BACK IN THE USA (well, Southern California, anyway)
I got back into the country a week ago, fresh off of an out-of-left field, solo acoustic tour with Glen Matlock, in Canada. I had gotten a last minute call seeing if I was available, as my old friend, and brother of the Punk Rock Wars of the 70’s, Tommy Ramone, who was originally booked, was ailing and could not make the dates, and could I fill in. It had been billed as a Sex Pistol/Ramone quasi-Punk Rock bill, with each guy doing what it is they do now, these many years after Punk, as we knew it, was long over. I had my reservations about it, as I never really thought of myself as a Punk Rocker to begin with – despite whatever protestations History has raised in defining me. Hell, I never thought of The Dictators as Punk Rock either, for that matter! Again, History seems to have decided otherwise. And, History never asked me, so there ya have it.
Like I say, I had some reservations, mostly concerning the audiences and their expectations. Would they be coming to try and relive those Punk Rock days, through the music of two veterans of the 70’s scene, even though those two veterans’ music nowadays gives only a passing nod to those times. But those were exactly the kind of expectations I feared, and had little hope of, or was desirous of, fulfilling. Glen’s music has expanded over the years, and it was he, of course, who wrote/co-wrote the four greatest singles of that era – namely the four Sex Pistols singles, when he was the bass player for that legendary band. Those records still sound like an impending revolution already at the gates of the city. The wall of angry guitars, a galvanizing lead singer with a venomous delivery, and a strong rhythm section (well, until Glen left and they brought in a guy who could not play a note, let alone write songs, namely Sid Vicious). One thing that gets overlooked regarding the Sex Pistols was their mastery of tempo. Yes, the tempos. Where many bands, mine included, seemed overly pre-occupied at times with playing as fast as possible, the Pistols found the sweet spot – a tempo where the confluence of thick sheets of guitars, made every guitar chord fat and brutal, every spat lyric corrosive, and elicited, no, demanded, immediate and extreme reaction, and that is exactly what they got back – in spades. It was excitement personified. Of course, they also had the great Chris Thomas producing – another leg-up.
Glen did whip out GOD SAVE THE QUEEN & PRETTY VACANT during his sets, and they still pack a wallop, even on acoustic guitar. The audience loved the chance to clap along, or sing along to those two every night, and did so with unbridled glee. And, they fit in well with his newer songs, as well as the Rich Kids songs he played. He also played DEAD END STREET, by The Kinks, and a Jacques Brel song that had been recorded by Scott Walker, and whose name I never did get. So, there was variety as well in Glen’s sets.
Glen’s approach was a high energy, audience engaging one. He stood while he played, got the audience to help out on a few choruses, and he even got them to quiet down when he needed them, too. It was impressive, it was fun, and it was never lacked for energy or audience engagement. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Glen’s set every night. He’s a terrific writer, a solid musician, and a soulful singer, too.
My own approach was probably more singer-songwriterly, for lack of a better, more descriptive term. I sat when I performed in order to draw the audience in to what I was doing, and I mixed up tempos, feels, guitar hooks, and everything I had at my disposal in order to represent myself as best I could. I had some rockers in there, of course, some to sing along to, and most told a story that usually managed to engage and hold the audience. I even played some songs from the upcoming Del-Lords record, ELVIS CLUB, including FLYING, which Eric sings on the record. I usually opened with a rockabllly, by way of Eddie Cochran, version of LIVIN’ ON LOVE, another Del-Lords tune, from our first record, that Eric also usually sings. Some nights, when the audience was in a particularly attentive mood, I would play SAVING GRACE, the title song from my second solo record. I think of it as my best song, and when the audience is there for me, it usually goes over the best, too. But, the circumstances really do need to be just right for the song to do its thing. Sometimes, if the crowd was too antsy, instead of SAVING GRACE, I would throw in LISTENING TO ELVIS, a song from the early Del-Lords days, once recorded by Syd Straw. It’s got a fun story to it, a Tex-Mex feel, and always works well live. AND, so as to hold up my end of the Punk theme, I closed every set with The Dictators’ STAY WITH ME, which The Del-Lords, and Little Kings (my band with Dion) also recorded, was written by Andy Shernoff. I made sure to dedicate it to Tommy Ramone each night, as well. At the end of the shows, no one was more surprised than me at how well it all went.
A week of shows with Glen, and all of them were successful. I got to really like Glen, and found him to be very smart, generous, talented, and a good hang. His supercool girlfriend Debra helped out with driving, and selling the merch, and felt like a great protective big sister the whole way – a great traveling companion. Besides also being very smart and a great hang, she is a ferocious supporter of animal rights, and a lover of all the furry four legged ones who grace our world. I appreciated her on all counts. I was sorry to have to say goodbye to both of them at the end.
Glen and I wound up each night with a stab at ALL OR NOTHING, a great classic rockin’ soul tune from a favorite band of both Glen and myself, The Small Faces. It was a lot of fun, and the audience loved it. It was also another example of Glen doing what he could for me and my own cause. He wanted to make sure I got my due, and went out of his way more than once on my behalf. I am eternally indebted. The match-up of Glen and myself turned out to be a perfectly complimentary one, with two very different styles and two sensibilities that also were a good pairing, and an easy shift for the audience to make.
Now, I am back home with my wife, where I belong. Now, it’s all about The Del-Lords and the new record. It seems that iTunes scooped us on the release by putting it up for sale more than a month early but things like that hardly matter anymore in these days of a continually crumbling record industry, and an ever leveling playing field. ELVIS CLUB is now available on our own website, Bandcamp, as well as on iTunes.
Things are starting to happen on the Del-Lords front, with really nice reviews starting to come in from all over the world, and a ton of great responses from our collective friends on Facebook and elsewhere. While good reviews were never of that much interest to our old record labels, as the major label record industry sort of looked down their nose at reviews, when they acknowledged them at all, as the number of sales they could potentially generate was not a number high enough to intrigue the overblown, cost ineffective, and eternally cumbersome record industry. They used to figure that the impact of great reviews topped out somewhere around 40,000 units sold, and that number did not phase them one way or another. Nowadays, if we sell 40,000 copies we will earn many times more money than we would have earned on a major label, if we had sold 400,000 copies. The record industry ate itself, destroyed more careers and great records than it ever broke, and now I salute the major label record industry that remains with a solid middle finger, and a hardy, “FUCK YOU!!”
But, I hold no grudge. What, after all, would be the point of that. It would only add to my personal burden, and do nothing to rectify what happened to us back in the 80’s. I take that grudge and put it into The Del-Lords present and future, where it can do the most good.
So, here I am, a week into the baseball season, with my beloved Yankees decimated by injuries to several of our best players, and run producers – making for a very inauspicious beginning to the 2013 season. But, I am a true fan, so of course, I will eat my kishkas out all season long once again, and stand with my team, rise or fall.
In June, the band begins to play, and we are currently working in a new bass player, as Duke, who had been named the “new guy” had to bow out. We do believe we have the perfect guy on tap, but we will make no official announcement just yet. But, it should be noted, optimism within the ranks is at an all-time high. It was a sudden change, and luckily it happened early on, and sooner rather than later.
I will now be checking in here with news, opinions (oh, I got as million of ‘em), ideas and maybe just to shoot the shit for awhile with you, my friends.
ELVIS CLUB on GB Music is available now on our website, Bandcamp, and iTunes, and everywhere else on May 14th.
Friends, especially those of you in the Northeast, I am going to be somewhere nearby many of you during the first two weeks of December. History is repeating itself, as Elliott Murphy, the Normandy All-Stars, and myself are hitting a handful of the same joints we played together last December. For me, these are mostly solo shows, although my bandmate, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, will be joining me for a few of them.
We are getting very close to the release of the first Del-Lords record in two decades. It’s called ELVIS CLUB, and is produced by Roscoe. Eric, Frank, newest Del-Lord, Duke, and I are shaking some action in our boots right now at the very thought of it. Twelve new songs, one written by our hero, Neil Young, one that I wrote with Eric, and one that I wrote with Dion, the rest by me. Lots of variety, including what I think will be some surprises, are in store.
Anyway, I am gonna keep this brief, and to the point. There will be much to discuss in short order. Have a great Thanksgiving, and if any of these dates are near enough, please come by, say hi, have a drink, rock a bit. Whaddya say?
