Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Book Review: Woodstock FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Fabled Garden, by Thomas E. Harkins

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet


Woodstock FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Fabled Garden
Written by Thomas Edward Harkins
Backbeat Books
360 pages, 2019

When we were both Grad students at New York University in the 1990s, Thomas Harkins and I would have some deep discussions about music filled with humor and respect for each other's tastes. Oh, they could be very different, with me being the punker and him the grunge-lovin’ hippie into Classic Rock. And yet, we found enough common ground in musical acts like the Who and Melanie to keep our conversations lively.

The FAQ series by Backbeat is a bit of a misnomer in that it is not as the acronym states “Frequently Asked Questions,” but rather more as the phonetic sounding of FAQ / Facts. Like Harkins’ previous book from 2016, Pearl Jam FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Seattle’s Most Enduring Band (co-written with Bernard M. Corbett), he takes both a deep look through a fans eyes, without being too sentimental, yet manages to keep it quite personal at the same time. Feel the love, and light your candle in the rain.

In his introduction, Harkins rightfully states that Woodstock “is considered by many to have been the definitive sociocultural event of the 1960s. It is also widely considered the most famous concert of all time.” In my opinion, the Monterrey Music Festival was the prologue and Altamont the conclusion, with Woodstock being the body of the text, if you’ll pardon a print-era analogy.

Harkins takes a topic that has been covered extensively and wisely uses a few formulas that work quite well. For example, he starts with how the 3 Days Festival of Music and Art came to fruition, and then discusses each and every band and/or musician who played over those days. In most of other missives I’ve read that are dedicated to the sometimes grueling weekend, there is a ton written about the main players (e.g., Janis, Jimi, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), or they are mentioned right off the bat, and some of the lesser knowns (Quill, the Keef Hartley Band, the Incredible String Band, etc.) tend to fall by the wayside or as a footnote. Here, Harkins thoughtfully goes chronologically through each and every one who performed. Nice touch, as some of the bands that didn’t make the cut of the film or initial LPs are the ones I am less familiar with and want to learn about more thoroughly.

Each of the chapters referring to the bands are usually broken into three separate sections (with rare exceptions, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who each get a prelude). The leadup to Woodstock (i.e., the history of the band and its members) is subtitled “As the Seeds Were Sown,” the Festival experience for that artist or group is “In the Garden,” and the post-experience “The Harvest Reaped.” Each subtitle is followed by a relative quip, such as “Airplanes, Starships, and a Side of Hot Tuna” for Jefferson Airplane’s later period.

What’s also impressive is that inasmuch as Harkins is a fan, he also is not afraid to shy away from disruptive personalities, nor is he reluctant to discuss substance abuses (like, was there anyone there who wasn’t completely zonked on stage, other than probably Ravi Shankar?). It’s in the third, post-concert section where this is especially true, with too many of those falling into obscurity due to their own self-destructive devices and dependencies (or of their management pulling power plays with the filmmakers during the festival, for example).

Commented on – though almost not as an exact focus – in this book is the sheer amount of songs about Woodstock by the artists that were there (and in Joni Mitchell’s case, who arguably wrote what has become the definitive number about it, she was absent). For me, more than “Woodstock” with it’s iconic refrain “By the time we got to Woodstock / We were half a million strong,” it was Melanie (Safka) and her “Candles in the Rain / Lay Down” that speaks to me about it (“We all had caught the same disease / And we all sang a song of peace”). Another example that Harkins mentions is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s (CCR) B-side “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” which the author describes as “at least, in part, a commentary to the band’s experiences at Woodstock.”

Despite the number of pages, most bands are given a few and concise sheets to sum up their histories and experiences, which is fine, because as I stated, there has been a lot written about that period, including by performers in their autobiographies, and not all of them match the actual history of certain events, which Harkins also wisely addresses. Sometimes it’s easy to tell when the author is excited about a particular band as there will be a bit more about them, such as with the Grateful Dead; I made a note that “Lots of post-Woodstock Dead by a Dead-icated Dead Head” (most pictures of Harkins is of him wearing a tie-dye shirt…). It’s understandable to get excited about one’s heroes, and that is a flag worth waving.

The author
I do have to admit that I don’t always agree with some of Harkins conclusions, such as when he mentions Joplin's truly soulful cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’ "which, even under these less than ideal circumstances, added a dimension of emotion that was lacking in the 1967 pop original.” While I am certainly no fan of the Bee Gees’ output from “Jive Takin’” onward, I think their early material is very moving even in it's pop music skin. But differences of opinion are part of what makes music so visceral for us, so personal, and what lead to our interesting conversations about it.

