Stiff Little Fingers/The Avengers
The Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL (10/16/19)
When I first heard about this pairing, I probably needed, what, all of five seconds to decide: "Yeah! Gotta go, gotta catch this one!" What feels more inspired, you may ask, than seeing a reconvened Avengers -- still anchored around original vocalist Penelope Houston, and guitarist Greg Ingraham -- with one of the most explosive Class Of '77 members, Stiff Little Fingers (SLF), long led by singer-guitarist Jake Burns, and also boasting one other original, in bassist Ali McMordie...especially when you realize that the world of songs like "The American In Me" ("Ask not what your country can do/What's your country been doing to you"), or "Suspect Device" ("They play their games of power/They cut and mark the deck/They deal us to the bottom/But what do they put back?"), to name two respective examples, is (sadly and unfortunately) more relevant than they were back in the day, given all the crap that we're expected to keep on swallowing, economically and politically?
The Bottom Lounge itself is your standard issue neighborhood bar, not terribly fussy nor fancy, much like the bands themselves, I suppose. (Which is another way of saying, it's standing room only, literally -- I see one barstool in the corner that some punter has already commandeered for the night, leaving me pogoing on the balls of my feet for two hours. Such is life, I guess.)
The Avengers take the stage first, as Houston, decked out in black, recalls with a knowing laugh: "Last time we played here, it was, like, 92 degrees in the sun at Riot Fest. I thought I was gonna die, I thought it was gonna be our last set ever! Anyway, we're the Avengers, in case you didn't know..." And with that preamble out of the way, we're off to the races, as the band counts off and barrels through "Cheap Tragedies," "Thin White Line," and "Teenage Rebel," that still throb with all the meaning and menace that distinguished them when the band emerged in San Francisco, in 1977.
Ingraham proves deft and effective throughout the set, wringing feedback-laden leads as the mood requires -- from the faster efforts, like "We Are The One," to the midtempo one-two punch of "Corpus Christi" and "Uh Oh," and the night's lone slow burner, "The End Of The World," whose lyrics seem eerily apropos, in light of the Australian fires that ravaged their country ("Look down, your shadow's on fire/This day will blot out your past"). Houston describes it as "another one of these 40-year-old songs that is still applicable, sadly, today."
The rhythm section of bassist Hector Penalosa (The Zeros), and drummer David Bach -- standing in for respective cohorts, Joel Reader and Luis Illades, of Pansy Division, who couldn't make this tour -- keeps the proceedings crisp and tight, without getting in the way. Houston's voice remains gutsy and strong as ever, a must for putting across the emotional terrain of songs like "Desperate" ("Gotta get out of here, there's nothing here for me"). She's up to the task, and then some.
A lighter mood makes itself felt, too, as Houston notes, when she introduces "1-2-3" as "an easy song to sing along to, if you can count to three." Steve Jones and Paul Cook ended up reworking it for their own band, The Professionals, after the ex-Sex Pistols guitarist produced some sessions for the Avengers. It's not hard to see why they found it attractive, once the song's punked-up Chuck Berry drive kicks in -- serving as a reminder of the band's strong singalong melodic instincts.
The set ends with a romp through "Paint It, Black" (The Rolling Stones), emerging from a flurry of feedback-drenched howls and moans that Ingraham evokes so effortlessly, and "The American In Me," whose questioning of media and power structure priorities makes for a truly chilling counterpoint, coming after almost 20 years of imperialist wars that have driven our country into the red ("It's the American in me says it an honor to die/in a war that's just a politician's lie"). Only "We Are The One" would have offered as strong, or even stronger closing note ("We are not capitalist industrialists/we are not communists/we are the one"). Either way, Penelope and company have made their mark, and their point, tonight.
So how do you follow that type of set? By keeping the temperature up, as Burns and his merry men -- McMordie, who rejoined in 2006, plus longtime drummer Steve Grantley, and guitarist Ian McCallum, who've held those spots since 1997 and 1993, respectively -- demonstrate with an opening salvo of songs from the Nobody's Heroes/Go For It era. At first, the sound levels hover near the underwater mark, though Jake's trademark rasp and Les Paul-driven leads cut through the murk admirably.
By the third song ("Just Fade Away"), however, the soundman seems to figure out the balance, and it all comes together, in a flurry of downstroking, and rat-a-tat-tat drumming, driven along by the McMordie undertow. The audience responds with its own bursts of energy, one that leads Jake to describe the Windy City -- which has always boasted a fervent SLF following -- as "a bit of a hometown gig for me."
Officially, tonight's agenda focuses on the Inflammable Material album, released in 1979, which ranks among punk's unlikeliest success stories. Released by Rough Trade, SLF's debut became the first indie release to enter the UK chart, peaking at #14, and selling 100,000 copies -- a remarkable achievement for a band that had just been dropped by the major label who'd courted them (Island Records). (The affair inspired a key track on the album, "Rough Trade," which surely ranks alongside the Sex Pistols' "EMI" as one of the best anti-record label blasts ever committed to vinyl.)
As Jake notes, when introducing "Rough Trade," SLF had no expectations going into the recording, since "every record company on the planet had turned us down," he tells us. "So this was just make sure we had something to play to our grandkids, when we got old: 'This is what I did when I was young, and fuckin' stupid. Here we are, 40 years later, playing the same songs!" (Except for the last track, "Closed Groove," that is, for which Jake has always expressed disdain, and it's not hard to hear why -- as it's built atop a clunky, repetitive riff that had more common in post-punk, than SLF's full-blooded major chord blood and thunder.)
What's remarkable about Inflammable Material, once the band digs into it, is how well it stands up -- even its minor songs, like "Here We Are Nowhere," SLF's stab at Ramonehood, of which Jake cheerily says: "If this next one lasts more than a minute, we've done it wrong." They don't. So while its best-known tracks, like "Suspect Device," "Wasted Life," and "Alternative Ulster," are rightfully celebrated, lesser-known efforts like "Law And Order" and "State Of Emergency," deserve the same plaudits.
The band's 10-minute rumble through "Johnny Was" (Bob Marley) remains an equally noteworthy melding of rock and reggae, just as the Clash did, for instance, with Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves," on their own debut album. I've also had a soft spot for "Breakout," which kick-started a tradition of escapist songs -- understandable for someone who grew up in Belfast, and the Catholic-Protestant conflict that racked the city -- and gets a suitably giddy reading here.
And, while the overall muzzle velocity remains uptempo, cranked up to 10, Jake's got the storyteller touch, as he periodically pauses to explain the inspiration behind certain songs, like "White Noise" -- an anti-racist song that "kind of backfired," he admits, because "we used the violent, disgusting language we could think of, to point out out the error of their ways, of these fucking knuckleheads."
The song's subsequent release on Inflammable Material prompted the city of Newcastle to bar the band from playing there, even after the local paper printed a photo of SLF "playing in front of this huge fucking banner that read, 'Rock Against Racism,'" Jake laughingly recalls. "There it is." The audience howls back its delight.
Jake's explanation of writing "Safe As Houses," from Go For It, is equally priceless -- a song that the band essentially stopped playing, because "I stupidly wrote in a key that was too fuckin' high for me to sing," he he recounts. "Now, I know what you're thinking: 'But Jake, any fuckin' decent musician will tell you, 'Just drop it a key, and sing it in that key.'" He pauses for the punchline. "That presupposes that we were decent musicians!"
Of course, Jake Burns and company are decent musicians -- well, way better than that, actually -- but such stories showcase a charming side. (This is the band, after all, that wrote, "No one is a nobody/Everybody is someone.") At times, the mood turns pensive, such as Jake's introduction of "My Dark Places," a song that tackles his struggles with depression. He notes that in the UK, 4,500 men take their lives every year, which amounts to one person every three hours ("It's pretty fucking terrifying, when you think about it in those terms"). It's one of the highlights from the band's last release, No Going Back (2014), which ranks among their best efforts.
Other highlights include the as-yet unrecorded "16 Shots," about the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, which makes an apt lead-in for the Inflammable Material songs, and one where Burns pushes his vocals to the emotional limit: "You got 16 shots, nine in the back/16 shots on a Chicago night/16 shots ended a young man's life!"
I can definitely relate to this song, having lived in Chicago during the mid- to late '90s, and saw how the Mayor Daleys and Emanuels of the world were already leaving entire neighborhoods to rot from malign neglect -- linguists, please withdraw the phrase "benign neglect" from the dictionary, as there's no such f#cking animal -- as they trampled each other to throw their city's huddled masses under the proverbial bus, in favor of those shadowy men behind the curtain (no women, because they're never invited to join that particular club).
A one-two punch encore of "Tin Soldier" and "Gotta Getaway" powers the set to a close, and sends the crowd home happily across the finish line. But, as songs like "16 Shots" demonstrate, tonight's show isn't only a celebration of the band's history, "it's also a celebration of the future, and looking froward," as Jake notes. On this evidence, both SLF and The Avengers have plenty more to say. Catch them if you can, miss them at your peril.
THE AVENGERS: Cheap Tragedies/Thin White Line/Teenage Rebel/Corpus Christi/Uh Oh/Desperation/We Are The One/I Want In/The End Of The World/1-2-3-4/Open Your Eyes/Car Crash/Paint It, Black/The American In Me <https://www.penelope.net/>
STIFF LITTLE FINGERS
Roots, Radicals, Rockers, Reggae/Nobody's Heroes/Just Fade Away/Strummerville/At The Edge/My Dark Places/Safe As Houses/16 Shots/Suspect Device/State Of Emergency/Here We Are Nowhere/Wasted Life/No More Of That/Barbed Wire Love/White Noise/Breakout/Law & Order/Rough Trade/Johnny Was/Alternative Ulster/ENCORE: Tin Soldier/Gotta Getaway <https://slf.rocks/home-base>
**** UPDATES, 2/18/20: NOW POSTED: My writeup of the Stiff Little Fingers/Avengers double bill, in Chicago (10/16/19).
COMING SOON: My photos and writeup of White Summer's annual reunion (third and final set highlights). PLUS: Photos/writeup of the Cherie Currie/Brie Darling (11/25/19) show at The Acorn Theater (Three Oaks, MI),
JUST MOVED: All White Summer concert reviews and interview outtakes are now collected in their own special section, titled (wait for it)...White Summer! (Also: "The Five Emprees Rise Again (On YouTube And Download") combines both those original separate items.)
AND: Five Emprees 7/13/19 show writeup is now in the (wait for again) Five Emprees section! ALSO: "We Are The Clash" reviews have now been combined on the Communiques page into one entry ("Reviews & Updates").
JUST ADDED: I WATCH THE BIRDS, my annual free EP that coincides with my wife's birthday, and celebrates it...go right over to Featured Songs, and grab it!
AND: "Hit 'Em Again, Ron" -- my tribute to the late Stooges guitarist, Ron Asheton, recorded live on 6/24/19, on the Spoken Word Tracks page. PLUS: Appearances from the Box Factory For The Arts, including more material from 6/24/19, and the previous spoken word event there, on 4/23/19.
AND: The latest reviews and related activities surrounding We Are The Clash, which continues to draw interest from surprising quarters -- have a look below, and see for yourself!
PLUS: A live medley of the Civil Rights era hymn of resistance, "We Shall Overcome," plus "People Have The Power" (Patti Smith), and an instrumental bridge that should sound vaguely familiar.
PLUS: A 1:50 (in other words, nearly two hour) audio clip from Philadelphia, PA (7/10/18), where Mark Andersen and I appeared at Brickbat Books for our book, WE ARE THE CLASH: REAGAN, THATCHER & THE LAST STAND OF A BAND THAT MATTERED...plus, our pre-event interview with Joseph Gervasi, for Loud Fast Philly...over on the Spoken Word Tracks page. Our 60-minute clip from Politics & Prose (Washington, DC, 7/06/18) is there, too.
DELETED (FOR NOW): HAPPY TRAILS (LITTLE BUDGIE IS 47)...because I only have so much space. It'll return at some point, I'm sure. :-) PLUS: Tracks from 4/28/17 (live at the St. Joseph Library). If you don't see a particular track or title there, it's because...well, it's most likely been deleted (but may return, if individual circumstances allow -- just keep checking back!). AND: "My Cousin Kevin" (4/14/18 live version).
Comment capability's back for now, but stay on topic. If not...I'm taking the toys away again! :-) In the meantime: stay cool. ****
Stiff Little Fingers/The Avengers
If you play guitar, and know a little bit about the blues, chances are, you'll offer an eager response when I ask, "I just got this Mike Bloomfield show from 1980, wanna hear it?" If you're part of the general public, you'll probably just shrug, or ask, "Michael who?" That's hardly surprising, as his name gradually receded from commercial consciousness after his glorious 1960s run -- first, with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, then, with his incendiary guest shot on Bob Dylan's album, Highway 61 (1965), and his work with the Electric Flag on The Trip soundtrack, and his only album with them, A Long Time Coming.
And, while Michael did his share of inspired work during the '70s -- notably, If You Love These Blues, Play 'Em As You Please, his mail-order-only album for Guitar Player's short-lived recording division -- getting it was no mean feat. As a teenager, it required a lot of detective work to track down, after a high school teacher turned me on to those '60s-era sounds.
For me, it meant scouring rack after rack of discarded "Special Value" eight-tracks, which is how I scored The Best Of The Electric Flag, among other treasures, and Nick Gravenites' My Labors, one of many albums that Michael guested on. (Alas, I never got to hear it in its entirety, after going through two eight-track -- and one cassette -- an omission that I've since remedied, with the bootleg stuff from that era.)
My quest accelerated after Michael's untimely death in February 1981, at just 37, which inspired a fine profile in Rolling Stone -- one that raised bigger questions. How (or why) did someone with such a fiery, instantly recognizable guitar style, fall so firmly off the commercial radar? Why didn't more people acknowledge his influence at the time? What contributions did he make, in the grand scheme of popular music? And what particular hellhounds -- chemical, emotional, psychological, take your pick -- led to Bloomfield's sad and lonely end, abandoned by his partymates in a battered old car, after failing to come around for the final time?
Now, we have a better idea, thanks to Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life In The Blues (University of Texas Press), by David Dann, who addresses all of these issues, and many, many more, in 740 breathtaking pages.
Monumental and massive, Guitar King gives its subject a suitably epic feel, even as it moves at a brisk pace through the peaks and valleys of Bloomfield's life -- building on the foundations laid down by earlier efforts, If You Leave These Blues: An Oral History (Backbeat Books, 2000), by Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom, and Michael Bloomfield: The Rise And Fall Of An American Guitar Hero, by Ed Ward (Cherry Lane Books, 1983, reissued in 2016), and then, taking those works to the next higher level.
As Guitar King takes shape, you feel Bloomfield's larger than life presence all over again, and other bygone figures with whom he hung out, or played, like Albert Grossman, Bill Graham, Janis Joplin, and Buddy Miles, to name just a few -- as well as Paul Butterfield (another figure overdue for rediscovery and reappraisal, which has partially happened with the documentary, Horn From The Heart, now available on DVD).
As a longtime Bloomfield fan, I couldn't pass up the chance to talk with David, to whose website I contributed, as he notes -- and revisit the larger questions that surround Bloomfield's life, and art, which we naturally could only do on the most relevant occasion, as all-American as one you could find...what would have marked the Guitar King's 76th birthday (7/28/19). So sit down, strap yourself in, and...well, hell, enjoy the ride.
PART I: "...VERY, VERY FEW GUYS WHO SOUND LIKE BLOOMFIELD"
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): So what thoughts run through your mind, on that particular occasion (Michael Bloomfield’s birthday)? I worked with you on the site, and watched that grow by leaps and bounds. Then, gradually, I saw you expanding it further. You did the radio special.
DAVID DANN (DD): Well, obviously, it’s a day to think about Bloomfield’s contributions to American pop culture, which is – for me – a fairly large consideration.
The radio broadcast was done in four hour-long segments. I had a show for many years here, at Catskill Public Radio – it was broadcast there, and a few other stations. That was really the very first effort I made to reach out to Bloomfield’s former bandmates, and some of his family members, and get them on tape, so that I could use them for the radio program.
But I had no inkling that I was ever going to write a biography of Michael. Certainly, the radio broadcast, I thought, was going to be the end of whatever my efforts were.
CR: But when I listened to it, I thought, “If you really want to do the excavation work, there’s a hell of a book in here, and a hell of a story to be told.” What got you on that particular path?
DD: Bill Keenom and Jan Mark Wolkin published an excellent oral biography, If You Love These Blues. I had read that book, and that was what got me started on doing the website – you were the first person to make an outside contribution, which I very much appreciated, because it was all about Norman Dayron, who, at that time, was sort of a mystery man. To me, anyway.
CR: And kind of a polarizing figure among some, too.
DD: Indeed! Very much so.
CR: And we’ll get to that, of course…
DD: Sure, sure. On my doorstep one day arrived a large carton, which turned out to be all of Bill Keenom’s interviews – and he very kindly sent them to me, because he saw that I’d been working on the website, and thought they would be helpful.
At least half the material on these tapes never quite made it into their book. I just became more and more fascinated in the story, and started to do interviews of my own for the website. One thing led to another, and I started to write, about seven or eight, nine years ago. Here we are today.
CR: For sure. And then (came) the search for someone to publish it, which, of course, you successfully managed, so…
DD: Yes. I was very lucky in that regard. I first went to the University of Chicago, thinking that –
CR: That would be the logical home.
DD: Yeah, because Bloomfield spent so much time in Hyde Park, he’s from Chicago, and it’s (about the) blues. They said, “This isn’t the kind of book we do, but there’s a place in Austin, Texas, that would love this. The editor there, he’s a big Bloomfield fan. So contact Robert Devens, at University of Texas Press, and see if they’ll go for it.” That’s what I did, and they were very interested. It was very easy. I didn’t…
CR: You didn’t have the struggle.
DD: No, no struggle at all. No agent, no nothing.
CR: I was really glad that they gave you the space and the time that you needed, to get the story told.
DD: They were great, in that way. My editor, at first, was alarmed, because I sent him over 850 manuscript pages (laughs) – he was expecting 300, I think, or 400.
And he said, “You know, this is wonderful, but it’s far too large for us to publish. Economically, we just can’t manage it.” So I spent about a year, hacking away. After seven edits, and (cutting) 140,000 words, we came up with something that was too big for them, but too small for me, so we sort of met in the middle.
CR: But you have the website. And you could put extras from your book on it.
DD: That is, in fact, the plan. A number of interesting anecdotes and side stories are going up on the website, once the book comes out. I’m going to do a fairly detailed thing on Bloomfield’s Les Paul, the guitar that is pretty much identified with Michael, and he lost in 1974.
CR: Right, when he just ran out on the guys at the –
DD: The Cave, in Vancouver. I had a lot of help, from several Canadians – Chris Okey, who owned the guitar after Michael passed. He, unfortunately, has passed, but we had a great couple years’ worth of e-mail conversations about it. He was looking for it, trying to find who had it, and I think he found the person – but he couldn’t confirm it, nor could I, so I didn’t include that.
CR: But do we know where that guitar is, then?
DD: I have a pretty good idea. It’s in the United States.
Tony Bacon, the British writer who’s a guitar expert – in his book, Million Dollar Les Paul, he speculates that Bloomfield’s guitar, should it come on the market, would approach that figure.
Which is wildly absurd, when you think about what Michael thought about his instruments, didn’t take care of them, and didn’t really care whether he played a Les Paul, or a Sears Silvertone. So, to think it could be of that value, is just –
DD: Sweetly ironic.
CR: It is. Well, I remember asking Norman about this, and as he so eloquently said to me: “He didn’t give a shit.”
DD: That’s right (laughs).
CR: It’s an example of how he approached his art, because Norman went on to say, that Michael liked to say, “It’s all bare meat on steel strings.” And the more you use effects, the more you sound like everybody else.
DD: Yes, that’s very true. Well, he certainly didn’t, and that always is an indicator for me. Because there are people who can sound like (Jimi) Hendrix, (or) Robin Trower – and do so convincingly – and there are a legion of people who approximate what Clapton can do. There are guys in every town who play like that. But there are very, very few guys who sound like Bloomfield. Almost nobody.
To me, it’s like a jazz signature. There’s nobody who sounds like Bird, nobody that sounds like Ben Webster. Johnny Hodges had a distinct sound. So that tells you a lot about the quality of Bloomfield’s playing, and the uniqueness of it.
CR: For sure. So what were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered, along the way?
DD: Well, one of the more challenging aspects of the early writing was to find people that he knew in his grade school and teen years, his high school years. There were lots of stories about Bloomfield going to the South Side, and sitting in, all that kind of stuff – but most of it was sort of urban legend-type stuff.
I was very lucky to find a couple of guys, through endless searching on the Internet, and calling wrong numbers, eventually connecting – Gerry Pasternak was one of Michael’s drummers in his high school years. He and Michael played together on Rush Street quite a bit, and that was fascinating. He told me lots of Bloomfield stories.
The other guy was Roy Jespersen, another of Michael’s drummers. And he filled me in on the famous (story of) Michael playing the talent show, his sophomore year – he was supposed to play a Chet Atkins tune, which is nice and mellow, and they played that tune.
