Thursday, February 26, 2009

Musings During A 3-Hour Layover And 3 Flights

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos 

It is taking me three flights to get to my destination, including one going 400 miles in the opposite direction. I really, truly enjoy puddle-jumper planes that seat 24 passengers or less. True the luggage space is smaller, but, but usually the legroom is larger; seems an even compromise. 

The person who designed the luggage on wheels deserves some kind of medal or statue. Not that mine has one, though. It keeps me “honest” and from over-packing, though. I always feel better when I travel with carryon, especially on international trips where I don’t have to wait on line at customs and also wait for luggage. It always feels like some kind of “coup”, in a Native American / First Nations sense of the word. 

What is the point of having monitors blaring some news channel in the waiting areas, other than the airline getting subsidized by said news channel? Just makes rude, loud people on cell phones that much louder to talk over them. 

I’ve never ridden one of those intra-terminal golf cart vehicles that take people from gate to gate, but they look like fun. 

Morally, why is it more than twice as expensive to fly from New York to Toronto one way as it is from New York to Mexico City with a return trip? 

Why do most airports that have moving walkways usually only have them going in one direction; aren’t there people needing to go both ways? Also, if one is on a moving sidewalk and no desire to walk it, please stand to the right so that other can. 

The prices for food near the gates…WHAT?! 

I saw a couple of those card inserts they put in publications for subscriptions on the floor by the gate for MAD magazine; it made me smile. 

I understand the desire to chew gum when in an airplane to ease ear pressure, but I do not understand the desire to snap it when there is someone strapped into a seat next to you less than a foot away. 

One of my favorite things about waiting at the gate to fly to Montreal is the higher possibility of hearing Yiddish spoken.

Reading the Globe and Mail or New York Times is challenging when sitting in an airplane seat, especially if you are not on the aisle, and extra-especially if the person in front of you pushes their chair into a reclining position. This is also true if one is using a laptop. 

Television programs still show people saying hello and goodbye at the gate, which was an impossibility even before 9/11. This makes it difficult to meet friends during long layovers because it means yet another trip through the screening.

Air Canada used to give away earphones like they were M&Ms, but now they charge $3. Instead, on the first flight I turned the “personal TV” to Family Guy because I know them well enough that I don’t need the sound to laugh at the lines (which is like the time…). On the second leg, I did the same with The Big Bang Theory (Sheldon has the best t-shirts, but that’s for another musings blog). The last leg, which was the longest, I watched RocknRolla which did not seem to have as much action as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, so I ended up watching most of it in double speed; then I watched a documentary about silent film comedies, which seemed appropriate without headsets. 

I have had a number of fun conversations with row mates on planes, but on the first leg of this particular journey, the person was kind of rude. She literally slammed down the armrest and then hogged all of it; she held up a book so I could not see out the window, though it was pretty obvious I was trying to do so; she was texting and then phoning as soon as we grounded, before docking (a no-no); though I said hello and goodbye, she never even looked in my direction as acknowledgement. I respect not wanting to talk, but even some kind of look to concede someone else is there seemed out of the question. As she was in her early ‘20s, maybe she will learn eventually. 

While there is still a bit of distance to walk in the Toronto airport from the international area to the domestic side, it is still way better than it used to be where one had to take a long walk, an intra-airport shuttle bus, and then another long walk, which took a long time. Thanks for finishing the construction! 

Customs was a snap! Basically the guy asked me the purpose of my visit, and one other question. After a 20 minute wait to get to the desk, I’m through in less than 1 minute. The woman at the airline gate checking tickets looks a lot like Janeane Garofalo. A pilot is sitting in front of me in the waiting area reading a travel guide to Cuba, something one is not likely to see at a US airport. Except for the bilingual signs, Toronto’s airport feels the same as any in New York. 

On the second flight, I sat next to a fiddle player who put the instrument into the overhead. She looks like someone I know named Melissa R-. While wanting to sleep more than talk, she informs me that she fiddles for fun and does not record. She has a cold I come to learn; fiddlesticks, I hope I don’t catch anything. Woman in front of me is speed reading the thick Slumdog Millionaire novel, Evelyn Woods style, with her finger swishing over each page. Though a short flight, she is about a quarter of the way through the book. No matter how much one retains, how does one absorb and think about what one is reading? 

Only about a 20 minute wait between the second and third flight, and the sun is setting. My left tush is sore, and I am only about half way through my travels. For the last flight, I’m at the window seat for row 19. Only there is no window at this seat; there is one behind me and in front, but not next to me. As if that wasn’t claustrophobic enough, I’m sitting next to a “gentleman” who is not only hogging the armrest, but his elbow is sticking into my ribs. Plus, he's a wide sitter, so his knee is pressing mine. I do not like this guy. He is on his way to a biotech conference to make a presentation, so he should be smart enough to know better. By the time this flight is over, odds are I will be pushing back. 

I love the free newspapers. Today I’ve read The Globe and Mail, The National Post, and the Ottawa Citizen. The big stories seem to be the economy and about a Saskatoon ex-tribal leader who, after being admonished by a judge for his remarks, was then found not guilty of public antiemetic remarks (basically, he publicly claimed that if Hitler didn’t do such a good job, the Jews would have taken over). 

In just a little over a month, planes have crashed into the Hudson and a house near Buffalo, and yet, I feel no fear about flying, even during turbulence. Was just about to nap, when the infant in the seat directly in front of mine starting wailing, and yet I find this less annoying than listening to someone on a cell phone; perhaps because the caller chooses to be disruptive, and baby is just being itself. 

Took 35 minutes for the guy next to me to retreat (somewhat) to his side. I guess I could have asked him to move, but despite being from New York, I’m not that aggressive. Maybe I just work better as passive aggressive? As all this was settling down, he suddenly flips up the armrest that separates us. If he asked, I wouldn’t have cared, actually, but he didn’t ask, he just assumed. Wonder how he is with people who work for him? 

Someone close ordered some Pringles. What do people see in them? They are so much more bland compared to Wise, Kerrs, or Utz. Never been much of a Lay’s man (yes, I can eat just one), but I still prefer them over Pringles. 

Left my apartment at 7:30 AM, and it is almost 9 PM, with at least a half hour to go to landing. I am tired, Jack! 

Landed 15 minutes late, but considering I took three flights and was able to meet with each of them and get here this close to being on-time, I am happy.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Meeting Philippe Petite, 1976

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from Internet

When Man on Wire won the Academy Awards for Best Documentary on February 22, 2009, I immediately had to smile, having interacted with the film’s subject Philippe Petite. It was during the summer of 1976, known then simply as “The Bicentennial.”

I watched the Twin Towers go up. Being a new teen, its rise seemed to go on and on. One building went faster than the other, but with the impatience of youth, time seemed to be passing very slowly as it kept going up and up and up. Finally, the huge antenna was placed.

In 1974, Petite became infamous when he and others illegally set up cables, and he walked across the quarter mile high gap between the buildings a number of times.

Even in the early days before 24/7 360 surveillance in the name of freedom, it seems hard to believe that this group could physically set it all up without the knowledge of, if not the city government, than at least the building management (e.g., he had fake ID), who probably saw it as positive PR when there had been so much negative press about what many considered an eyesore to the skyline. Why else would they leave Petite’s autograph on the building’s corner, clearly visible from the roof viewing walkway, right until the attacks 28 years later?

In 1976, I found myself unemployed from the Brooklyn movie theater I had started working the same year as Petite’s Tower walk. My pal Dennis Concepcion, whom I had recently met at Queens College (which I had recently started attending) said he would put in a good word at his place of employment, part of the Baskin-Robbins franchise. This particular one was on Seventh Avenue South, between Bleecker Street and Christopher Street, nearly directly across from Sheridan Square.

It truly was a fun place to work, especially in that hot summer. Our hands would freeze while bodies stayed hot standing next to the refrigerator motors. Unlike most franchises that adhere to strict rules about dress, size of portions, and inventory, this particular franchise was run very loose. If people were nasty to us, we would give them less of a scoop that those we liked, especially it if was Rocky Road, which was particularly brutal to scoop.

