Friday, March 23, 2018


Throughout the '80s and '90s, I was involved in my fair share of collaborative musical projects with a number of very talented and versatile musicians. The best of them all, and still the one closest and dearest to my heart, was the twin-guitar duo I formed in the autumn of 1988 with one Mark DeAngelis, a.k.a. Jet Screamer. We were called Living Guitars, a name I admit we stole from a '60s instrumental group. And the music we made still stands in my mind as some of the best music I ever had the pleasure of creating. We weren't together for very long... but we made the most of our all-too-short time. And what a time it was.

It all began, of course, with our association with the late, great Mr. Bill Berger and his Lo-Fi program, the story of which I've already covered on this blog. After the wonder that was Lo-Fi night, the first lineup Jet and I shared together, we were quickly booked to do more shared bills, with each of us performing solo sets. The great John S. Hall of King Missile (a total sweetheart of a guy, and still going strong to this day) gave us the second of these shows, on April Fool's Day of '88 at Cafe Bustelo, a spinoff of the great art-punk space ABC No Rio which lasted about a year before they got sued big-time by the coffee company they'd, er, borrowed the name from. At this show we met Jennifer Blowdryer, a writer and performer who'd recently moved to NYC from San Francisco to attend Columbia University and had quickly branched out into booking shows downtown. Jennifer was impressed with the two of us enough to not only give us a few more shows that spring, but also to eventually hire Jet as a guitarist in her newly formed band, Surftallica. Jet only played one gig with them, which I attended, and when I talked to him afterward, he expressed discontentment with the band's direction. I was quick to sympathize with him, knowing full well his talents deserved a more serious outlet.

By this time it was October '88 and it was just in the nick of time that our dear mentor Mr. Berger made the suggestion that since Jet and I both had similar styles and influences, we should play together and see what happens. Indeed, both of us specialized in solo guitar-and-voice workouts which reflected a love of the Ventures, Ramones, and Marc Bolan, so we knew he was likely right. I recall Jet and I meeting up at one of ABC No Rio's famous Sunday open-mic nights to swap tapes of our songs. We decided to choose two songs from each tape and try out the four of 'em together as a duo.

Our first jam session was at Jet's apartment in Queens the night before Halloween '88. It went well enough that we quickly scheduled a second one for Election Day, at which we got along like a house on fire. We had another Blowdryer-booked show scheduled in mid-November with each of us again billed separately, so we decided that I'd play a shorter set that night and then join Jet midway through his. The show was at Cave Canem, an actual former gay bath house that was the poshest place I've ever played at in my life. Our little four-song set went off without a hitch and we were an instant hit with the crowd. Jet promptly quit Surftallica and pledged full allegiance to the two of us, and so began Living Guitars. As folks born into the Lo-Fi scene we were naturally accepted as contemporaries amongst all the other bands that scene had spawned like Fly Ashtray, Uncle Wiggly, Azalia Snail, Jolly Ramey, Smack Dab, the Gamma Rays and the Modern Day Carpetbaggers.

We wasted no time in adopting a rigorous rehearsal schedule. Jet had already been in a band himself, a more serious surf-rock trio called Jurassics, and was quick to instill his work ethic in Living Guitars, which in turn gave me an increased and more serious focus towards my music which I still employ to this day. We practiced everywhere we could. Jet's place, my place, Ultrasound Studios in midtown Manhattan (another recent victim of NYC gentrification, run by the awesome Jeff West), and most famously, the basement of Mediasound. This recording studio, housed inside a beautiful old church, was big news in the '70s and '80s, and if you have a record collection of any value, you likely own multiple albums which were made there. Jet worked as an assistant engineer at Mediasound, and we would practice there well past midnight.

One night at Mediasound, we took a break and Jet offered me the guided tour, which included a walk through their treasured master tape vaults. There, he selected a tape, and then ushered me into the main studio, where he threaded the tape onto the machine and pressed play. I expected to hear some rare Hendrix jam or something, but instead my ears were greeted by the sounds of a couple having sex! Jet explained that the guy was Axl Rose, the girl was a Guns 'n' Roses groupie, and the sounds they were making were then overdubbed onto "Rocket Queen," the last song on "Appetite for Destruction," which was mixed at Mediasound. He then told me the whole ridiculous tale of that session. It was pretty insane. (I went on to get to know and even record with Victor "The Fuckin' Engineer" Deyglio years later -- another great guy.) Jet was clearly risking his job to give me such an in-depth look (to say the least!) into Mediasound, and warned me we could get caught, but it didn't matter much in the end as he lost his job anyway when Mediasound went belly-up in March '89. I still have tapes of Living Guitars rehearsals which took place there. Here's a killer version of Jet's song "Cast Your Vote" from one of them:

Jet and I became tight very quickly, both as friends and most importantly as musicians. We built a setlist on songs we'd each selected from our own respective repertoires which grew so fast that by February '89, just three months after our first jam, we already had it together enough to play an epic 45-minute live set on Bill Berger's Hip Bone show on WFMU. We weren't the first band who'd made the leap from Lo-Fi to Hip Bone in that regard, nor were we the last, and it was a highly distinguished club to be part of. By then we'd also written our first song together: "The Zen of Driving." It began as a simple improvisation at practice and grew into a multi-part epic, one to which we kept adding parts until it got to the point where I finally said to Jet, "Man, let's finish this song and start another one already!" The process which yielded "Zen" was employed for just about every song we wrote from then on, and we made sure we knew when to move on to writing another one from then on too. Our songs grew out of long improvisations we would drift into at rehearsals, in which we would just play and play until we finally hit upon a new idea we both liked. We would then add other elements to that idea until we had a new song.

In my view the best song Jet and I ever wrote together was a beautiful slow jam called "Friday Evenings." We were improvising as usual one night when Jet suddenly hit upon an ominous sounding riff that grabbed me by the ears and wouldn't let go. Before I could tell him the riff had potential, though, he suddenly countered it with a beautiful, more upbeat-sounding progression which offset the ominous riff he had played just seconds earlier and took it to a new level. Then he started singing, off the top of his head, "On Friday evenings, I can go surfing." I added a lead guitar melody on top of all of this -- a dark, spacey part for the ominous riff and a lighter, more joyful part for the other one -- and we had our big hit song.

When we had the opportunity to appear on the compilation album "The Phoaming Edison Tapes," it was immediately obvious "Friday Evenings" was the song we had to immortalize. Jet was a bit of a surfer himself and his lyrics reflected the lifestyle, but I personally like to think of it as a sort of tribute to Bill Berger, whose radio show was the highlight of our Friday evenings at that time. We recorded it at Toxic Shock on lower Broadway, just off Houston St. with the great James Kavoussi of Fly Ashtray and Uncle Wiggly assisting us, and as I personally think "Friday" sounds much better on my original cassette copy than it ultimately did on vinyl, I've chosen to source this Soundcloud stream of the song from the tape (and besides, you know I'm all about cassette culture!).

Living Guitars played all over NYC throughout 1989. We started with CBGB of all places, then went on from there. Our all-time favorite venue was the Lizard's Tail in Williamsburg, a speakeasy many of our fellow Lo Fi-spawned acts (including Berger's own band Uncle Wiggly) called home. (More info about that magic place can be found in my piece about Williamsburg in the '80s and '90s.) ABC No Rio was our second favorite place to play. There, an entire life performance of ours was filmed by Tom Becker and featured on a Manhattan Access Cable TV show called "Young Gifted And Broke." And that bath house we played our first show at wasn't even the only oddly revamped venue that hosted us -- we also played the Gas Station on Avenue B, a (you guessed it) former gas station later to become notorious as the site of GG Allin's last stand, and XFH, an old funeral parlor which became the site of Living Guitars' last stand. We didn't know at the time it would be our final performance, so it's fitting to note the location and also that perhaps coincidentally, I smashed an old guitar at the end of our set.

I still wish Living Guitars had lasted a lot longer than those 16 months in the twilight of the '80s. But I guess Jet and I were ultimately pulled in different directions. I do confess we fought on a few occasions, most fiercely over the final mix of "Friday Evenings." But we fought because we both believed in what we were doing, and when we were playing our music we were always on the same page. Each one of us had been good as solo performers, but as a team we made ourselves and each other better both as writers and, most importantly, as players. And we went our separate ways having both been strengthened enough by the experience to do greater things. Jet has been with the country punk band Lancaster County Prison for a good two decades or so now, and one of their albums featured the Pogues' Shane MacGowan on four songs. I actually joined Jet's old band Jurassics for awhile after Living Guitars' demise, then played in a few more bands before finally stepping out on my own, achieving some recent local recognition down in Orlando, Florida of all places. It's all been fun, but for me there was nothing quite as special as Living Guitars. We did things our way from start to finish, and to my ears the music still sounds fresh and forward thinking 30 years later.