And then the curtain came down, and the kids were applauding, and the curtain came back up, so Bloomfield went into this rock ‘n roll number they had rehearsed, and the whole place just broke out in pandemonium. The kids climbed on the stage, and were screaming and yelling, and got him in quite a lot of trouble. But Roy filled that in, with all the color that you might expect. So that was great.
I spoke to maybe a dozen of his childhood friends, and they had some wonderful stories to tell me, family members, as well. But, of course, the other difficult thing was Michael’s death – which was controversial, and sort of shrouded in…
CR: In mystery.
DD: Exactly. Well, I had a number of things to work from. Roy Ruby’s friend, a friend of Michael’s, Brent Pellegrini, who is an investigator, did some research for me.
He came up with some data that very much helped in formulating the story. I mean, no one knows for certain what happened, but I think I’ve gotten pretty close to the circumstances – and there’s no conspiracy involved, or anything really mysterious. It is speculation on my part, to some degree, but I also had some information, that I was unable to use, because I was asked not to publicize it – that pretty much confirms the scenario that I create.
CR: And I assume you had the old police reports, toxicology (reports), and things of that nature, to work with?
DD: Yes. He was poisoned with meth, and some other forms of amphetamine, and that was something, of course, all Michael’s friends knew he would never, ever have taken, because his system was running in high gear, constantly, so…
CR: Sure. So, I guess, it was almost like the scenario in Pulp Fiction, then (the accidental overdose scene).
DD: Yes, I think that’s pretty much what happened. Except that Michael didn’t wake. He woke up, and then, he went back (to unconsciousness).
CR: Right, and then, the second time, they couldn’t bring him around. Or he didn’t come back, basically.
CR: The quote that really got to me was what Norman said, when he had to claim his car, seeing his (Michael’s) leather jacket on the back seat, and that’s when it hit.
DD: That was a powerful moment, when he said that. I think Norman was really shocked by it, because he had just seen Michael the day before. And Bloomfield seemed to be in good spirits, and good shape, relative to how he had been, prior to, the month or two earlier.
PART II: "THINGS WERE COMING TO A HEAD"
CR: Yeah, for sure. So, were there any surprises along the way, as you went through and researched those lesser-known corners of his life – like his involvement with the Mitchell brothers, for instance?
DD: Yes, yes. The Mitchell brothers had opened a theater in San Francisco, the first real porn palace. They had the big theater portion, where they showed their films, but there were rooms for specialized viewing and activities.
And Michael, being an inquisitive guy, wandered in there, at one point, and met them. Being Michael Bloomfield, he struck up a conversation with them, and so, they knew him. They were running into trouble with the censors, because their stuff was seen as gratuitous, defined as pornography, and they wanted to put a high art gloss on it.
So they decided to hire real musicians, to compose real music, to go behind their unseemly movies. I’ve seen a bunch of them, and they’re about as unsexy (laughs) as anything I can imagine.
CR: Well, c’mon, something like Hot Nazis – how sexy could that really be, right?
DD: Exactly! It is not. And something that struck me as interesting, that Michael, being a person who identified very strongly with his Jewish background, Jewish culture and heritage, that he would do music for…
CR: For something like that, yeah.
DD: So I have to think, that he probably never saw any of these things. Or he only saw a few of them, and he was just given a script, and just cooked up some tunes, which is pretty much what Norman said. Norman probably told you about that. (CR mentions the presence of names like vocalist Anna Rizzo, among the all-star talent that Bloomfield recruited.)
DD: I know! She was the vocalist for the Sodom and Gomorrah theme. She obviously recorded it in the studio, and it sounds like “I’ll Be There,” something in that genre. If you heard it, you would recognize it. When she did see the movie, she was like, “This is too weird for me, I’m leaving.”
But you know what, Ralph? The most interesting thing about Sodom & Gomorrah is Michael’s music. If you can get through the visuals… it’s really world music. It’s quite impressive. It’s too bad that he didn’t do it for a legitimate Hollywood-type movie. Because I think he would have been lauded for real creativity, for the soundtrack. It’s pretty impressive.
CR: Because if he had been attached to something more legit – I think it would have done a lot more for him, probably.
DD: I think that’s true, but as you pointed out about Michael’s guitar, he didn’t care. He really didn’t care about his career, at that point, not in the commercial sense.
CR: No, that’s true, and again, we can get into all this. But were there any people that you didn’t get, like (Bob) Dylan?
DD: I had back channels to Dylan, and managed to get to Dylan’s guy. And apparently, the request was passed along, but was politely declined. Which is not unusual. Because, who am I, and he’s Bob Dylan (laughs), so…
CR: Sure. Was there anybody else who fit that category?
DD: This is funny, but I have six or eight hours of in-depth interviews with Nick Gravenites, that Bill Keenom recorded. I reached out to Nick, because I wanted to talk to him about certain aspects, that I wanted to fill in, from Bill’s interviews.
And I sent him to my website, so that he could see the kind of work that I was doing. He went there, and saw your interview with Norman – and he was so incensed, that he refused to ever talk to me again.
CR: Really? What did he object to?
DD: Hey, listen, I have no idea. I tried to reason – I said, “Listen, this is perfectly innocuous. This is an excellent interview.” I hadn’t even talked to Norman at that point.
CR: And we just mostly stuck to the technical aspects, which is what the piece was about.
DD: Exactly, but I think there was such bad blood between Nick and Norman, for one reason or another, over the years, that just the mention of Norman – that definitely will turn Nick off. So that was one thing I regretted, not being able to talk to him. But I did have a lot of wonderful interviews that Bill Keenom did with him.
CR: Yeah, and certainly, in that book, he comes across very colorfully, and very well-spoken.
DD: Yes. He is. He really is exactly that, he’s a marvelous storyteller. And I have to sympathize with these guys, because they’ve told the story many, many times, and here comes another author, who wants to know something or other. And I can see where you’d sort of reach your limit.
CR: Yeah, and of course, if you look at the Jan Mark Wolkin book, there’s some acknowledgment, from Norman’s side, that things were not always what they should have been.
DD: Yeah. Norman is fairly candid about that. He was with me in the week that I spent out at Mill Valley with him. He’s apologetic about it, but Norman is an inveterate storyteller. He’s a real natural raconteur.
And he can just entertain you for hours. And, like, Michael was famous for embroidering the truth, stretching a story, that kind of thing – and I think Norman does that, to some degree. But once you know, you know where the truth is, and where it isn’t. And Michael was doing quite a lot of drugs, off and on, and Norman was, too, and so, judgment was always kind of –
CR: I mean, you point out, quite correctly, some of the flaws (on the Dayron-produced albums). I just took the liberty, before I talked to you, of listening to some of that (material) again. Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’, the title track, the vocal is really garbled.
It’s hard to make out what Michael’s actually saying. And I thought to myself, “Well, somebody should have caught this,” because the track is fine. If you can’t hear what the guy’s saying, I think that does take away your enjoyment, somewhat.
DD: Well, I think that’s true. I forget who it was – maybe it was Susie, when she heard it, she said, “Michael, I don’t know what you’re saying. I can’t understand you.” On that tune, anyway.
But I think, at that time, things were coming to a head – the EMTs in Mill Valley had regular trips up there, to revive people from overdosing. It wasn’t a healthy environment.
CR: No. And we’ll get into this, in a little bit – but my impression, at least of the Takoma albums was, Norman was doing the best with what he had, which wasn’t much.
DD: I think that’s right, and I think that Norman was really making a concerted effort to really have a production company. CT Productions had been incorporated, it had officers, and a base of operations, and he was working with Takoma, and a few other small labels. He was trying to make a product out of Michael’s creative efforts. And so, you got to give him credit. Because if it hadn’t been for Norman, we may not even have had those records. I think we would have not heard from Michael for the last portion of the ‘70s.
PART III: "MICHAEL WAS NONE OF THESE THINGS"
CR: So, to reel it back to the beginning – as you say, at the beginning of the book, the conflict with his father is certainly one of the major driving forces of his life, I would say.
DD: Yes. I think that’s a very important aspect of Bloomfield’s psyche. Harold Bloomfield was a driven man, a very gifted businessman, and someone, who, along with his brother and his father, Sam Bloomfield, created one of the great kitchenware industries in the country.
And so, this is something that only happens if one is quite committed to (being) very responsible, working round the clock. And he had this son, who was casual, to say the least – about, not only about his school work, but his responsibilities…
CR: His approach to life, for that matter.
DD: Approach to life. And the only thing that seemed to interest him was playing this guitar, this music… It wasn’t the kind of music that he would want his son to play, if he would want his son to be a musician, which he certainly didn’t.
He was a professional boxer, for a period – excellent sportsman, horse rider – and Michael was none of these things. He wasn’t particularly coordinated. He was heavy as a kid, clumsy, he was loud and obnoxious, at times. Harold was taciturn, to a fault.
So right away, father and son did not see eye to eye, and pretty quickly, I think, Michael knew, the bright and sensitive kid he was, realized that his father did not love him, did not care for him, was constantly judging him, and judging him negatively.
As Allen Bloomfield, his brother, told me, Michael never felt his father’s love. And he was always looking for it. And I think that created many issues in his life later, where he felt expectations being put upon him… And he either resisted them, or failed to make them.
CR: Where the gatekeepers of the music business, and the audiences he played for, become a surrogate father that he didn’t feel like satisfying.
DD: Absolutely. And his first manager, Joel Harlib, told me over and over again, that Michael had this weird, insecure side to him, where he could be this egotistical guitar player, who would climb up on the stage with Muddy Waters, at the drop of a hat.
He was also a guy who was really uncomfortable doing a solo set, at Mother Blues. Joel said, “I had to drag him to these few gigs that he would do, so he would have a career that I could manage.”
So he was very insecure about certain aspects of his life. Once he felt that he was not measuring up, and being judged as not measuring up – not only in his family life, but in his professional career – he was really overwhelmed, with feeling the inadequacy.
And I think that had a lot to do with, essentially, his breakdown around the Super Session recording dates, where he flipped out, and could not complete the recording. Then had to be sedated to sleep when they did the live Session (album). I think he really just, basically, had panic attacks a great deal.
CR: Yeah. And as Mark Naftalin says, in the Wolkin book, he would walk away again and again, rather than deal with this stuff.
DD: Yeah. He would retreat to the safety of his room, watch TV, play guitar to the commercials.
CR: When you talk about the (Paul) Butterfield, and the Electric Flag experiences – the one thing they had in common was… Well, first of all, how could the departure of one guy make such a difference? And yet, neither band was really ever the same, after he left. So that’s one thing.
DD: Yes. Good point.
CR: The other thing that occurs to me is, even if they hadn’t overbooked them – as he complained to the press – I’m not sure that he would have stuck around that much longer, anyway.
DD: I think you’re right. He began to resent the direction the band was going in, with (drummer-vocalist) Buddy Miles. He wasn’t real happy about that. Also, as I point out in the book, his marriage had just fallen apart, and that was really a difficult time for him.
Plus, he’d been internationally humiliated in (Ralph J.) Gleason’s “Perspectives” column (in Rolling Stone), where he just said, “Hey, Bloomfield’s a phony. He’s not a black man, he never will be a black man, he’s just pretending to play this stuff. Why doesn’t he play his own stuff?” And I think Michael felt that deeply for years afterwards.
All of that came together – he just had to get out of it, he had to hide away. So, you’re right. I think he would have probably left the Flag at some point, anyway, because that’s what he always seemed to do.
CR: OK. So – once he quits those (two) bands, he’s done the Super Session record, which, on paper, makes him somewhat marketable, as a performer, right? It was his only gold record. It should have been the ideal launch pad to establish him as a solo artist. But that didn’t happen, either. How come?
DD: Well, for the reasons we’ve enumerated. He was an emotional basket case at that point. The best indication of his emotional state was his solo recording, which came out six or eight months after Super Session, It’s Not Killing Me. I mean, it was killing his listeners to listen to it, because it was a very, very painful and personal recording.
I asked Michael Melford, one of the co-producers – “Why did he record those tunes?” Melford said, “Well, he had something he wanted to get off his chest. He wanted to really tell his public what had been going on in his emotional life. You know, he didn’t realize this would be painful for people to listen to.”
CR: And (Bloomfield thought) they would take it for what it was.
DD: Exactly. People were used to hearing Super Session, hearing those Butterfield albums, and that was another Michael Bloomfield they knew, not this guy who’d sing these slow country tunes badly (laughs).
CR: It took him, I think, a few years to come to grips with singing, I would say.
DD: I agree. He was never a natural singer, but he found – certainly, in those recordings that were done at the McCabe’s Guitar Shop, in Santa Monica, in ’77, I think? They’ve come out in a million different guises, but his singing there is really, probably, the best that he ever recorded. He’s together, he’s relaxed, he’s not swinging for the fences. It sounds totally natural.
CR: I love his performances, too, on (Between The) Hard Place And The Ground, where his voice careens through things. It gives it, kind of an odd character, that a more polished singer would not have been able to do.
DD: Yes. It occurred to me, one time, listening to one of his very last recordings, that he sounded quite a bit like Ray Charles, in the way that he approached the vocal, and everything?
DD: I don’t know if Michael was consciously or unconsciously thinking of Ray Charles when he sang – he loved Ray – but it had never occurred to me before, and it gave me insight into what he was trying to do.
CR: I have to say, too, when I started doing my thing, I thought, “OK, if he can get away with it, maybe I can, too” (laughs).
DD: Well, yeah, you could, yes. You know, if it comes from the heart, you can do it.
PART IV: "NOT QUITE WHAT THEY HAD IN MIND"
CR: So, in terms of his addiction, which seems to be the filter through which he made a lot of his choices in life –
CR: What was the gateway? Lack of love from his father, or the culture of the time, which began to get more freewheeling? Because I think it started much earlier than most people surmised.
DD: Allen Bloomfield told me an interesting thing about his brother. They used to be shipped off, in the summers, to these dude ranches, camps out in the Southwest, for a couple of months.
He said that Michael developed this thing they would do there – I think he was probably 10 years old. They’d hyperventilate, then, a friend would grab them around the chest, so they couldn’t inhale. Allen would say, “We’d do this, and you’d see stars – you’d be tripping for 10, 15 seconds. A great high.” Which they didn’t understand was a high, but it just was a thrill.
His brother, loved to do this, just for the sensation, the thrill of it, the excitement of it. The other thing he would do, they would ride the Silver Streak at Riverview Park, which is an amusement park, in Chicago. It was the biggest rollercoaster, and it had an 80-foot drop, the first hill. He said that Michael would time it, to get in the front car. And Michael would stand up, just as they were tipping over the hill, so that he would levitate for a second in the car.
CR: Oh, jeez!
DD: He says, “My brother was totally into these wild, crazy sensations and thrills.” I think it was just built into Michael, that’s just his makeup. He was accelerated, and his personality hyper, most of the time. This was just like a peak experience for him, invariably. So drugs were more of the same, I think, and as long as they came along, he was going to take advantage of it.
CR: And in a sense, it was just an extension of his natural brain chemistry, then?
DD: I think that’s true, I really do. But now, it’s interesting, because it didn’t extend to alcohol, not until very late in his life.
CR: And so, now, to open this theme a little further – was Michael bipolar? There’s speculation in the Wolkin book, to that extent.
DD: Well, Allen thinks he was. And Allen also thinks their father, Harold, had issues.
CR: To put it mildly.
DD: Yes. Well, he manifested them in a different way. But I talked with the head of the Psychology Department at Rutgers, who was a fan of Bloomfield’s. I laid out Bloomfield’s personality traits, what I knew of his medical experiences, and this doctor said he really wasn’t convinced that Bloomfield was bipolar in the classic sense.
CR: Why not?
DD: He thought, he might have been OCD, or some other clinical definition – which, I apologize, I don’t have this right in front of me. It’s fairly technical.
CR: Sure. But, at any rate, he didn’t buy it.
DD: He wasn’t convinced. Not being able to actually examine Michael, he couldn’t say for certain. But so, obviously, Bloomfield had lengthy periods of mania, and didn’t have the accompanying depression, which is usually an indication of bipolar condition. At least, there’s not much evidence of Michael having the low moods – he was hyper all the time.
CR: No. But I would say, the OCD part fits. Especially, when we talk about things like that incident in Canada, where all he’s thinking about – he wants to watch that (PBS) TV show he’s on!
DD: Yes (laughs). Correct.
CR: He bitches to the performers. He rushes through the performance, so he can get back in time (to fiddle with his hotel room’s TV set) – this is extraordinary behavior, for sure.
DD: Right, absolutely. And it resulted in him abandoning his signature instrument. The interesting thing is, he never mentioned it again. That guitar, it’s just disappeared, completely off the face of the earth.
So Bloomfield had, I think, obsessive qualities. And he very much had an active mind. He couldn’t calm himself down. That was a large part of his issue. That’s, of course, why he liked heroin, and later, Placidyl.
CR: And, of course, the other issue was his discomfort, and his absolute dislike of going on the road, too, right?
DD: Yes, because he couldn’t sleep.
CR: Well, having been on my book tour with Mark last summer (for We Are The Clash), I thought, “I can empathize completely.” (DD laughs.) And when you do yours, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
DD: I’m sure I will (laughs). Yeah, well, that’s a good insight. Imagine –Bloomfield had been doing it for two and a half years, by the time he quit the Flag. Even gone abroad, and done it with Butterfield – and the tour they did there was rigorous, to say the least. I mean, they slept on the bus, some of the time, they were just dragged here and there. Well, it’s a young man’s game, obviously.
CR: I imagine, that was where a lot of the drug stuff came in. Because you were using it as a tool, just to sort of get through it.
DD: Absolutely. I talked to a couple of guys who played with Michael, in the early ‘60s, on the North Shore of Chicago, and these were older musicians – and they told me quite a bit about amphetamine use, that it was extremely common. You took a couple of pills before the set, and that would get you through the night. And then, you’d take a pill to go to sleep, and you’d repeat that routine seven days a week.
And some of these guys had been doing it for years and years, so, the rigors – and these were people who weren’t on the road. They were just working a local gig. You can see that it’s arduous, it’s really difficult.
CR: What was the moment, for all practical purposes, that he became box office poison to a major label?
DD: Well, he famously did an interview with the LA Times, just prior to the release of the album that he had recorded with Barry Goldberg, and Ric Grech, and Carmen Appice, called KGB.
And Michael said, basically, “This whole scam, I don’t know these guys, the company says we’ve been dying to play with each other, and we’re creating wonderful music.” He said, “We go in the studio, I have no connection to these people whatsoever, I have no idea why I’m doing this, I’m just doing it for the money. It’s all hype and more music industry shenanigans.”
The was published, pretty much verbatim, what he said – and as you might imagine, the label (MCA), was outraged. So Bloomfield wrote a letter, resigning from the band, and later said, “I probably shouldn’t have said all that stuff, that was stupid, what I did,” although what he said was true (laughs).
His records prior to this hadn’t really been selling at all. But now, he was not only a guy who wouldn’t tour, and wasn’t producing hit records, but a guy likely to turn on, to attack his parent company in public. And nobody wanted to deal with him anymore. That was pretty much the end of his major label recording opportunities.
CR: And yet – right after that, you could argue, he gets into a sustained period of creativity and focus, from the Guitar Player record, to Andy’s Bad, and Analine, the all-acoustic album, his first album for Takoma.
DD: I would agree with that. He said, at the time, he had developed this aesthetic that was his own. He called it his “set of Bloomfield criteria.” He realized he didn’t have to play music that had commercial appeal.
He didn’t have to play music that pleased his manager, or his record label, should he have a record label. He could just play what he wanted to play. He didn’t even care if he pleased the audience. And I think he had been greatly impressed by Randy Newman, and by Ry Cooder. He saw those guys making their own kind of music, in their own way, not really worrying about the standards of the industry or what was selling, what wasn’t selling. And that really impressed him.
And that’s why he showed up at Radio City Music Hall, to play the Newport Jazz Festival, the opening night, for the midnight blues show. Bloomfield’s introduced, and the crowd goes wild, because there are so many fans who knew him from the Electric Flag, and Butterfield days, and he very rarely was in New York.
He comes out with a couple of acoustic guitars, sits down on a chair, in the center of this huge, 100-foot stage, and proceeds to play these acoustic blues numbers. Everybody, at first, is like, “What the hell?” No one knew what he was doing.
DD: They were charmed by it, because Michael is such a good player, but then, he played two or three other numbers acoustically, and people began to get restless. Mike Michaels, who was playing harp with him – a friend, from the Hyde Park days – said he could hear people shouting for (songs from) Super Session.
And Bloomfield’s just plucking away on the stage, playing whatever he wanted to play, and that was the first time he did that. And he did that more and more, so that he would always do an acoustic set, sometimes on piano, then bring out the electric band. Toward the end, he was just doing solo sets himself. That played well with some people, but a lot of people in his audience did not understand what he was doing, and that made it…
CR: Yeah, and I think you make some pretty perceptive comments in your book about that, that it could be a rough ride, because he didn’t necessarily explain what he was always about to play.
DD: No, he didn’t put in the context. Even as late as 1980, when he played Washington, D.C., with Woody Harris, and played the acoustic gospel music – the reviewer said, “Everybody was like, ‘Where’s his amps? Where’s the drummer? What’s going on? We don’t understand. This is Michael Bloomfield, the Super Session god.’”
