Sunday, January 31, 2010


Text by Joan McNulty, 1982
Introductory text by Robert Barry Francos, 2010
Live photos by Robert Barry Francos
© By FFanzeen
Other images from the Internet © excluded

The following article/interview with Boston rock’n’roll cult icon Willie “Loco” Alexander was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #9, in 1982. It was conducted by Joan McNulty, a regular on the scene in those days. She was also the publisher of the Buzzcocks’ official fan magazine, Harmony in My Head (and then-girlfriend of singer Pete Shelley).

When Joan did this interview, her photographer friend Gay Fast took a photo of Willie wearing one of my
FFanzeen tee-shirts, which I still have and treasure. Oh, and I also have one of Pete Shelley.

Willie has been a mainstay in the Boston scene, having fronted a few seminal bands, such as the Lost. He was also Lou Reed’s replacement in the Velvet Underground when they toured Europe in the early ‘70s. He also recorded a single with VU drummer Mo Tucker and Jonathan Richman.

I had the opportunity to see Willie play in Boston a few times during the 1980s, including at the Paradise during one of Joe Viglione’s amazing Spectaculars, where I went with noted photographer at the time, Rocco Cippilone (aka Peter Parka), who went on to publish the excellent
Bang! fanzine. – RBF, 2010

Willie Alexander has been an important part of the music scene in Boston and in general for many years. He has been involved in a number of bands, one of the best known being the Boom Boom Band. When they disbanded in the summer of 1978, Willie dropped out of sight for a number of years. He came into view on a few occasions with various single projects, but didn’t emerge fully until November 1981.

Since then, a solo album, Solo Loco, has been released on RCA Records in France and Bomp! Records in the States, full of new material with a different twist. It’s still new and exciting but experimental in areas he’d never before explored; self-produced, as well.

Most recently, he’s gotten together a new band called the Confessions, consisting of himself on vocals and keyboards, Walter Powers on bass, Mathew McKenzie on guitar, and Ricky Rothchild on drums. In the past few months, they’ve been playing an assortment of live dates around the East Coast – including a few opening for the J. Geils Band – and have gone over extremely well. The future looks better than it ever has before. Willie has settled down in both his personal and business life. Since he’s already, in previous interviews, answered all the straight questions about his work, we decided to chat with him and find out his inner thoughts and feelings on himself at this point in his life.

FFanzeen: How did the break-up of the Boom Boom Band affect your mood? What did you feel at that point?
Willie Alexander: I felt… shell-shocked. I guess I had just about had it at that point. The whole business side of it all, and everything else combined.

FF: You stayed out of action for quite some time after that.
Willie: Yes, I needed some time to get better control of myself and what I was doing. I needed the time off to think about what direction I was going in.

FF: Then you decided to get back into the swing of things [“B.U. Baby” single; “Gin” single]. What prompted this?
Willie: Different people more or less asked me to do them, so it was made easy for me.

FF: Were they projects that would have come out on independent singles promoted by you at some later date anyway?
Willie: No, some of them I wouldn’t have ever thought of doing. Like “B.U. Baby.” I’d never have thought of that, or “Gin” either, but I was approached, and after doing it, I felt it came out really great and I was happy with it. I was glad they got revived. I got a lot of mileage out of “Gin,” for instance. At that time, especially, it was really good for me.

FF: Since it came at a time when you were perhaps still disillusioned, did these projects make you more optimistic, maybe motivate you towards getting a band together, getting out –?
Willie: Yes, it really did. It was nice to see my name in the papers again. That way you’re establishing contact again. People probably say, “Gee, it’s been a long time between engagements for this guy, but at least he’s still making records – that’s good.” It’s a way of staying in there without actually having to put a band together.

FF: Were the thoughts of a solo LP lingering in your mind for some time before it actually materialized?
Willie: Yes, I had some things I didn’t think would be band material, so I did them in a solo way. Now that I have a band, I look at them like they’re band material. Definitely; I mean, I changed them.

FF: What actually motivated you to get moving on the solo project, especially as it sounds completely different from your previous work? Was it the freedom of doing it yourself and having it turn out the way you wanted it to, especially having produced it yourself when you could have gotten someone to do it?
Willie: I wasn’t really looking at the time. I felt it was something I had to do at the time. The solo LP concept came up when I was with the Boom Boom Band doing the second LP [Meanwhile, Back in the States – Ed.] . I was talking with (producer) Craig Leon and I told him I really didn’t like the way things were going with it, and he kept saying, “oh, don’t worry, we’ll do a solo LP after this.” Then it turned out later it didn’t work out; we tried a couple of cuts. I seemed to do much better myself, doing some of the same songs. Some of them I just went in and did totally experimental. I used the studio as a medium, sort of, some of them are like sketches, but most of them are pretty flushed out.

FF: Did you think at the time, that maybe you couldn’t find musicians or a producer, to get a cross the type of sound you wanted?
Willie: I didn’t even know what type of sound I wanted. I didn’t know what was going to happen in there.

FF: Were you perhaps surprised at the outcome? Possibly, that you went in to do demos for songs and they more or less ended up finished projects?
Willie: Well, I was thinking of it as a real album. I mean, I was doing it cut by cut. I really didn’t have an overall plan for it. It was a do-or-die thing.

FF: Were you pleased with the outcome? What are your thoughts now that you look back on it? Any changes you would like to have made?
Willie: It’s the way I wanted it to come across. I wanted to convey a lot of different influences, not the usual type of thing that people were used to hearing from me. You know, guitars, bass – to me it’s more of a jazz-oriented feeling throughout, with my choices of instruments and the improvisations of melody lines. I really didn’t have songs written out; a lot of things would be improvised. And leave it like it was a jazz piece.

FF: But, then, strangely enough, you went out and put together a band: guitars, bass and drums. Why?
Willie: Yes, but I used a lot of the riffs from that, the ones that came out of this context.

FF: You didn’t have any thoughts of doing it solo, standing up in front of a packed crowd with backing, tapes and you singing?
Willie: No, I don’t think I would have been comfortable doing that. It had to be a real rock’n’roll band, as that’s as much fun as doing a solo LP.

FF: Being so comfortable with the band now, would it have made a difference if they had been accessible at the time you were recording?
Willie: No, I had to do it the way I did. I just walked into the studio alone most of the time. I used Ted St. Pierre, the engineer. He played bass and guitar, so we did most of the stuff ourselves. I’d, like, play drums and piano, start with one or another, and gradually add bass, sometimes guitar, synthetics, and things.

FF: Then that was the sound you liked all along?
Willie: Because it was so unplanned. I really couldn’t teach people too many parts to these things. It more or less just fell together. Even I didn’t know all the parts; I have to learn them myself to make them work in a band context.

FF: When the French deal [with New Rose – RBF] came about for the LP, what were your thoughts on it?
Willie: A ray of hope. I was a bit leery of all the business connected with it, but the way it was approached, I wasn’t selling my body and soul to a company, more like selling a product I’d already finished. I got to maintain my artistic freedom.

FF: What made you actually get back to playing live, and getting a band together? All the hype from the LP?
Willie: It was something I think I really had to do, to make me feel better as a person. It also would help the album as well. Promotion in general, that was the main purpose. I reached a point just going into the studio alone and all. I think I needed the combinations, friction, interaction of different people.

FF: You must feel better about yourself, then?
Willie: Yes, I feel more in control now, more productive in my own way. I don’t feel depressed thinking about the future anymore. It seems more hopeful now, not like an obligation to fulfill. I feel comfortable for the future.

FF: Concerning the band you’re working with now (The Confessions), what made you believe that these were the right people to add? How did it all fall into place?
.Willie: Some of them I’d known for a while; I knew what they were capable of doing. I figured it was about time to do it then. I had played with Walter Powers in a lot of bands, and I played with Mathew McKenzie in a band. It just had to be the right people this time around. Not that the other guys weren’t right for that time, but I can talk a little easier to Mathew than the other guitar player, nothing personal. I know him, we’ve shared a lot of things, we can be honest, and most of all, we can bounce ideas of one another.

FF: Do you, as an artist, find it hard to keep a band together, especially since you write the songs and the band almost serves as your vehicle? Is it a tense situation at times?
Willie: So far, so good. We’ve got a good interaction going. We struggle with the songs, I’ll bring in a part and we’ll keep trying new ideas out on it. With a lot of my material, I’ll lay down the skeleton of it and I know how Mathew will work it out because I know his style. But, he never fails to surprise me. I think he’s got a lot of jazz influence, even though he might not think so. He’s got a certain reckless abandon in his playing sometimes, like a number of the great jazz players. I’d rather work with someone like that than a standard rock guitarist. I never know what’s really going to happen with him.