A complete video of the show Living Guitars played at ABC No Rio in May '89 is now available for your viewing pleasure on Youtube. It will surely be enjoyed by those who saw us back then and those who've only seen either me or Jet perform in recent years alike. It's a tight set with a few original songs to start, eventually making way for a blistering block of covers at the finish. Please enjoy it. It's my way of thanking each and every one of you for reading this blog in such large numbers, and for making well over 30,000 visits (and still counting!) to the mighty Brazenblog. It's because of you, dear readers, that I've found the strength to keep going, as difficult as it's been lately with all the recent tragedies in my world. I'm damn proud of this blog and hope to keep it going even further still. Thanks so much for diggin' it, and please keep reading... and rocking.

Sunday, February 4, 2018


It's a horrible old bumper sticker cliche but it's very true: I brake for thrift stores. Some of them are great, some are horrible, but at their best they can truly surprise. Searching for records in thrift shops not only saves me tons of cash but is my way of bringing vinyl shopping back to its purest, pre-trendy essence. And I have found some quite amazing vintage vinyl there in recent days, all for almost zero money. Things like a trio of 1960s Vietnamese pop 45s (with colored wax AND picture sleeves!), a white label promo copy of Scott Walker's "Scott 3," "Kinks-Size" in mono (albeit somewhat scratchy), a double-LP retrospective of the eccentric French rock legend Michel Polnareff, and the only album the Shocking Blue of "Venus" fame ever released in America (which is actually an unsung psych classic that's more scarce than you think). Since tapping into the current tape culture comeback and assessing the current tape climate, however, I've found myself bypassing the vinyl time and time again in favor of those cassette sections I'd foolishly ignored for too long before my partner-in-crime Josh Rogers got me started on the whole tape kick again. And it's made for a whole new and refreshing thrifting experience indeed.

Where us tapeheads are concerned, there are three basic types of thrift stores: first, there are those which have no tapes at all, either because they've received no tape donations, or because they're so ignorant of the current state of cassette culture that they think no one even bothers with them anymore (perhaps ironically, many of these same stores have shit-tons of Mitch Miller albums and ratty old VHS tapes -- go fucking figure). Secondly, there are thrift stores that do have tapes, but unfortunately they've gone through 'em beforehand and weeded out all the TDKs, Maxells, and anything old and ratty-looking (which, as any tapehead knows, is where you find all the weird stuff!), leaving a flimsy selection of big-label crap that's generic and dull.

And THEN there is that sacred third type of thrift store, the kind that just takes whatever tapes they've received, throws 'em up on the shelves without even bothering to look at 'em, and leaves it to the customers to sort out the mess for themselves. These are the very thrift stores that are a tape cratedigger's heaven. They enter that random shop they've just pulled over at and see those big boxes of unsorted tapes, and immediately start to perspire. There are stores of this type where I've spent enough time in the tape section to arouse curiosity from other thrift-shoppers, and they always ask the exact same question -- "You still PLAY those things?" I usually just as simply reply, "Why, yes!" and go right back to digging through them.

Now, given the fact that the TDKs, Maxells etc. have NOT been tossed out of these particular bins, well... that's where the fun really starts. For many of these tapes have, indeed, been used, as in recorded on, and while most of them are given over to tape transfers of old vinyl and CDs, some of them contain pure, unadulterated, uncensored "found sounds" of every stripe, as in private and often very personal home recordings which were obviously never intended to be heard by the public at large. In all cases it's quite obvious whoever donated them had no clue what they were getting rid of. And already I'm starting to amass a collection of them.

My very first acquisition in this realm, a British-imported EMI tape labeled "Top of the Pops, 22 Jun '78," did indeed contain tape-to-tv-speaker audio of an episode of the legendary British pop show -- with ongoing commentary throughout from two obviously very drunk viewers -- one British, one American -- that was quite vulgar to say the least. Another tape I found, simply dated 11/12/77, was a pure fly-on-the-wall recording of a similarly booze-fueled (though less vulgar) farewell party for some young couple relocating from Detroit to Chicago. Yet another tape had a recording of some couple's wedding. I could instantly picture the potential horror: "Honey, where's that box of tapes that was in the attic? I can't find them." "Oh, those ratty ol' things? I donated 'em to the thrift shop." "NOOOOO!!! OUR WEDDING TAPE WAS IN THAT BOX!!!" Then the poor couple scrambling back to the shop to retrieve it, only to arrive ten minutes after I left... you get the picture, I'm sure. Seriously, all these private recordings should totally not be for sale to the general public, yet I've no doubt there's tons more tapes like these just waiting to be snatched up by unsuspecting hands at thrift stores worldwide.