The final chapter deals with the aftermath of the Woodstock Festival, including the films and follow-up concerts that were Woodstock-centric (e.g., anniversaries). Harkins is correct to say that part of the lasting legacy of the weekend was the film that followed, more so I believe more than the three-record soundtrack that was released at first (there have been ever expanded versions of the concert that have been circulated since). One testament to this book is that after finishing it, it inspired me to seek out other media sources and find videos of the performances and spent some time with those.

The book is thoroughly researched, and there is lots of information for those of us who just don’t have the time (or inkling) to read the mass amounts of tomes written about the subject. This is a beautifully concise snapshot full of excitement about a topic of love and scholarly fanship.



Saturday, August 10, 2019

Book Review: My Life in the Ghost of Planets: The Story of a CBGB Almost-Was; by Binky Philips


Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet


My Life in the Ghost of Planets: The Story of a CBGB Almost-Was
Written by the Binky Philips
Self-published and free HERE 
45 pages, 2011

According to the author, “About 8 years ago, Rhino commissioned me to write up the history of my band, The Planets, as it was a portrait of what it was like to not make it during the CBGB era. Yes, it was 100% their idea.”

In typically Binky cynical fashion, this is how he describes his “Single Notes” book. If you’re like me, and are a fan of Philips, that would intrigue you more than put you off. Philips can be a curmudgeon about most topics (lately it’s politics, though that’s wise in this histrionic environment), but grumpy people can more interesting than placid ones.

I had seen The Planets a few times over those early years, when Tally Taliafellow was voxing it up. They were a solid band, and even their covers rocked hard, no matter what genre they pulled it from. I remember once at CBGB, I was horrified to hear them break out into “Boogie Fever,” and made a face of disdain to my companion who rightfully (and strongly) pointed out to notice how they were playing it, not what they were playing. I think it was in that moment I realized that I was impressed by the group.

Binky was the face guy who ran the place at one of my fave St. Mark’s Place record shops, Sounds Records, and I would occasionally go in and talk to Binky about assorted bands, what he was up to, like that. Eventually, though, I had to stop going to Sounds because of budget, space for LPs, and the sheer amount of time I would sort their racks (I used to say, “I can’t go in because I can’t get out”). Because of that, for several years, I lost touch with Binky, but now I follow him on Facebook. I’m fascinated by his large knowledge and ownership of guitars.

One thing I have found about Binky is that he is bluntly honest, and that comes across in the book. He easily points to mistakes made by others, such as an ex- that managed the band for a while, and doesn’t hold back errors and regrets in judgment he’s made regarding his career. As he states on the first page, “But more than not, it was my own career-myopia and/or hot ‘n’ cold ego that got in my way. Left me with a mouth full of ashes.” The story about the right choice regarding Iggy Pop and Ray Manzarek, however, is hysterical. Despite the negative tone of the title, this is sometimes an incredibly funny book, more situational than hah-hah, though.

Early on, Binky discusses his influences, which essentially follow the British path of Beatles-to-Stones-to-The Who (especially Pete Townshend). While he doesn’t tell the story about Pete throwing him his guitar at a show at the Met on July 7, 1970, you can find it eventually by searching on Binky’s FB page if you so desire (or perhaps ask him?).

One of the things about being at the advent of any scene, is that you get to meet people who some day may eclipse you in fame, but that doesn’t mean it becomes name dropping when you talk about your relationship with those future stars, such as they were. That was especially true in the pre-CBGB days and well into it (including Max’s Kansas City, Mother’s, etc.). The fact that Binky knew Johnny Thunders from going to rock shows before JT joined the New York Dolls, or Paul Stanley of KISS even before that, comes across as anecdotes rather than bragging, which is incredibly more – err – credible and organic. Plus, there are a number of great stories about them in here.

Many of the big players are here, like how Binky became a big Ramones fan, but he is not afraid to hold back on his opinions. Even though he states, “I have no intention of running a laundry lis’ of dis’ here…” in the very next two paragraphs he mentions “the inane juvenile misogyny and unfunny wisecracks constantly spewing from the mouths of self-consciously loud dimwits… exemplified by the Legs McNeil clique…”, and “Willy Deville, at least a talent I admired, was, with me at any rate, one of the most two-faced paranoid insecure people I have ever had to interact with.”

There are many times I agree with his opinions, such as Talking Heads being a better band pre-signing as a trio. As I said, this is a very brave and no-nonsense look back, and would not expect anything less from Binky, honestly.

Meanwhile, Binky has had a run at a music career, and even has a spankin' new album out as Binky Philips and the Planets – because he has earned the right to name his own band that - called Established 1972 NYC. That and an earlier LP with Sara Lee and Mark Leyland are worth checking out.

