Tuesday, March 31, 2015

LEVI DEXTER: Hepcat Heartthrob [1982]

Text by NanSuzy Q. Foster / FFanzeen, 1981
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #8, dated 1981. It was written by “NanSuzy Q. Foster,” aka Nancy Foster, Nancy Neon, Nancy New Age, and Suzy Q.

Note that I have linked some music to artists mentioned by Dexter throughout this piece. Click on them to hear it.

Fanzine publisher / music fanatic / ”The hottest thing from the North to come outta the South” / my-sister-from-another-mother Nancy Foster and I had tickets to see the Clash play at Bonds, in Times Square. It was the thing to do, I suppose, more than anything else. When we got to the venue and we saw the over-sold crowd on line being obnoxious and bullying, Nancy suggested that we ditch the gig and head downtown. The Rockats were performing that night, recording their Live at the Ritz album. We sold our tickets to someone for just enough of a profit to pay for our way into the Ritz, and hopped on the subway. If you are thinking, “Are you crazy?” then I recommend you check out the video clip below. The Rockats were an exciting band, in a way that the Stray Cats could never achieve, even though they were better at marketing themselves because they were all Yanks. The encore, which does not appear on the record, was a cover of Chuck Berry’s “’Round and ‘Round,” which Levi bend down on stage and shared his mic with Nancy, who has a booming voice of her own. It was a great show. – RBF, 2015

FFanzeen: Was the Rockats your first group?
Levi Dexter: Yes, they were the first group that I ever professionally played with. A couple of years before that, there were other rockabilly bands in London, like Crazy Cavan, the Flying Saucers, and Shakin’ Stevens.

FFanzeen: What year was that?
Levi: Late ’75 to late ’77. I’d get up and do one song with them for a laugh. I never had a band. One day I was doing a song with Shakin’ Stevens in a movie theater, of all places, and Leee [Leee BlackChilders, famous photographer and scene maker who worked for MainMan, managed the Heartbreakers, and is currently Levi’s manager – NF, 1981; Leee passed away in 2014 – RBF, 2015] saw it and said, “Wow!” and helped me to get a band together.

FFanzeen: So, were Smutty Smiff and Dibbs Preston in the original Rockats?
Levi: The original Rockats formed in 1977. It was an all English group. There was Don Deveroux (on drums), Dibbs on guitar, Smut on bass, and Mick Barry on rhythm, and me.

FFanzeen: How did you meet Dibbs and Smutty?
Levi: It was really quite a punk thing. Leee said, “I’ll get you a band.” And I was with Smiff’s family then, and Dibbs was hangin’ around the Vortex (a punk club) and said, “Hey! I can play guitar kind of okay.” And so, Leee introduced me to him; and we met at the Vortex. We met the drummer at a Wayne County concert and we said, “Do you want to be in our band?” Smut was there fussin’ around and Leee said, “That looks great. Why don’t we have him in the band?” He could play enough instruments.

FFanzeen: So, he started playing bass after he joined the band?
Levi: Yeah. He could play. Originally, he learned like, two songs that we would play first, really horribly loud. Then we’d unplug him and say, “Oops! Sorry, something went wrong with the bass amp.” And then he got into this trip where he’d have half a drum stick and he’d just wack on the upright bass. It sounded awful, but it was good fun.

FFanzeen: Where were the two Levi and the Rockats singles recorded [“Room to Rock” / “All Thru the Nite”; “Rockabilly Idol” / “Note From the South,” both 1979, on Kool Kat Records and Peer Communications – RBF, 2015]?
Levi: Out in Los Angeles. I can’t remember the name of where we actually recorded it [LRS – RBF, 2015], because it was such a little place. But out in Radio City, there’s a big joint, where we mixed it [Greg Lee Processing – RBF, 2015].

FFanzeen: Were your British fans exclusively Teds, or did you have punks as fans, too?
Levi: No, we never played to the Teds or rockabilly audience because it wasn’t pure, original – Charlie Feathers – they would freak out. Back then; they could deal with it now. The first date we did was, like, a reggae thing. Then we played with the Fabulous Poodles at some college date. And then the next date we did was with Spiv, of Athletico Spiv. I think it was Spiv Oil back then. The Unwanted, Siouxie and the Banshees, and Adam and the Ants.

FFanzeen: So, your fans were mostly punks, right?
Levi: Yeah. We went on last that date, so it was really scary. The punks really loved it, cos it was noise and fun and rowdy. And it gave us time to learn to play.

FFanzeen: When did you first get into rockabilly?
Levi: My father was a drummer so there was always a lot of that goin’ on. And my mother would play rock’n’roll records, like Eddie Cochran and Little Richard, and Elvis and stuff. I was eleven or twelve, and I got into being a Ted for about two years. And then I just started goin’ out to the rock’n’roll joints and just started hearin’ nothin’ but ’50s music. When I was (first) bein’ aware of music, the only places I’d go were, like, Ted joints. It was all pre-‘60s and it was really all a small-minded, simple attitude of, like, if it’s after 1960, it’s not cool. “The Twist” is not cool because it’s, like, the third number is a six. But some garbage song from 1955, of some guy singing rockabilly was cool, because it was rare. There’s two levels of music: there’s the constant changing thing, level one, where this is in, that’s out, this is in, that’s out; and there’s a level just below that, of the boring, middle-of-the-road stuff, like the radio plays.

FFanzeen: Like AM pop?
Levi: So, either you’re one of those kids that gets into what’s on the radio or you get into the cults, like Teds or Mods or skinheads. But it seems that everybody eventually gets sick of all this constant switching, so thy just settle into whatever fits them most. So, if they’re into, like, ‘50s rock’n’roll, they become Teds, or not really Teds anymore; they’re finished now. Well not really finished. They’ll be around ‘til doomsday. But they became rockabillies, or hepcats – things like that.

