Saturday, November 12, 2016

CASSETTE CULTURE, 1977-2016 AND BEYOND!


Recording tape has always been a part of my life, right from when I was still in the cradle and my dad's reel-to-reel deck was capturing my baby voice. But when cassettes entered my world, I knew right away I'd found a friend for life. It began sometime around '73 or so, when my parents gifted me with my very first cassette player. It was one of those old Panasonic portables with the handle on the bottom and just one speaker on top. My first recordings were pretty much just me acting goofy, as I had yet to develop any real talent, but I quickly caught the tape bug just the same. Even before I could sing or play an instrument, though, I was trying to be musical. All of these initial attempts are now lost forever, but honestly, you wouldn't want to have heard them anyway.

It was through the big brother of an elementary school friend that I got my very first taste of the cassette culture we know and still embrace today. His name was Laszlo Papp and he was the very first punk rocker I ever met; name virtually any early punk band and chances are he saw them at CBGB or Max's Kansas City. Laszlo didn't have a record player, but he did have a tape deck, and would let me hang out with him on occasion, playing tapes for me the whole time. His collection of tapes was filled with original store-bought cassette releases by the likes of Sparks, Suzi Quatro, and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band -- a collection I would just die to have now -- plus homemade punk comps his friends had made him from which I would hear the Sex Pistols and the Clash for the first time.

But what really aroused my curiosity was the one part of his collection devoted to a series of homemade tape albums by his own band, Chickenshit, who sang dirty songs with names like "Shovel That Shit," "Fags Are Fun," and "Fuckin' Jesus." They were really just a private joke band, true, but they were literally the very first lo-fi home tape project I ever heard of, and their aesthetic alone set off notions in my head that I could do one too. And so I formed my own little private joke band I dubbed the Occupants (a name inspired by that of the Residents) and started making my own little tape albums. The fact that I could neither play guitar yet nor knew any real musicians didn't stop me -- I just got my school pal Zoltan or sometimes even my two-year-old cousin Jamey (!!!) to bang on the family piano while I banged on a cheap guitar I'd picked up at a garage sale for two bits. Needless to say, we made Chickenshit sound like the Beatles. Still, it was through the Occupants that I ultimately picked up the home-recording habit for good.


All this time I was fully immersed in all things punk, and had started reading British-imported music zines like New Musical Express and Sounds to keep up with the latest sensations in my favorite genre. I vividly remember one particular issue of NME around 1980 or so which introduced a new classified column where musicians who recorded at home could advertise their homemade tape albums. Most of them could be obtained for little more than a blank tape and postage, and the majority of them seemed experimental in nature. I never went through the trouble of sending away to England for any of them, but I kinda wish I had now. It was clear to me, though, that something new was happening. People weren't just using tapes to tape albums they'd borrowed from their friends anymore -- they were now using them to make their own albums. Tapes in the '80s were a true precursor to both file sharing AND music streaming -- and I even stored a few computer programs on 'em!

All this was unfolding just as Sony introduced the Walkman and the ROIR cassette-only label emerged, the very first one of its kind. In 1982, at the height of hardcore punk, ROIR released the legendary Bad Brains tape, the one that would etch the very concept of the tape album in stone. I bought it the very week it came out and it blew my socks off. I absolutely wore out that sucker playing it to death right through my senior year of high school. From that point on, I began taking the musical end of the homemade tape albums I was creating for myself a bit more seriously. By then I'd learned enough chords to get started on that premise.

Hardcore also led to the emergence of college radio shows like Tim Sommer's "Noise The Show" on WNYU, and soon it became standard practice for underground radio to air lo-fi tape demos of all stripes. And when word started spreading that you didn't have to have your music professionally recorded to get it on the air anymore, the whole damn thing exploded. The format was available and affordable to anyone, and with the emergence of the dual dubbing deck around this time, tapes were easily duplicated and distributed -- a godsend to those who couldn't afford to put out vinyl. So I did just that. And so did thousands of others.

