Sunday, September 23, 2012

Bernie Kugel: A Photo Essay

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos, 2012
Photos as indicated

Yeah, sure, we hated each other the first time we met across the aisle in a classroom at Lafayette High School, in Brooklyn back in the early 1970s. Then one day we realized we were both reading comics while waiting for the teacher, and have been pals since.

I still remember the day when Bernie Kugel commented that he was thinking about picking up the guitar, some time before he went off to Buffalo to attend college. We formed a group together, called Les Beins, which was renamed The Good after he moved. After a few 45 releases on BCMK Records (i.e., Buffalo College of Musical Knowledge), he form garage punk cult legends Mystic Eyes, releases a few singles and two LPs on Get Hip Records out of the Pittsburgh area. After the death of their lead guitarist, he gathered the short-lived The Bernie Kugel Experience. Recently, gathering his Buffalo brethren around him, he has reformed the Good.

Now he's been inducted into the Buffalo Musicians Hall of Fame.  Sure, I could tell Kugel and Francos stories for hours, but here is a photo collage instead. Enjoy.
RBF and Bernie in the Kugel living room during high school, taken by his mom (pic: Goldie Kugel)

Bernie (wearing a FFanzeen t-shirt) and RBF goofing in an EJ Korvettes photo booth after signing fake names at a credit card table to get a free 2-liter Pepsi each.

Late '70s, we shared a table at a Rock Ages convention, where they put us in the middle of nowhere and we made no money, next to the Time Barrier Express table (pic by Suzanne Newman).

At a Burger King across the street from Madison Square Garden during one of his trips to New York after moving to Buffalo (pic: Dennis Concepcion).

The weekend Bernie married Dawn "Tink" Martin in Buffalo (pic: RBF).
Sitting at the kitchen table on Vermont Street, Buffalo, in one of his many horizontal striped tees (pic: RBF).

After a Videowave party in Brooklyn, late 1980s; l-r: FFanzeen Managing Editor Julia Masi, BK, Lynn Beggs. We were about to head over to White Castle (pic on 110 instamatic: RBF).

Mystic Eyes rehearsal in Craig's basement; l-r: Scott Davison (drums), Eric Lubstorff (back; lead guitar), Craig Davison (bass), BK (vox/guitar) (pic: RBF)

Mystic Eyes rehearsal in Craig's basement; l-r: Eric Lubstorff, Craig Davison, Scott Davison, BK (pic: RBF)

Mystic Eyes rehearsal in Craig's basement; BK wearing an ironic John Denver tee (pic: RBF)

Back stage before a Mystic Eyes gig in Buffalo, the band plays Jeopardy with RBF being a category (note: I was not there) (pic: Dawn Kugel)

Bernie picks up Eric Lubstoff (RIP) from LaGuardia Airport for a visit after BK moved back to Brooklyn for a period (pic: RBF)

The Bernie Kugel Experience open for Roy Loney of the Flamin' Groovies at Under Acme, NYC (pic: RBF)

Visiting Bernie in Cheektowaga while on a road trip to see the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame and Museum around 2005 (pic: RBF)

Monday, September 17, 2012

JOAN JETT is a Nice Girl!

Text by Julia Masi, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Interview © 1981; RBF intro © 2012 by FFanzeen
Live photo at CBGBs in 1977 © RBF; other Images from the Internet

The following article and interview with rockin’ Joan Jett was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #7, in 1981. It was conducted written by Julia Masi.

It was pretty fortunate that I got to see Joan Jett perform in the Runaways three times in New York. The first time they played in the city at CBGBs in 1976, right after the freshman album came out, the minute stage was still on the left side. The club was filled with horny record company people who were there to check out the young chicks and for the free drinks (for them, not us). Of the fan like me and Bernie Kugel who went to hear the music, only about a dozen got in, including us. We had to sit at one of the tables way in the back against the wall, while the rest of the suits didn’t really bother with the music, they just pointed and laughed. Their loss, because it was a great show.

The second and third were in 1977, and are a bit confused for me, chronologically, but if I remember correctly. I saw them next at the Palladium opening for the Ramones. Then there was CBGBs once again, with Joan Jett as solo lead singer, with the new bass player after Jackie Fox was gone. The B-Girls did a rousing opening set.