CR: Of course, he didn’t want to be the guitar god anymore, and people deep down, (were) hoping he would be.
DD: Absolutely. Everybody was hoping, “Well, maybe the old fire will come back, and we’ll have Michael Bloomfield again.” But it did not happen.
CR: Exactly, so… Well, we could argue the Takoma relationship arose by necessity, as much as anything else, because nobody else would have been interested in letting him go down that path, right?
DD: I think you’re right. Takoma was issuing lots of acoustic music, and folk music, as well as blues. They were following the path of the early independent record labels of the ‘60s, like Vanguard, and Elektra. And they put out lots of really good records. Some of Bloomfield’s records are good.
CR: So, well, let’s get to that, then. Where does Norman fit into that picture? As we’ve mentioned, he’s fairly polarizing. And to some fans, those records are fairly polarizing, too. People either seem to like them, or not like them.
DD: I think everyone pretty much agrees that they were not quite up to the standard that one expected from Bloomfield, with his talent, and his musical vision. But they were also created on a budget, and at a fairly chaotic time in Michael’s life. Norman had left Chess Records, after the death of Leonard Chess, and it was bought by GRT. And he came out West, and was teaching one of the first audio engineering courses.
CR: Right, as I documented.
DD: Yes, yes. But I think that wasn’t really paying the bills all that well. I think he realized that Michael could take control of his own art. That was the motivation – he was going to help his friend get his music out, but they were going to make some money doing it.
CR: Right, and as you alluded to earlier, he hoped to establish himself as a go-to producer for that kind of thing.
DD: Yes. Yeah, that’s right.
CR: Like I said, I think he did the best with what he had. Which wasn’t much.
DD: I agree. I think you’re right. As you reported in your interview with him, he got $2,000 to record, and then, they spent another $2,000 on production, to actually manufacture the records. But that was it. That was their budget.
CR: I mean, even in the ‘70s, that wasn’t much money, really.
DD: No, you were working with Columbia…Or some of the other (major) labels, which Michael had been. The only time that Michael and CT Productions was working with a real budget was when they recorded the Count Talent album, for TK.
CR: Yeah, and that was $50,000, I think, is the figure Norman quoted.
DD: That’s right. But that was the exception. I mean, that was very unusual.
CR: Because you had somebody that was actually prepared to sink that kind of money into it. Although, as you document, even then, they were less than happy, and they made them go back and redo things, right?
DD: Yes, they tried to remix the recording. But that is an odd record.
CR: It really is. Not without its charms, though. And I thought it was his weakest, although now, I think there’s actually a pretty good double EP trying to get out.
DD: I think that’s right, yeah.
CR: I like his vocal on “Saturday Night.” I like “You Was Wrong.” I like Nick’s song, “Bad Man,” that’s exceptional. He did a good job on that. “Sammy Knows How To Party,” I’ll put on there, too, because it’s so weird, and so unusual, and knowing that it’s about Sammy Davis, I think, “Okay. Now I know what he meant.”
DD: Yeah, but without that context, it is weird.
CR: It is weird, and it doesn’t make sense, right. I would agree with you on that. Those particular ones, I think, are the standouts. Maybe one of the Bob Jones cuts (“Let The People Dance,” “Love Walk”), too. Those were pretty good semi-disco records for the time.
DD: Yeah, the playing is good. It just, it’s certainly not what TK was looking for, because they wanted to launch their Clouds label as a rock ‘n’ roll label.
CR: Right, and he comes back with, as you said, celebrations of rhythm and movement. Not quite what they had in mind.
DD: Not quite what they had in mind, no, that’s true.
PART V: "IT'S A GREAT RELEASE"
CR: So, when we get to the end of that (Takoma) period, marking the downward slope of Michael’s life – could he could have gotten himself out of that? Why didn’t he get better? Why didn’t he make the effort?
DD: Part of it was, that he was surrounded by lot of drug users, heroin users, people who needed things from him. Woody Harris said he was astonished, when they were recording the gospel record… how people took advantage of Michael. They just manipulated him, and were constantly pestering him for various…
CR: Like hitting him up for money?
DD: For money, or a place to stay. So his home environment was just…
DD: Chaotic and toxic, to some degree. So you try to be creative, in an environment like that, and you also are dealing with pretty unsettling emotional stuff. His relationship with Christie Svane was probably the best thing he had in his life at that time.
CR: Yeah, but he couldn’t make the effort (to clean up) even for her, really.
DD: No. He tried, but… And the claim was, at the end of his life, he was cleaning up, getting himself together, and looking healthy. And that he was encouraged, because he was pretty sure that they were going to get married, and he was very excited about that.
CR: So that house must have been like a train station.
DD: I think it was. There were a lot of people in and out, all the time. Chris McDougal, who was Michael’s assistant during the Flag days, said that during that period, and afterward, there would be guys just banging on the door night and day.
There’d be junkies from down in the city, looking for a fix – they were strung out -- or there guys looking to sell whatever they had on hand, psychedelics, or narcotics... That’s a pretty rigorous environment for even a healthy person to deal with, and Michael was not, emotionally, in good shape.
He was drinking toward the end, way to excess, and I actually have a recording of Michael, singing and playing, when I can only think that he’s really, completely knackered, and it’s pretty terrible.
CR: It’s excruciating, I imagine.
DD: It is, yeah – and yet, the playing still is, like, “Wow! Boy, this is really great.” But I also think that Michael was charming. He was a charming guy, even when he was loaded – and that was one way he was able to move in certain circles on the South Side, or the West Side, or to hang out with Polish polka bands, because he could just talk his way into anything.
So when he’s up on stage, in the last portion of his life, and he’s clearly inebriated, and he’s not quite together, he does have this kind of boyish charm that I’ve seen, over and over again, in videos from that period.
CR: Yeah, even on those Italian shows, where the crowd could get fairly difficult.
DD: Yes, exactly! That’s one thing I was thinking of, too. Those were painful, those shows.
CR: But let’s turn it around. What if he had lived? Because (in) the ‘80s, if your name wasn’t Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Robert Cray, you were in for a bumpy ride (DD laughs), really. Well, they were the only two, in my mind, who survived it.
DD: That’s true, if you were going to play in that style. I doubt, very much, that Michael would have been playing that way. If he’d gotten himself cleaned up, somehow gotten his home life together, and got into the hands of a responsible and capable producer, who wasn’t his best friend, and party mate, which Norman was, to some degree…
CR: Right. Yes.
DD: I think he would have done very much what Ry Cooder did, which is, explore different kinds of music. He would have played electric on occasion, but he certainly never would have been in the category of Stevie Ray, or played like that, anyway. I think those days were long gone, and I don’t think he had any regrets about that.
CR: Right, although I’ve seen some things online, which mentioned that, supposedly, he was suffering from arthritis in his hands those last couple years. Did you find any documentation of that?
DD: Yes. In ’76, I believe it was, he was in the hospital, in the summer, for an operation on his thumb. He didn’t say what that was, but I have him on tape saying he’d just gotten out of the hospital for that treatment. I think he probably had a bone spur … I don’t know if that was arthritis, but he did have a problem with one of his hands.
And I speculated for awhile, maybe, that’s why he played so much slide, because his fingers were hurting, toward the end of his career. But (Mark) Nafatlin said to me that he was not aware of Michael ever having any pain in his fingers.
But the way he played, I can’t imagine that he would not have had some physical difficulty on occasion. Just add the intenseness, the intense way he played, particularly with Butterfield…
CR: Yeah. Right. It’s fairly demanding music, right?
DD: Absolutely, and people don’t realize that. As a guitar player yourself, and I am, too – you got to be in good physical shape to play like that.
CR: You do. That part is not negotiable.
DD: Yeah, and so, it wouldn’t surprise me if he had trouble with his fingers.
CR: But you didn’t actually find anything one way or the other, then?
DD: The only thing I know is that he was in the hospital for a procedure on his hand. But I don’t know – it doesn’t sound like that was arthritis. It sounds more like a bone spur, or something…
CR: But when we look back, what do you think his legacy is? For a non-listener, a non-initiate coming late to the party – where they should they start?
DD: Well, they should start with the first Butterfield record. That’s a really good place to start. The tunes are short, the soloing is intense, the playing is first-rate, and that’s how people learned about Bloomfield’s talent.
But I think Michael’s real contribution is that he was a guy who was an amalgamator. He brought together disparate musical styles, and created something more out of them. He took blues, and infused it with rock, sort of a rock sensibility, where the soloing was intense, and it was loud, fast, and exciting, and it was long.
There was that aspect of jazz, Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders taking a 20-minute solo, well, Bloomfield would take a 20-minute solo. No other rock guitar players ever did that. They had 15 or 20 seconds of solo, before the singer came back. But Bloomfield would wail, he would just go. So that was part of it.
And then, of course, taking a bastardization of Indian music, and adding that to the mix, for “East-West,” then, getting into soul music and other world music styles, with the Electric Flag …I like to kick around the idea that Bloomfield’s playing with Butterfield, and later, with the Flag, pointed jazz in the direction of fusion. Because fusion was largely driven by guitars. I think that Michael had a hand in setting the stage for that.
So I see him as somebody who helped pop music to grow up, from the early ‘60s formulaic stuff, to a music where you not only rocked out, but also listened. And, of course, brought blues to the greater consciousness of the American listening public, which was a huge contribution. And pretty much shaped the sound of rock for a good portion of the ‘70s, certainly, the late ‘60s.
CR: Well, and “Another Country” always struck me as the logical sequel to “East-West.”
DD: Absolutely, yes. And it’s sort of like “East-West,” using the studio as an instrument, in addition to the musicians.
CR: Yeah, I actually got introduced to it by, The Best Of The Electric Flag, on eight-track, of all things.
DD: Wow! That’s great.
CR: Yeah. But, as a teenage boy, I remember, when it got to that free-form interlude, my head was completely blown apart. “Wow,” I thought, “this was radical, even for 1967.”
DD: Well, it wasn’t the first time that had happened. But it was within six months of the first time, or seven months. That record is probably my favorite Bloomfield record, just because it encapsulates so many different ideas, and so many different styles. And it’s got some great pop tunes on it, it’s got great soloing, and –
CR: It’s got great everything, really.
CR: And to go back to “Another Country” – what’s exciting, once they blow your mind, with the free-form barrage, and then, how he leads the band back out of it.
DD: It’s a great release.
CR: It is.
DD: And it’s very similar to what he does in “East-West,” with the melodic portion, the third portion… Where you get this intense aural assault going on, and suddenly, boom, it all drops out, and it’s just Bloomfield in rhythm. And it’s, wow!
CR: Exactly. So, yeah, that is masterful. Because, as we know, that kind of thing, especially back then, was pretty deadly when it fell into the wrong hands.
DD: Yes (laughs), that’s certainly true.
CR: Of the later things that he did, what would you recommend? The Guitar Player record, perhaps, if they can get it?
DD: Yes, that would be a good place to start. There’s some exceptional playing on it. I love “Thrift Shop Rag,” that just knocks me out every time I hear it. Some of the other tunes, as well – “Death In My Family,” that’s great. It’s all good. So, yes, that would be the record, I think. (Between The) Hard Place (And The Ground) would be good, too. That’s an excellent recording.
CR: I always enjoyed that.
DD: Yeah, it is good. You know, what’s interesting, too – is that three of the tunes on there are not from the (Old) Waldorf.
CR: Yeah, they’re studio creations, right?
DD: They were recorded for Columbia. And I think Norman just purloined them. They were supposed to be on Try It Before You Buy It, Bloomfield’s second solo album. I guess Norman had to fill out the rest of the record, and he said, “Oh, we got this tape, let’s throw it on there, so…”
CR: Which is surprising, considering how much stuff he did record of them (live), that he couldn’t find enough to fill that record out, right?
DD: It is surprising, but I think he also thought that those were good tunes, and – as I quoted him (saying) in the book, “We were done working with the corporate people. It was Michael’s stuff, and we were gonna put it out.”
CR: Yeah, and that definitely makes sense to me. Because, if you had gone to see him in that time period, those are songs he probably would have been playing anyway, right?
DD: Yes, I think so, yeah.
CR: So, what do you think is next for you? What are you kind of looking at down the road, if anything? Or is this (book) going to be it for awhile, you think?
DD: Well, it’ll be it for a bit of time, but I would love to do a detailed history of the Chicago music scene, starting around 1955, and going up to, maybe 1967, ’68, after Big John’s closed. There was so much stuff going on at that time, and it had such a huge effect on the national scene, by the end of the ‘60s.
The guys from Chicago, or who had been through Chicago, were making huge success and affecting the sound of pop music. Nobody’s talked about those early days, and all the guys in Old Town, the clubs there, who was playing, and who was down on the South Side. That would be a fascinating story.
CR: All right. I think we’ve basically covered what we need to cover – unless you can think of something I’ve forgot.
DD: No, I think you’ve hit all the bases, and then some – I appreciate it. Very good. This has been really terrific. I really appreciate your taking the time, and investing in this interview. I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of covering Mr. Bloomfield on his birthday.
Special thanks to David, and also, Joel Pinckney, University of Texas Press, for images, press materials, and a copy of the book!
Michael Bloomfield: An American Guitarist:
Every now and then, you run across a book that urges: "Take me home, now! You won't regret it!"
Beautiful Music is that book. I became aware of it last year, while doing my book tour for We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher & The Last Stand of a Band That Mattered. As I told author Michael Zadoorian, the moment I spotted the phrase, "the guitar- and drum-heavy songs of local legends like the MC5 and Iggy Pop," I told myself, I gotta find out more about this one.
Or, to put it another way, as much as I enjoyed High Fidelity -- a book that's already popped up as a logical comparison point -- it didn't feel like a world that I inhabited. Which doesn't mean, I didn't like it, or wouldn't read it again. I just yearned for a more immediate world, one closer to my own experience, that would make all this music nerd stuff seem worthwhile.
Part of that motivation, obviously, is personal. That started in the summer of 1980, on picking up a bargain price copy of the Five's incendiary debut live album, Kick Out The Jams (1969). For a teenage boy, it came off as the perfect riposte to an increasingly corporatized Top 40 pop world, whose emissaries sounded tired and turgid, next to the rapid fire clusters of notes that "Brother" Wayne Kramer unleashed on his guitar.
That album, in turn, opened the gateway to the remainder of the MC5's output, plus the plethora of live bootleg CDs, LPs and tapes that, grungry and lo-fi as they often sound, are an essential aspect of the story. Simply put, if you've only heard the "approved" version of a song like "Looking At You," then you haven't gotten the whole story. (Or, for that matter, the locally-issued 45 that preceded any recordings, along with "I Can Only Give You Everything," and "One Of The Guys" -- but I digress.)
In 1995, I wrote -- more or less, back to back -- two massive retrospectives of the MC5 and the Stooges for DISCoveries and Goldmine, respectively, an experience that put me in touch with the people responsible for this great music that proved so important to my formative years. Most of those encounters occurred on the phone, but not all of them -- to this day, I treasure my meetings with Wayne Kramer, and Dennis Thompson, Ron and Scott Asheton, as well as John Sinclair, whose contributions cannot be overlooked, even if the powers that be -- especially the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame -- hope you continue to do that, and just let them have their way.
In the process, I also talked to many of the movers and shakers who helped both bands do what they did well -- Danny Fields, Ron Richardson, Scott Richardson, Leni Sinclair, Jimmy Silver, the list goes on and on -- and periodically wrote about the music, off and on.
But that's only part of the story driving Beautiful Music, which focuses on Danny Yzemski, a pop radio-loving loner struggling to find himself in a city racked by racial turbulence in the aftermath of the 1967 riots. That struggle feels deeper and lonelier after Danny's father dies suddenly, leaving him to cope with a dysfunctional home life, and freshman year at a high school whose classmates seem several steps behind the cultural curve.
As Danny's mother "tries to hold it together with the help of Librium, highballs, and breakfast cereal," our press release states, "Danny finds his own reason to carry on: rock and roll." That sounded like the perfect place to start with the author, Michael Zadoorian, and explore his rationales for writing Beautiful Music, and how he went about the job. Our conversation (3/07/19) follows below.
TAKE I: "FOR ME, CREEM WAS EVERYTHING"
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): Obviously, Detroit rock is a pretty important subtext in Beautiful Music. Did you actually see (artists like) Iggy and the MC5 live? Or did you come along later, like your hero?
MICHAEL ZADOORIAN (MZ): That (subtext of music) was really a conscious choice, I think, on my part. I did come along later, and so did the character of Danny, whose age pretty much parallels mine.
Certainly, that heyday of the Grande Ballroom, the MC5, the Stooges, and the summer of 1967, when Detroit was basically on fire. Those kind of things, they sort of echo throughout the book, and I meant them to be a presence. Because the presence of all those things just changed that particular period in Detroit, and Detroit music, the city and the attitudes.
So it was real important to me to do that. You had people that are well-known now, playing teen clubs in Detroit, or high school gymnasiums. I mean, I (recently) talked to somebody who saw the Who at Southfield High School, in 1967, ’68, or something like that.
CR: Sure, and I can remember people in college telling me, “Wow, those were the days! You could see Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger on the same bill, for 75 cents.”
MZ: Yeah, I don’t doubt that a bit (laughs). It was a pretty amazing time in Detroit’s musical history, and that’s not even talking about any of the other stuff going on – WCKLW, and obviously, Motown, all that stuff. It was a pretty exciting time, if you were old enough to be part of it, and conscious of it.
CR: And, of course, you have the rise of alternative culture, which you nod to, in your book – the head shops, CREEM magazine, and stuff like that, too.
MZ: Absolutely, yeah. I went to the same high school that Danny went to, Redford High. I remember waiting at the bus stop, and seeing little newspaper boxes filled with The Fifth Estate. That was some radical shit back then.
But, for me, CREEM was everything. That was obviously before the Internet, and if you were just a little music nerd, that’s where you went: “Yeah, the new CREEM is out!” It was just about trying to learn things, find out about other bands, who influenced who, and all that stuff.
CR: So what inspired Beautiful Music? Just being part of that culture, soaking it up, maybe wanting to pay tribute to it, in some way – since it was obviously a pretty important part of your formative years, right?
MZ: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was. It was interesting, because I started off writing something about an adult. And it just seemed to fascinate me: “Jeez, am I writing a YA (young adult) novel here (laughs)?” I said, “Well, whatever it is I’m writing, I like where it’s going, and I think I’m just going to explore this.”
There are definitely some autobiographical elements to the book, a fair number of them. Having just talked about the book in front of people, I realized that, in a lot of ways, rock ‘n’ roll affected me intellectually, which is, of course, not really how rock ‘n’ roll’s supposed to affect you (laughs)!
MZ: Being that little music nerd, combing through issue after issue of CREEM, and Rolling Stone, and Circus, and Crawdaddy, and all those – Melody Maker, when I could get ahold of it – I just kept learning about things, learning about stuff that was ancillary to rock ‘n’ roll, but still so important.
CREEM’s where I found out about the Beats, about Charles Bukowski, Lester Bangs, and Hunter S. Thompson, and the Rolling Stones, actually – and ultimately, that stuff, rock ‘n’ roll, and everything I read about it affected me in a greater way than I ever realized. In a lot of ways, it’s part of what led me to become a writer. So I think that was one of the…
CR: Key influences in that direction.
MZ: Yeah. I think that was one of the things that led me to keep going on this. Any time you write something that feels autobiographical, things like this sometimes become a way for you to investigate your own past – and kind of a way to explore, maybe, how you became the adult that you ultimately became.
CR: Yeah, because it’s, in many ways, it’s a coming of age story, like, The Catcher In The Rye. Except this would be the more “Downriver” version of it.
MZ: Absolutely, that’s totally right (laughs).
CR: I was either thinking, when I finished it, “OK. We finally got somebody who gave us the Downriver version of High Fidelity, or Catcher In The Rye, or some combination of both.”
MZ: Well, I’ll give you another one, too. This is something I’ve said at events, it’s not real literary to say, but I wanted to write my own Almost Famous, too, of Detroit, where no one was famous. And it was going to be a little more gritty, a little more down river, a little more bright noir, I guess.
CR: Well, to me, Detroit was always a place I thought people were semi-famous. That’s how I look at it.
MZ: Well, that’s true, too. If you want to look at a Bob Seger, he’s the perfect definition of semi-famous. He knocked around Detroit, and the Midwest, and was a regional favorite for so long, just trying so hard to break out. Then finally, it just happened. But I think that it really wore heavily upon him, that he was so close to breaking out, and find a bigger audience, and it just kept not happening.
CR: Well, look at what these guys from the MC5 and the Stooges went through. Because it took about 25 years for their time to come again.
MZ: And even then, it was just, sort of little whispers of it. To me, it’s only been in the past 10 or 15 years that Detroit, the MC5, and the Stooges have been heralded as the progenitors of punk rock…
CR: That they are.
MZ: Yeah, and it’s finally starting to be recognized. Certainly not by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, or anything like that.
CR: Did you go and see the MC 50 tour? What did you think?
