The Leonard Zelig of Punk Rock — Part III
Deliver Us Oh Great Magnet, From the Foul Summer of 1986
Punk rock systems thinking in the era of Rick Rubin. Aquanet in a white can and the bees that followed. Stepping in shit on college radio with the Queen of Punk! Walking together and rocking together on Thanksgiving. A reformation and breakdown by Winter!
For those catching up:
It’s happenstance that I am currently helping to plan a curriculum in systems thinking in my current employment. Systems thinking, in lay person’s terms is understanding cause and effect within certain boundaries, and how all the parts/components impact each other. Without getting preachy, and trying to be funny, just think of the old “…a butterfly flaps its wings in the congo, months later a monsoon in the Amazon, and a landslide off the Southern coast of New Zealand….” OK that’s probably not how it goes, but you get it. So, tell me bubbi, what does systems thinking have to do with this whole story.
The Rubin Effect
Let’s be clear. I don’t know Rick Rubin. I never met him, laid eyes on him in person, talked to him on the phone, or had any impact on Rick Rubin’s life at all. I pass no judgment, I make no claims, I have no knowledge, except the rumors that upon seeing Samhain, he Gordon Gecko’d the band by signing them, keeping what he thought would make him money, and letting go of the rest. In that foul, hot, stinking summer of 1986, Rubin was making his moves (supposedly from his dorm room at NYU — or maybe he was past that by then), and creating a stir within the death rock dance halls of New York City. Samhain was now no longer a thing, and as that rumor started to get out on the grapevine (please keep in mind that there was no ability to text anyone what just happened and have an instant impact on it), reactions were starting to form, and we knew that we would have to move fast to make it all play out in our favor. Let’s put a pin in this.
College Radio Days
There was a time before MySpace, Spotify, XM Radio, and BandCamp, when you had to hit the college radio stations if you wanted to hear anything new. Getting on college radio seemed both achievable and impossible at the same time when it came to being heard on a show that had any kind of reasonable audience. But as good fortune would have it, both Joe and I had a connection at the same college radio station, WSIA 88.9 in Staten Island. I had gone to high school with a guy named John Telenko. He was a year older than me, and admittedly one of those dudes you looked at and thought to yourself — “I will never be as cool as that guy”. In the category of not too soon to call it, now in 2022 I can tell you — I never was. But John was a cool guy, and through him and the hoi polloi of the Staten Island “underground” music scene, I was able to make a connection with his sister Terre.
While we were in high school Terre had gotten her own show on WSIA, and worked part-time at Our Music Center — the only record shop on the Rock that carried anything worthwhile. So you would go to “Our” on a weekday afternoon, hit up Terre for what was cool, listen to what she was spinning, and do everything you could to absorb whatever knowledge she was willing to drop on you.
Meanwhile, somewhere in New York City, Joe Truck Kasher, was developing a friendship with another WSIA DJ named Rob Rowen Conroy. Another cool guy from the Rock that was not on my radar during the tumultuous beaten-by-guidos era that was high school, Rob was part of the fabric of Braineaters pretty much from the start. He connected us with WSIA, and reconnected me with Terre. The good news was that we had a product. A 3-song 7-inch record that could be sent to stations, played, re-played, discussed etc…
The connections started to result in friendly gatherings, and eventually an interview spot on a hot, Summer Sunday afternoon.
Now — let’s pause and rewind to the Summer of 1985. Fresh out of high school. For the moment, I was still nobody. Not even Zelig.
No girlfriend, a shitty messenger job, and a messenger dispatcher, who surprise of surprises was a punk rocker in a band called Expletive Deleted. Gerard was a nice guy, I think. But really always reminded me of the guy that Zander Schloss played in Repo Man. “Kevin, you were fucking singing man, cut it out”
“What? I wasn’t singing guy!” — This was Gerard.
He had big dreams for “ED” — boy does that ever need a rebrand — and he was out to see those dreams come true. There was talk of me the shitty bass player (stay tuned, that nickname lives on), in the messenger bullpen maybe joining ED. Them going to the two-guitar model, etc….Nothing formulated. I moved on in the Fall, he moved on, and things changed. I don’t think I saw him until maybe two years later on a ferry ride late at night. But that’s not the point.
Because what are the angry, young, still teenage for the moment, years without the drama of imaginary conflict. And so it was rumored in 1986 that Gerard and ED were “talking shit” about Terre T, (possibly because she wouldn’t play them on her show, possibly because they were dicks, or somewhere in between), and sarcastically called her out somewhere as “The Queen of Punk”. Well, who knows why, or who knows why we all cared (including Terre), but they were talking shit about our friends, and that was really all that mattered. Hackles up, claws out, teenage bravado at the ready. Drunk on adrenaline we got in the booth at WSIA. Terre played the record, someone shoved a mic in my face, and me being the jackass I am, I uttered the magic words:
“Well, it’s better than Expletive Deleted eh?” I WISH to the great magnet that I realized what an awesome double I had just uttered. But I didn’t. I wasn’t that clever. And so the show went on, and we had a good interview, and it got replayed a couple of times throughout the day, and for a minute I was a shit-talking somebody.
And so it came and went that ED’s “manager” wrote a scathing 2–3 page letter to WSIA about what a hot band ED was (these are actual words, including the abbreviation), and how that asshole from Braineaters (she didn’t call me that, she was much more professional) was more “problem than the solution” or some such thing, and how could Terre T — the Queen of Punk, mind you — allow these clowns on the air?
And so now I was infamous instead of famous, (instead of a shit-talking somebody, a problem nobody), I got a good friend who did us a solid in hot water, and because of the foul, really couldn’t show my face on Staten Island, or so I thought. Apparently, and unbeknownst to me there were other bands out there on the Rock, paying attention to what we were doing and saying “well if that hack Geiser can get somewhere — so can we”.
Gerard, if you are out there — hope all is well, no hard feelings, as I am sure we have both grown, and I hope that ED is no longer a part of your life. Or that you are at least spelling it out. Use your words, man. They matter here.
Summer proceeded from there, with only one goal in sight. Find the guy they called “Damian”, AKA, Pete from Mourning Noise, Pete from the Whorelords, that guy with the Ibanez Iceman — no not Paul Stanley, the other guy, and every other alias that he had. It was an APB. In our first phone conversation, I actually had to as for his last name, in case I lost track of him again.
The Rubin Effect Continues….
With Rubin’s flapping of his wings in the Congo as it were, the ripple effect and reaction were simple. We knew we would not be the only ones that wanted to leverage up and punch above our weight by pulling in what we considered a bonafide rock star. And so we started making calls. This was our chance to be the landslide on the South coast of New Zealand caused by that pain-the-ass butterfly, that is always starting shit by flapping its wings.
A combination of calls that begot more calls, introducing ourselves to anyone would answer about who might know who, who has this number, who has that number. No email addresses, websites, or text messages to help us, this was true networking. Who do we know? Who can we call? Who can we ask to call? How can we break through? Who owes us? HA! Nobody owed us! At the very least, how can we be so persistent as to make sure that anyone/everyone involved knows that we should be the first ones called back.?
First Joe called, then I called, he got a machine, I got a machine. Messages were left, but no one was spoken to. Then finally he got an answer and left a number. Days went by and we heard nothing. While sitting in Joe’s apartment strategizing, it was my turn.
“I’ve called too many times,” he said. “I am worried I am starting to piss him off
So I called. Someone answered. At this point, I couldn’t tell you if it was Glenn Danzig himself, (it was his number supposedly), Eerie Von answering the phone, or who knows who else? It could have been Danzig’s dad for all I knew. And so I stuttered to try and get something out.
“Hey, I am calling from Braineaters, and I was hoping you could give us Damian’s number?”
I felt like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. But that wasn’t the tone of the answer I got.
“Hey, look, I gave Pete your number, that’s all I can do. If he wants to meet with you guys he will call you”.
“Hey thanks, man, we really appreciate it!”
And like that, it was over. The phone rang at Joe’s a few days later, and a meeting was set for a Monday night, likely sometime in September of 1986. We had an impending show at CBGB that we would want Pete to be a part of it if we could make it happen. We had new songs that Joe had written, and we had label interest if we could get them recorded.
Pete came over with a guy with curly blond hair that I had recognized from Samhain shows. Without digging too deep on that yet, this was Tom Fergus, a lifetime friend of Pete’s and a pretty good guitar player in his own right. More on that later.
We watched them come up the six flights of stairs in the courtyard to find Joe’s apartment. Sarah noted that they were both wearing Timberlands. This wasn’t very deathrock, and not even very punk. But it was very real. What we found out is that these guys worked for a living when they weren’t on stage, and took it pretty seriously. Pete was carrying a guitar with him, a Gibson SG that would have brought instant street cred to anyone who wasn’t already loaded with street cred. I recall, embarrassingly uttering the term “bitchin’” when he opened the case like I was in a John Hughes movie. And recovering well enough to be able to discuss the radon content in the soil in North Jersey with Tom at a level that brought me a little street cred.
And so it was on. This was happening.
Pete was going to join, and this was going to start. With the aforementioned CBGB gig looming large on our minds, we asked how soon we could get going.
“Do you think you can do this show with us?” Joe asked.
“Hell yes, I love playing out” was his reply. This was, incidentally, the first time I had ever heard the phrase “playing out”. Always learning.
From there it turned into an evening of playing Joe’s library of Samhain bootlegs and Pete narrating what was happening where. On one instance of Halloween, Pete smiled, and said, “oh yeah, this one is IT, this is the super-slow version. This was the best we did this.”
Somewhere in there, a silence between songs, and someone in the crowd on the tape yelling out “Fuck you! Ya Dick!” got us all hysterical, and the bonding began in earnest.
Rehearsals followed. They are a blur. The show at CBGB was a good one. My role was different, and I needed to get used to that. Part decoration, part backup singer, part (small part) rhythm guitar, it was now a five-piece, with Joe becoming the Phil Collins of Braineaters and taking up as a lead singer only. A natural showman, Joe was right at home upfront. This was similar to his role in Chop Shop and so it was not a stretch. Sarah remained steady on bass and just kept improving. Rob was doing his job, and getting more and more comfortable with us all. I was now the steaming pile of crap on the opposite side of the stage from the main attraction. It was tough to not lose confidence and focus.
Day by day, Pete became less of an object and more of a real person as we spent more time, between rehearsals, sharing commutes to Ultrasound, and just hanging out in the in-between times where everyone is just waiting for the next thing to happen. I have no trouble admitting that I looked up to Pete. While Joe and Sarah were more the authority or parental figures in my Braineaters world, Pete started to become more of a big brother type. This carried through to learning how to suck less on guitar. Learning how to tune my guitar by myself, and just learning how it all works on a larger scale. Storytelling was key here. There were experiences Pete was sharing that connected the dots between how things in this world worked, and how I had always imagined or dreamed that they worked.
Hearing about the things Pete had seen, the people he had met, and the shows he had played all had lessons and aspirations. He wasn’t out to teach stories with morals, or even yank my crank about how tough it was. He was just telling it like it was. That was what you got with Pete. Pretty much the raw facts, and “here’s how it happened”. Back of the van bologna sandwiches as the sole meal of the day, sharing rides and space with other bands, humping your own gear around, van trouble and waiting for tow trucks, arguing with club owners about money — it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll, was what I was learning.
No Room in Hell
The No Room in Hell project was a top priority. Joe had been working on new songs, and Pete had been providing a real edge and a new, harder, tone to everything. The themes were the same. Dark, macabre, deep cuts of legendary comic book titles like Swamp Thing. The lyrics were interesting, the guitar work was edgy, and the overall sound was getting louder, more aggressive, and less punk. It was much more rock and roll-ish, but with dark themes and a bit faster. Even the older songs were being reshaped a bit to fit the new sound. Same chords, same lyrics, but harder, edgier. The reshaping of the lineup was bringing a reshaping of the music.
It was time to get it recorded. We had interest. The sooner we had product, the sooner we could make something happen. Joe found a really interesting studio opportunity and we hit it. The studio, Noise New York, was owned by a guy named Kramer (not of Seinfeld fame). Instead, Kramer was punk-famous for being a sometimes bass player for the Butthole Surfers as well as a producer for a number of bands. His studio was on the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue, above what would someday become the TGI Fridays across from Madison Square Garden. We would be recording 16 tracks, a much more produced sound, with Kramer as the engineer.
My memories of the recording were that it spanned a number of weekends, with parking being the big issue in each case. Oh for those problems. On the final mix-down day, I had to last-resort park my car near the Post Office in a marginally legal spot.
Kramer, as usual, was calm when I asked about it and said “don’t worry they are too lazy to tow you on a Sunday”. And so I let it ride.
This was completely different from my 8-track experience at the Bat Cave on the single. This was an exercise of repeating tracks, trying new things each time, and doing as many retakes as we could afford within the session time that we had.
I had legit questions — “Can we make that guitar louder at that point”. Meaning — can we listen to that and see what it sounds like. Kramer, ever the smart ass took this as an opportunity to school me, the neophyte on how the board worked. “See these,” he said, sliding the faders up and down, “that’s what these do”. I decided to let it go and not explain myself.
“Which one of you guys is going to smoke some hash with me….” he suddenly exclaimed. “You guys are really bumming me out”.
Still, he regaled us as he worked with tales of traveling through Europe with Gibby Haynes as part of the Butthole Surfers, and the trials and tribulations that went with staying out of European jails while keeping Gibby’s lack of filter under control. “And we would tell him, Gibby, they don’t find that tattoo funny here, like they might back home, you’ve gotta cover that up….” With every story, I would think, maybe all this isn’t such a hot idea after all. But then again, none of my bandmates were Gibby Haynes.
There were no takers on the hash, but we all got stuck into the stories. This was not a hash crowd, and for as much as our lack of enthusiasm for the drugs bummed him out, the final mixed product was beyond my wildest dreams.
There were deals pending for this record, this was going to be it. But as the timelines got longer and less certain, the wheels would start to come off.
Through the fall we would wind into what I am fairly sure turned out to be one of two of our last shows, and definitely the biggest. I was excited about the future of it all, but feeling pretty shitty about my part of it all. We had a record in the can, and now we would be opening for 7 Seconds. These guys were a DC band that was very much on the rise. They were big in hardcore before, and a big part of the DC scene, but their latest “Walk Together / Rock Together” was becoming the anthem of peace punks everywhere. Polar opposites of the NY HC scene that included the Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law, and Cro Mags, violent and thrashy “music to get hurt by” scene, 7 Seconds were all about the “can’t we all just get along vibe”, and had 3 or 4 big hits off that album, including their cover of Nena’s 99 Red Balloons. So here we were on the bill as openers. Thanksgiving Day (night) 1986.
It was Thanksgiving Day 1986. If ever there would be a big push, this would be it. I made the mandatory appearance at my grandmother’s place in Glendale, and then back in the Cutlass and winding my way through the most confusing parts of Queens through holiday traffic, trying to find my way to any crossing that would get me into Manhattan without paying a toll.
We moved our gear into CBs and started to set up. There were three or four bands on the bill including us, and so it was a round-robin of setting up and sound checking and it seemed to go on for hours. By the time we hit the stage, I don’t know what time it was but it was late. The place was packed. This was an entirely new experience, and my recollection was that we sounded tighter than we ever did before. We were always a pretty well-practiced group but we were really getting tight now and the crowd was actually pretty into it. As we went off, I was starting to realize, there was no getting our gear out of here until 7 Seconds finished and the place cleared out. That would be hours from now.
Toward the back of the house, by the Bowery, I happened upon a conversation between Pete and Nick Marden, formerly of the Stimulators, now of the Deans. I knew the Deans because I had seen their flyers where they aped the Mick Rock photo of Queen from the Queen II cover. Pete had introduced me to bands like the Stimulators. The “Loud Fast Rules” cassette was something that once I was able to find a copy, I played on a continuous loop in my car. It was basic loud punk, but Nick, as I would find out was kind of the gold standard in NYC punk bass players, and so as I got the introduction and started to follow the sort of sub-scene that this all came from. I got it in my head that Nick had the model for the type of musician I wished I was. The guy that everyone looked at and said “see that guy in the kilt and carrying the shillelagh over there — that’s the guy”. I was nowhere close to that in the current state.
As 7 Seconds hit the stage, Kevin the lead singer cracked a little wise about leaving his black clothes and makeup in the laundry, and I thought “what happened to ‘walk together rock together’ jackass. Fuck you! Ya dick”. (see how it comes back around). I didn’t yell it but I definitely thought it. No matter.
They did a pretty good show but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Pete said to me later that the new 7 Seconds sound they were going to start touring would not go over in the midwest. Places like Cleveland and Detroit that expected the 7 Seconds of old would crucify them with that sound. He was so emphatic it made me afraid to ever go to Cleveland. My first experience in Cleveland was at a client site 20 years later — it did not disappoint.
We finally got out of CB’s so late, that I was afraid I would be late for my Black Friday shift as a teller at one of the Chase branches on Staten Island. As I walked into the bank, straight from the gig, I was pulling the Aquanet out of my hair with a thick brush, trying to get the front devil-lock back on my head and find a way to hide how it looked just an hour before as I was stuffing my amp into the back of my car. The ladies of the bank noticed my black nail polish and immediately went to work on me to get rid of it before Mr. Hall came in with his morning deposits. Mr. Hall — the proprietor of Joseph G. Hall Monuments — was like having someone walk in out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. With his pinstripe suit and well-boxed hat, he would likely go to the first open window, which would be mine. The nail polish removal exercise in the counting room was not going well. I was stuffed in the drive-through for safekeeping, and that’s where I rode out the 10 longest hours of the 1980s handing Christmas Club cash through a drawer to drivers that didn’t yet trust these new-fangled automagic teller machines.
This was a successful show. It certainly made me feel like I could do this. I wasn’t afraid of the crowd, or the pressure of performing, and I think we got through it all really well. We had a record in the can as I mentioned, and this gig would certainly generate buzz and get us more opportunities. I kept the job at the bank (which paid pretty well for a now gigging “musician”) and was looking forward to the end of the semester to see where the next musical turn would take us.
But as I mentioned, as the record deal continued to delay, in spite of Joe putting a shit-ton of effort into getting in front of as many labels as he could, that holiday season and subsequent Winter was tough on everyone’s psyche. In times of uncertainty, speculation, and drama take over. They are the substitute for the nervousness and excitement of success. People need something to worry about. We didn’t have much in the way of gigs, rehearsals became rote, and we weren’t progressing.
At some point in January or February, we were presented with the opportunity to play an after-hours club in Commack, Long Island.
It was a cold Saturday night, and a few of us set out in my car across the LIE with what we perceived as enough time. Listening to the heavy metal college station the whole way, WSOU 89.5 we were hearing about what was happening at L’Amour in Brookly, L’Amour East in Queens, and L’Amour Far East in — yes, you guessed it — Commack Long Island. Note the shift here, as we are listening to the metal station on the way to the gig. This wasn’t happenstance, it was a pattern in shifting taste, and preference. Usually this type of shift in a creative environment is a leading indicator of boredom or staleness.
Missing the connection to the Sagtikos Parkway, and not knowing jack about Long Island, we ended up at a traffic triangle near the famous love hotel the Commack Motor Inn — free cable and in-room movies, anyone who stayed up late to watch Bob Newhart knew the Commack Motor Inn. I asked the county mountie sitting in the triangle where the hell we were and how we could find the Batcave. He explained my mistake and pointed us in the right direction. The Batcave was apparently in a shopping plaza. The cop had the right idea, but the wrong execution. We ended up sitting in front of the Queensryche tour bus at L’Amour Far East, wondering where the hell the Batcave was. We were beginning to think that we would never see this show happen. Remember — no cell phones.
I got out to ask and got some answers. As I got back in, I asked if anyone in the car had ever heard of Queensryche. Pete had the answer.
“Yeah they have been talking about them on the radio, we must be at that “L’Amour Extra West or whatever they called it, Queensryche is playing there.”
“Great”, I thought. “If we don’t make the show, at least we will have something to do. Hope Queensryche doesn’t suck?” Spoiler alert — they sorta do/did.
After another hour of searching, we finally found it. It was close to midnight, and I was in a panic when we were unloading. Turns out, we weren’t due on stage until 2 AM. This would be another long night.
Our friend Greg Fasolino was the club DJ for the evening. This turned out to be a whole different scene, but I was fully relieved that we would get to go on. We did a quick rip of our best stuff, and in the midst, there was a skinhead that decided that he wanted to goad me into something. I kept motioning for him to come up on stage, with the thought that I would use my size 10.5 engineer boot to steel toe his ass back off. I was tired, I was hungry, and I was ready to go home and go to bed. Fahrenheit 451 was up next and we wouldn’t be able to get out until they were done.
The drive home was unbearably long. We stopped in Queens at a diner on the side of the LIE. Everyone in that car was worn out. It was a metaphor for what was happening. It wouldn’t be long now.
I could not tell you even in the slightest, what all the fuss and the drama were about. My guess is that at our current ages it wouldn’t go down the way it did. It got ugly, it got petty, and it was nobody’s fault. No one was right, no one was wrong. It was just unsustainable and the fear was that it wasn’t going where we thought it was going to go. Pete would eventually walk. He was done with goth rock, deathrock, whatever you want to call it, and wanted to get back to the kind of stuff that he loved to play. I would walk with him, it just felt like it was time for me to show myself out. In retrospect, it showed bad form and a severe lack of gratitude for all that Joe had done for me. At 19 I didn’t see it that way, but it was the truth. Any next steps I could take would be taken on the back of Braineaters and I had Joe to thank for that.
Probably, I was afraid to be asked the question that I thought Pete would ask me “are you going to hang around and keep doing this?” — keyword was “thought”. He never asked. He never would have. His thing was his thing. For whatever reason, I thought it was also my thing. As I mentioned earlier, with nothing else to worry about people speculate, panic, and gin up drama. And that’s how this happens.
Braineaters would reshape again, and by March, I was without a band.
Up next — The In Between Time / Auditions, Fears, Failures / Bad Posture Goes to College
Special thanks to Greg Fasolino for helping with some of my timeline issues, photos, set lists, and gig flyers. Greg is a historian, musician, filmmaker, and all-around good guy! Thanks Greg! And a special thanks to Joe Truck Kasher for sending the advance copy — no spoilers!