For example, there was this guy who came in regularly who looked very Madison Avenue with his suit, glasses, and attaché case. A really friendly person, he mentioned that the next day was his 10th anniversary. I told him if they both came in the next day, I would gladly give them a gratis anniversary cone. He came in the next days with another man who was dressed the exact same way: even their hairstyles and ties matched. He introduced the man as his 10-year partner. “Oh!” I said, and gave them both their promised cones. As I smiled and handed it over, he said, “You seem surprised. Does this bother you?” I truthfully answered, yes I was surprised (considering how “straight” he looked), but no I was not in the least bothered. We chatted a while, and he continued to come back every day (and it was always good to see him).

I’m not quite sure why I was surprised, because we were diagonally across the square from the Stonewall, and directly across from another gay bar, where patrons who struck out there tried to hit on us. While I always took it as a complement, truthfully, I was never interested. I only met one person who got angry at my turning him down, who went into a rant about “Why would a straight person be working here!” After giving him a slightly smaller portion, I asked him to leave and not come back ever again.

One of the outcomes of working there was that my subway stop was directly under the Waverly Theater, and I had the opportunity to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show very early in its Midnight run, when it was just me and a few gay couples, most of them making out. Also, famous people would sometimes come into the parlor, and I served the likes of Barbara Walters, Mark Leonard (who played Spock’s father), and Paul Benedict (the British neighbor of The Jeffersons). One time when I wasn’t there, Divine came by and Dennis gave me his autograph (which I still have).

One night I was working and saw a flash of fire in front of the store through the window. It was a hot night, but considering we served cold ice cream, the store was not really crowded. Between the bits of bright flame that shot out every minute or so, I could see there was a swarm growing. Making sure we were covered, I went outside to check out what was going on. At the center of the growing crowd was a man dressed totally in black and a top hat who was juggling, breathing fire, and doing magic tricks for the group. He did it mime style, though not in whiteface. After watching for a while, I realized it was Philippe Petite, and it also seemed I was the only one who recognized him. His tightrope walking stunt was famous, and even his name was somewhat known, but people either did not recognize his visage, or just never put the two together.

Over the next few nights he appeared a few times, as it seemed he picked the corner in front of the store as “his spot.” Honestly, I didn’t see any problem with it because he drew people into the store when he finished, especially with causing more heat with the flames. There were two teen girls who also worked there, whose father owned the liquor store next door (it is still there). They thought highly of themselves and could have stepped out of one of those teens-with-attitude films. I refused to take crap from them (for example, I would not let them take out the live Ramones tape I had made at CBGB the night before that I was playing on the store tapedeck – this was before their first record – and replace with the Bay City Rollers), so when these nasty bimbettes wanted to chase him away, I would not let them. Heck, it was Philippe Petite, fer cryin’ out loud.

On one particularly hot night (the whole summer was a steambath), I went to watch him, and could see the sweat pouring down from under his top hat. Breathing fire surely must have been hard on him. So, I went into the store, filled a cup with some fruit punch (I figured it would be easier on this throat than something carbonated), and went back outside. Even in the dark, I could see that he was hotter-than-hot. Without thinking, I put my hand out with the drink, right through the crowd. Instantly, I realized that I would be interrupting his show, and it could be considered rude, so I flushed. Brilliantly, he managed to make my giving him this drink into part of the act, and he drank it down. Then I slunk back into the store.

The next day, he showed up at the counter. In his very thick French accent, he thanked me for the drink, and said in all the years that he had been doing magic and breathing fire, I was the first person ever to offer him a drink. I told him that while I couldn’t usually get out to see him, especially if there were customers, he was always welcome to come in after and I’d give him a free drink. He did so occasionally throughout the summer. He was a cultural (and counter-cultural) hero, after all!

The job only lasted into the fall. The owner of the store lost it to his ex-wife in a divorce deal. She fired everyone and started it from scratch – and strict to the letter. It was the wrong idea for that neighborhood at that time period, so it closed in less than a year. Now it’s a restaurant. Luckily, I went back to working in a different theater in Brooklyn. As for Dennis, we are still friends, but I never saw Petite in person again.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Theater Review: Psychomachia

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Play information at the end

Anyone who has been reading these blogs knows that I am a fan of theater, and have a warm place in my heart for the independents, aka off-off-Broadway. Then I heard about a production group called The Bridge Theatre Company, a DIY (with sponsors) troupe that sponsors readings of new, yet produced plays. In this case, it was Jennifer Lane’s Psychomachia.

The definition of psychomachia (translated as "Soul Warrior") is, according to (I kid you not, it was the best definition I found), “a literary concept named for a Latin poem by Prudentius. The poem dealt with the inner conflict within one's soul, between virtue and vice, through allegorical representations.” In other words, the old devil and angel on one’s shoulders trying to influence one.

This was not a standard theatrical production, but rather A Next Stop Workshop, where the actors are lined up on stage with the script, sitting on chairs, while they read their parts. Due to the static nature of the actors, the stage directions are read out loud, here ably by Matthew Groff. This reading was directed by Robin A. Paterson.

If I may digress here, when I was editor of a college newspaper many years ago, I saw a reading that I thought was terrible and gained the public wrath of the theater director of the school. Now I see what the process is supposed to be, and it is quite powerful.

The play is a well-written family drama with some sparks of humor, but it is inevitably going to be compared to August: Osage County. As I describe parts of it below, anyone who has seen or read A:OC may catch on to it as well. Please note that while I don’t think this play is derivative, all I’m saying is there are similarities.

[Ashlie Atkinson]
The story centers on Lydia, played by Ashlie Atkinson, and let me make this clear right out, this woman can act, Jack! She’s been in a number of indie films (5 of which are in post-production) and was a semi-regular on the cable show, Rescue Me. Ashlie handles Lydia strongly, never letting her slip into a cliché, and puts on her character like a second skin. And I’m not saying this because she also skated for Gotham Girls Roller Derby’s Manhattan Mayhem team, under the name Margaret Thrasher. Next thing you know, she’ll be playing bass with Suzy Hotrod, though the acting world needs her more.

[Christian Campbell]
Lydia is the surviving twin, as her brother, Johnny has committed suicide in a schizophrenic manic attack. Lydia still has conversations with him, both through flashbacks and within her mind (hence the play title). Christian Campbell plays Johnny as focused, yet subtly insane, with high intelligence (the type of role Freddy Rodriguez may play). Actually, Johnny is verbally one of the hardest roles in the show, with lots of patters of information and thick philosophical leanings. Christian manages to keep the dialog flowing despite this, as it would be easy to make Johnny sound like a nutcase rather than hyper focused. Canadian-born Christian had pretty much started his career in the cult classic Degrassi Junior High (as Todd), and continued on as semi-regular in such shows as TekWar, Malibu Shores, The $treet, All My Children, The Book of Daniel and quite a few films.

[Jennifer Laine Williams]
Their younger sister, Charlotte, is played by Jennifer Laine Williams, whose previous show, The View From Here, was reviewed at this blog, dated November 12, 2008. Charlotte’s character is somewhat muted in the early stages of the show, but becomes a key fulcrum to the story. Jennifer, who is physically smaller than anyone in the cast, brings the entire theater to a complete standstill at one point in a very shocking moment that would make Edvard Munch proud. This character is very different than the one she played in the earlier play, and Jennifer brings some nice layers to the role, rather than having her fade into the background in the early stages of the story.

[Debra Jo Rupp]
The mother of these siblings, Margaret, is played by Debra Jo Rupp. Margaret is a loud and self-centered alcoholic, who almost seems intent on single-handedly bringing the family to its knees in the wake of her son’s death. Debra is widely known for her comedic acting (the mother in That ‘70s Show, Jerry’s agent in Seinfeld, Phoebe’s sister-in-law in Friends, and so many others), but even with the humorous bits (and Margaret gets both the most laughs and some of the strongest pathos), Debra shows just how good she is on the dramatic side, as well. While she pulls some of the painful and pained lines in the show, she never fails to be a sympathetic character under Debra’s interpretation.