MZ: You know something? I guess I was just pretty damn thrilled to be there, and I had met Wayne Kramer, by that time, just briefly. But I tried to get him to blurb the book, and I’d been in touch with his wife, who’s super nice. Then she’s like, “I’m trying to get Wayne to write the book!” Later, I found out, he was writing The Hard Stuff at the exact same time I was hounding him, and his wife hounding him to maybe do a blurb for it (Beautiful Music), but…
CR: But you caught him unwittingly at his busiest year, probably, in decades.
MZ: Absolutely. That’s exactly what happened, and later, I got to meet him. Then, actually, he did finally get around to reading the book, and he just Tweeted me: “Oh, I’m lovin’ the book!” And it was like, “Okay, that’s pretty awesome, when an original member of the MC5, Tweets you, and tells you that he loves your book.”
CR: I went to see them in Grand Rapids, actually, with some of my friends. I mean, Wayne was pretty sharp, to begin with, but I was amazed at how much sharper and fluid he was, on guitar, and everybody with him (onstage) did exactly the right thing. They paid tribute to those songs, and put some of their own personalities onto the proceedings.
MZ: Yes, totally, totally agree. It was cool. And I was glad to see at least a version of them, doing it, obviously.
TAKE II: "THAT WAS THE REVOLUTION"
CR: What other changes did you make, as you were starting to write? Seems like, when we do fiction, there always are a few of them.
MZ: Yeah, absolutely. The more I wrote – I didn’t realize how important it would be, that it took place in those years after the ’67 rebellion.
It was an uncomfortable time, in a lot of ways, in Detroit, if you were at a high school in a neighborhood were things changing – and that wound up becoming more and more important in the book, as I kept writing it, and that notion of all this amazing music in the air in the late ‘60s or ‘70s.
There were radio stations that were pretty iconic, (like) WABX – and the influence of WCKLW, too, which was probably the most integrated radio station of all, at least musically. That wound up becoming an important thing in the book, where all the music in the air collided with everything else in the air, like, fear, hate, and racism, and…
CR: Kind of a lot like the climate today.
MZ: Yeah, yeah, it really was. And I realized, “I got to write about that part, too, and have it be a part of this.” That’s when the book started to (feel), “Okay, this is at least something that will, I hope, maybe elevate it a bit just above a coming of age novel. If nothing else, it’s at least a Detroit coming of age novel.”
By the way, I love coming of age novels, myself. So that became important for the book, where the music met what else was in the air, and that was when I felt like the book really started to coalesce, at least for me.
CR: How long did it actually take you to write (Beautiful Music), and shape it?
MZ: Good question, let’s see. The first draft probably took me 10 months, and then, I think, revisions and rewrites for the next year, and correct it, a little bit… so, probably about two years. I probably finished it about 2015.
It was interesting when my agent was shopping the book around. I could tell, from a publisher who I had worked with in the past – they seemed interested, but we talked, and I got a weird vibe. They wanted to turn some things down, and turn some other things up. And we both walked away from that meeting, thinking, “No, I don’t think this is gonna work!” (laughs)
One of the things that some people have pointed out, and honestly, I didn’t even notice it – often, in coming of age stories, there’s a romantic, peg, hook. And there’s nothing really like that [in Beautiful Music]. Certain things happen, but, for him, the love story is ingrained in the music.
That’s everything, that’s what helps him to survive, and it is what helps him to sort of discover himself, and also, I think, ultimately becomes his agent of change: “This is the direction I want my life to go.”
CR: Absolutely. And, in terms of where you ended up – I think you ended up in the right place.
MZ: Good. That’s where you hope, at least, you fall – that’s always a dicey thing with a novel, too, timing that arrival place. And I feel good about it, knowing that in Danny’s case, the music continues to be the thing that nourishes him.
And I realize that, well, the other shit that’s not gonna get solved – his mother, that’s not gonna get any better (laughs). Detroit’s race relations – that’s probably not gonna get any better, for awhile, anyway. So that felt like, [music] was the revolution. That was his revolution.
CR: So then, the million dollar question – will there be a sequel, or is it part of something bigger, like a franchise, or a trilogy? Because the point where you end, seems like it could lend itself to that.
MZ: Well (laughs)…
CR: Well (laughs)…
MZ: Well, you know, I’m working on something right now… It’s kind of a continuation of Danny’s story. I mean, it ends in 1974, and that was 45 years ago. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with it – which is, I guess, my modus operandi, anyway (laughs). I’m just going to continue writing until something makes sense. It kind of appealed to me, to check in on him, and find out. So it may be further along the road, than would be considered appropriate in an actual sequel.
But, yeah, I feel like I’m still engaged with him, somehow, though I’ve written another book in the meantime, and have another book coming out with Akashic next year, which is not at all related to this, other than, it’s very Detroit-centric. We’re still working on the actual title.
It’s absolutely fiction. It takes place in the Detroit of about 10 years ago, when we were really in the shitter (laughs). It’s that time, but it’s about an aging artist, and creative people in Detroit, and the arts…
CR: Oh, wow.
MZ: But there’s always been a thriving arts scene, and some of it’s about that. It is about being a creative person, as you approach middle age, and the choices you make, the compromises you need to make, in order to survive, so…
CR: There you go. Well, and depending on how you continue Danny’s story, you got to get Sonic’s Rendezvous in the mix somewhere.
MZ: Ah, interesting.
CR: Yeah. Because I’ve been listening to a lot of that stuff recently, and as far as I’m concerned, people still really haven’t caught up with what Fred and company were doing, really. It still sounds light years ahead of a lot of stuff today, even.
MZ: Yeah, that’s very interesting. This is related, yet unrelated. I was running my bike with some friends around, I think it’s Elmwood Cemetery, the one right downtown, where Fred is buried. Even his tombstone is interesting – it’s a piece of slate, basically, driven into the ground, kind of splitting the earth. I don’t know, it’s just so nice to see him getting at least a taste of the recognition that he should be getting.
TAKE III: "GET TO THE END OF SOMETHING"
CR: OK, so, that being said – what advice would you give (aspiring authors), if they were actually willing to listen, which they usually aren’t?
MZ: Hey, dude, it’s funny you should say that (laughs). Somebody who taught a class in art, pretty much said the same thing yesterday… and he was like, no one wanted any criticism, they just wanted to be praised.
CR: Yeah. But assuming they would listen, what would you tell them?
MZ: Well, first and foremost, I would just say, you have to be persistent. You have to do the work, and you can’t be discouraged. I remember one of my writing teachers talked about it: “There’s so many good writers that get discouraged and give up, because it’s hard.” The literary world never stops humbling you, in a lot of ways. It will kick your ass over and over again.
I mean, I have three novels out, and there is nine years between my first one, and nine years between my second and third one. And between both of those, or all of those books, there was a period of, “Why the fuck am I doing this?”
It was hard, and full of rejection, and despair. I don’t mean to paint such a bleak picture of it. It’s just, it’s fucking hard, so you really have to just be doing it because you want to, and because it means something to you. So be persistent.
You do it as much as you can. I write, pretty much Monday to Friday, and try to write a certain number of pages a day. I’m not saying it’s genius, or anything. A lot of times, it’s, “I had to write something today, so I’m gonna write.” And I think, “Oh, my God, this is such garbage, right?”
The next day, it’s, “Yeah, a lot of this is garbage, but here’s a little piece of something that’s interesting,” and sometimes, it just takes you off into a direction that you hadn’t dreamed of, and that winds up becoming an important part, so…
CR: That’s the magic of it.
MZ: Yeah, you know? I mean, people will wind up [saying], “You read this?” What they really want is for you to say, “This is genius! I’m sending it off to my agent! And I’m sure this is a ticket to stardom.” And that’ll never happen. I’ve had four books published, and I don’t have enough juice with anybody to get anything, I’m still hustling myself.
Sometimes, you can offer somebody an encouraging word, if you say, “Yeah, I think this is good, keep doing it.” But there’s no substitution (for) doing the work, and being persistent really is the one thing that I think has gotten me through it.
My one teacher, Charles Baxter, just said, “So many good people just give up.” It’s a part of the equation for getting something out into the world: having the persistence, and believing in yourself enough, which is a very hard part of that, and an essential part of it, I think, too. There have been periods where I haven’t been able to write – I’ve been sick and depressed.
CR: Do you juggle this with a day job, or not, at this point? Because that’s always an issue for people.
MZ: Absolutely. I had a good situation for many, many years. I worked in advertising as a copywriter. I was freelancing, and somebody said, “Oh, well, wanna come work here?” And I was like, “You know, I can work part-time.” “Well, I don’t know, what are you thinking?” “I wanna work afternoons, Monday to Friday.”
I did that over two decades, at a place in the Detroit area. I would write fiction in the morning, then go in and make a living in the afternoon. I kept waiting for them to catch on and fire me. They did not catch on, so I did that for a long ass time. Then finally, about three years ago…I left.
I’ve been surviving since then, and stuff has happened. A novel got made into a film, so that helped (laughs). That was a book called The Leisure Seeker, got made into a film last year with Helen Mirren, and Donald Sutherland.
I wouldn’t say it was a mammoth hit, or anything like that, but with a couple of high profile movie stars in there, it got some attention, did okay, and…
CR: Generated enough to tide you over, as the saying goes.
MZ: Yeah, it helped. But, I’ve been extremely lucky, in many ways. You have to realize – I’ve got some novels published, and somebody’s made a friggin’ movie of one of them, which was never the intent. It was all hard enough to just get anyone to want to make a book out of it…
CR: Sure, sure. Never mind a film.
MZ: Yeah, never mind a film (laughs): “Oh, please, make a book out of it!”
CR: But I have to say, what attracted me to your book was: “OK, MC5 and Iggy, I can get behind this.” Then I thought, “It’s good to see somebody flying the flag for this kind of writing.” Because a lot of people I know, they’ve resigned themselves to cranking out stuff that they’re not interested in: “Fiction? Well, I could never really do that.”
Whereas, at some point, I want to get into it, because I had a realization – and maybe you did, too, way back when – “Wait a minute! I’ve told everybody else’s story, it’s about time I told a few of my own.” That make sense?
MZ: Yeah, it totally makes sense! Gosh, there is no reason why you can’t. I mean, I think that’s a really intelligent way of looking at it, too: “Why can’t I just tell my own story, or tell a story that I just want to tell, too? And something that interests me.”
Whenever I’ve tried to write anything that I didn’t ultimately believe in, or care about, it’s been a miserable failure (laughs). I think people that write about music and art and culture are driven by a lot of the same desires, compulsions that drive fiction writers, too. I really do have to write about something that obsesses me.
A writer friend of mine said, “When you write a novel, you find out what your obsessions are.” It’s a good way of putting things, because it’s an idea that (your) obsession is that compulsion – because you have to. I mean, it’s a lot of writing.
It’s a lot of work to write a novel, and you need to, more than anyone else, as a writer, feel that desire to keep going, going even deeper. If I could add one more tip to the beginning writer?
MZ: Get to the end. Get to the end of something. Get to the end of the short story, get to the end of a novel. Even if it feels like total crap, just keep working until you get to the end. Then you at least have a chance to figure out what that book is about, and what it is you’re actually trying to say.
I don’t think you really know it, until you’ve at least written that last page, and then you can look at the book as a whole. Because I know a lot of writers will get caught up in, “Oh, I wrote a chapter of my novel today!”
And then, the next day, instead of writing the next chapter, you go back to the first chapter, and polish it. And it’s like… Dude, if you don’t get to that next chapter, and the next and the next and the next, until you get to the last chapter, you haven’t really written anything.
CR: No, no. I think we got it. This is a good place to leave it, I think…
MZ: All right, well, yes. Thanks so much.
CR: We’ve covered a lot of ground here.
ABOUT MICHAEL ZADOORIAN
âMichael Zadoorian is the author of three novels, BEAUTIFUL MUSIC (Akashic Books), THE LEISURE SEEKER (William Morrow) and SECOND HAND (W.W. Norton), and a story collection, THE LOST TIKI PALACES OF DETROIT (Wayne State University Press). A motion picture of THE LEISURE SEEKER starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland was released in 2018 by Sony Pictures Classics.
Zadoorian is a recipient of a Kresge Artist Fellowship in the Literary Arts, the Columbia University Anahid Literary Award, the GLIBA Great Lakes Great Reads Award, the Michigan Notable Book Award, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
His work has appeared in The Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, American Short Fiction, Wisconsin Review, Witness, Great Lakes Review, North American Review, Huffington Post and the anthologies Bob Seger’s House, Looping Detroit, On The Clock, and Detroit Noir. He has worked as a copywriter, journalist, voiceover talent, shipping room clerk, and plant guard for Chrysler. A lifelong resident of the Detroit area, he lives with his wife in a 1937 bungalow filled with cats and objects that used to be in the houses of other people.
(Great photographic tribute, including images of Fred Smith's and Rob Tyner's headstones -- among other iconic shots)
IGGY & THE STOOGES FACEBOOK PAGE:
(Still can't believe how many photos and related memorabilia pics pop up, after all these years -- essential!)
(Link to my massive article, posted on this French website -- everything you wanted to know about the MC5, but were afraid to ask, basically!)
"Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide...whether you are gonna be the problem, or you are gonna be the solution!"
The lights dim. The crowd steels itself, stirring at the familiar words ringing out over the PA system, spoken above an undertow of hand clapping that crackles with an impatient momentum all its own.
If you've bought a ticket, you know them well, as the opening spoken blast of Kick Out The Jams -- rapped out with apocalyptic gusto by JC Crawford, MC for those two nights of recording (10/30-31/68) that resulted in Kick Out The Jams, the MC5's audacious live debut album.
"You must choose, brothers! You must choose! It takes five seconds! Five seconds of decision! Five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet!"
In the darkness, the musicians begin taking their places onstage. A ripple of drum sticks here, a stray power chord there. We're almost underway. Tonight's openers, The Detroit Cobras, just wrapped up, having roused the audience with their own stripped down brand of rock 'n' roll, filtered through the Detroit attitude of old.
"It takes five seconds to realize that it's time to move! It's time to get down with it! Brothers ... it's time to testify, and I want to know: Are you ready to testify? Are you ready?"
Now it's time for the main event, MC50, billed as a celebration of the MC5's music, in particular, and the incendiary spirit it embodied, in general. (Hence, the billing, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Kick Out The Jams, and the searing year in which it arrived, in February 1969.)
Hearing Kick Out The Jams as a 16-year-old marked one of the happiest times of my life, one that inspired two questions. What kind of shock politics is this, I wondered, and why does all this Top 40 stuff sound so turgid and slow, by comparison? The minute I heard it, I didn't look back, and I didn't want to settle.
"I give you a testimonial! The MC5!"
A full-throated roar greets the arrival of "Brother" Wayne Kramer, lead guitarist and next to last MC5 member standing, plus lead guitarist, Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), bassist Billy Gould (Faith No More), drummer Brendan Canty (Fugazi), and vocalist Marcus Durant (Zen Guerilla). (Drummer Dennis Thompson, the MC5's other remaining original, declined to take part in this outing, as Kramer noted on his Facebook page.)
No matter. Kramer and company waste no time getting down to business with the one-two punch of "Ramblin' Rose"...der-der-der-der-der, der-der-der-der-der-der...and "Kick Out The Jams," whose intro ("It's time to -- kick out the jams, m#therf#ckers," not, "Mother Superior") got the band in so much hot water so long ago. Kramer wrings fast, yet precise, volleys of notes from his red, white and blue Stratocaster -- really, how can Rolling Stone rank him 92nd on its 100 Greatest Guitarists? -- which Thayil answers with a thunderous authority of his own.
And that's how the next 45 minutes unfolds, more or less mirroring the original album running order -- save for "The Motor City Is Burning," which unexpectedly pops up as the third song in the set -- barreling along with the full-throated roar that you'd expect, without losing command of the groove, something that writers don't always seem to appreciate in lauding the band today. It's worth recalling that R&B ravers like "I Believe To My Soul" and "I Put A Spell On You," from Ray Charles and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, respectively, were staples of the MC5's set at the time, yet didn't make it onto Kick Out The Jams, for space reasons, presumably-- c'mon, Elektra, let's see an expanded CD edition with those leftovers. I can't imagine they're doing us any good, sitting on the shelf somewhere, taking up space in a vault!
The MC5 also regularly dipped into the well of free jazz, via their original guiding light and manager, John Sinclair, which "Starship" allows tonight's lineup to revisit, gloriously, complete with Durant squonking on clarinet -- you and Patti Smith, I remind myself, you and Patti Smith -- as you might have expected to hear them do at the time. Few bands navigated such different worlds, and lived to tell the tale, but that mixture of free-form exploration and sure-footed rock is an equally crucial aspect of the MC5's chemistry, and is no less so here tonight.
Durant proves the night's biggest surprise, managing to channel his inner Tyner -- as in Rob, the MC5's lead singer, who died in 1991 -- without merely copying him. It's a fine line to walk between tribute band, and finding space to interject your own personality on the proceedings, but Durant walks it well, between blasts of his own skilled harp playing.
The other big surprise is how Kramer and company apportion the remainder of the set, which leans heavily on Back In The USA ("Call Me Animal," "High School," "Let Me Try,"
Looking At You"), the MC5's controversial middle period album, and skimps on its swan song, High Time, save for a restrained, almost folky version of "Shakin' Street," and the fierce funk-rock protest anthem, "Future/Now." MC5 partisans undoubtedly split down the middle, in terms of their affections for this record or that, but the production issues often cited as a reason for not loving Back In The USA are nowhere in sight here; that's the beauty of live music, which can turn the stiffest album filler into a performance for the ages.
That's definitely true of "Let Me Try," a rare ballad that Durant handles with soulful aplomb, indeed, and a turbocharged romp through Van Morrison's "I Can Only Give You Everything," another unexpected highlight that induces plenty of head bobbing and fist waving action among the crowd. (Not for nothing did Michael Davis, the band's late bass player, cite those early self-released 45s, of which "Everything" is one, as his favorite recorded MC5 moments, when I interviewed him for my massive 1995 DISCoveries feature.)
The strangest aspect of the night is the half-full house that makes up in fervor what it lacks in numbers. The diehards, presumably, are pinching their pennies for the two-night Detroit stand that closes out this particular tour (10/26-27/18). I'm tempted to blame the ambience of 20 Monroe, which seems designed by a sadist -- one who made sure to charge 10 bucks for drinks (and plenty more for anything else), stick the bathroom on the second floor (which requires hiking a long flight of stairs, or waiting for an elevator), and leave no place to sit on the main floor. (Only afterwards do I learn that some chairs had been discreetly tucked away, off to the side...isn't that how it always works?)
In some ways, though, the half-full head count makes the perfect metaphor for an underdog status that doesn't always ring the cash register, nor register on the official radar of approval (Madonna's in the Hall of Fame, but the MC5 isn't? Go figure, as they say). Yet it's impossible to imagine the darker, heavier strain of today's punk and metal without the declamatory blast that the MC5 harnessed to such devastating effect. It's a spirit that can't be copied or copped so easily, either, another quality that lifts kindred spirits like the New York Dolls, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground to greatness, right along with the Five. What do all these names have in common?
As the oft-quoted cliche goes, they didn't sell records by the gross, but most anyone everyone who heard them formed a band. It's the reason, I suspect, that Kramer seems genuinely moved by the reception he gets, as he notes slyly, at one point: "I'm 70 years old, man. Believe me, man, I'm glad to be anywhere!" So am I, and so are we. Kick out the jams, indeed.
All seems quiet lately at the We Are The Clash corral, even though we're nearing a year after publication. As the old saying goes, however...appearances can be deceiving. In reality, the various reviews and related activities are carrying on without letup, so I'll take a moment to sum them up here.
The critical praise continues to roll in, from some surprising quarters, like the Johns Hopkins alumni magazine, JHU HUB, whose review ("Clashing Opinions") offers an appropriate wide screen thumbs up: "And for a band like the Clash that so explicitly tied political activism and organizing to its music, ignoring its final incarnation, however challenged, cheapens an understanding of what the band aspired to do."
Of course, that's exactly what Mark and I aspired to do, not only within the context of how the music industry worked then, but the world at large, and the various events shaping the Clash's audience at the time. In doing so, as JHU HUB correctly notes, "We Are The Clash becomes a vital political history as much as an account of an underdocumented portion of the band's career." The reviewer closes with a nice capsule summary of Mark's connections to the university, and activist background, which really puts across our big picture approach.
Tim Stegall, writing for UGLY THINGS, makes a similar point in his epic review for issue #48: "It was a brilliant reflection of the times. Sadly, these events helped build our modern world. This warm, even-tempered book snatches the Clash’s final act from the shame even Strummer felt before his death. They were still The Only Band That Mattered."
What a beautiful sentiment is contained in that last sentence! As a fan who saw them during this era, that's exactly how I felt, in an age awash with thudding electropop and shrill, overproduced poodle hair metal (to name two of the more questionable trends that hogged attention spans and airwaves during this period). Then and now, I feel the same way: if not The Clash, we definitely need a Clash, or something along the same lines.
As Stegall accurately suggests, in many respects, the ill-fated Clash Mark II lineup proved equally deft as the classic one at soundtracking the march of Reagan and Thatcher's aggressive monetarist gospel through the world at large, whether it meant writing harder-hitting fare like "Are You Ready For War" and "Three Card Trick," performing to benefit striking miners, or scouring northern UK and Scotland on an impulsive free "busking" tour for anyone caring to listen, without the benefit of agents and publicists doing damage control. This sentence nails it:
"Andersen and Heibutzki have woven a complex, cinematic tale with a lot of heart in We Are The Clash, simply by rescuing the unwanted stepchild ending of the story of one of punk’s greatest bands from ignominy. The Clash Mk 2 acted more directly than its classic lineup, and inspired more activism in its fanbase, acting as a bridge between 1977 and the anarchopunk scene they’d inspired before swiftly rejected them as rock star sellouts."
Suffice to say, these guys get it, and it's rewarding see it in print.
OTHER TAKES (AND RESPONSES)
Kirkus Reviews: "When did the Clash quit being 'the only band that matters"? This fascinating book faces a challenge: documenting the final years of the British band that its record label had promoted with that slogan...The band may have no longer have mattered, but its legacy mattered to the authors, who make it matter to the readers. More than a footnote to the rise and fall of one of the last great rock bands."
I'm not sure if the reviewer grasped our premise, that the band did matter -- despite the behind-the-scenes skulduggery that interfered with the revamped Clash's potential. How so? By soundtracking the noxious social ills that we grapple with today, including the legacy of Reaganomics, and Thatcher's reckless, nihilistic monetarism. Just ask those who caught the Miner's Strike benefits of 12/6-7/84, or the "busking tour" that followed, in the spring of '85. They'll tell you how much the band meant to them, and still does. For further specifics, though, you'll have to get the book.
Library Journal: "Coverage is specialized, extending considerably beyond mere behind-the-scenes reportage and deeply explores the sociopolitical context in which the band operated; as such, the tone can be intense (read: punk) and professorial. In all, Andersen and Heibutzki's examination of the band's proletarian stance in light of its (of) its commerical (sic) striving is immensely satisfying."
Typos aside, kudos to the Journal for nailing what we tried to put across. At its core, We Are The Clash isn't solely devoted to the usual rock 'n' roll goings on, although we examine them, like all the other issues associated with the band.
Looking back on the live reviews and pieces from this era, it's interesting how many writers questioned how a band with two remaining founders (Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon) could still claim some measure of legitimacy. Ironically, this issue probably wouldn't raise a peep today, when you've got bands touring with two (The Who), one (AC/DC) or even no original members (One Way System). To my recollection, I haven't seen people demand their money back.
Those are the times we live in, I suppose, and we move on. Or have we? This is one of the central questions we hope that readers will ponder, especially in today's blighted political environment: plug Donald Trump and Boris Johnson into their respective US and UK corners, with all the hard right rhetoric to match, accompanied by various initiatives that will damn untold millions to miserable lives, if left unchecked...and you've got a climate that feels like 1984 all over again, minus all the catch iconography. But if our words become part of the soundtrack of resistance, we'll have done the job.
THIS IS JOE PUBLIC SPEAKING:
THE CLASH AS TOLD TO THE FANS (By Anthony Davie)
Now that I've finally had a chance to get this book, I'm surprised that no one thought of one like it sooner. As the title suggests, you get memories and experiences of The Only Band That Matters, through those who encountered them, from fans, to former support bands' members, journalists, and everything in between.
For example, Mark and myself are only some of the fourth estate alumni who contributed; Pat Gilbert (Passion Is A Fashion), Chris Salewicz (Redemption Song) and Tim Satchwell (Combat Ready) are just some of the big names represented here, as well as The Baker, the band's legendary roadie.
As Davie explains in his supporting blurb, This is Joe Public grew out of working with the BBC last year for a series of podcasts and short films. Davie, who himself is responsible for Visions Of A Homeland -- widely considered the definitive resource on Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, his main solo ensemble -- was tasked with editing and collecting the various anecdotes and memories that came pouring in.
Inevitably, the BBC wound up with many more of these nuggets than its various projects allowed, which is how Davie hit on his idea: "Some contributions were indeed used but so many of these great stories/memories would have just gathered dust. So, I decided to put them into an ebook for the whole world to read." Initially planned as a e-book-only affair, This Is Joe Public quickly gained steam as a traditional paperbound book, due to demand -- and is all the better for it, in my view.
Like the band and its music, the emotions represented here truly run the gamut. You feel the sting of Brook Duer's disappointment, supporting his heroes during the Combat Rock era ("Terry Chimes was the only one who spoke to us. He was totally separate from the rest"). You cackle along with Rudi's Brian Young, who dishes out respect ("The best thing the Clash did in their latter years was NOT reforming") and irreverence in equal measure ("It probably won't get me on the Christmas card lists of any of the diehards/true believers").
You admire the enterprise from fans like Johnny Hauesler of Germany, who blags his band onto a bill in Dusseldorf in 1984, with one phone call to consigliere Kosmo Vinyl ("I would hardly call you in Stockholm and ask you to let us support the Clash if we were a fucking heavy metal band with fucking Flying V guitars"). Same for Frank Moriarity, author of Modern Listener Guide: Jimi Hendrix, who overcomes his doubts about taking up the guitar after talking with Mick Jones, who suggests: "Why don't you, then? I'm no better than you are." This, in a sentence, is the Clash ethos.
I could go on forever, but as these brief examples suggest, This Is Joe Public brims with the best sort of history -- not the same anecdotes recycled over and over again by the same talking heads who have trouble hearing the sounds of their own voices over the same stream of questions. More photos would have been nice, but that's down to money, and the ones that we do get definitely do the job. Get your hands on a copy of Joe Public, and hopefully, we'll see more efforts like it. From start to finish, it's a first-rate effort.
ASHES TO ACTIVISM:
A POETIC CELEBRATION OF JOE STRUMMER
Here's an equally inspired idea. As one of the '77 era's top lyricists, Strummer often got tagged as a punk poet or troubadour of some sort or other, a characterization that he slyly encouraged, or did his best to play down, depending on his mood of the moment.
So it makes sense, then, that the Joe Strummer Foundation would take this route, through just 37 pages. This characteristic ensures a short sharp shock effect not far removed from the original Year Zero era itself, one reinforced in John Cooper Clarke's four-line opening salvo, "Armagideon Times (Special Edition) From The Clash": "The stiff neck, the casual slight/Rebellion off the cuff."
Other big names checking in here include ranting poet Attila The Stockbroker ("Commandante Joe": "You wrote a soundtrack for my life"), Johnny Green (who gets two brief excerpts from his memoir, A Riot Of Our Own, which is really prose, but hey, who's keeping track, right?) Jah Wobble ("Air"), and former Selecter vocalist Pauline Black, whose "LA Calling" recounts a brief meeting on the road with Joe ("We sat and talked of topical things/Blacks and whites in total thrall/A cross-over kingdom, where all stood tall").
That slice of life nitty gritty makes Black's effort one of the best here, along with "Planning A Comeback," by David A. Ross, who recalls an older, but wiser Joe ("A ballroom crescendo. A familiar scene"), yet one who proves no easier to pin down than his youthful counterpart ("We talk about going missing in ’82 – cryptic, jousting, he offers no clue").
Their unlikely bonding,which follows a jab in his face from the singer's elbow, is punk rock in itself ("Consequently, he spent more time with me than I suspect would otherwise have been the case"), like this miniature collection.
Best of all, you can get it as a free download, simply by filling out your e-mail, like I did, by going here: https://joestrummerfoundation.org/ashes-to-activists-a-poetic-celebration-of-joe-strummer/.
Which brings me to my final point: if there's one quality running through all these efforts, it's the activism. As Mark has often mentioned to me, at various times throughout the process, it's really about the activism, one that may well be driven by guitar and drums...but if all we've spent all our time just dishing out happy talk, then not much has happened. Take note, and proceed accordingly.
"You gotta understand, people didn't want to work with us. They all thought they were going to catch something. ...Things were different in those days. People were a lot less evolved." (David Johansen, former New York Dolls singer, summarizing industry reactions to the band, Esquire, "Why Aren't The New York Dolls In The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame?", 7/13)
"We were in wild places. So we had to be more wild than the kids in the audience, which was good because we were really crazy. . . The whole dance floor was covered with these amazing maniacs. We were their band." (David Johansen, on those "who got it," obituary for Arthur "Killer" Kane, Daily Telegraph, 7/16/04)
"I was also delighted that someone who looked as good as Jerry Nolan could actually play THAT WELL, because drummers weren’t generally thought to be either good-looking or interesting." (Morrissey, Louder Than War interview with Nina Antonia, 1/12/15)
With quotes like these, who needs a press agent? For me, one of the more fascinating aspects of combing the Web for such comments is the all-or-nothing aura that surrounds them, one that pervaded the Dolls' all-too-brief existence, and...in practical terms...also hung over the ex-members' various second musical acts. Jerry Nolan, who followed Johnny Thunders' careening guitar style into the Heartbreakers, was no exception.
Nobody, it seemed, could simply shrug their shoulders, and dismiss the band's outrageous rationale for existence with a wink, and a shrug: "Ah, the Dolls are in town? Meh, I can take them or leave them. No problem, either way." For all the ink spilled about freewheeling, decadent '70s, it's equally easy to forget how much of a stodgily conservative streak dogged that most combustive of the creative arts: rock 'n' roll.
It's the reason why then-Columbia record mogul Clive Davis warned Lisa Robinson not to take the Dolls uptown, if she wanted to keep working in the music business, as Steven Blush documents in his book, New York Rock: From Rise Of The Velvet Underground To The Fall of CBGB. And, not all of those reactions can simply be chalked up to good old-fashioned homophobia, as photographer Bob Gruen presciently told the author: "To say the Dolls, guys who wore makeup, were your friends was like saying you knew a criminal."
However, those implosive qualities also found darker outlets, and not only in substance abuse, like so many writers (myself included) have documented -- and, as Curt Weiss discovered, in researching his biography of Jerry, where we begin the final installment of our conversation.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): I remember the Lester Bangs article, because it addressed an issue [racism in the punk scene] that few people seemed willing to talk about. How much of a problem were these issues [in the scene] and how did they affect what you wrote about Jerry?
CURT WEISS (CW): Well, yeah. Racism is America’s original sin, and white people really don’t like to talk about racism. It kept coming up. I think there were seven people that went on the record. If it was just one person, I would have just said, “It’s just one stupid thing, what the hell?”
There were more off the record, and since the book came out, people have come back to me: “Yeah, he used to say these kind of things.” I have to be careful, because it sounds like I’m “whitesplaining,” trying to make excuses, and I’m not.
I’m trying to put it into context, and understand it. 'Cause, at the same time, his dearest friend was Buddy Bowser, I mean, till the day he died…
CR: Right. Who was black.
CW: Right. And he was dear, dear friends with Barry Jones. To this day, Barry says, “I love Jerry” – but at the same time, credits him for keeping him out of the Sid Vicious band, and a piece of that was, because he was black.
Barry Jones talks about interviews they did, when he was backing Johnny, in late ’86, or early ’87. They’d get to some town, and Johnny says, “Hey, I got a,” he uses the N-word, “...in my band.” Barry says, “I just wanted to kill him at that time.” A piece of this was being provocative, I think. Just like Keith Moon wearing a Nazi outfit. Keith Moon wasn’t a Nazi.
CW: It was just about, “What can I do to upset my parents, upset the status quo?” With Johnny and Jerry, it was, what would really upset hippies, and the previous generation. It was also like a street gang thing: “They’re not in my gang, they’re in another gang.”
CR: Right. And therefore, the line is drawn, and they can’t cross it.
CW: I think so. There’s a Lenny Bruce piece of it: “I’m going to throw this at you, and challenge you to rethink things.” I don’t think they intellectualized it that much.
CW: But this is who he [Jerry] was, and who a lot of people were. Lester, in the article, talks about how he would say the N-word – and it wasn't until Ivan Julian said to him, “You know, that does burn when you say that.”
And he had to [acknowledge], “OK, I can't say that anymore. I can't do that anymore. I can’t say that now.” I was trying to get people to understand what it was like then, what Jerry was like then.
CW: To flip it around, what if I had ignored it? What if I’d ignored that seven people went on record about an issue that is a big issue – racism’s a big issue. So, it stands. I know it upsets people.
Again, I can’t forgive or solve racism. I can just say, “This is where it was, so maybe we can move forward, and correct ourselves.” So that’s why it’s there. That’s what happened. We'll leave it at that.
“PEOPLE DO GO ON”
CW: So, the next million-dollar question: why didn’t Jerry get better? He was an addict, and he had enablers around him. But also, people [said], “Oh, you’re on methadone, so you’re not an addict,” and that’s not true. He may not have had the physical addiction, but he still had the psychological addictions. Because he would take methadone first thing in the morning, so he wouldn’t go into withdrawal, then, he’d spend the rest of the day trying to cop, because he still wanted to get high.
Whatever getting high did for him, he still needed to meet that need. And once he found out he was HIV positive, it all went out the window. I think he just thought that he was a ticking time bomb, and why bother?
CR: Yeah. Especially toward the end of his life, right?
CW: Oh, yeah. But you talk about the self-sabotage. I think he was emotionally wounded. Several girlfriends bring that up. You know, when the Dolls broke up, he was 29, and in rock 'n' roll terms, you're an old man. Then, when the Heartbreakers broke up, he was in his early thirties, and there was a part of him that was ashamed of becoming an addict.
CR: So, in that sense, he didn’t have a chance.
CW: No. He never had a chance. I think he was blinded by it [his addiction]: “Oh, man, I never get sick, 'cause I'm high...” The delusions they have, and they want to surround themselves with addicts who just feed those delusions, and enable those delusions.
CR: Hence, that infamous thing of the  Australian tour, where they want to get rid of [bassist] Glen [Matlock], the only drinker, and non-junkie, right?
CW: Yeah. “He doesn’t fit, he doesn’t fit.” Barry’s realizing, years later...I mean, Barry's been clean and sober for 25 years. He said, “How absurd, how ridiculous, that we would think such a thing.”
CR: So, [Question] Number 10...
CW: Assuming he hadn’t died, could he have overcome his physical problems? I guess, if he had never gotten HIV positive, and gotten clean and sober. I mean, people do go on, and still tour. Jerry would have been 70 by now.
CR: Assuming he could have gotten a grip on his addiction, it’s possible he could be working today, I suppose, right?
CW: Yeah, or happily retired in New York, living with Phyllis. I mean, AIDS – not only did it decimate the gay community, but it got a lot of people like Jerry, too. So, yes, him and Johnny, that would have been interesting, to see them in their sixties. Wow. And maybe making a good record together.
CR: Yeah, I think so. So when all’s said and done, what is Jerry Nolan’s legacy? What did he accomplish, and what can folks learn from his life story?
CW: Well, his was a return to a simpler drumming style. I mentioned Paul Cook, and Tommy Ramone, and people like that, who set a new template, going forward: song-oriented drumming, swing, drive.
There was a ‘50s thing that he brought – he was more into a ‘50s [style], a Dion & The Belmonts kind of thing. So when you think about the rockabilly revival, it was a pre-Beatles music, and Jerry had a lot to do with bringing that focus to music.
Performances that I would pick out? There’s something about “Baby Talk,” even though a lot of it's stolen from that Yardbirds song. You’ve got the drive. You’ve got bits of Gene Krupa in there, which we didn’t mention. But it's a simple, punk, 2/4 on the snare thing. That's a really great performance. I always enjoy listening to that.
CR: Okay. What else?
CW: You know what’s great? Again, one that people usually don’t go to, the Red Patent Leather stuff, which I think is really underrated.
The song, “Red Patent Leather,” where there's three or four styles – if you analyze it, there's a complexity to it. But it flows so beautifully. It really is a level of drumming that few people can do. Again, he doesn’t get enough credit for that kind of stuff.
That's a record people should go back to. I mean, again, just like a lot of the Dolls and the Heartbreakers, it’s terribly recorded – it’s like a board tape. It could have been a great third Dolls record. Really could have been, because Johansen's first [solo] record has, maybe three of those songs, and Sylvain recorded a few of those, and the Heartbreakers did a few of those.
Again, if they had gotten a trusted producer, and had a little bit of discipline, you think about could have been, so…I guess we'll have to leave it there, you know?
Curt Weiss: https://www.facebook.com/curtweissauthor/
Stranded In The Jungle: https://curtweiss.com/book/
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING (For more blurbs, links and reviews, see "Media" section at:
"Author Curt Weiss knows of what he speaks, having worked as a drummer himself..." (Lisa Torem, "Raging Pages," PennyBlackMusic.co.uk, 8/18)
“…a worthy addition to punk lore." (James Mann, THE BIG TAKEOVER #82, 6/18)
“Weiss tells the story succinctly, bolstered by first-hand interviews from bandmates, family and girlfriends, analyzing Nolan’s most dazzling moves and non-judgementally recounting the addiction that persisted…”
(Kris Needs, RECORD COLLECTOR, 4/18)
"...Weiss's tale is harrowingly essential." (John Colpitts, MODERN DRUMMER, 4/18)
“…Curt…is to be applauded for not pulling his punches…” (Dave Thompson, GOLDMINE, 2/08/18)
"Weiss is careful to let Nolan’s times and events and those who were there paint the overall picture of his life and influence. Hero worship and whitewash have no place in Stranded in the Jungle, and it’s gratifying to see such a strong work on one of the most underrated and tragic figures in rock and roll." (Marc Covert, smokebox.net, 2/01/18)
"...really well done. Recommended!" (Blondie drummer, Clem Burke, 12/4/17 Tweet)
"Curt 'Lewis King' Weiss definitely put his research work in, and the result is a comprehensive and enlightening read on Jerry Nolan, whose drumming with the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers put him actively in the eye of the New York punk storm since the very beginning." (Adrian Salas, RAZORCAKE,
"This is the book you want. It’s filled with info and insights, it’s got plentiful tales that reinforce the importance we put on those times and people. It does it’s job making you see the value and contribution of Jerry Nolan and ultimately makes you feel the weight of loss with his death." (Blowfish, www.bostongroupienews.com)
"Well-written and painstakingly researched, “Stranded” presents Nolan as a complex and layered character, while exploring his technique and approach to drumming." (Puma Perl, chelseanow.com, 10/31/17)
“Coming into this reading with a completely open mind, I can say this from the research and writing point of view and style, Mr. Weiss is a damned fine writer. There’s none of the deifications that writers tend to do when writing about a “hero” of theirs; it’s objective, fact-filled – painstakingly researched and simply fascinating…” (Rob Ross, Popdose, 9/27/17)
“The New York Dolls are the new Rolling Stones.”
“Dolls are the best New York City band in a decade. Dolls are kings of the scene; Dolls are young; Dolls are a consciousness-raising band; Dolls’ scene is nice, friendly, a phenomenon infinitely more pleasurable than the uptight muttering about the sum of its parts.” –The Village Voice, 1972
“There was nothing else like the Dolls at the time, which was really cool. It was about playing with complete abandon and being as shocking as you possibly can." --Jack Douglas, producer, engineer on New York Dolls (1973), explaining the band's appeal
"For the record, the following is not an opinion expressed, but a fact stated:
"The New York Dolls are one of the four Fathers/Mothers of punk, along with The Who, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges. Their first child... The Ramones.
"Four outta five of these bands are already in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame." --Guitarist Binky Philips (The Planets), "December 19th, 1972: Me, Opening for the New York Dolls 40 (!) Years Ago" (The Huffington Post, February 20, 2013)
They may be gone, but the name lives on. For any discerning music fan, the New York Dolls are required listening, though few bands are so mythologized, yet so misunderstood -- as exemplified by their finish in CREEM's 1973 reader's poll as Best and (!) Worst Band. A look at the year's Top Ten albums sheds some light on that issue, with opuses by the usual suspects (Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd) sharing space with less likely visitors (Carly Simon, Seals & Crofts, War). If these results sound confusing, well, it was a confusing time. That's how I remember it, anyhow.
Behind the cartoon glam imagery, however, and constant debate about their musical intentions and talents, lay a surprising degree of purpose, as the late bassist, Arthur Kane, informed the Beaver County Times, in February 1974: "We care nothing about technicalities. We don’t wear our instruments in a holster. This is strictly party, and don’t bother coming if you want to get involved.”
Jerry Nolan only needed three words to outline how he saw the band's mission: "It's a job." That meant doing whatever it took to get the crowd going, and keep their attention, reflecting the skills he'd honed over a decade or more of playing. Without his drive and innovation behind the kit, the Dolls might never have made the leap to their eternal almost-superstar, ever-underdog status -- which is where Curt Weiss and I start part two of our in-depth look at his new biography, Stranded In The Jungle.
“HE WAS IN COMMAND”
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): What made Jerry the right drummer for the Dolls, and the other bands he played with? Again and again, you hear, “He made us a better band.” How did he achieve that?
CURT WEISS (CW): With the Dolls – the one thing they were missing is some musical professionalism. And Jerry, particularly compared to those four guys, had it in spades. He had played so many styles of music, all the clubs in New York, with so many bands. And he knew their music.
Compared to Billy – who they loved, because he grew up with them – Jerry could play with drive, and with swing, and with confidence, which Billy just didn’t have. When they heard themselves being driven by Jerry, I think they were startled at how good they could sound.