FF: What’s your attraction to jazz playing? Is it the fact that often times they’re learned musicians?
Willie: When I started out, I wanted to be a jazz musician, so I still kind of think of that. When I didn't like where rock’n’roll was going, I started listening more to jazz. When I was in high school, I was more interested in playing jazz drums than in trying to play the type of rock’n’roll on the radio at that time. Every five years, rock’n’roll gets good again. I really liked the ‘50s. Then it got good again mid-‘60s.

FF: What parts of it didn’t you like, specifically?
Willie: I think it was the sound at different times. It started to sound too manufactured. It was lacking the rawness. It was too slick and sophisticated for me. I seem to have a lot of complaints. What’s funny is that the slickness is what the majority of people like. These are people who consider my stuff and I think that’s pretty good because lots of times I do my best to keep it sounding primitive. The album sounded that way, but with only 8 tracks it would be hard to get it too slick. Maybe the next time when I get 16 tracks or with 24, my troubles would be over.

FF: Then we can all hate it.
Willie: Yes, but it would sell millions.

FF: What are your thoughts about touring?
Willie: In general, it can be fun, but it’s still work. You get to see the country. It’s necessary, I know. We’re going to be going to France, hopefully, in the spring, which is a lot better than saying, “Hey, would you like to go to Indianapolis or St. Louis for the weekend?” Sure, I like touring. Going to France is pretty hot stuff.

FF: Do you find it exciting that you’re going to some place where, as a solo performer, you’ve never been, and your material has sold extremely well and gotten good press?
Willie: It’ll be pretty wild. It’s almost surrealistic in a way. I went through France with Walter (Powers) when we were with the Velvet Underground in 1971, and all this wasn’t even a glimmer in my eye then, just guys on bicycles with berets and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and turtleneck sweaters. I never thought they’d be buying my album. I had heard, though, that they liked American music, jazz and rock’n’roll. I guess it sold because we had sent the singles over there and the right people got them and wrote about them. There were also, around 1977-78, big articles over there about the Boston music scene, and they talked a lot about the Boom Boom Band, garage records… I think that’s what started it. It’s great to be popular in your home town, but imagine a foreign country. It’s crazy. And they’re only going by records. I make records and they’re accepted in another place. I’m conveying my thoughts and getting something across, which is something you always hope for when you do it.
FF: Do you think your record sounds different than a lot of things today?
Willie: No, not to me, because I see where it’s coming from and the influences. Basically, it’s rock’n’roll with Latin-American overtones. The freedom of jazz with rock’n’roll rhythms.

FF: Although it may be hard to tell because the LP just came out domestically, do you feel you get better promotion overseas?
Willie: I haven’t actually witnessed the promo there, but it gets press and I hear that when it came out, you know, it was in stores with big displays and all that. I had that with the first Boom Boom Band album [Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band – Ed.], but this is different.

FF: What do you think when you look back and listen to the Boom Boom album?
Willie: It’s kind of weird. I don’t play it that much at all. I was real close to it then and I’m so far from the person singing sometimes. Although I know it was me and I’d never go back on anything I ever did, I can just see it differently now. Even with the solo LP sometimes – but if I’d stayed in the studio, the record wouldn’t be out now.

FF: Do you feel that it’s a valid piece of history? A stepping stone?
Willie: Sure, because the songs needed to be out. There’s a few I’d like to even record again, I don’t know when.

FF: Is there a real obsession to get certain songs out on an actual piece of vinyl?
Willie: Yes. I look at an old song and think, gee, I never recorded that and I should. Sometimes, I forget my thoughts. It really makes it final. Sometimes, I think I’m not that prolific. I have to look in old notebooks, but when I look around, at one point I had, like, 100 songs, but I lost that list. When I rewrote it, I only had 30. A lot I forget. We do 22 in the band right now. I don’t finish things right away. I write bits and pieces and they eventually fall into place. Some of the riffs, especially on “Take Me Away” (on the solo LP), I’ve been fooling with for 10 years. It changes when it’s done live, as well. I went in the studio for the wild and crazy changes. People either like it or they don’t. It doesn’t represent my whole life or anything, just a small part of it.

FF: What are your lyrical influences?
Willie: Everyday life, all the thoughts that run through my head. It is amazing when you’re thinking of something and it’s that good that you say, “That’s a song!” I’ve got dozens of notebooks with lines in them. You’ve got to exercise your thoughts. The next project for me will no doubt sound much different than this. They’ll be a constant thread running through it all – me, and my trademarks through the years.

FF: How do you think fans will take to the constant changes?
Willie: I’m not sure, especially new fans. What they think of the solo LP. It’s all a constant progression or digression. I stick with a number of some things so well, the really heavy beat for starters. It’s easy for me to adapt any of my songs for the unit I’m in at the moment. Or drop the song maybe, or the band changes the song to fit them. It’s fun. I know what to look for in musicians now. I’ve been around a long time. It all evolves. It depends on the song itself.

FF: Do any of the others in the band write songs? Will they get filtered in?
Willie: Mathew writes a lot of great songs. I don’t’ know if I could do someone else’s material. We do a few covers, you never know, it’s always possible. I like it better if they’ve been dead for 20 years.

FF: Do you view the band as a long-term project, or do you like variations?
Willie: It’ll be a long-time thing for a while. It’s just starting so I can’t see any end. I can see recording with them; other things I want to do solo. Both, I guess. It’s all a very comfortable atmosphere.

FF: What are some of your upcoming plans for the future?
Willie: Rochester, New York, Saturday. No, seriously, video I’m quite interested in. It’s all exciting to think about, all the open options. I have ideas for videos, nothing really formulated as of yet. We did a few with the Boom Boom Band and they were horrible. I said, “Next…”

FF: What is your driving force after all these years?
Willie: I really like to do it; I can’t picture myself doing anything else. It’s all new to me now, with the band. I’m also a little more cautious. I know what I don’t want. It’s a new ballgame and it's scary sometimes. But so is crossing the street.

FF: Is success all that important to you
Willie: Right now, to me, I feel as though I already have it. Any little thing that happens grouped together is success. I wouldn’t mind having a hit record. That means my ideas have corresponded with so many more people, but I have to keep my credibility. I mean, I still think of having a hit record after all this time in music. The audacity of myself, sometimes. That may be the force.

FF: How did you feel about your first comeback show at the Paradise [Boston] this year when it sold out and you got a standing ovation? What were you thinking?
Willie: I was stunned. It was wild and great. It becomes unreal – I was extremely happy, especially since I’ve been out of it for a while. It made it all worthwhile for me as a person. That’s why I do it all. I still get nervous that no one will show up. When I reflect back on it as a whole, I really feel proud. I keep my fingers crossed at all times. If I didn’t get a response, I wouldn’t do it. I’d stop. It makes it all seem right.

FF: Why do people go to see you? What do you think it is?
Willie: It’s hard to say, it’s all still a fantasy to me, the whole rock’n’roll trip, and going on stage. It’s real life and I’m still getting used to it. I worry if I’ll still be popular the next day. I had to learn to cope with it all.

FF: Are you self-motivated?
Willie: Yes, I think so. I probably need a push here and there. If I decide to do something, I do it, and vice versa. The fantasy is all real now, yet it still surprises me to walk out on a stage or have things click at rehearsal. The element of suspense keeps me going. Sometimes, I think, “Oh, this can’t last.” It’s already gone so much longer than I thought it would in the beginning. Thank God, it’s happening.

FF: Do you think that you settling down to your personal life made your music settle as well? That you were more in control of both?
Willie: Yes. They both interacted with each other, I think. It helped the music. I feel very happy and content at the moment. There's always some days, but – it all balances out. I was really screwed up before. There’s a fine line between being in and out of control. I guess I label it: The Edge. I believe I’m on the right track now. It’s kind of like that old John Sebastian song, “Do You Believe in Magic?” That’s what music is all about.