For this interview, Julia had a bit of a tussle with a management person, who did not know she was scheduled to interview her. That aside, Julia and JJ (as she’s known to her friends) got along pretty well, and Julia has some fond memories of their talk. – RBF, 2012

The press has been unkind to Joan Jett. Stereotyped as a raunchy rock’n’roll tough-girl, she’s spent most of her career as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter in combat with vicious rock writers. As the driving force behind the Runaways, she was never taken serious. And now that her solo endeavors are earning her the respect she deserves, the press is sharpening their pencils and searching for new ways to rip her to shreds.

At the Peppermint Lounge in New York City, on January 23, 1981, Joan strutted to the center of the stage. In a black spandex outfit and baseball sneakers, her white guitar obscuring her gyrating hips, she sang out in rebellion:

”I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation
You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation
I don’t care what people say I ain’t gonna change
And I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation.”

“Bad Reputation,” the title song from her solo album on Boardwalk Records, seems like a half-truth. Why should she care about a bad reputation when it has helped to make her what she is today? Posing as a “bad girl” on stage is proving to be a viable part of Joan’s appeal. Ever since she was 15 years old and took off with her first band, the Runaways, she’s known that tough girls sell records and rake teenage boys into the concert halls.

Dedicated to their music, the Runaways penned almost all of their own music, with help from their producer, Kim Fowley. Their liberated lyrics and songs, performed in raunchily style, helped them captivate Europe. In Japan, their live import album was a best seller at one time. Their Japanese success was astounding. They received three gold records and were hailed as symbols of Western women’s liberation.

But in America, their following was limited mostly to teenage boys and nasty reviewers. “The press hated the Runaways, except the ones that were fans. It’s hard to explain. They used what we said against us. They’d have their articles all written before they came to the interview.” She remembers a reviewer who “totally destroyed a Runaways album for no good reason. I’ll still beat him up if I see him,” she laughs, goofing on her tough girl fa├žade. “Or maybe I won’t beat him up. Maybe I’ll just do something to embarrass him. Wait ‘till I’m at a party or something with a lot of people and do something to embarrass him. It all depends on what you think a tough girl is.

“People think that if you swear and drink you’re a tough girl. But that’s the way most girls are. I think the way I dress – ‘cause I have black hair, wear black leather, black eye makeup – has a lot to do with people thinking I’m a tough girl.” Although she’d rather not be photographed without the heavy make-up she dons in concerts, she is naturally quite striking. Her translucent, white skin is contrasted by dark brown eyes and straight, shaggy raven hair that falls to her shoulders. Offstage, she still prefers to wear basic black, but there is a gentleness to her manner. Her voice is softer than you’d expect and she smiles frequently. Obviously, she does care what people say because she’s gracious to her interviewer, chooses her words carefully and tries to keep the record straight.

“Oh, God! Why did they print that?” She refers to a photo layout in a popular Manhattan weekly featuring a shot of Joan and her drummer, erroneously announcing that they are newlyweds. “It’s ruining my love life. It’s a pain in the ass. And print that in big letters! I’m never getting married, man. I don’t want no paper binding me to anybody. Hopefully, I’ll fall in love, make a million dollars and run around the world with someone I love.”

Her life has been hectic ever since the Runaways disbanded in San Francisco, New Year’s Eve, 1979. Joan entered the ‘80s kicking off a variety of solo careers. She produced the debut album of a Los Angeles punk band, the Germs [the lead singer of the Germs, Darby Crash, killed himself with a drug overdose on December 9, 1981 – ed., 1981], and proved that she knew what she was doing on both sides of the studio controls. The Los Angeles Times lauded the Germs album as one of the best of the year. But Joan “can’t stand to be off the stage,” and went to Europe to record an album of her own. The album, original titled Joan Jett, is a “transition from the Runaways to building my own band.” It sports more covers than we’re used to hearing from Ms. Jett, but her voice is getting stronger and seems to fit material, like Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Woolley Bully” very well.

Of course, Joan did write “Don’t Abuse Me” and co-wrote a few of the other songs on the album. And she does have a very impressive cast of characters acting as a surrogate band, such as the Sex Pistol’s Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and Blondie’s Frank Infante and Clem Burke.

Distributed solely in Europe, the album quickly caught on as one of the hottest selling imports in America. Joan was distressed to learn how much American kids were paying for the record (in some cases up to three times what it should sell for). And so in an effort to kill the import, she and her producers created Blackheart Records and brought the album to America. The Blackheart version was no sooner in the stores when the major record companies became interested in it, and now the album is available on Boardwalk Records. According to Joan, there are only minor changes on the import and the American version.

