Text by Donna Lethal, introduction by Robert Barry Francos
© 1986, FFanzeen; introductory comments © RBF, 2012
Performance image © RBF; other images from the Internet
The following article on the underrated indie legend John Felice was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #14, in 1986. It was written by then-Boston-based fan Donna Lethal, who used the name Donna Lee at that time.
I never did get the chance to see the Real Kids play, unfortunately. Stories of their shows were legendary for being raucous, rock’n’roll garage-driven fun. Lead singer John Felice moved on after the band, and I did have the opportunity to enjoy a rousing set at The Rat, on his home turf in Boston (opening band was the Dogmatics). This was also, I believe, the same weekend I had the chance to meet the exquisite Donna Lethal when visiting Kenee Highland, but I digress…
While leading the Real Kids, Felice had a side project called the Taxi Boys, who did some recording. The Primevals followed the break-up of the Real Kids. With another band with that name from Scotland predating them, Felice’s Primevals faded. In Heartbreakers’ tradition, what followed was a series of Real Kids reunions with most of the original members for a large number of years, until the death of Alpo Paulino in 2006, when the band officially disbanded (Billy Borgiloi would form his own band, the Varmints, which is still in existence).
Felice’s current band is John Felice and the Lowdowns. – RBF, 2012
One cold February evening I found myself seeking refuge in a friendly local Boston bar, Chet’s Last Call [closed in the late 1980s – RBF, 2012]. John Felice’s (Kids’ lead singer) lineup, the Primevals, was the house band at Chet’s during most of February and March, and what ensued was surprising: no rehashed “comeback” band was here, and the Primevals played a tight, rocking set.
“I hadn’t planned on starting a new band,” says Felice, “but whenever Chet’d see me he’d say, ‘When are you gonna get yourself a band?’ So one night, Pete Taylor comes up to me and says, ‘I hear you’re looking or a drummer.’ I hadn’t even said anything to anyone! But that’s how it started. I got Billy [Borgioli, original Read Kids guitarist - DL], and that’s how it all sorta came together.” With the addition of Dave Pedersen on bass, the Primevals were formed.
Studio plans are in the works, and they’ve got one cut on the latest Throbbing Lobster comp, Claws, titled “Lose That Girl,” to their credit. “This isn’t a comeback,” states Felice. “We still play rock’n’roll. We play as hard; we rock as hard as any band in this fucking city. We haven’t changed our approach to music at all.”
FFanzeen: Starting from the beginning, you were with the Modern Lovers. How did that come about?
John Felice: I grew up in the house next door to Jonathan Richman. I started playing (guitar) when I was 15, but those guys were all older than me, so it was sorta like being the little kid in the band. It was me, Jonathan, Ernie Brooks, David Robinson, Jerry Harrison. I left right before they went to LA to record. I could read the wring on the wall and, sure enough, they broke up not too long after.
FF: Is that when you started the original Kids?
John: Yeah. We went through lots of personnel changes. I had given it up for about three months. When Jonathan got back from LA, he told me about a rehearsal space. I hadn’t planned on heading up a band, but that’s where I met up with Alpo and Billy Borgioli.
FF: What’s Alpo doing now?
John: He’s working with a new band, playing harp and percussion. He and I tried it out during the winter, but it just didn’t work. If me, him and Billy played together, it’d be the whole Real Kid thing all over again. It wouldn’t work out.
FF: But you’re still really big in France –
John: That first LP was a legend. But it took so long between the first LP, then the Taxi Boys stuff in-between back there in ’83 – to record, you know, things change. The fans there were great; real enthusiastic and receptive, not what you find here. We’d try out new material, old stuff too, and it went over really well. The last LP didn’t sell that well, though, compared to the cost of making it. I still get royalty checks and stuff, but it didn’t do so good.
FF: Are you going there with the Primevals?
John: I’d like to. We don’t have a contract or anything. We had a lot of problems – personal problems – with New Rose Records on the last tour, and it kinda left New Rose with a bad taste in their mouths.
FF: Isn’t New Rose pretty lenient, though?
John: We pushed them about as far as they would go. We cost them incredible amounts of money. I feel bad about it now. If we hadn’t fucked up, we could probably be there now, playing and shit, but we fucked up bad. I mean, we manage to play every show, we never had to cancel a gig, we played good, but we fucked up a lot of things. Patrick Mathe, the President of New Rose, was real proud to have us there, and we sorta shoved it up his ass sideways by pulling the shit we did.
