Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Family Heritage: A Rosh Hashanah Tribute

Photos from author’s private collection

It has been just about 100 years ago when both sets of my grandparents came to America, landing in New York City via Ellis Island. My paternal set went to the Bronx, and my maternal to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

While I know people who can trace their family to the 14th century, I cannot go back beyond my grandparents. My knowledge of their backgrounds are pretty sketchy, but I what I do know are their stories of amazing heroism, bravery and of survival.

[1962: My brother, Benjmain, RBF]

My father’s father was born Benjamin Weintraub, in the Austria-Hungary Empire. He was in Hungary near the Russian Empire, and he spoke Yiddish, Hebrew, Hungarian, German, some Russian, and eventually a smattering of English. When he talked to my dad, he spoke Yiddish. My Zayda (grandfather, in Yiddish) was raised in a shtetl (village) that was poor and could have stood in for Anatevka.

The world around him was at war, though it only directly affected his village minimally. Well, at first, anyway. One day, an edict from the government was announced that declared the names of the inhabitants that would be conscripted into the army, and Benjamin Weintraub was on the list.

When Jews were called to the war, basically they were sent to the front and used as cannon fodder. Even before that, during the limited training period, they tended to be abused by the regular army. Anti-Semitism was a day-to-day occurrence in their lives.

I don’t remember ever hearing about who came up with the idea, but in the middle of the night, Benjamin put up a wooden grave marker in the village cemetery with his own name scratched into it, with a recent date (to explain the newness of the indicator). He then adopted his mother’s maiden name, and became Benjamin Franczoz.

As soon as he could, he sailed to America. This was 1910, and I know because I still have the ticket of passage. When he reached Ellis Island, the official gatekeeper asked him his name. When he said “Franczoz,” the guard wrote down “Francos” and said, “Close enough. Next!” To this day, when people ask me the origin of the name, I just say, “It’s half Hungarian, half Ellis Island.”

[Benjamin during WWI, on the left]

Benjamin went back to Europe in 1914 to fight for the United States in World War I. There is a great picture of him in his uniform and huge mustache, along with another soldier. He died in 1963 at the age of 80, of a heart condition that would now have been easily repaired with a pacemaker; I was 8 years old. My grandmother passed before I was born.

Because he spent most of the last 3 years of his life in a hospital due to his health condition, I was not allowed up to see him much (hospital rules about children), so my main memory is of his apartment in a housing project in the Bronx, and reading comics with my brother in the waiting room of the hospital nearly every weekend for the 3 years.

* * *

My mother’s mother had a much scarier time of it. I don’t know her maiden name, but her married moniker was Fannie Rosen. She spoke only Yiddish, and enough Hebrew to recite the prayers. Though born in Brooklyn, my mom did not speak English until she was in public school.

My bubbe (grandmother) also grew up in a shtetl, in Prussia, close to the Russian border. Because of the location, there were often pogroms from the Prussians, and attacks by the Cossacks, where violence was frequent, including beatings, rapes and killings. The thuggery was an oppressive, present and common occurrence.

Meanwhile, Russia and Poland were often having border and power clashes over territory. At some point, one such skirmish ended up with Fannie’s shtetl as the battlefield. Something in her snapped, from all the years of persecution, and she picked up a gun and started shooting anyone she didn’t know (i.e., not from her village). When she ran out of bullets, she picked up another rifle or pistol.

When the battle was over, the pre-Soviet Russians were victorious. And Fannie was arrested. As it turned out, and by quite a coincidence and not by intent, Fannie had killed way more Prussians than Russians, making their victory easier by her actions of cutting down a number of their enemies.

They gave Fannie a choice: either go to a Siberian gulag for life for killing some Russians, or go into exile, never to be seen in Eastern Europe again under threat of death. She packed up the family, and came to New York around the same period as Benjamin, and ended up in Brooklyn. Their neighbors and friends included drummer Buddy Rich and Melvin Kominsky, who would also take his mothers name and then shorten it to Brooks. Years later, Mel Brooks would literally set my mother on fire, but that’s another story.

[Brooklyn in the '40s: Relatives who came to US with Fannie, her father with the beard; I do not seem to have any photos of Fannie scanned]

While my maternal grandfather passed before I was born, Fannie died of a stroke in 1960, when I was 5 years old. I don’t have many memories of her, except she made great homemade jam.

My mom used to cry every time she heard Connie Francis sing “My Yiddishe Momma,” and I remember as a child not understanding this. I do now: my grandparents were not Tevye and Golde, but were probably more likely Tzietel and Motel, and I still tear nearly every time I see parts of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Customs-ary Tales: Fun at the Borders

Photos taken from the Internet

When I was an undergrad, I made the mistake of taking an Abnormal Psych class with a professor who did not like it when someone was as witty (or especially more so) than himself. He asked me to define paranoia, and I said, “Seeing a police car in the rear view mirror.” Waiting for the students to stop laughing so I could give him the correct clinical answer, the prof kicked me out of that day’s class. I ended up with a D in the class.

Which leads me to the following:

I have written before about a time when I had trouble with airport security. Now I’d like to tell you a couple of true tales of going through customs from Canada to the U.S.

Going through customers is always a challenge. It does not matter if there is a reason or not, it is their absolute power as gatekeepers that makes it unnerving.

While no experience has been as intense as the EXIT customs flying from Tel Aviv to Cairo in 1993, there have been some interesting moments, all I find amusing…in hindsight.

In February of 1979, I was returning to New York from visiting my girlfriend in Canada. At the Rte 87 (south of Montreal) entrance to the U.S., we all got off the bus, with our luggage. Even though it was after 1 AM on a Tuesday, the customs official had mirrored sunglasses. He was one of those guys who took his job super seriously. Face taut, his lips barely moved as he talked in a steady Jack Webb-ish monotone. The conversation went something like this:

Him: Citizenship?
Me: U.S.
Him: How long was your stay?
Me: Since Thursday.
Him: What was the purpose of your visit?
Me: I was visiting my girlfriend.
Him: Business or pleasure? [Hunh?! At this point, my patience was starting to be pressured; what exactly was he implying?]
Me: Pleasure.
Guard: What is that in your left shirt pocket? [A dorm mate of my girlfriend had given me some loose strawberry tea in a baggie, with a string wrapped around it.]
Me: Some tea.
Guard: What kind of…tea? [Yikes, I thought, with the headline popping up in my head, “Student shot smuggling strawberry tea across border.”]
Me: Strawberry. If you want to smell it, you’re more than welcome, and if you want, we can cook up a batch right now, if you have a dry throat.
Him: That is okay sir. What is in your other shirt pocket? [I look down, and think, oh, crap. I had just recently found out I had arthritis, and my doctor had prescribed indocin, which came in a huge bottle, so I had put some pills in a smaller bottle for ease of transport. And of course, the bottle was unmarked.]
Me. My pills.
Guard. And what kind of pills are THOSE?
Me: It is Indocin, which is a stronger form of aspirin. Says so right on the pill. If you want, I can pull out my doctor’s card from my back pocket and you can call him, though I’m not sure he’d pick up this time of night.” [He took the bottle and shook it, looking into its amber case without opening it. Then he gave it back. I was starting to sweat.]
Him: Here you go, you can put it away. Please open up your luggage. [I was the first person he had asked to do that. Following my father’s advice, I had rolled my underwear into little “jellyrolls” to save some space.] Why are your clothes rolled? Is there something inside you’re trying to…protect?
Me: No, and you’re more than welcome to unroll them, but it took me hours to do this, so I just ask you roll them back.
Him: [After unrolling one pair of underwear and handing it back to me.] It’s all right sir, you may board the bus.”
Me: Thank you.

* * *

Sure, I know to just answer the questions simply and to the point, but that’s gotten me into trouble, too. Once visiting Bernie Kugel in Buffalo in the early ‘80s, we decided, with some friends, to head over to Crystal Beach, an amusement park on the other side of Buffalo’s Peace Bridge. We all had fun, and headed back to Bernie’s house for dinner.

I pulled up to the customs booth, and the officer asked us the usual nationality / purpose / length of stay questions. Then he asked us if we had bought anything that we were bringing back. In pure innocence, I held up the only thing I had bought, a can of Coca-Cola, and said, “Just some Coke.”

Truthfully, I don’t remember the exact moment I realized I should have said, “soda” or “pop” (as they call it there). Perhaps it as the moment the words left my mouth, or maybe when we were all ordered out of the car.