After the album was released in Central America, Joan was expected to tour. She came back to the States and recruited the Blackhearts, four Los Angeles musicians. She decided against forming another all-girl band, “Because, first of all, I could never do that. The Runaways is such a part of me that I thought it would be sacrilegious, or something like that, and we’d never get taken seriously.” The Blackhearts are being received well. “When the album came out, we did a tour of Europe, all the places where the Runaways were famous. We didn’t get the reaction we thought we would. Then we came back to America and we were getting all this radio play. It was totally the opposite of what we expected.”

Oddly enough, now that the Runaways are kaput, they seem to be attracting more of a following. “It’s amazing. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. We’re doing gigs all the time. I‘ve been seeing so many people in the last few weeks, all ex-Runaway fans who come up to me and say, ‘I’ve been a fan of the Runaways since the first album.’ And that was when, like ’76? And they’re like about 18, so I guess they were 14 years old when the album came out.” She doesn’t deny the impact her old fans have on her new career, but she doesn’t see them as the bulk of her audience. “We’re acquiring new fans. There’s such a range of people in the audience, from the very young people to middle-aged men, like in their 30s or 40s. It’s pretty weird when you see married couples in their 40s walk in. It intrigues me.” She asks, her voice almost in a whisper, “Why would they want to come see a loud rock’n’roll band?” She stops to think about it. “I hope I’m not like that.” Joan plans to still be “up on stage singing with all I’ve got.”

Bonus videos:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

DVD Review: Alice Donut: Freaks in Love

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

Freaks in Love: A Quarter Century in Underground Rock with Alice Donut
Written and directed by David Koslowski and Skizz Cyzyk
1200B Films / Duotone Films
98 minutes, 2011

When you think of influential bands from the 1980s, the first name to come to mind may not be Alice Donut. That’s irrelevant, because there is so much music you listen to – especially Generation X and Y – that have a bit of them in there. It’s the same way you need not know Johnny Thunders to have heard those who have.

Originally from New York, Alice Donut (a play on the name Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) is an extension of the artistic side of hardcore, much as was Pulsallama. They were a fine mix of hard bash-and-crash sounds, harmonies, and experimental bizarrities (yeah, I made that word up, whadovit?)

How good were they? Well, I don’t remember what I thought of them when their albums came out (yeah, I got ‘em), but “Egg” has become a new fave, especially for the off-beat, sweet sounding chorus and the mess in-between.

The filmmakers David Koslowski and Skizz Cyzyk do a splendid job following the band around as they ready and perform a reunion show, while presenting us the history of the band in an oral history manner (also with clips), managing to work in just about every living member of the band; while the core stayed the same, there were some who came, went, returned, repeat.

If musicians and accomplices were associated with the band, then they tracked ‘em down. Some who show up include Mindy Weisberger, who shot all the song videos over their 25-year career, and Jello Biafra, who signed them to his Alternative Tentacles label (and, of course, was once lead singer of a little band called the Dead Kennedys…). Even Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets) comes around to explain why they were so important. KUSF’s DJ, Germ, appears to illuminate how he became the first to ever play AD on-air. Their long-time producer, Martin Bisi chimes in about working with them. However, the one I wanted to hear from especially was Chet Mazur, the man who the band consistently dressed in frumpy women’s clothes and curlers (he’s on the DVD box), and happily he explains how the whole drag thing came about, even though it seems he’s not sure exactly of the why, either.

One thing that is totally admirable about the band is that even though some members have played musical chairs, they’ve all remained friends over the years, even after annoying each other after long tours; enough that they come back, continue to collaborate, and have nice things to say here, while still being honest enough to admit that not everything was always honky-dory.

.As good as their early material was, as a unit Alice Donut really came together when Viennese classically-trained musician Sissi Shulmeister (translated as schoolmaster?) came to the New World and joined. When the band finally did disburse, she and lead singer Tomas Antona moved to North Carolina and are raising two kids who probably cannot fathom that they probably have the coolest parents in Durham.

Alice Donut songs tend to be about the hardships and absolute absurdities of life, from dealing with loneliness, living an unfulfilled life (such as the song, “The Son of a Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects on His Life While Getting Stones in the Parking Lot of a Winn-Dixie Listening to Metallica”), and general angst and ennui. Their first song, though, was the controversial “Lisa’s Father,” whose subject matter includes alcoholism, child abuse, and false religious beliefs.