FF: The fan club is still going strong…
John: The last issue they put out was the final one. They’re not gonna do anything until they hear from me. I’m in the process of assembling a letter and a tape, cuz they don’t even know if I’m alive, let alone my new band. There’s all sorts of rumors of my death.
FF: Rumors of your death?
John: The last time they saw me, I was a fucking mess. They’ve been hearing that we’re all dead, cuz we almost did die over there a few times. I was supposed to have moved to Paris in January of ’84, but it was a good thing I didn’t cuz I was fucked up – really fucked up – in the middle of a really bad drug problem. If I had moved to Paris, I woulda been in worse shape then I ever have been. We left there on bad terms. I didn’t wanna go back there on bad terms and be all strung out, and knocking on Patrick’s door: “Hi, here I am, you gotta support my drug habit now.” Woulda gone over real well. I called him the day I was supposed to be there and told him I wasn’t coming. That was the last I spoke to him. Our manager got in touch with him about making another record, explained to him that, “Felice is all cleaned up, completed his methadone program, etc.,” making me sound like the all-American boy. His response to the tape was hot, but about seeing me, real cool. The letter he sent was like, “This kid cost me; I’m still bailing myself out.”
FF: Were you the cause of all this madness?
John: No! It was our road manger on the tour! He was taking tons of money to buy drugs. They were readily available to us, wherever we’d go. They could tell just by lookin’ at us that we weren’t into smokin’ no grass or nothing. They’d see us and it was, “Have I got what you need.” Anyway, our road manager was going back and forth to Paris and getting money from Patrick, to live on. We didn’t know how much he was getting cuz he’d take the money and buy drugs, then tell us that he only got this much, when Patrick was really giving him twice as much. So he was ripping us off, too.
FF: So Patrick was supporting everyone’s habits.
John: Yeah, it was unbelievable. He’s not rich at all; he’s still paying off our bills. To make things worse, he throws us into the most expensive studios in Europe [RKM in Brussels – DL] to record Hit You Hard. In Europe, they’ve got these little refrigerators in every hotel room, stocked with booze, so every day Alpo was drinking them dry – twice. He didn’t care what it was, he’d just pour all the nip bottles in a glass with some Coke, drink it up. Plus, he smashed a phone to pieces cuz he couldn’t get through to his girlfriend. New Rose is still playing the bills.
FF: Sounds like Fear and Loathing in Brussels.
John: It was a nightmare. I caught Hep, too. The whole time we were recording Hit You Hard, I was really, really sick. I didn’t know with what. I got Hep ‘til I got back to Boston. I didn’t go to a doctor or nothin’. All I knew was that I’d go to the bathroom and piss black.
FF: How did you physically do the recordings?
John: I don’t know. The recording hours were incredible. We’d go in at 3 in the afternoon an be out at 9 AM. I was crawling. I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach. I’d puke it all up. All I know is that I was one sick motherfucker. I’d just lie in my bed and go, “Oh God, gotta record in six hours.” The record dragged on for so long cuz I was fuckin’ dying. We had this enormous hotel bill, bolstered by Allen’s [Alpo] alcoholic cravings, plus there was a bar in the studio. We ran up a monstrous tab, buying whole bottles of vodka and shit, and you’re not even supposed to drink with Hep. I drank even more than ever had, figuring if I got drunk enough the pain would go away. I couldn’t’ figure out why I’d wake up in the morning and want to rip my liver out.
FF: Is that why you look so bad on the cover of Hit You Hard?
John: That was before the tour. When I got back to Logan Airport, the customs guy took one look at me and it was, “You better get going.” He didn’t even bother to check my bags. And Alpo got hip to our road manager; they were all black and blue and shit. We won’t be going back there for a while.
FF: What about recording now, since the Claws compilation?
John: Right now, I wanna record soon. I’d like to do something outside of a local label, maybe for Slash [Slash Records and fanzine was based in Los Angeles and formed by Bob Briggs; roster included the Germs, Blasters, Misfits, Gun Club, L7 – RBF, 2012]. They know us cuz the Real kids moved there in ’79 for six months and generated a lot of interest, but never followed up on it.
FF: Slash has changed a lot since ’79.