Willie in the 1980s:

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Winter is Here and It's Going on Two Years Swallow My Pride: A Photo Essay

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos

Since I live in the Prairies of Canada now, people assume it is always cold and always snowy, but actually, the motto here is "Saskatoon Shines!" because we get more sunlight than almost anyplace else in the country. But we do have our snow days, such as the blizzard that flew through a few days ago. Here are some of my shots (photos can be enlarged by clicking on them):

[When opening the front, there was a lip that was against the door]
[The front steps]
[After digging us out]
[Snow "cave" nature-driven sculpture on the back of a car on the street]
[Our back porch; note the height of the snow on the table and benches]

[Frost on our rear upper window; on the second, you can see the snow on the roof of the addition, just past the window]

[The ice coming over the weir as seen from the Railway Bridge, overlooking the South Saskatchewan River, facing south (Saskatoon is also known as the "City of Bridges")]

[Railway Bridge pylon caked with ice, looking straight down]
[Statue at the University that looks cold; I love white snow on a black scuplture]

Friday, January 29, 2010


Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

The War on Kids
Dir. Cevin Soling
Spectacle Films
2008, 95 min.

When I was in middle school (then called junior high), I was standing on the lunchroom line. The much bigger kid behind me kept poking me in the ribs to tickle / bully me. It was painful, as I am hypersensitive to tickling, and I told him to stop, and why, but he would not. When I finally had enough, I turned, jumped (he was tall), and punched him in the face. He was definitively more shocked than hurt, and that single-punch altercation was the closest thing I’d come to winning a fight I’ve probably ever had. The lunchroom ladies came out see what was the ruckus. When they heard what happened, they gave me a free lunch and the kid had to stay on line usual. That was the end of it.

If that incident were to happen now, posits the new film documentary The War on Kids, I more likely to have been suspended for a year, been taken to court in shackles, and had a felony conviction on my record. WAR starts off with a whole list of absurd “Zero Tolerance” violations – which was originally created to focus on drugs and weapons – such as kids carrying a three-inch keychain (key word is chain to the administrators), a GI Joe plastic one-inch “gun,” nail clippers, an ibuprofen tablet (non-prescribed drug), and other no-gray-area literal translation of the rules.

There are the usual talking heads interviews scattered throughout, which are very thorough in choice, such as students, teachers, administrators, principals, psychologists, and of course academics who have published books. Some of these I would like some clarification of their expertise, such as the clinical psychologist with a Masters in Education (i.e., what has she published?), and someone from the Rutherford Institute, whatever that is (no, you look it up!).

Cevin makes many strong and effective points about how schools have turned into factories of control, the most provocative example of which is an interview with a prison guard intercut with a school facilitator; the language and environment is eerily similar. The video of a drug raid on over a hundred students who happened to be in a school hallway at that moment, using SWAT Team police with guns drawn and pointed at the students while drug-sniffing German shepherds bark and growl at the students, nose at their backpacks, is a scene right out of 1964 Birmingham, Alabama. Oh, and no drugs were found. In a telling interview, the school’s principal is apologetic for the way it happened, but I wonder if it was because it failed rather than the actual methods.

Topics are covered pretty thoroughly, such as security, over-zealous crackdowns as mentioned above, anti-drug messages geared toward young students, abuses of power by teachers and administrations, and use of prescription drugs (e.g., Ritalin) overly prescribed to control behavior (and their negative side effects).

[Director Cevin Soling]
The documentary is not shrill, like Michael Moore’s (note that I really like Michael, but he is too big a part of what he is trying to say), which is important to state a point, but occasionally this is a bit hyper. For example, one part focuses in on CCTV cameras in schools. While it is truthfully pointed out that cameras really are ineffective in stopping crime (Columbine had cameras, for example), it is a world-wide phenomenon in this modern technological world, not just in schools. Walk down any work office hall or city street, and odds are you are being recorded (I just read an article that says there is one street camera for every fourteen people in London). Cameras in schools is just a part of an advanced trend of the panopticon, which was created by Jeremy Bentham in 1785 as a form of prison design. []; Michel Foucault discussed the use of this system as control in Discipline and Punish.

Authoritative teachers who use the classroom for power predates the rise of these new measures (about 10 years, one interviewee states), even before the early 1960s when my first grade teacher made me sit in a garbage can and had the class kick the an I was in. It predates Dickens. Hell, it probably predates schooling described in Plato’s Republic (whom social critic Neil Postman referred to as the first published fascist). It’s inherent in hierarchical systems, especially ones involving the weak and powerless such as children; dominators would be attracted to such a structure.

Also, the ineffective use of anti-drug commercials have been discussed even before the Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” campaign (seen here), or even the “This is drugs / this is your brain on drugs” series (not shown). [See video below]

Despite these flaws, I can understand why this film won the Best Educational Documentary award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. It could use some tightening up, yes, but its message is clear and important.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

DICTATORS Can Sing!!: Two early pieces on the DFFD band

Part I text by Todd Abramson; Part II text by Barry Geiger; with new intro by Robert Barry Francos
Live images by RBF; album covers from the Internet
Article © 1977; interview © 1980; RBF intro © 2010, all by FFanzeen

[Handsome Dick Manitoba, Ross the Boss Funicello]Here is a two-for-one deal. FFanzeen published two pieces on the Dictators, the first in issue #3 in 1977 by Todd Abramson (who went on to publish his own fanzine, Young Fast and Scientific, and now co-owns the legendary Hoboken showcase Maxwell’s. The second is an interview at the Bottom Line by Barry Geiger, from issue #6 in 1980.

I was introduced to the Dictators by Bernie Kugel, first in vinyl, and then in person, when we saw them play at CBGB’s in 1975 (before Handsome Dick Manitoba was officially the lead singer). Over the years, I saw them a number of times, and they never, ever failed me, including the Bottom Line show where I almost killed Handsome Dick (see my previous blog from January 12, 2009). When a younger friend came over to my place duing the early ‘80s, I played him the first Dictators release,
Go Girl Crazy, to which he was not impressed. I told him to give it time, and put it to a cassette. Before long, he was a huge fan, and bought all their albums (and quite generously bought me their last one). Indeed, I believe in their fan club slogan, DFFD (Dictators Forever Forever Dictators). – RBF, 2010

Part I: Dictators Can Sing!!
By Todd Abramson; FFanzeen #3, 1977

So I got a frantic call from a Dictators maniac (like myself) saying they were gonna be playing at CBGB’s unannounced the following Saturday. Wow! Of course, I’m gonna go. So, in the middle of the week, I make a phone call to one of the ‘Tators themselves and he says sure, come on down, we’ll be playing at one, now leave me alone. I’m watching the Ali fight (or words to that effect). Great!

Naturally, I assumed he meant one in the morning. However, I called Miriam Linna (aforementioned Dictators fanatic) who told me Manitoba told her it’s gonna be one in the afternoon. Fantastic! A matinee performance of my fave band.

So I’m in N.Y. by noon. After listening to a few records, our motley crew heads down to CBGB’s. Hmmm, that’s strange – nobody else here? So we were laughed at and told it was at night. Well, it’s better than nothing at all.

So, eventually night comes along (as I knew it would) and it finds us listening to WCBS-FM’s usually great Saturday Night Sock Hop. Great it was that night. I’ll never forget the way they played “Surf City” and “C’mon Everybody” back-to-back. Or, “I’m so Young,” by the Students, a Billy Miller request.

Pretty soon it gets to 11 o’clock or so, and excitement is building among our gathering. So what else to do but start blasting and dancing to my all-time favorite LP, the Dictators Go Girl Crazy. Stupendous! Uh, weekend.

And the time comes and our procession heads down to the hole in the wall known as CBGB’s. Some of us paid, some didn’t (I did. Ouch!).

The Senders soon go on and play an interesting set of R’n’B-influenced rock. The highlight was a fab version of “I’m a Hog For You,” a Leiber-Stoller classic. They also did a fine version of Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights Big City” and a non-descript (I don’t know what it really means but it looks good, eh?) “Yakety Yak.”

Dictators are spotted, with shorter hair, Hawaiian shirts, finger fungus, and other such things. Talking w/ Adny Shernoff earlier he told me they were gonna do “Slow Death,” so I was excited as hell. Plus Mark “The Animal” Mendoza was no longer a member of the band, so Adny would be playing bass again.

Here they come… walking to the stage… get the funniest looks from, oh enuff of that. Handsome Dick dedicated the show to “his champion” Muhammad Ali. Back to Africa! Anyway, the Dictators start playing a new song destined to be on their third long-playing opus, Bloodbrothers.

Well, from the third song on, that night the Dictators were the best band I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Unbelievable! I had just seen them a month or so before at CBGB’s Theatre. To be fair, everything about the place and what happened with the groups before the ‘Tators were on was dreadful, but while the ‘Tators were definitely good, they just didn’t move me. Which was a shame. They even did stuff like “Cars and Girls,” but the magic wasn’t there.