[Kevin Geer]
Her husband and father to the brood is Edward, portrayed nobly by Kevin Geer, a character actor of note who appears regularly on stage, screen and television; one of those “I’ve seen you in everything, but I can’t remember your name…” In other words, he is a true journeyman actor. Again, this character could be played for a buffoon, or emotionally unstable, but Kevin not only makes him sensitive, but gives a wonderful slow burn that builds through the entire piece right until the end, when he (and Debra) left me wanting more, to know what happens to the characters.

[Eric Michael Gillett]
Eric Michael Gillett’s role of Dr. Harold Telsey is also a pivotal one, if quite short. Though not in the play much, Telsey is sort of like a moon whose gravitational pull has a decaying affects on both generations of the family. Eric plays him quietly, and thereby subtly, never giving an indication on the surface to the internal turmoil that he causes. While the character could be made to be antagonistic, which would be the easy way to play him, by holding back Eric becomes more of an enigma, strengthening his place.

[John Calvin Kelly]
The last character is Lydia’s boyfriend, Ezra Stark, who is aptly named because he is the most underwritten character in the piece. John Calvin Kelly breathes life into Ezra, which is required. But there needs to be more interaction with him, to flesh him out. Perhaps if he showed up at the hospital and became part of the drama there? I’m not sure, since I can’t do fiction. While there are two important scenes with him in the second half, he comes across more as a place for Lydia to react to, rather than being, well, there. John makes as much as he can with the role, making a 2 dimensional role into 2-1/2.

The story is mostly a drama, with some very strong comedic bits, and a few shocks as well. As a workshop, I’m not sure if this is a reading of a final product, or one in transition. There are a couple of places where characters can be fleshed out a little more (mostly Harold and Ezra, and perhaps Charlotte), but it is well on its way.

On a personal note, again, I thank the company for its splendid work. By just sitting in a chair, they managed to convey real tears, strong emotions, and a clear purpose, one that could easily have been lost by the static nature of the stage. I have a newfound respect for theatrical readings, and look forward to others.

Theatre 54 @ Shetler Studios
224 West 54 Street, 12 Floor
February 20th - 3:00pm & 8:00pm
February 21st - 8:00pm

Mission Statement: The Bridge Theatre Company is a New York-based ensemble of American and Canadian theatre artists dedicated to the cross-border development, workshop and production of new plays. Founded in 2004, The Bridge is a division of Theatrical Development Groups (TDG)…and the resident theatre company at Shetler Studio, a theatrical complex comprising 22 upscale rental studios including two theatres in the heart of the Theatre District – offering a unique infrastructure to support Bridge projects form discovery through development to performance and beyond.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Favorite Releases of the Year

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
Originally published at

The term “top 10 list” has always been kind of vague for me, when it comes to independent music. Things like mainstream films and music are released at a specific date (“dropped”), and usually out for a definitive time, so it’s easier to say, “this was released at X time.”

For independent music, even when it is released “officially,” it usually makes its rounds to the listeners over a longer, extended period of time. Just because a CD is finished, it gets sent to stores (hopefully), put up on Websites to hear or buy (or both), and usually is promoted virally, which takes time.

In honor to that process, and since I usually write about music that does not follow a schedule, rather than doing a traditional “released this year” kind of deal, I am going to list the top 10 CDs I’ve listened to the most this year that have been out within a reasonable time, arbitrary to my choice. Another criteria is that I can listen to them from beginning to end, with no desire to skip a song. Note that I have not put in the addresses of the labels, but rather suggest you look at their MySpace sites to hear samples of their sounds.

CHESTY MALONE AND THE SLICE ‘EM UPS - Now We’re Gonna See What Disaster Really Means. This band is everything a horror-themed hardcore band (horrorcore?) should be. You’ve got “13 Killers,” “Trouble with Cannibals,” “Livereaters,” and even a “Beavershot.” With Anthony Allen van Hoek’s screeching guitar, Hans von Severed’s bass and Tom Murphy’s drum bringing up the bottom, and fronted by the wonderfully named and fully committed Jacqueline Blownapart aka Chesty Malone aka Dotti Douchbag aka Vikki Voltage aka (TBD), this is a wrecking ball to the brain, with fun splattered all over it.

CHOKING SUSAN – [Self-titled]. Hailing from Detroit, this heavily Ramones-influenced band is fronted by the energetic Colleen Caffeine, a mainstay on the punk scene in MC. Seven strong old school punk anthems speed by. While my fave cuts include “Falling Round and Round,” “Baby Doll,” the point-out-the-poseur anthem “Punker,” and their should-be classic “I’m Alone,” there is just one solid song after another. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see them play CBGB, and I am looking forward to their next release.

ANGELA ESTERLINGEarning Her Wings. Angela is an artist whose music is bluegrass-twinged country with a touch of pop. Along with a sweet and powerful testament to one of her idols, Johnny Cash (“Dear Johnny”; he’s also mentioned in another song), she shows she’s up for some good times with “I Feel Like Drinking,” and “Truck Driving Man” (she refers to him as her “knight in shining diesel”), she also tells of hard relationships (“Cowboy”) and I’m guessing a somewhat autobiographical tale of remembering where one comes from (“The Accordion”). Angela starts and ends with gospel inspired tunes “River Jordan” and a cover of “When I Wake Up to Sleep No More.” She is currently recording, I am very happy to say. What I especially like about this is that it’s more infused with ol’ style C&W, and not the modern, fake pop-disguised-as-country (such as the bland Faith Hill). This is more “true” Nashville.

FIRE BUGEnd of the World. I’m not usually a fan of classic rock, but this too short 3-songer is worth seeking out, especially the title cut. Juliette Tworsey’s vocals have sort of a Stevie Nicks kind of waiver to them, but with a much harder edge, which matches the music (Nicks is soft pop rock, really). I know they are recording new material as it shows up on their ‘site, so I am looking forward to a full length release at some point, hopefully sooner than later.

MARY GATCHELLIndigo Rose. I was first turned on to New Hampshire native Mary by Boston publicity maven Joe Viglione, and was instantly smitten by her voice. Having seen her play a few a few times now, confirmed that she is an exciting talent. While Mary’s songs are often about relationships (“Indigo Rose”), they are not sappy. On this CD, she covers self-strength (“Stronger Backs”, one of my fave cuts), abusive relationships (“Beautiful Girls”), fun casual hook-ups (“I’m in Like”), and even a humorous look at misguided marriages (“Green Card”). Her background is on piano and guitar jazz, which she morphs with chanteuse into both the sensual soft of “Perfect Love” to the fierce “?” (yes, that’s the name of the song). She has released a Christmas album after this, but I haven’t heard that one.

RACHEL HARRINGTONThe Bootlegger’s Daughter. Rachel has a new release, “City of Refuge,” which is also wonderful, but for now I’m putting this one first. Her old timey, Depression era sound calls out from the past into the present, with strong cuts like “Sunshine Girl,” “Halloween Leaves,” “Summer’s Gone,” and the very catchy “Shoeless Joe.” I would love to hear a duet with her and Allison Krauss, or Emmylou Harris at some time. Maybe (dare I say it) all three? On her own, though, Rachel can keep my attention. I am looking forward to actually seeing this Seattle-based singer live.

TAMARA HEYRight This Minute. While going to see another musician, Tamara was on the same bill. We were going to stay just long enough to hear a song or two but remained for the whole set because it was musical love at first hear. Afterwards, I went over and got this CD from her. With a mix of pop, country and jazz, Tamara is another that doesn’t follow a formulaic pattern in subject matter. The first and title cut of this CD just blew me away from the first time I put it on, and the rest does not disappoint. Many of the songs cover relationships, but again, her perspective is not standard. Included is a wistful realizing that a relationship is ending (“Up In the Air”), sadness in realizing a partner may be interested in someone else (the beautifully haunting “More Like Melanie”) and someone close who is battling personal substance demons (“In the Universe With Me”), supportively confronting a friend who has just come out (“Girl Talk”), standing up to another (“Angeline”), and even a bluegrass themed angst (“Pebble in My Shoe”). Tamara’s songs are powerful stuff that loses nothing in the music. She has just released a new CD, and I am sure it will be reviewed by me at some point in my “Quiet Corner” column.