Dec. 6 The Tin Angel, Philadelphia, PA w/ Elliott Murphy
Dec. 9 Drew’s (with Eric Ambel), Ringwood, NJ w/ Elliott
Dec. 12 The Turning Point, Piermont, NY w/ Elliott Murphy
Dec. 13 The Iron Horse, Northampton, Mass w/ Elliott Murphy
Dec. 14 The Record Collector (with Eric Ambel, Bordentown, NJ
w/ Andy Shernoff
Dec 15. Mexicali Blues, Teaneck, NJ w/ Elliott Murphy
R.I.P. RITCHIE TEETER
This morning, April 10th, 2012, Ritchie Teeter passed away from complications stemming from his battle with esophageal cancer. The news came down hard and unforgiving. Ritchie was our drummer from 1975 – 1978. Four years of tour, record, tour, record, etc. These were the peak years of the original band’s existence. Although Rich’s tenure as a Dictator officially came to an end in 1978, he had come back to do a bunch of “reunion” shows in the 80’s, and it was again a joy to share a stage with him, and relive his own unmistakable approach to the Big Beat. After that, though, we all seemed to lose touch with Rich, although I would occasionally run into him, the last time being at a Del-Lords show in the late 80’s. Then, it was no contact until about eight months ago, when I learned of his illness, and I knew enough was enough, and the long estrangement needed to end. I wrote him a letter at the last email address I had for him, and that began a series of great correspondence, rekindled friendship, and a final acknowledgment of the eternal bond we created by our extraordinary shared experiences. I only wish I had reached out earlier. Now this.
This is a dark and terrible day, the first such hit the Dictators family has taken. Forty years after the creation of our little band the first casualty is recorded. And dear God, it hurts. The cold glass of mortality thrown our way is a stark reminder of the inevitability of our fate and time here on God’s Golf Ball. What follows are some immediate memories and feelings about our fallen brother. Make no mistake, The Dictators are like the Mob, once you’re in, you’re in. Forever. DFFD.
My earliest memory of Ritchie Teeter was finding out that I had not remembered meeting him the first time we met. I found this out from Ritchie Teeter himself. Ritchie had (apparently) auditioned for the band and had been turned down. I did not remember this. Of course, we auditioned dozens and dozens of drummers at this time, and, truth be told, we were fixated on one Robbie Biegel, drummer from Hackamore Brick, a big Dictators favorite, particularly of mine and Adny’s. (Hackamore Brick were an Adny discovery, as far as we were concerned.) Anyway, Robbie Biegel was fantastic, looked cool, and we needed big heaping helpings of both.
Robbie came down and played, he was great, he said, “Thanx but no thanx”. So, at some point after the Biegel disaster, I am introduced to one Rich Teeter. I like him right away, and I remember talking about The Who & The Velvets with him. He sits down behind the kit, proceeds to totally tear it up, and we are all like, “Let’s grab this guy quick”. I don’t remember if this was before or after we found out he could also sing like an angel. We ask, Rich accepts, and then he tells us that he had auditioned for us before and had been turned down. We didn’t remember it, but we took his word, as well as being a bit embarrassed. As it happens, it had been the very first time Ritchie Teeter had ever been turned down at an audition, of any kind whatsoever. He was not about to let that ignominy stand. He returned, and walked away with the gig. This is how we met Ritchie Teeter.
Although, we were pleasantly oblivious to it at the time, The Dictators presented a rather formidable united front of sorts, and just radiated long-term familiarity with each other. Like a brotherhood. I guess it’s easy to figure out. Richard and I had already been friends for twelve years at this point. Ross, Adny and I formed the band together, and did a highly compressed version of getting to know each other, all in a matter of months. The three of us were completely isolated, having ended up in the New York mountain town of Kerhonkson spending pretty much every waking hour together, practicing, eating, starving, freezing, hitch hiking to get, uh steal, food for about six months, but mostly practicing. And Richard, who was working for the Post Office at that time, was coming up on weekends, with food, and the ability to work magic with it. Yes, we were all a very tight-knit bunch. This is what Ritchie Teeter walked into.
After a slew of drummers (Rich was the fifth), we were finally set up to conquer the uh, world. The ensuing years were great times. We were all in our twenties. Rain was not yet poison, sex was not yet death. While we cared not at all for the whims of the former, we certainly dug the latter. Yes, good times. Just a bunch of nice 20-somethings, traveling around, playing Rock’n’Roll, and having girls throwing themselves at you in every single town. One word: FUN! Did I mention we were in our twenties?
Also, during these years, we were doing and seeing things we had never done or seen before. State after state, stage after stage, mile after mile. On top of that, there was a constant soundtrack playing in the van. All of us liked the same stuff. Ross was more Metal maybe, but he loved The Beatles, The Beach Boys, et al, he just leaned towards The Sabs, man. Andy and I were a bit more eclectic and real superfans. We were serious about it, we listened hard, we read the Rock Writers of the time (CRAWDADDY!, CREEM Magazine: Meltzer, Lester, Nick Tosches, Dave Marsh, Lenny Kaye, Greil Marcus, and other super greats, many of whom we knew), and really dug the trash/garage culture of AI International movies, B&W late night TV, Wrestling (obviously), general obnoxiousness as an art form, etc. Ritchie was into all of the above, could converse on these subjects. His taste that did run outside ours were bands like Van Der Graff Generator, Genesis, and other Progressive British stuff that was virtually incomprehensible to me. I really liked Rich. I loved his taste. It seemed so un-self-consciously uncool, as to make us seem too self-consciously cool. Looking back, The Who were the common denominator between us. But, we were all actually very sincere and passionate about all our personal faves. Rich had many.
From my perspective (yes, that of a twenty two year old, self-possessed R’n’R fanatic, and an enjoyer of the newly available sexual opportunities coming our way!), it all seemed fine. I thought Ritchie fit in great, and never really questioned it. It wasn’t until he was nearing the end of his tenure (the last show we played together in the 70’s was in Hammond, Indiana in 1978) that he spilled all these feelings about always feeling like the outsider, the red-headed stepchild, so to speak. I remember the sting of it. It was the last thing I, or any of us, had ever intended, or even aware of. It was a shock. I can still recall that sting. It was a grow-the-fuck-up moment, a look-hard-at-yourself moment. Maybe not as successful a wake-up call as it should have been, but it definitely made me more acutely aware of the effects my own behavior had on the world outside myself. We were all hurt by this revelation, and we felt awful that we had not been aware of it sooner. To this day I feel terrible that was a part of Ritchie’s experience in The Dictators.
I need to talk about the music. The first thing I think Ritchie gave us was a certain degree of musicianly class. Before him, it was the amazing Ross the Boss and his friends, including the wild man, wise guy with the giant afro, lead singer. With Rich, we all got better. He was a strong time keeper, and not afraid to play in the margins, almost a jazzy (Van Der Graff Generator??) vibe. Almost. I mean, we were what we were, but he was far from being only a straight rock drummer. It might have been a bit of a struggle to reconcile all the elements, but it gave the rhythm section, and in turn the whole band, a definable style. He could be orchestral, cerebral or dirty. And, the guy could sing. And accurately, too, no matter what! Never a bum note from Rich. In so many ways, he anchored us during our formative years. The Dictators, unlike almost every band ever to that point, did not play clubs for a few years, honed our chops, and THEN made a record. No, we skipped every step until, making a record. We were still very, uh, mmmmmm, let’s see, ok, we were still raw! With the addition of Ritchie Teeter, things started to take shape, we could stay within the lines when we wanted to. And suddenly, we could rock like King Hell!
Then there was the big trip to England and the continent. None of us had ever been overseas before and this was gonna be a blast. It was the absolute peak of the British Punk Rock scene, with the Pistols album being number one, The Stranglers, with whom we were touring having two albums in the top five, meeting The Clash, and Billy Idol & Tony James, and The Adverts, and The Slits, and everywhere you looked it was just rock rock rock and roll. A total takeover. Heaven on Earth. A re-imagining of the world in our own image.
It was on this trip that one of the most famous episodes in Dictators lore occurred. Traveling by land, in two vans and a truck for the gear, we were on our way from Amsterdam to Berlin, when, in the early morning rain we were awakened by the sounds and sights of German police, machine guns pointed at us, helicopters overhead, and a very angry gun toting policeman screaming at us to get up and get out of the van. It was about thirty degrees, the rain was pouring, it’s about 6:30AM, traffic is being held up for miles in both directions, and we are being made to stand in a muddy , rainy ditch while the cops went through the vehicles, and then loaded us by twos into police cars and taken to the police station. All this occurred on the Corridor, the one road in and out of East Germany, and from West Germany to Berlin. It was scary, Jack.
In my car with me were Rich and his wife Elise. While everyone was being taken inside we were in the back seat of the car, with a cop turned around facing us, the whole while a machine gun pointed at us from about a foot away. Scary scary scary. Finally. At one point, after about an hour, I was able to ask our captor what the fuck, Fritz? He was able to communicate we were being held on suspicion of terrorism. I actually felt a bit of relief, as I KNEW we were not guilty of that. If he had said we were being held for being a rock band I would have panicked.
Eventually, we were all searched, questioned, and held. Then the cops finally got a hold of the German promoter, who verified who we were. The cops, in one last ditch effort to save face, sent the dogs through everything looking for drugs. Luckily, we had already finished the pot we had brought over. The ordeal ended after about four hours, and off we went to Berlin. We were all relieved but traumatized. We also missed the show. It turned out we were suspected of being members of the Bader-Meinhoff gang, who at that time were responsible for plane hijacking, bank robbery, and more. Our long hair and black leather jackets fit their description. Plus, we had stopped for gas in Belgium, and the attendant there noticed we had tons of Dutch money, freaked out and dropped the dime. Just one of many amazing shared experiences that created the bond that is still unbroken.