They kept us there for over an hour while they searched every inch of my car. I have thought about whether the problem was that they thought I was being a smart ass, or I gave them some indication that there actually were drugs in the car that brought such a harsh inspection. Fortunately, none of us were imbibers, so of course nothing was found, but Bernie was pretty mad at me for a couple of hours afterwards. But we laugh about it now.

* * *

I’ll leave off with one positive, funny story, again going through the same Buffalo Peace Bridge. Just on the other side of the Canadian border was a Chinese restaurant called George’s that was walking distance from customs. Bernie, his then-fiancée Tink (this was the week they were to be married) and I went to go eat there. I had never been there, but Bernie and Tink had gone there often.

We pull up to the customs booth, and the guard asks our nationality. I say US, and before anyone else said anything, Bernie chimed in, “We’re going to George’s.” The guard’s face lit up and he said, “What are you having?” Bernie answered, “I’m having a number 5* and she’s having a number 12. He’s (meaning me) probably going to have a number 3, because he likes that stuff.”

The guard answered, “I’m a number 6 fan, myself. Go ahead.” And we went to eat. Yes, the food was good.

On the way back, we stopped at the U.S. customs, and when the guard asked us the purpose of our visit, I chimed in “We went to eat at George’s.” He said, “Great food. Go on ahead.” And we drove back to Bernie & Tink’s abode on Vermont Street.

* These numbers are made up because I don’t remember the exact ones.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Rambling Look at Independent Music

Photos from the Internet

I’ve been writing music reviews now since about 1975, when I was editor of the Scepter, the newspaper of Kingsborough Community College, which even predates my fanzine by two years. To quote Jeff Salen’s line from the Tuff Darts song, “It’s all for the love of rock and roll.”

Before 1975, I was more of a film person than one interested in music. Yeah, I enjoyed listening to it casually, hearing new stuff sporadically, and even seeing some amazing shows (Slade with Aerosmith opening, Roxy Music where I took my first-even in-concert photos on an instamatic, Alice Cooper, Melanie, Dylan, Jennifer Warnes, Mary Travers, Elephant’s Memory, Brownsville Station, and a nascent version of the Fast were some). But music was more peripheral of my interests.

What changed my perspective was June 20, 1975, a date I’ve mentioned on my blog often: it was the night Bernie talked me (dragged me, more accurately) into going to CBGB's for the first time. At some point I’ll tell that story, but for now I’ll stick to something a little more esoteric.

Similar type of backpack

Back in the ‘70s, even before my club-going days started, I wore a backpack, which I would realign the straps and wear over one shoulder. You may ask what is the big deal? Back then, not only did no one else do it, but I had to go to an army/navy store to find one. It was always khaki, and made out of canvas, which is a quite sturdy material…though I had to replace it every three years or so from wear. As I started to buy albums, it would make life easier to carry them around from store to store.

There are so many ways going to clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, and seeing all these unsigned bands who were fighting just to put out their own music, altered my way of life. True, I never ever punked out: the closest I came is when my friend Nancy lent me her leather Ramones-style jacket for about a year around 1980 (through an extremely hot summer, but I still wore it gladly and proudly). Other than the leather, I was already dressing like the Ramones (sans long hair) even before then, with a tee-shirt and jeans. One example of a way I did change is that I basically stopped wearing brand names, other than possibly Lees pants and PF Flyers sneakers. As the Jordaches and shirts with alligator icons starting becoming popular, I associated them with the whole mainstream bland sounds of arena rock, soft rock, and disco. I stopped wearing polyester (not that I had much, but people gave it as gifts on birthdays and the like), which back then was hard to do because it seemed everything was made of the crappy synthetic material. I’ve always liked my pants straight legged and belted around my waist, not flared at the bottom and hip-hugging (which always felt like my pants were falling down). Ironically, the CBGB’s shirt itself would become a brand, thanks in large part to Guns ‘N Roses.

An early Ork Records release

One of the big lessons of the period was how important independent music was. By the early '70s, mainstream media was busy with genres I would never be interested in, such as lame rock (Kansas, Yes, Rush), hair metal (Bon Jovi, Poison), and especially disco. When the bands I was listening to starting putting out their own music, or small labels like Ork and Stiff launched, it was easy to go down to Greenwich Village, especially record stores like Discophile on 8th Street, and just pick them up as they came out. By 1976, and especially 1977, it was much harder to do that, since there were so many coming out each week. Plus, indie records were usually much more expensive at sometimes 1976 $5 each. Luckily, in the cooler stores, independent and local releases were usually in their own bins, so one didn’t need to weed through thousands of mainstream singles to find the ones being looked for.

In 1977, I had been tired of having problems getting my writing about indie music published in college newspapers, that were only interested in what was on the radio, so I decided to start my own fanzine, FFanzeen (whose legacy is the blog you are now reading). As I started publishing, I wrote to indie labels to let them know of my existence. There was no email back then, so it took work to find the labels in the stores, write down their addresses, write each letter one-by-one, and mail them out, never knowing if it was reaching anyone (indie labels came and went quite quickly, much like many fanzines). Slowly but surely, review copies of records, and even some cassettes, started coming my way. And I respected each of them, even if I didn’t like a particular band, because (a) I knew the burden of work and personal cost of them on the bands/labels, and (b) I was aware of their rarity. Even now, many of the records on my shelf have not been re-released as CDs. Some of the labels did find some relative success after a while, like Alternative Tentacles and SST, but there are the smaller ones like Eat Records, which will probably never see a reissue unless they have a devoted label owner, such as Bob Richert with his Gulcher label, willing to pay for re-releases out of his own pocket, or until someone like Greg Shaw emerges to collect them and release it in a “Nuggets” format.

An early SST release

Now that technology has reached a level of where everyone with a computer can record their own music and release it by burning disks, indies are both more important and at the same time damaging. Burning disks are putting an end to many of the ways collectors function, with virtual music (such as mp3s) replacing the physical (CDs, LPs, etc.). This is shown in the demise of Tower Records, and Virgin on the brink of vanishing. Another result is also the disappearance of venues of live music. There is so much music being put out now, that the number of bands that can become popular through exposure is almost only available again through mainstream media outlets, such as the radio. People don’t know what to listen to anymore; since the music has become as disposable as the bands.

College radio is probably the most important outlet for the independent release, and it is being flooded by home grown sounds that they don’t know what to do with it. More music is being released yearly than can be listened to. At a college radio conference I attended (held by the IBS), one of the panels was about how a band can get someone at the station to actually listen to their output. The station managers and DJs were just overwhelmed, and most of it just got shuttered aside; even college radio personnel won’t even listen to virtual recordings anymore, only CDs.

An example of a recent indie release

And yet, through it all, I still applaude indie music. I revel in indie music. While I won’t write reviews about anything other than physical disks, I still encourage bands to produce their own sounds – though I beg of them not to do it by themselves only, and to have a separate person not in the band do the final mixing or engineering, because self-indulgence is the biggest hindrance to recording. I call it the “let’s use every dial on the console” syndrome. With the lack of venues, self-recording is a stellar way to judge where one’s band is at any point in their development.

I’m not sure where independent music is heading, whether it will continue to grow into an mp33,000, or if CDs / DVDs (or other formats) will completely vanish. I hope they won’t disappear. I like the physicality of the plastic of CDs or vinyl of records, much as I enjoy the feel of negatives when I photograph.

Yes, I am aware that it is the collector in me that wants the tangible over the virtual. The soundbyte of an MP3 always felt more disposable, and somehow less “valuable” than the physical disk. For me, the electronic song is more like a placeholder, sort of like the listening station at a music store where one can hear what something sounds like to make the decision to purchase, but not to cherish. It is okay for an iPod jukebox situation, but I want the box. I want to read about what I am listening to in a booklet that comes with the disk, or to admire the art of a record cover, not to read about it only online. I want to hold onto the cardboard album cover or CD case as I listen to it, much as a sport fan will hold a football or basketball while watching a game. Somehow, holding an object makes me feel like part of the process of the music, like the end product is special and meaningful. In my mind, virtual = demo, whereas the CD is the final product, even if they are the same sound.

Perhaps I’m old fashioned that way.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I'm Old, So What?: Aging in a punk rock world

Photos from various sources, as noted

Photo from Vonny Website

Vonny has a tattoo that swirls her ankle, which comes from a quote by the band Monty Love: “Being Young is only in your head.” She is a scene veteran, and is 19 years old.