But this night was something different entirely. It was more than magic, I can’t even explain it. Adny had told me that these were the “best, loudest, fastest, teenagiest” songs he’d ever written and yes, the new LP would be even better than the first LP. But that was just too far out, I mean, I thought how could ANYTHING be better than the first LP (that made a man outta me, by the way)? But it’s fucking true! Just check out some of these new songs. One’s called “Let’s Twist,” which you can tell how great it is by the title, but it’s even greater than that! Another song, “Minnesota Strip,” is even greater!!!

And yes, they did do “Slow Death.” And if the Flamin’ Groovies could do it better, then everybody else might as well stop making music. I mean I don’t think any band could ever be better than the ‘Tators that night. They did “Search and Destroy” great, but I sorta wish they’d drop it. I mean, let’s face it, it’s a great song and nobody’s gonna top the original.

So it was a night I’ll never forget. The ‘Tators themselves couldn’t believe it. The Handsome One said he was tired after the second song. No, not ‘cause he’s a wimp (how dare anyone even think that) but ‘cause all the songs were so fucking fast. Not mindless fast like the Ramones (who I really like but are no Dictators) or someone, but teenage, cars, girls, surfin’ beer, high school, McDonald’s Cheeseburgers fast. Go Manitoba, Go! ‘Cause that night and hopefully forever onward, the Dictators were the masters of the teenage race and everything it stood for.
[Scott Kempner, HD Manitoba, Ross the Boss]Part II: The Last Big Thing: The Very Last Dictators Interview
By Barry Geiger; FFanzeen #6, 1980

It seemed as though the rock press had decided to ignore the Dictator’s break-up as much as possible. Sure, all the magazines had managed to squeeze in a paragraph or so, reporting on the split, but nobody had given the Dictators the proper requiem they so greatly deserved. They were not just another rock’n’roll band – they were the ultimate rock’n’roll band.

Their 1975 album, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy, was classic rock’n’roll. It’s follow-up, 1977’s Manifest Destiny, though more sedated that Go Girl Crazy, was nevertheless a fine effort. 1978’s Bloodbrothers could have been the ‘Tators breakthrough album had Elektra/Asylum given it the proper promotion. Unfortunately, the record company lost interest and the Dictators soon found themselves without a label.

The Dictators were really frustrated. Lead songwriter, bassist and sometimes keyboard player Adny Shernoff decided that the wanted to sing his own songs, so Handsome Dick Manitoba was asked to leave. Just prior to their release from Asylum, drummer Richie Teeter left the band; he was quickly replace by Mel Anderson, formerly of Long Island’s Twister Sister (in which ex-Dictator bassist Mark “The Animal” Mendoza is now a member). Lead guitarist Ross “The Boss” Funicello later quit to join Shakin’ Street, a heavy-metal band. And what then of rhythm guitarist Scott “Top Ten” Kempner?

The ‘Tators played one of their last shows on October 20, 1978, at New York City’s Bottom Line, where this interview took place. All five ‘Tators were present at one time or another, as were Adny’s parents. For what it’s worth, here it is – unbeknownst at the time – the last Dictators interview:

FFanzeen: How did it feel playing the Bottom Line tonight?
Scott “Top Ten” Kempner: No so great. I’d rather play CBGB’s. No, it was alright. It was fun; it was good.
FF: Mel, how does it feel to be a Dictator?
Mel Anderson: Terrific.
Scott: Ha! You sure you don’t want to think about that for a while?
Mel: I’ve given it some thought – and I don’t have anywhere else to go, so…
FF: Why’d you leave Asylum?
Scott: They were basically not doing anything for the band. They stopped working on the Dictators about a month after Manifest Destiny came out; it was a big charade after that. I guess if the record had more play on the radio, they would have gotten something started without too much work. It was a situation where nobody in the company, outside of the publicity department, understood the band or knew anything about breaking in an act that wasn’t like Linda Ronstadt or the Eagles or Queen – something you’ve heard a million times before. They thought they couldn’t do anything with us and so we didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
FF: How did you feel about the way Bloodbrothers came out?
Scott: It was pretty much the other extreme – from overproduced to underproduced – neither of them necessarily in a bad sense, but there was an elaborate production on Manifest Destiny, and Bloodbrothers was intentionally done “live in the studio.” It sounds like a well-done demo. We just set up and played.
FF: Do you consider Manifest Destiny a sell-out after Go Girl Crazy?
Scott: It was a definite reaction to failing. Go Girl Crazy was like the product of years and years of ambition and ideas and something we all wanted to do. At the time, we thought we were making the greatest, newest, the most different rock’n’roll album – the rock’n’roll album every kid wanted; they didn’t.
FF: How has Bloodbrothers been doing, sales-wise, compared to the other two albums?
Scott: Better. Better, but not great. It doesn’t’ get much airplay. Now that the record company isn’t interested, I’m sure it’ll get even less.
FF: Why did Richie Teeter leave the band?
Scott: He broke his legs and we had to shoot him [laughs].
FF: No, seriously.
Adny Shernoff: He didn’t want to be in the group, so we said, “Get out of here.”
Scott: He no longer wanted to do it. He had too many commitments. He had two commitments and he was too involved in the other commitment. The two worlds couldn’t meet … He made a choice between the two and that was it. [Rumor has it that the other “commitment” was his wife who told him he had to choose between traveling with the band or staying with her – Ed.]
FF: How many drummers did you audition before you found Mel?
Adny: One
Scott: I saw Mel play in his old band, Twisted Sister. He used to wear this big rainbow-colored afro wig and he used to twirl his sticks and all these cool things. Fred Heller, Mott the Hoople’s manager after Ian Hunter quit, wanted the band Mott to do “Sleeping With the TV On” [From the album Manifest Destiny], so me and Adny, and this other guy from Queens and Mel made this demo in a friend’s basement. Mel called Adny while Teeter was telling us he was leaving and asked if we knew any bands who needed a drummer and we said, “It just so happens we do.”
FF: Dick, I think you mentioned in Trouser Press that the title Bloodbrothers came from the Richard Price novel.
Handsome Dick Manitoba (HD): Indirectly, juxtapositioning, yes.
FF: Have you seen the movie yet?
HD: No, I haven’t.
Scott: I did... I didn’t like it as much as the book.
[Adny Shernoff] FF: Adny…
HD: Adny, here comes the hard question.
FF: How do your parents feel about the Dictators?
Adny: Ask ‘em.
FF: Mr. and Mrs. Shernoff?
Adny: [Imitating his father] “Well, at first we really didn’t think he was gonna do it, but now we have a lot more confidence. We’re glad he stuck to it” [laughs].
Mr. Shernoff: I’m glad he’s putting words in my mouth.
Mrs. Shernoff: He’s making me eat my words.
HD: Why? He’s still poor!
FF: Did any of the Dictators ever graduate from college?
HD: I did…not.
Scott: Mel, did you? No? No graduates here.
FF: Dick, who’s your favorite pro wrestler?
HD: Jimmy Valiant, Freddie Blassie, the Sheik, Killer Kowalski…
Scott: The Valiant Brothers together. They’re a team
[Exit Adny’s parents]
FF: Scott, I liked your Springsteen review in New Wave Rock [magazine].
Scott: Thanks. I feel like a 14-year-old kid when I listen to Bruce. Clarence is coming tomorrow night. [Clarence Clemons jammed wit the band on “What It Is” the next night. Tish and Snooky Bellomo of Manic Panic Clothing Store – ex-Sic F*cks/Pinups – sang back-up on the same song both nights – BG]
FF: What other bands on the scene right now do you like?
Scott: The Ramones. I love the Ramones – my favorite group. The Dead Boys, The Cramps…
FF: What unsigned bands?
Scott: The Cramps, Shrapnel, The Dictators..
Mel: There’s a good band called Moonbeam. I think they are really good.
FF: What kind of music do you like?
Mel: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Tony Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Mott the Hoople, Bev Beven, and Electric Light Orchestra, the Move … I like everything. I like Frank Sinatra… the Wailers.

It was around this time when Handsome Dick left the dressing room to go to CBGB’s (the Police were playing). Adny was outside talking to his parents. Ross was with his girlfriend somewhere., I found myself in the dressing room with Scott and Mel, so we called it quits.

1980 Note by RBF: Good News: The Dictators have, since this article was written, gotten back together after a two-year break. The “Last Big Thing” is now Next in Line again. FFanzeen wishes to personally welcome back these top contenders to the ring, just when they were needed. Move over, here comes some gen-u-ine rock’n’roll!