He had a lot of confidence when he played the drums, Jerry. He could really drive a band like a big band drummer. If you remember, big band drummers, you had literally 20 guys behind you, of horns, just wailing away. To be heard above that, you had to hit those drums hard, and you had to be in command.
That’s what Jerry was. He was in command, you had to follow him, and that’s the way he played. But he had that swing, also. He wasn’t machine-like.
CR: He wasn’t just a Mongolian tom tom pounder.
CW: No, not at all. People are mistaken in thinking that he was just some sort of lunk-headed punk drummer. There was a lot of nuance to what he did. As much as he could be a jazz drummer, and create on the spot, he was very deliberate about what he did.
Which meant, he took the music very seriously, and the song very seriously. That’s what benefited the Dolls, it’s what benefited the Heartbreakers, ‘cause Thunders – whatever greatness Thunders had, he was not a controlled being. He was out of control, and Jerry would try to control it, particularly onstage. He controlled the set. He controlled the setlist. He would try to draw Johnny back in. His [later] disillusionment with Johnny had a lot to do with Johnny's uncontrollable-ness on stage, which had to do with his addiction.
CR: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of ironic to read – he found that more off-putting, it seemed, than a lot of people. For that matter, even the people who paid to see that.
CW: Yeah, well, Jerry was ashamed of being a junkie. At his core, he was ashamed of what he’d become.
CW: And Johnny was the opposite. He had hypodermic needles in his hat, and he would trip over himself coming onstage, and Jerry would say, “You don’t have to be like that. It’s sloppy. You don’t need to be like that.” There was a point where he just said, “Screw you. I’m doing this without you.”
But he loved when Johnny would come crawling back. [laughs] He liked to show that to Johnny: “I was right. Now you gotta listen to me.” But Johnny would abandon him again, you know – over and over.
“WHY DIDN'T THEY PULL IT OFF?”
CR: Yeah. For sure, we’ll get to that in a sec here, I think, but – to our next question, then?
CW: Yeah. The Dolls seemed poised for the national breakout…
CR: And yet...
CW: Why didn't they pull it off? Besides being too effeminate, they were so raw and undisciplined. That was a little much for people to take, listeners to take. Their ear was not attuned to it yet.
You compare them to Bowie – why could Bowie pull it off? Remember, Bowie never got American radio play until Young Americans. That was a different Bowie – it wasn’t as effeminate. He looked more like an entertainer.
CR: Well, and it could be argued, too, his [Bowie's] band, the Spiders From Mars, were more professional, or, at least sounding more like what people were used to hearing at the time.
CW: Oh, Mick Ronson. Particularly, yeah. Mick Ronson was well-trained. His skills as an arranger and as a musician were far beyond what the Dolls could have imagined – just imagine, if Mick Ronson had produced the Dolls, or if Bowie had produced the Dolls. Or somebody like Chris Thomas – Chris Thomas did the [Sex] Pistols album.
CW: To have professionals like that, who took so much care – that really would have made a big difference with the Dolls. But it was not to be. It was not to be. They were too far ahead of their time.
CR: For sure. Leading into Number Six...in purely commercial terms, Jerry did get a second chance, with the Heartbreakers – and, arguably, a third, with the band you were in, the Rockats. But he couldn’t capitalize, though the goal of “making it” was obviously so important to him. Why not?
CW: It was. Well, he was a stubborn addict. People say he was a heroin addict, which is true, but from what Walter told me, and others – he was really more a methadone addict. That doesn't so much make you high, it just kind of makes you prickly. He just was a very impatient guy, and he could be difficult to get along with on the road – plus, he would just disappear, to cop.
CW: You just didn’t want to put up with traveling around the country, particularly, if you wanted to cross borders, knowing that this guy is probably carrying, and has works with him. You’re gonna get in a lot of trouble.
And he wouldn’t show up to a gig, and he’s gonna be in jail, or you can't find him – finally, at the end [of the Rockats US tour], they had to fly him back to New York, because he couldn't hack it anymore. Who wants to put up with that? You're trying to become successful.
“THEY NEVER GOT OVER IT”
And Johnny and Jerry, they didn’t wanna listen to anybody. They fed each other's worst inclinations. Years later, they talked to David about it [getting back together], and he just said, “Who could put up with that?” And it really plagued Johnny and Jerry, till the end of their lives. They never got over it. They never got beyond it.
CR: And, in a sense, they paid for it at the box office, because, basically – after the Dolls – Johnny never again had an American record label backing him.
CW: No. No. He never did, but if he did, it was a tiny one. But I think they were all British labels.
CR: Right. Although, as you mentioned – in Johnny’s case, he seemed to rely on Jerry more for the live stuff, than the studio side of things.
CW: I think Barry Jones pointed this out. Johnny would just go for the money, he'd get some record deal, and if he didn't have Jerry, he could keep most of it, and just kind of play whatever the producer wanted.
CR: You make a very interesting point. Throughout his career, it seemed like Jerry was unhappy with the way he was represented in the studio, and yet, he never apparently developed the vocabulary to try to communicate that, to get a different outcome.
CW: No, he didn’t. A piece of it was, he didn’t trust authority figures. But he also had to face the fact there were things he didn’t know. That was a step too far for him to make.
Smart people know they don’t know everything, and they hire people – like, John Bonham had Glyn Johns, or Ringo had Geoff Emerick – somebody they could really trust, and knew what they were doing. Jerry just didn't do that. I don't think he had a good drum sound till the Idols, really.
I mean, people talk about LAMF, and say, “Oh, it was the mastering.” Maybe there was an issue with the mastering, but the drums really sound like shit. A piece of why they sound like shit is that Jerry did not tune them well, or what he heard in his mind, what he was trying to get, he could not communicate to the engineers and producers, and they did not work as a team to achieve that. It was just a fight, the whole time. Just everything that could go wrong – the endless overdubs, the playing at outrageous volumes.
CR: Jerry didn’t write many songs, but – judging by the handful that he did – he had a good grasp of melody and arrangement. Why didn’t he do more?
CW: He needed a good partner. Walter was the best partner he had. Walter knew that he was the new guy in the group, and was willing to do anything Johnny or Jerry asked him, at that time.
There are a handful of songs – I note them in the book – where Jerry would have a hook, a chorus, or a riff, and Walter would write the remainder of the song. But they formed a Lennon and McCartney [type of] partnership, so to speak, where Jerry got half the credit. But, yeah, Walter was a great partner. I don’t think he ever had as strong a partner.
He [Jerry] was a really good arranger. I heard that from the Ugly Americans, from the Rockats, from the Plug Uglies. Again, people think he's just the drummer, going boom-bang in the back. Besides his skills as a band stylist, his skills as an arranger were really powerful.
And Johnny? Walter said the same thing, you couldn't really sit down and write with Johnny. Particularly, Johnny was undisciplined, and Jerry had his social inadequacies. And they were outrageous, unrepentant addicts…
CW: But they really loved the music, and were passionate about the music, and people shouldn’t forget that. It wasn’t just about having a party, getting high, and wearing cool clothes. So, your next question…
Spring, 1990. I'm living and working in London, realizing a dream that's been percolating since college, when I started reading the music rags – Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Sounds – and mags like Kerrang!, all of which struck me as far more witty and irreverent than the verbiage churned out over here (except CREEM).
Though I haven't achieved my other dream – as in, actually writing for these rags – I am playing bass in a punky garage band (The Vagrants), and going to live shows, typically two to four a week. Imagine my excitement when I find that one of my musical heroes – Johnny Thunders, one of the most implosive, combustive guitarists to stalk the planet – is hitting the Marquee.
I'd counted myself a fan since So Alone (1978), which I bought – on import – at the local mall, where the likes of Styx, Foreigner and Loverboy reigned supreme. Saying you liked Thunders, or his former bands – the New York Dolls, and the Heartbreakers – often triggered puzzled stares (“Who?”), or redneck pushback (“He looks like a chick, what you need that stuff for?”).
At any rate, I still have my copy of So Alone, and rank it among my all-time favorite records. Though I hadn't brought it with me, I figured that I'd grab a flyer, or maybe try and have him sign my ticket stub.
My mind was brimming with all sorts of backstage scenarios, until a couple weeks later...
...when I found out he'd canceled, because he was sick. Or so they said. But that must have been the case, because he came back in May 1990, and made up the date. Which did me no good, since I'd already returned to the States.
As anecdotes like these suggest, being a fan of Thunders and his bands took plenty of dedication – though only the more committed were acquainted with the power behind the riser, Jerry Nolan (1946-1992), whose drumming style, life and legacy are getting a greatly-overdue look in Curt Weiss's new book, Stranded In The Jungle: Jerry Nolan's Wild Ride - A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls, and Punk Rock (Backbeat Books).
In 320 pages, Weiss takes us from Nolan's Oklahoma beginnings, and all his major bands, before ending with his tragic death at 45 – less than a year after Thunders's own untimely demise – after suffering three strokes that leave him unable to move, or even speak.
The story that emerges is, by turns, inspiring – notably, when Nolan joins a grief-stricken Dolls, reeling from original drummer Billy Murcia's death, and helps them regroup musically – and depressing, although his lifelong (mostly losing) bouts with addiction are just one reason. Racism stalks the narrative, as well as physical abuse and manipulation (particularly women).
The nitty-gritty details of these sins recalls Ian Hunter's truism: “Trust the message, not the messenger.” Even so, Stranded In The Jungle is a timely reminder why we still celebrate the message, in general – and the Dolls, in particular.
Nolan summed it up in his typically succinct fashion for the Beaver County Times, in February 1974 (“The New York Dolls: More Than A Band”): “We want to make a living and a future. We're entertainers. We're the hosts, we'll entertain you.”
Frontman David Johansen pinpointed an equally compelling reason for the New York Times (July 23, 2006): “Our total attitude towards art was, like, get up and do something -- quit sitting there whining. That's what we stood for, that do-something spirit."
With those thoughts in mind, it only seemed natural to reach out to Curt, and find out what drove him to write Stranded In The Jungle -- among many other topics that we explored during our 75-minute phone conversation (7/05/18).
“THEN, I GOT IT”
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): Start with the million dollar question: why write about Jerry? Because he’s not necessarily a guy the general public would really know.
CURT WEISS (CW): Well, he was in two of the most influential bands of their time – the Dolls, and the Heartbreakers – if you look at that 20-year period, from’72 to ’92, they really were as influential as anybody. They influenced all the great bands that came out of New York and CBGB’s – Television, Blondie, Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads.
All of them got something from the Dolls, and the first wave of British punk bands, [like] the [Sex] Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned. Then, the next wave, like the Undertones – out of Ireland – and even in the ‘80s, [with] the Replacements, and the Smiths.
Then you’ve got the glam metal, like, Guns ‘N’ Roses – there's nothing, almost, as influential as the Dolls and the Heartbreakers. And a big piece of that was Jerry, his style of playing.
You can hear it in Paul Cook, and Tommy Ramone, the way that he stripped things down to the most elemental. Even Clem Burke – to him, besides Keith Moon, it was [also about listening to] Jerry Nolan.
The Rock ‘n’ Hall of Fame, with all its faults, it’s still the closest thing we have to a Mount Rushmore of rock ‘n’ roll. The Dolls and the Heartbreakers deserve to be in there. So I think that needed to be appreciated. I had met him a couple of times…
CR: I was a drummer. I saw the Beatles on TV when I was four, and that blew my mind. I wanted to be Ringo for years. But there was something about seeing Jerry – close up, around 1980 – and I said, “Now I understand.”
Because people had been saying to me, “He’s the best drummer in New York.” And LAMF just sounded so raw, and the Dolls’ records sounded so raw, and badly recorded. I didn’t quite get it. Then, I saw him close up, and then, I got it.
CR: Right. As you say in your afterword: “Okay. This is what he means.”
CW [laughs]: “Yeah. This is what people mean.” Now I understood it.
CR: Critiques aside, getting into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is considered one of the ultimate validations, so…
CW: Oh, definitely. Obviously, like the Velvets, they [the Dolls] didn’t sell a lot of records, but they influenced so many people.
Really, outside of New York, they didn’t cause a stir. A little stir in L.A., but there were these pockets around the country, and all those people – like The Dead Boys, The Cramps – that just got so into it. They were like these pied pipers. The Ramones were the next set of pied pipers, or Johnny Appleseeds, going around there.
CR: Because the attraction of the Dolls was that they [audiences] did not know what they were going to do or say next.
CW: Yeah, and it was this strange mix of New York – you had some of the Warhol scene, bits of the gay scene, bits of the glam scene, and underground rock. I think Richard Hell called them “an inept Rolling Stones.”
There’s [also] bits of the ‘50s in there, bits of a lost rock ‘n’ roll, like, a Little Richard sort of thing. People found that very exciting, and it was very sexual.
CR: And they were very R&B-oriented, which is something that not a lot of people at the time were necessarily trafficking in.
CW: If they did, it came off like boogie, like the Allman Brothers, or Savoy Brown, or something like that – it didn’t sound exciting anymore. It just sounded like old people, you know? Or long-haired people, as much as we all did have long hair. I think Johansen called them, “the denim bedraggled.” The Dolls didn’t wanna be that.
CR: Exactly. Well, it was much more stylin’, of course.
CW: Yeah, it was style, but it reflected who they were. Syl talks about, they would take hours just to leave the apartment, because he just didn’t wanna go out just being a nothing. It reflected something new, and you rebelled against the previous generation. They were so much of that. They were exciting, there were people that saw that.
“INNOVATORS ARE OFTEN LIKE THAT”
CR: For the people who struggled with it, it was a struggle – but people who liked them picked up on them really fast.
CW: Yeah, people saw the Dolls on that first record cover, and said, “These guys look gay, or they dress like women, and that’s it. I cannot give the music a try.”
Of course, if they did hear the music, it’d just sound a little too raw, and out of tune. They just couldn’t give it that extra effort, and so, they were victims of that [thinking]. They were two or three years just too early. Innovators are often like that, sadly enough.
CR: For sure. Researching Jerry’s life, what challenges did you encounter, and how did we work through them?
CW: Well, the quickest way to research was books and articles, and what I couldn’t find from books and articles, I would do interviews, and vice versa, really – there people that didn’t wanna talk. Bette Midler didn't wanna talk, Steve Jones didn’t wanna talk.
CR: Oh, you went through some experience with Nina, from the articles that I read. She wasn’t really too cool with it, either, at a certain point.
CW: At first, she was very supportive. She sent me a number of articles that were lost from smaller magazines, and they weren’t on the Internet. I had sent her – I had some bootleg Thunders stuff, and we traded a lot of e-mails. She cared about Jerry, and was glad that somebody was trying to keep the legacy alive.
And then, a few years in…I was first approaching this as an oral history, and sent her some stuff from ’79-’80. Jerry’s addiction was really overwhelming at that point. I think she was kind of shocked, at some of the things I had…I'd sensed this from other people, too: they wanted to see Jerry as a noble hero.
And there was a side of Jerry who was very loyal. A good friend, funny, and innovative, and all those things. But there was another part of him that was a duplicitous drug addict.
CW: He could use people, take advantage of people, and lie to people. And some people don’t like seeing that. It makes them have to rethink their own relationship with Jerry. And Jerry hid a lot from people. He had a lot of self-esteem issues, confidence issues. That’s so much of why clothing and style was so important to him, because he was able to recreate a Jerry Nolan that didn’t really exist. And it was hurtful, I think, for some people to admit that.
But I would say, some of the biggest obstacles? Bette Midler didn’t wanna talk, Debbie Harry didn’t wanna talk. She was very sweet, when I met her, but she wouldn’t do an official sit down. Mick Jones didn’t wanna talk.
CR: Right, and I guess Phyllis [Stein] didn’t either, right?
CW: She didn’t wanna go on the record.
CR: Because she would have been really crucial for a lot of the last couple years of his life?
CW: Yeah. I had my sources, nonetheless. You’ll see a lot about her, and that period. But Jerry’s mom, Charlotte, was fascinating. Even if I had to take some of what she said with a grain of salt. And Jerry’s ex-wife, Charlotte.
CR: From Sweden.
CW: Yeah. Who also let me come over there, and just dive through all these storage units, just filled with stuff. She was great. I think she had three storage units.
“HE WAS VERY ARTISTIC”
CW: Because she had these fascinating things, like these little boxes Jerry would buy. He would decorate them, as well as put all his sewing tools in them, the buttons, and snaps, and things like that. He would organize and collect them in there. He was very artistic.
CR: Yeah, he was very creative, in that way.
CW: Very creative, yeah, so I got to see all that kind of stuff.
CR: Who was really crucial to your understanding of him, especially in the pre-Dolls era – which I’d not heard much about, till your book came out, at least.`
CW: Obviously, I had to cover his whole life, from beginning to end. But I was interested in what made him him. His first major girlfriend, Corinne, from ’62 to ’72 – she was fascinating.
As well as the people in that band, Cradle. As well as a lot of the people in the smaller bands – it would have been great to have Steve Jones, and Mick Jones, from the Clash.
But Joe and Simon from the Daughters, who backed Thunders, like, ’81, ’2, ’3, and played with Jerry around that time, they were great. And [guitarists] Steve [Dior] and Barry [Jones], from the Idols.
CR: Yeah, he [Barry] had a lot of great quotes in there.
CW: Oh, yeah. They were fantastic. And Nancy Quatro. People like Greg and Vinny from the Plug Uglies, and the people in the Ugly Americans –
CR: From that period.
CW: Yeah – there was the band Shaker, so it was Gregor, and Art. They were just great, because they lived and struggled with Jerry. So they would get to see a real Jerry – like Peter Jordan, the Dolls' roadie, who also played bass. And Buddy Bowser, what a character Buddy was. Because Buddy goes back to, when he [Jerry] was 15, 16 years old, on the Army bases in Oklahoma.
I would have liked more time with David Johansen, but he just finally said, “All right. I’ll answer a couple questions through email.” I think they were both two-part questions, so I cheated a bit. But he was great. I loved what he wrote. You know, Leee [Black] Childers was great. You had also asked, what were the surprises?
CR: Yeah, I interviewed him a couple times for my own Dolls story [for DISCOveries, in 2000]. He was great.
CW: Oh, Leee loved to tell stories. Leee loved to talk. He was so much fun. When I was in the Rockats, he had first managed them, when they were Levi & The Rockats. Though they had split, he would still come to shows, I would see him, and he was always really sweet and funny. But I didn’t realize how much Leee hated Jerry, the deep divisions and issues they had.
For years in the ‘80s, he wouldn’t talk about Jerry, and I interviewed Lee three times through the years. By the last interview, he had, maybe a self-realization, that he and Jerry really loved each other. I don’t mean in a sexual way.
He said, “Look, those last six months between Johnny’s death, and Jerry’s death” – where Jerry confided in him, and realized that without Johnny, they didn’t have to compete anymore for Johnny’s attention. They could just focus on each other, and they had been through the wars together.
I think Jerry realized that Leee really was looking out for his best interests, and particularly because Jerry knew, he was HIV positive, that he was sick, Leee was someone he could confide in, and who understood him, to a degree maybe that others didn’t.
People think addiction is the issue. And it is an issue, but addiction is a reflection of something else, a manifestation of something else. What is that something else? Often, particularly with intravenous drug addicts, it’s almost always trauma as a child.
The traditional traumas are physical and sexual abuse, but with Jerry, and so many others in the scene, it was really abandonment. Johnny never knew his father.
Jerry really never knew his real father. And two ex-father figures left him and abandoned him. Richard Hell’s dad died suddenly, when he was 10. The guys in the Idols, who were addicts – one never knew his father, one was given up for adoption. I mean, you see this over and over.
So, understanding more about that in Jerry, and knowing that he never really got any validation or recognition from people outside of his mother, I think, until he started to play the drums. And so, those were kind of the surprises…
CR: That came out of your research.
CW: Yeah, and some people think, maybe I’m being tough on Jerry. I had to tell the truth in the book. But I think of him as a tragedy, and a victim of this – his mother loved him, but she couldn’t give him everything he needed, and she couldn’t be his father, and she couldn’t make up for that, for him being abandoned by fathers.
He needed something no one was able to give him, and he wanted so badly to be successful – and when the Dolls fell apart, nothing got rid of that pain, except for drugs. It almost sounds like a cliché, but there was some sort of pain he felt. Heroin made that pain go away. That simple. It just made that pain go away.
WHEN WE RETURN (FOR PART TWO): A look at Jerry Nolan's musical legacy, and what made him such a compelling drummer, as well as life with Johnny (Thunders, that is), and the mental and physical issues that he faced down for most of his life.
Stranded In The Jungle:
Anyone can write a book. But only one thing matters, whether you convince someone else to take the risk, or self-publish – getting it over the finish line, and getting it out. For those who do make it – as Mark Andersen and I have managed, with our new book, We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher And The Last Stand Of A Band That Mattered (Akashic Books) – the result feels like running a marathon. You're elated and exhausted, and a little bit anxious, too. What will reviewers think, and how will people react?
Last month, I got to find out some answers to those questions, as I went on a book tour to the East Coast, after Akashic released We Are The Clash on July 3. While nearly everyone I knew looked forward to some badly-needed rest on July Fourth, I'd have to leave home for ten days, so I could join Mark for book signings in Washington, D.C. (July 6), Philadelphia (July 10), and New York (July 12).
We kept busy during our downtime, too, including a local radio interview in Takoma Park, MD (July 8), and a 45-minute one with our Philadelphia host, before our signing at Brickbat Books.
We squeezed in some related tasks, too, like hand-delivering a copy to Foo Fighters singer-guitarist Dave Grohl – backstage, no less, at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, after we'd caught the last hour of his band rocking a screaming, sold-out, 13,000-seat house.
For those who haven't toured the country, I definitely recommend figuring out how you're passing the time, because – like so many bands say – one mile blurs into the next, and one town doesn't look much different than the last one.
Or, as I told my friend Don, after stopping in Lucas County, Ohio, searching vainly for somewhere decent to eat around 10:30 p.m: “We must be on tour, all right. We're having dinner at McDonald's!”
But he'd volunteered to drive me down, right? That's the game.
Similar thoughts ran through my head on the return trip to St. Joseph, which required taking three trains – from New York, to Washington, D.C., and then, Chicago, and back home – for about 23 hours (no kidding!).
Sure, I got my fair share of sleep between all of these stops, but suffice to say, I felt like I'd run several marathons by the time it all ended. Still, We Are The Clash marks my second book with a Washington, D.C. area connection. My first book, Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton (Backbeat Books, 2003), focused on another previously untold story, that of Washington, D.C.'s late “Telemaster” of the guitar. I ended up making a major research trip to the area in 2001, and doing a couple of book signings in 2003, which is the last time I've made it out there.
For any author, book signings offer the nitty gritty flipside of all the hours that you put in – when you meet and greet readers, whether they've already bought your book, or waiting for you to sign it that night.
Whenever I felt my energy flagging, I'd think back on those nights, and the conversations I'd had. There's no other experience like it, which is why you do it.
“Pop Will Die”
We Are The Clash deals with the final two years of the British punk band's existence. That era started in 1983, when lead singer Joe Strummer kicked co-founding guitarist Mick Jones out of the band, which he aimed to remake in a leaner, harder-rocking, and more out aggressively political image. Only two years, however, the Clash would fall apart – and split up for good – after releasing its final album, Cut The Crap, in November 1985.
With help from three replacements – drummer Pete Howard, and guitarists Nick Sheppard and Vince White, all in their mid-20s – Strummer hoped to blow away the era's dominant trends of synth-pop and heavy rock. “Pop will die,” he vowed, “and rebel rock will rule.”
With rare exceptions, though, this story has only been told in bits and pieces. However, it's also one with a strong sociopolitical streak running through it, as our publisher's press release notes: “While the world teetered on the edge of the nuclear abyss, British miners waged a life-or-death strike, and tens of thousands died from U.S. guns in Central America, Clash cofounders Joe Strummer, (bassist) Paul Simonon, and (manager) Bernard Rhodes waged a desperate last stand after ejecting guitarist Mick Jones and drummer Topper Headon. The band shattered just as its controversial final album, Cut the Crap, was emerging.”
Suffice to say, We Are The Clash isn't just another sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll story – although all of those qualities make their appearance. As Mark and I feel, the issues that fired up the Clash's music through the '70s and '80s – and such heated political debate – still dog us today, whether it's social inequality, the growing political divide in American society, or workers' rights, to name only three.
“More Than A Footnote”
On those grounds alone, Mark and I hope that We Are The Clash will strike a chord with readers, whether they experienced them during the '80s, or didn't. And, whether they agree with our conclusions, or not, we also hope that our readers appreciate the human interest side of the story – including the Clash's May 1985 “busking” tour of northern Britain and Scotland, in which the band played impromptu “unplugged” sets for whoever showed up, and passed the hat after the finished, just like any other street performer.
It's an audacious idea that no major band has tried since, and one of many stories from this era of the Clash that haven't been told fully – until now. For Mark and I, We Are The Clash also puts an exclamation points on five long years of work, that also required launching a successful Kickstarter campaign, to help Akashic with the production costs – for which we raised $16,131, from 211 supporters.
What happens now is up to the public, and the reviewers – whose verdicts, so far, have proven sufficiently supportive, and encouraging, of what we've tried to do, such as this notice from Publisher's Weekly: “This is an inspiring take on the rock-band bio format, as much a political history of the 1980s as it is a look at an influential band in its final years. More than a footnote to the rise and fall of one of the last great rock bands.”
Six weeks or so after We Are The Clash dropped on the public, the road show behind has continued to roll on – with book signings in Chicago (July 30), where I joined Mark – who headed on to Minneapolis alone (August 1), and off to the West Coast, as part of his family vacation.
As usual, we squeezed in a couple joint radio interviews, too – If I need anymore inspiration, I'll only to recall Mark's words from our press release announcing the book: "I was a Clash fan from 1977 on, and the band was a tremendous inspiration for me as a teenager. But this period of The Clash -- for all its failures -- actually may have had an even bigger impact on the work I've done with Positive Force and other community projects since 1984."
For more information about We Are The Clash, visit www.akashicbooks.com.
Last Thursday, I got the thrill I'd awaited since this summer, when I recorded my contribution. RECUTTING THE CRAP VOL. 2 (Crooked Beat Records) landed, right on my doorstep, plus the bonus LP, THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN, which I ended up on. As the cliche goes, it's one thing to see any object on a screen, but a different feeling to hold it in your hand. And what a package it is -- the two photos I've posted only scratch the surface (so to speak: I'll post more images after this weekend).
RECUTTING THE CRAP picks up where last year's VOL. I release left off, with various Washington, D.C. area bands recasting songs from the Clash's final bow, and likely, its most controversial: Cut The Crap (1985), as well as the handful of unreleased tracks that have circulated mainly in tape trading and bootleg circles ("In The Pouring, Pouring Rain," "Jericho," and so on) all these years.
THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN, for which I recorded "Beyond The Pale" (Big Audio Dynamite), rounds up the various Joe Strummer-Mick Jones collaborations that they managed after the Clash broke up, including those that made it on record (notably, the second BAD album, No. 10, Upping St.), and those that didn't (such as "Dog In A Satellite," and "US North," which BAD actually played on their spring 1987 tours). I also wrote the liner notes, as well (while my compatriot, Mark Andersen, with whom I co-authored We Are The Clash, did the honors on VOL. I).
Crooked Beat will release both albums on Record Store Day, which is Saturday, April 21. This edition is limited to 1,000 copies, so act fast, if you want a copy, as they tend to go quickly. For more information, see: http://www.crookedbeat.com/.
For "Beyond The Pale," I carried the full instrumental load (bass, acoustic and electric guitars), and sang the song, while my longtime friend, Don Hargraves, did the drum programming, helped me work out the arrangement, and produced the track. We largely recorded it in August 2017, with additional touch-ups and remixing completed in October.
I chose to record this song for one simple reason: its central theme ("Immigration built this nation/You got a bloodclot standing here"), which provoked no less argument at the time of its release (1986) than it does nowadays. Some of Joe's most powerful and provocative lyrics are here, particularly this line: "If I was in your shoes/I'd say Soweto's gonna happen here, too." Not surprisingly, many fans see it as the "great lost Clash song".
More pertinently, I relate to this song on a personal level, since my late parents came from Germany to the USA...though they went three times, before they finally decided to stay here for good, during the 1960s. Like many people in that era, they simply hoped to build a better life -- as the so-called German "economic miracle" was still a long way off -- without clamoring for undue attention from the powers that be.
That attention waxes and wanes, depending on the level of demagoguery attached to it, and whether the haters manipulating it think they can get away with it. I still hold strong memories of the '90s, when the Republican-controlled Congress floated ideas to cut off legal immigrants, as well as their illegal brethren. I'd never seen my father so angry in my life -- it was "intergalactic," as Miles Davis's biographer observed of the late trumpeter's equally explosive outbursts.
Thankfully, that mania passed, but Trump's ascendancy -- and determination to punish all who disagree with him, legal or illegal -- is a warning not to relax too deeply, or risk sliding into banana republic status. Ironically, I might not have ended up in our current political situation, had my father gotten his first wish: Australia. He wanted to go there first, but couldn't get in, due to strict labor quotas in place at the time.
I often think of how differently my life would have turned out, in a country several time zones away...one of many associations that comes to mind when I listen to "Beyond The Pale," or play it live.
Now, all I need is a record player to hear it...and I'll be in business!
What a spring we've enjoyed at Desperate Times Towers! First, I'll mention our latest review,via Xerography Debt, which said (for the benefit of those who can't read sideways):
"Pure old-school vibe and I love it. This one takes me back to the times when 'zines in punk were a very essential part of communications on the scene. This publication has a lot to read, but is also very artistic with its words and images. It is both interesting to read and look at it. The 'zine talks about music in a way that makes you want to read more and more about the topics. I cannot wait to see what is coming next from this publication. I am very sure that I will not be disappointed."
Thanks, Xerography Debt! I hope that future issues live up to that particular billing.
Locally, we seem to have caught the fever, too. On April 14, Krasl Art Center hosted a grand opening for a new 'zine library that it's creating, complete with a 15-minute keynote speech from Luz Magdaleno, founder of Brown & Proud Press (Chicago, IL). Not surprisingly, I wound up recording and writing many more comments than my resulting Herald-Palladium story could accommodate, but I think the basics came across well.
I swapped a copy of Desperate Times #1 with Luz, for her 'zine, Serio....and, best of all...was asked to drop off two more copies of DT for the library. Since then, my wife and I have also taken out time to contribute one page apiece for a special collaborative 'zine that Krasl also rolled out for the grand opening (and will also end up in the 'zine library). That just goes to show, there's no limit to the formats and styles associated with 'zines, which the best part (and reason) for doing them.
Lastly, but certainly not least: Desperate Times #1 is now available at Quimby's Bookstore, in Chicago. I pulled off that feat by dropping off five copies at their table, for a consignment, during the Chicago 'Zine Fest, on May 6. I'd missed it a couple times before, because I couldn't seem to remember that it preceded the Grand Rapids 'Zine Conference -- the event that inspired me to get into the game.
Suffice to say, the variety and diversity on display across the Chicago 'Zine Fest Floor proved awesome to behold -- and, naturally, difficult to summarize in a paragraph or two. However, based on the energy and commitment that I witnessed, it's fair to say that proverbial printed paper comeback of 'zines continues apace. I caught up with Luz again, this time at her table, and handed off a photocopy of my Herald-Palladium story, which she'd requested.
Overall, it's been a great couple of months. We'll find out soon enough what the rest of the year holds, as I begin the process of compiling Desperate Times #2. Onward and upward.
<REVIEWS: ROUND ONE (2/09/16>
Well, the verdicts are trickling in (along with the orders): thanks to those who have shown a willingness to wrap their arms around Desperate Times, the 'zine that sticks up for the right to cut, paste 'n' comment...without a care in the world for where the chips may happen to fall.
Here's what they're saying so far: UGLY THINGS #40: "....A throwback to the classic cut 'n' paste style of the '70s and '80s with collaged Xeroxed images, hand-drawn graphics, and -- ah, yes, I remember them well -- paste-up lines." "Written, assembled and stapled by UT writer Ralph Heibutzki, Issue #1 has articles on Swedish Killed By Death favorite Hemliga Bosse, a reappraisal of the second Jam album, and Sylvain Sylvain stage banter, and some personal commentary pieces." Thanks to my main man, UGLY THINGS Supremo Mike Stax, for his comments there...as you'll gather from the above company, this is one instance in which I don't mind being seen as a throwback....they don't call it "old school" for nothing, right?
MAXIMUM ROCK 'N' ROLL (#391, December 2015): "Mostly punk oriented, Chairman Ralph is putting in work to dig it up; digging through clues in comment threads in old KBD blogs to contact the old '77 punks behind classic singles or making the two-hour drive for a 'storytellers'-style session with Sylvain Sylvain. It's good to know that someone is hoofing it to dig up and preserve the gritty details....Curious to see what gets turned up for #2."
POSITIVE CREED #28 (UK): "All the way from the States, DESPERATE TIMES is a new 'zine with a difference. Ralph has done a good job with this debut effort, and put it together in a Dada kind of way, which gives it an old look, which takes me back to a time when 'zine editors relied on imagination, not modern technology. "Inside this issue, you'll find an interesting piece on the New York Dolls, an article on the Jam which goes back over their THIS IS THE MODERN WORLD album, a brief chat with Paul Shand from The Numbers, a really nice piece of writing regarding theft at work, and various other things which have been thrown into the mix. "For a first attempt, I'm impressed with what's going on here, and my only criticism is that each page is only printed on one side, which makes it a bulky read...and I think it would not only be cheaper to distribute, but easier to follow if both sides were used. Nice work, Ralph, and I look forward to seeing issue #2 soon, my friend." Thanks, Rob, nice on that score, as well!
And, as I freely acknowledge, the last point he raises about the single versus double-sided issue is a fair one....believe me, though, it's not intentional, or some kind of art statement on my part...it's more a reflection of living in a small town where your options are crap! :-) Or, in other words...the best deal I've found on double-sided copies so far is 9 cents a page, versus the nickel per page I currently pay for my single-sided copies....so guess what's winning out? And I'll probably have to stick with the latter, at least for the short run, until I find some clever way around the whole nonsense.
Or, put another way...I could have waited for the ultimate moment, with all the options falling into place...but you don't always happen to get that particular combo, in life or in art...so I followed my instincts, and went with what I had. If you have any interest in the proceedings, I hope you won't mind...for all I know, I suspect you won't. So what are you waiting for?
Check out the contents for yourself, all 44-odd pages, with a color stock cover that'll make you sit up and take notice (trust me)...for only $5 postpaid, to: PO Box 2, St. Joseph, MI 49085-0002, USA. Go ahead -- just take a deep breath, and take the plunge! And it'll beat seeing the usual stacks of junk mail, or bills...more updates to come, as events and space dictate.
The hunger for something tangible seems all the rage these days -- as anyone witnessing the return of vinyl can attest. The same situation seems to apply to 'zines, those gloriously cut 'n' pasted, hand-designed, errantly-stapled samizdat dispatches from some alternate universe where nobody gives a rat's ass about celebrity A-list circle-jerking...the latest auto-tuned pop something-or-other phenom...let alone the latest installment in some mercifully forgotten movie franchise.
No, 'zines serve a purpose, and more people seem to have reached the same conclusion, judging by the turnout I witnessed at the Grand Rapids Zine Fest (7/25/15), which took place at the Kendall College of Art and Design's Fed Galleries. Having planned on doing a 'zine myself for some time now, I decided to go and see how the field looked. After all, pundits and scenesters alike had been sounding the death knell of 'zines since the 2000s, when blogs seemed to have taken over the space that they'd occupied. The '90s era of zinesters-make-good-now-here's-your-book-deal seemed as unthinkable as an ashtray on a motorbike.
However, the energy on display in the room said something else to me, as my wife and I made the rounds of tables -- from anarchist-oriented, to feminist, to personal and back again, all the passion on display made me want to pursue my objective that much more. Given the heavy hand of tech developments like "Mobilegeddon," all of a sudden, paper looks like a better and better bet: you can hold it in your hand, you can put it down again. Hey, what a concept! I suspect that's one reason for developments like the return of vinyl records, and the apparent rebound of indie bookstores.
The day's bigger draws included Matt Feazell, best known for his series of mini-comics: "The Amazing Cynicalman." Fittingly enough, he gave a workshop on the subject -- and, 90 minutes later, I found myself creating my first one! Now that's energy in action, I say. The afternoon concluded with a workshop, where several exhibitors read from their own 'zines -- and, though I didn't have a table, I was able to read excerpts from one of my own 'zine's forthcoming articles. Hear it for yourself on the "Featured Songs" portion of this site.
Somewhere, somehow, an inner ring of true believer is doing its best to keep the cause alive, which makes me want to sign up all the more. The nature of instant publication is hard to deny, especially when you're used to publications sitting on your ideas for weeks -- or even months -- at a time, only to say "NO" anyway...or, worse, seeing them watered down through sheer attrition in the editing process.
While I can't leave these developments behind just yet, I've dedicated that it's time for my own outlet, my 'own zine -- and its name is DESPERATE TIMES, which will combine my lifelong love of outsider music and art with personal commentary, essays and reflections on whatever topic or issue might strike my fancy (though it'll most likely come wrapped up in a social bent). I'm working on it this week as I speak -- creating a look that dips into the currents of Punk and Mod, without permanently dropping anchors into the choppy waters of the past.
DESPERATE TIMES will cut through the fog of those '77-era ills that seem stronger and more noxious than ever -- cultural apathy, glaring social inequity, mindless media content, and narrowing of opportunities for the majority -- with humor, without a concern for the passing of trends, or falling into the common traps of art/cynicism for its own sake, or making lengthy lists of rules that everybody else but the compilers feel obliged to follow. DESPERATE TIMES will offer a voice to music and the culture on the margins, and -- in the process -- reclaim a space outside mainstream cliches of "elevator speeches", "media platforms" and "staying on message." DESPERATE TIMES will stake out a presence away from the gatekeepers' mindless power games of "thumbs up, thumbs down, what else you got, kid?"...and, hopefully, leave its own lasting imprint.
What happens from this point? Stay tuned, as I begin assembling the final product, and figuring out the usual distribution/promotion issues...but all I know is, after seeing all that energy on display, I don't feel like standing still.
Unless you're a diehard punk partisan, the odds are even that you may not know this song -- which gained wider exposure on the BLOODSTAINS ACROSS AUSTRALIA comp CD (1998), having appeared exactly 20 years before then. Like many singles of that era, "Police"/"Underage" was a self-released production, and marked the only one that this Australia band managed to put out. There's a certain symmetry in that fact. But what a great song it is -- if you've heard it, you already know.
One reason is the riff itself, which shows how you can milk one chord (F) to set a mood...a quality it shares in common with "The Leader" (The Clash), which is also based around that same chord, same key (F). The original 45 also features some fiddly bits that my fingers weren't fast to emulate, so I let that go and built my version around the rhythm, which is simple, urgent and driving.
My other inspiration for doing this song is the subject matter, which (sadly) hasn't changed a bit...and is arguably heading backwards, given the recent spate of fatal police-civilian shootings. Twenty-odd years ago, the nation watched transfixed in horror as LAPD officers rained down blow after blow from their night sticks onto Rodney King.
Today, we seem no farther along to a comprehensive solution of the ills that create situations like the King incident (and so many more like it).As the lyrics make amply clear, the situation wasn't much better, then, either ("The police force needs a drastic change/At war with the public, it's time to stop their game"), which has something to do with the militarized aura that characterizes many departments ("They have too much power over us/They try to tower over us"). I had to improvise one line in the latter half of the song, because I couldn't make it out...but it's one that's in keeping with the overall vibe, I think. (I can't recall which one at the moment -- I'll have to listen to it again, and type it out accordingly.)
At any rate, it's a great song from this politically inclined group...and one that deserves a wider exposure than it got the first time around. Go to "Featured Songs" and hear the story for yourself!
Some ideas just take on a life of their own.
When I started delving into the Unknown Blues' life and times -- and the resulting DVD, ANTARCTIC ANGELS AND THE UNKNOWN BLUES -- I imagined that I'd do a writeup of the film, and call it a day....at the least.
However, that notion quickly fell by the wayside after the filmmaker, Simon Ogston, put me in contact with some of the former Unknown Blues members...one thing led to another, which is how Dave Hogan's interview came onto this webpage...and how you're reading this email chat now with lead guitarist Vaughan MacKay, who's gone above and beyond in providing his own recollections for me. (Thanks to Vaughan for providing all the photos, as well.)
Given the length of this chat session, I thought only fitting to include Vaughan's thoughts separately, so we don't have a super-lengthy block of text to read...so dig in, delve on and don't think you've heard it all...especially when we get to the story of that German military tunic!
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): What made you want to be a musician, and who inspired you -- especially since you switched from drums, to guitar? And how did that percussive approach carry over to your playing style?
VAUGHAN MACKAY (VM): I learned drumming in boarding school and played in the college pipe band. Mainly out of boredom, but once I started learning I was hooked. After leaving school I took a few lessons from a jazz drummer and bought a drum kit. Started playing Shadows, Cliff Richards and Beatles music. Gradually, a few Rolling Stones tracks. As I was drumming I would watch the guitarists at rehearsals and pick up a bit from them. Little by little. I don't think playing the drums influenced my playing style really.
CR: Tell me a bit about your previous band, The Whom -- did they make any recordings, and how were they different (or not) from Unknown Blues?
VM: I played in a few bands before Whom. Whom was a polished outfit, matching Beatle suits. The equipment set up on stage like the Beatles and playing a lot of Beatles stuff. We did play numbers by other groups such as the Searchers, The Kinks, The Animals and a few of The Rolling Stones at my insistance.. The group was tight and strong vocally. We recorded a single with our own song (I can't remember the name) on side one, and "That's How Strong My Love Is" on side two. My one recording as a vocalist. We also appeared on NZ TV playing "Satisfaction" to demonstrate the Fuzz Box...I felt stifled in Whom as they were very conservative. I was getting more and more into the Stones. I was sacked as a result. (Thank God). The Unknown Blues were the complete opposite. We were very serious about our music, but not into uniform dress and a clean cut public image.
