Wednesday, October 29, 2008

School Black and Blue Days

Photos from the Internet or RBF's personal collection

People wonder why someone will take a particular stance or action. They will say to themselves, “What happened to that person that made them turn out that way?” For me, I thank the Brooklyn public school system. It is perhaps the most dysfunctional family to which I’ve ever been associated.

They didn’t have pre-school back then, not in Bensonhurst, anyway. My first class was kindergarten at PS 128, which I was anxious to attend. I was looking forward to learning. While I was the smallest kid in class, sans one girl named Patty, I felt confident that I would do well. The two women who ran the class were wonderful, and took me as the smallest boy under their wing, protecting me. I became sort of teacher’s pet, though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. It was all just having fun and prepping me to learn.

Each grade was broken into two classes, the “1” classes (1-1, 2-1, etc.) which was more academically advanced, and the “2” classes (1-2, 2-2, etc.), which were the ones who struggled some and needed more help (i.e., geared more toward trade jobs than anything academically challenging, in the school system’s playbook).

RBF, First Grade
I entered the first grade at 1-1 with a strong desire and determination. Then I met the teacher. She liked little girls, and was not fond of little boys, especially those who were the teacher’s pets of the kindergarten class. She set her sights on me, and never let up. After class, we all lined up in the street, and our mothers came to pick us up (it was rare to find a mother that worked back then). One day she made an announcement, “I just want everyone here to know that Robert is a thief. He stole a box of crayons.” The mothers pulled their kids away from me. When we got home, my mother asked what happened with the crayons. I told her that the shelf I was supposed to return them to was too high for me to reach, and I put the box on a lower shelf. My mother went over the next day to see the teacher, and sure enough, there were the crayons right where I said they were. She refused to make a correcting announcement, and for years, there were certain kids I was not allowed to play with because I was a “thief.”

But she had not even begun. The highlight was one day when she decided to punish me (though I cannot remember the cause). She took the green metal garbage can that was under her desk, and dumped it on the floor. She then made me sit in it with my arms and legs hanging out, and my butt hanging in. With her foot, she pushed the can I was in under her desk, and then had the entire class line up and kick the can. One kid kicked it low, causing the can to fall over. She yelled at me for it, and I had to straighten it out, put myself back in, and then the line continued until everyone was done. I was so mortified by the incident, that I didn’t tell anyone – including my parents – until years later, after she had already left the school. At some point, I read that the exact same thing happened to Bruce Springsteen. I wonder if it was either a taught training method both teachers had followed, it was the same teacher, or just coincidence. Whichever way, it was not fun.

Second Grade
Her strongest act against me, though, was that for the next year, she put me in “2” class. I started acting out. Now they would probably say I had ADD, but the teacher was helpless and could not control me. She tried to punish me by making me sit in a chair under a bookshelf that was very low, so I had to crane my neck just to sit there. Repeatedly, she called down my brother from a higher grade, and he would try to calm me down. I was a wreck, and no clue how to learn. All they wanted me to do was sit quiet. For the next year, she put me in 3-2.

Third Grade
That year I had the same problem. Could not sit still, and was uncontrollable. My brother’s teacher would not let him out of the class to handle me, because she understood that he had to learn, too, not just discipline me. One day I came home with a handprint across my face, where my third grade teacher had slapped me. My mother went there the next day, all literally 5-foot of her, and she told the teacher that if she ever touched me again, she would beat the crap out of her. The end result was that the teacher had me sent to a psychiatrist. Dr. Hand saw me for one session, and his conclusion was that I was too smart for the “2” class and was acting out because I was bored. He recommended either bumping me up to the “1” class, or give me more work. The teacher felt that since I was in her class, I should do her curriculum. Needless to say, I just got worse.

Before a Fourth Grade class show: Julie, RBF, Elise, Patty
The 4-2 class, due to reasons beyond our control, had a string of four teachers, none staying long enough to be effective. I don’t remember any of them. I was still out of my mind. While I don't remember it, I heard years later that I had stabbed one of the students in the hand with a pencil during an argument. Every day felt like a struggle. I read a lot on my own, including books older than my reading level, like the Dr. Dolittle series, and my absolute favorites were the Happy Hollister family of detectives series (much more so than the Hardy Boys). My parents were also willing to spend a bit more on books. Seems like I either was trying to distract from my life, or almost trying to learn by myself.

Fifth Grade
When I got to 5-2, we had our first male teacher. I figured, okay, I could associate with another male, so maybe it will be better and I’ll buckle down. After a few months, he disappeared. Off the face of the earth. One day he was here, next day, gone. I learned much later that was being intimate with one of the girls in my fifth grade class, who happened to be the daughter of a high-level gangster. At the time, they were filling in a local bay, which would later be known as Ceasar’s Bay [sic], to build a department store called EJ Korvettes. My guess is that is where the teacher was squirreled away.

We burned through 5 teachers in fifth grade. Only one other was memorable. She had one of those gynormous hearing aides, the kind that fit in the ear, and a wire led to the receiver that was in her shirt pocket. The class was not fond of her, as she was kind of cold and unfriendly. Myself, and my pals Dominic and Joel (who usually did not get along), conspired to get the class to mutiny. We would do things like organize everyone to gradually talk lower and lower, so the teacher would raise the volume of her aide up higher and higher. Then on cue, the whole class would scream, scaring her. Or we would talk in fake broken words, so it sort of sounded like a cell phone breaking up now, and she would be either banging on or shaking the aide receiver. She left after about 4 to 6 weeks.

Sixth Grade
In 6-2, we had either 4 or 5 teachers, I can’t remember now. Again, most were forgettable. The one I do remember was the very last, Mrs. Lowenberger. She was strict but fair. We were all a little scared of her, but in a good way, and I think I learned more from her than anyone in the previous 3 years or more. If she had been our teacher for the whole time, our lives would have been vastly improved. I remember she was totally into the Opera (which none of us were), and on a class field trip, she brought us to Lincoln Center (my mom was one of the class monitors for this one). Because she had such an in with the place, we got a personalized backstage tour of the huge hall. It was amazing.