PHIL MINISSALEHome to Me . Phil has an old poet’s soul that expresses itself in the form of Delta blues. His material is strong, his guitar work is superb, and his songs go the entire range from tragic to funny, from dirgy to spritely, and his personality shines through all of it. Robert Johnson meets Uncle Sun meets, well, central Long Island. He plays around a lot in the New York and Pennsylvania area, so check him out if you can.

MONTY LOVEGirls are the New Boys. This hardcore release from this two-years-gone Staten Island-based band has probably been played the most by me of any CD I have listened to in the past two years. Filled with one bon mot after another (“I’d rather look ugly than have your personality,” “This went from funny to hospital,” “Call on me and I’ll be there/This I swear/Shit, I never swear,” and so on), their songs are tight punk with a pop hook, but lose none of its power. Find their Xmas Spectacular video on YouTube from their last show to see just how exciting they can be” (yes, I was there that night). The song titles (which almost always have nothing to do with the subject matter) are also noteworthy, including “We Give Good Headache,” “When I Die (It’s Gonna Suck),” and “Rinse and Repeat.” Anyway, Monty Love the man led Monty Love the band, and both rock the shit out of this CD. There are 25 songs here, most of them pretty short, which make it seem like a mere few minutes before it’s over. Hell, I got pulled over for speeding because I was listening to it in the car (true story). The way the CD is produced is excellent, as well, as one song flows naturally into the next. I can go on and on about how great this is, but it’s time to move on to the next on the list. But first, I’m going to put it on the player.

SHE WOLVES13 Deadly Sins. While their first 5-song CD (with Laura Sativa on bass) has a special place in my heart, this full release just buuuuuuurns. Generally, I’m not a big fan of metal, but this one just works for me. It’s hard to believe it is only a trio making this glorious noise. Head wolf, Donna, is a guitar-maniac with a voice like growling steel who hurls her vocals with a piledriver force. Bassist Gyda Gash (who has since left the group) adds some nice touches with a heavy bottom and some great songs (such as “I Kill With My C*nt”). Drummer Tony WolfMann, who has pounded his skins for some of the best rockers out there, brings up the support rhythm without getting lost. He even has his own fun song, “Chainsaw,” that has a catchy hook. Actually, many of these songs do, without being overly pop and schmaltzy. Great titles, too, like “Ghost Boyfriend,” and “Vicious Tit.” Plus, there are new versions of their “Art of War” and the Ramones-like “Hundred Bucks.” I’d also like to add that the Wolves are a fun live band, so I recommend you getting out there and seeing them.

* * *
As for the 10 worst of the year, well, just pick up any Billboard from the year and look at their best selling charts for that particular week, because they’re all pretty much interchangeable.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Television of My Childhood in New York

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Some of my earliest memories have been of television. If any of it is inaccurate, well, these are over 40-year-old.

I was too young to quite appreciate Howdy Doody, though I have strong memories of my brother yelling out, every once in a while, “What time is it?!?!” While I’m sure I saw it too, my remembrance is more of a meta-memory about it rather than of it.

My first strong television memories were of Sunday morning. My older brother Ricky (as we called him then) and I would wake up really early – too early for a weekend – and turn on the TV to the test pattern. This would eventually change to an image of the flag and such jingoistic images of Mt. Rushmore, military jets (this is around 1960, before Viet Nam), Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the White House. Over this was a military band’s recording of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Is there any place in the United States now that has a signing on and off the air? Seems like it wasn’t until the mid-sixties before television turned into a 24-hour telecaster. I am assuming all this was in black and white, but I would not know otherwise because that was all our TV set displayed.

First up on the weekend was a show called something like Modern Agriculture. This was documentary footage of farms, planting, and people working the fields, while an announcer would drone on about “Agrarian society” and the like, while Ricky and I marveled at the tractors. After that, it became a fantasy of mine to drive one of these implements, and I finally had the chance – and a huge tractor at that – thanks to my brother-in-law, during the 1990.

Next was the Farmer Brown cartoons. Originally shown in theaters in the late 1920s-early ‘30s, these were bouncy characters that played out under a classical music soundtrack. I am certain that my appreciation for this type of music dates back to this very silly cartoon.

This was followed by Billy Bang Bang and His Brother Butch. In a similar fashion to Farmer Brown, this show was short silent film westerns by the lies of Tom Mix, but voiced over this time by the conversation of two boys (most likely actually adult women) who discussed what was happening on-screen. This was way before Mystery Science Theater 3000. Mostly it was fistfights, gun battles, horse chases, and fighting with “Indians.” Billy and Butch would say things like “Watch out behind you!” and “Duck!” My brother was obsessed by westerns in his youth, and I’ll be some of that dates back to both Billy Bang Bang and Butch.

Then it was time for The Little Rascals. Most of my friends who liked them preferred the later, Spanky and Our Gang ones. Well, perhaps I did too, especially the ones with musical numbers (“He makes hundreds and thousands of dollars!”), but I also liked the earlier Dickie Moore period (e.g., “Then Tubby sayd [sob] you had a wooden layg”; “Learn that poem…”). What has come to be one of my favorite ones is a rare mid-period one, which featured a very young Spanky, called “Mush and Milk”. The kids are all living in a boarding school by a cruel elderly, cheap matron. The milk (from a goat) is spilled in an accident, so the kids make “milk” out of flour and water. Around the table, the kids spread the word, “Don’t drink the milk; it’s spoiled.” When it gets ‘round to Spanky, one of the original conspirators, he very coolly says to the girl passing it on, “I’m way ahead of ya, sister!” I used that line for years (no matter what the gender, which perplexed some). Many years later, I found out that the actress who played Miss Crabtree had retired to my neighborhood in Bensonhurst.

Last of the Sunday morning line-up was The Bowery Boys, also known as East Side Kids. They were all in their ‘30s by the time these were made, but played teens. I loved these guys, though I never aspired to be like them; but I definitely felt an affinity, probably because I recognized so many of the characters as people I grew up with. They felt like part of my neighborhood, especially characters like Sach and his uncle, who came across as very Jewish to me (though not that I realized it at that age). When I found out that the troupe started out in a serious gang exposes like the film Angels With Dirty Faces, it was very strange to me. It was sort f like when Moe Hoard would occasionally show up on Officer Joe Bolton’s show, with white hair and looking terribly old to us.

Officer Joe Bolton (it was never just Joe Bolton) hosted the daily airing of The Three Stooges shorts for years in New York. Whether he was really a member of the police force was never questioned, and didn’t matter to us. We knew he hosted the show, and we knew he wore the uniform and twirled a wood police baton with grace. That made him cool, and that is what mattered.

Along the same lines was Captain Jack McCarthy (sometimes just Captain Jack), who hosted cartoons such as Popeye. No matter what time the show was on, it was either “Four Bells” or “Six Bells,” and he would pull the string to strike the bell (ding-ding, ding-ding). Although also in a captain’s uniform that looked more like Captain Stubbing, he was a bit blander of a personality than Bolton, but we watched him each opportunity, nonetheless.

One other host I remember, though barely, is Tommy Seven. His prop was a hot dog cart and the theme song, “East side, west side / All around the town / The kids love Tommy Seven / He’s our favorite TV clown.” The memory of his theme lasted longer than the host himself, who dressed as a hobo, though I enjoyed the show at the time.

Captain Kangaroo, Wonderama and Romper Room were all popular, but my preference was for Shenanigans, hosted by the rotund Stubby Kaye. Basically, it was a game show with physical shtick decades before Nickelodeon. There was a board game that went with it, which I coveted for years. However, I did get to play it at friends’ houses. Stubby was a strongly underrated artist and singer, who is probably better known as Nicely Nicely from the film version of Guys and Dolls, where he sang the spiritual “Rocking the Boat,” and as one of the two troubadours from The Ballad of Cat Ballou (Nat King Cole played the other). I still have his album, Music For Chubby Lovers.