CR: What was New Zealand's music scene like before the Stones and the Pretty Things arrived there -- and how did it change from that point on, since bands like yourselves -- and Chants R&B, to cite another example -- drew so much inspiration from them?
VM: I think up to this point Instrumental Guitar bands and American pop were very popular. Bands doing steps on stage and solo performers with show band backing. Conservative.
CR: One of the things that fascinates me about watching the film is how these harder-edged London sounds traveled half a world away. What accounts for the appeal of that music, then and now?
VM: It's easy to play, Is great party music and has a great beat. It is based on american blues and is timeless
CR: I love this description from the Audio Culture entry on the band: "At their peak, they could pack out the swirling psychedelic decorated basement club, playing with local fellow travellers, The Third Chapter and The PIL. One memorable YMCA concert was filmed showing Hancock smashing a redundant semi-acoustic bass, Who-style, in a blistering finale to a hot show. They were not asked back."
Throughout the film, there's an element of "...their reputation preceded them wherever they went." Which gigs were the best -- or most riotous -- and which venues were good for you? (And who were those bands mentioned above -- what they were like? As wild as Unknown Blues, I suspect?)
VM: The Best Gigs we played were The Cellar Club in Dunedin, The Ag Hall Dunedin and a club in Christcchurch. I think it was called Sweethearts. We also played some private dances in Invercargill at Woodend which we ran. They were invitation only and the tickets were about $2.00 each. For this you could drink as much as you could.
After these nights we didn't use brooms to clean the floor. We used Squeegies!!!
Many Invercargill girls lost their "Cherries" at these nights The Third Chapter and The PIL were resident groups at The Cellar Club. They were great musicians and welcomed us to The Cellar. I remember their great parties.
The Dunedin crowds were much different to Invercargill ones. The girls, or some of them, liked to shock. I remember on girl called The Leppy Lady as she was very short, walking into a party in high boots and fur coat. She opened the coat... Stark naked with a very nice figure.. Just one of several memories.
CR: OK, let's talk about that Luftwaffe jacket -- as you probably know, that photo of you wearing it is among the most iconic images associated with the band. As I've mentioned to Dave, and Simon, this is a good 10 years before Johnny Rotten & Co. -- and the New York Dolls, as well -- flirted with such imagery (including the swastika, which we also see in the film).
Obviously, you guys weren't pro-German, or anything like that -- but what motivated you to wear that kind of clothing, and how does it fit into the overall equation of the Unknown Blues' look and sound?
VM: Someone said to me "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story"... So here is the truth.
We didn't dress or act to upset people. We wore what we wanted to. Dave loved white or yellow and wore leather waist coats. Bari loved jeans and always wore blue suede boots. Rocket wore anything he liked and was very fashion conscious. Wombie changed his style of dress during his time with the Blues but was always tidy and well dressed.. As for me, well, I liked uniform tunics. I had my old school cadet jacket. with Sergeant's stripes which I wore a lot. I also had an old redcoat jacket and ripped the sleeves off as it was too hot on stage.
The Unknown Blues stopped playing in July 1969 and up to that point I didn't own a German tunic. I went up to new Plymouth for four months after that time and during that time bought a German Wehrmacht Cavalry Leutnant's jacket. I thought it looked great. When I returned to Invercargill in November or December we did one or two extra gigs and I wore the tunic on stage during this time. I make the point that it wasn't a Luftwaffe tunic. It was a German army one. Nor was it a "NAZI" tunic, but an ordinary army officer's tunic.
We never played at the RSA according to me extensive band archive. I think the photo was taken at St Mary's. There is no way I would have worn the tunic in an RSA as my father was in German capivity for four years. I was brought up to respect our veterans, not upset them. Hope this clears this up once and for all!!
CR: In retrospect, bands like Chants and Unknown Blues could be considered forerunners of punk -- and the film makes a strong case for that, as well. How do you feel about your association with the term, and the movement that exploded during the mid-'70s (and also resonated strongly in Australia and NZ, too)?
VM: This question just makes me smile. We often used to party before gigs and would go on stage in whatever we were wearing that day more or less. We wern't anti social, in fact I would say we were very social. The girls loved our parties. Some of the snobbie girlfriends of other Invercargill bands would leave their boyfriends and then sneak out to our flat. Yes, we were sometimes drunk in public sometimes but were usually happy drunks..
CR: As I've told Dave, your association with the Antarctic Angels immediately reminded me of another parallel to '70s punk (specifically, the Sex Pistols' diehard fans -- the Bromley Contingent). How did the relationship affect your music, and what did they see in it, from your standpoint?
VM: We were kicking around with a lot of the guys who were later Antarctic Angels before The Antarctic Angels were formed. A lot of these guys loved our music and one by one started buying bikes. Roy Reid, the Founder of The Antarctic Angels, was a close mate and was often our Roadie when we went away. He learnt a bit of guitar and was on stage with us from time to time. RIP, Roy!
CR: Between yourselves and Chants, the talent definitely existed to record an album, or two -- though you primarily did covers, in your own way, and were known primarily as a live phenomenon, Why didn't you achieve more in that arena, you think?
VM: We were never interested in recording. We were a live band. I think when we played there was an excitement which fuelled the crowd which in turn fed back to us and took us up higher. This was not drug fuelled as we weren't into that. We drank a lot but put a good performance above everything.
When we were offered to do sessions for Viking in Christchurch we saw it as an opportunity to get there to play and bracketted the sessions with gigs in Christchurch. I think we spent about four days there. One huge party from beginning to end. We arrived at the recording session after a night of playing and parties. Bari's guitar case was full of beer and someone smuggled in a bottle of whisky..
We were surprised to see some session brass musicians in bow ties there to fatten out the rhythm section. They were really square with bow ties. Man what a circus.. We were doing a cover of John Mayall's "Suspicions" and I laid down a pretty good fat solo. Sounded great but a sax player thought he could do a better one. Had to remind him they were backing musicians on this day.. What a hoot. Later in the day we found a party and then off to play a gig. It was a riot..
CR: What do you think led to Unknown Blues' demise -- did it come down to a lack of an audience for original music, or simply a case of not being able to fend off real life any longer?
VM: The demise of the Unknown Blues came over a few months. I became engaged and wanted to see the North Island. Dave, Phil (Sharman) and Wombie wanted to go to Melbourne.
Bari wanted to stay in Invercargill, although he lived in Melbourne later.
We lost interest to a degree I think. Maybe we were burnt out as we were living in party houses and sometimes the parties would go on for weeks with only brief interludes and playing engagements. Our rehearsals often developed into parties.
CR: How long did you continue playing after the breakup, and is music a significant part of your life today?
VM: After The Unknown Blues broke up I played in another group in Invercargill for about a year. I think The band was called Powerhouse. Bari Fitzgerald was in this band with me along with another friend, Paul Kirkwood, on drums. We played in Dunedin, but by this time The Cellar Club was gone.
I then moved to Dunedin in about 1972. I played as a fill in guitarist for Noah with Steve Brett and Richard Lindsay (a fine guitarist!!)
Around this time I also played with a Group called Roach whose members came from Timaru. Still rock but J. Geils type music. I still have a few guitars around the house and enjoy myself with them, but no more playing (in) public.
CR: How did you react when Simon first approached you about making a documentary about Unknown Blues, since the story had effectively been lost to time (and the memories of the participants involved)?
VM: I was very surprised but became enthusiastic about (the idea). I think it was a great experience.
CR: The chemistry between yourselves come through loud and clear in the film. What other factors do you think made the "classic" lineup (Bari, Dave, Keith, Rocket and yourself) so potent, musically speaking? Did you learn anything new from watching the final product?
VM: Not really, except it was a great week -- there is a chemistry there, but it's hard to define. Rocket's bass and Wombie's drums put down a solid beat and Bari, Dave and I bounced off each other. On a good night a single number could go for two hours. The crowds were all important. It wouldn't have happened in an empty hall.
CR: As the cliche goes -- the reunion footage makes it seem like you'd never been apart. Do you see a day when the Unknown Blues will rise again, or has that day passed, you think?
VM: Not really. maybe four of us will but as for the fifth. Nope I don't think so. I love those guys. We lived through a very special time.
CR: Are there any bands in today's Kiwi scene that you might regard as a kindred spirit?
VM: I really don't know. I have lived in Australia since 1979.
CR: And lastly, the million-dollar question -- any regrets, and what kind of footprint did the Unknown Blues leave on Kiwi music?
VM: No regrets. I think we were all blessed to have been born when we were. We were teens during the pop revolution. What can I say? Met so many wonderful people. It was right in the hippie time and many of those people are lifetime friends all around the world.
Some of the most fascinating stories -- from a journalistic perspective -- are the ones that don't get told right away. In some cases, though, "right away" is a matter of definition. Just ask the members of Unknown Blues, who tore up New Zealand from December 1966 to June 1970.
Taking their name from a track by the Pretty Things -- whose August 1965 tour, along with a previous outing by the Rolling Stones, provided the jump-off point -- the Unknown Blues and their biker fan following, the Antarctic Angels, burned a permanent footprint into local fans' memories as a loud, wild and rude outfit to reckon with...drinking heavily from the well that yielded Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters...plus the amped-up white blues of Chicken Shack, Cream, and Fleetwood Mac.
And that's where the story sat after the band broke up. Like many local acts, then and now, the Unknown Blues remained a live phenomenon: aside from a couple of sessions that didn't satisfy the parties involved, the Unknown Blues left no recorded footprint behind.
And that's where paths diverged for the classic lineup: lead singer Dave Hogan has continued playing with various bands (Blues Hangover, Southern Lightning, The Paramounts). So does guitarist Bari Fitzgerald, who plays locally -- in and around the band's Invercargill stomping grounds.
The remaining members (bassist John "Rocket" Hancock, drummer Keith "Wmobie" Mason and lead guitarist Vaughan MacKay), on the other hand, left music and got on with real life. If you didn't catch them in their prime, you wouldn't have seen or heard the story -- which filmmaker Simon Ogston has now documented in this snappy, roughly-hour-long documentary.
The resulting DVD ("Antarctic Angels And The Unknown Blues") emerged, as we'll see, while Ogston set about documenting the story of another long-unheralded local New Zealand legend (Chants R&B) for a totally different documentary project ("Rumble & Bang"). From there, nature simply took its course.
But that's perfectly fine, because the Unknown Blues story is more than that of an inspired local band -- although that's the obvious starting point. It's also a great human interest story of five guys who had the time of their lives, but didn't give a damn, and have no regrets now. As far as I'm concerned...that's the perfect exclamation point.
Having stumbled across the story myself, I threw out some fishing lines to Simon, and the band, as well...and this is what emerged. Enjoy...and long live the Unknown Blues!
SIMON OGSTON (7/12/14 INTERVIEW)
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): First, tell me a little about yourself: how did you end up in the film business, and what did you do before starting Bellbird Pictures?
SIMON OGSTON (SO): I'm largely self-taught, I started working in TV in 2006 as a reporter, then started Bellbird in 2009 with the intention of making family history films, then went off the rails and started making doco's about underground Kiwi music
CR: You stumbled on the Unknown Blues Band while researching the Chants (story). How did that connection come about?
SO: I was interviewing someone about the Chants R&B and he told me that "if you think these guys were wild, you should check out the Unknown Blues". Up until that point very little was known about the band, just a very brief mention about them and the Antarctic Angels in a few NZ (New Zealand) books. Of course this lack of info added to the band's legend. Everyone who ever saw the group in or around Invercargill in the 1960s has never forgotten them.
CR: In a sense, both bands' stories follow the familiar arc that you see in films like "That Thing You Do!": band forms, gets some local notoriety, makes the odd record, then splits up and gets on with real life. What made you decide that both stories were worth telling?
SO: Yes, this is the story for most bands. I guess I'm interested in groups that pursue their own approach and in the process develop something that is distinctive to NZ rather than just mimicking overseas groups. With the Unknown Blues in particular, the story had basically been lost to time and I thought it was worthy of recording just because it was so out of the ordinary at the time - like in most Western countries, the late '60s were a time of significant social change in NZ.
CR: Tell me a bit about the lone Unknown Blues recording that features in the film -- where did you source that clip, and can you tell me where/when it was recorded?
SO: Somebody recorded that live performance off their radio at home, I'm not sure who. The band did record a few songs in a studio in Christchurch but these were ruined by engineers in bowties who insisted on overdubbing a brass section. The recordings have been lost, probably forever.
CR: The talent was certainly there, so why didn't both bands achieve more, you think, recording-wise? Why didn't they write more original material?
SO: Not sure -- I guess the concept of writing your own music was largely yet to filter into NZ at that point, most bands played exclusively covers, although their versions did differ significantly from the originals.
CR: Although both bands had strong blues/R+B leanings, they arguably fall into the proto-punk category, too...to what extent do you think is this perception accurate, or is it more a case of how "polite" (quote-unquote) New Zealand society viewed such endeavors at the time?
SO: I think the rawness of the Unknown Blues in particular is a connection with punk, a general preference for playing loose and raw rather than technical proficiency.
CR: I'm (also) thinking of the swastika affectations and images like (guitarist) Vaughan McKay playing in the Luftwaffe military jacket -- I'm intrigued at how that sort of imagery surfaced well before Johnny Rotten or the New York Dolls were toying with it.
SO: I guess the desire to provoke a reaction among a generally more conservative society has been around a long time. For most people it was the most shocking thing they could think of. Having said that, I would wager that wearing a Luftwaffe jacket into an Invercargill RSA in 1967 was considerably more dangerous than the exploits of Ron Asheton or Sid Vicious.
CR: As a biographer and historian-type myself, I know -- and so do you -- at how difficult it can be to pin down stories that weren't particularly well documented (or only sketchily documented, at best). What were some of the challenges that you faced in making both these films, and how did you deal with them?
SO: The main challenge, as always, is a lack of any funding. I found most band members' memories were pretty intact and everyone was pretty open about talking about it. Having such a wealth of photos was a real plus. It's a shame there's no film footage in existence.
CR: How's "Antarctic Angels" been received since its release?
SO: The Unknown Blues film has been popular among the gang/band's old cohorts, it's been a great way of bringing some old friends together. I think they're very happy the story has been preserved for posterity
CR: And the million dollar question: what's up next? Your website mentions a documentary on the Skeptics -- how's that coming?
SO: The Skeptics film "Sheen of Gold" is out now on Flying Nun Records, and can be ordered from their website. The next film will be on Phil Dadson and his percussive ensemble From Scratch.
CR: Are you done with music for now, or is there another great cult story somewhere in the pipeline, just waiting to be told?
SO: There's a few things in the works, we'll see what happens...
"...WE WERE MORE THAN READY TO BE CORRUPTED":
DAVE HOGAN RECALLS HIS UNKNOWN BLUES EXPERIENCE (8/02/14)
CR: The Keith Richards comments cited near the beginning of the film ("How the fuck can you stand to live here?") are priceless. What was New Zealand's music scene like before the Stones and the Pretties arrived -- and how did it change, since bands like yourselves (and Chants R&B) clearly drew so much inspiration from both of them?
DAVE HOGAN (DH): In short, very conservative. It was the era of short back and sides haircuts and every member of the Unknown Blues was definitely a “post war” baby. I was the baby of the band, born in 1949. When we heard The Pretty Things and Rolling Stones it was like nothing we had ever head before. On top of that they looked like nothing we had seen before and we more than ready to be corrupted.
CR: What other bands and/or musicians proved influential in your development as a frontman, and a harp player?
DH: Before the British R&B bands I personally loved early rock and roll. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, etc. So that was the initial musical grounding.
CR: One of the fascinating elements in Simon's film, to me, is how those harder-edged London blues/rock sounds traveled so far away. What accounts for the appeal of that music, in your mind, and what kind of effect did it exert on the local scene?
DH: Like everywhere else in the world at that time there seemed to be the thought that you were either a Stones or Beatles person. New Zealand was no exception. There were plenty of conservatives and plenty of rebellious extroverts – the Unknown Blues definitely fell into the later category.
CR: Other than those Stones/Pretty Things tour stops -- what, do you feel, was the catalyst in your own band's formation?
DH: At school I was asked by the vocational guidance officer what I wanted to be. To which I replied a singer in a rock and roll band. I was about 14 years old at the time, so I guess what I did was a given.
CR: Throughout the film, there's definitely an element of "...their reputation preceded them, everywhere they went." What were some of the best and/or most riotous gigs, in your opinion? The best venues?
DH: The Cellar Club in Dunedin was always fantastic and our first ever gig at a Christmas Bible Class Dance in Invercargill was probably the most riotous and set the precedent for things to come.
CR: In many respects, you and the Chants could be considered proto-punk forerunners -- albeit with strong R&B leanings -- to what extent is this accurate, you feel, or does it say more about how "polite" New Zealand society viewed such goings-on?
DH: Back in the 60’s a “punk” was prison term for young men who provided sexual favours to other prisoners. We definitely didn’t fall into that category, however I did enjoy the attitude of the Sex Pistols, New York Dolls, etc, when they provided “punk” with a new definition a decade later.
CR: I'm thinking, in particular, of some the more compelling images in the film, particularly Vaughn wearing that Luftwaffe jacket. -- a good 10 years before Johnny Rotten & Co. flirted likewise with such imagery (and six years if you count Johnny Thunder's swastika T-shirt -- don't know if you've seen that photo).
Obviously, you guys weren't fascists, but how does that imagery fit into the equation of the Unknown Blues' look, and sound?
DH: We like to provoke not just with our music but also with how we looked. Alongside Vaughan’s German Gear there were yellow jeans, pink Denim Jackets and our bass player “Rocket” was known to borrow clothing from his eldest sister’s wardrobe – and that was way before Boy George.
CR: Your adoption by the Antarctic Angels is another interesting element -- right away, I thought of the Bromley Contingent's early loyalty to the Sex Pistols as another common element with punk. What do you think the Angels saw in your music?
DH: Those guys were our neighbours, school friends and relatives. They were also up against the system and it seemed only natural that we fell in together and got into some very hard partying.
CR: Between you and Chants, the talent definitely existed to record a full album or two -- you were known mainly as a live phenomenon, so why didn't you achieve more in the vinyl realm, you think?
DH: The Unknown Blues were taken into a recording studio by a representative/manager from Viking Records and laid down two tracks for a proposed single. The tracks scrubbed up pretty well, but the record company representatives decided that we were a bit too rough and ready to be launched onto the New Zealand scene as potential pop star material.
CR: What factors led to the band's breakup? Towards the end, as the Audio Culture entry on Unknown Blues makes clear, you had a fair amount of lineup changes -- was it a case of breaking up the original chemistry, or a lack of a wider audience for original music?
DH: Rocket left the band to move to another city. Vaughan got engaged to be married and plain and simple the gigs had dropped off.
CR: Looking back, what kind of imprint did Unknown Blues leave behind on the Kiwi rock scene?
DH: Internationally known Punk Chris Knox of Flying Nun records has said that we were a direct influence. Thanks Chris. Also, we have been mentioned in a couple of books on the history of New Zealand Rock and Roll. And Hell! We have been inducted into the World’s Southernmost Hall of Fame.
CR: How did you feel when Simon first approached you about making a documentary about the Unknown Blues' life and times? I imagine that you had to be surprised, since the story had effectively been lost to time.
Were there any surprises, for you, in terms of what people remembered (or didn't remember -- this being the '60s, after all)? What does Antarctic Angels say about the era in which Unknown Blues existed?
DH: First off, I thought Simon was stark raving mad to even suggest such an idea. I mean, who gave a shit about us? Then when I met and spoke to Simon he proved to be the nicest guy in the world and somehow he convinced me that such a project made perfect sense. I am so grateful he did.
CR: Seeing the reunion footage makes plain that -- as the old cliche goes -- it's like you'd never been apart.
Do you see a day when the band will play again, or has an exclamation point has effectively been put on Unknown Blues' existence for good?
DH: Playing with the Unknown Blues again after a break of 40 years was truly one of my life’s highlights. However, as much as I would like it happen again, I wouldn’t put any money on it.
CR: Obviously, playing with a guy like John Stax keeps a foothold with your roots. What are your current musical influences, and how do you see yourself fitting -- or not fitting in, as the case may be -- with what's happening now? What's your favorite record of all the ones that you've made since the Unknown Blues era?
DH: I still love the Blues, The Stones and The Pretty Things, so what I play really hasn’t changed at all since I started. I love them all, but here is the time to plug a live album that Southern Lightening have just recorded. It contains all the good old stuff and it should be out by the end of this year.
CR: Lastly, any regrets -- or did everything happen for a reason, in the end?
DH: I have always refused to regret anything, mistakes and all. Rock on everyone.
LINKS TO GO
AUDIO CULTURE: CHANTS R&B PROFILE: http://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/chants-r-b
THE UNKNOWN BLUES PROFILE: http://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/the-unknown-blues
BELLBIRD PICTURES: http://www.bellbirdpictures.co.nz/
DAVE HOGAN'S MELTDOWN: http://www.davehogansmeltdown.com/
THE SOUTHLAND TIMES: "Unknown Blues Band A Blast From The Past": http://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/culture/5687368/Unknown-Blues-band-a-blast-from-the-past