Binky is quite knowledgeable on the history of electric guitars and is a collector as well, as his frequent posts portray, and I can see him doing a write-up of that as well. Plus, you just know this book is only a drop in the bucket on what he has experienced and stories to tell.

In the long run, I would love to see him expand these 45 pages into a full book, and I will happily read that, as well.

Binky Philips and the Planets in Rolling Stone Magazine

Monday, August 5, 2019

Reverberating with THE STIMULATORS [1981]


Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1981
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #8, dated 1981. It was written by our Managing Editor, Julia Masi.

I’ve told this story before, but I’ll repeat it: the drummer of the Stimulators, a young Harley Flanagan, was the first person I ever saw slamdance among a very confused pogoing audience at a Siouxi and the Banshees show at Irving Plaza. It baffled a lot of us at first, being horizontal rather than vertical, but it was my introduction to live hardcore behavior. He was ahead of the scene. Later, he would form one of the leading hardcore bands based in New York that would influence many others, the Cro-Mags, and would publish an autobiography in 2016 titled Hard-Core: Life of My Own. The singer, Patrick Mack, died in 1983 of AIDS complications, which closed down the band. Bassist Denise Mercedes would go on to play in heavy metal cover bands. – RBF, 2019


The Stimulators take their name from tiny Chinese acupuncture needles that instantly alleviate pain at the nerve endings. And like their medical metaphor, the collective talents of Denise Mercedes, guitar, Patrick Mack, vocals, Nick Marden, bass, and 14-year-old Harley Flanagan, drums, are a fast, sure, sure-fire cure for the disease of boredom.

The music is a high-decibel mix of raw, gritty rock’n’roll, like “Cradle Robber,” “Loud Fast Rules,” and reggae-style numbers. Most of the music is composed by the band’s raven-haired catalyst and spokesperson, Denise, who formed the Stimulators in 1979, after playing with Rat Scabies (of the Damned) in England. Patrick contributes some of the lyrics, Harley works out rhythms and, recently, Nick has started writing.

Harley, in a recent documentary
They have a repertoire of about 25 songs, but oddly enough, they have only two singles to their credit: “Loud Fast Rules” b/w “You Will Never Break My Heart” on the Irish label Good Vibrations that is considered a collectors item, and an American release of “Loud Fast Rules” with a flip side of “Run, Run, Run,” on their own Stimulators label that is already out of print.

They’re taking their time before they go back into the studio because, Denise says, “We are a very live band. To go into a studio, which tends to have a dull sound; or not just the right sort of equipment; or if you can’t record under the conditions you’d usually play under, it creates this whole other sound that doesn’t sound like the band. And we didn’t want to have this piece of plastic that doesn’t sound like us.”

They’re hoping to put an album out this Fall that will include some of their older material, and is what Denise sees as “the first of our albums. We’d like to do it our way, on our time. We’re not sitting around and waiting for somebody to say, ‘Oh, here’s a record deal.’ Most likely somebody would want to have a big, heavy hand in producing it and packaging it a certain way.” And their manager, Donald Murk, agrees: “If there’s gonna be any big, heavy hands on it, they’re gonna be ours.”

Denise (right) in a metal cover band
The forthcoming album [a live recording, Loud Fast Rules is the band’s only full album, which was released in 1982 in cassette form from ROIR – RBF, 2019] will be an attempt to put on records some of the best of their old songs, so that they can be on to new material for their sets. “People want to hear old favorites. Even with a band like ours who doesn’t have three albums, everybody wants to hear stuff off the first record. We’re a little bit being locked into playing our best stuff, just to keep it active. So, I think this album might really help in wanting to move on without wanting to give up the old stuff. You’d have to play for five hours sometimes (to play at all),” says Denise.

Despite their limited amount of records and radio airplay, the Stimulators are still one of the most popular bands of the New York underground, partly because of their unofficial slogan Loud Fast Rules, which has been written in every BMT subway car in the city and billboards in Staten Island by their adoring fans.

“We just wrote it as a song,” added Denise, “but it’s become an identity. In fact, people who have not even heard the band have this preconceived notion of ‘Oh, yeah, the Loud Fast Band,’ which is okay because that’s still basically what we’re doing. People really identify with it. We have people walk past us yelling, ‘Loud Fast Rules!’, and they come in wearing it on their clothes. Most bands don’t get identified by one slogan. It’s just a little thing people can hold onto very easily.”

One thing the Stimulators haven’t hooked onto easily is being labeled a “punk band.” “It would pay for us to define ourselves in one word,” concluded Denise. “It’s just the music of now. It’s 1981. We’re playing the music of 1981. It’s just a modern rock band.”