FFanzeen: Do you like the new stuff, like Tex Rabinowitz?
Levi: My kind of stuff. Now that I’m into live (performing), it’s hard to tell what’s going on, record-wise. In Los Angeles now, it’s the Blasters, the Cramps – even though they’re going psychedelic. In England, the Hepcats. They’re brilliant live. Always dependable live; they’re gonna be really crazy. The Meteors. They’re the ones to watch cos they’re coming up out of the underground. They’re sort of like the English equivalent of the Cramps, their sort of style. They do horror, like, “My Daddy Is a Vampire.” They’re really scary, but they’re lots of fun. They haven’t played America yet, but they’re brilliant. They’re really great.

FFanzeen: When did you decide that you wanted to make music your career?
Levi: When it first dawned on me that I would put a band together.

FFanzeen: What was your first impression of America or New York?
Levi: When we first came over to America, we landed in California. And I went, “This is it! This is America! I’ve made it!” and just stated huggin’ palm trees. I loved it. We were there six weeks and then we went down South. The idea, when we first came, was that we weren’t gonna play. We were just gonna drive around because we’d been singin’ songs about New Orleans and down South, and stuff like that. We’d never been out of England, so we couldn’t really sing about American rock’n’roll stuff. Then we went to Texas and we got into a lot of crap there. We went to Dallas, had a party there for about two days. Then we went to Kentucky. We were expecting guys with guitars coming out of their pockets, and it was all these farmers and rednecks and hippies, and people who were into KISS and Aerosmith and stuff. And I thought, “This is not what I thought it would be!” We stayed there for four months. Then we finally made it to New York and it was like a breath of fresh air. Kids that were really sick of that stuff. To me, rockabilly doesn’t have a lot of messages. It’s supposed to be spontaneous fun, but it has a lot of passion in it. The only people that I believe can really do it right are the kids. They do not only rockabilly, but rock’n’roll in general – with a lot of passion – and people can feel it. If somebody’s stuck-up and they’ve got a cushy number, they come off real polished and slick, and people feel that. It’s just not what it’s all about. To a lot of straight people, that’s why rock’n’roll is scary. You can have a whole band gettin’ sweaty and throwin’ themselves all over the place and rolllin’ around on the floor. And straight people will go, “What the hell is goin’ on?” It’s just as scary for the kids, with problems and a hard time to watch some slick band. I believe that you should be larger than life. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t wear jeans and a t-shirt, cos I’m supposed to be bigger than life, as opposed to who I am – or what I am. I like to dress flashy. And I don’t like people to tell me I should or I shouldn’t.

FFanzeen: Who are some of your favorite rockabilly singers?
Levi: My taste fluctuates to whatever I’m being exposed to at the time. If you asked me that question two years ago, I would have gone, “Oh, Charlie Feathers, Johnny Carroll and all these very obscure rockabilly guys. But now, that’s not really enough for me. I like the sex life of rockabilly. I like it to be really wild and crazy. But I like it to be pretty sick. Old stuff I like are the guys that never really made it, like Jackie Morningstar that did horrors in the ‘50s. And this blonde girl, Sparkle Moore, who does a song called “Skull and Crossbones.” She was really sick. She does this heavy breathing, like panting and stuff, like really bad taste. She was great. Pure ‘50s trash! She wore a leather jacket with skull and crossbones on the jacket. Like trashy, mayhem stuff. That’s what I like now. I’ve gone through all the, “Oh, I like that stuff cos it’s rare.” Now I’m just into what gets me excited.

FFanzeen: Have you found any places in New York that are cool to pick up rockabilly records?
Levi: Yeah. The trouble is it’s, like, record companies release the record and they’re, like, country-swing rockabilly stuff. There’s too many people rippin’ off the rockabilly kids cos they put out an album that has two wild rockabilly tracks and the rest of it is bad. It’s not fun; it’s not wild; it’s not sick – it’s garbage. It’s just like third-rate country and western with a beat. I may dress in things that cost me a lot of money that I work hard for, but that won’t stop me from rollin’ around the floor and getting’ it all scuffed up. It doesn’t’ matter to me. All that matters is that you’re doin’ what you feel.

FFanzeen: Do you dress the same offstage as on?
Levi: Pretty much. When I’m playin’ I like to wear baggy pants, mainly cos I can move. I like to wear jackets for security. Like some people like to go out holdin’ their guitar, even though they don’t play nothin’. I like to wear a jacket, then take my jacket off. Once I get my jacket off, then I’m, like, “Now I’m ready to deal with the whole thing!” I’m not some prissy showman. I don’t buy $300 suits and then I’m too scared to get them wrinkled up. When I’m on stage, I like to dress like I’m on stage. When I’m off stage, it doesn’t matter. But if there’s gonna be a lot of lights, I like to clash colors, sparkles; cos if you’re on stage, no matter what ya are, no matter if you’re in the biggest joint or the seediest hole, if somebody is watching ya, somebody is watching ya. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t want people to look at what I’m doing. A lot of bands – not just in rockabilly but music in general – are brilliant bands, but I just don’t wanna look at them. Some bands I can watch that are dressed in jeans and motorcycle boots and I’m just entranced by their music. But I really don’t’ give a crap about what they’re doing onstage. Some bands look good in boots, a t-shirt, and a leather jacket. And some bands are so obviously miserable cos they think that’s what they have to wear. No matter what anybody says, an audience of honest kids can feel whether you’re fakin’ it. Whether it’s music or attitude, or clothes or anything.

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