But of course, as a music lover, and one who loves finding and listening to the most obscure shit possible, the one thing I'm on the lookout for more than anything else in those piles of tapes is home-recorded music. And yes, I am happy to report, vintage lo-fi music is indeed making its way into thrift stores near you, slowly but surely. Now, of course there ain't no way on heaven, hell or earth that anything from Bill Berger's truly monumental tape collection is gonna wind up in any of them, but his, after all, was just one of millions, and as we've already seen here, the tape archives of many others are definitely NOT willed to responsible and knowledgeable inheritors, as his (thankfully) were.

Which is exactly how The Mystery Artist came my way.

Just a few weeks ago, I bought another box of strange looking tapes from a thrift store in Eustis, Florida. The most mysterious of them all was a clear-shell tape in a box with no j-card and a plastic label on which were printed seven song titles. This tracklist was the only information provided and had interesting sounding titles like "Fatal Wire Nail," "Pox," and "Spider Ankle." I put it in my tape deck and hit the play button, thinking this could be, at the very least, someone's home demo. I wasn't surprised when it turned out to be just that. I was, however, very, very surprised at the fact that it was... a good home demo. A pretty fucking great one, actually.

Now, I'm no expert on sound technology and really can't tell an mp3 apart from a flac file. But I could tell immediately that this thing was totally recorded and mixed in someone's flat on a Tascam (or Fostex or similar) 4-track cassette recorder. It's very likely that The Mystery Artist -- whom I shall henceforth refer to as "TMA" -- is playing everything by himself too, alternating between guitar and keyboards and filling things out with the obligatory drum machine. TMA's music is an impressively diverse range of sounds with no two songs in the same groove, and the influences appear to be garage and psych and other lo-fi musics with a dash of '90s alternative rock thrown in for good measure (but not at all in a bad way). At times TMA sounds a bit like Ween with a little less helium, at other moments it sounds like he's aiming for a lo-fi grunge-rock effect.

Whatever direction any song goes in, however, the seven songs (and additional, uncredited electronic interlude between the first and second numbers) which make up TMA's demo share one common trait: they're all quite strange. The music and arrangements are quirky and the lyrics are mysterious and darkly humorous. It is a true-blue eccentric lo-fi home demo in the classic sense of the word, in every respect. And I found it in a thrift store in central Florida with no info other than the song titles. Which, mind you, is definitely NOT how I usually acquire demos of this sort. I can't help but feel these seven songs were made just for me, and were predestined by fate to ultimately reach me, in the most unusual of circumstances. My own special private album to have and to hold. With each listen I hear some new detail, and arrive at some new speculation, and become a little more obsessed.

The first song, "Fatal Wire Nail," starts off with a nice little guitar-and-bass vamp over which our gruff-voiced hero, sounding a bit like he's just rolled out of bed, voices twisted sentiments that only inspire further head-scratching: "When you came, music had minor chords. But when you left, the orchestra was floored!" From there it builds in intensity to the chorus, which with its E-F progression and TMA growliing "Fatal wire naaaaaaiiiiiillllllll! Twist it in my heaaaaarrrrrrrrrt!" could almost fit into a Metallica song. But the whole thing's better than any Metallica tune I can name, and it hooks me on this tape right from the start.

Craving more, I wait for the second number, when suddenly a disembodied keyboard interlude of sorts fades in, playing a swirling, haunting pattern of minor chords in a most interesting rhythm indeed. Excited, I thought it was the intro to the next song, but no, it turned out to be an uncredited interlude, or maybe it was intended as the ending of the first number? We may never find out, but it's one of my favorite moments on TMA's tape. Eventually, after too short a stay, it gives way to "Weak Heart," a slower, minor-chorded crawl with some cool keyboard work and equally cool backing harmonies. "Pox" is another highlight, TMA's punk rock song for sure, a jumpy number with sinister power chord structures and manic, shouted vocals demanding "Give me a cigarette, I gotta get a smoke! Gotta get away, while there's still hope!"

"Spider Ankle" comes on like a low-budget film noir soundtrack with a funky keyboard bass line and spooky guitar fills, not to mention its dark and mysterious lyrics, which seem to get more unusual and mysterious with each song, to the point where one starts to deeply ponder what could possibly have inspired them. The sleepy deep-sea waltz of "Dormans Sea" is stranger still, and admittedly the somewhat shoddy mix of this demo makes some of its lyrics hard to decipher, a problem worst felt on this track. Furthermore, it should be noted that according to Google, there's no such body of water as Dormans Sea, further shrouding its lyrical meaning. Hmmmm. "The Party's Over" is admittedly the most potentially commercial sounding song on The Mystery Demo, coming on like some sort of '90s alternative number, but even this one has some slightly Velvets-y guitar on the intro and a metallic ending that'll have you singing along accordingly: "If you hate life, whatcha livin' for? If you love life, whatcha dyin' for?"