On the next to last day of class, Mrs. Lowenberger announced that she wasn’t feeling well, and she expected each and every one of us to come to her house to pick up our report cards. It was mandatory, and she gave each of us two bus tokens, for each way. We rode as a group, and when we got there, she was fine; she had a planned surprise barbeque. Her husband took the day off and cooked for us all. Because she was not into popular music, the only record we wanted to hear that she had available was “Penny Lane” 45 (which belonged to her daughter).

Looking back, there was an inherent level of racism that ran though that school. Our area of Bensonhurst was almost exclusively white, at about 40% Jewish, 50% Italian, 9% Irish, and 1% the rest. There were two Chinese families (one that owned the local Chinese restaurant), and an elderly African-American alcoholic man who we knew as Rochester (I’ve never found out if that was his real name). He lived by himself and we, as little kids who didn’t know better because we weren’t taught better, would demand he dance for us, which he would oblige in a tapping, stumbling way. There was another African-American family with an uncle looking after his nephew and niece. The niece, Vivian, was in my class, and we were friends. I’d been to her house a few times, and even gave her my roller skates (which annoyed my brother, because he wanted them). In total, my class was all white, with the exception of three girls of color: Vivian, and two bused in from Coney Island. Some teachers would ask (i.e., demand) that Vivian stand in the front of the class and sing, “He Got the Whole World.” Looking back, I cringe at incidents like this, and how we behaved to Rochester.

When I started JHS 281, or Bensonhurst Junior High School (later renamed Cavallaro JHS), I was glad to be out of grade school and heading into a new one. The first day of class, I ran into Dominic. I hadn’t seen him all summer. During the school year, we would hang out together after class and play “Lost in Space.” He was just an average ordinary kid. I said, “Hey! Dominic! How ya doin’?” He said, “Oh, hey. I spent the whole fuckin’ summer at the fuckin’ beach getting’ fuckin’ wasted and fuckin' hangin' out with chicks. It was fuckin’ great!” I thought, whoa, what alien kidnapped my pal and turned in into that guy? Later I ran into Vivian, who was walking with two of her friends. She was wearing a dashiki and wore wooden beads and a huge afro. I said, “Hey, Vivian, how ya doin’?” She responded, “Who you talkin’ to you white motherfucker?! Get the fuck away from me!” I thought, as she and her soul sisters stormed by, with a bit of a sob, “…But I gave you my skates….” It was a summer of revolution, 1967, and I was left behind.

As scary as elementary school had been, junior high was way amped up, adding a racial tension within the school. There were problems between the Italian kids and those of color. Us Jewish kids were just trying not to get caught in the crossfire.

While teachers tended to be a bit better, there were some definite winners in the abusive column. For example, while math has never been my forte, I still tried. In Seventh grade, I took my first advanced math class, and was lost and befuddled. At one point the teacher said, "Come to the board and do this problem." I responded, "Well, I don't know how to do it." Her answer was, "Do it, make the error, and we can figure out how to do it correctly." That made sense, so I went up, did what I could, and made the error. She then started berratting me in front of the class about a solution I already told her I didn't know. After a few minutes of constant demeaning by her, I just walked out of the class, hiding in the staircase because I did not have a hall pass.

My mom brought home a (manual) typewriter when I was a little kid. I sat down at it and within a year I was typing at quite a clip. Again, in seventh grade, typing class was manditory. By that time, I was typing at 55 words per minute. The teacher gave me a grade of C. Confronting her, I asked, "WTF?" (but not in those words). Her illogical reasoning was I didn't show improvement. I said (and this I did verbalize), "Improvment? I'm a 13 year old kid on a manual typewriter doing 55 words a minute.  How much more of an improvement could I made when the keys on these machines lock up if you try to type faster. They can't GO faster than than 55 words per minute." She replied that it was not her problem. I asked her, "If this was a bowling class and I started bowling 300 at the beginning of the term and finished with a 300, you would give me a C?" Her response was to the affirmative. She refused to change it, and somewhere in her response she claimed that her job was to teach us, and I did not learn. It didn't matter that she could not teach me more than I knew. She was punishing me for something I already knew. It was all her ego.

By the time I got to Lafayette High School, it had gotten even worse. Race became an even stronger dynamic. One had to know the right bathrooms to go to, which part of the schoolyard to avoid, and to not cross the line into the Marboro Projects across the street to the north (similarly, the kids of color did not stray a block to the south of the school). It all came to a head one afternoon. I was sitting in class on the fourth, top floor, and heard a loud noise outside. The whole class went to the steel grated window. We saw two masses approaching each other in the cement yard, one being the Italian kids, and the other being the black and Latino students. They were all ready to fight to make the school their own turf. It was just getting to the pushing stage, when a line of huge black Lincoln Town Cars pulled up to the curb. Out them stepped groups of wiseguys. Suddenly, all the kids started running, because the black and Latino kids didn’t want to be seen beating up the Italian kids, and the Italians didn’t want their parents to know they were causing trouble. So one minute they are literally ready to beat each other to a pulp, and the next, they are helping each other over the link fence. The end result is that the intent was clear that they didn’t like each other, so that did not change, but no more riots broke out while I was there.

While that situation was totally out of my control, there was a time when I took some back. While in Junior High, most of the Jewish kids took Spanish or French, but I figured since I lived among Italians, it would make sense to learn that language. Plus, I've always liked the way Italian sounded, being so melodic (still do). I was the only Jewish kid in the class, and most people there took it as an easy mark, because they already spoke some degree of it. My first year, I did okay. The second year was tougher. The teacher, Mrs. Alleva, lived around the corner from me, and was very nice. When I went to High School, I had to take a third year of lanuage to get an academic degree. It was obviously taught by a different teacher. He was interested in control of the students. Somewhere in the middle of the year, I made an error in translating, and he said something insulting at me in colloquial Italian that I didn't understand, but the whole class laughed. I responded by saying, "Gai kaken oifen yam." He flinched and said, "What was that?" "Yiddish," I replied (the translation is "Go shit in the ocean"). He squinched his face and spat out, "Oh, you're a Jew?" Needless to say, he made the rest of the year hell. He kept cursing me out in Italian, and I would make up curses in Yiddish back (as I only knew two). I just barely passed the Regents, so on the last day of class, he said to me with a smirk, "Because you did not do well enough on the Regents to guarantee a passing grade, I'm giving you a 64 in this class." A classic spite mark, since 65 is passing. "Fine," I relied calmly turning my back on him walking out of the classroom, "You're the only one who teaches this class and I need it to graduate. We get to do this again next year." When my report card came, he had given me a 65.

But I had enough by this time. I started cutting school. It wasn’t a thoughtful, “Okay I’m going to hang out with my friends, I don’t like school, I’d rather take drugs,” kind of thing, but rather it was where I would just hide in my room, or go to Korvettes and spend the day there, or go into Manhattan to play skee-ball on 43rd Street. It was more like mini-anxiety attacks, where I just could not face going. I was truant, showing up 39 days that whole year. My mother had started her job at Metropolitan Life Insurance as a keypunch operator, so I was home by myself when the mail came. I ripped up the cards that said I missed school. They didn’t call, because Lafayette had such a high truancy rate, they couldn’t keep up.

At the end of the semester, my parents found out. I can’t remember if they finally called, sent a letter that I missed, or it was just the report card. What I do have a memory of is that my dad was furious. He went to the school to meet with someone in authority, and at the time I had a fever. When he got home, my fever was pretty high, so my mother made him wait so I could get better before he could get his hands on me. Luckily, by that time, he had sort of calmed down (he was often angry anyway, back then). The solution was that I would go to a psychiatrist to figure out what my problem was. Naturally, my parents picked Dr. Hand, who I had seen in third grade.

I sat in his office in a huge leather chair, he sat in another one directly across from me, and on the other side of the room sat my mother. Dr. Hand asked me questions like, “Do you masturbate?” I looked at him the equivalent of “Are you insane? I don’t know if I would answer you if we were alone, but do you really think I’m going to say anything with my mother sitting RIGHT THERE?” So I stared at him, and wouldn’t answer any of his questions. He started asking my mother about me, as if I wasn’t there. She mentioned that I had a temper. He quickly turned to me and said, “Oh, you have a temper, do you? Seems like a stupid thing to do.” Immediately, I knew he wanted to make me angry to see what it was like, so I very calmly answered, “I guess.” And the more he baited me, the calmer I got, and the redder in the face he got. When the session was over, he was breathing hard and his face was beet red. My mother paid the receptionist for the session, and we put on our coats. I said, “Mom, do I really have to come back here?” She said, “If you’re smart enough to out-think a psychiatrist, I don’t believe he’s going to do you any good.” Instead, I went to summer school.

Needless to say, I was left back that year, which in the long run worked out well for me because it was there that I met Bernie Kugel. He was a year advanced and I was a year behind. It turned out to be one of the key turning points in my life, and he remains one of my best friends.

As I was starting my Junior year, I went to my advisor, who was a miserable person. The line to her office was always twice as long as anyone else’s; she did not really help anyone because she just didn’t care about anyone. I asked her if I had enough credits to graduate to Senior level, and she said yes, without even looking at my file. I asked if she was sure, and she said yes, as she was looking at something else.

Summer after High School
Sure enough, I was one credit short to get out of my Junior year, so I had to take my Senior classes while still being considered a Junior. That is how I graduated, as a Junior. I did not get my photo in the yearbook, did not get to go to my prom (not sure I would have gone anyway), and did not get to go to my own graduation.

So, from first grade on, my life was tossed and turned by most of my teachers who had their own agendas, and who did not see me as an autonomous person but as someone who sat in their class, demanding we learn how to be still with our fingers folded rather than giving us ideas, of possibilities. I don’t know what would have happened if I ended up in 2-1 rather than 2-2, but I would like to think that it would have been more nurturing.

It’s with no small wonder that when I first walked into CBGBs and saw the Ramones, it would have such an impact on me, feeding my resentment with volume, non-complex but out-there, reactionary lyrics, and blazing rock’n’roll. I gave myself into it, because it was how I felt.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dash Rip Rock: Dixie Fried Rock and A Bottle of Jack Daniels at Every Gig

Photos from the Internet

This is the seventh part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally in
Oculus Magazine, Aug/Sep 1997; an update follows.

Dash Rip Rock: Dixie Fried Rock and A Bottle of Jack Daniels at Every Gig

Southern rock has come a long way in the past few decades, progressing through the influence of a lot of brothers: Burnettes, Everlys, Allmans, Van Zandts (aka Lynyrd Skynyrd), Slater and Doobie. Okay, the last two maybe pushing it, but the point is that southern rock as a form is constantly in flux and is currently circling back to its rockabilly roots.

Over the last decade, bands like the Stray Cats provided the listening public with the equivalent of Pat Boone doing “Tutti Frutti.” Recently, however, what is emerging from the underground is a rockabilly hybrid with large doses of punk and DIY sensibilities. In other words, it kicks butt.

In this vein, out of New Orleans comes Dash Rip Rock, a power trio if ever there was one. The band’s present incarnation includes founding members Bill Davis on guitar and most vocals and Hoaky Hickel on bass and “Jack Daniels” (as Davis explained, “It’s in [Hoakey’s] contract that he has a bottle at every gig.” The new kid is Kyle Melancon, on drums.

Davis often says, “We’re faster than [Reverend] Horton Heat, we’re wilder than the Cramps, and we’re better lookin’ than Southern Culture on the Skids.” These details are irrelevant, because while those other bands also have the talent, they don’t necessarily have the flexibility of musical styles.

Witness their latest release, Dash Rip Rock’s Gold Record (Naked Language). The band manages to flex their musical muscles over 15 numbers (plus one hidden cut, based on “Stairway to Heaven”) without contradicting themselves – a rare feat, indeed. After a rave-up cover of the instrumental “Rawhide,” they knock the listener down with a tale of rock’n’roll casualty/suicide, “Johnny Ace” (a much different and less romanticized take than Paul Simon’s “The Late, Great Johnny Ace,” which David contents he’s never heard). Other original songs on the CD contain a fine mix of pop sensibilities (“Isn’t That Enough”), a downright bizarre tale of love (“Liquor Store”) and a rockin’ social commentary about their home town of New Orleans (“DMZ”). In a number of odes written throughout their dozen years, Dash Rip Rock describe their love/hate relationships with the town in which they live. “We go to shows and meet all these people who moved away, and they love hearing these songs,” says Davis.

They also do quite a few covers, or should I say interpretations. Their latest collection includes two Hank Williams numbers: a Cajun version of “Jambalaya” and a speedy “I Saw the Light.” “No one,” Davis declares with a laugh, “expects us to play it that fast.”

Yes, Dash Rip Rock is very comfortable with covers. “When we played in Maine,” Davis adds, “they didn’t want to hear any originals, so we did every cover we knew. About 70 of them.” He continues: “In the small towns, the people are there to socialize, have a beer and dance, and we can play as sloppy as we want. The big city audiences are there to see the band. We are more careful about how we play.”

He emphasized this point by describing the band’s last gig at Brownies, one of their favorite New York venues (in which I was in attendance). “We knew there would be a lot of press there, so we went out to play well.” He continues, “Sometimes when we play we just go out there and let it all out.” Davis also remarked that either way, the band enjoys what they’re doing. They proved that by playing over two hours of rowdy fun. Despite the promoting for more “punk rock” by the opening band that night, The Cash Registers, Dash Rip Rock played a balanced set, mixing punk, pop, rockabilly, country and the kitchen sink.

Lots of stage antics go into a Dash Rip Rock set, and the fun never stops. Someone from the audience is picked to play tambourine, and Hickel shares his bottle of Jack (“unless he wants to get drunk.”). Though not “choreographed,” the act contains certain bits that have been standard for a while. Case in point: Melancon’s striptease during “Let’s Go Smoke Some Pot,” which is done to the tune of “At the Hop,” one of those mocking songs that gets accept ed by mockers and mockees alike. It may also become their breakthrough song on college radio.

Dash Rip Rock’s roots are all over their music. Hell, Davis’s been to Graceland more than two dozen times (“every time we pass through Memphis”). But they also exhibit other influences that expand their vision and increase their talents and showmanship, way beyond the levels achieved by most other bands.

Bill Davis is currently the only original member of the bad, though DRR is still recording. Their latest album, Country Girlfriend, on Abitian Records, was released in 2008. The current line-up is Bill Davis as singer/guitarist, Patrick Johnson on bass guitar, and Eric Padua on drums

Country Girlfriend (2008)
Hee Haw Hell (2007)
Recyclone (2005)
Live From The Bottom Of The Hill (limited release, 2003)
Sonic Boom (2003)
Ned, Fred and Dickhead (limited release, 2001)
Hits and Giggles (2000)
Paydirt (1998)
Dash Rip Rock's Gold Record (1996)
Testosterone (Australian-only release, 1995)
Get You Some of Me (1995)
Tiger Town (1993)
Boiled Alive (1991)
Not of This World (1990)
Ace of Clubs (1989)
Dash Rip Rock (1987)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Barbeque Bob and the Spare Ribs: New Brunswick Bayou Blues

Photos from the Internet

This is the sixth part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally published in
Oculus Magazine, September 1996; an update follows.

Barbeque Bob and the Spare Ribs: New Brunswick Bayou Blues

Bill Monroe’s (a founder of popular bluegrass) obituary was in the paper the day I interviewed Robert Pomeroy, known in music circles as Barbeque Bob, leader of the Spareribs. When I mentioned it to him, Bob reminisced about growing up in Southeast Ohio, across the river from West Virginia. “Country music, I hated it when I was growing up, so I tried to do what I thought was the opposite kind of music: Blues. When I got to New York, it was Blues, jazz, hard rock. I’ve always been kinda antisocial with music. I always liked opposite stuff from what people liked when I was going to high school in the mid-‘70s.”

CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City were his haunts when he first moved to the New York area, Television being his favorite band. Pretty soon Bob and Kevin Trainer, later of the Surreal McCoys, formed Needledick while in college. Soon after, the band Barbeque Bob and the Spareribs was active in the scene. And now, some years on, with a few releases under his belt such as two recent singles on DaDa records, his followers are growing. This includes those who enjoy the music, but do not fully understand the concept, in particular a writer who liked one record, positing the group as “British Blues-based garage.”

After School Special, 1996
While noting the positive side of the review, Bob also takes a bit of umbrage: “Some people are so ignorant about Blues that they don’t realize that Blues – and even electric Blues – comes from the United States. It wasn’t invented by English guys. It’s like punk rock. People think that English people invented punk rock. It pissed me off so much when the Sex Pistols stared their world tour that they started the whole thing all over again. I said, 'Oh, man!' If you went to see what was punk music [in New York] then, there wasn’t any particular sound, and there wasn’t any particular look, either. The bands invented their own look. These bands now, well I read somewhere that Rancid and Green Day are like Sha Na Na, ‘cause the music they’re playing is over 20 years old.”

Pass the Biscuits, 1999
Having been involved in the underground scene in New York for a large number of years, Bob has the voice of experience behind him, such as the fact that he does not rely merely on the Blues. “I tell people it’s kind of like deconstructed rockabilly, ‘cause the way we play you can hear the Blues in it, you can hear the country in it, you can hear all the different parts. It’s probably a type of music that’s never really existed; it’s not a nostalgia kind of thing, it’s an idealized form of how I want things to sound.”

The Sacred and the Propane, 2002
One of the more notable assets of Barbeque Bob and the Spareribs is that they are four extremely talented musicians (and, as is easy to see, friends). The heart of the group is guitarist Ira Spinrad, playing licks hot enough to burn down the house. The soul, however, is Bob. As the night progresses and he gets more into the music, he becomes one with the songs, making sounds and noises that parallel the height of excitement and passion, spontaneously inventing stories to go along with the music in free form, stream-of-consciousness fashion. His harmonica playing at once ignites the songs, as he glides along. At one point, he rolls through the crowd like a harmonica fog, unmiked but heard, and eventually lands under a table. Later, he places the mic under his chin while playing. “Big Walter Horton used to do that,” Bob explains. “I’m very interested in texture, and it give the harmonica a little different sound.”

Burning Sensation, 2006
Their singles are in “glorious, straight-ahead mono,” and soon they’ll have a CD out (also on DaDa), with some cuts in “primitive stereo,” Bob laughs. He continues, “I think it all sounds like the same band. We recorded it all to analog, and then did some overdubs. We remastered some tracks that were on our cassette. The guys in the band said, ‘Are we going to record the songs again?’ I said, ‘No way, we sound like that.’” And that is not to be taken lightly.

All this time later, the band is still boppin’ around, playing often here and in Pennsylvania. The current lineup is as follows: Robert Pomeroy, vocals, guitar, harp; Wild Bill Thompson, guitar, slide guitar; David Lee Ross, drums; Arturo Baguer, Bass; also Tom Diello, Fender bass; Glenn Healy, drums; Charles Otis, drums. They are also still associated with DaDa Records.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Margo Hennebach: Have You Ever Heard an Angel?

All images from the Internet

This is the fifth part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally published in
Oculus Magazine, January/February 1995; an update follows.

Have you Ever Heard an Angel?

Mad Agnes: Margo Hennebach, Mark Saunders, Adrienne Jones

It was sunny when I traveled up to Cold Springs, New York. Woodstock II was happening just across the Hudson. The first Woodstock was a celebration of both rock and folk music. Since the second was only rock (if you want to call that rock), I went to the folk. I interviewed Margo Hennebach.

We sat on her porch having salad culled from her own garden and talked about her recent self-titled album, released on the 1-800-PRIME-CD label. As the interview officially started, Margo picked up her guitar and quietly strummed away (when not running off for the ringing phone). Playing music for relaxation is nothing new for her: she possesses a Masters in Music Therapy from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in England.

Margo Hennebach, 1994
Music was an early love for Margo, a native of Queens, New York. She is an accomplished pianist, guitarist, and vocalist, who has performed publicly since the age of seven. Classically trained, her attraction to the folk genre began while studying at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, where she became involved in a folk music club. “They were way into Celtic music,” she recalled. After moving to England for two years, she became further familiar with traditional songs by joining in the national pastime of hanging out in pubs. “I think I’ve always known how to sing it, I just didn’t realize it.”

Michaelean, 1996
Bringing her training to the traditional sounds brought further appreciation of its appeal: “It’s sort of wailing, and sort of crying and singing all at the same time. It’s interesting inflections with the voice that sometimes reaches high in the chest voice, sometimes in the head voice. Melodically, it seems very ornamented sometimes, but other times it seems very simple and pure. I also like harmonically moving in the modal areas. We might be going from a D chord to a C chord and back again. And I like the drive. I like the rhythm.”

Possessing an eclectic music background that includes classical, opera, Mariachi, and Tex-Mex, Margo is not tied down to one style of folk, which is evident in her CD. The songs are folk-based, but clearly there are outside influences evident in her work. “We’re still using this term ‘folk music,’ even though we’ve already pushed the envelope of what that actually means.” When asked if the category should be widened to include World Music, as it has at many folk festivals, Margo contemplates, “Sometimes, as songwriters, we like to call it contemporary acoustic music. I don’t think too much about what to call it; I just make it.” And make it she does. Her CD is an assortment of stories of life – some hers, some others.

Big Love, 1998
A somewhat introspective, bittersweet look at life, the collection contains some potential breakthrough pieces, such as “Have You Ever Seen an Angel,” thoughtfully about he loss of someone close, or “Winter Snows,” which examines a relationship from intimacy to break-up. “I like to say that there are not more happy love songs out there because when someone is happy and in love, they’re not in their boudoir writing songs,” Margo says with a big smile. “We just want to be happy when we’re happy. We don’t want to think about ‘what is the process of being happy?’ We just want to jump into someone’s arms. Whereas when we’ve broken up with someone, when we’ve lost someone close to us in our lives, that’s when it’s easier for us to contemplate. That’s a place that I find a lot of my material.”

Comfort and Joy
The recording is overall very emotional. Stepping into the Western corner of folk, one song that stands out is “Fool’s Gold Paradise.” I tell Margo how touched I was by the lines, “I am grateful for you hands/I love them so/You know they understand/The sounding of my soul.” Actually, nearly all the songs stand out, which is quite impressive. I query Margo about her songwriting processes: “I’m not a facile writer,” she confesses. “So, to start to try to write some of those things that mean so much to me is like transforming this thing into words. Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible.” And just what makes a song a complete entity? “Bob Dylan sets a poem to music and sometimes the music is almost a little incidental to the words that he’s trying to say. For me, there needs to be like a marriage of the music and the words, otherwise I lose interest. Later in life I discovered that a song is a perfect art form: just to try to bring that sort of otherworldliness of the music to something very practical that has the kind of limitations of it that language has. The songs that I know that are what I consider perfect, I think that’s just incredible.”

One of those songs is covered on the CD, the lilting “Caledonia,” by Doug MacLean, which she recorded before hearing the original version. “I had heard Rod MacDonald perform it. I got some of the words sort of different from the original. I guess that is sort of the process. I float it a little more (than Doug); I make it a little more ethereal.

Live at UH, 2002
The whole process of folk music is based on an oral tradition, so many versions of the songs abound. Margo appreciates that. “In classical music…you would not think of altering a note. ‘This is how Mozart wrote it, this is how you play it.’ In the folk tradition…it’s only natural that things would get changed, like my version of ‘Caledonia.’ Some of the words are different because I learned that through the folk tradition, through someone else doing their rendition. Meanwhile, people are learning my rendition and that’s making them spin off other ways of singing it. You don’t know if that is getting further and further way from Dougie’s song, or in a way maybe it’s closer because it means that we all have a personal relationship with it. I find that really exciting. A different artist is going to make you see something a little different than others.”

