Saturday, September 16, 2017

WILLIAM M. BERGER, 1964-2017


Where do I begin my absolute saddest post yet? Another friend has gone to the great beyond, and this time it really, really, REALLY fucking hurts, for this one had a deep, deep influence on my life in almost a million ways. I didn't start the Brazenblog with any intention of becoming an obituary writer, but fate just keeps on intervening, and so here we go again.

And there is no better way to start this one off than by stating with all due modesty that were it not for William M. Berger, this whole Ray Zinnbrann/Ray Brazen thing might never have gotten even half as far as it did. Most of the story of the Lo-Fi cassette underground scene Bill championed and gave voice to (which in turn led to that first gig) has already been told elsewhere on this blog. It's better that I refer you back to this entry than repeat myself. (Bill always told me he didn't like to repeat himself, after all.) I've also dropped the odd tale or two about him into a few other posts here and there. Allow me, then, to take this one to fill in many details I've not previously shared, and to celebrate him on an even deeper and more personal level still.

When I first met Bill, it was the dead winter of '86 and I was in a bit of a transitional period musically. No longer interested in hardcore, I'd plunged myself into a frenzied revisiting of the music I'd loved before punk rock came along in a frantic search for what I wanted to listen to next now that punk was dead to me. I was slowly but surely beginning to find some of those answers already by listening to other DJs on WFMU, but when Bill entered my life, the real answers finally came to light. In the very first minute of our first conversation we both discovered a shared love of the Godz, and right there and then I knew I'd found a friend for life. I had also just rediscovered Pink Floyd's first album, with Syd Barrett, after replacing my long-lost childhood copy of it, and his love of all things Syd was another major early bonding factor. In fact, in the years before internet and Youtube, the mere mention of the possible existence of film clips of Syd was enough to set him off thusly: "You mean actual footage of Syd actually moving his hands around on a guitar and moving his lips in front of a microphone? Wow!" I vividly remember him exclaiming once.

The 1980s were an incredibly fertile period not only for innovative, forward thinking, experimentally minded indie music, but also for the renewed discovery of forgotten music of the past, particularly psychedelic and garage rock. Many DJs were exploring and presenting all of this great music old and new in various contexts, but Bill's was the show which really sewed it all together into something that made sense to me. He knew of my punk past and was incredibly supportive of my desire to move on musically. Every week, without fail, he would pull something out of his (or WFMU's) vast music library that would make me go, "Holy fuck!!!! What IS this???" (In particular, I am eternally indebted to him for my very first exposures to the wonders of Krautrock.) His show was known as "The Hip Bone" then, and the more I listened, the more I realized we were both looking for the same things in our musics of choice.


And every week, without fail, I would travel to the WFMU studios to hang out with Bill, absorb his wisdom and his aura, and watch him work both as DJ and station music director. I learned much from that experience, and honestly admit now that I probably hung around there a lot more than I should've. But he never turned me away once, and for that I am grateful. It was the very, always-open door I had been seeking. Radio and music were indeed Bill's destiny from the start, being the only son of Larry Berger, a major figure in commercial radio who ran WPLJ in the '70s. The late, great John Zacherle was a DJ there back then, and Bill often spoke fondly of how his dad would leave him in ol' Zach's care now and then, even crediting Zach with turning him on to the Dead Boys of all bands!

Again, I cannot stress enough that our bond began with Lo-Fi. Whether Bill actually was the first to use that term to refer to home-tape music, as the Wikipedia entry on it has claimed, is debatable -- I know it wasn't the first time I'd ever heard the word "lo-fi" -- but it was perfect and it stuck like glue. Every tape I'd send him, he'd play, no matter how far-out it was, and many other like-minded folks who'd sent him tapes were given similar treatment. It could very well be true that I may have never taken my own music as seriously as I wound up taking it, if it had not been for his support and enthusiasm.

As a case in point, the very first tape I gave Bill was a selection of cover versions of songs I'd appreciated in my pre-punk years, an excursion into the music I was trying to find new direction in. Years later he posted this tape, "Takedowns" (its title a goof on the name of Bowie's all-covers album  PINUPS), along with other significant lo-fi tapes of that period, as a free download on WFMU's now-dormant blog. I admittedly feel a bit embarrassed by some of my performances on that tape now (especially the cover of "Cat Scratch Fever," whose composer's political views I definitely do not endorse), but nonetheless respected the spirit of his posting and even pitched in some liner notes for the digital reissue, which you can read in the comments section under the download. And as Bill's influence on my life grew, my music grew with it, and my follow-up recordings soon reflected a substantial improvement over "Takedowns."