Part of the band’s charm, and how they got away with all they did, I believe is in part due to Antona’s high-pitched meandering wail of a voice, which distracts from what he’s actually singing about. This is a good thing, in my mind.

Alice Donut may occasionally show up for a reunion show, but make no mistake about it, their legacy is strong, and held close by their fans. And someday, Antona’s hand-painted raincoats are gonna fetch quite the price.

As if the documentary isn’t enough, there are plenty of extras that last over 40 minutes, most notably a wide variety of live material and interviews from other sources.

Freaks in Love is well crafted from beginning to end. It’s hard not to fall for these people, as they are as entertaining off the stage as they are on.

Bonus video:

Friday, September 7, 2012

DVD Review: Unauthorized and Proud of It: The Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

Unauthorized and Proud of It: The Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics - Special Edition
Directed by Ilko Davidov
Wild Eye Releasing
84 minutes, 2005 / 2012

Revolutionary Comics, the company that put out Rock’n’Roll Comics, was sadly short-lived, as was its creator, John Cusack-lookalike Todd Lauren (nee Stuart Loren Shapiro). With a mixture of r’n’r attitude and capitalist entrepreneurialism, Todd took his dream as far as he could go before his murder in 1992 at the age of 32.

Some people loved Todd for what he was doing, some hated him for how he did it, and others felt a mixture of the two for the same reasons. This documentary features all of these opinions, taking a less-than sentimental look at Todd, his products, and those directly or indirectly affected by him.

Essentially, what Revolutionary Comics started doing was publishing “unauthorized” band histories in comic form. Sometimes the artwork was crude (reminiscent of the Chick religious tracts), oft the information was wrong, and much of it in black-and-white. As the owner of a bunch of them, however, I can tell you they were interesting and fun to read, even about the bands I wasn’t into.

The first issue focused on Gun n’ Roses, and in typical fashion, Axl Rose threatened to sue, which brought on a media fire that shot the sales of the book up astronomically. Some musicians not only didn’t mind being featured, but were happy about it, such as AC/DC (in fact, some pages of their comic form are published in The Illustrated History of AC/DC by Phil Sutcliffe, published earlier this year). KISS also reportedly was happy with the output.

Two of the artists that go on video record here that endorse their lives in print are Alice Cooper and Mojo Nixon. In fact, Nixon rather gushes about Loren. However, Todd was sued by New Kids on the Block, who had just had an “authorized” comic done by Harvey Comics; Loren won the case.

Those who were often not big fans of Todd, however, were apparently the stable of writers and artists (many are interviewed here), of whom were allegedly often taken advantage. One example given a few times is that when Loren gave the talent a check for their work, the back had a stamp on it saying that Todd owned the rights of the work into perpetuity. Essentially, to endorse (and thereby cash) the check, one had to agree to the terms. If you ask me, this is what capitalism in its purist form is all about: taking advantage.

Possibly his biggest critic was fellow comics publisher, Denis Kitchen, who produced Kitchen Sink Press (including The Crow, Death Rattle [one of my faves], Melody, Snarf, and Omaha the Cat Dancer) until 1999. In direct competition, Kitchen riles against Loren’s business practices with a mixture of righteous indignation and possible resentfulness of his success.

Music wasn’t the only topic of Revolutionary Comics, though. Loren also released Conspiracy Comics (the JFK assassination, etc), sports, porn (as did Kitchen Sink Press), and an arguably infamous horror short story series called Tipper Gore Stories. This was a (rightly) slap in the face to the politican’s wife who was intent on censoring records with her PMRC (Parent’s Music Resource Center) group. It is here we find a meta-story about Revolutionary Comics, as the DVD delves into First Amendment rights, which Loren was supposedly championing (how much was true indignation and how much good publicity, is up for debate).

Where Revolutionary Comics (et al.) would have ended up, who knows, had not Todd been murdered (supposedly by someone he picked up; I worked with a person to whom that this happened). In a supposition of theories which is quite interesting, the documentary presumes that it may have been done by serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who also killed Gianni Versace, among others. By some of the home movies, interviews and other information presented via people around him, big possibilities loomed; of course, according to his dad, a key figure here, he would have become a multi-millionaire.