Magic Hour, 2003
Margo has a personal philosophy about other performers’ and writers’ songs: “As an artist, I’ll never want to cover a tune the way I’ve heard it done. I’m too rebellious by nature. The only reason why I’d wanna cover it is that I can lend something else to it; I can really involve myself in it. Even if that means doing ‘Oh, Suzanna’ and sticking in a little whistling part.”

“Oh, Suzanna” is a reference to a performance by Madwomen in the Attic a few weeks before this interview at Maxwells, in her old neighborhood of Hoboken, New Jersey. Madwoman in the Attic is a trio consisting of Margo and two other Connecticut-based folkers, Diane Chodkowski and Adrienne Jones, who use the group to try out songs and to just have fun with folk “oldies” and newer covers (e.g., by Richard Schindel).

Who's Mad Agnes?, 2005 DVD
With a solo album out, appearances on numerous compilation albums, and a new album due out early next year, Margo is happy to see folk music spread its wings. “The Hoboken people are now working on our second batch of tapes, albums and demos. The stakes are a little higher, so there’s a lot more attention and care. And I think the music is getting better and better all the time. I would love to see there be a movement, and it’s happening. Music is taking place all over, with people in their own backyards making music, opening up their homes and are bringing people in to have home concerts; sort of taking control of the music a little more. People are deciding, ‘Well, we don’t need to go to a club to make music. We’re just gonna do it ourselves.’ And eventually a community is formed and created around that. Then a coffeehouse exists and that moves perhaps to a theater. It keeps getting bigger and bigger as more and more people get drawn to it. I’m amazed at all these places I can go to, and people will hear music. They won’t know who I am, they won’t know any of the performers who come through, but they learn to trust that people come to their towns and make music for them. I think there’s going to be a maturity in the music that I already hear happening now. And I think that’s going to keep happening.”

Revenants, 2006
After our lunch and talk, Margo gives me a tour of an ancient cemetery and then directs me to the train. On the walk back, it starts to pour. Reassuringly, I was just as drenched as those at Woodstock II, except for me, it was in the name of folk. A good tradition.

* * *

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen Margo play. In fact, I’ve had the pleasure to see all three members of her present trio, Mad Agnes, play in one form or another, but always with Margo as the center. Margo (vocals, piano, synth, guitars, bass) I’ve seen a few times solo, in Madwoman in the Attic with Adrienne Jones (vocals, guitars, bass), as mentioned above at Maxwells, and with her husband Mark Saunders (vocals, acoustic, electric and National steel guitars, mandolin, bass) at Fast Folk and the Sidewalk CafĂ©. I’m looking forward to seeing the Mad Agnes, who mixes folk and humor into a good-natured show.

Revenants (2006-7)
Who's Mad Agnes? DVD (2005)
Magic Hour (2003)
Live at UH (2002)

Comfort & Joy (2000) PrimeCD
Big Love (1998) PrimeCD

Michaelean (1996) PrimeCD
Margo Hennebach (1994) PrimeCD

There Is No Rose (2002)
Voice In The Mirror (2002)
Talking River (1999)
All My Days & Nights (1995)


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Mary Lou Lord: Who is Mary Lou Lord?

Photos from the Internet

This is the fourth part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally published in
Oculus Magazine, April/May 1997; an update follows.

Mary Lou Lord: Who is Mary Lou Lord?

Calling Mary Lou Lord at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning, she was very gracious, even after only a couple hours of sleep. It seems that some strangers had followed her car the night before; then someone called her at 3 a.m. from his cell phone after tracking her number and address from her license plate. After the call, she was up, nervously trying to train Mona, her Pomeranian, “to sound like a German Shepard.” She pondered both puzzled and angrily, “He didn’t even know me!”

After two releases on Seattle’s Kill Rock Stars label (Mary Lou Lords and Martian Saints!), who Mary Lou Lord “is” is about the be upped on the music scene since her recent signing with Work Records. “I got a car and have more time to myself, but nothing feels different – though I feel inspired that this can happen. To be believed in is incredible to me!” And despite a potentially lucrative deal, both spiritually and financially, you can still find her singing in the train stations of Boston for money.

Mary Lou Lord, 1995
Performing in the subways is a very key part of who “is” Mary Lou Lord. She has been doing it for nine years, five days a week, seven hours a day, with approximately 10,000 people hearing her per hour, by her own estimates. Starting off knowing only one song – hoping the train would come quickly – she was forced to then learn two songs. Even at that stage, what kept her apart from most subway musicians was the quality of the songs she covered. Not going for the usual Beatles, To-10, etc., that one hears constantly (“I don’t know ‘American Pie’”), Mary Lou chose more obscure numbers, by the likes of The Bevis Frond, Daniel Johnston, and Jimmy Bruno, as well as “Joni (Mitchell), Nick (Lowe), Neil (Young), and Bob (Dylan),” as she states in one of her own compositions, “His Indie World.” She gained a more eclectic following, even for a subway crowd. People who would stop to talk were music lovers who recognized the tunes. “The difference was I was playing decent songs. They’d say, ‘I know what you’re doing, and it’s a good thing,’ even though I sucked.”

Starting out listening mostly to folk and “progressive” music, Mary Lou realized at some point that she had missed the whole punk movement. By listening to more modern DIY and punk, she realized their connection to folk (“three chords, a little rebellion, a little bit of politics”). From there she kept tracing other bands’ influences until she came to a roots music in itself – rockabilly. What impressed her were the songs. “Fuckin’ good songs rule,” she exclaimed, and then continued, “If it starts out being a song, it will continue being a song.” Turning her back on the electronics of the Progressive rock sound, she acknowledged the burning question, “Where’s the song beneath that sound that will last 20 years?”

Martian Saints!, 1997
The song is, in part, the reason she has covered some relatively underground artists while singing in the underground, as well as having covers-laden releases (for Mary Lou Lords, in total, thirteen songs, of which four are originals). “Others deserve to be heard,” Mary Lou posited. “A song can only have life if it’s listened to.” By listening to her records and then seeking out the originals, as she has done (and still does), a listener could potentially “help me help them.”

After meeting and befriending Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill (also on Kill Rock Stars) at The Rat in Boston, Mary Lou headed out to Olympia, Washington, a few years ago, landing a job at the Smithfield Coffee Shop. From there, it was just a mater of time before she was signed on her own merits. On Mary Lou’s first, self-titled Kill Rock Stars release, all but one of the cuts are “a girl and her guitar,” with simple production values, presenting her as most have heard her in the subways. The exception is the opening cut, “Lights Are Changing,” presented with a full band and friend Juliana Hatfield (an “oddball, weirdo, cool chick”).

Got No Shadow, 1998
After a well documented (elsewhere) friendship and feud later (to which she wisely refers, “Who gives a flying fuck?”) Mary Lou found herself back on the east coast.

Her second release, Martian Saints!, is more heavily produced and, consequently, Mary Lou is not totally satisfied with it. Describing it as “too slick” and suffering from “theremin-overload” (“except for my cut, ‘Salem ‘76’”), she expresses, as an example, the Peter Laughner cover of “Cinderella Backstreet” as “too foofy, not gutsy.” She promises the next release, on which she is working, will “make up for it.”

Live: City Sounds, 2001
Her list of associates has been and is pretty astounding, including members of bands as diverse as Helium, the Presidents of the United States, and co-label member Elliott Smith (referred complementarily by Mary Lou as “The absolute shit! He’s fragile in my eyes, and I want to protect him.”). As she heads toward recording her next album, Mary Lou is also happy with her friend and new collaborator, Nick Saloman, of the Bevis Frond, who also joined her on some of the cuts from Martian Saints! Apparently, she had found people who know who is Mary Lou Lord.

Baby Blue, 2004
Sad to say, Mona passed away this year (pictures can be seen at MML's Website, listed below). Meanwhile, Mary Lou Lord continues recording and performing/touring, but has never broken past the college radio / indie cult artist stage. While it may not mean riches for her, her audience is a more select, and appreciative group. She still champions Elliott Smith, who committed suicide. Whether she still sings in the subway I don’t know, but it would not surprise me. I keep hoping to run into her down there.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hamell on Trial by Fire

Images from the Internet

This is the third part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally published in
Oculus Magazine, December/January 1997/1998; an update follows.

Hamell on Trial by Fire

Ed Hamell is a likeable guy. He’s very energetic and a bit frenetic, has a shaved head, a solid yet wiry body, a quick wit and a total lack of fear to speak his mind at any time. His act is a powerhouse of autobiography, stunning observation and humor, and his songs tell tales of his varied life, including growing up in Syracuse, NY, temporarily settling in Austin, TX, and crisscrossing the country numerous times. Hamell mixes a hybrid of rock’n’roll, punk, and singer/songwriter styles; he is alone on the stage, playing an acoustic guitar and dealing with personal subjects, usually in story form; and yet the music is rockin’.

Conviction, 1989
Faced with this contradiction, he replied, “Be an artist. Patti Smith is an artist. I aspire to be of that caliber. What kind of artist? In the medium in which I work: rock’n’roll. When people say, ‘What do you do?’ I answer, ‘I play solo rock’n’roll.’ Period. I mean, Professor Longhair certainly did it. One guy and a piano can be rock’n’roll. Jerry Lee Lewis can rock this room infinitely more than 9 billion bands. We don’t need any more bands.”

Big As Life, 1996
On Hamell on Trial’s third CD, The Chord is Mightier Than the Sword (Mercury), he is accompanied by the standard guitar/bass/drums setup rather than just paying solo, as on his first release, Big As Life. Yet people’s misconceptions about Hamell’s style come from public expectations about the popular, standardized image of the singer/songwriter form Hamell adapts to his own needs. As always, Hamell faces the issue head on: “The folk community thought I was way too high testosterone, and as for the rock community, I was almost tempted to hire a drummer and bass player to sit on stage and not do anything, just so I could say, ‘They’re there.’ And if you’re seeing me, with the harmonic structure of my guitar and the rhythmic of what I’m doing, close your eyes, and I’ll bet you you’ll hear drums and bass.”

The Chord Is Mighter Than the Sword, 1997
One of the more telling songs of his life on The Chord, related through a frenzied, spoken piece, is about physically colliding with John Lennon when Hamell was in his early teens. “When that happened,” Hamell explained, “I was young; I didn’t understand the mechanism. I really loved and respected him, and he definitely changed my life. I felt really bad that he thought I ran into him. And all my friends were there, and they thought I ran into him, when in reality, I was pushed into him. And for years, I never said anything to anybody about it. I was embarrassed. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that this was a really cool thing that happened; much better than if I had gotten his autograph. I mean, he told me to fuck off. And quite frankly, so many people now tell me to fuck off that I can honestly say, ‘Better men have told me to fuck off than you, pal.’”

Ed's Not Dead: Hamell Comes Alive, 2001
Hamell, who grew up in lower-class Syracuse, said his view of the hard factory life drew him to the rock and punk of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Stooges and the Ramones with an open mind, while turning his back on the folk music with which he is associated. “I need rock. I don’t listen to any folk music at all, despite that I’m considered a folk guy. I gravitate, invariably, back to all them ‘70s bands. I listened to the Ramones today; just a lot of fun. The one thing about the grunge thing is it’s aggressive and rockin’, and it’s very fuckin’ serious shit. Punk never really took off in the U.S., because kids in the suburbs – and I lived in the suburbs – they were listening to Skynyrd; they were very threatened but didn’t know it. ‘I’m a little threatened by this,’ they would say, ‘I think these guys stink,’ and ‘They’re only playing three chords.’ Now when you listen to the Ramones stuff – whether ore not they did it instinctively, since I can’t imagine DeeDee was there with a drafting pencil or anything – it’s brilliant shit.”

Songs For Parents Who Enjoy Drugs, 2003
Hamell showcases his songwriting and performing power on songs like “Red Marty,” about the suicide of a crackhead friend, and “The Vines,” dealing with the monotony of society-approved manual labor. “There’s a lot of guys my age that went into factory work right out of high school. I’m hardly vindictive, because I think it’s sad. By the time they’re 30, they sort of look at me and say, ‘When are you going to get a real job, and when are you gonna quit entertaining this stream.’ But then, at the age of 35, they were laid off, and at 35 it’s tough to compete, especially if you have no other vocational training.” He does admit, however, that “I wish I wrote poppy little rock songs that sold millions of records, and everybody went ‘Oh, that’s totally rock’n’roll.’ My life would be a lot easier. But organically, what comes out of me are these stories with this bullshit in the background. I know it’s a difficult sell. I understand that, so in many respects, my music needs to be seen live.

Tough Love, 2003
As with any artist, the gruff sound hides the blue collar, struggling artist insecurities. “When I started writing songs,” Hamell admits, “I’m thinking, is this a song? It’s more prose with me fuckin’ around in the background. And yet, it was what came naturally to me. And my wife, who’s a writer, would say to me, ‘No, it’s a song,’ and I respect my wife’s opinion 100 percent, but I’m still thinking, ‘I don’t know.’ And the response from the crowd, they would say, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s a song,’ and I’d think, “I don’t know.’ It took a guy who had written for the Austin Chronicle who said “Blood of the Wolf” is the most daring song that an Austin songwriter had written in 10 years,’ and I said, ‘Right!’ Then I started writing.”

Choochtown, 2008
I interviewed Ed in his publicist’s office off Union Square, and had such a fun time talking to him. After a horrific traffic accident and an extended period of recovery that occurred after my interview, Ed Hamell/Hamel on Trial signed to Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label out of Buffalo. He has been recording and releasing CDs, which have met with wide critical praise. And he is right, that as good as his CDs are, it’s the live show that makes him and his material sparkle the most. I’ve seen him perform a few times pre-accident, and look forward to the next time I get to see him.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Professor and Maryanne

Professor and Maryanne, Fast Folk (1996)
FFotos © Robert Barry Francos

This is the second part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally published in
Oculus Magazine, August 1996; an update follows.

Professor and Maryanne

Fairy Tale, 1993
A wet and dreary spring evening, and I’m in the Luna Lounge, on the Lower East Side. The duo of The Professor and Maryanne are sandwiched in time between their soundcheck and an interview with Videowave, a local access cable show.

Y’see, I’m a fan of the group, who have just released their second recording, Lead Us Not Into Penn Station. Their music is generally ballads, in a modern jazzy folk vein, but they mix in a wide swath of rock’n’roll, blues, waltz, and sheer magic. And lyrically, the songs are usually quite intelligent, without being cryptic. Tending to be in story form, the tunes tell of flea circuses, fairy tales, and abundance of humorous (and fruity) deaths (more on this later), and all forms of love. In fact, some of the strangest written love songs I’ve heard in a long time.

Lead Us Not Into Penn Station, 1996
But first, some background. Okay, so obviously the group got their name from that ‘60s television show. The Professor, Ken Rockwood, however, really was a professor – of computer science. He must have been a blast to have in front of the classroom, as his easygoing, funny banter implies. Now he plays the guitar and sings. The Maryanne half is misleading however, as she is really Danielle Brancaccio (isn’t that a great name?), and ex-beautician from Staten Island. She also sings, with an easy, distinctive voice and style that can be both incredibly vulnerable and sexy.

Having met in a bar in Staten Island (when questioned on the validity of this point, they insist it is true), Ken and Danielle quickly formed a friendship and were soon imbedded in a pop band called Pet the Poodle. “We weren’t very good,” admits Ken. Danielle adds, “Yeah, it was pretty bad,” to which Ken chimes in, “But it was a long time ago.”

Professor and Maryanne, 2001
Well, they’re obviously improved, having been signed by Hoboken’s Bar/None Records after their fourth gig (Ken admits, “It was a stroke of luck, maybe”). They released either first collection, Fairy Tale, in 1993. Though rough in spots, there were obviously indications of things to come. Some songs remain in the group’s live show, such as “Thief,” “The Only Cool Place in Town,” and the amazing title cut. Ken explains that, “Fairy Tale took a long time to record. It was a first record and we felt a bit of pressure. It came out the way it did and we like it, but the second one was much more relaxing, so we enjoy it more. We had fun making it, and it came out better in some ways.” Danielle further explained the process that led to the ease of Lead Us: “We were off for that whole year [between recordings] and then performed 20 gigs a month before we made the record, so we were ready to do it, whereas the first record we were new at it.”

Runaway Favorite, 2003
Along with songs of love (my favorite by far is “Willow,” the opening cut of Lead Us), one of the aforementioned consistent themes that run throughout their songs, is death. The imagery varies from the subject (“Luck,” “The Only Cool Place in Town”) to passing comments (“Cadillac”), whether ludicrous, perky or wistful. Ken, who writes most of the songs, said, “I don’t quite know how that happens. I think it’s more of a Mickey Spillane kind of death; you know, dirty detective sort of death, where death isn’t really death. But I have a slew of more death songs for the next record. Literally, many more death songs!” As a sidebar, Danielle responded with a witty query: “What death songs?”

Every Day, 2008
Finally, it’s time for the show. Danielle, dressed in overalls, sings her songs emphatically, making you want to be there for her to sing “Good Morning.” Ken, in his suspenders and guitar, sings his songs with an enjoyable touch of cynicism (especially the death songs), makes humorous comments between songs in a steam of consciousness was, even quoting vintage Bugs Bunny lines (“If my friend Rocky was here…”). Danielle doesn’t say much and enjoys the banter along with the audience, occasionally making sly comments. She declares, “I’m kind of quiet anyway. I don’t have much to say. Sometimes I get a little gumption. If he’s in a certain mood where he talks a lot, I just let him go.” Ken admits, “I usually talk a lot.”

Tin Heart, 2008
I happy to report that The Professor and Maryanne are still performing around town, at places like the Rockwood Music Hall, in Manhattan on Allen Street. They are also still producing recordings, such as their latest, Tin Heart.