[Master Race Rock, from their first album,
Go Girl Crazy]

Friday, January 22, 2010

Crawling From the Wreckage

Text and images © Robert Barry Francos
Song lyrics © Graham Parker

Don't think I was acting so hysterically
But I didn't see a thing until it came…
Coz when I’m disconnected from the diving wheel
I’m only half the man I should be
Metal hitting metal is all I feel…
Crawling from the wreckage…
– Graham Parker

January 19, 2010, at around 3:30 PM, was similar to many other days: I received a call from my partner asking me to pick her up at work. Got to the designated spot, and waited. When she came out of the building, I pulled into the road that would take me to the main intersection home.

[My car a couple of years ago during a road trip to central Pennsylvania]
At that corner, one can either go straight, where there is a light, or make a right turn into a separate merging lane heading west that ends in a sign to yield to oncoming traffic. We were having a light conversation about the day, when I signaled right and slowed down into the turning lane, coming nearly to a standstill. Then I heard my partner say, “Oh, my God!” Out of the corner of my eye, like in those commercials, I saw the front of a Windstar van two inches from my face.


His van hit my car in what is known as a “T-Bone,” where his nose plows into the side of my car. In fact, to do this, he had to go over a raised pavement island divider between the lane going straight and the one I was in going right. The guy hit my poor 2001 Nissan Altima Limited Edition so hard, that he moved our car out of the lane and against a construction chain link fence about 10 feet away.

On impact, my head bounced off the window and my side jammed into the arm rest, as my head was whipped to the side. My partner banged her left side into the console. All of this happened, of course, in a matter of a split second.

We were dazed and probably in shock, though we did not lose consciousness. I turned to my partner and asked if she was okay, and she said an emotional “No,” but in the way she said it I knew it was not physical distress. I made sure our legs weren’t pinned or bones broken.

The man in the van jumped out and asked if we were okay. He could talk to me even though the window was closed, because he had dented the door so much, there was a gap on top, as much as it was crumbled on the bottom. In fact, he flat-on hit the brace between the back door and the front door, which probably saved our lives, but it was pushed in to where I could put my body against the door without having to lean to the left. The dashboard was broken in places, and the piece under the steering wheel was beneath my feet. I turned off the motor.

When he asked if I was okay, I was not going to say yes, because I was aware enough to know that what I said may matter later on, and if I said I was okay, he could claim I said that, and honestly, I didn’t know if I was just yet, so all I answered was, “I banged my head. Call the police.”

With some effort and with the aid of some passersby, I was able to open the door, though it would not close again. I could see the frame was buckled under the door in the shape of his fender. I also noticed that his van looked okay, other than a big dent on the side of his bumper.

He started gushing about how he was cut off my some woman and he was only going 50 kph (about 30 mph), which I just knew was bullshit, because there is no way he could have come that far, over that median, and pushed me that far with that much damage going only that speed. He seemed sober, but I was still trying to clear my head from its fog of the shock of it all.

A few people passing came over to check up on us, and asked if we were okay. My partner was not able to open her door because it was against the chain link fence, so she sat there quietly, gathering her wits. I responded honestly that I did not know, but repeated that I did bonk my head pretty hard, and would someone please call the police. A woman said she had called. We soon found out that she was the person who supposedly cut the guy off. Meanwhile, he kept going on and on about it, both apologizing and defending his actions to anyone who would listen, as he felt woozy from the accident, himself. He was definitely hyper, as though he had a lot of coffee, but did not appear to have been drinking alcohol.

Slowly we pieced together what had happened: The man in the van was heading west, in the center lane. He signaled to the right and moved into the right lane (were we were about to enter), and the signal stayed on. The woman was going east, and was turning into the street from we were coming out. Since his signal was still on, she figured he was going to turn into the side road, too. When she realized he wasn’t because he was going too fast to turn, she stopped. Out of the corner of the eye, he saw her, determined that she was going to hit him (which she wasn’t as she wasn’t moving by then), and he jerked the wheel to the right, sending him over the divider and into us.

We realized how luck this guy actually was, because usually this corner is packed with students from the local college, waiting for either a bus or to cross the street, and at the time of the accident, there was no one there. Providence, I guess.

After a few minutes, the police arrived and starting asking everyone questions. It was obvious that we were mere collateral damage, and we actually had nothing to do with the cause of the accident, just being in the wrong place. They continued to talk to the other two drivers while the ambulance arrived. The paramedics checked us over and determined we were okay, and so we declined going to the hospital.

I was a bit nervous about all that, since I had hit my head, so I asked if I should stay awake for a while rather than go to sleep; though I didn’t say it aloud, I knew that Dead Boys singer Stiv Bators had a similar thing happen to him in Paris, where he was hit by a car, went home without seeing a doctor, and then died of a brain hemorrhage. My dad died of a brain injury after he fell. The ambulance people were understanding, and they reassured me that I was not going to go into a coma since I did not have a concussion.

We both got out of the ambulance after wishes of good luck by the ‘medics, and we walked over to the police officer who was obviously in charge. He said he was willing to call us a cab, since our car was not able to be driven, and a tow truck had been called. As an alternative, he said that an officer could drive us home if we wanted to wait until the scene had been cleared by the tow truck. We decided on the latter, because we wanted to be there when they towed it off. Also, it’s not every day one gets to go home in the back of a police cruiser!

A flash of thought went through my mind, and I opened up the trunk and took out the recyclable carry bag we use to haul groceries (the grocery stores charge a nickel per plastic bag here, so most people use the reusable ones). Holding it open, I put the 30 or so CDs I had in the truck into the bag. The plastic case they were in was broken in numerous spots (after being hit at 30 miles an hour?). Then I went to the front, and pulled out whatever ones were there. Turning on the motor, with no problem (and it still sounded sweet), I rejected the CD still in the console (Monty Love’s Girls Are the New Boys), put it in its case, and then with the others in the bag. These were the most valuable thing (other than us) I had in the car, which was off to the police pound for eventual evaluation by SGI, the insurance company (Saskatchewan Government Insurance). Most of the CDs were indie and not easily replaceable, so I certainly did not want to take the chance of them disappearing (hey, I am from New York, after all). It would be days before my car would be able to be accessible to me again, and I knew it.

The guy with the Windstar, the officer stated, would most likely be charged as being at fault, because his story was the least credible between him and the other driver. Also, the ground was not slippery. That means not only would his insurance skyrocket, but since he was driving a company van, he would probably have to pay for the repairs on the van, whether the employer kept him on or not. When he started up the Windstar, the motor did not sound good. Perhaps it wasn’t too bad cosmetically, but there was definitely something wrong with it (I could see the radiator was crooked through the grill).

With the car towed off (charged to Mr. Windstar’s insurance), we were ushered into the back of the cruiser. Certainly, I can’t remember being in the back of one before. It was interesting to note that the seats were solid plastic and hard (and very uncomfortable), the windows were all covered with metal grill, and there were no door or window handles, so the back doors had to be opened from the outside. There were also a lot of scuff marks on the back of the seat in front of us, where someone (or many) kicked around in a violent fit. If you knew all this already, odds are you’ve been there. Anyway, we were home in less than 10 minutes.

After greeting the kitties and counting our blessings, we got down to business. This is what we knew: SGI may repair our car, or write it off as salvage. If they do repair it, they will only pay for two-thirds of what the car is “worth.” We went online to check out the actual value of our car, because odds are it will be written off considering the frame is dented. Though we couldn’t find any real information on Kelly’s Blue Book or anything like that (mostly you get ads when you search in Google for car info), but we did locate a car a year older than ours with a lot more mileage that had just been sold recently in the province, so we have an idea.

The next day came the call from the insurance company. KK (you may have noticed I have not been using names, because who knows what the legality of this is, and if it will go to court) asked me a bunch of detailed questions, including if I had checked and if I any idea what the car was worth; I informed her with what I found. She seemed nice, but a bit business-like. At some point, I asked about her last name, because I know of a musician here with the same last name. She said she was unrelated, but her husband probably is…”Does he play jazz?” she asked. I replied to the affirmative, and the conversation was a lot more relaxed on both sides after that. She said we could rent a car on the insurance of the guy who hit us for up to 7 days, if the car was fixable; otherwise we’d have to return the rental when we found out if our car was toast. She then gave us a couple of extra days if that happened to help give us time to find another car. As she was out on Friday and the adjuster wasn’t going to be looking at our car until late Thursday, we wouldn’t know until Monday, so we could have the rental car until at least then. After the adjuster looks at it, f the car is going to be repaired, they’ll take it right over to the shop. If it is not, they’ll take it over to the junkyard and we’ll get a permission slip to go and get the rest of our stuff out of it before they do whatever it is they’re going to do to it.