I could go on and on about Ritchie. I could tell you more about what an incredibly sweet guy he was, his incredible love of an amazing array of music, but as I would have expected there is a large and growing number of friends, acquaintances, and fans that have been posting their memories, condolences and grief on Facebook, all of which speak to the same things I’ve been saying. I will let their testimonials stand as evidence of a life well lived, a man well loved, a friend, bandmate, and a legacy of decency, camaraderie, great music, and an unforgettable character. For me, he was all of these things. So, old pal, old chum, old friend, goodnight, sleep tight, rest easy, and for my part, I can promise you will never be forgotten. Dictators Forever Forever Dictators,
Just got back a week or so ago from the East Coast, where I had been out hitting the boards, re-acquainting myself with being a solo acoustic troubadour, opening for Elliott Murphy & the Normandy All-Stars. I hadn’t played solo acoustic in twenty years. And, back then it had been done it under duress when the TENEMENT ANGELS album was first released and the label that put it out ran into financial problems making it necessary to temporarily sever ties with The Skeletons, who until then had not only had been doing the shows with me, but were also the band on the record. And, not only were they the band on the record, but the entire record, every song, was arranged with the idea that THEY were the band on the record. I was so thrilled to have Donnie Thompson playing guitar on my record (through a 100-watt Marshall half stack, no less) that I had him play most of the solos. Now, if I were to do nothing but practice every waking hour from now until it’s sayonara dirtnap time, I wouldn’t ever be half as good as Donnie. And suddenly I had to go out without Donnie, without The Skeletons, and without an electric guitar. That was the last time I did the solo acoustic thing.
I admit that I felt like I got pretty good at it, and even started to dig it. I liked the freedom of messing with tempos, with the emphasis on a new word, or phrase, or section, something that would present a new POV of the song, or even a complete on-the-spot-reinvention of a song. Most nights went really well, with attentive, receptive audiences, and I loved the opportunity to establish a more intimate relationship with them. I dug all that. BUT! Sometimes these audiences talk, or just some of them talk. That’s their privilege, their right, their choice, but for me, as a performer, I hate it. It’s distracting, demeaning, and even soul crushing. Yes, we singer-songwriter types can be sensitive – even one who came up during the 70’s Punk Wars. This happens mostly in bars, but a bar is often where one finds oneself doing the solo acoustic thing (herein known as the SAT, ok?). So, it does come with the territory. I know and accept that. But, as a defense mechanism and desire to never knowingly subject myself to that again, I quickly developed a fine set of rules I could always fall back on as my List of Instant Excuses why I don’t/won’t do the SAT. The talking, the lack of enough real presence on my part “out there in the marketplace” to feel like I’d attract an audience, AND the goddamn talking. This was just my short list, and for twenty years, give or take a song or two here and there, it served its purpose – a purpose that one could argue also justified the cutting off of one’s nose to spite one’s face.
So, twenty years later, here I am, doing the SAT opening for Elliott Murphy and the Normandy All Stars. All my excuses fell short. This was an ideal situation: I was just a guest opener, and therefore not responsible for drawing many folks; these were all “listening” places, hence, no talking. As my excuses fell to their silent deaths, their remains scattering among the dust and kibble of my career, I felt those three words working their way from brain to mouth. “I’ll do it!!!” says, I. Glory be! Hallelujah!! Fuck yeah!!
Truth be told, after a coupla warm-up shows I start to get my sea legs back under me and I start to relax, and I actually start to enjoy myself, and, in the process, begin to remember that I had gotten pretty good at this way back when. LIVIN’ ON LOVE is a great opener, works every night, and I pitch it somewhere between the Bo Diddley beat it’s based on, and an Eddie Cochran vibe. CHEYENNE, the perennial second song, is a long time favorite of mine, as well as lots of Del-Lords fans, and there’s a slew of them at every show. After those two songs I mix it up each night, playing HEARTBEAT OF TIME, which I wrote with Dion; HOT ROD ANGEL, LOVE OUT OF TIME, a true story from the SAVING GRACE album, as well as being a true story with a surprise (even to me) ending; an updated HOW CAN A POOR MAN STAND SUCH TIMES AND LIVE?, MERRY XMAS, BABY, (who doesn’t love Xmas songs written by Jewish kids from the Bronx?), and ABOUT YOU, which always goes down great because it references LOUIE LOUIE, the F-Word of R’n’R songs. By the third or fourth show, I had found my zone. I was as one with the songs and the moment, and I feel like I got down to some real fine work out there. I pushed the songs, I pulled the songs, and thanx to some technical tips from Roscoe (thanx again, compadre), started to play that big old black Martin J-40 like I was back in my living room. A very different brand of communication than the rock’n’roll band, but hey, it sure is portable, and can be surprisingly effective, too. Man and guitar. Awright! I dig!
As for my new touring partner, Elliott Murphy, I knew of him. However – and how this is possible is beyond me – we did not know each other. As we found out in a little less than an hour over Chinese food with our pal Gary, we discovered we knew around fifty of the same people. Except each other! One name after another, with some being real close to home (Rich Nesin, fer chrissakes!!??), we each had a story or two about that person. Go figure. I’ll tell ya what though. I really liked Elliott. Instantly. Just picked up a cool vibe, and it was all there. Very easy, comfortable, AND Chinese food. Gary, by the way, is Gary Borress, my pal, my bro, and the owner of GB Records, where Elliott has a new record – actually two new records, a studio one that’s self-titled, and a live one with his band The Normandy All Stars (much more about them in a bit) called JUST A STORY FROM NEW YORK. GB Records also recently reissued my first solo record TENEMENT ANGELS last year, and will be releasing the first new Del-Lords record in twenty years in the Spring.
I remember hearing a lot about Elliott back in the mid-70s when his first record AQUASHOW was released. I remember the long blond hair, the horizontal striped long sleeve t-shirts with a vest, and I remember that Rolling Stone lumped AQUASHOW together in a single record review along with THE WILD, THE INNOCENT, AND THE E STREET SHUFFLE by some fella named Springsteen. I cannot specifically recall but I would bet you the proverbial dollars to doughnuts that the term “New Dylan” was thrown around like some hapless baby-face being tossed around the squared circle rasslin’ Killer Kowalski himself (Know what I mean??!! Manitoba will know, and that’s what counts, as you all know). Yes, the New Dylans were plentiful in the years following Bob Dylan’s own white-hot, mid-60’s period, which had led him to (Yikes!!) NASHVILLE SKYLINE, to (Good Lord, make it stop!) SELF-PORTRAIT to lukewarm “comeback” records like the completely forgettable NEW MORNING on to the completely forgettable PLANET WAVES. That’s how badly we missed the “old Dylan”. And, that’s how devastating Dylan’s output through JOHN WESLEY HARDING had been. My pal (after fifteen years, I still love saying that) Dion likes to say, “People come up to me and say, Hey Dion, what time is it? People go up to Dylan and say, Hey Bob, what time should it be?” I like that.
A quick, blue skyin’, off the top of my head, list of New Dylans through the years : John Prine, Garland Jeffreys, Willie Nile (whom I also work with on occasion), James Taylor (really), Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello (yes, they came from near and far, hither and yon), (your pick here), Patti Smith (why not?), uh, Elliott and Springsteen, all come immediately to mind. And now, from the perspective of much time passed it is now more apparent than ever there never was, isn’t, and never will be a “New” Dylan. In fact, never has there been a more singular artist than Bob Dylan produced by this, or any other, country. At any time.
But, Elliott! Elliott’s Rock’n’Roll is not Country based, nor is it Folk, or even Blues based. It’s more of a sound born on New York City streets and of late night scenes behind drawn curtains. It’s a geo-specific poetic style, full of romance and mystery, and lives lived behind locked doors, or on the shadowy streets, and all strictly on the Down Low, in the ever-changing accident that is New York City itself. Stylistically, Elliott would be closer to Lou Reed than any of the other fine artists on that list. What I really appreciate about Elliott is he never forgets to bring the tune. It’s not just a lot of pretty words floating on the sound of a poet in love with his own voice. Depth, Soul, Poetry, Intelligence, and Alliteration. The lyrics illuminate the melody, working with, not in competition with, the song – the song, without which, as Elliott, as every great R’n’Rr poet knows, nobody would give a shit about those beautiful words. Such great songs they are, too. My first favorite is LAST OF THE ROCK STARS, the song I remember reading about way back when. I love it. Maybe the earliest example I can recall in music of re-contextualizing the Rock’n’Roll iconography of the 50s, like a 53-Chevy or Elvis, and bringing it all into the present, not as nostalgia, but with it’s balls, power and mythology intact. Sonically, it’s got the Fender guitars, the harmonica, the fleet rhythm section, some organ, and well, you can begin to understand the New Dylan tag. But, really what it is is literate, NYC Rock’n’Roll, not unlike HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, but more akin to LOADED-era VELVET UNDERGROUND. Either way you wanna lean is gonna work for me. And LAST OF THE ROCK STARS works for me.
