The Leonard Zelig of Punk Rock — Part II

One of our first shows at CBGN — Note Joe on Lead Guitar — me wearing his old Chop Shop Tee and Sporting the Pompadour Devillock — half Ducky, half Goth, half RockaSilly. Photo credit — Greg Fasolino

(For those just tuning in, here’s the link to Part I —

A Jumbled Memory of the Ritz

The Ritz was one of the larger venues in New York City. And in as much as the Ritz eventually became more of a concept applied to a couple of locations, it was at that time serving as the physical venue for another concept — Rock Hotel — formerly of Jane Street in the West Village. The Rock Hotel was where so many of New York’s most memorable punk shows took place. Nestled in the Northwest corner of Greenwich Village, the bands, the kids, the stuff that came with us all, (the drugs, the booze, the fights, the police, the fire department, the blood, the vomit, the urine — etc — became a bit much for the in-progress yuppification of the area to tolerate. And so the Rock Hotel was instructed to pound sand and find a new place to wreak havoc on the city. The Ritz would be Rock Hotel’s new home with the promoters getting bigger and bigger bands under the banner of Rock Hotel at the Ritz.

Special thanks to Misfits Central for helping me get the dates sorted out and make sense of the entire scope of the story — reference here:

In April of 1986 Rock Hotel was putting on Samhain with Dag Nasty, and the U.K. Subs. For this show, I was almost as much there for the other bands as I was for Samhain having been a fan of the Subs since high school, and Dag Nasty being made up of former members of Minor Threat and DYS. In the true sense of acting as if, a friend and I managed to get Brian Baker’s attention for a few minutes and strike up a conversation. This was the best part of this scene. It wasn’t like you were waiting outside for a glimpse of David Bowie on a red carpet. These guys were just out in the crowd, catching up with people they knew in NYC or just seeing what the crowd would be like and what they could expect when they went on. Slightly starstruck by Brian Baker, we were having a good conversation when Charlie Harper, the hallowed, and rapidly aging singer of the U.K. Subs appeared in the lobby, saying hello to people as he passed as if he were running for office. Charlie Harper was someone that was on a constant heart attack watch (I may be over-dramatizing, but listen to the song Down on the Farm, and you tell me). I followed Charlie Harper to see if I could shake the hand that penned Endangered Species. Baker, a little put off said to my friend Pil, “oh sure Charlie Harper walks in and I am chopped liver”.

This was the November Coming Fire tour for Samhain. My second round seeing them, as I had previously seen them at Trenton City Gardens in October of 1985 — kind of a perfect time to see them. There I was at the Ritz, marveling at the fact that the guy who auditioned for Kraut a week or two earlier, was standing 30 feet away from me with Davey Gunner. I guess he made it. I sure hope he replaced his strings. So, belated congratulations, and — you’re welcome! It was a Samhain show, and so a few feet away there was Eerie Von just standing there taking it all in. I mustered up some courage and went over and talked to him. I told him how much I dug the band and asked him a few questions about how he got started playing bass. (Vocationally I am a bass player — remember, it becomes important again later in the program). Eerie’s response, me expecting him to be the blood-soaked Gene Simmons type from the Initium album cover was pretty casual. “It’s not like I am a great bass player, I just kind of keep it simple and it works”. I may be paraphrasing. It was definitely something like that. And while I was expecting this tough-guy rockstar type, he just seemed to be a taller and slightly older version of myself. (Who knows, he may be a better bass player too). There may be hope for me yet. Eerie, if you are out there — thanks!

But I digress. After several weeks it seemed as though the Bobby Snotz thing was not going to work out. Some combination of Bobby not showing up, or us not being able to find him, or both. Either way, the honeymoon was over pretty quickly, and we had to come up with a plan. In retrospect, it was pretty easy. Joe was the obvious choice. With two guitars he was good enough to sing and play the lead, and had been the singer in Chop Shop so this was not foreign territory for him. We started moving in that direction, and he started writing lyrics that were more “horror” based. His knowledge of all things macabre was pretty impressive and so he never suffered for a lack of topics, whether it be Vincent Price movies, Swamp Thing comics, or just old horror movies. He was the personification of what the Damned described in the song Nasty. As Joe took the helm of both guitar and vocals we had stepped it up and were rehearsing pretty steadily.

We were getting ready to get several of the songs that Joe had put together onto a 7". We all kicked in some money for what would be needed for recording, tape, the pressing, and we would DIY the packaging and “distribution”. Distribution in punk rock terms meant packing singles into sleeves, addressing envelopes, and sending them out. For the ones that were not sent out to labels, the rest would be walked (likely by Joe or myself or a combination of Joe, Sarah, and myself) to record shops in the area to sell on consignment.

For the record — I remember the Batcave recording studio experience. The name, that it was 8-track, and that we recorded things pretty quickly. (I verified with Joe just FYI — I wasn’t trusting my own memory on this one). In spite of our inexperience, Sarah and I did both play our respective parts on the record. And so another first in recording something that would actually make it to vinyl.

Vinyl was IT! I wouldn’t see or hear my first CD for another year or two. Cassettes were for the car, and vinyl was what you listened to. I would stack records on my turntable at night, put on my headphones with the thirty-foot cord, and let them go while I fell asleep. You listened to whole album sides at once. There was no shuffle. So to be on vinyl — this was a lifetime achievement.

Joe was the son of a big-time movie producer and a highly acclaimed jazz singer. There was no limit to the creative pursuits Joe had learned growing up in that environment, and between creating cover art, working with his mom’s boyfriend on the photo shoot, working with the Batcave guy on the mix of the recording — it was all in his wheelhouse. He was a producer through and through, in addition to being a musician, songwriter, artist, and encyclopedia of all things macabre and cool in the world we were making our way through. It was a great environment, but entirely distracting, and me being in my second semester of college it was starting to show.

The Thing About Catholic School Kids

You see, the thing about Catholic School kids — those of us who have done 12 years of hard-time in multiple pens, with multiple types of screws (nuns, brothers, priests, multiple orders, multiple “philosophies” etc… — is that we have some type of perverse reaction to authority. That reaction can manifest as defiance, fear, or even panic. In my case it was, in Hunter S. Thompson’s words “fear and loathing”. I hated it. Every second. But I had the fear. So I obeyed-ish. You get away with what you can, and you keep testing. Test, test, test. How far can I push? Eventually, they make an example of you and you stop testing and let the fear take over. And then you graduate. You’ve been paroled. After 12 years of hard-time, you don’t know how to behave in polite society. By your second semester of college you come to find that if you skip a class, they don’t come to find you as they did in Catholic school. No calls home, no alerts to the police, no Christian Brothers combing the arcade with a special punishment formulated if they found you anywhere but unconscious in the emergency room. And you best have been on your way to school when you got knocked cold! In Catholic school missing school or being late for a class was tantamount to bringing a hooker and an eight ball to the cafeteria. In college, it was Thursday.

With that knowledge, fear was making its way to the exit. Along with the 4.0, I pulled my first semester of college (within the grip of the fear). My parent’s strict “you pass we pay, you fail you pay” policy was looming large. It was here that I was beginning to identify — approaching the Summer of 1986 — the danger to my newly found rock and roll lifestyle in the form of having to tell my parents that I got two B’s, two C’s, and a D in my second semester. Would the college payment plan only continue if I gave the band up? There were enough open questions between the arrival of the steady girlfriend (now the amazing wife and partner of 37 years), the band, and my acceptance into the Chase Manhattan teller school program via a favor of my friend Pil from high school. It was a lot of plates to juggle.

It was all on the table and I wasn’t thrilled about any of it. Especially this grade report issue I now had. Sleeping at Joe’s place after a later rehearsal, I showed him the grade report. I was despondent as he examined it and finally spoke.

“Shit, I can make this.”

“What? How?”

“I have this great computer. It’s a Mac. Hang on what do we want these grades to be?”

“Let’s go for 3 B’s and 2 C’s. We can keep it kind of believable.” (The believability of it was dubious as I found out four years later after graduation. My mother asked why my average wasn’t as high as we expected and why I was only Summa Cum Laude. My father jumped right in. “Oh right, that, remember his second-semester grade report — that was a fake. I called the registrar the day after he showed it to us and got the real one. I just wanted to see if he could get back on track.” And get back on track I did, but that’s another story. With the grades behind me, we were on to the Summer of 1986.

Audition Showcase

So if you ever wondered as you walked through Terminal C at Newark Airport, and saw the fake CBGB awning <facepalm> (if they were really hardcore they would have recreated the bathroom — now there’s something I would pay to see), how bands after the big punk explosion made it to that hallowed stage, there was a critical first step. The first bit was an audition showcase.

But a bit about CB’s first. This was both an awful and wonderful place. The bathrooms were beyond gross. But the graffiti was highly-entertaining. I would often pee outside (with everyone else in NYC at the time), rather than set one foot in it. It was a railroad car layout. Which translates to a death trap. If a fire broke out we were goners. There was history crusted onto every surface and not all of that history was good or interesting. More like finding fossils or petrified, Pompei-style remains of things you would not even consciously think about except that they were there in front of you. I can only imagine the OCD that would go on there now in the age of Purell. Everyone would be sanitizing all day long. Touch a surface, and sanitize. I don’t even think you could wash your hands in that bathroom.

The audition showcases happened on either Sunday or Monday evenings (I can’t remember) and were attended by Hilly himself. (He looked nothing like Alan Rickman, and was much scarier to look at than he was when he started to talk to you). You would play for Hilly, 2–3 tunes, there would be a small audience (mostly made up of the friends of the other bands), and then you would pass or fail and if you passed you would get a gig. Joe’s previous experience with Chop Shop and other bands had allowed him to develop a relationship with Hilly, and so to get us on a showcase, all Joe needed was the knowledge that we could nail it, and then just ask. As soon as he thought we were there, he asked. We received, and so we played a showcase and were invited back to play a Sunday night show with a band called Tupelo Chain Sex. (I am not making this up). Tupelo Chain Sex was one of those sorts of wiseacre alternative bands that kept springing up when it was still called “indie” or “college” rock, the latter coined after the college stations that would actually play it. Think self-infatuated smarty-pants types with some talent, and a bizarre sense of humor, making “art for arts sake damn you”.

Tupelo had a horn section led by a sax player simply called “Stomach”. They were sound-checking in plain clothes as we arrived and began to load in. They cleared the stage for us, and we set up and got ready to start our sound check. This was my first pro sound check, first real venue, first real gig, first real anything. I was taking it very seriously. Until. Until Stomach and his bandmates returned from their van, dressed in clown suits. Bad clowns. Drunk has-been birthday party clowns. I could not stop laughing as I tried to focus on bar chords. Stopping whatever song we were playing. Joe turned, saying something to Rob about something that actually mattered. Me, I took the opportunity to step up to the mic, summon my best Reverend Jim from Taxi voice and say over the PA — “Boy, you guys are funny lookin’”.

Stomach whirled immediately to face me. Daggers and flames in his eyes he stared at me. Joe covered his mic and looked at me with a disapproving, almost fatherly type of scolding look. “Hey man, they take this really seriously, don’t make fun of it”.

Go ahead. Read the last bit again, it’s worth it, I promise. I was now on stage at CBGB, a very big night in my life, being scolded that guys in clown suits take the clown thing very seriously. I wish I was making this up, but I am not that creative.

The First Show

It felt like it was over before it started. The show went so quickly. I had so much adrenaline. Screaming my backup vocals, pacing back and forth across the 3–4 square feet allotted me like a bull in a china shop. Trying to look like a tough guy and a rock star all at once. Making it up as I went. It was all working and we got through it.

It was an ok sized crowd of mostly friendlies, and of course, the people there to see the clown parade. As the opening act, your set time is pretty limited and so we were likely on and off within 30 minutes. Maybe a little more, but it was enough. It happened and it went well. This whole thing was actually working. Joe’s friend Greg Fasolino took great photos and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time for great shots. (I am 99% sure the photo up top is his — thanks Greg!) This was beginning to feel pretty pro. Something to be good at, something that made me want to keep plugging away.

Plugging Away

There would be several other shows coming. Managing to arrange another CBGB show with our friends in the Plague — another goth/death rock type outfit, and so we kept plugging away. We waited for the single to be pressed and ready. And we made some tactical changes. With Bobby’s departure, we shifted our rehearsals to Ultrasound at 30th Street. Ultrasound was one of a dozen spaces of the type where you only needed to bring sticks and strings with amps and drums provided. The owner, Jeff, who was a drummer himself, slept in a loft in the space (likely illegally), and became part of the network we were building around ourselves. Although I was finding that Joe’s network was already pretty extensive.

Somewhere in here I got the assignment to call former Misfits guitar player, and Undead frontman Bobby Steele. We were trying to put a show together (that eventually happened with both Braineaters AND DitchWitch — the latter show having some dire consequences), and eventually did. I had several sort of “regular calls and in-person conversations with Bobby as he told me about his time with the Misfits, the sour grapes that followed his departure, and his missing toe. Bobby made his way around the East Village with a giant mohawk, a pair of Pony boxing sneakers, and a cane (the toe). To say that he was a character was an understatement. We seeemed to get along for the Braineaters show but the DitchWitch show a couple of years later was a crowded, heated, stressful mess. that really could have ended a lot worse than it did. More on that in later chapters). Not sure why I raise the Undead thing, other than to emphasize that we were building some credibility with people we thought mattered. We were becoming a little bit of a thing.

Joe continued to write new tunes, we continued to learn them and refine them. But the structure of all of them as written was headed for some serious disruption.

The Last Samhain Show (That I Know Of)

Ready to admit there are things I don’t know, this may or may not have been the actual last Samhain show. But it was certinly the last time I saw them in that format. We got ourselves set to head to the Ritz after practice where they would be playing with Celtic Frost and D.O.A. I liked D.O.A. because they were funny. I was actually listening to Celtic Frost through some exposure from friends at school. A German thrash metal band they had a unique, spooky, and interesting sound. Like nothing, I had ever heard. But to see this lineup seemed like a perfect night. So we, the Braineaters, headed as a group to the Ritz to see the Rock Hotel at the Ritz lineup of Samhain, D.O.A., and Celtic Frost. It was Joe’s thought that he could find a way backstage — someone or something he knew that would get him through the door — with either the demo of the 7" or a pressed version of it.

True to his vision as he almost always was, Joe managed to get backstage after the show, and with the hope of getting us signed to, or at least the proposition discussed of Braineaters being on Glenn’s Plan 9 label handed the goods off to a post-show completely exasperated Glenn Danzig. Sarah and I were only able to watch from the door as the handoff was made and who knows where it went, but the awareness came back to serve us eventually. The report back was that Glenn was completely schvitzed, dripping with sweat and fake blood, breathing heavily, and barely aware of what was being handed to him. While Glenn’s amped-up state may not have permitted an immediate connection, it served as a calling card when we would need it, in the not too distant future.

The Front Rows Will Get Wet

Like any good ride at an amusement park, a Samhain show always meant the first few rows of bodies would get soaked in whatever the fake blood du jour that was being used on stage. I arrived home to my parents place that night at about 4AM covered in it, as we had fought our way to the front. (You can see us on the November Coming Fire album insert — Joe at that Ritz show, and me at the City Gardens show in October of 1985).

For whatever reason, my eldest sister decided that she was going to make a big deal of myself and Alicia arriving pre-dawn, and the fact that I was covered in blood. Drawing the worst possible conclusions she had decided right there on the spot that I was part of some bizarre fight club and that I had spent the evening in a drug-fueled haze beating people to death. Maybe she thought I was beating on the homeless, I don’t know. Hard to know what she really thought. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good, and I had a lot of ‘splainin’ to do when my parents got up the next morning. The prosecutor started on them as soon as they arrived in the kitchen.

Farewell G3

In the picture above I am playing a Montoya knock off of a Gibson Explorer. This is what the fucksticks at We Buy decided I could get (along with a Korg tuner and a case that didn’t fit the Montoya), in exchange for the G3. I needed my own guitar, although my pattern of borrowing instruments as I surfed the spectrum from bass player, to guitar player, and back to bass player got less and less affordable as the tide of said spectrum progressed.

The G3 was sublime. The Montoya was a piece of shit. The tuner — they said — would be necessary for something that would be out of tune so often, but hey, that’s what you can afford. Great. In their defense, the tuner was a godsend, and Sarah regularly referred to it as my “hot tuner” (Hot Tuna joke).

No matter. The Montoya and the odd “Hey Karl can I borrow the Ibanez” got me through it. But the G3, I always missed it. It was my first real instrument, and I am to this day racked with remorse at ever letting it go so easily.

Next up — “Hello Lodi, number please!”



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