Thursday, we did a number of things to follow up. Taking my partner’s car, we drove to her doctor and she had a free exam to both check to see if she was really okay, and to officially document her injuries. The doctor said she would be sore, and would give her a complementary physiotherapy exam, but meanwhile take ibuprofen. Oh, and the doctor’s visit was free due to Marie’s health card. Then we went to a clinic, since I don’t have my health card yet, and paid $40 to see a doctor, who essentially told me I was in decent shape, but if I got worse, then I could get some physio; oh, and take ibuprofen, too, for a few days. A full exam for $40. It reminded me that I had gone for a flu shot in New York a couple of years ago when I was unemployed, and I was told at a clinic it was $80, but the bill came to $300 after the nurse gave me an pre-interview, the doctor examined me, and another nurse gave me the shot – all of which was charged separately (nurse / doctor / nurse / shot). My friend Joe Viglione recently also had a similar horror story: I don’t know why people keep saying Canadian health care doesn’t work, because it works a hell of a lot better than the one in the U.S. Go Obama.

After the doctor’s appointments, we went and rented a car. It’s a Ford Fiesta, and it is nowhere near as good as my car was/is, but I’m happy to have it for now; at least for a week anyway. I will find out the status of my car on Monday, and will update this blog, so if you’re interested, check it again later into the last week of January. If it is trashed, I’ll take some photos when we empty it out, and add it to this blog.

Pray for my Nissan.

Updated January 30, 2010

We received word the other day that my car is officially beyond repair. There was some haggling, but we got a decent (not great) price from the insurance for the car. Thing is, it had four new tires, a new battery, we had just added on day-running lights and a block heater for the motor, 70,000 miles, and always had it kept in good repair (including regular oil and greasing). The car ran like new. But three weeks after officially getting it into the country at very high cost, it’s gone.
A few days after a hard snow, I was given permission to go down to the salvage yard to clear out my personal stuff. After finding the place, eventually, I was told I could only take my personal belongings and the license plate, but nothing that was part of the car (they resell the parts, which is how the insurance company gets their money back). I said I understood, and they told me where to find my baby (designated at F1).

Because the doors wouldn’t close, there was a pile of snow inside the car, especially on the drivers seat. Also, since it was so cold, the battery was dead, so I was glad I got out the CD from the player before they towed it away.
First I cleaned out the trunk. There were some tools, a blanket, some cushions, tire irons (they pronounce it EYE-run here, rather than I-ern), and stuff like that to fill up two letter-size file boxes. I also packed up a large, black garbage bag to throw out. Then I took the maps off the back seat (two atlases and a book-style map of Saskatchewan my partner had bought me to help me figure out where the hell I was going. Then I cleared out under the seat (more garbage including a half-empty 1 liter ginger ale bottle that had been there a couple of years).

Next up was the consol between the front seats. The CDs were taken by me already, but there was an E-Z Pass (gotta return that someday, I guess) and a magnifying glass for the maps. Then I remembered the cigarette butt tray, where I kept toll money, and there were USD $6 in singles. What the hell, I also grabbed some loose tiny papers, such as toll receipts that are more than a year old. The last thing I took were the floor mats, as they were from our previous car (a Nissan Sentra) that had died near Rochester on the way to a Media Ecology Association conference, which is why we had bought this particular car.

Last thing I did before I left it was to talk to it, to say thank you for all the great times I had in it, taking photo excursions, driving to visit relatives, helping me take care of my dad by going shopping every week with him in it, and taking us across the continent to our new home.

I was, needless to say, feeling sad. I really loved that car, which my dad helped us pay for. It was in great shape and now it was salvage. And looking at it as I cleared stuff out, it was pretty obvious it could not be fixed, there was just too much damage. What kills me is that the two people that were actually the cause of all this get to drive their own cars home, and me, well…

Tomorrow, Sunday, I have to return the rental car. Then it’s the bus ($2.50 a ride) or hoofing it. Maybe we’ll get me a car in the Spring, but we’ll have to see.

Goodbye car, and thanks, again.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

KENNE HIGHLAND: Rock’n’Roll Superstar?

Original text by Tom Bingham, 1980
New introduction by Robert Barry Francos, 2010
© 2010 FFanzeen
Live photos © Robert Barry Francos (to come); album Images from the Internet

The word “cult artist” was created for people like “Krazee” Kenne Highland. He’s been in – or created – more groups than I can remember, such as the seminal Gizmos, the Kenne Highland Klan, the Afrika Korps (and its follow-up, the Korps), the Hopelessly Obscure, Kenne Highland and His Vatican Sex Kittens, Johnny and the Jumper Cables, the Exploding Pidgins, and Thee Psych-O-Daisies. I had the opportunity to hang out with Kenne a number of times during the early ‘80s up in Boston, and had a blast. He helped me understand what it means to thrive on I-IV-V.

These days, he’s sobered up, found religion of some sorts, and goes by Kenneth. But he has not lost his coolness, for sure, and he is back to performing and hopefully recording. And now here is the Tom Bingham interview, which appeared in the Number 4, May-June issue of
FFanzeen. Obviously, Web sites were added later on.

Ken Highland is a unique figure in rock’n’roll fandom.

His dedication to the music and to his concept of fan-as-contributor to the music has remained unswerving since the first golden era of fanzines in the early ‘70s. In an era when fanzines were devoted on one hand to documenting rock’n’roll from the ‘50s and ‘60s, on the other to serious analysis of then-contemporary rock, Ken’s Rock On was one of the first fanzines totally committed to the idea of rock’n’roll as fun.

But it was as co-founder, writer, singer, guitarist, and guiding spirit of the original Gizmos that Ken Highland made his most enduring mark on fandom. The Gizmos first EP on the Gulcher label ( both foreshadowed and transcended the then-developing New Wave.

Yet at the height of the Gizmo’s fame, Ken Highland was both physically and musically removed from the band – for the most part, tending to his duties as one of Uncle Sam’s “few good men,” yet leaving time to perform and record as a key member of the Afrika Korps, and more recently a duo (with Ken Kaiser) called the Korps.

While a lot of people know Krazee Kenne as a writer, as a Gizmo, as a Marine, as a Korpsman, as an image, little has been written about the real L/Cpl. Kenneth E. Highland; who he is, what he’s trying to do, how he got “that way,” whatever “that way” may be. The interview which follows, are his responses to my typed questionnaire.

We begin, logically enough, at the beginning:

Kenne Highland: I was born on a Monday, a day like any other day, April 2, 1956; same day Chuck Berry released “Roll Over Beethoven.” In December ’64, my parents got a D-I-V-O-R-C-E. My family atmosphere then was pretty WASP-y.

FFanzeen: As you look back, did moving about affect your eventual musical/lyrical outlook? For instance, did it expose you to different kinds of music, different sorts of people and experiences, etc.? I guess what I’m looking for is an “explanation” of how Ken Highland developed into Krazee Ken / Kenne “Gizmo” Highland.

Kenne: Yeah, moving about had one major influence on me and did kinda cause a chapter in my life. See, down south, I was exposed to what my parents listened to, which was typical Republican MOR like Ray Conniff, my homie Mitch Miller (from Rochester!), et al., plus my father liked Ray Charles and they also got into the early ‘60s clean-cut folk revival (heavy on the Peter, Paul and Mary, and Brothers Four LPs). Plus, my mother likes pre-Beatles ‘60s schlock a lot, which is why she grooves to all Kenny Kaiser’s tunes in that genre.

When I moved up north [to Brockport, NY, which is near Rochester], all I knew of the Beatles was that my mother and brother had heard “She Loves You” on the car radio one morning after they’d dropped me to school; plus Halloween, my neighbor gave me a Beatles bubblegum-with-card. So here it is, December ’64, and all my girl cousins are Beatlemaniacs; and even though I was a bookish Elvis Costello clone who hated music, it did affect me. In other words, this was my first real exposure to rock’n’roll.

FF: Were you a “punk” from the start, musically speaking, or did you try a little bit of this and that before you settled on your particular vision of crazy teenage rock’n’roll?

Kenne: Nah, I wouldn’t have labeled myself a punk in the ’60s. All the true punks hung out at Ida’s Soda Shop in downtown Brockport and went to the Panther’s Den. They were the school bullies, and I was too afraid of them to even walk on the same side of the street! I didn’t really get into music till 5th grade (’66-’67 school year) when this kid Carl Tagliabue transferred to our school from New Jersey. Since we were both outcasts, we became friends (ditto John Speary and Alan Baase, who played in primeval Highland bands in high school). Carl was a true record fanatic / Beatles freak.