Since then, I have listened to AQUASHOW several times, and it’s a great record, a great NYC Rock’n’Roll Singer-Songwriter record. Rolling Stone called it “the best Dylan since 68”. That’s what I’m talking about. The slice-of-life vignette songs like HOW’S THE FAMILY, and HOMETOWN, are terrific, and the latter also rocks pretty good when it wants to. Ya got POISE ‘N’PEN, which I love, and ROCK STARS itself. AQUASHOW is hard to find, but well worth tracking down. Elliott is not throwin’ down whiny, solipsistic, woe-is-me shit here. This remains Rock’n’Roll at all times, and that, my friends, is a big part of the point. For a long time the granola & brown rice eatin’ , sandals wearing, painfully earnest, self-righteous acoustic troubadours have managed to claim the Singer-Songwriter genre as their eminent domain. However, from Lou to Garland to Elliott to Patti to Willie Nile and hey, right down to my own bad self, some S-S’ers still worship at the altar of Rock’n’Roll, the Big Beat, some edge, with a fistful of NYC concrete and steel, and some bumps and bruises in our flesh, bones, blood, heart and soul, and that, Jack, is that!
The shows. The first night we’re in Piermont NY at The Turning Point, where I find old friend Kenny Margolis is playing keys and accordion with Elliott. Kenny played on a few songs on the Del-Lords’ LOVERS WHO WANDER album. It’s great to see him. Then, I meet the band, The Normandy All-Stars who’ve been playing with Elliott for years. They’re French, hence the name, and I should mention that Elliott has been living in Paris since 1989, which itself is probably the main reason we never met before our Chinese dinner the night before. Ya got Laurent Pardo, on bass, Alain Fatras on drums, and on guitar, the only Normandy All-Star who gets featured billing, and why that is becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly. He’s Olivier Durand, and has been with Elliott the longest. They’re a great band. Accent on the word, band. They play like a band, they look like a band, they radiate “Band”. But, Olivier is a whole other thing, too. He and Elliott both plug in Taylor acoustic/electrics except Olivier uses a small bank of guitar effects pedals that allow him to orchestrate, embellish, and on some thrilling solos, flat-out tear it up on that acoustic in a way I’ve never heard before. No shit. But, Olivier, Laurent & Alain think and play as one. I should add that Elliott more than holds his own, too, being an excellent guitar & harmonic player. Laurent and Alain know that when Olivier is out front, they are all out front. The point for them is the ensemble, the band. They play for the band and the song – the band and song are not there as vehicles to promote themselves as individuals. They rally behind Elliott’s songs, his playing, and great singing, creating a comfort level that allows Elliott to do his job. It’s a beautiful thing.
But for me the main thing is that they’re a band, not some studio strangers getting paid to do a job. This is a BAND. And for me, a band; the idea of it, the sound and the feel of it, the power of it, the friendship, the shared experience, all adds up to why “the band” is very the essence of Rock’n’Roll, what it means to me, and why it remains R’n’R’s purest vehicle. I loved doing the SAT, and will continue to do it, but a band, The Del-Lords, in particular, that’s where it’s at for me. We all had a great time, made strong friendships that we know will endure a lifetime, and it was sad to part ways. I’ll miss Laurent, Olivier, Alain, and of course, Elliott, too. But, it’s really just a beginning.
The trip ended well. At our favorite Italian restaurant, Sharon and I had a small dinner for some family and friends, that were not able to come out West for the actual wedding six weeks ago. We also had a few more friends meet us at Manitoba’s afterwards so that we got to see as close to everybody as we could. Sharon’s sister met my sister. Low key, cool vibe, great food. It was nice. The next morning we were in our Jet Blue extra legroom seats on our way back to Oxnard, CA.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted that a Bronx kid and a Jersey girl, after knowing each other for 35 years, never being in the right place at the right time – or in the right situation, with long gaps of as much as ten years of no contact, at times unknowingly being on opposite coasts, would, or even could, end up married all these years later, and, perhaps most amazing of all – living in Oxnard, CA, where our proximity to the beach means year round perfect weather, without an apartment building in sight, where one feels like more of a New Yorker (“not from around here, are ya, boy?”) than during my 47 years living there, driving everywhere AND loving it! Funny world, my friends. You never fuckin’ know! Happiness comes in a side door, or in the mailbox, or on Facebook, just when and how you least expect it, and hopefully you’re smart enough to play that hand if and when it’s dealt to you. I am very grateful I was smart enough to step up when the right time finally presented itself. Oh, and a Happy and Healthy New Year, everybody.
I have a pink shirt. It’s an Agnes B. It’s a beaut. Great color, great feel, and fits perfectly. It even fits in well with my own personal 50’s Vintage meets Army-Navy Store sartorial style that I’ve been rockin since about 1978 or so. It cost more than probably 60% of my entire wardrobe put together. I refer to it as my special shirt. I’ve had it for almost twelve years. It used to belong to Mark Sandman.
Here’s a brief history/bio/dossier/the skinny on my pal Mark for those of you who do not know. Mark Sandman was a musician. He was a musician the way Derek Jeter is a baseball player (even though Mark was from Boston/Cambridge). Consummate, natural, brilliant, supremely talented, a standout, a hard worker, devoted, simply great. Mostly he played bass, although he would do so on a guitar w/pedal octave thing, or on a two string bass with a slide, and occasionally on a Fender bass. He walked through many styles, bands, situations, and musical universes inhabiting them all, spreading his unmistakable graceful sound and vibe, and leaving none of them untouched in the bigger sense, or unaltered. His persona, which was expressed pretty truthfully in his writing, was smoky, as in a cigarette and whiskey world of breakfast after noon, cheating wives whose husbands were out of town a lot, beautiful elegant romantic poetry, long and lean, and a real good dresser. I don’t recall ever seeing him in sneakers. And, that is not to denigrate sneakers. I wear them most days myself, and have for over half a century. But, the world I live in is such that it is indeed something worth noting when a man NEVER wears ‘em. But, he was the kind of dresser who did have Vera Wang shirts in his wardrobe. Always looked great – in a very noir way. He was my friend. I am very fortunate indeed to be able to say that.
I met Mark when I was with the Del-Lords and Mark was with Treat Her Right. Must’ve been 1986 or so. We were touring off our second album, and they off their first. They also had the benefit of an MTV hit. It was called I THINK SHE LIKES ME. It was a very strange record for MTV in that it was a sparse, smoky, dark stomping Blues, with a cool attitude, sung from the perspective of a poor shmoe at a bar who allows himself to be flirted with by an attractive bad girl playing him like a fiddle – just for grins. He gets caught, is now in some trouble with her man, and in response to What The Fuck Do You Think You’re Doing??!! comes the song title. It was really pretty great.
We met in Nashville where we were sharing a bill. I walked in during their soundcheck and they were great. One guy (David Champagne) played slide guitar & sang, another (Jimmy Fitting) just played harp, and was fantastic at it, the drummer (Billy Conway, also fantastic) played a single, solitary cocktail drum, which is kinda like a conga with a foot pedal & a little cymbal, and then there was Mark who played a Telecaster, but through an octave pedal to approximate the low tones of the bass, which is essentially what he played – bass. They were quite amazing: great songs, a heavy Blues rooted sound, filtered through some Beat poetry vibe, and some very rockin’ syncopated grooves that were very exciting. I was particularly drawn to the songs Mark sang, although David’s were cool, too. Mark had a dark smoky voice that seemed to be as one with his look, which had a Mickey Spillane, hard-boiled detective look, or something from a 50’s crime novel: no jeans, no sneakers, and man-tailored shirts. His songs felt like that, too. Very cool.
That was the meeting. Over the next few years we shared more bills, and Mark and I struck up a friendship that grew and never waned. Treat Her Right broke up after another record, and some other recordings, but I continued to see Mark a lot. He would call whenever he made one of his frequent trips to NYC. We both loved to walk, and NYC being the world’s best walking town, we did that a lot, while discussing the universe, music, pot, and a little of this, that, and the other. Mark was a big crime novel fan and me being more of a science fiction guy, asked him to turn me on to some cool crime novel he could recommend to get me started to check out his passion. He went down across the street from my apartment where there was a Mystery Book store (I wish I could recall the name of it) and came back with AMERICAN TABLOID by James Ellroy. The book blew my mind, and I became a big Ellroy fan, and still am, especially of the trilogy that began with AMERICAN TABLOID, ran through THE COLD SIX THOUSAND & concluded with BLOOD’S A ROVER. An amazing literary experience that I heartily recommend.
We would of course talk music all the time. He would listen to my songs and always say, with this delighted smile, “Scott, you’re so Pop”. Mark was other. He would make tapes for me of African music, Middle Eastern music, Turkish singers, obscure Blues (most of which I already knew inside and out), and some more experimental music. We were pretty much opposites, but with lotsa respect and love for each other’s work. He even came to see The Dictators once in Boston, and really loved that. He said it was the best he ever heard me play.