And then there were the many friends I made through Bill. Like my musical life at that time, my social life was also in a state of flux, but soon I had tons of friends again, some of whom were fellow WFMU DJs and some who were fellow home tape artists. The "Lo-Fi Live" showcase we played in early '88 was the turning point for all involved, and laid bare not only Bill's sharp instincts as to which pieces fit, but his ability to unite like-minded freaks like us as well. The most precious of these unions was between me and Mark "Jet Screamer" DeAngelis, with whom I formed Living Guitars (swiping the name from an old easy listening group of the 60s) which would produce what still stands in my mind to this day as some of the very best music either one of us ever made, and which also performed a memorable live set on "The Hip Bone" in early '89. Though this duo wasn't long for the world, it brought a whole new focus and discipline to my music which hadn't been there before, and I still apply the lessons I learned through Bill, Jet, and others in my work to this day.

But more than anything else, Bill Berger was my friend, and for a long time my very, very best. Our association quickly progressed well beyond WFMU and included many times spent going to shows and laughing at the world around us. In our early days we talked of forming a band he wanted to call White Cat Heat (after a track on the first Godz album), but it never came to fruition. We were both big-time Butthole Surfers fans and saw them live many times, and Camper Van Beethoven and Pussy Galore were other much-shared live favorites. Often we were joined in our carousing by his dear friend, another equally amazing man and fellow WFMU-er named Terry Folger, the man who had answered the door of WFMU when he knocked on it for the very first time. Terry also became a very close pal of mine, and I would ultimately play drums for awhile in his band Van Gelder. (TKF, as we called him by his initials, passed away far too young in 1994. Perhaps I will tell his story in a future post... it's another great one entirely.)

We were, of course, always up for discovering new talent, and one memorable night in May '88 at ABC No Rio, following sets by both Jet Screamer and myself, our unsuspecting ears first heard an all-girl band called the Gamma Rays. Oh my god, did we fall hard for them. They ended up playing live on his show three times, and eventually he would wind up romancing their lead singer, briefly replacing their guitarist, and helping his successor transform herself into the internationally reknowned rapper and DJ Princess Superstar. All of which seems like a hell of a lot to have done for just one band, but that's how he worked when he truly believed in something.


And then there was Fly Ashtray, comprised of several fellow lo-fi artists from the Bronx, who became legendary in our hearts and minds in a very short time. The mutual admiration society soon manifested itself as Uncle Wiggly, the band Bill formed with original FA members James  Kavoussi and Mike Anzalone and released several albums with, including two Mark Kramer-produced efforts on his famous Shimmy Disc label, each and every one of them a diamond. And I cannot forget Smack Dab, led by a truly charming transplanted southern belle (complete with accent) named Linda Hagood, who he helped take from a lo-fi bedroom project to a real band, with him as their first drummer. The peak period of our friendship was in perfect sync with what I consider to be the peak period of NYC's Lower East Side, then on the knife-edge of the gentrification which was slowly but surely creeping up on it. Moving to NYC was another thing I may never have done had it not been for Bill's influence. Man, those were the days.

All this time I thought Bill and I would surely be this tight forever, but things changed quickly as we moved forward into the '90s. The scene was changing and so was he, and for many reasons I began to disassociate myself from him in '92 or so. Certain personal demons (which I respectfully choose not  to detail here) had entered Bill's life by then, altering his personality and his appearance to the point where I could no longer bear to watch it. For a long while, truth be told, I was worried sick that these demons would ultimately kill him (not to mention a few of our associates). It was a pretty scary time to say the least. In the late '90s, though, he finally dealt with the demons, and the Bill Berger I knew in the '80s began to re-emerge accordingly.


We reconnected around '96 and I recall telling him in a fairly scolding voice that I'd been extremely worried about him, but was just as thankful he was sorting out his problems. But before we could really pick up where we'd left off, he moved to San Francisco for awhile. He reconnected with a high school friend during this time, married her and moved back to New Jersey, where they hosted one hell of a blowout at Rubulad in Williamsburg, Brooklyn which still stands high on my list of best parties I have ever attended, equally as memorable as the Lo-Fi live show. Though the marriage was short lived, it produced his only son, appropriately named Sid, who by all accounts he loved more than anything else he'd ever created in his life.