There are also some nifty extras tacked on, including video producer Duane Dimoch giving anecdotes about Todd’s personality, writer Robert Gates describing how he got assigned the KISS comic and met the band, and of special interest to me, Cynthia Plaster Caster discusses in detail how she obtained the genital casts of both Jimi Hendrix (which we see) and his bassist Noel Redding.

A fascinating release on so many different levels, its scope covers many areas of interest for both music and comics fans, as well as freedom of speech issues and gay lifestyles.

Monday, September 3, 2012

DVD Review: The Grateful Dead: Dawn of the Dead

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

Dawn of the Dead: The Grateful Dead & the Rise of the San Francisco Underground
Executive Producer: Rob Johnstone
Narrated by: Thomas Arnold
Sexy Intellectual
138 minutes, 2012

It is not often that Chrome Dreams (CD) takes on a single American band to be the subject of one of their long and detailed documentaries, but it is hardly surprising that they picked arguably the most iconic rock group of ‘60s, The Grateful Dead. For nearly two-and-a-half hours, the viewer gets not only filled in on their history, including prior to the Dead’s formation, but there are tons of clips of songs, music videos and concert footage throughout their career. As usual, CD spares no expense of royalties to give as complete a picture as is reasonable.

As sources for information, there are some of the standard CD cadre of historians and biographers of the San Fran scene, such as David Gans, Richie Unterberger, Robert Christgau, and especially the CD omnipresent Anthony DeCurtis (not meant as a dis). But as I have said in earlier reviews by the company, they have become so much better at getting some of the people who were actually there, rather than only second-hand knowledge writers. Some include Peter Albin (Big Brother and the Holding Company), Mike Wilhelm (the Charlatans, who were the pre-Grateful Dead band), Kenn Babbs (one of the few remaining original Merry Pranksters, who included Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Neal Cassidy, and the rest of the dosing gang), Rock Scully (the Dead’s Manager, 1965-85), and even GD member Tom “TC” Constanten (keyboardist, 1968-70).

Of course, the story of the Grateful Dead is not just about the Dead, but rather the scene they help initiate in San Francisco (as the title states), which included the likes of Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and even Jimi Hendrix (though he was originally from Seattle, he was considered part of the SF scene). Many of these musicians are represented by clips, such as Hendrix’s “Wild Thing” at the infamous Monterey Pop Festival, and Quicksilver’s “All I Ever Wanted to Do (Was Love You),” but this is mostly about the Dead.

There is a wealth of material in the world about the Grateful Dead (GD), one of the most recorded and analyzed bands in the history of modern music (possibly matching even Dylan or the Beatles). This leaves lots of juicy material for CD to choose from, and they pick quite a number of sources, which, of course, is great. Sure, no clip is more than, say, a minute in length (kind of ironic considering the GD are known for songs that could literally go on for hours), but considering the sheer amount they cover, and that they choose a lot of rare live clips, makes this a getter, whether you’re a fan of the band or of the scene (I’m more of the latter).

Along with the music, films and historical narration, there are also bits of interviews from over the years. For example, Jerry Garcia discussed dancing and acid in 1993, one from Phil Lesh that same year describing major labels as “robber barons,” and Bob Weir in 2009 describes how he is just interested in music, not politics.

Whether one is a fan of the band or not is kind of irrelevant, because they were at some many of the important touchstones of the era, including the Acid Tests, the Trips Festival, Bill Graham’s concert reign (they show my fave clip of Graham, which is a fight between him and the Charlatan’s Mike Wilhelm, who describes the incident in the present on this DVD), Haight-Ashbury, the Monterey Pop Festival, and so on. Their presence was key to what we know as the pharmaceutically induced Love Generation.

Again, I would love to see more women interviewed on these histories, perhaps people on the scene, groupies or ex-wives? There is also very little about the many deaths surrounding the band, such as Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Keith Godcheux. As this delves into the pre-GD period, what is also missing, in my opinion, is about the post-GD. For example, there is Garcia’s teaming with bluegrass musician David Grisman. Then again, perhaps I’m asking for too much considering how much history this actually does cover well.

The bonus is called “Ken Babbs and Walker T. Ryan: Fell in the Crack,” in which Babbs (on trombone) and Ryan (guitar) do a talking blues about Ken Kesey. Interesting and a bit bizarre, yet still fun.

Bonus Video: