The Leonard Zelig of Punk Rock — Part I
Learning Fast, Opting-Out Young, in the Waning Days of the NYC Punk Rock Scene
It’s kind of a cathartic experience to leave something behind so completely, only to have it back in your face so gradually, and then so suddenly. With the impending release of a demo that I played on, recorded sometime in 1986, I am suddenly face-to-face with a past that I have been bragging about for 35 years, but with the admission that I had never really come to grips with my sudden and complete departure from. Let’s layout a few facts about what’s to come so that there are no illusions and no pretense about exactly where and what I accomplished anything.
- I played in two reasonably good bands, neither of which ever really got over the hump to success while I was associated with them.
- I was not talented. I was ok, and I could play a little. If I practiced and put time into it, I could even be good. But there were nights where it just didn’t matter. It was good enough to be loud.
- It was a costly, expensive, exhausting, pain in the ass. And I loved every second of it.
- The people I played with were far more accomplished than I would ever be in this arena, and I do mean all of them. I was punching well above my weight.
- I was a facilitator. I learned a few things, got a little big for my britches, ate some humble pie, and was eventually able to put some people together to make something that I actually enjoyed. But in retrospect, and in spite of my relatively quick entry and exit from the whole thing, I very likely overstayed my welcome.
- I miss it.
Comparisons and analogies seem to be my thing. For the purposes of summing up my “rock and roll life” — or to be more accurate my “rock and roll term”, Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig would be the most appropriate analogy that I could make. I have often thought of it this way. For those not in the know — Wikipedia describes Zelig as “a nondescript enigma, who, apparently out of his desire to fit in and be liked, unwittingly takes on the characteristics of strong personalities around him”. Except in my case it was probably rephrased to “wittingly”. With that, it’s a pretty accurate description. Breaking free of the chains of Catholic high school and entering the hallowed halls of the New York Institute of Technology, I was intent on becoming a sound engineer and a musician. This was my path — I was determined. With the constraints of the Christian Brothers cast off the hair grew out and became laden with Aquanet White, Dax, toothpaste, and anything that would force my flimsy mane to stand at attention. On warm days, bees became a problem. But it didn’t matter.
Cutting short the high school education in the ways of punk, I can tell you that I bought a cheap bass, had some lessons, listened to the records, played in bands with some friends, and watched and listened to everything I was given to listen to by anyone that would give it. I learned about hardcore, and the early days of punk, read everything I could find and tried to be that guy that knew enough that I could have a conversation about just about any band. Someone on the bus with a funny haircut or Crass painted on the back of a jacket, I could start a conversation. But much like my current state with French or German, once someone really in the know started to name drop and “flex” as the kids say, I had to work hard to keep up. It took a little work, but by the time I showed up for my first hardcore matinee, I knew enough to be dangerous and terrified all at the same time. Like Zelig, I found a way to lean into it and be who I needed to be on whatever day.
Somewhere, out there, is a photo from Trenton City Gardens (a place that I probably liked a whole lot more than CBGB), of me and all my friends from high school, with Henry Rollins. It was in the late afternoon, on a Friday, before the start of a Black Flag show. I embarrassed the entire group by asking Henry if they would be doing T.V. Party that night. In retrospect, I think Hank was actually nicer about letting me down easy than my mortified friends were. I am pretty sure those guys are still embarrassed about it. But that’s where the yearning really started in earnest. A Black Flag show with essentially 35 people in the audience, and in spite of all that, the energy was off the charts. The minute Gregg Ginn ripped into that duct-taped guitar, I thought “this is it!” — to be doing that would be the thing.
It feels good to say what I want
It feels good to knock things down
It feels good to see the disgust in their eyes
It feels good and I’m gonna go wild
Spray paint the walls
Fortunately, high school ended, and I was off to Tech. By the time I got there, I had managed to upgrade myself from the Sears Catalog Cort bass I bought for $150, to a Gibson G3 that sharply resembled the bass Gene Simmons was playing on the cover of Alive I. What I wouldn’t give to have it back. Purchased for I don’t know how much, and I have no recollection of how I got whatever money it was that it cost, from We Buy on 48th Street. It was THE bass. I would never play or find another that was so well suited to me, and that made me want to play as much as this one did. I kicked around with others from my school trying to put a band together with the singer from a hardcore band called the Misguided and a classmate of ours who was a classically trained guitar player who was mostly into heavy metal. The Misguided were the kind of band that used to be referred to as a “matinee band” — meaning they would get gigs at the Saturday matinee at CBGB, but usually not much beyond that. Keep in mind some matinee bands had huge followings. But John had obviously passed that by the time I got to him. He was clearly trying to make the transition to his Mellencamp phase, and I was just trying to get something with an edge. I wanted to be where he was two years earlier. Randy the guitar player we kidnapped couldn’t get her head around any of it. The combination of John’s aspirational lyrics — and very un-punk lyrics — and my desire to play faster and rawer. And so it was my first look through a window of exactly how difficult a process this would be. We jammed maybe once or twice at one of the 30th Street rehearsal spaces and called it. Nothing there.
While all this was happening, I was reaching into the death rock drawer. I had been introduced to the Misfits in high school by a friend. There was a constant taping and pass around of the Misfit's major release “Walk Among Us” that could only be found on vinyl on the walls of Bleeker Bob’s priced at upwards of $150. In 1985/1986 dollars that was a lot of money. And so tapes were made (sorry), and the quality continued to degrade, generation after generation, but it was enough. (At times I still laugh when anyone complains about recording production value, sound quality, and remastering. There were cassette tapes with awful recordings that introduced me and my friends to great stuff, and we were happy to have them).
I was beginning to walk a far different line than the guys I hung out with in high school, and down the black clothes, and weird hair, ne’er do well persona path. I had grown into something that was a little out of their sphere of influence or comprehension and so we drifted apart as I was off to pursue my thing, and they went to pursue theirs.
To be fair, I missed the Misfits — as in, I wasn’t aware of who they were when they were. I came late and jumped on the Samhain bandwagon as soon as it hit. I was a 100% pose or poseur as the phrase went. But I studied enough of the lingo to be able to talk the talk, and that would be enough until I could walk the walk. As I studied up on who was who, in fanzines like Hard Times and Flipside, I was scanning the band ads in the Aquarian and the Village Voice. I batted around making calls missing messages, missing the boat, until I ran across an ad that I can only paraphrase from memory — but the spirit is there.
Guitar player wanted for horror punk/death rock band, founding member of Chop Shop, influences the Misfits, Samhain….remainder of band list here…image a must.
The “image a must” thing stood out to the Leonard Zelig in me. With my black clothes and devil lock, and encyclopedic knowledge of everything that’s been published about Samhain at this point, I figured I could make a run at it and maybe fake it until I could make it. Time to walk the walk. I made the call. He took the call. We talked about bands, and we talked about what he was looking for until he got to the point about image. And this I remember (almost) exactly. “So people have been calling me about the ad, and they think the bands are cool, and then they say ‘I don’t know about the image thing — I just wanna jam’ — which is great if you wanna be in Rush”.
A meeting was set in Chelsea where we would talk about what the band concept was. Joe Truck, the founder of the now almost complete Braineaters, and his girlfriend Sarah met with me at a diner on 15th and 7th and we talked through it. Sarah was learning bass, and pretty married to it, so I was out of luck on the bass front. It was at this point that I kind of broke into a cold sweat realizing that I hadn’t touched a guitar in two or three years. But it was no problem. I fit the image (Zelig strikes again), and so I was in. I met with Joe about 3 hours before our first rehearsal would begin a few blocks north in a studio on 21st Street (in I think the same building as Danceteria), and in the fire stairs of Sarah’s building, he refreshed me on the bar chords I needed to know on an Ibanez guitar I borrowed from my best friend Karl.
The initial lineup for Braineaters was fairly storied. Don’t forget I was punching above my weight here.
- Bobby Snotz — Ex lead singer of the Whorelords — and more on them later (contrary to being a “matinee band” the Whorelords were an A7 band — a WORLD of difference in attitude, style, and raw power).
- Joe Truck — Ex founder of Chop Shop and several other bands, set to play lead guitar, and wrote several songs specifically for this concept. There is a lot I am leaving out — more later.
- Sarah “Scratch” — bass — one of the smartest people I ever met.
- Chris Ix — rhythm guitar — (it was decided I needed a cool name. I went for the phonetic pronunciation of Ix, but most people confused it for a roman nine. <facepalm>
- Rob LaRea — Drums — formerly of Knockout James — I had never seen them play but had seen the name scrawled in graffiti on several punk club bathroom walls
So, rhythm guitar. Yeah ok. I get it. You don’t see it. But — it’s basically the bass line with bar chords, and so given the schmancy goth walking lines Sarah was playing, I was really more rhythm section, and so, as we say in the corporate sellout world — my remit was basically the same.
And so there we were in a rehearsal studio and I was being introduced to Bobby Snotz. And off we went. We started to learn the songs, and as Bobby listened to the first one, he asked Joe in the thickest of New York accents, “is it ethical, to steal from yourself? Cuz, you know if that’s ethical, I got something that will go with that”. Minutes later we were ripping through it and Bobby was waxing on about the Tylenol murders. There was something about a superman in there as well, but I couldn’t figure it out. We took a quick break, down to the deli, as I came back in the room Bobby was on the drums and Joe on Sarah’s bass playing Dirt by the Stooges. As they finished, Bobby looked up and said “Timeless, it’s just timeless.” It was a pretty important lesson as I hadn’t yet considered “timeless” as a concept in music yet. I was molding myself to whatever I heard next, and that really resonated as something to pay attention to moving forward. When I pick up my bass now, Dirt is the first thing I play.
Walking out, we were yielding the room to the band Kraut who were auditioning a new guitar player. Without getting into the mess of it, Doug Holland had left for the Cro Mags, and right in front of me, Davey Gunner was asking me if I had a spare E string. I resisted the chance to joke “are you going to floss with it” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EggUWGerH8) and decided to just remain somewhat star-struck. Remember those cassette tapes from earlier. Kraut was a featured band on several. Without realizing what bad form it was to show up for an audition with a broken string, I saw those guys together at a show at the Ritz a week or two later, so I am guessing that guy made it. I never really heard much about Kraut after that.