One day, he was coming to town with his new band, MORPHINE. Mark was always involved in multiple musical projects: the occasional THR gig, The Hypnosonics (horns, Beat poetry), Candy Bar (harder Rock with a female drummer), The Pale Brothers (hard Country), and the one project Mark said he knew had the least chance of success, Morphine (two string slide bass, sax, drums). Well, he was wrong about Morphine, as they went on to sell almost 1,000,000 records, and played to big, enthusiastic audiences all over the world. Mark described them as Low Rock.
In the end, Morphine was the vehicle that best encompassed Mark’s whole trip. His voice, his songs, his look, his sound, all came together to create something equal parts brand-new, and instantly accessible. It was a helluva feat. At the same time it felt natural as hell. I was a huge fan. For awhile I was one of their few NY fans. I remember seeing them in NYC where my girlfriend and I comprised pretty much the entire audience. But, they quickly caught on, and they appeared on Conan O”Brien’s show, and they were off to the races. They made a buncha records, all up at Mark’s Cambridge loft with the 360 degree wraparound view, and all the gear ALWAYS miked and ready to go, so that all you had to do was flip the on-off switch to on, and you were ready to record. It was classic. I always loved visiting the loft.
There was Sabine, his beautiful and brilliant girlfriend, who I loved, and was always happy to see, too. At one point they took an apartment on 7th ave in Manhattan, and we finally got to hang out all the time, which suited us fine. We always had a good time together, and Mark even came by to watch some of the 1996 World Series with me even though he was a not a baseball, or sports fan, to help me root my beloved Yankees to yet another championship. I remember trying a Mexican dish Mark had made, and whose recipe had made it into a cook book. He was very proud of that. And, the dish? Damn good. I was impressed At one point I was playing with a band who prided themselves on playing every song exactly the same way every single time, every single night. I would say that the Del-Lords never played anything the same way twice. Mark woud say that Morphine never played anything the exact same way once. I thought that was real funny, and still use it to this day. And, of course I went to every Morphine show, got to be friends with Dana Colley, the sax player, and remained friends with Billy Conway, as well, from the THR days. Great guys who all loved and appreciated Mark and his immense talent.
Things were all just fine until I got that phone call. It was late afternoon, twelve years ago yesterday, July 3rd, 1999. It was an old friend calling to ask if I’d heard anything about Mark. I said, yeah, he’s in Italy with Sabine and the band, why? My friend said he’d heard a rumor that Mark died. I just did not believe it to be anything other than a misconstrued rumor, and assured him Mark was fine, or else I would have heard. Well, something stuck with me and I tried scouring the internet, MTV, the radio, etc, and after a half hour I came across something on, I think, CNN. Well, I can tell you I was paralyzed by the sudden realization that this completely incredible, fantastical and inconceivable rumor was true. I felt my life change in an instant. I felt my blood run cold. I was white as a ghost, and started having difficulty breathing. As an instinctive reflex I called Manitoba, my best friend, and someone who knew Mark, too, and tried to get the words out. I couldn’t. Somehow I got the news across, and I could hear Richard’s shock settle in, and he asked if I needed him to come over. I told him no for some reason because the answer was really yes. I was spinning and dizzy, and it all started to settle in.
It turned out that Mark was onstage in Palestrina, a town about 25 miles outside of Rome, and during the second song, collapsed onstage with a massive heart attack that killed him before he hit the stage. Just like that. Mark was not overweight, not a druggy, not much of a drinker, he did smoke, but no prior heart problems, nothing. Forty-six years old, jut one year older than myself. I suddenly felt the hole that had opened up in the Earth. I noticed the coffee stains on the rug where Mark had spilled some coffee a week before dancing around playing me mixes from THE NIGHT, what was to be the final Morphine album. But, Mark was gone. The world would now be a darker place.
I grieved and I grieved and I grieved. It just didn’t stop. It would come over me at the oddest and most inopportune moments. It had only been a week or so before that Mark was at the pad, and we were hanging’ out, having our usual good time, and all was right in the world. Soon I started to dwell on the meaning, and the great sin of wasting time. I started to think about how Mark was only one little year older than me, and how no one was guaranteeing any of us how many ticks we were gonna get on that old ticker inside us, and it forced me to really and truly take stock of my own life. I knew I had to make some changes, and things were not alright in my own personal world. I needed to rectify everything. I ended up getting divorced, moving to California, and doubling down on my life’s purpose as a musician. Before the dust even settled I had left the town of my birth, and had lived for 47 years, and began anew. The grieving never stopped. I couldn’ t get over losing Mark. I couldn’t get over the world losing Mark. I couldn’t play his music because of how it conjured up Mark’s presence in an instant, and as a tease. And, his voice was still on his answering machine, which no one wanted to change. Everyone in his orbit was devastated.
It was about a month after Mark’s passing that I heard from Sabine. She wanted to come by and said she had something for me. It was great and sad to see her beautiful face, and again I cried as soon as I answered the door. Sabine had some photos of Mark for me, all taken the day of his passing. They are stage shots and often I looked at them, from different angles, trying to see if I could see “it”, the look of what was coming, some kind of death mask, some kind of insight into that greatest of all mysteries. Of course, I never could see it, although I have those photos on my desk, where they always can be found, and they do make me smile now, to see him playing. I have some of him and Sabine, and him and Dana at my pad. I don’t think of the end when I look at them now, at least not always. Sometimes, though.
The other thing Sabine had for me was the pink Vera Wang shirt, which I always loved, and which fit me perfectly. She wanted me to have it. I took it and I still love it. I always feel Mark’s spirit when I put it on. It still fits. It’s my special shirt.
“They say you can’t take it with you
But I think that they’re wrong
Cause all I now is I woke up this morning
And something big was gone “ - Bruce Springsteen
It’s the morning of June 18th, 2011, and after a fitful night’s sleep I awake to a world without Clarence Clemons. No, sleep and dark dreams did not erase the sad and awful truth that I took to bed with me last night. It’s the cool gray light of morning and the Big Man is still gone. The tears keep coming. They seemingly come from everywhere and from out of nowhere at the same time. I am trying not to think about the future, immediate or long range. The creeping shadow of uncertainty is present. It’s in the air though it need not be addressed as yet. Still, it’s waiting, and will have to be addressed soon enough.
Today, I feel the distance between my California home and the great majority of my closest friends family still back in NYC. I feel as though a great hole has been excavated that will now need to be breached to regain some sense of wholeness in my little world. I think of Clarence, his bigger than life persona, and the sweet man that lurked underneath that persona. I think of the many conversations we shared, especially a few years later when I was with the Del-Lords, and he was out promoting his then hit record with his own band. We ended up on the same bill three or four times, and it was always great to see him, and he always seemed genuinely glad to see me. I think he was actually a little nervous fronting his band, and although he was thrilled to be doing it, he was always happy to see an old familiar face out there on the road. The E Street Band hadn’t been disbanded by Bruce yet at that point, and despite the success he was having with his first solo record he seemed anxious to get back to his day job.
I was with the Dictators when I first met Clarence, and our two bands got on famously, and big pieces of that relationship still endure thirty years later. We were all big fans of each other’s band, something that still amazes me to this day when I think about it. There was a shared sense of humor, love of late night TV, both bands not being from Manhattan, and of course, a deep and endless love of Rock’n’Roll and it’s attendant related genres. Clarence would eventually record with the Dictators on a song that has never been released called TOO MUCH FUN, and he also played on WHAT IT IS, one of the first songs I ever had a hand in writing, at The Bottom Line in NYC. Both instances are career and personal highlights for me, as I am sure they are for the rest of The Dictators.
I can’t help thinking about the changes Clarence’s passing will mean for the E Street Band. Too soon to tell exactly but it will never be the same again. That much is certain. I think of the dozens of songs that they will not be able to play anymore, from BORN TO RUN, ROSALITA, BADLANDS, SHE’S THE ONE, and on and on, and especially JUNGLELAND, with its long sax solo that Clarence and Bruce worked out each and every note of over a sixteen hour period. This list is also a list of a great many of the songs the band can’t NOT play every night.
JUNGLELAND is also the song that was on the radio yesterday when Sharon and I were driving home. We always go back and forth between Underground Garage and E Street Radio when we’re in the car. Yesterday, as we pulled off the highway we turned on E Street Radio and it was JUNGLELAND from some fairly recent live show. Something grabbed me from inside and tugged at me and I think I knew at that moment that Clarence was gone. It was just too timely given the events of the past week, the lack of fresh info the past few days, and just a feeling of dread too sharp to ignore. We got back to the house and Sharon went right for the computer, and said in a startled tone of voice that something was up with Clarence. I didn’t have to look myself but I did anyway. I went to the New York Times website and it was front page news. I just broke down in tears, and that feeling of unreality that this is wrong, that it couldn’t be, that we could still just turn the clock back an hour or two, and everything would be rectified, came over me. It was a litany of all the tricks your heart and soul play on your mind when they have been wounded and broken and need to a way out of this moment. I still feel that way. There has been an irreparable rupture in the band that has meant more to my adult life than any other, that I’ve listened to far more than any other, and that have given me the kind of strength that only Rock’n’Roll has ever supplied me with. Selfishly, I wonder what the hell I’m gonna do without them.