My brother who is four years older, caught on to Soupy Sales years before I did, but his adult jokes went right over my head (“Hey Pokie, how come every time I show you the letter F, you see K?” Note that Britney Spears new song is the same wordplay). Just as I started to get into it, the show ended.

By far, my favorite host was Brooklyn native Chuck McCann. Soon as I saw him dancing down the halls of the studio singing, “Put on a Happy Face,” everything seemed good. His show was a mix of sketches, music, reading of comic strips, and never failed to keep my attention. On the big screen, he was powerful as a mute in the drama, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” and starred as the title character in the counter-culture cult classic, The Projectionist. He is another talent that was under appreciated.

A lot of these hosts and shows had a level of subversiveness about them, most of which would be washed clean by the late sixties, after the overreaction and fall of Soupy Sales (much as the FCC cracked down after the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”). It was, however, these experiments that led the way for the likes of Uncle Floyd, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and even Spongebob Squarepants.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Videowave: Lene Lovich, Nina Hagen, Holly Beth Vincent

Photos and text © Robert Barry Francos
Videos © Alan Abramowitz / Videowave

One of the great joys I had during the 1980s and ‘90s was working on a cable access program called Videowave, created, produced, and run by one of my oldest pals, Alan Abramowitz. Alan and I had met in camp in 1970, and years later found out we were distant cousins.

Videowave centered mainly on music, but also focused on all aspects of fine arts, from dance to spoken word. Usually it was a blend of independent music videos that one tended not to see on places like MTV, mixed with interviews with various artists and bands.

Considering the DIY (and budget) of the show, thanks in part to knowing some connected people (and the wherewithal of Alan to take a chance and, well, ask), Alan managed to secure a number of major acts, but almost always ones that were interesting, like the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell, Bow Wow Wow, Too Much Joy, Dramarama, Nick Cave, Buzzcocks, Lenny Kaye, Steve Wynn, Dick Dale, Jonathan Richman, Ofra Haza, Philip Glass, Frente!, Joey Ramone, Husker Du, and so many others. In all the years, there have been only two artists who committed but did not appear at the shoot without any warning: new recording artist Madonna, and P.I.L. (the publicist confided that the band was out looking for Keith Levene, who was on a drug hunt).

At first, the show was staged in a for-hire television studio on Rivington Street, on the Lower East Side of New York, called Young Filmmakers. My job varied over the years, including floor manager (the person between the talent and the control room), photographer, and occasional cameraman.

[Lene Lovich, Holly Beth Vincent, 1983],
During late 1983, Alan managed to get Lene Lovich, which was quite the coup at the time. She was on with Holly Beth Vincent, of Holly and the Italians, who had a relative hit with “Tell That Girl To Shut Up” (though a great pop song, I preferred Barb Kitson / City Thrill’s “I Must Have Been Dreamin’,” which had a similar feel). Lene and Holly Beth met in England, where they had both transplanted from the Midwest, and become fast friends. On this day, Lene was a joy to work with responding with smiles and enjoying the experience. She treated all of us pro bono studio people with respect and kindness. Holly Beth was just the opposite, looking sullen, being distant, and just surly. She also chain smoked through the whole time she was in the studio. She pretty much disappeared after that, except for a duet with Joey Ramone.

[Lene Lovich, 1990]
Years later, in 1990, Lene was in town again to play at an animal rights rally, and was again being interviewed for Videowave. And once again, I was asked to be floor manager and photographer. This time, however, it was not in a studio, but thanks to both lack of studio space and outside funding, the show had gone gonzo, filming wherever Alan (or the talent) deemed. Since Lene was staying at a hotel a block from Gramercy Park, we shot right outside the park. As before, Lene was amiable and seemed to be enjoying the experience. It was also interesting to see her in the bright sunlight. I had seen her on the dark stage and under the glaring lights of a studio, but this was the closest I had been to her. She’s more beautiful than I had expected or remembered, with bright, intelligent eyes and a generous smile.

One of Lene’s good friends and international star Nina Hagen was also on Videowave, in 1984. The Germanic singer / performance artist was a real terror, and obviously enjoyed being one. She was sitting on the stage in the rented studio, and we were ready to shoot. I was standing by as floor manager, clipboard in hand and headset turned up. The director, way up in the control booth, was screaming in my ear. The reason for this was Nina’s holding a can of guava in front of her face, and refusing to put it down. I’d say, trying to be diplomatic for Alan’s sake, “Please, Nina, put the can down.” She responded in one of her ridiculous, child-like voices, “No!,” pretending to be a spoiled child (well, perhaps not pretending…). I’m sure she thought this behavior was cute and funny, but it was wasting valuable time and money that no one, especially producer Alan, could afford. I explained about how studio time was expensive and that this was not a big media conglomerate that could swallow the cost. Her response was, in the same annoying, dumbass voice, “I don’t want to!”

Finally, one of the cameraman, who was also stuck waiting and listening to the screaming over the headsets, took off and put down his earphones, and calmly walked over to her with a big smile and whispered something in her ear. Still smiling, he walked back to the camera. She looked shocked and her face turned red. Then a big, bright smile came over her face, and she put the damn can down. The interview went well after that. Later, I cornered the guy and asked him what had happened. He said that when he had enough, he walked over to her with that big, warm grin and said, very quietly and with a mild tone, “If you don’t put down that can, you Nazi bitch, I’m going to break every fucking bone in your body.” She thought it was hysterically funny, and was fine afterwards.

While I do have photos I took of Nina, none are yet scanned. Sorry.

One can find information and clips of some of these shows here:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tribute to a Mixed Tape: Weeeeeeeeird Music

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images and videos from Internet

There were lots of reasons to make mixed tapes – when it was still tape. When one hears about this phenomenon, it is usually something made as a gift for someone they are trying to impress, like a potential girlfriend. It was infamously one sided in that way, though I do admit that my then-girlfriend made me some powerful collections.

Most cars played cassettes (though some did 8-Tracks, but they were only pre-recorded), and I used to create my own to play in the car, especially since I haven’t found much reason to listen to a music channel (and the good ones, like WFMU, were hard to pick up then), especially since I was dating someone at a distance and needed to take long, long drives pretty often.

Just recently, I came across a tape I made in 1985, which I had labeled Weeeeeeeeird Music. It was only one side of the cassette, thereby coming in at 45 minutes, and I would like to share.

I have linked the songs at the end of each piece, if available online. Though I own all the music (in vinyl, of course), occasionally I have not been able to find the particular song because I can’t remember the artist’s name, so I have listed them as TBD. If anyone knows, inform me and I will update the blog. These are in the order they appear on the tape.

1. “Deteriorata” – National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner
Sometimes the spoof of a song can be better than the original. In this case it is true about this send-up of the meaningful and spiritual “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. The first starts off with “You are a child of the universe / You have a right to be here,” and continues on giving soulful advice to a hippie mind-expanded culture. The theme of “Deteriorata” is similar, but manipulates it (see end of this review) The advice sounds more like the mind of Comedian Steven Wright, with short, sloganesque bon mots like, “Go placidly amid the noise and waste / And remember what comfort there may be / In owning a piece thereof,” “Let not the sands of time get in your lunch,” and “Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself / And heed their advice / Even though they be turkeys.” The male, sonorous voice sounds fatherly or priestly, giving the off-kilter “Say what?” aspect even more power. Sample lyrics:
You are a fluke of the universe
You have no right to be here
And whether you can hear it or not
The universe
Is laughing behind your back

2. “Magical Misery Tour” – National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner
Obviously recorded before the mellowing and then assassination of John Lennon, this is a scathing imitation of him spouting out his anger at the world for ripping him off (e.g., “I was the walrus! Paul wasn’t the walrus! I was just saying that to be nice, but I was actually the walrus!”). The song, sung by Tony Hendra in full Lennon mode, is full of vindictive comments about the Stones, Paul, George and Hare Krishna’s, his aunt, and Linda (or Lee?) Eastman. Only Yoko comes out looking well (“I’ll tell you why nobody likes her music / Because she’s a woman and she’s Oriental, that’s why!”). It’s painfully funny from beginning to end, though I know a lot of people who were angry with this. But as the song clearly states, “Genius is pain!” And the last line is an impersonation of Yoko presciently saying, “The dream is over…”
Look, I’m not your fuckin’ parents
And I’m sick of upside hippies coming a-knockin’ at me door
With a fuckin peace symbol
Get this, fuck that
I don’t owe you fuckers anything
And all I got to say is fuck you
The sky is blue!

3. “Wop Muzik” – Eddy Gorodetsky and Tom Couch
A spoof of M’s “Pop Muzik,” this is accurate to the original, but the lyrics take a funny look at Italian stereotypes, which made it all the more amusing to me since I grew up in heavily Sicilian Bensonhurst. While making fun of this stereotype (though close enough to be offensive to some, especially those I knew from my youth, e.g., the ones throwing watermelons at Al Sharpton during his many marches through my neighborhood back then), it seems to be it is done in a jovial manner, rather than a mocking one: “Wanna be the next pope / Won’t be no-no / Domni Domni / Holy moley!” Sometimes satire can be so close it truly is hard to see the joke forest for the real trees.
Sacco and Vanzetti
Have some spaghetti
Play some bocce
Sing “Pagliacci”
Cosa Nostra, pizza parlor
Everyone’s talkin’ ‘bout…”

4. “Gaslight at The Ice House” – Pat Paulsen
Paulsen was a cast member of The Smothers Brothers show, but there is some funny solo material on his album, Live at the Ice House. He was known for his complete deadpan delivery (and yet, he often cracked himself up, and rightfully so). This is true with this off-the-cuff lovingly kidding of folk songs that really don’t say anything. He is pretty obviously making it up as he goes along in a sort of melodic sing-song monotone (yes, a true oxymoron), as he pauses to think about the next line and laughs about not only what he just said, but one gets the feeling, about where he’s going.
We ordered a cider and there was a cockroach in my glass
So I switched glasses
And you switched glasses
And the cockroach switched glasses

5. “Disco Jesus” – The Clap
I am certain there are people out there who are going to find this offensive. Probably the point. This is certainly one of the few disco songs I can tolerate, because I simply cannot listen to it without laughing. It’s just a standard, by-the-numbers disco tune with the whistles and all – what a friend of mine would call washing machine music (because it has the same woosh-woosh rhythm) – but the lyrics are something else. The singer wants to do the bump with Jesus and states, “so if you love to party / yeah, Jesus loves you.” It’s the mentions of his “golden coke-spoon and skin-tight bulging slacks” that will probably freak out some. Hopefully, if you believe in that kind of thing, Jesus had (has?) some kind of sense of humor. Please note that this is not the one on YouTube where someone dresses as Jesus dances to the Bee Gees.
Jesus he gets down
Comes to boogie He’s the boss
You oughta see him do the hustle
Upon that funky cross

6. “Walk With an Erection” – Swinging Erudites
Led by Johnny Angel of (City) Thrills and the underrated Blackjacks up in Boston, he put out two albums of comedy with this group. I once saw him at the Rat doing an amazingly funny lounge act of punk songs (somewhat later realized by Paul Anka’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). But here, his troupe takes on the Bangles hit, obviously changing the lyrics to fit the sophomoric notions they present. They aren’t mimics, per se, but they come pretty close to the original, making this all the more funny, especially with making light of Vicki’s whistling part.
Those college boys are true to form
They try to lure chicks into their dorm
They’re oozing sweat from every pore
They drop their drawers and ask for more
All the girls from BU they say “Hard on, hard on
Beg my pardon”
Walk with an e-rec-tion

MP3s for the Swinging Erudites can be found at

7. “Jon Anchovi Sings: You Give Rock a Bad Name/Livin' On My Hair” – Swinging Erudites
Johnny Angel takes on the demigod-like (at least at the time he was) Jon Bon Jovi. He starts right off with “Shot through the ears / this tune’s so lame / We give rock / A bad name.” While matching the music quite accurately, Angel almost goes beyond the necessary to strike deep in the heart of Jovi lore. I don’t have a problem with it actually, as while I believe Jovi is a probably nice guy, but his music has always been…whatever. Angel leaves no stone unturned, blending the original song’s guitar solo into the key phrase of “Layla,” not just hinting of a “borrowing” (Boston-based musical comedian Blowfish did this also with Robin Trower and Jimi Hendrix). Whenever I hear “Living on the Air” now, I automatically “hear” this version in my head, and smile.
All the kids in the country know all our songs by heart
Like it or not
Oh, I’m a millionaire
Oh-oh, living on my hair
Take my advice and have it feathered and layered
Oh-oh, living’ on my hair

8. “Dead Skunk” – Loudon Wainwright III
This is one of the few songs in the collection that isn’t a take-off of another song. This was actually a semi-radio hit. Loudon was known for his quirky songs, like “Love to the Nth Degree,” and presented many of them on the first season of M*A*S*H and early Saturday Night Lives. This song is a non-sentimental, and yet respectful, look at what is left over when a skunk “didn’t look left and he didn’t look right.” Still, it is less nasty as, say, Tina Peel’s “Fifi Went Pop” (another great song, but not in this collection). Solid country and with Loudon’s unique voice, this is totally hummable. PETA must hate this.
Take a whiff on me, that ain’t no rose
Roll up your window and hold your nose
You don’t have to look and you don’t have to see
‘Cause you can feel it in your olfactory

9. “Kennedy Girls” – Little Roger and the Goosebumps
LR&tG (led by Roger Clark and Dick Bright) are better known for their “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island” (which can be found on YouTube), but I find this one to be more fun. Their dead-on interpretation of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” is hysterical. Sacrilege to some, but I see it as a funny and loving tribute, considering how musically adept they cover the song (same with “Stairway,” which totally offended a classic rocker I used to work with). One doesn’t go through the trouble to be this accurate with some appreciation of the original.
Sister or cousin don’t matter to me
On every branch of that family tree
There are Kennedy girls
Don’t care if she’s ugly her credit’s enough
They always carry plenty of green stuff
Those Kennedy girls

10. “Eleanor Rigby” Jimi Lalumia & The Psychotic Frogs
Led by Long Island musician Jimi Lalumia, the Frogs did a total disrespectful makeover of the Beatles classic. More in a punk vein, they take a sort of Lou Reed-ish “Walk on the Wild Side” slice-and-dice, mixed with a Wayne (as he was then) County outrageousness, and tells the sick and twisted tale of Eleanor and Father MacKenzie. The listener knows they are in for something different with the opening line of “Ah, look at all you fuckin’ people.” But I want to add that with its entire shockability factor, which really is the main point here, it is so sick and twisted, that it is also humorous. Also, if you check out the video, read the comments underneath. Some people just take this stuff too seriously.
Eleanor Rigby scratches her crotch in a church where a wedding has been
She’s rather obscene
Down with her panties
She’s never been fucked but she knows some day that she will
So she’s on the pill

A live version:

11. “I Got Fucked By the Devil Last Night” Jimi Lalumia & The Psychotic Frogs
For those who don’t know, the name of this band comes from a line by Wayne County in his song, “Max’s Kansas City.” Jimi Lalumia is a huge County fan, and this is the perfect example of his dedication. This song is different than any other in this list in that rather than shifting the lyrics to pervert the meaning, Jimi actually changes the lyrics back to their original. When County recorded this, he was forced to soften the title words to “Paranoia Paradise”; Jimi changes it back.
Late last night after I went to bed
I got a demonic feeling in my head
Something pulled my legs apart
And I felt it right up to my heart
I got fucked by the devil last night
He sure fucked the hell out of me

A live version, including Jayne County:

12. “Loco-Motion” – Christopher Milk
Christopher Milk was a band led by rock writer John Mendolsohn, and this was on their album, Some People Will Drink Anything. Basically the lyrics stay the same as on this classic ‘60s tune, but a total reinterpretation with a new bridge in the middle (such as Willie Alexander’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”). When I’ve played this for people, they seem to want to scratch their heads in confusion. Definitely a cult thing from the ‘70s, the two main vocals toss between muddled and slurred with a nasal quality, and a sluggish bass, and bolstered by a pounding beat (especially on said bridge)
I want to see all my brothers and all my sisters out here
Doing the Locomotion with me
Where are you brothers and sisters?

13. “Satisfaction” – The Residents
One way to look at it is that the Residents are to rock’n’roll what Miles Davis was to jazz. Lots of dissonance, distortion, noise, and sheer “What the hell?” I have emptied more than one party by playing this cut. One has to hear this a number of times to truly appreciate its sheer mania. Pre-industrial, but they left their mark as an influence. And it is long, though not as much as fellow travelers, impLOG. The video on YouTube sounds completely different, by the way. Oh, and my single is on yellow vinyl!
Not a clue…

14. “Fluffy” – Gloria Balsam
This is done kind of straightforward, but under the…er…capable hands of comedian Gloria Balsam, it has its own aura. Out of San Francisco, this is pure experimental pop. Gloria sings a treaclely song about finding, losing, and then re-finding her dog. I really can’t tell if this is some kind of tribute to her dog, or just a comedy bit, but I gotta say I love this song, from the first time I heard it. Glorida does not exactly have a great voice, but that’s all part of the appeal, especially on the parts that are too high for her voice and comes out kind of as a shriek. Wish she had done more. While I proudly own the original single, Dr. Demento also (and wrongfully) has this on collection, The Worst Records Ever Made. Sacrilege!
Here Fluffy, where are you, where ARE you?
Oh, how much you mean to MEEEEEE

A live version:

15. “A Blind Man’s Penis” – John Trubee
The story behind this is as interesting as the song itself. John Trubee found an ad in the back of a magazine stating that if you send in a poem, for a fee they’ll send it back as a C&W song. He came up with the most bizarre, psychotic, collection of sentences he could thing of and sent it off. This is what came back. The only line they edited was changing “Stevie Wonder’s Penis” to its present title. With straight deadpan, the able country singer twangs over a standard pre-recorded tinny keyboard. What makes this especially fun is that voice and the contradiction of the lyrics he is singing. This record is brilliant.
The zebra spilled his plastic seed on Venus
And the gelatin fingers oozed electric marbles
Ramona’s titties died in hell
And the Nazis want to kill, to kill everyone

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Remembering and Interviewing Lux Interior and The Cramps, 1977

Text and Live at Max's (April 1977) Photos © Robert Barry Francos
Bryan Gregory flyer photo by Anya Phillips
Logo from the Internet

I found out today that Lux Interior, lead singer of the Cramps, passed away on Feb 4, 2009. Fortunately, I had the experience to see the band a number of times in the ‘70s, including a much discussed show where they opened for the Ramones at CBGB in 1977. They were one of the few bands I actually captured with a 126 instamatic, before getting my 35mm for my birthday in ’77. That night, the Stilettos and the Visitors were the opener at Max’s Kansas City.

A rare and interesting aspect of the Cramps was their set-up: two guitars, drums, and vocals. No bass. This gave the sound a bit of a tinny and yet powerful tone, producing a melodic buzzsaw well suited for the voodoo rockabilly / “voodoo-billy” effect they were seeking. Lack of bass also did not show them faltering for lack of a rhythmic drive. For a bottom, they relied heavily on the steady, pounding pace of Miriam Linna’s skins, as the Velvet Underground had done with Mo Tucker.

As I was putting together the first issue of my fanzine, FFanzeen, I was collecting articles and interviews. One of the beauties of this period of underground music was the accessibility of the bands, regardless of their place on the local musical food chain. This was a useful lesson to learn, and the dreams of which fanzines are made. At an early ’77 CBGB gig, I walked up to Miriam as she finished setting up her kit. I was very nervous, having worked up my courage while waiting for the band to show. I approached her and introed myself as a new fanzine publisher. Also, I knew that Miriam was also not a fan of the then-modern British sound, and had strong leanings toward American proto-punk, both the ‘70s underground, and especially the late ‘60s garage punk era.

When the Cramps’ set at CBGB was completed and she had the chance to converse with the rest of the band, she let me know the time and place for the interview at their rehearsal loft. The day arrived, and thanks to the rain, which was strong and hard, I was entirely soaked by the time I arrived with Alan Abramowitz as my photographer. This drenching included my cheap bulky tape recorder and his cheap little camera. The room was long and dark, and I sat at one end with the band, while some people I didn’t know were chatting away – quite loudly – at the other end, never giving a second thought about distracting a nervous interviewer. I would find out who they were later, when interviewing Teenage Jesus and the Jerks.

Lead singer Lux Interior (He stressed to me that his name was short for “Luxury” or “Luxurious”; he had told my pal Bernie Kugel it stood for “Luxembourg” during an interview he had done earlier) was tall and lanky, with sharp and intelligent eyes that searched out reactions from his listener while he said things that were meant to be shocking. I took this for what it was, and while I was rarely taken aback (after all, my Brooklyn crowd had been doing that to each other for years), I certainly enjoyed the challenge. Lux was quite comfortable with the idea of being outrageous. For example, some time later, during that set at CBGB when the Cramps opened for the Ramones, Lux’s leather pants split early in the set, and his double nuggets popped out. He finished the entire set, anyway, while “the boys” swayed in the wind. Honestly, though, considering the Cramps fan base, I think any fan in the audience would be more likely thrilled than put off, knowing that anything is possible during a performance while Lux roamed around the stage and club like an uncaged animal. I won’t speak for the rest of the Ramones’ fans.

“Poison” Ivy Rorschach has been Lux’s companion through all these years and every phoenix-like variation of the band. If Lux is the id of the Cramps, Ivy is the ego. Strong and controlling, Valkyrie-like, she knew (or believed) she had the boys of the audience in her thrall. Back then, she was pretty stoic on stage, but as time passed, she became more and more aggressive, joining Lux on the go-go side of the paradigm. Ivy was also quite assertive during the interview, acting as equal off-stage mouthpiece to the on-stage voice of Lux.

The late Bryan Gregory was the one person in the band with whom I was most anxious about being in the same room. Okay, scared is a better word. On stage, he came across as downright sinister: his eyes glowered at the audience, as if to say, “come on and try something.” Most impressive was the way he was able to move his cigarette (a constant companion on stage) around his mouth without using his hands. He asserted himself as formidable and the most dangerous of the band, all while standing in place. And yet, during the interview, he came across as the most gentle of souls, mostly keeping quiet and being soft-spoken. He let the aggression of the rest of the band flow out, while he sat and listened.

This is the article that appeared in the first issue of FFanzeen (published 7/7/77).

Cramps – Love Them

There was I, your humble interviewer, at the Cramps’ loft – sitting stiff, shaking and sweating. Lux Interior, the lead singer of the group and local werewolf, spouts how rock’n’rollers should harass people in the streets to shake ‘em up, like following them (which he claims is his hobby). Bryan Gregory, a “badass ‘60s-style” guitarist, crunches on cigarettes while scratching his arm with an enormous switchblade. Miriam Linna, the drummer, declares her love for the Ramones, the Flamin’ Groovies, the Dictators and the Seeds, while at the same time she states how she dislikes the pretentiousness of the New Wave British bands (the safety-pin set). Ivy Rorschach, the other guitarist, who plays ‘50s rockabilly style, talks of making horror films a la AIP’s ‘50s releases (you know the kind – I Was Some Kind of Monster From Some Planet), in 3-D with rock’n'roll soundtracks. And, as mentioned before, there in the middle of all this, is myself.