Come ’68 and 6th grade, I sorta became a hippy, or at least had a more liberal outlook on life and music than did the jocks and greasers in my town.

I got a paper route summer ’68, and from then on became a full-fledged record fanatic, spending all my dough on vinyl, even belonging to three record clubs at one time. The ’69 “Back to Roots” fad started, so I became an archaeologist of sorts, discovering who did the originals to all those oldies the Beatles covered, then buying ‘em. ‘Seventy was my most eclectic year – I was into the “underground” sound: oldies, jazz (care of [Jack Kerouac’s] On the Road), folkies, Blues, even classical (Stravinsky, coz Zappa named him as an influence). As for becoming a “punk,” that came about due to 1) reading Nik Cohn’s Rock From the Beginning, which at first pissed me off, but later became my bible. I quoted from it when my sophomore English teacher praised all them folkies, who I dug as a hippie, but now scorned, coz I was wanting rock’n’roll; 2) buying Stooges’ Funhouse October ’71 (along with Go Bo Diddley) – at first I thought, “Are these guys serious?”, but I later loved it to death; and 3) reading the fanzine Flash #2, which again preached rock’n’roll, and to hell with heavy-metal, folkies, and all other hyphenated rock.

FF: Who would you name as the important influences in your music?

Kenne: Well, the Beatles for one; especially John Lennon – reading Hunter Davis’ biography on them [The Beatles] and how Lennon didn’t give a fuck and was just plain raunchy motivated me; that plus the Stones’ biography by, I think, David Dalton [Rolling Stones: An Unauthorized Biography in Words and Pictures - RBF], coz Jagger and the rest hated gym class as much as me and didn’t give a fuck. I’d also cite Bob Dylan in his speedfreak stage, coz of his bizarro lyrics, and Chuck Berry, and later on, MC5 / Stooges / Velvets / Dolls.

FF: Have your influences been drastically changed by the recent New Wave explosion?

Kenne: My influences weren’t drastically changed by the New Wave really. In fact, I resented the fuckers coz they were doing exactly what I was doing; only I was in boot camp and unaware.

FF: Do you feel the Gizmos in some way influenced the New Wave, since they were in it practically before anyone else?

Kenne: Naaah. Half the fuckers were heavy-metal dope-smoking hippies and coulda cared less! We were really too isolated to copy anyone, except maybe the Dictators and Patti Smith, coz they said anyone could be a rock star and make an album, so fuck it, we made a record.

FF: The world’s first exposure to Ken Highland was as a fanzine writer / publisher. How did you come to make the transition from rock’n’roll writer to rock’n’roll performer? Was this something you’d planned to do all the while, or did your move to Bloomington, Indiana, and your linking with Bob “Bear” Richert and Eddie Flowers somehow set things into motion?

Kenne: First things first, here. First off, I was a fucking musician before I was a writer! In ’69, I played guitar twice – my cousin had a Japasonic which I attempted to play the Sgt. Pepper’s theme on; goddam thing was so outta tune, it worked with open strings! That summer, my neighbor from India had an acoustic, and since I’d picked up The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan for $1.88 in a Grant’s bargain-bin in Brockport, I was attempting to do a Guthrie-ish talkin’ Blues that was on the LP (and failed!). Instead, fall of ’69, I wrote a dozen tunes in 8th grade, all Dylan / Pepper’s obscuro stuff. Memorial Day ’70, I went to John Speary’s house and his sister had a Japasonic with amp and made my first recordings; a Bo Diddley-calypso version of “Old MacDonald” (I was on piano and maracas), plus John and I co-wrote one called “Sign Collector” (covered in ’74 by O. Rex; it sounds like “Sister Ray”). I was guitar-mad now; kept bugging my mother for a guitar and she finally relented by Xmas (I’d already bought a harp summer of ’70, which I blew Dylanesquely, till the next year I learned the Blues off a Canned Heat record).

Xmas ’70, I brought my brand-new acoustic to John’s place and we made some Godz-like tapes and officially had a band we were gonna form called The Squeeze, on Orange Records (coz Les Beatles had Apple). That cellar / bedroom band lasted most of ’71, till John became a jock and we drifted apart. Instead. In 10th grade (’71-’72), Alan Baase and I played around a lot. I’d bought my first electric August ’71, and got lessons from a punk-cum-hippie (after he discovered drugs). Big Al and I had a pseudo-band, Big Dick and the Penis Erections, sorta inspired by John Mendelsohn’s Christopher Milk essay in Rolling Stone. I envisioned this band as rockandroll, doing Stones / Kinks / Bo Diddley / Chuck Berry tunes and just going mental; sort of an Iggy / Jagger lead singer, a Chuck Berry / Keith Richards lead, the all important rhythm guitar, and a Stones-ish rhythm section. All this and more led Alan and I into fanzines, inspired by Bomp and the New Haven Rock Press. I got my style of writing from R. Meltzer and co.’s “fuck-it” style and the serious critique of the hippie papers. I didn’t even wanna do a fucking fanzine, but Alan, who was pretty tall, pretty much told me I was, so we mimeo’d off Rock On on a mimeo at work, using stolen supplies. Our junior year, Alan talked me into taking lithography and we put out two offset issues of Rock On in ’73, which lead to many fanzine connections, among them Flowers and Bear [Gulcher fanzine - RBF].

I’d been pen-pals with Solomon Gruberger since fall ’71; we met and jammed June ’73 (that’s me, him and his brother Jay, who already were O. Rex). I told everyone that when I graduated, I was gonna move to NYC and become famous (never did), and instead wound up moving to Bloomington to become a rock writer, coz, as usual, I’d quit playing guitar that summer, saying “Ill never get anywhere,” etc.

FF: After the first [self-titled] EP, your participation in Gizmos’ recording sessions was severely hampered by your enlistment in the Marines. Still, your songs appeared on the next two Gizmos EPs [Amerika First, Gizmos World Tour – RBF] and your personality seems to dominate them. What’s your opinion of those two EPs? Do you feel the rest of the band did a capable job translating your intentions to vinyl?

Kenne: I think it’s pretty obvious I didn’t give a fuck about them really, coz I was officially a member of the Afrika Korps, though I'd use the Gizmo fame to further my name. It was a weird trip going through my head – I’m supposed to be in an East Coast band with old high school friends, yet the Midwest band is doing good in print (not one bad review in ’76). Anyway, I met my wife-to-be [Linda a/k/a Miss Lyn of Boston Groupie News fame:], so I wanted to spend time with her, instead of going into the studio. I said, “Fuck it. Rich Coffee’s a better guitarist than me, [Ted] Niemiec and Flowers sang better on that first EP than me; they don’t need me.” I finally showed up though, and sang two songs, one appearing on one EP, the other on the other. I’m not too proud of the singing.

As for the other Gizmos’ performance of my tunes, at the time I thought it was better, but my fans / friends / girlfriend didn’t. I dunno, I’m still a bit insecure about myself as a performer in the musical sense. I know I can perform, but technically I can’t sing on-key, despite what Martha Hull says, and I can’t tune a guitar worth a fuck. But again, Dylan and Lou Reed are idols to some clowns (myself included), so if they get over, so can I.

With the second [formation of] the Gizmos, Bear gave me the option of being a silent partner and I didn’t give a fuck; this is essentially his trip and he kept me informed of what was happening. But again, since all I knew was Ted Niemiec, it was hard for me to relate to faceless names. Besides, my closest friends in the Gizmos were Flowers and Coffee, so wit them out, I knew what we’d envisioned as a band (to be the Stooges / MC5 / Velvets / Dolls) wasn’t gonna happen that way, coz, well, Bear ain’t that way. [It is important to note at this point that Bob “Bear” Richert has been releasing much of the early works of Kenne on CD – both Gizmos and Afrika Korps/Korps – with his Gulcher imprint, so he must appreciate what Kenne was doing back then – RBF, 2010].

Let me define Gizmo here: I met a punk-cum-hippie kid who taught me guitar, while harassing me at other times. Digger said there was this spastic kid in school, had cerebral palsy or something – legs and hands all bent – and Digger and some other punk-cum-hippies were in study hall and we usta trip [him] all the time and the other [guy] said to Digger or visa-versa, “Hey…” and he pointed to said spaz – “Gizmo.” So this individual was the original Gizmos and, mostly to harass me, I got labeled with it, coz, well…I’m left handed and have 20/200 vision and can’t play sports worth a fuck, so I am pretty spastic, but then again, I concentrated on music so’s to make these nerds eat crow! I mean, man, they’re all working factory jobs, deserted guitar playing almost altogether, still carrying that San Francisco look and being 23-24, and still living in Brockport!