All of this hits home even further for me. I remember talking with Steven a buncha years ago, and he was sort of joking and talking about how Aerosmith, The Dictators, and The E Street Band were the longest running, intact bands in America. I had never thought about it, but at that moment he was right. Now, al three bands are gone. Steven has always preached the importance of “the band”, as an idea, as a lifestyle, as a gang, as a family, as an idealized community, and as something so precious that it must be maintained no matter how hard the fight, no matter how dire the surrounding circumstances, and well, no matter what. That is how rare a good band is, and why it is so precious that everything else is secondary. Steven had a great hand in keeping the Dictators together at a time when it could have faded into memory, too. For that I am eternally grateful to him.
You see, that’s the greater and deeper story here. It’s the band that is the thing, too. Not just the story the music tells. It’s that sense of all-for-one and one-for-all that informs the music, that makes its live so vividly, on an emotional level, and in the real world, too. The cover of BORN TO RUN, as Bruce has said, takes that story in the music out of the garage and gets it out on the road. There’s Bruce on the front, looking a bit weary, leaning on a shoulder, and when you open the cover up, there’s Clarence that he’s leaning on. It tells us that it takes more than just the weary singer-songwriter to make this stuff live. It takes help. It takes friends, and it takes a brotherhood. It takes the band. That album cover always made me smile, but today it makes me cry. It makes me cry tears of joy and tears of grief and sadness.
But, it’s all gone now. The Dictators no longer exist, and I don’t know what will become of the E Street Band. I am pulling for them, of course, for they are my friends, and my favorite band in the world by a country mile. They are musicians so I expect them to keep playing music. But now, after surviving the death of Danny Federici, one of the original E Streeters, it seems that this might be the wound they cannot survive. I dunno, it’s obviously way too soon to know, but I can’t help but think about it. Maybe it’s just another way to try and alleviate some of the pain of this moment. I do know that I miss The Dictators today, too. I’ve been ok with its demise, or at least I had found some place to keep it and not dwell on it, but today I find that veil has been lifted, too, and all I wanna do is be there with Richard, Ross, Andy, and JP, and lose myself in the energy and the noise we alone can make.
I’m starting to ramble now and I hope you’ll forgive me, as focusing is hard to do, but I feel like every word I write keeps me one step ahead of the next teardrop, and that is just some survival instinct at work. This is so very hard. I just wanna say to the E Street Band: stay strong, remain emotionally open, stand together, and know that your millions of fans love you, and will always be grateful for what you’ve given us, whatever the future holds. I love you.
This is sorta Part 2, of my latest blog for the Del-Lords website (del-lords.com). It kinda overlaps, kinda doesn’t, but it seems to belong here rather than there. Still with me?
In other NYC adventure news, I got to see and hang with Richard Manitoba (of course), and even went to young Jake’s Little League game. Jake pitched and while he did load the bases he stayed true to the Yankees logo he proudly wears on his uniform, and proceeded to then strike out the side, not allowing a run. It blows my mind that Jake is now just about a year younger than Richard and I were when we met. Got to spend time with Zoe and Jake, as well as with Richard, and that was just what the doctor always will order.
Saw Andy Shernoff doing a rehearsal/show, working up some new songs. I was totally impressed with the songs, the format, which is more storyteller than punk rocker, and the way Andy seems totally engaged in his new direction. There’s a fantastic new song, called ARE YOU READY TO RAPTURE? you can download for free at his website. It’s a stone cold Shernoff classic in every sense of the word. I HIGHLY recommend you check it out. It’s awesome. I even did a song at the end when he ran out of ‘em in front of an audience of many familiar faces, old friends, rock buddies, and the like. He thanked me for bailing him, but between you and me, Andy hardly needed bailing out. He just didn’t have the lyrics for any other songs with him. I thought that was why we wrote ‘em – so we didn’t have to remember them. Songwriters??!!
I also did three radio shows during my action packed week. One was with Dave Marsh on his KICK OUT THE JAMS Sunday morning show on E Street Nation. Dave’s an old pal, and is always fun to discuss stuff with, argue stuff with, and to just plain hang with. He played a trio of songs of mine that he thought really were of a piece, a thought that never would have occurred to me. It was the Del-Lords’ HEAVEN (Dave’s favorite DL song), into HOT ROD ANGEL, & SAVING GRACE, from my first and second solo albums respectively. I was impressed that they did seem to go together. That’s Rock critics for ya, and one of the reasons I love Dave.
I also did Rich Russo’s AnythingAnything show, on which I played a few songs live, hung out for a coupla hours and I can tell you, his show lives up to its title. I couldn’t believe we were on commercial FM radio. I kept asking him how he wanted me to do whatever he wanted me to do, and he kept saying, “Whatever you wanna do is cool”! I didn’t believe him at first but I believe him now. What a great guy, Rich is, and what a great rock’n’roll fan he is, as well. I had a really cool time up there. AND, Reverend Al Sharpton was in the next studio. THE ultimate photo-op that, unfortunately, never happened. I think Rich is gonna be promoting the first official Del-Lords shows in NYC in many moons this Fall. I’ll let youse know.
And, I had a dream come true (hey, there’s a song title!) when I got to play DJ. I did a Guest DJ spot on E Street Nation, which will air shortly. I will post it on Facebook when I know the date. I got to play a dozen of my favorite Springsteen songs, tell a few stories, and just loved every second of it. I could probably play about three hours worth of my very favorite Springsteen songs, but Thanx to the mighty Jim Rotolo, who engineered it, as well as Dave’s show.
Had some great Italian food, including three trips to PIZZA GRUPPO on Avenue B, my current favorite pizza in town & NERO DORO in Clinton Hill by Roscoe’s pad. Had some real Chinese food, and some Manitoba leftovers that wiped the floor with pretty much anything you could get in a restaurant It was a seafood/linguine dish, with a nice-a spicy red sauce that was sono buoni. Richard’s been cooking for me since we were about twelve years old, and I gotta tell ya, he never disappoints. Saw the E Factor, Eric Weinstein, part of the inner circle of my life for the last hundred years or so. He’s lookin’ great, feelin’ great, and that makes me feel great. Saw Brother Rich Nesin for a quick artery clogging breakfast at the new Pink Tea Cup. I first started going to The Pink Tea Cup, “a fine Soul Food establishment”, in the mid-70’s when they were still on Bleecker St. Back then the waitresses were all older heavy set Southern women, who were the closest thing to the old heavy set Jewish waitresses who worked at the Kosher Delis of my youth (“You didn’t finish your food.You’re too thin. EAT! I’ll be back when you’re done, darling.”), and they had three framed photos on the wall: Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, and (I swear), Wilson Pickett! They then moved around the corner to Grove St., where I was such a regular I would often sit at the waitress table (much younger waitresses this time). Then, much to my horror they closed. But, now they’re back, just around the corner on 7th Ave. And, then there’s my host in NY, Gary “Daddy G” Borress, who if hosts were baseball players, we’d be calling him Babe Ruth. Gary is also responsible for the reissue of TENEMENT ANGELS, for which I am eternally grateful. Thanx again for every little thing, Gary. Of course, I got to see my kid sis, Robin, and although our schedules had a hard time lining up and we only got together once. Mary, her partner, met us, as did my old buddy, Robert Cirkiel, and we saw one of Andy’s sets, and then, yes it was Pizza time. More family time next time for sure.
Let’s see. Had amazing weather this time. Perfect Spring weather, which was a welcome change from the three delays due to the ferocious Winter, NY experienced just a coupla months ago. You know what else I miss about NY? I miss watching NY1, the 24 hour all New York news channel – you’re never more than ten minutes away from New York weather on the 1’s. It’s true.
In between all this was Del-Lords activity, some at Roscoe’s pad, some at Cowboy Technical Services, and it was mighty successful. That would bring us right back to Part 1 of my trip, which, again, you can find the documentation of at del-lords.com.
Before I sign off to try and do my part to get the Yankees out of this awful slump the team is mired in, I just wanna say a few words about Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart, who passed away back in December due to complications from Multiple Sclerosis.
I first became truly aware of Captain Beefheart back in 1969, when my pal Robert Cirkiel was the first person I knew to own TROUT MASK REPLICA. We had both been fascinated by the strange album cover, and the press it was getting, especially Langdon Winner’s glowing yet astounded Rolling Stone review. It was described in all kinds of terms that all seemed to be searching for a way to say this was truly something different under the sun. Well, that was right in tune with the spirit of the times, and Robert and I definitely were under that same spell.
I’ll never forget the feeling of complete bewilderment, terror, amusement, and, ultimately, fascination with the music contained within that odd cover of the Captain wearing, yes, a Trout Mask. What was even more startling was the photo of the band on the back. Now, remember, this was still the 60’s, and weird was pretty much the order of the day, but this was weirder than weird, and not in some hippie-fied way. All I know, is that something kept drawing us back to this seemingly chaotic noise, its seeming randomness, and THAT voice, which contained a strong echo of Howling Wolf, but something else, too. Over time, I began to “hear” what my body had reacted to before my ears and brain could comprehend. When I began to anticipate the changes in the songs, “hear” the parts of the players, and realized that every single note was indeed intentional, and even beautiful, I was hooked for life.