I was just barely 20 years the first time I stepped into CBGB’s and saw Talking Heads (their first performance) opening for the Ramones, along with a dozen others in the audience. Since then I’ve lived through underground, punk, new wave, no wave, the garage revival, emo, techno, new romantics, superpop, grunge, hair metal, and multitudes more – both ones I liked and didn’t – than I can remember offhand. And now I’m 53 years old.

The first time I went into the Punk Temple in Brooklyn, 5 years ago or so, I first saw Vonny with her friends, and this was not her first show. I was older than just about anyone else by 20 years or so. I felt a little out of place. Many shows in the city had people closer to my age group, but not at this all-ages venue. When I went back a couple of weeks later to see the bands, after the show someone stopped me on the way to the exit as I passed them and said, with good wishes, “Hey, it’s great you stayed for the whole show!” What I said back, equally kindly, was “Well, odds are I’m going to see more shows this year than you will see in your whole life.” Then I left the premises.

But what he said, along with my feeling the age difference, stuck with me. That night I joined the Temple’s BBS. I started out saying something like, “You may have seen this older guy with a beard taking pix, and wondering why is this guy here? Well, let me tell you…” Then I bullet-pointed about 2 dozen things I’ve done (e.g., my fanzine), band’s I’ve seen, people I’ve interviewed, people I’ve hung out with, and those I’ve met. I ended with, “Please, if you read this and see me, come by and say hello.” And they did. Amazingly enough, pretty soon I was talking to more people under the age of 20 than I did when I was that age. As these people either formed bands or kept going to shows, I still see them, and it’s always pleasant.

Miracle of 86, 2003, by RBF

One life-changing moment at the Temple along this topic is when I went to see Kevin Devine’s group, Miracle of 86. There was an older man taking pictures of Kevin and assumed it was his dad, as this was quite common there. I took a snap of him, and send it along to Kevin. He wrote back saying, “Why did you send me a picture of Jim Testa?” Immediately, I got in touch with Jim, as I’ve always enjoyed his mag Jersey Beat, and he knew my fanzine FFanzeen, but we had never met. He emailed me back after I sent him the picture and how I thought he was Kevn’s father (not sure how he would take it), and he LOL’d, explaining that he saw me taking pictures, and figured I was another band member’s dad. Before long, I was writing for Jersey Beat, and soon after had my own column, “The Quiet Corner” (www.jerseybeat/quietcorner.html).

Being young may be in one’s head, but I don’t physically feel young anymore. I tire more easily, get grumpy (see my blog below on cell phones), and if I see a listing where a band starts playing at midnight, well, I hesitate. There was a time when I would go to a club like CBGB’s while it was still daylight, leave at sunrise, stop off at White Castle for breakfast of 6 cheeseburgers, shower, get dressed, and then either go to work or school. I would love to have “young” go from my head to my body, but not only isn’t it going to happen, I’m okay with it.

Mind you, even when I was young, I was a bit physically limited, thanks to the onset of arthritis at 19 (same kind as Mötley Crüe guitarist Mick Mars), which gives me my wonderful posture. But even then, I had high energy.

Johnny Thunders, ~1984, by RBF

I have to add, most strongly, I am not sorry to be this age, having seen the nascent Ramones, the Heartbreakers with both Johnny Thunders AND Richard Hell, the original line-up of the Runaways…so much good music first-hand. If I were young, I would have missed all that. And other reasons, such as the event below:

I had a friend in my late 20s who was the same age as me, and was repeatedly going on with “I wish I was young again.” It was a steady theme. One day I said to her, “You realize that if you were a kid, you’d have to go through High School again, too.” That was the last she brought it up.

It’s really is okay being older. I looked at my gray streaks one day and realized that there are so many others I’ve known in my life who will never get to see their own hair change. In fact, the only time in my life when I ever had an issue was about 15 minutes before I turned 20, when I realized I would not be a teenager anymore. And about a minute after my birth time (12:10 AM), I was over it. In fact, I’ve often thought it would be cool to be 5 days older, so my birthday would be 5/5/55.

Looking forwards doesn’t scare me much, it’s more the looking back that I find shuddering sometimes. One example of this is when I was reading a book, can’t remember which, and the author commented that more time had passed when he wrote the book since the break-up of the Sex Pistols than from the advent of rock’n’roll (1955, in his example) until the Pistols ended. Yikes. And as mind-boggling as all this rearview mirror looking (as Marshall McLuhan famously called it) feels, I’m still not afraid.

One last thought about going or not going gently into that good night, I am reminded of a song written by Jim Testa, as fine a musician and songwriter as he is a publisher. In it he comments that it sucks turning 50. However, he whistfully adds at the end, it beats the alternative.

Monday, September 15, 2008


All photos from the Internet

A Broadway-bound production of the 40th Anniversary of the “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” HAIR has been playing at Joe's Pub in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park this summer.. The tickets are free, but it is not that simple. But first, a bit of history:

My first memory of the music from HAIR is my older brother coming home, and telling me he had heard this song on some soundtrack at his friend’s house that said, “Oh, say can you see my eyes / Then my hair’s too short,” which he found hilarious. ASoon after that, I was babysitting some “cousins” (friends of my parents kinda thing), and that family had the HAIR Broadway soundtrack. I started listening it to it there (my other musical memory of them is of CCR’s “Bad Moon”). Eventually, of course, I got my own copy of the album, and loved its anti-establishment message (which would be enforced – though transformed – a few short years later by the Ramones, etc.). I would learn that album backwards and forward.

The songs were everywhere, with covers by some top artists like Fifth Dimension (“Aquarius”/”Let the Sun Shine In”), Oliver (“Good Morning Starshine”), and Three Dog Night (“Easy to be Hard”). Through it all, though, I liked the original soundtrack better.

The closest I came to seeing it live was a revival at Queens College while I attended, but of course, it was severely edited (taking out most of the cursing and of course all of the nudity). And the movie was okay, but they totally screwed with the theme by actually putting in a plot, rather than it being sort of freeform and stream of consciousness. I will add, though, Cheryl Barnes’ version of “Easy to Be Hard” in the film is possibly the best-recorded version of it I have heard.

Now there is the production at the Delacorte Theater. My pal Alan Abramowitz, his nephew Alexander, and I decided to see the play. We know we have to go early to get on line. Alan says he’ll be there at 7 AM. Alex says he’s going to be there earlier. I tell Alan I plan to be there around 10 AM to join them in line. I’d just left my job, and wasn’t really in the mood to get out of bed any earlier yet.

When I actually do get to the park around 9 AM, the line was ridiculously long. I started at the beginning, and walked and walked, looking for them, and eventually found them around what is known as “the third fence.” In other words, odds are we would be too far on the line to get tickets, but maybe… People were in blankets, sleeping bags, and even brought along practically entire living room sets, and I was thinking that all the space that was taken by accoutrement could mean less people in front of us than it seemed.

It was the first time I had met Alex, so the three of us hung around on the line and had fun talking. At 12:45, members of the theater organization announced to the line that we should pack up, as the line was going to start moving. We were no more than 100 yards from the box office when they told us it was sold out, including the standby tickets. So we walked to the train and went home.

Alan and Alexander tried again a week or so later, and managed to get in. Alan raved about how good it was.

A few weeks after that, Alan and I decided to try again in September, during the last week of the production. Since he enjoyed it so much he wanted to see it again.

The night before we were to try one more time, I went out to an art show at the Avenue A Japanese Restaurant Gallery. It is one of those holes in the wall places with expensive food, but this exhibition has representations by 45 artists, including the reason I went, which was some photographs by Alyssa Tanchajja (this is her first public show), one of the people I had met at the Punk Temple and still keep in touch with, though loosely. I walked in and saw that there were many media and styles, such as paintings and photos. As I walked around I noticed a series of three photos that were, well, pedestrian and boring. Thankfully, they were not hers. When I finally did locate her two selections, they proved to be quite impressive, and I was not the only one to think so, because one had already sold the first night. I’m very proud of her. Check out the show (which runs through October), and her Website, flickr.com/photos/notjust_airtime. It was also good seeing her again (the previous time was at Monty Love’s last performance).

The next morning, I was out the door at 6:15 AM, and got to Central Park at 7:30. Alan was already there. In fact, at the start we were almost in the exact spot last time when we were told that it was sold out. In other words, we were pretty much a shoe-in. Finally, after some announcements (by some guy who sounded like the person on “Movie-Phone” and looked like a young Cary Ewels) about how if the weather is inclement one cannot use an umbrella in the open-air theater, and that so far only 2 performances have EVER been cancelled at the Delacorte, we got our tickets (I had Entrance 4, Section N, Row N, seat 304).

After walking to Broadway for a quick and dirty lunch, Alan and I went to our respective homes, since after eating it was 2:00 PM, and the show didn’t start until 8:00 PM. On the way home, there was a sick passenger in the next car over, so the train was delayed. And that’s after a more-often-as-time-goes-by 20-minute wait for my train, so I got home just as it was starting to drizzle.

At 5:00 PM, I was on my way, and the drizzle was a bit harder. Another nearly 20-minute wait for my train, and I was back heading uptown. Chug-chug-chug (wait for the N train to pass in front), chug-chug-chug (wait for the B train to get on the bridge first), chug-chug-chug (wait and switch at 59 Street). Though umbrellas aren’t allowed in the theater, there is still the wait outside of it, so I brought one along.

I stood under an awning with many others, trying to avoid the pigeons that were perched just above our heads. Alan showed up shortly after. They were to let us in at 7:40, and the performance to start around 8:00. The rain is slowing down significantly, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

We’re waiting, and waiting. 7:40 passes. 8:00 passes. 8:30 passes. My feet are starting to hurt. Around 8:45 or so, they make the announcement that the performance is cancelled, our tickets are worthless (i.e., if we want to see the show, we have to wait in the morning line again), and there is going to be something special for us. I turn to Alan and say, “I bet the cast comes out and does ‘Aquarius’.” Sure enough they do, but way by Gate 1 rather than in the center, and we can NOT see anything; we can barely hear it. Woo-hoo.

With that, we trudge toward the subway. The way is packed with disappointed people, so we know getting on the subway by the park will be a horror show of crowds, so we walk over to Broadway in the light rain, up to 86 Street (hoping to find someplace inexpensive to eat, which there wasn’t), and then home.

The show’s run is now over as of this weekend at the Delacorte, so there really is no point in trying to get tickets again, and I for one do not want to waste another day. Alan says he is going to try to turn in his ticket to the Broadway Theater box office, hoping for a discount, but I’d be shocked if that happens. I just hope they don’t sic the dogs on him.

Hanging out with Alan was fun, as it usually is, but man, I could have done so much more with the day.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Refections on Being a Record Collector

All photos from the Internet

“Hello, my name is Robert, and I am a record collector.”

Is the term “record collector” usable these days? Maybe “music collector”? Perhaps “physical music collector”?

My very first record was one of those yellow plastic kid ones, with a song about Noah that I can still recall part of the chorus (“It rained for 40 days and nights/It poured and poured and poured…”), though I can’t seem to remember what was on the flip side (Moses?). It was played on a portable electric all-in-one player that was a 1-foot square cube (when the lid was down), and played 4 speeds (78, 45, 33-1/3, 16!). My mom used it to listen to her 78 RPMs, including Vaughn Monroe’s “Stout Hearted Men”, Nelson Eddy’s, “Song of the Mounties” (but not Jeanette McDonald, oddly enough), a truly cool version of “The Volga Boatmen’s Song,” and Al Jolsen doing the “Hatikva.” And yes, I still have most of them.

My father only knew Big Band Swing, like the Shaw brothers, but my mom was a bit more contemporary, loving Nat King Cole and especially Johnny Mathis. Both parents were pretty clueless, however, about rock and roll. My dad hated it, and my mom wasn’t against it, she was just never interested.

I’m not sure how my dad made his choices in what to give me and my older brother, but he seemed to rely on soundtracks and greatest hits. He brought us Mary Poppins and West Side Story, as well as collections of hits by The Beach Boys, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and the Four Seasons. He also got us Beatles ’65. And, yes, I still have them all.

Sometime in the mid-1960s, one of my mom’s cousins decided she didn’t want her record collection any more (all 15 or so), and she gave them to my mom, who gave them to me. It was a weird grouping, from Jackie Mason’s I'm the Greatest Comedian in the World, Only Nobody Knows it Yet!, Gretchen Wyler’s Wild Wyler Wildest, the Broadway soundtracks to Funny Girl and Carol Channing’s Show Girl, and even one of a military brass band! And yes, I still have almost all of them.

When my brother was old enough, he started bringing home some Simon & Garfunkel, The Who and CSNY. Somehow, they got incorporated into my collection. While I don’t remember the first LP I purchased by myself, I do recall the first singles, a 3-for-$1 sealed-in-plastic set of The Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride,” Ray Stevens’ “Mr. Businessman,” and Manfred Mann’s “Quinn the Eskimo.” And yes, I still have them.

Around 1970, my cousin moved out of his parent’s house, and unknown to him then, my aunt gave me his 45 collection, which consisted of two 45s boxes (the cardboard ones with the plastic handles and metal latch that never latched). She must have had some prescient knowledge that I would be interested. A large chunk of it was doo-wop era, like The Crests’ “Trouble in Paradise,” Randy & the Rainbow’s “Denise,” Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” and Frankie Avalon's "Why." It was a music history lesson, and I loved it. And yes, I still have them all.

By the early ‘70s, I probably had about 75 albums and about 100 singles. Then I met my first influencial record collector in high school, Bernie Kugel. The first time I hung out at his house, I saw his shelves of vinyl. I fully admit that at the time I met him, I was still pretty clueless, but then again, compared to Bernie’s extensive musical knowledge, I always would be (in relation). He played all this music I had never heard before, like Slade, Move, Roxy Music, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and rare Dylan. I liked some of the stuff he played, others I didn’t. Yet, I still didn’t get the collecting bug.

Bernie and I headed into Manhattan pretty often, usually in Greenwich Village, but occasionally uptown. One time we were rifling through the bins at Colony Records, which is connected to the Brill Building, on Broadway and 49th Street. As I languidly flipped through one of the discount bins, Bernie looked at the other. He walked over to me excitedly, holding an LP. He said, quite bluntly, “Buy this!” It was $1.97, and I had never heard of it. Bernie briefly gave me a history of International Artist Records from Texas (who also put out the 13th Floor Elevators). He convinced me into buying the Red Crayola With the Familiar Ugly’s The Parable of Arable Land. There were two copies in the bins; he took the Mono one, so I took the Stereo. It was pretty wild, and yes I still have it. I thought I had gotten off pretty easy, actually, because I remember being in shock around that time at Bernie having paid $15 for a Flamin’ Groovies EP.

It was after I started going to CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, etc., that I really started to get interested in music. I liked the bands, and I wanted to learn more about where they stylisticly came from. There were so many albums that became sought out a couple of years later that one could find in the dollar bin in the mid-70s, like the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, and the Modern Lovers. But what really got me started is when the bands I was watching starting coming out with music. At the time, it was pretty easy to just buy them as they came out, if one knew the stores to hit, and we did. From Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel (Parts I & II)”, to Talking Heads’ “Love --> Building On Fire” to the Heartbreakers’ “Live at Max’s,” to Richard Hell’s seminal “Blank Generation,” to even bands we hadn't seen, like the very first EMI single of “Anarchy in the U.K.” by the Sex Pistols, we just bought them one by one as they were released, and then two by two, and so on. And I kept them all.

What pushed me over the edge into serious collecting started in July of 1977: I published the first issue of my fanzine, FFanzeen, which ran until 1988. The records started pouring in to be reviewed, including most releases from SST, Alternative Tentacles, Frontier, BYO, Placebo, and many other important independent labels. Even when I didn’t like a particular record, I respected the work and financial payout of the indies, so I refused to get rid of them; I kept them all. Of course, my collection was expanding enormously, getting around 50 or more records a month, on top of those I was buying.

Meanwhile, I was still hitting up record stores, garage sales, and Sallie Ann-type places to see what was available. I was also into the obscure and odd. One time in New York, I went to a thrift shop and found this really cool EP (that’s a 7” that played at 33-1/3). It was a doctor explaining about diseases of the heart. He would interject between the sounds of heartbeats to explain what was physically wrong with it in medical terms. I thought this was so cool; I brought it up to Bernie’s house in Buffalo, where he attended college. After I played it, he reached into his own collection and brought out just about the same record, except it was the sounds of the lungs. Seems it was part of a series. In the other direction, I was entertaining (i.e., playing records for) a younger friend (who would later go on to have his own extensive and expensive collection…sorry Walter). He said, “Have you ever heard of this band called Love? I hear their records are hard to find.” I casually reached behind me and pulled out four of them. “You mean these?” I thought his head was going to explode.

Still, even as my collection grew and grew and grew, it was still dwarfed by Bernie and some of the people he would introduce me to, such as Greg Prevost of the Chesterfield Kings, and Mad Louie the Vinyl Junkie. Those were record collectors on a scope I couldn’t even fathom. Still are.

Through these associations, I learned not only about collecting, but also about collectors. In a grossly general way, collectors usually fold into two categories: there are the completionists (hunters) and the serendipitious (gatherers).

The completionists are those who have a gap in their collection, and will go to extraordinary lengths to fill that hole, sometimes paying exorbitant amounts for a record. These tend to be people who are into things that are hopelessly obscure, which takes a large knowledge of music to know when something is rare-first-printing level or just a reissue. Sometimes completionists can be a bit elitist, only wanting to deal with others who know nearly as much as they do (though they tend to respect those who know more), but fortunately most of the completionist collectors I know are happy to share. I remember a few times standing in the House of Guitars in Irondequoit/Rochester with Bernie, Greg and Louie talking, and I didn’t really understand much, but I listened and learned. It was like being in a really cool school.

Then there are the serendipitious, like myself, who feel like they score a coup when they find something exciting and hopefully rare, but look in general, not going out of the way searching for that particular item. Such a case was finding a doo-wop single on its original, local label in southern Florida in some obscure store for 5 cents, rather than the national one released later. While the completionists would search in magazines like Record Collector , the Rock Marketplace or Goldmine, one thing they both have in common in the love of the process of hunting in garage sales and thrift shops. But the former will be willing to pay the extra fee to get to a collector’s market early to grab up the goodies, where the serendipitious are happy to hunt and find in a more casual manner.

I will leave this topic for now with a true story: During the late 1980s, I was hanging out in Kenmore, New York (essentially a suburb of Buffalo, though I doubt they see themselves as such) at a used record shop on Main Street owned a friend, Friday Night Dave Olka. Dave and the kids who hung out in his store (who would later form Green Jello) smoked tobacco like fiends, so I had to get out of there after a while and get some air. I decided to walk around the block.

Around the corner, I saw a sign for a garage sale, so I stopped in. There I found a nearly mint condition first edition of the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, with the 3D cover. I bought it for a dollar, and brought it back to Dave. I saw that Dave had been selling a pretty beat-up copy for nearly $30. I walked back into the store and said, “Hey Dave, look what I bought around the corner for a buck!” I thought he was going to laugh, but instead he turned bright red, and threw me out of the store. Later that evening, he called me and apologized, saying he wasn’t really mad at me, he was projecting at the person who sold it to me. He said, “I have a used record store right around the corner. Why didn’t she just sell it to ME?” Well, I would say now, it was just serendipitious. And yes, I still have it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Unemployment Insurance: Then and Now

All photos from the Internet

Written over the course of the day:

It is a rainy, post-Hanna-pre-Ike Tuesday, and I am on my way by subway to see a job counselor at the Unemployment Insurance (UI) office at Schermerhorn Street, in downtown Brooklyn. According to the letter sent to me by UI, attendance in mandatory. Heck, I want to go to this; however, due to flood warnings, I tried to call and postpone, but bureaucracy rules in this case, and the phone number given has no option to talk to a human. So, with coffee in hand to fend off a humidity headache (unsuccessfully), I am in motion.

Rather than getting all whiney, let me clearly say that compared to dealing with UI in the ‘70s, it is relatively a breeze now. Picture this:

The UI office back then was on Fourth Avenue, right near where Pacific Street meets Atlantic Avenue. (A digression: the subway stop then was Pacific Street, but is now called Atlantic-Pacific. Even back then, though, my friend Dennis would call that stop the Canal Zone, which I thought was brilliant.) The area was quite dreary in that era, when it seemed like everything and everyone was muted, almost sepia. Of course, it could also be the memory of the depressing vibe of where I was heading.

First time there, once one registered their presence with the powers that be, it was a long, long wait on uncomfortable plastic chairs set in theatre-style rows, until one’s name is finally called. Like out of a script, the intake person was snarky, blaming the patron for the lack of work; assumption of guilt and guile, before proven innocent and desperate. While sitting there across the desk from the intaker, s/he called your ex-boss and asked why you were no longer working there. It was very uncomfortable. Then the third degree followed, demanding info rather than asking, sometimes with very personal questions that had nothing to do with looking for a job, or leaving the last one. It was as if they were looking for a season not to give up the money the person paid into the service from every paycheck.

Once that grueling interview ends, one leaves. A few days later (or more), a yellow envelope-sized folder arrived in the mail that had a bunch of cards in it that looked like a raffle booklet. A sheet told you when you needed to come back to the office, in my case, every Tuesday at 11 AM. Why I remember this so many years later, I’m not sure.

When arriving for the weekly visit to the UI building at the appointed day and time, you had to stand on a long line of usually more than 15 people, and wait your turn. If you reached the counter by what that clerk considered too early (varied from person to person), they sent you to the back of the line. I was never late enough to find out what happens in that case.

Once the magical time came to reach the counter, you handed over your yellow folder, and were asked pretty much the same questions one needs to fill out now, but with boredom out of repletion: “Did you turn down work?” “Were you working again?” “Did you make any money by yourself?” “Etc.” After that, the questioner stamped your book and took out the week’s ticket. When you completed the book of tickets, you ran out of weeks of UI. If you missed a week, they cut you off immediately, which meant rain or shine, in sickness and in health, you had to be there. Once I missed a week because I was on a job interview, and they stopped my benefits. I had to go through the whole intake process again to get it started again – minus the weeks I was already given – and minus the week I missed due to the interview. Why would anyone even try looking for a job until after the benefits ran out if they are going to get it threatened for it? It was a bad system.

* * *

Relatively speaking, now it is much easier. You register online and you sign in weekly online. Better do it quickly, though, or you’ll find your online session “timed out” and you have to start the weekly part of the process over again. This is an occasional inconvenience, but so much better than having to travel once a week down to where the office is now, especially at $2+ per ride on the MTA (only a fool would drive down to Schermerhorn Street, even with the $10 lots); parking is horrendous.

But now I am here at the UI office, waiting.

There is a group of about 50 of us in a warm room. Our paperwork has been collected by a couple of nice people who want to get us “out of there as quickly as possible.” That is a totally different attitude than years before. We now sit until our names are called to meet with a person who will try to help us with resumes and the like. I am totally satisfied with my resume, which I have on a floppy disk. Meanwhile, I’m stuck here with people yakking on their cell phones, despite the signs that clearly say they are not to be used. Nothing like being in a tight room listening to someone saying loudly, “I got to pay my bills” and someone else “What you doin’ up there?” Please, let them call either my name soon, or even their names to get them out of the room.

Even as we wait, the guy sitting across from me agrees that this is still so much better than it used to be. Though I have to say to anyone who comes here, bring some tissues, because there is no paper in the bathroom, for hands or anything else.

* * *

After about an hour in the room, with more than half the people called, it was my turn. I was led to the desk of another nice man with a very thick Russian accent. Basically, he gave me a list of Websites for job info, and the address of WorkForce 1 (WF1), a service to help with training on computers, shaping resumes, etc. I was out of there within 5 minutes. I would love that job: say hello, check to make sure the skills section of a form is filled out, hand out the list of Websites, and buh-bye. It would not surprise me if the reason it was so fast was sheer volume, thanks in part to the present economy (or lack thereof…can we PLEASE get a Democrat in office, already!?!?).

Brooklyn's WorkForce 1

WF1 is located between UI and the subway, so I dropped in there, after a quick Taco Bell break. Where UI has all the industrial charm of a communist-era building or a hospital for the elderly, WF1 is a well-designed, bright and comfortable space, with cushioned chairs, glass doors, and a reception area that was not merely a standee-and-ropes, metal desks, plastic chairs, and partition-style faux walls.

To attend any classes at WF1, one must attend an orientation class, which was over by the time one gets out of UI; therefore I must go back. Once orientation is completed, one can (and I will) participate in computer classes for free (the kind that Continuing Ed charges hundreds of dollars). I’m thinking of Access, and to brush up on stuff like Excel and even PowerPoint. Yes, I’ve used all of that in jobs before, but as with any organization, one tends to learn mostly what is needed for that job rather than of what the software is capable. If I can improve my skill range, I can improve my chances at a decent waged position.

Wish me luck…

Friday, September 5, 2008

Memories of the Punk Temple

All FFotos by Robert Barry Francos

Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, has a history that’s checkered. It’s best known as the home of the Kramdens, Son of Sam’s last killing, the locale for Saturday Night Fever, and the shooting of Yusef Hawkins (and subsequent marches by Al Sharpton).

Jordan, Sid, Loni at Punk Temple entrance

But during the late ‘90s and early 00’s, deep from the heart and basement of a local synagogue, a voice had risen up. The proclamation of DIY music came from what was known as the Punk Temple, a non-profit venue that showcased both local and national punk, rock, and ska shows. All money at the door went to rent the room; the cost of the show, and the rest went to the groups who played. Bands varied from the local borough or Staten Island scenes, such as Miracle of 86 (Kevin Devine), Monty Love, The Nerve!, 5 Cent Deposit, Inhuman, Up For Nothing, and those who were then on the rise from around the country, like Plain White T’s, Treephort, BigWig, and Blind Luck Music. All were welcome by the enthusiastic, all-ages crowd.

Breaking bands from other parts of the country seem both surprised and happy to see the audience singing along with the songs of the group’s indie releases, and sometimes even physically with the band as spectators were known to jump on stage and share a mic or two. And the groups loved it. It was a tight and growing scene with open arms for new music. It was a common sight to see the audience showing off newly purchased CDs of the bands playing, purchased at the street team table at the venue ballroom. Will Noon, of the now gone Philadelphia band Breaking Pangaea, stated at the time, “The kids that come to the Punk Temple are young and enthusiastic. And the crowd is pretty diverse. We've had a great experience with it, and look forward to playing there again.”

The Punk Temple was started in December 1998, by ex-Friendly Fire vocalist, Jordan Cooper, and played well over 100 shows. Jordan booked the local bands, counted the change, was Webmaster, and was the overall kommander of operations.

Skanking up the joint

Starting out by being a dj of punk music while attending Kings-borough Community College in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Jordan found out how hard it was to get bands booked through his own band experience. Eventually, through connections, he started the Punk Temple. At first he was losing money, as much as $600 per show. Loni and Sid, who often attended shows, decided to help out, eventually becoming part of the core six-member Temple crew.

Loni Berman booked and coordinated national bands. “With me handling booking agents, Jordan handling local bands, and Sid doing some occasional booking, we were really clicking,” says Loni. “Everyone knew their tasks. It took a while, but once we got into a groove, it got a lot easier. The average attendance of 60 grew to an average of 100. We generally pulled in about 200 kids per show, no matter who played.” Will Noon posited, “Loni is a great guy. It’s really great when you come across someone who's doing things for all the right reasons. He cares about the kids and the bands, and wants to make sure everyone is safe and has a great time.” Loni also handled the nascent label, Temple Recordings (a joint venture with Blackout Records). One of their releases was by Friendly Fire, and they were to have a compilation album of bands playing the Temple coming out. What happened to this is unknown to me. At the time, Loni’s “day job” was then Manager of A&R at Artemis Records.

Temple heartthrob Chris King, of 5 Cent Deposit and Stray 76

Sid Kaptsenel ran the door, collecting the entrance fee (usually $8). He also set up the stage before the bands arrived, and handled the flyers for upcoming shows. Sid said to me in 2002, “Me and Loni decided that we should offer our help to Jordan to make sure the Temple stayed alive. Shockingly, he accepted, and there we have it. The shows have gotten better and better, bigger and bigger, and way more frequent. Things are great right now. Our basic philosophy is that we want to give kids of all ages a safe place to go to see shows, and get into good music. “

Jay Miller, also known as Monty Love, handled the stage during the shows, setting up the mics and checking the speakers. He was in charge of the area of promoting, and dealt with the newer, local bands, which worked out well since he could give them a sympathetic ear: He led his own group of joyful punkers, Monty Love (one of my favorite bands of that and just after period). And speaking of Templers who helped with the stage and had their own band, Mike Cherchid worked the soundboard, helping with the stage sound, and drummed for the band Stray 76. He would later open a club called Third Rail where metal club L’Amours once stood, but that has since closed as well. That leaves Rob Pasbani. One could often hear him screaming over the sound system between bands, “Check…your…coats” or “Buy…a…drink.” He was in charge of that stuff.

Mike Inhuman

Mike, of the Brooklyn band Inhuman, said back then, “Inhuman have been playing the Temple in Brooklyn since the beginning really, like late ‘98-early ‘99. At one point I was even booking the shows there in conjunction with Loni and Jordan, and I also co-founded the annual Brooklyn Fest that happens every summer.”

But what matters was the chance for the fans to see the bands. For much of the audience, some of whom were still in their teens, it was their first chance to see a live performance. This was a nascent scene, and these kids were growing up with the bands. They lock back now and are able to say, “hey, when I was a kid, I saw so-and-so when they were first starting out.”

Kevin Devine in Miracle of 86

As Mike Inhuman, had put it: “We have had some great shows and some iffy ones, but I have fun there no matter what. I like the fact that the crowd is really young and not jaded; kids there wearing a Korn shirt today, may hopefully be sporting a Gorilla Biscuits or Sick of it All shirt one day, you know?”

"My impression of the crowd at the Punk Temple is that the people seem to beenthusiastic about being there,” added Fred Mascherino, also of Breaking Pangaea. “If the bands are willing to have a good time, the fans will be right there with them. It was packed when we played, and I hear that that's the way it always is.”

Temple regulars

As with any scene, there are regulars that showed up. One saw the requisite Rancid and NoFX shirts, wool caps, and even the occasional ‘70s full out punk bondage gear, including Mohawk spikes (one even had what he called a tri-hawk) and metal studded jackets and bracelets. The mosh pit was fast and wild, with speed circles, skanking, windmills, and twin twirling (two people holding hands and spinning as fast as they can for as long as they can). Sometimes you’d see some young teen with a Ramones shirt, with the original line-up. The only things banned on the premises were smoking, drinking, and drugs (though they seemed to be happening outside on the steps of the synagogue). But one thing a Temple attendee got was a good show.

“The kids at the temple are always really enthusiastic,” claimed Brendon Thomas of Blind Luck Music during the early ‘00s. “They go off for the music, and in turn we go just as crazy for them onstage. A good show is all about the energy interaction between the band and the audience. At the Punk Temple, there always seems to be this positive vibe that everybody just feeds off of, and in turn, we all always seem to have such a great time. Meeting and talking to people there is fun too, especially since we're from Vermont and we get to experience firsthand how different life is for all these kids in the city, and yet, see how similar we all are when it breaks down to the basic emotions that come out in the music.”

Blind Luck Music

The surrounding neighbor-hood was sometimes suspicious of the Punk Temple crew, and had a bit of a “redneck” attitude. Between sets, one night in April 2002, there was trouble at the nearby Burger King when some local “Tony Monaro” wannabes assaulted a couple of Temple attendees, a scene right out of “Billy Jack.” Tolerance and understanding wasn’t exactly a neighborhood historical trend, though even then it was actually better then before that time. But the Temple goers had a strong sense of community, into which just about anyone was welcome. As Sid said, “The Temple has become a nice little community where almost everyone is supportive and is there to have a good time and enjoy the music and atmosphere. What I get out of it is a sense that I'm giving back to a music scene that basically made me who I am today. Punk music and underground music in general has been probably the most important thing in my life since High School and the great thing about punk is that its so easy to get involved and be a real part of it. I figured giving some time to this is the least I could do after all I've gotten out of this music and subculture.”

Back then, the Punk Temple was part of an unofficial triad of punk clubs in the surrounding boroughs, including Dock Street in Staten Island and the Red Zone in Queens, but you would find lots of people who regularly attend those clubs showing up at the Temple come Saturday Night.

Show styles varied: most of the time it was punk, but the guys who ran the place did a great job of blending genres, as long as it was DIY. “I just wish more HC shows would happen there, or heavier Punk shows, but Emo and Pop-Punk bring in all of the money, so I can see their point. I'm just glad that Inhuman is welcome and a part of the original group of bands that continue to play there. Actually we may have been the first legit NYHC band to play there, and that's pretty nice,” said Mike Inhuman.

But the overall philosophy of the Punk Temple was that it was something special. Loni explained before it closed, “The Temple is not Irving Plaza, it is not run by Clear Channel or Delsner-Slater. The Temple is a DIY venue. What that means to me is that we can make it whatever we want to make it. We don't have to worry about selling a certain amount of tickets or having a particular type of show or having a particular kind of crowd. The Temple is also about community. It has become a place where kids can be themselves, and they can make friends with others. So many friendships have been made at the Temple. I really feel like we are making a difference by doing the shows because I feel we have made a lot of people happy. I have a love for music, and I love being involved in it in any way. Putting on a show and seeing 350 kids come out to see a band that doesn't draw that much anywhere else makes me feel like we've done a good job, promoting the venue, and promoting that band.”

Tony, who formed the band SQNS

The Punk Temple closed in 2003 after a summer’s evening show featuring Leftover Crack. The venue had been oversold due to so many kids wanting to see it. The basement was tremendously hot, so many people stayed on the sidewalk between bands. And those who wanted to get in but couldn’t also hung around, possibly to hear whatever music leaked out, or be with friends. This led to drinking and being loud, which resulted in the neighbors calling the police. Because of the overcrowding of the club, it was shut down by law enforcement. After that, the synagogue would not rent the space out for shows. Shortly after that, the synagogue, which was struggling financially, was torn down for a high-rise condo complex.

The guys who ran the Temple, Len, Loni and Sid, basically disappeared from the scene after that. Monty kept it going during Monty Love shows at Dock Street until the band broke up. The Nerve!, who played the Temple, started shows at Peggy O’Neill’s in Coney Island for a couple of years, and when they broke up, the shows stopped there. It’s been five years since the Punk Temple closed, but it is still sorely missed and was a great place to see the bands.

Many more pictures here:


Why I Will Never Be Invited Back to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Images from the Internet

During the summer of the modern fin de sicle, I took a road trip to take pictures of old barns, and to seek out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

It was a beautiful day as I parked in the garage for the adjoining museum. After walking through a series of corridors, I arrived in the immense, black glass and steel building designed by Pei, similar in tone and space to the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. I checked out the entrance fees, raised an eyebrow at the cost, and then proceeded downstairs to the administrative offices.

Placing my camera bag on one of the plush office couches in the waiting area, I approached one of the two receptionists. “Good morning! How can I help you?” she said with a big, open smile. I explained that I used to publish a fanzine out of New York called FFanzeen, and I was writing a book about rock’n’roll, specifically the late ‘70s-early ‘80s “Punk and New Wave” period. Further, I said I would love to speak to someone about what I could and should be looking for within the glass walls of the museum and, specifically, where. “Oh,” she thought out loud, “That sounds like Howie’s area. Hold on.” She then called this Howie person on the interoffice phone. As she hung up, she said that Howie was really busy at the moment, but he would send someone out to talk to me, and would I like to have a seat on one of said plush couches. Then she very graciously offered me some beverage. So far, so good.

I sat down next to my bag, and had a coffee.

A short time later, a woman in a tailored business suit (that seemed pretty formal for a rock’n’roll museum I thought at the time) came out of the back office area, and introduced herself. To be honest, I can’t remember her name, but I do have her business card somewhere. She was perky and very corporate-like. And, she had no idea what I was talking about. I stated the mission of my visit, and she explained how that was Howie’s area, but he was out of the office for the day. Okay, thinks I, she’s spinning, and I’m going to need a shovel to dig through the pile. While being sweet and cheerful (her job), and seemingly with no knowledge of the museum’s contents (excused through the comment of how the museum rotates its exhibits, with it hard to keep up with what was current), it became apparent to me that she was more knowing of the general form and function of the place. In other words, most likely she was a Public Relations major in college, and got the job primarily on that, rather than a passion (or even necessarily an enjoyment) of what the museum supposedly represents.

With a well-rehearsed and generalized speech about the museum, she said I should let her know if there was anything else with which she could help. She was being very nice and business-like, and I had nothing against her as a person, but I wondered what the hell she was doing in this museum; it is sort of like a car salesperson that doesn’t really know about cars. She then started to walk away.

“’Scuse me,” I piped, “Is there any chance of getting a pass to the museum? I came all the way from New York, after all…” With an “Oh, sure,” she said someone would come by and give me a pass. With that, she disappeared back to the offices. Very shortly, the receptionist gave me a black wristband. I was soon to find out that this color band gave me free access to all public areas. Cool.

One thing the magic black wristband could not permit was for me to bring my camera bag and its obvious contents into the museum proper, as photography was verboten. Signs stated that some artists have donated their memorabilia, and did not want it photographed. Whatever, I respectfully checked the bag.

The displays in the museum are well sectioned and meted into areas using both temporal and spaceial subdivisions. It starts, of course, in the pre-rock and roll era, through the beginning (mid-1950s), and then as the sound spread, breaking down further into different areas of the country. There is a replication of the Sun studios down in Memphis (where the museum really should have been located; it’s present locale has to do with Alan Freed, a Cleveland DJ who is given credit for coining the phrase rock and roll), which is excellent, and other memorabilia was fascinating. Most areas were sectioned into “windows” that are about five feet wide and more than 6 feet high, with a depth around one to two feet, depending on the content.

The first item I saw that I actually own, was the sheet music for Carl Perkin’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” That sort of cheered me up enormously. There were many pieces from the 1950s, of course the focus being Elvis memorabilia. There was Chuck B., Little R., and Buddy H. It went through the early sixties, through the surf, girl-group, and Motown periods. I have to confess that so far I was having lots of fun.

The Beatles, naturally, dominated the Mersey Beat area, with the Stones and Who falling right behind. The American scene of the period, like the incredible Isley Brothers and Count Five were but shadowly represented. The next big American scene showcased was from California, like the Grateful Dead (lots on the Dead), Lovin’ Spoonful, Janis J., Jimi H., Jefferson Airplane, and the whole Fillmore clique.

But something was bothering me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then I realized what it was: this was all mainstream rock and roll. Where was the representation of the independent scenes? Like with the Grammys, if it didn’t make money, odds are a corporate sponsorship was not going to be paying to support it, especially if there were no future corporate CD sales involved.

I went through the Glam area – Bowie, T. Rex, and Gary Glitter being the biggest, with little recognition to the likes of Slade or Steve Harley.

Finally, I came up to what they consider the Punk and New Wave windows. Both of them. First thing that caught my eye was the outfit Handsome Dick Manitoba wore on the cover of the Dictators’ first album, “Go Girl Crazy.” I was duly impressed with that, since the ‘Tators were one of my faves (DFFD). After that, it was mainly top-10 stuff, like the Ramones, Blondie, Television, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and a nice nod to the Heartbreakers (specifically, Johnny Thunders). That is my pet peeve about looking back on that era, anyway: as great as they were, the scene was so much more than just those bands. But I digress.

Again, it was nice to see items I actually own, like an Easter Festival photo collage poster (taken by ex-MainMain publicist Leee Black Childers), a menu from Max’s Kansas City, and flyers from CBGBs. All in all, it was pretty scant, though, considering how influential the New York scene was on the history of rock’n’roll. From there, it was straight to the British punk movement, leaning heavily on the Pistols and the Clash. Again, “top-10” – you know, moneymakers. There was also a focus on the LA hardcore scene. There was little to nothing from the incredible scenes in Boston (Willie Alexander, DMZ), Phoenix (Jody Foster’s Army), Athens, Georgia (Pylon, Love Tractor – though both REM and the B-52s were represented somewhere else), or Indiana (The Gizmos, The Dancing Cigarettes, Dow Jones and the Industrials – except John “Cougar” Mellencamp, again, somewhere else), to name just a few locales. Why? I’m guessing, to beat a dead horse, because they were not signed to the larger labels, major backers of the whole museum complex.

From there it went downhill, with special sections on the likes of Billy Joel (questionable) to the later Bee Gees (undeserving; early BG period is another story). There was also a special exhibit on the costumes of rock’n’roll performers. It was cool seeing the Sgt. Pepper’s uniforms and clothes worn by Janis and Jimi, and even David Byrnes’ big suit. But then again, there was lots of Elton John clothing and Madonna’s bullet bra outfit (along with others by her). This seems to be stepping away from the topic.

But the mood killer, for me, was the Extra Special exhibit on the top floors (yes, plural), on Rap and Hip-hop. Excuse me, but isn’t this the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum? Just what does Rap and Hip-hop have to do with rock and roll? Sure, some misguided and under-talented bands like Limp Bizket try to rip off the culture, as the white reggaers did in the 1970s (e.g., The Police). And while Rap and Hip-hop are legitimate in their own right, they are NOT rock and roll. Period. The kicker was at the end, which was a plaque announcing that AT&T sponsored this exhibit. Duh; shoulda known. To quote (the original movie) “The Producers,” “Money is honey, Bloom, money is honey”).

Last I saw was a film on the previous choices for membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. There were some questionable choices over the years, but there remained some integrity in who was voted in. This was just before Michael Jackson (as a solo “artist”) was chosen, surely a nail in the coffin for the authenticity and respect of the museum.

Naturally, I headed back to the administrative office in the basement, to say my thank you to the publicity person, for I would have gone into the museum whether she had given me a pass or not. She was unavailable, so I wrote her a note. And I got carried away. This is not quoted verbatim, but as close as I can remember:

“Thank you for letting me in to see the museum, that was very generous of you. I enjoyed the exhibits even more than I thought I would. But I have a couple of questions: Where was the garage music scene of the 1960s (especially the Pacific Northwest and Texas)? And the garage revival of the early 1980s? Where are the independent bands of the 1960s-‘90s? Where was anything international other than England - such as Czechoslovakia (The Plastic People) or Canada (Teenage Head)? Where was the Tex-Mex (? and the Mysterians, Sam the Sam and the Pharaohs, Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns)? Why is there so much Madonna-related material here? And sorry, but Rap and Hip-hop is not rock and roll. When will you be opening the Brittany Spears and Backstreet Boys wing? Shouldn’t it be called the Pop Music Hall of Fame and Museum, to be more accurate? Once again, thank you for your time.”

Of course, after handing over the note, I headed straight for the gift shop and laid down a bit of change for a bunch of postcards and a couple of pricey tee-shirts (one for me, one for good friend Bernie Kugel, lead singer of the Mystic Eyes, as a get-well present; my next stop was his house near Buffalo, NY).

After reclaiming my camera bag and snapping a couple of pictures of the outside of the museum, I got my car and was on my way to photograph more barns, and to future stops with Bernie and Greg Prevost (Chesterfield Kings) at the House of Guitars in Rochester, both of whom are excellent musicians and songwriters (and respected rock and roll historians), and will probably never be represented at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Media Ecology Association 10th Birthday, 9/4/08

Today is the 10th birthday of the creation of the Media Ecology Association, an organization that is close to my heart.

What is Media Ecology and the MEA? It is an interdisciplinary study of language, technology, culture, and symbols, with heavy emphasis of social critics like Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman (who arguable coined the phrase Media Ecology), Jacques Ellul, Walter Ong, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Douglas Rushkoff, Harold Innis, Lewis Mumford, Eric Havelock, Susanne Langer, Erving Goffman, Edward T. Hall, George Herbert Mead, Margaret Mead, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Gregory Bateson, and language philosophies like General Semantics.

For more information on the MEA, check them out here:
Wikipedia on Media Ecology:

Institute of General Semantics:
Wikipedia on General Semantics:

This video sort of sums it all up in a humerous way:


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Faustian Bargain of Cell Phones

Images taken from Internet

The omnipresent cell phone has proven to be a true Faustian bargain, a term that social critic Neil Postman used to describe a role of technology. As an axiom of Media Ecology posits, when a technology is introduced into a culture, the culture not only cannot go back, but that the new technology does not change any one thing, it changes everything.

It is not that cell phones exist that is a problem. In fact, I can cite a number of times it has proven quite useful, such as when trying to locate pals, help when directions are needed, calls for emergency help, or in one case I know of personally, a cell phone camera has helped an activist friend prove a case of false arrest.

The problem lies in the difference between publicly needing and wanting to make a call. All those people who used to ride public transportation and basically spend the ride staring at their nails are now either on the phone loudly chatting with no purpose other than to kill time, or sitting with a blank stare holding their still phones tightly in their hands as if it were some fetish object, or religious icon. Certainly it has taken the place of the rosary and worry beads.

We all have stories of inappropriate behavior mixed with TMI. Cases in point for me include a woman angrily yelling at her husband for leaving rehab and spending their money buying drugs when there were already some in their apartment, and one guy whining to a pal that if he doesn’t get $12,000 to “Vinny,” he’ll never be caught up with the interest, which would be disastrous for his own knees.

Of course, the biggest issue is not content, but rather a mix of context (spatial or semantic environment) and volume. Certainly, if one is in public – and as a comedian once pointed out, there is no privacy in public – if one must scream on a phone to be heard, than one should not be on the phone at all.

The New York MTA is going to have the subway stations, and then the tunnels, wired for cell phone use “in case of an emergency” (i.e., fear of terrorism). An easy solution is to just have it wired to accept 911 calls, but there is no financial gain in that, as it is the telephone companies, who stand to gain the most reward, who are going to do the wiring.

While the noise pollution toll is heavy, so is the body politic. How one uses their own physicality when in relation/ship with a cell phone can also prove problematic. The day I write this, I was exiting a subway stop, and the line to get up the stairs was blocked by someone climbing very slowly because he was checking his phone. Waiting the 30 literal seconds to climb the stairs was too much to wait; it was certainly more important for this person to slow up 100 people behind him because he could not wait, even for one flight of stairs.

We’ve all seen the weaving and/or slow drivers on the road. Used to be it was usually the classic “old man in a hat,” but now it is the person deeply engaged with someone not present. The scariest case of this I’ve encountered was when I saw a huge Yukon style SUV often sliding into my lane in front of me. As I sped up to pass this scary vehicle, I glanced over and saw the woman driving: she had a cell phone cradled in her neck. A cup of coffee in her right hand, and a cigarette in her left, while she drove this tank with two fingers.

There is also the proximity of the polluter and the pollutee. Sitting on a subway car at the end seat by the door, I’ve had people hold onto the overhead bar and lean right next to my head, or leaning on the door facing me, yelling into a phone. When asked to not do that, they get huffy, or pretend not to hear, or even threaten me, the person who is stuck there, forced to listen to this volumous talk right into my ear. After all, in their mind, they’ve paid their $2 and so have earned the right to be abusive.

It needs to be socially acceptable to say, “Please stop yelling in my ear.” There is nothing in that request that is a personal affront to the speaker; it is simply a request not to be disrespected.

At times when parts of eateries were set aside for smokers, I remember seeing a one-panel cartoon titled “How smokers view restaurants.” The image was of a room with one part that had a sign that said, “Smoking Section,” and as if by magic, the smoke only stayed on their side. Public cell phone users seem to practice this, as if they are the only ones who are affected by their noise. And don’t get me started with the T-Mobile walkie-talkie style phones. I hope I never meet the person who invented that little piece of modern communication. He will certainly get an earful from me, during which I will interrupt each sentence with a blearing electronic sound.

There is a man who rides the Long Island Rail Road who has quite famously been ferocious with the rude and the loud. He has yelled at people, gotten into physical fights, and even threw coffee in people’s faces. While I agree with his argument about the lack of necessity of the interruption, the excessive methods employed by this ex-police officer are equally abusive, if not more so. Asking someone not to be rude is not the same as assault.

I once commented to my brother that the start of this whole public lack of regard as far as sound stems from the VCR. My argument is that people got used to talking during films that were being played in their own living room, especially those who grew up with the medium, so it was a natural transition to be talking in theaters. This led the way for people to feel natural conversational in public, which was exacerbated by the cell phone.

He disagreed. What he felt was the turning point was the pre-Walkman boom box, where people started blasting music in public spaces, making disregard for others’ silence moot. I believe my statement is truer, because while the boom box is “others” making noise (the music), talking during a pre-recorded film is more a personal “expression,” if you will.

Mostly, though, I think we are both correct. Both the VCR and boom box had a cultural effect and affect. Whether the expansion of cell phones is to the positive or the negative is in the hands of whomever is in control of that supposedly personal technology, which has changed everything.