Incredibly and perhaps ironically, in later years the whole hardcore and underground metal world which had been my main thing before I met Bill (and which he liked a little bit of back then, though not loving it outright) became HIS passion, something I never saw coming for a second, even back in '87 when his jaw dropped to the floor after I played him a Hellhammer track as an example of where I'd come to him from. He'd been turned onto black metal music during his time in 'Frisco, and couldn't stop raving about it when he returned to NJ. I was shocked to say the least!

Soon his WFMU show was reincarnated under the new name of "My Castle Of Quiet," a show where he also displayed his love of experimental noise, yet another of our shared sonic interests. Yet even within the context of his self-imposed new format, he still found time to squeeze in glimpses of his old "Hip Bone" self, most notably re-discovering the Butthole Surfers in his last days. And admirably, he embraced his new passion with the same fervor as any he'd embraced before. I admit a lot of the black metal and new punk music he was now heralding wasn't to my taste (though I did like a select few bands) and as such, I didn't listen to this new show quite so much (whereas I'd never missed a single episode of "Lo-Fi" or "The Hip Bone" back in the day). Nonetheless, I respected his choices and encouraged him as I'd always done, knowing deep inside they were the choices of an honest musical intellectual of discriminating tastes who knew what he liked and didn't care if you (or, for that matter, me) did or not.


In the strangest twist of fate of all, though, in the last year of his life a Florida friend of his named Matthew Moyer became a friend of mine as well! I'd met him at one of my gigs shortly after he began writing for Orlando Weekly last year, and his Popnihil label has seen several of its tapes played on MCOQ. (Matthew revealed to me that Bill also had many other friends in the Jacksonville area where he is based.) Bill's love of extreme metal also inspired him to start the Prison Tatt label, releasing many albums and tapes in the last ten years, and there was talk in the air of possible PT/Popnihil joint releases as well as a live MCOQ appearance by Matthew's band Burnt Hair.

But late last year, Bill's life slowly but surely began to unravel. In November, just after the election, a stroke put him in the hospital. He rebounded well enough to resume his show and make a few personal appearances, most notably taking the lead vocal on a cover version of the Damned's "New Rose" aired live on WFMU during its 2017 fundraiser. Following surgery to correct some issues the stroke had caused him, he seemed well on the road to recovery and looked and sounded accordingly. But fate plays tricks on us all, as we well know, and now, one of the brightest lights ever to illuminate my life has been dimmed. I feel both deep sorrow for this tremendous loss, and major regret that I didn't stay more in touch with him in his last years.

Just before his stroke, we had a long online chat on a Saturday afternoon that I'm so glad I printed out and saved the full transcript of for posterity. We talked about the same things we'd talked so much about back in '86 when we first met -- underground music, cassette tapes, and WFMU -- and in pretty much the same way as always. They remained his passion right up till his final breath, and surely made his difficult last days a lot easier to deal with. It was a beautiful chat, and almost took me right back to that fateful evening in February 1986 when I accidentally stumbled into WFMU's record library -- which, as a non-staffer at the time, was against station policy -- and was not kicked out, but welcomed with open arms by a man who was on my wavelength, knew so much more than me, and was more than willing to share what I didn't know myself yet.

As a DJ, he was second to none. In my world there are only two kinds: Bill Berger, and everyone else. (Yes, that even includes my childhood radio hero, Dan Ingram of WABC). You never knew what he was gonna do next, but you always knew it was gonna be great, even before he did it. As a musician, he made all the others he championed, jammed with and supported to become better musicians themselves. His guitar playing -- oh, dear God. What a six-stringed genius he was. He was a student of the Dick Dale School Of Upside Down Guitar Playing, but ol' Dick never had half the imagination Bill did. Some of his solos on the Uncle Wiggly records, all played on his trusty old Telecaster, are among the best I've ever heard in my life.


And as a person, well... he was a god to me. Sometimes I wondered which parallel universe had gifted me with his presence. He was that otherworldly. Say what you will, but I'm confident many others who knew him would back me up here. He was the kindest, funniest, craziest, most gentle, most nurturing, most fun loving friend to me EVER. He was honest and straightforward and (to be sure) a bit short-tempered at times. We traded tapes regularly throughout the '80s, and I still have all the mixtapes he made for me (mostly of both obscure and well-known psychedelic and garage rock) as well as cassettes of his earliest home recordings, made under the name of The Happy Cat. He introduced me to a ton of people who became very close friends and changed and helped me in many ways, many of whom I've named here and many more of whom I haven't but who surely know who they are if they're reading this, and I thank each and every one of them as much as I thank Bill.