The next year we both went to a Warner Brothers promotional tour that featured both Ry Cooder, promoting his first solo LP, and Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, who were promoting LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY. It was at a small club called Ungano’s on West 70th, where a year before we witnessed The Stooges, who were about to release FUN HOUSE. To see the Magic Band live was truly astonishing, and somewhat overwhelming. The thunder of the band, the angular perfection of this wild, fun, funny, ferocious, and beautiful music was one of the most memorable experiences of my teenage years, and that is saying a lot, let me tell you. Not just in terms of all the great music we saw on an almost weekly basis, but everything else the 60’s had to offer, as well. In the ensuing years, I saw them two or three more times, once when they were the middle act on a bill headlined by the awesome J. Geils Band, and the opener was that pipsqueak Broadway show tunesmith wannabe, Billy Joel, as the opener. I am shitting you negative, my friends. They slayed everything in sight. Once at the Bottom Line, when they were promoting DOC AT THE RADAR STATION, the last full-on Beefheart masterpiece, they ended every song with a live fade-out! Wow! You had to hear it to believe it. Every time, they were sensational, and while they didn’t entirely defy description, they did defy comparison. There was truly never anything like Beefheart before, and you can bet your bottom dollar, none of us will live long enough to see the likes of him pass this way again. A beautiful singular spirit, who lived for art, nature, and could follow no trends, just as no trends could rise in his slipstream.
I have been listening to him almost everyday since his passing, and the same records I’ve known for decades are still revealing themselves to me, and just as he intended, they still bypass the brain to some other place in my soul where they dance and sing, and make more sense than my brain ever could make of them. He said he wanted his music to be like a passing speeding train: you could see the train, and feel the train, but you couldn’t really count the cars as they went by. More articulate, and learned fans than myself could probably explain more about Van Vliet’s music, and his multiple truly magical bands, but I do know that I am blessed to have been able to appreciate in my own way, an artist as singular and magnificent as any artist operating in any field, during my time here on, as he called it, God’s Golf Ball.
Goodnight, Don. I will miss you and never be anything less than eternally grateful I lived at the same time as you, and was able to stand in your light for some brief yet unforgettable and wonderful moments that will stand as highlights of my life, as long as I’m still here, on Gods Golf Ball.
This past week I broke one of my own Facebook rules/policies, and while I didn’t think I was really doing so, mostly I just didn’t think it through as carefully as I should have. The rule/policy is simply that I will never say anything really negative about another musician in a public forum, like Facebook. Simple, right? As a musician, I feel it’s bad form to do so for a number of reasons. One is that I’m a musician and we’re all in the same boat – to varying degrees. Another is that everyone has their own tastes and passions concerning this stuff. Many people I like and respect like, or love, artists I do not. Many of these same folks dislike artists I like, or love. And the third reason, and maybe the biggest, is that it then opens up the floor to debate. And, for me, there is no debating music at that level. If a million (a very theoretical number, to be sure) smart, passionate friends were to (theoretically) jump up and down on my (theoretical) bed and scream at the top of their lungs about why I shouldn’t like, or love, artists from, say Elvis to The Beatles to Springsteen (just to pick a few of the more common ones from whom I have drawn a lifetime’s worth of inspiration) with bags full of proof positive to support their points and opinions, it wouldn’t budge me a single, solitary, itty bitty iota one way or another. In that regard, I really don’t care what anyone has to say. Hence, that would not be much of a debate. This is not to say I don’t enjoy discussing music, voicing and listening to opinions, or the like, but only when it’s with mostly like-minded friends, with whom I share a basic common ground. In fact, I LOVE talking music. It is one of my passions.
In my life, I have had some interesting revelations that have led me to where I am now, and why I try to adhere to this policy. Back in 1974, or 5, The Dictators, on one of our earliest road trips, and my second ever time in a plane, as I recall, we found ourselves in Davenport, Iowa as the opening act for REO Speedwagon. Now, this was a band I thought of as being close to polar opposites of The Dictators, in terms of style for sure, but also in terms of attitude and rock’n’roll consciousness. The revelation was that in actually meeting these guys it was really, in so many ways, just like talking to us. Their attitude about what they were doing was pretty much exactly the same as ours. Despite the musical differences, they thought of themselves, and were, a hard working rock’n’roll band, giving their all every single night, in a very unpretentious, straightforward, “we just wanna give the folks the best, hardest rocking, and fun time we possibly can. Nothing more but nothing less either. They were real nice guys, fun, generous and personable, to a man. That simple thing was, for me, a revelation. If anything, we were the ones with the chip on our shoulders, the ones who came from the Big City, with all sorts of preconceptions about a mainstream band like REO. That lesson has never left me. In fact, it was reinforced time and time again over the years with other bands we played with, and their numbers are many. Once, decades later, someone asked me to write a piece for their shitty little mag, about all the “lame” bands the Dictators opened for in our early days. I instantly thought back back to that night in Davenport, Iowa, and refused the request. In fact, the request , and its smugness was what was pretentious, mean spirited, and just plain fucking stupid.
You see, in those early days, before anyone was using the word Punk in relation to music, unless you were talking about the bands that were featured on Lenny Kaye’s awesome NUGGETS compilation, and there were less than five rock clubs in the USA, we were truly fish out of water. We spent most of our time opening up for, well, you name ‘em, in theatres, college auditoriums, and lots of huge basketball arenas. Most shows for the first two or three years were in front of audiences of at least 5,000 people. Needless to say, and I am sure this won’t come as a surprise, we almost never fared well in those situations. We still sucked, truth be told. Ross was amazing, but the rest of us were inspired amateurs, to be kind. As for myself, at that point I had probably been on stage less than ten times in my life.
I am not, never have been, and would never want to be a purist. I love all kinds of stuff. Rock’n’Roll mostly (of course) but also Blues, Country, R&B, Folk, Soul & Pure Pop are all in the mix for me. I have friends who are purists, to the point of fundamentalism, and while, as I say I do not fall into that category by a country mile, I do respect and admire their attitude, because it reflects a degree of passion that, for me, is what it is all about. And, when I say ALL, I don’t mean just music, but Life Itself. That passion is what we all do have in common.
What started me thinking about all this was something I wrote on Facebook about the very first gig we ever played. We were Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ band for a night. It was back in 1982, and it was at The Peppermint Lounge (the one on 5th & 15th) in NYC. This pairing, was a result of Eric, my bandmate, and Screamin’ Jay meeting, by sheer coincidence, at the office of Eric’s then lawyer, who was also Hawkins’ lawyer. Screamin’ Jay was in need of a band for his upcoming Peppermint Lounge show. Well, we were all totally broke at the time, sometimes sharing rice and one can of beans for the four of us for dinner. We were confident and determined but also, as I say, broke. Eric told Jay he had a band, and since we were all admirers of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and it was music that was right down the middle for us, and what we were doing, told him we could do the job. The one catch was that Hawkins only wanted one guitar player. Well, Eric told him that was something we couldn’t do. It was an all-for-one, one-for-all situation. So, instead of it being a deal breaker for Jay, he said that would be ok, and they shook hands and we had secured our very first paying gig.
The following week, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, with his girlfriend, his “everything”, Cassie in tow, showed up at our rehearsal loft at the (in)famous Music Building on 8th Ave between 39th & 40th streets, in the Garment District. At first everything was cool, although Jay seemed to be wound a little tight. In fact, I noticed that he had a holster belt, with a bottle of Mylanta, where a gun might otherwise be held, and which he swigged from like it was a Coke. But, as I say, everything was cool. We were getting to play with a legend, a great artist, and we felt lucky, appreciative, and now officially cool.
As the week progressed, and over the few rehearsals, Screamin’ Jay must have said at least a dozen times how much he hated, felt trapped by, and was angry at I PUT A SPELL ON YOU, his signature song, and one of the few songs of his I knew at that point. He said, he never wanted to play shit like that, and how he thought of himself as a singer more in the mold of Sinatra or Nat King Cole. I kind of knew that those were his original musical aspirations, as I remembered the chapter on him in Nick Tosches’ great book, UNSUNG HEROES OF ROCK’N’ROLL. But, I didn’t know the career he had fallen into had caused him such bitterness, regret, resentment and anger at the song that had put him on the musical map. I felt bad for him and his, what I would characterize as, his burden. It also hurt me, and I was not quite sure why. I didn’t have enough of a relationship to his music to be shattered by this bursting of a bubble, but it still felt sad and awful to me.