FF: How did you link up with Ken Kaiser, the Grubergers, and Kim Kane to form the Afrika Korps? How did the Ken Highland songs on the Music to Kill By album come to be recorded by the Afrika Korps, instead of the Gizmos?

Kenne: I linked up with Kenny Kaiser February ’77, via a Ft. Lee, NJ, Marine named Don Buckley, who was stationed at Ft. Meade, MN, with me. Buckley’d told me about Kaiser and visa-versa, and Kaiser had read about the Gizmos in Creem. I met the Grubergers through a pen-pal correspondence in Circus mag beginning fall ’71, and, like I said, we first jammed June ’73, again doing real rock’n’roll. Covering “Louie, Louie,” Alice Cooper, Yardbirds, Who, and a Grand Funk-ish “Gimme Shelter.” We thought we were good then (I should say Solomon did – I knew we sucked), but it went along with the punk aesthetic of “so bad it’s good”), and Solomon kept saying, “We’re gonna cut a record.” So Flowers and I were in Brooklyn the month after the Gizmos, and Solomon wanted to do a record, mostly coz he was jealous, but the tape fucked up, so instead, me, him, and Jay did the O. Rex maxi-45, which is an embarrassment to me, but the Kinks second record sold 127 copies and so did this, so we were happy with our failure.

After the O. Rex fiasco (I never did like the name), we hit upon Afrika Korps in an insomniac night of KISS Alive and neo-fascism. Solomon this time said, “We’re recording an LP”: I hoped to hell it didn’t sound like O. Rex. I met Kim Kane of the Slickee Boys one night at a Ramones concert in Georgetown. Kim and I talked all night, after being introduced as mutual fans. I told Kim / Marty of our plans to record an LP and we both agreed it’ll be neat to have a “supersession” of DC peeps on the LP, and the rest is history.

We recorded the session on my off-duty weekends at Ft. Meade. See, that duty station was the greatest and it was midway ‘tween Baltimore and DC, and only four hours from NYC, so I was closer to the Grubergers than when I lived in Brockport! Solomon and I originally envisioned the LP as one side his tunes, recorded in NY and one side my tunes, recorded in DC with assorted Slickee Boys. Didn’t quite work out that way, but we did record the LP in some very violent sessions from January-May ’77.

We originally recorded in NY in January, then February-May in DC, though there was an April ’77 session in NJ, which I didn’t attend coz I was either Gizmo-ing, dating Linda, on duty, or didn’t give a fuck; and it was there we got the best sound. The other engineers were clowns who didn’t even like what we were doing; unsympathetic.

I wrote quite a few three-chord numbers as a teen (recorded both by O. Rex and Gizmos), but once I went in the Marines, I started getting more complex, more melodic, and stole quite a few heavy-metal licks, too. I went on a spree of writing fall of ’76, while stationed at Quantico, VA – I was on guard duty late at night walking in circles, so my ever-active mind just made up songs, which I’d put to music at the Kane house my next off-day.

FF: How did the Afrika Korps become a duo called The Korps? Does the Korps exist outside the studio? Will it exist past the Hello World LP?

Kenne: The Afrika Korps officially became the Korps in December ’77, when the Grubergers split from us, or us from them. I don’t like to air dirty laundry, but suffice it to say the Afrika Korps had too many egos, and like Cream and the Beatles, were too good to last. Solomon and Jay are still together and they’re planning on doing other records. I stuck with Kaiser for some unknown reason – a great loyalty battle here, coz here’s my friends not getting along, as usual, and I had to rob Peter to pay Paul, but I stuck with Kenny, much to various ex-members’ chagrin. Sure, he’s a dictator, but when you’re as irresponsible as I am…

So after the Grubergers left, we auditioned nerds from NJ for bass and rhythm guitar, and that sucked, so I had Kenny move up to guitar and share vocals, coz as Afrika Korps’ drummer, he was the best guitarist in the band. Through ads in the Aquarian, we got a drunk Puerto Rican / Italian bassist from Jersey City and an 18-year-old pothead on drums, and played one gig Easter ’78 in Kenny’s basement and that Korps went kaput that night, for other fucked-up reasons. Kenny and I toyed with various names, like the Rabbis, Eddie and the Enemas, but stuck with the Korps for commercial reasons.

The way I see it, when I get out of the Marines, he and I will reunite in Boston, get a rhythm section and do what we can. He wants to record an EP as a follow-up to Hello World, and has talked of Album #3; and Album #4 has to be Korps Alive, so…

Hello World was recorded with just the two of us (stole the idea from White Boy) doing rhythm guitar and drums, then Kenny, technical genius that he is, overdubbed most all the instruments, and me singing a lot, plus gotta add those Slickee Boys (Kim Kane pays for a third of our records, so it’s pretty obvious…)! Since I had only two off-duty weekends a month, it’s like Kenny and I would do sessions every couple of Saturdays and I’d leave all the other bullshit to him to do while I was guarding our country’s defense. I’m still not all that keen on recording; the stage is my forte.

FF: Do you feel Hello World, or at least the Highland-sung tunes, accurately reflects Ken Highland as he is today, what you’re thinking, what you want to do musically, what you’re capable of doing? And how does Martha Hull always get to sing the best cut on any Highland-Kaiser album?

Kenne: Oh, hell, yeah! Even though all the Highland tunes on World, except “Lark” (which is ’72 circa “[Pumpin’ to] Playboy,” “[We’re Gonna] Rumble,” et al.), were 1977 composed, it’s still where I’m at more than the old Giz-Korps stuff. I’m especially proud of the “Do the Touch” / “Designs on You” / “Mad at the World” / “Gotta Be Pretty” sequence, coz I wrote all of them inspired by a week straight of watching the Slickee Boys, when they had Howard Wuelfing. I’d say it’s how I am today – I write a lot of Mersey-Beaters now, inspired by “Heart On,” Graham Gouldman [10cc], and Lennon-McCartney; only I’ll always have that Iggy / Dolls rasp to my voice. What I’m thinking… Well, these Mersey-Beaters are love songs full of pronouns, like the early Beatles, so peeps can’t accuse me of too many inside jokes. My main theme is love now, mostly coz I’ve been six months separated from my wife, and it motivates her to hear love songs inspired by her, though she’s not mentioned by name. What I want to do musically? Well, I’d like to improve the sound, clean it up, but keep the balls. Kaiser and I are like Lennon-McCartney – I have the rough diamond, he polishes it, and we keep the other in check, so as not to out-wimp the other.

As for what I’m capable of doing – well, you can hear the difference (Michael Miller, who co-authored “Amerika First” says Hello World sounds like Sgt. Pepper’s compared to the last LP [Music to Kill By]), but it can still get better, though a lot of it’s Kaiser’s doing. And the reasons Martha Hull always gets to sing the best songs on any Highland-Kaiser LP is because she makes it the best song on the LP; that chick can sing! []

FF: What’s your next musical step? Do you have any plans to do any more recordings during the rest of your Marine hitch? Do you think you’ll be making a career out of rock’n’roll when you get out, or will it remain an all-consuming hobby?

Kenne: I plan to get the fuck out of the Marines, and again, don’t look back; get with Kaiser, get with a band, and get famous! Linda is behind me 100 percent for a musical career.

FF: Now that you’re a married man, do you think that after you’re out of the Marines you’ll settle down to a nice cozy, middle-class existence like a “normal person?” If so, will Krazee Ken still be krazee; will you still be doing songs like “Gimme Back My Foreskin” and “Nobody’s Girl,” or will you vegetate into a prematurely middle-aged mellow FMer?

Kenne: Now, goddammit, too many think that coz you’re married, you gotta get a job, have a million baby Kennes with big smiles and big heads…bullshit! Muthafucka, I’ll be rockin’ like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee and Link Wray when I’m fifty. Course, I won’t be doing “[Gimme Back My] Foreskin” / “Girl” type tunes – that was ’76; this is ’80! Naw, I see myself being like the AM stars of now, who were FM stars when I started. Like Bob Seeger – he commercialized just enough to get famous, but still screams and goes wild. Ditto KISS. When Bill Rowe and I saw Black Sheep our senior year, he said, “Ken, I like what Black Sheep is doing – that’s what we should do.” I said, “You’re fuckin’ crazy! We gotta be like Iggy and Alice and the Dolls and go wild and shit.” Guess I was wrong, huh?