Now comes the heartache of it all: Lux explains to me that nothing annoys him more than when someone misquotes him, or they get the facts mixed up from an interview ... and my tape recorder stops recording about five minutes into the session. Below is all I have of an hour of questioning:

Lux: Ask me what’s my favorite song is in the set.
FFanzeen: What’s your favorite song in the set?
Lux: “Love Me.” I like to hear the girls scream.
FF: Is there such a thing as punk rock?
Miriam: I think the Ramones are the only punks in New York. I think they define what punk is supposed to be in the ‘70s. I don’t think anyone else can live up to it.
FF: But they don’t consider themselves a punk band.
Miriam: They don’t consider themselves a punk band, but they consider themselves punks.
FF: What do you call what you play?
Ivy: Psycho-billy. A psycho rockabilly.
FF: How as the group formed?
Ivy: I knew Lux for several years and we met Bryan, who was working in a record store [the rest of what Ivy said, at this point, as drowned out by some people telling – what else – dead baby jokes on the other side of the loft].
Lux: One day I asked Bryan if he wanted to make a rock’n’roll band, and I said I already have a name for it: the Cramps. It’s the perfect name. We laughed about it a little while and the next day he walked in with a guitar with “Cramps” stenciled on the outside, so it was too late to turn back. He already spent eighty-five dollars on a guitar.
Ivy: And we didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
FF: How did it come to pass that there would be no bass?
Lux: Well, nobody wanted to play bass; everybody wanted to play guitar.
Ivy: And when there’s more than four people up there, visually it tends to distract. And we wanted something irritating ...

At this point, my tape just seems to die out, to where one can only make out one or two words here and there, so, from this point on, I have to paraphrase the best I can remember. Sorry guys, but there ain’t nothin’ else I can do...

As we entered the loft, the stereo went on full blast (one of the advantages of having a loft is no neighbors to complain about the noise). We listened to the Seeds, a special pressing of the Ramones’ “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker,” the Dictators Manifest Destiny, and a Boston group called the Real Kids, I believe. What better way to start an interview than to get into the mood with some good music? After a time (or a few times), we went to the back of the loft (with the Flamin’ Groovies playing on the stereo in the background). There was an old sofa on which the Cramps sat (l-r: Ivy, Lux, Bryan, Miriam) with me on a chair facing them. Alan, my photographer, moved fluidly behind me taking numerous pictures, not one of which came out useable (between this and the tape recording of this interview, it seemed as though someone upstairs didn’t want anyone to have any official proof of this meeting). For a while we all talked loosely about some of the better groups on the scene now, about other fanzines like New Order, Back Door Man and Big Star, and how the Cramps are planning to do a single, but it is only in the planning stage (this exchange is, of course, before the official interview started).

New Order, a tongue-in-cheek right-wing fanzine out of Ft. Lauderdale, claimed that Ivy was the least talkative of the group. I found her just the opposite. Ivy seemed to me the most open and flowing. Lux, too, did a lot of the talking about how the Cramps are not to be taken as a joke and that they are serious with what they’re doing. He also made sure to comment (more than once) that rock’n’roll is his life and he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Ivy and Miriam both agreed that they enjoy playing music more than anything else they’ve ever done.

It seems strange that this group should get together, since they come from such different parts of the country (and Canada). In fact, many times they were in the same area and they never met. Miriam, originally from Canada, went to Ohio. Bryan comes from Ohio and moved to California. Ivy comes from California. Lux claims that he moved around a lot and he couldn’t really say he was from anywhere in particular.

I asked Bryan how he learned to move his cigarettes around his mouth the way he does without using his hands, and he told me that when he lived in California, he worked in a munitions factory making missiles and bombs for the war (that’s Viet Nam for those of you who were so spaced out at the time and didn’t know what the fuck was goin’ on). The assembly line moved so fast that he didn’t have time to use his hands for anything except work, and a second or so here and there to grab a butt, and sometime later, possibly, a chance to light it. He couldn’t take it out of his mouth so, in the process, he learned to use his tongue to take it and move it around, knock off the ashes, and eventually spit out the filter (with pretty good aim, too). Personally, I think it’s a fascinating thing to watch (especially since I don’t smoke), and it sure is a help to his tough image.

That brings me to the question of how much of the image represented on the stage is really the performer. Lux claims that it is more like them than they are off the stage. When up there, they can be themselves and get out all their anxieties and be anything they want to be. When they are off-stage is when they put on their “act” of being presentable to society as it now stands.

At this point I have only seen this group perform twice: once in Max’s with the Stilettos and the Visitors (April 5, 1977), and once in CBGB with the Ramones (June 9, 1977), and both times I was extremely impressed. I asked Lux for the names of some of the songs they do and the list he put down was “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Sunglasses After Dark,” “What’s Behind the Mask,” “(I See You On) My TV Set,” “Subwire Desire,” “I’m A Human Fly,” “Up From the Garage,” “Don’t Eat the Stuff Off the Sidewalk,” and “I’m Cramped.” “Love Me” was previously mentioned. I also asked him for some of the lyrics to one of the songs, so from “TV Set,” Lux put down:

“Hey baby I put you in my Frigidaire / Yeh baby I put you in my Frigidaire / Behind the mayonnaise way in the back / I’m gonna see you tonight for a midnight snack / But though it’s cold / You won’t get old / ’Cause you’re well preserved in my Frigidaire.”

About their childhood(s)? Lux jumped in quickly with, “Well, I was a teenage werewolf.” Of course, I should have known.

All together, it was an enjoyable evening at the Cramps’ downstairs loft, in one of the emptier parts of Manhattan. Well, let me put it this way: after spending an evening around these people, I wasn’t the least bit scared to walk to the subway. Especially since there was no full moon.

After the interview, I passed around a badly xeroxed, but at the time ubiquitous flyer for the band that I had picked up in a record store, for them to personalize. It reads, “Love Me” on the top, “The Cramps” on the bottom, and a really cool and scary close-up picture of Bryan glaring at the camera. Lux signed his with song lyrics: “Lies in your radar eyes ... Hope in your radar scope?! Love Me, Lux Interior”; Ivy’s was mostly indecipherable, ending with “... for your love, Poison Ivy’; Bryan wrote “Like no words at all, Bryan Gregory”; Miriam wrote, backwards, “Like this, it’s like it is – ‘I don’t care about this world, I don’t care I don’t care’, Flamin’ Miriam.” And yes, she also signed her name backwards.

From the music that was playing at the loft, it was pretty obvious Miriam was in charge of the selections. It was the first time I had heard (and heard of) the Real Kids (led by ex-Modern Lovers Jon Felice), who were both friends of, and admired by, Miriam.

Since the time of the interview, I’ve since seen the Cramps many more times, in many incarnations. I was sorry to hear when Miriam had left the band, as when Bryan Gregory also departed, but I continued to enjoy their music. I was saddened to hear of the death of Bryan Gregory on January 10, 2001.

A few months after the interview came out, I was sitting in CBGB when this person came over to me, and asked if I was the one who put out FFanzeen. I answered in the affirmative, and she started screeching at me. It was highly volatile photographer and scene-maker Anya Phillips, who complained that I used the photo she took of Bryan Gregory on the back page of my first issue, the badly Xeroxed flyer the band had autographed. She was very belligerent (and I believe inebriated…or something). I explained to her that the photo was a flyer that was being passed around, and that there was no photo credit on it, or I would have listed it. Since I would not be making any kind of profit off of the magazine, let alone the photo, I offered to give her the photo credit she deserved in the next issue (which I did). She threatened to sue and demanded I pay her a large sum of money. I told her I had no money (the truth). With that she left in a huff, and it was the last I ever heard anything about it. Some time later, I found out that Anya had died of cancer in 1981.

There was a print shop across the street from Queens College that handled the copious copying for the general populace of the school. I brought over my originals, and week later (hey, that was the best the present-day technology could handle at that time; this is pre-Kinko’s, the fanzine’s friend) I picked up my copies. I was so excited that I left my originals behind. I went back for them the next day, and the owner had thrown them out! The asshole. I was saddest to lose the original of the Cramps autographs. That’s something I would have framed and prized.

That same flyer, with the autographs taken from the back page of my fanzine, was later published in the book The Cramps: A Short History of Rock 'n' Roll Psychosis, by Dick Porter. It was uncredited to either Anya or FFanzeen. Just part of the karmic circle, I guess.