John: Oh yeah. Then it was one room, two desks, newspaper and shit all over; but the guy who runs it knows who we are. It’s just – of years people have been saying to me, “You know, your songs are great. You should get some real musicians to play with. You know, you could make a million dollars if you got the right people to play with.” I wouldn’t wanna do that. If other people wanna record them that way, I’d be happy to sell some of my songs. The thing is, the sound that we get, is our sound. I don’t wanna change it. If they’re gonna be made hits, they’re gonna be made by someone else. Like “All Kindsa Girls,” for example. People say, “You coulda done this, get some real musicians.” Yeah, well, I’ve heard it so much. The guys I play with can play. It’s our sound and I don’t wanna change it.
FF: Even under the worst of conditions you put out the best record you’ve ever made.
John: Hit You Hard is about as polished as I wanna get. The Real Kids had such a heavy stigma attached to us – people saying, “Why do you surround yourself with such fuckin’ losers for?” A small label, like Slash, wouldn’t pressure me into changing the sound. Look what happened to the Nervous Easters. They were a rock and roll band; they went into the studio and put out a shitty record under pressure from the label. I just wanna be left alone to record.
John: We’re working on a tape, and we’ll try to generate interest with it. If not, put it out on a local label and see what happens. I have no idea about Boston anymore. This whole scene is completely foreign to me.
FF: Getting back to the Throbbing Lobster LP. They’ve done well for local bands.
John: I don’t think our representation was that great on that LP.
FF: You got Andy Paley back to produce it.
John: We didn’t. Chuck [Warner] did [owner of Throbbing Lobster Records, 1984-88 – RBF, 2012]. Chuck saw us on a Saturday and had us in the studio by Tuesday. I like Andy, he’s a great guy and all, but I’d rather have done it myself. It woulda sounded a lot different. As our first available offering, I would've wanted something better.
FF: Still, you’re getting airplay.
John: It is? I didn’t even know about it. All they play at work is [W]BCN.
FF: That’s where I heard it.
John: Really? It’s strange cuz they could say shit about the Primevals instead of the Real Kids. I’d much rather hear the new cut instead of that.
FF: What about the Real Kids reunion gig last summer at The Rat?
John: That’s it again; the Real Kids were such a big deal. Nobody knows who the Primevals are. We really need a manager. It used to be so much easier, to get gigs and stuff. You didn’t have to be on the phone all day. Now it’s five days a week, going to clubs at night, and I hate going to clubs unless I’m there to play. I’m through with that shit. On my own reputation as a… a dinosaur [laughs], a fossil, I guess. It’s tough. It’s not a comeback or nothin’. We play as hard, we rock as hard as any band in this fucking city. We haven’t changed our approach to music at all. Our new material is stronger, I think, and I’ve got better musicians. I don’t think I should have to sell myself, but I don’t expect people to come up to me either.
FF: Do you have any plans for the future?
John: I just live day to day. I can’t spend time feeling sorry for myself. I get pissed; then I get pissed at myself for getting pissed. Those assholes aren’t even worth the energy you put into hating them. You know, it’s not so easy. I’m 30 years old. Most people my age don’t even own a guitar. I can’t give it up that easily. I know what keeps me straight. I don’t wanna get back into doing drugs again. Playing rock and roll is my only shot. I‘ve been playing rock and roll since I was 15. I tried to stop before and I saw what happened.
FF: Do you think people are going to label you as a throwback?
John: We still play the same, still play rock and roll. I’ll always sound like me. If I was writing the same songs I used to, same ideas, we’d be burnt out, like the Ramones are. We ain’t trying to be nothin’. I don’t think that we’ve got any identity – you know, you hear the first few seconds of a song: “Oh yeah, that’s one of Felice’s!” We ain’t got that. If you don’t like it, you can always walk out the fuckin’ door, that’s the way it is. I feel lucky to have the guys I do in the band, cuz it’s tough when you’re my age to find guys who are into the same stuff you are, who wanna do what you want. Kids today, they wouldn’t know the real thing if it slapped them in the face. They hear us, it’s “old shit,” you know. We’re just rock and roll. It’s hard to fight a throwback label. I still can’t play guitar.
FF: You can’t play guitar?
John: I never tried to be a great guitar player. I’m a songwriter; that’s all I ever wanted to be. I went back to school last year, trying to kick dope. You know, you get old, you get responsibilities. You can’t live like you do when you’re young. But I could give a fuck about work. The band is still number one.