As wild and strange and wonderful as these six songs and one interlude are, however, all of them combined could not possibly adequately prepare one for the seventh and final song on The Mystery Demo, "It's True." Holy shit. This song is The Mystery Artist's absolute crown jewel, the absolute most bizarre and amazing song on the entire tape. In fact, if Dean and Gene Ween were to hear it, they would shit themselves wishing they'd written it -- it's very Ween-like right down to the vocals. All that's missing is the helium. (I like to think TMA at least remembered the Scotchguard.)

"It's True" begins with no music at all, just TMA frantically pleading with an imaginary second party: "You're thinking of what? Billy, WHAT? Oh my GOD! NO! Put the gun DOWN! Wha-, I-I don't believe... Aunt Mabel won't understa-... PUT THE GUN DOWN! NO! NO! NOOOOOOOO!" After an awkward, keyboard-triggered gunshot sound effect, TMA finally launches into a rollicking music-hall ditty which begins with the following absolutely insane first verse: "Billy thought it wasn't loaded, and his little head exploded, and the maggots smiled and praised the light. Then his little dog really hopped on the stove, made the chili spiced with bits of Billy's brains." Before you can recover from that gory, gruesome vision, though, he's waxing philosophical about the whole mess: "And if you're leaning towards the thought that life has no meaning, it's probably because it's true, it's true, it's true, it's true-ooh!" This swirling, infectious earworm of a chorus is punctuated by a round of backing voices mocking the lead vocal and saying various phrases rhyming with "it's true," the most prominent of which sounds to me like he's saying (don't get mad, folks, you'd likely hear it that way too) "I'm a Jew!" It all finally collapses in a heap, as the drum machine (which with its slightly ragged beat sounds like it was played manually) falls down a flight of stairs and one last spoken voice signs off on the whole affair with "You messed me up!" Consider me messed up too. And wishing this tape wasn't over so damn soon.

So now I'm climbing the walls wishing I could find out where the hell the TMA tape came from, and how the fuck it came my way. I definitely feel this tape was meant to fall into the hands of an old lo-fi veteran like me, and the fine gentleman who made it should be thankful his lovely little mini-album wound up in the hands of someone who both appreciates the music and understands its aesthetic, if indeed he even knows it was donated to a thrift shop. But how did this end up with all these other completely unrelated cassettes in that thrift store in central Florida? I could speculate that it originated locally, but bear in mind that the same box of tapes I found it in also contained found sound from Michigan, so this demo could perhaps have come from anywhere at all. Thinking I may have accidentally left its corresponding j-card behind somehow, I returned to the store that sold me TMA's tape to rummage through their whole tape stock again, but found no missing j-card and no other further clues either.

So all I have is seven songs and seven titles and nothing else to go on but some brilliant and very charming original lo-fi music that, for all we know, may have never even been heard by anyone besides the man who wrote and recorded it and maybe a few select pals of his until now. And writing about and posting this incredible artifact on this here blog is the only option I have for hopefully tracking down the party (or parties) responsible for making it. And if it seems like a longshot, just remember that 20 years ago I successfully employed similar methods to track down a Mexican rock band called Los Dug Dugs after happening across their records in Mexico, and look where they are now. So you know this man believes anything can happen!

All I can hope for is this: that if either The Mystery Artist who made the tape described above, or any friend, relative, acquaintance, co-worker, teacher, babysitter, convenience store clerk etc. who knows the identity of The Mystery Artist, happens to have discovered this blog, and is reading this article, that he or they will come forward and get in touch with me. Any clues, leads, pictures, more recordings (I can only hope), any information at all is and would be greatly appreciated. And to the Mystery Artist himself, well, thanks for making such unique music, and I hope you don't mind my sharing it with the world, for I think it deserves to be heard. Who knows, it might catch on.

And as for you, dear Brazenblog readers, this is your lucky day too. For here is The Mystery Demo found in that central Florida thrift store in its glorious, streamable entirety, so you can hear everything I just described for yourself. I claim no responsibility for anyone who may become as obsessed with it as I am after hearing it.

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


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?