily might (4 ½ teaspoons), dissolving it plus one tablespoon of sugar in a quarter-cup of warm water. Do this in a big mixing bowl and you won’t have to switch receptacles. While that’s beginning to bubble, you scald one cup of milk, to which you add an equal amount of cold water. Make sure the milk/water is lukewarm (if too hot, it kills that poor little yeast), then stir it into the yeast/sugar. Casella’s book says to add eight cups of flour (!) and a whole tablespoonful of salt (!!), but I’ve found there’s not really enough liquid to accommodate that, so either make it six cups of flour or work in another cup or so of warm water. Knead it a whole lot—and there’s a whole lot to knead—and when it’s “satiny,” as they say, roll it into a ball and let it rise in the same mixing bowl you’ve already been using, with a dishtowel or plastic wrap placed over the top. After an hour and a half, punch the dough down, divide it and shape it into two or three loaves (I do long ovals, but round loaves hold their shape well too). I fit them side-by-side on a big cast-iron pizza pan which has been greased and sprinkled with corn meal (per Casella’s recipe. I don’t do the cornmeal thing for other breads, but I like her style here.) Make slashes in the dough so it can stretch a bit, then let it rise for another hour. Before that hour’s over, preheat the oven for 450 degrees. Before baking, mix an egg white with a little water (like, I don’t know, a tablespoon or two?) and paint the loaves with it. The whites can squirm around if not mixed well, and you want to get this right because otherwise you get just fried egg on the pan instead of a crunchy crust. I actually own a pastry brush but when I’m worried about a particularly light dough caving in I just dip a paper towel in the egg wash instead and drag it carefully about the loaves. Use over half of the egg wash, but save some for later. (Insert “all your eggs in one basket” joke here.)
Bake at that extreme heat of 450 degrees for ten minutes, then knock the temp down to 350 and keep the bread in the oven for another fifty minutes. As if an hour of baking isn’t enough (and for most breads that’s plenty), after that you’re expected to take the bread out of the over, carefully apply more egg/water to the now well-formed and dark crust, and bake it for half an hour more.
Yes, two and a half hours of rising and an hour and a half of baking, plus that egg nonsense. But absolutely worth the effort. (Besides, like it’s a bad thing to have a hot oven going all afternoon on one of the coldest days of the year?)
According to my mother and grandmother, in the early 20th century the Viennese were really good at things like opera and skiing. This is another painstaking, time-consuming luxury they excelled at.

Rock Gods #49: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Time to parse a few lyrics.
When Sonny Blitt of the Blats bellows “Honeypie,” he is talking about his wife, Helen Powell.
When Sissy Spangler shouts “ !,” she is calling for her dog of that same name.
When Yoost mentions “the old school,” it is because he is divorced.
When Arch Form erupts that list of girls’ names—“Annabellacarladonnaella,” etc.—in “Guerilla Girls,” it is because he claims to have slept with every one of them while in college. (Neat trick, since he apparently lived at home and commuted. The girls in Prunella/Zanella, by the way, insist that none of them are implicated in the tune).
When Millie of the Model Marvels sings that lanquid song about “Joooooooooe,” she has not actually ever talked to Joooooooooe (not his real name)—she is crushing rather severe.
Finally, and closest to our heart: From now on, when we write of Delia “Sykie” Sykes, you are to understand that we are writing about our girlfriend.

Some of the subjects of our stories have had trouble with this concept, but we are indeed ethical, honorable, and open. Pride ourself on that. We keep a suitable distance from the scene we cover—never liked those columnists who fronted bands, or booked shows, or who otherwise had a personal fame-or-fortune stake in the scene. We figured out our place, we thought, and that meant figuring out where our place was not.
Then we fell in love.
Have we overstepped? In writing about it, we mean. We’ll find out soon enough. For now, let’s go to the distracting ellipses and bow out gracefully:

The Ted Marks survived an actual harassment suit that actually went to court. That’s making your mark in clubland. They reappear, bruised but still smirking, at Hamilton’s Thursday with the bespectacled Unhatched Eggheads and Greenhorse (is that some liquor reference we just don’t get?)… Dollaire’s has a mystery local solo act, Wisest Man in the World, along with “…And If I’m Elected,” the side project of a former Selectman and two of his trusted aides. (You know who it is. We’re tired of writing his name, and if he decides to run again all this club publicity will only be subject to the Equal Time statutes, won’t it?). Basically, it’s a night out for bigwigs coming from the nearby Downtown Chamber meeting. Reliable bar band My Son the Double Agent (aka Teenybopper for the CIA when its female back-up singers are along) is there for support, and will do two full sets of corporate covers so the suits and ties can dance… The Bullfinch has Is Anybody Listening?, Eighth Deadly Sin and Girl in the Freudian Slip—three bands with blondes!—but even our favorite watering hole can’t hope to match the biggest show in town that night: a convention for sex therapists and licensed sex workers at the hotel on the hill. Appropriate (and appropriately named) bands—some members of which are in the sex field themselves—have been approached from far and wide, and the two-night ballroom blitz features (though not necessarily in this position, uh, order) Nude for Hire, Backyard Sport, Pussycat Transplant, Room at the Topless, No Good End, Henri’s Big Night and The Mislaid Brassiere. Beat that, or beat off…