When I played that magic Lo-Fi night at the Lismar Lounge on Feburary 10, 1988, my very first gig ever, surrounded by an adoring audience of my fellow Lo-Fi colleagues, I certainly didn't expect to bring down the house the way I did. It was confirmation that Bill was doing something very, very right, and as soon as I finished my last song, soaking up the wild, thunderous ovation, an ecstatic and proud Bill leaped right onstage, grabbed the mic and yelled into it, loud and clear, "RAY-ZINN-FUCKING-BRANN!" There was fire in his eyes as he did so, and I'm damn proud to say I was a source of that fire. My performance that night was, by my own measure, rather messy, yet I still regard it to this day as one of my best, for many reasons which transcended any self-critical feelings I may have had afterward. And the number one reason of all was William M. Berger.

Thank you, Bill. Thank you so much. Thank you for putting up with my insanity, for supporting my music, for helping me find new friends and build an audience for my music, for all those gigs and parties you took me to, for all the live and radio shows, for naming that one (unreleased) Uncle Wiggly instrumental "Living Guitars" in tribute to my music, for turning me on to the music I'd been looking for all my life, for giving me and so many other musicians a voice and making us feel like it was worth it to make music no matter how many or how few were listening, for telling me to always be true to myself no matter what, for shielding me against a few shady characters who tried to start trouble with me on my very first visit to ABC No Rio, for advising me against associating with certain others you saw were more trouble than I could see at the time (and always being right in that regard), for letting me cry on your shoulder now and then, for putting more fun into my life than I even sometimes knew what to do with... and for being a true hero, champion, legend, and dear, dear friend in my life. Even when we drifted apart you were always on my mind. I was so hoping you'd beat the odds, but it was not to be. I wish I'd reached out to you more in my final days and am profusely apologetic now for not doing so. It's a damn shame you won't get to hear the Buttholes' reunion album, or see Tarantino's Charles Manson biopic.


Rest in power, Brother Bill. It's been very, very, very real. I hope you and Terry Folger and Vanilla Bean are already talking about providing heaven with some groovy new lo-fi music. I'll be listening for it when I get there myself.

Now please sit back, all of you, and enjoy this Uncle Wiggly show from 1990. And marvel at his brilliance, and let his light shine. Forever.






Wednesday, June 7, 2017

WILLIAMSBURG, BEFORE IT WAS A HIPSTER SHITHOLE


When I first discovered Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was more than a wee bit dangerous. No kidding. There was a wonderful loft turned performance space called the Lizard's Tail from '88 to early '90, run by a very wonderful European couple named Terry Dineen (from Ireland) and Jean Francois (guess where). Located right under the Williamsburg Bridge, it was a great space to play and hang out in, and Jet Screamer and I played there as Living Guitars no less than three times. But it was in an area some of us were a bit unsure of. As such, we traveled there in packs for safety's sake. And indeed, I recall one night when Billy Syndrome almost lost his life to some merciless muggers while foolishly walking home alone across the bridge. I also remember a couple of years later, in '91, when I visited my friend and bandmate Scott Prato and we walked to the subway together past rows of menacing looking burnt-out crack houses. It was frightening for sure, but nothing really happened that time, we just minded our own and kept walking.

Anyway, the Lizard's Tail was the greatest performance space ever. I hung out there frequently, and me and all my friends played there at some point in their too-short existence. I vividly recall one Living Guitars show there in which we performed to accompaniment from a visual artist friend of ours which presaged my recent work with Josh Rogers' Broken Machine Films, though sadly, no video document exists. Syndrome was a regular fixture and I think he even lived there for a short while. We had lots of fun at the Tail throughout '89 and into early '90. Then some subhuman piece of shit torched the Happy Land Social Club speakeasy in the Bronx, cremating 87 people, after which a crackdown on similarly illegal nightclubs in the city was announced. Having just been reviewed in the Times that very same weekend, the Lizard's Tail closed up shop and re-emerged shortly thereafter as a floating operation renamed the Cat's Head, putting on shows of a much larger and more ambitious scope in abandoned buildings on the Williamsburg waterfront.


There were many of those hollowed out buildings and art shows taking place inside them at that time. There were also plenty of happenings and raves going on inside and outside like Keep Refrigerated (so named for the fact that the building they squatted was an abandoned meat storage facility). Then there was the Radioactive Bodega, which took the music fests out of the abandoned warehouses and literally into the streets. The all-day festival they staged right on the trashy East River waterfront in June of '94 still stands in my mind as the absolute coolest music fest I ever attended, a large but informal affair featuring all local bands, artists, good friends and personalities. What always impressed me about these affairs was the way they would incorporate the remains of whichever abandoned space was being squatted in creative ways, turning every room into a conceptual art piece. The June '94 affair even had an installation aboard an abandoned ferryboat!


The warehouse parties quickly came to an end when the cops came calling, but the aesthetic of those house affairs would be carried over to a space opened by members of Fly Ashtray (the world's greatest rock and roll band, and an all-too-huge influence on Pavement) called Rubulad, a combination party and recording studio space which hosted some very wonderful and surrealistic parties over the years, some of the best parties I've ever attended in my life. To this day Rubulad still exists, somewhere outside of Williamsburg now. But they're just about the only real link to the Williamsburg I once knew that's still functioning. God bless 'em for it.

Billy Syndrome, who was there right from the Lizard's Tail onward, was fond of using the sentiment "You either know or you don't" to describe it. Williamsburg was a place only truly cool, genuinely hip non-poseurs knew about. Working-class cool as opposed to rich pseudo-hip. With the gentrification of Greenwich Village came this bold new movement right across the river, setting up shop in what was by the early '90s a genuine sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of downtown. The place was getting safer, and rent was still cheap. There was a melting pot of influences all blending into a vibe that seemed urban on one hand, but down-home on the other.

Around the same time the Lizard's Tail closed, a new place opened around the corner, in a quiet area right on the waterfront, a watering hole called the Right Bank. This place would become a secret society of sorts for me and many others, one which not only fit Billy's motto, but would quickly involve him as well. Lots of great bands sprang up in the area around this time, and I myself was in two of them, beginning with Thundering Lizards, founded in 1991 with the abovementioned Scott Prato, which at one point had Jason Trachtenburg, pre-Family Slideshow Players, in its lineup. I left the Lizards around the same time as Malcolm Tent, the world's first and foremost punk rock accordionist, and in late '94 we formed Thai Raid. It was with these two bands that I would get to live out my most decadent rock & roll desires, including touring the Midwest (with the Lizards, which resulted in both Malcolm and I leaving the band), ingesting the occasional psychedelic substance (which I freely admit I greatly enjoyed), and making my kinkiest sexual fantasies come true (the details of which are none of your business, thank you).


The Right Bank was a particularly special place and indeed, my single fondest memory of those glorious days of the '90s when Williamsburg was actually cool. It sprang up literally out of nowhere on Kent Avenue, just under the Williamsburg Bridge and directly across the waterfront from the World Trade Center. Nowhere was Billy's "You know or you don't" motto more applicable than there, and fittingly, he was a key player in the scene which sprung up there, convincing its owner Kerry Smith to start putting on shows and promptly booking himself and his friends in there. I played the Right Bank with Thai Raid several times, and the studio we practiced in, which our drummer Jim designed and built, was right around the corner on a one block alleyway called Dunham Place. Jim and Greg had joined us at a time when their previous band Nice Undies, who featured the amazingly spine-tingling lead vocals of Amanda Pollack, was close to breaking up, and elected to stay on full-time when the Undies finally imploded.

The Right Bank became a home away from home to a crew of self-proclaimed "Baltimorons" who would make the place their main HQs when traveling to NYC from Maryland, with great people such as Mike Bell (drummer from Syndrome's band and a man of many other projects) and Tommy Tucker bringing their music and their local beer to the party on a regular basis. Mike remembers how the place known to some as "Little Baltimore" began when a close Baltimore friend migrated to NYC and took a job there: "Bonnie Bonell was the first bartender, which led to Kerry booking Baltimore bands who slept on the floor on the second story. That was also our home base for visitors and even bands that were playing other clubs. The first place you would go was the Right Bank to 'check in.' Eventually, Kerry started selling our hometown brew, National Bohemian aka 'Natty Boh.' We would bring up cases with us, and Kerry would drive to Baltimore himself to buy kegs. It was the ONLY place in NYC you could get Natty Boh!" New York magazine somehow took notice of the Right Bank and promptly put the bar on its front cover. Bear in mind that the headline is from 1992... a full quarter century ago!


Being just around the corner from the Hasidic section, the bar also attracted a young Jewish renegade known to its patrons as Curly Oxide, who was invited to join local space-rock legend Vic Thrill onstage one night (clad in his full traditional outfit no less) and kicked off a brief spell of regional stardom which caught SNL's attention and almost made Curly a movie star before his family finally got wise to what he was up to. It is very likely he's living a straight orthodox life to this day.


Our little music scene in the mid-90s was very unique to say the least. The bands represented all styles of music and then some, everything from punk to psych to country and rockabilly and even zydeco and merengue. So many cool bands... The Billy Syndrome and the Astro Zombies were my favorites, both just totally insane and loud and experimental. Vic Thrill, Colored Greens, Nice Undies, Xloty Fric 'N' Frac, Slick 50, Edith Frost and the Marfa Lights, TNT Mix, and so many others played the Charleston, the Ship's Mast (one of the few bars I've played that actually PAID its performers), Rocky's, and of course the Right Bank, whose "house band" soon became Tommy Tucker and the Bum Rush Band, a country-punk fusion led by "Baltimoron" Tucker and featuring members of Thai Raid. Only the Charleston still stands, and only as a mere shadow of what it once was. no longer serving pizza.

As a member of the Thundering Lizards, I saw our EP get reviewed in High Times. As a member of Thai Raid, I saw our EP spend two weeks at number one on Bill Kelly's Teenage Wasteland hit parade on WFMU. Neither honor brought us much fame outside of Williamsburg (or maybe even within for that matter). But we were SO much cooler than any of today's pseudo-hipster inhabitants, and I will participate in absolutely no arguments about that proclamation, thank you very much.


Bedford Ave. in the 1990s. Oh, to have it back again. It didn't resemble St. Mark's Place in the slightest then. Band practices would routinely end with various configurations of band members grabbing pizza at the Charleston, then a combo pizzeria and bar run at the time by an old couple who had opened the place right there in the late '60s and loved to brag about how Kool and the Gang used to play there regularly before they hit it big. It was a great place, and a great block, to have a QUIET slice after a hard evening's work. The real beauty of Bedford, though, lay in the way it was zoned. The north side was largely Polish, spilling over from neighboring Greenpoint, but as you made your way from north to south the area suddenly became Hispanic, and by the time you hit the deep south you were fully immersed in a Hasidic wonderland. It was almost like visiting Warsaw, San Juan, and Tel Aviv all in just fifteen minutes. Oh, and there was a great Salvation Army Thrift Store just outside the Bedford Ave. L train stop. And NO fucking Starbucks. Earwax Records did exist, but it was much less slick then, more of a crate digger's haven than anything else, though always run by WFMU's Fabio Roberti, and it's cool to see he's still there at least. But who else remains with him?

Oh, those wonderful days before 9/11. The Twin Towers glowing from across the river, and the rich kids staying on that side of the river where they belonged, while we, the true pioneers of whatever you know today, had OUR special little thing going on which none of them could touch. But times have changed. Billy Syndrome is now deceased, and so are Jean Francois of the Lizard's Tail and Kerry Smith who owned the Right Bank. Most of those still living have moved far away, myself certainly included. The kids of today will never know what Williamsburg really was or coulda, shoulda been. They've inherited a very different 'hood than the one we lived in, one where all that remains of the old world is the view from the bridge. I'm sure they have memories of their own to make. But goddamn it, at what cost to mine?


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

FRIGHTWIG: REST IN POWER, CECILIA KUHN

(all photos from Brazen's own private stash)

The bad news just seems to keep coming too fast and hard for music fans everywhere. The great, great drummer and singer Cecilia Kuhn passed away on May 4, 2017 from cancer. She was 61 and a pivotal member of the San Francisco punk band Frightwig, who were deeply influential on many of the all-girl punk groups we know today. As I reflect on her life, my personal memories of being a Frightwig groupie during the band's peak period in the mid '80s, when they were spending practically entire summers in New York, come rushing back to me all at once. Indeed, this lady and her band were unforgettable, and I got to know them quite well way back when for awhile. Of all the accidental new musical discoveries I ever made in my life, one of the absolute happiest accidents of all was the night I discovered Frightwig. 

It was July 1985 and I was calling myself Ray Zinnbrann back then. I had gone to a seafood restaurant in Montclair, NJ to see a local experimental punk band called Children in Adult Jails open for them. Yes, that premise sounded strange right off the bat. And it was about to get even stranger that I could even have imagined. The word on the street was that Frightwig were not to be missed, so I stuck around for them. Suddenly, four of the wildest, kookiest yet loveliest looking ladies I'd ever seen in my life were playing the trashiest yet most wondrous rock & roll in the middle of a fucking seafood joint. They struck me at first as kind of a cross between Flipper and Kiss with a bit of Raincoats thrown in. Their playing was loud and crude, but it all melted into one big, glorious noise. And it all sounded like heaven to me... especially as I found myself in love at first sight with Mia Levin, their guitarist. She was a long legged, daisy duke clad vision of blue-dreadlocked heaven out to steal my freak flag-waving heart. And much though Deanna, Susan and Cecilia did their best to keep up with her, all I could pretty much see for most of my first Frightwig show was Mia.


But at the end of the show, Mia put down her guitar and took over the drum chair, and the tall, blonde drummer became frontwoman for the last song, "l'll Talk To You And Smile." The sweetness of Mia suddenly gave way to the fireball that was Cecilia, and with an open minded crowd totally digging it, she let it all out in a fiery yet controlled ball of rage, with humor injected in the form of musical quotes from "A Day In The Life" and several false endings after which Cecilia would jokingly ask, "Are you irritated yet?" It was one of the greatest and most dramatic endings to a band's set I've ever seen. She owned it, baby!

That was it. In the blink of an eye, my summer of 1985 had suddenly and gloriously become The Summer of Frightwig. Naturally, I didn't fight it -- I submitted full throttle without asking a single question. I met them after the show and they were the sweetest, coolest ladies you'd ever want to meet. I then followed them pretty much everywhere they went the rest of the time they were in NYC/NJ, which was pretty much all summer long. God I loved them. So much so, in fact, that I even remember the riffs to all the songs they played live but never released. (Oh, to hear "Summer Love" again... it surely fit the mood.)


I followed Frightwig to a live radio interview at WFMU where they were hosted by two of the members of the aforementioned Children in Adult Jails. I followed them to Danceteria, decked up in Frightwig magic marker tattoos (oh, to be young again!), where the ladies walked in on an argument between me and the asshole working the door who didn't want to let me in, and threatened to hand his ass to him if I wasn't allowed in at once, FREE... then invited me backstage to hang out. But the best night of all was when I followed them to Tin Pan Alley, one of only two gigs I've ever attended in the Hell's Kitchen area, where I finally got my wish to be alone with my beloved Mia for awhile... just indulging in something green and medicinal and talking about hip hop music with her before they played their second set, during which Deanna made me get up onstage and perform a male striptease during Mia's stunning rap showcase "A Man's Gotta Do What A Man's Gotta Do." I obliged down to my underwear as she tried in vain to get me to take it further still. Fortunately, there was no Youtube in those days.

Alas, my "romance" with Mia was doomed both to last only the summer and to end in heartbreak. On Labor Day Weekend '85, at the Peppermint Lounge, Frightwig turned up for their final gig before returning to Frisco... without Mia. I suspected something was up immediately, and my suspicion grew when I overheard two of them whisper to each other: "Have you told him yet?" "Uh, no." When they then went onstage without Mia, I knew the heartbreak was dead ahead. And I now confess I was a bit pissed off at them afterward for waiting all night to break the news to me that Mia had quit the band and returned home early with her husband (who was super-laid back and didn't seem to mind my fawning over his girl one bit) after finding out she was pregnant. In the end I forgave all involved (including Mia), but still, 'twas a very sad night in Wigland indeed.


Despite the loss of Mia, I still kept on loving Frightwig, and wrote them a sincere and heartfelt letter thanking them for making mine a wonderful summer nonetheless. A few months later, an envelope bearing the words "FRIGHTWIG LOVES YOU!" in big magic marker letters turned up in my mailbox. Inside was a long, lovely letter from Deanna, announcing the birth of Mia's child and telling me they were coming back to see me again soon. And indeed, Frightwig would return to the east coast in the fall of '86 with a new girl replacing Mia. Her name was Rebecca and her guitar talents extended to actually building her own axes. She added a new and somewhat darker vibe to her role than Mia, but I grew to like her. Shortly before they arrived, I walked into Pier Platters in Hoboken one day and screamed with delight upon finding an album with the new lineup waiting for me. You didn't stream new releases in advance on the internet back then either, folks.


During the fall of '86 I saw Frightwig three more times: at Irving Plaza with Sonic Youth and Firehose, at CBGB with 7 Seconds (whose drummer kicked my ass at pinball that night), and finally at the Lismar Lounge, the very same stage that would host my very first live performance in NYC just over a year later. I remember they were sick as dogs on the last night from food poisoning. But they played and I got all four of 'em to sign my album. Rebecca's signature read "Beware of Philly cheese steaks," while Cecilia simply wrote "Wig out!" I still have the signatures. I only wish I knew what the fuck happened to Deanna's letter. I'll never forget that on all the gigs in this tour, they extended "Punk Rock Jailbait" to ten minutes, with Cecilia once again stealing the show and my heart, and she and Rebecca getting into some harsh-noise guitar dueling during the song's extended finish. She was a tremendous performer who looked like she was always ready to burst out from behind the drum kit at any moment -- and always did at the end of every set.

I may have been crushing on Mia in '85, but after she left the band I admittedly took to fawning over Cecilia, and we ended up talking for hours after the Irving Plaza and CBGB shows. Looking back, I would have to say she seemed the most grounded of all the members, the one who looked after the others. She was warm and inviting and great to talk to about all sorts of things. We exchanged addresses but somehow never did get around to corresponding. It's unfortunate that we never did, for I think we could have been great long distance friends. I am deeply saddened to know she is no longer with us, especially since Frightwig had recently reunited -- complete with my lovely Mia back where she belonged -- and were sounding better than ever to these ears, even releasing some strong new material. I was hoping we'd ultimately meet again. Frightwig truly loved their fans, and their fans loved them back, and always will. I'm so glad I got to know such a great band, and a great lady named Cecilia Kuhn.

To conclude my wondrous Frightwig tale, you can see the legend for itself in the form of an almost hour-long video of the classic lineup (Cecilia, Mia, Deanna and Susan) playing a full set live in SF in '84, complete with a VERY definitive version of Cecilia's incredible showstopping finale "I'll Talk To You And Smile." It's enough to make you cry now.


Sigh. Goodbye, Cecilia. Wig out in heaven, sister.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A COMPLETE HISTORY OF RAY BRAZEN'S GIGS AT CBGB


For whatever it's worth, here now are my memories of all the times I ever set foot on the stage of that prestigious and hallowed hole in the wall, CBGB -- all two of them:

The first was totally unplanned and spontaneous. It was late '83 and Bedlam, the band my high school pal Tommy Koprowski had just  joined, was making its CBGB hardcore matinee debut opening for Adrenalin OD. They'd brought along a friend to videotape the occasion for posterity, and were open to the idea of my jumping up onstage to join them for their cover of the Flintstones theme song as I often did when hanging out at their practice sessions (which were often more pot parties than they were rehearsals). Midway through their very messy and noisy set, I took the stage and introduced my number. On the video of the occasion you can neither really see nor hear me, but I'm there somewhere, and I recall nothing of my performance but a total blur. Me being the cocky kid I was then, when the song ended I couldn't resist throwing in a quick "Thank you New York, you're a great audience!" whereupon Davey Schwartzman of AOD picked me up and carried me offstage as Tommy reclaimed my mic and proclaimed, "NOW you can beat him up!" Thus ended my first onstage appearance at CBGB.

My second appearance was a little over five years later, in early '89 with Jet Screamer in Living Guitars, and it happened on everyone's favorite night, Sunday a.k.a. CBGB Audition Night. For those unfamiliar, this was the night they would test the pull of various local bands to determine which were worthy of playing a regular gig there. Somehow we got our audition just two months after we'd formed, though we really had gotten fairly good in that short a time. We arrived early enough to witness the end of the hardcore matinee, which was ruined by a very pathetic bunch of Nazi skinheads. Naturally, we waited until they left before we even thought to load in our gear. Again, somehow in spite of the fact that it was unannounced and we were shoved onstage at 9 PM, we had a good turnout of friends along with a few folks left over from the hardcore matinee. I used to have a soundboard tape of this performance but it has long since vanished. I seem to recall that for some odd reason, this lost tape sounded quite a bit murky and echoey, which was strange considering CBGB's reputation for having one of NYC's best sound systems and the fact that our music had sounded good coming through it live.

As it turned out, Living Guitars did pass the audition -- for two gigs in the spring of '89 not at CBGB itself, but the CBGB Record Canteen that had recently sprung up next door, which also housed CBGB Pizza (which is still high on my list of worst pizzas I've ever had in my life). The first of these two gigs went so well we thought we'd found a potential new home of sorts there. But the second gig was a disaster and we never returned after that.

So there you have it. My illustrious performing history at that legendary rat cellar, CBGB. I hope you enjoyed this intriguing and action packed tale!