The gig itself, from our perspective was a tough one, and not much fun at all. And, THAT statement right there was what i I said on Facebook. No elaboration, just that it wasn’t a fun experience for us. We had followed Jay’s one rule of performance, which was, “Everything is cool as long as we starts and ends together”. Simple sage advice from a veteran artist. During the show, it was Cassie’s job to detonate the rather mild, by the standards of the day, smoke pots, at a specifically designated point in the show. Well, poor Cassie fucked that up and set it off at the wrong time. He turned around and shot her a glare that if looks could kill, the whole place would have gone up in flames. It didn’t seem like quite that big a deal to us, but it sure was to Jay. Now, it’s his show, he’s the master showman, with the coffin, Henry, the skull on a cane, and the bone through the nose prop that was a quintessential part of his act, and had been since SPELL first hit the charts, so it was not for me to determine the severity of Cassie’s unintentional error. But, the show was not as tight as it should have been, with a lot of the songs not going the way we rehearsed them. That too, was fine because as long as we started and ended together, it was alright.
But Jay’s mood visibly darkened, and it all seemed to come to a head during the infamous CONSTIPATION BLUES. This was the one song I really could not get behind. It was as crass and as unpleasant as the title implied. And, it went on and on for an interminable length of time, with Jay pulling out all the figurative stops, with his vocal impression of a long coming, hard earned & painful, but ultimately relief inducing, case of diarrhea. Yes, you read that right. To do a little bit of armchair psychology, it was like all the frustration and anger he had internalized over the decades about his career direction was what was really coming out of him (no pun intended) for the fifteen minutes (at least) that the song lasted.
After the show, backstage, Jay was on fire. He was livid, screaming into Cassie’s face how she had, “fucked up the whole show”. Over and over, with her in tears, and Jay swigging from the Mylanta, it was painful and embarrassing for us to be in proximity of. And then, it was our turn. He screamed at us, while pointing at me, how we had ripped him off, how he didn’t need no two goddamn guitar players, and this too went on for what seemed like an eternity. And then, as always back to that fucking I PUT A SPELL ON YOU song, the fucked-up career he had to endure because it was such a big hit, and how that fucking Creedence Clearwater band had reinforced it by proxy by putting on their own multi-million selling first album!! It was all coming out. Again. And again. To top it all off, he had some smart ass Jewish (yes, I am one, too) NYU student named Seth as his manager. We had not met Seth until this point. How Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wound up with this clown one can only guess. My guess would be he was a music fan, and loved Screamin’ Jay, and somehow had talked his way into the position of manager, which Jay felt he was in need of. So, Seth was the final victim of Screamin’s rage that night. After the fire went out, Jay started chatting with us, about R&B artists, Blues artists, and suddenly, in a seemingly benign statement, this jerk Seth says something about “colored” people. We were aghast, as it was about 40 years since anyone of any intelligence and sensitivity was using that word –especially in NYC. This wasn’t Mississippi, fer chrissakes! Well, let me tell you, THAT got Jay’s attention. I thought for sure the former boxer that Jay was was gonna knock him all the way to Central Park! Jay was incredulous, as we all were. I remember Jay telling Seth he was gonna strip him naked and tar and feather him with $20 bills and drop him in the middle of 125th St. Finally, after much hesitation that had us thinking Jay wasn’t gonna pay us, or at least deduct the extra money for the second goddamn guitar player he DID NOT NEED, we got paid in full, and got the hell out of there.
Afterwards, and in the ensuing years, the whole episode did seem sorta funny, and we can laugh about it now. But, sometimes I would think about how sad it was that this super talented artist could not fully enjoy what he had accomplished. I mean, every Rock fan knows at least one version of I PUT A SPELL ON YOU, and even if he got ripped off for the publishing, which I do not know one way or another, it still must have earned him a nice chunk of change, and it made him famous, and despite the over the top theatrics of his act, he is always acknowledged as a talented and original singer. But, it all went south for him somewhere and the end result was a belt holster with a bottle of Mylanta.
In conclusion, some years later, Eric Ambel got the gig of producing a Nils Lofgren record. Nils had not done anything exceptionally successful in a while, as it was before his 25 years, and counting run with the E Street Band, and after his affiliations with Neil Young had run its course. Eric did a great job, and the record CROOKED LINE is one of Nils’ best, if not his best, thanx in large part to Eric’s great vision and talent, as well as Nils’ extreme talent. But, during the recording they were looking for a song that might have a good shot at getting on the radio. They settled on covering the great JUST A LITTLE, a song that was a huge hit by the great BEAU BRUMMELS, and produced by Sylvester Stewart, soon to revolutionize Soul and Pop as Sly Stone. It was a perfect fit for Nils. But, Nils began to fret that if this song should become a hit he would then have to perform it at every gig for the rest of his life. It would perhaps define him, and box him into some imaginary corner, and well, then what?!!? Now, I don’t know if Eric was thinking back to that gig and that week with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or not, but he simply said to Nils, “Why don’t you think of it that if it does become a hit it will insure you have a gig every night for the rest of your life?” Nils thought about it for at least two seconds, and JUST A LITTLE ended up on the album.
If you scroll through this just a bit you will find a nice review of the TENEMENT ANGELS reissue, just out, and currently available. It was originally released, or more accurately dropped out of the back of a truck over a Jersey swamp, back in the halcyon days of 1992, just a bit before the advent of electricity and indoor plumbing. All things considered, i think we (the fantabulous Skeletons and myself) did a pretty good job.
I am excited, grateful, and more than a little shocked that I am able to announce the re-release of my first solo record, TENEMENT ANGELS. First dumped out of the back of a truck into a swamp, I mean released, by a record company that shall remain nameless, back in 1992, it has been unavailable almost since it was first uh, released. But, tomorrow, March 1st, that is not longer the case. It is back on sale. Besides CDBaby and Amazon, it is also for sale at what cool record stores remain wherever you can find them.
AND, the cd contains a bonus song, as in never before released but, and comes from the same sessions as the album. There’s also an LP pressed on 180 gram vinyl, which comes with a signed/numbered poster and a free digital download, including the bonus track MERRY XMAS, BABY, which did not fit on the remastered LP. Ah, the sweet memory of limited audio space; before the days of unlimited digital whosis and whatsis.
I owe a helluva lot to my pal, Gary Borress, whose shock, horror and displeasure at the unavailability of this record led him to do something about it, god damn it! He was adamant about sparing no expense in making the final package something we, as Rock’n’Roll fanatics, could bust our buttons over. We are both very proud of the results. The record would simply not exist without Gary. Let’s hear it for cool rockin’, everlovin’ Daddy G.!!!!!!!!!
The most excellent Tim Fisher did the artwork. Tim had a non-stop flood of great ideas and the exceptional ability to execute them. A relentlessly inspired, super hard worker, and an easier guy to work with I do not know. If there were to be a tie however, it could be Hirsh Gardner, a great musician, writer, producer and engineer; he did the remastering, and found more sonic firepower in those grooves than I knew existed. He also mixed MERRY XMAS, BABY. A super guy and a fantastic talent. We are very lucky to have had him involved.
And, of course, last, but in no way, shape or form, least are The Skeletons, one of the greatest Rock’n’Roll bands of all time, and perhaps, since Wikileaks anyway, America’s last great secret. Lou Whitney plays bass and sings. He also co-produced this record, and engineered it, too. He’s my guru and The Mohammad all mountains must eventually come to. Lou stands as a breed apart. D. Clinton Thompson plays guitar and sings. He does both a million times better than I ever will. But, that puts me in the company of 99.9% of everyone else engaged in the same endeavor. Getting to hear Donnie play through a Marshall that was pretty well lit up was a thrill, and a memory that continues to tickle almost 20 years later. Just about the best guitarist in the world. There I said it! Bobby Lloyd Hicks is a drummer of the very highest order, as well as a singer and arranger. Plays like Hal Blaine and sings like Carl Wilson. His ability is quite astounding. AND, he’s a charter member (since 1961) of The Beach Boys Fan Club!! Joe Terry, a relative newcomer to me at the time, proved to be a continuing source of inspiration and good vibes. He played keyboards, sang his ass off, and, a total joy to play with and hang with. Lastly, but not leastly, is the youngest Skeleton, Kelly Brown. He too played keyboards and I gotta tell ya, I’m not generally that much of a keyboard guy (guitars are more my thing – perhaps you’ve heard) but with guys as great as Joe and Kelly I managed to find parts for two keyboards on almost every single song. They are both so good, and seem to only play the notes you wanna hear. How did they do that, anyway??!!
I’ve said this before: I’ve been very fortunate in my career to make music with friends. In the case of both the Dictators and the Del-Lords, there was a family feeling, a brotherhood, and it was a source of not just comfort and companionship, but inspiration, as well. It just makes me wanna do better than my best. The period in which this album was made was a scary time. After eight years together the Del-Lords had called it a day. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was gonna do except that I knew I would keep writing, playing and singing. But, I was still pretty lost. So, I took an offer from a label to make a record and called Lou Whitney, which set the ball rolling, and within a few months I was down in Springfield, MO with Manny Caiati, and we were making this here record. Not a lot of pre-conception, other than that getting-Donnie-to-play-through-a-Marshall thing, picked a couple of covers, dove into my notebook, and well, here it is. Check it out, as it is a quite rockin’ little affair, and the chances of you diggin’ it, I think, are pretty damn good.