By 1984 my tapes were being played by Pat Duncan and Irwin Chusid on WFMU, and my music was finding an actual audience for the very first time. Me and my friends formed various punk projects and recorded improvised tape albums straight to cassette at a rehearsal studio in my hometown. Meanwhile, punk and metal had merged into thrash, and a worldwide, underground thrash tape trading community emerged in its wake, the absolute biggest one yet, fueled by the hundreds of thrash bands popping up in Slayer's wake. WMSC in Montclair, NJ, devoted entire shows to these demo tapes and I recorded and absorbed them just as I had followed anything to do with home taping since '77.


But the very best was still yet to come for me. For at the same time, yet another tape cult inspired by everything from psych to punk to modern indie rock was simmering. And yet another technological step forward had been taken -- namely, the 4-track portastudio, which took the quality of home recorded tapes up a notch. All of it was in place as 1986 arrived and William Berger launched Lo-Fi on WFMU. This weekly half-hour program was devoted entirely to tape culture and I was regularly featured on it throughout its existence. Mr. Berger's on-air invitations to listeners to send him tapes led to our discovery of several different artists whom we ultimately brought together and united into a live music scene in New York in the late '80s that literally took lo-fi out of the bedroom and into the street. (In my next post I will describe this particular scene in much greater detail.)

I was now making tape albums with names like "Trace the Psychosis" and "It's the Brann Man... and Don't You Forget It!" using a dual deck boombox with a mixing mic input, overdubbing and bouncing tracks back and forth between tapes. I was also working in the offices of an apparel company at this time, and by sneaking my hand-drawn j-card designs onto the copy machine when no one was looking, I was able to print them for free! Later on I acquired a Tascam 4-track portastudio and that's when I did my very best work, now available on my Bandcamp page for all to hear.


By the early '90s bands of all styles were selling and giving away tapes. They were still the format of choice for low-budget musicians until around 1998. And then... the recordable CD arrived. And suddenly millions instantly traded cassettes for convenience. In a way I could understand it. I admit even I was guilty of it when I chose to release The Racing Brain of Ray Brazen on CD instead of tape. But I still used cassettes to record radio shows, conversations I was lucky to have with music legends like Los Dug Dugs, the Godz, and TV Toy, and ideas for new songs I was writing. I bought a portable player just like the first few I'd owned in my youth at a thrift store and took it on the road with me, capturing the vibes on tape in every state I passed through. For me, tapes were still the best and most convenient way to record. I hate doing multitrack recording on computers with a passion, but ultimately the complete breakdown of my 4-track portastudio made it necessary for awhile. (I really should try to get a new one on Ebay soon. I've got enough new material for a whole new tape album.)

There may have been a drop in tape releases for awhile when CD-Rs took over, but in the late part of the '00s I started to see tapes slowly start to make a comeback. Only a few artists released tapes at first, but over time and into the present decade, the numbers shot up again and with the establishment of Burger Tapes and its global influence, we are now more or less back to where we were thirty years ago. Whoda thunk?

When I was invited by my very dear friend Joshua Rogers of Illuminated Paths to compile some of my home recordings from the 1980s for my first cassette release in 20 years on his label, I just couldn't say no. The response it got, along with Josh's boundless enthusiasm for my music and for tape culture in general, now has me fully immersed in it all over again for the first time in just as long. I'm proud to report that today's tape generation is producing music that stands proudly with the tape music I heard 30 years ago. Here in central Florida, in addition to Illuminated Paths, there's also Godless America and Popnihil, three distinct tape labels releasing everything from garage punk to electronic to vaporwave and beyond. They're still as cheap to make as ever, and bands still charge an average of six bucks for 'em.


The tape revival has also got me bootlegging vintage tape albums I've had since the late '80s and early '90s to share with today's younger tapeheads, and paying more attention to tape stockpiles in thrift stores. I've found quite a few old sealed blank tapes in thrift shops and these should always be bought on sight (especially since you don't wanna know how much Walgreen's charges for 'em now). Some of the used ones I've found have revealed everything from old radio airchecks to wedding ceremonies to family holiday greetings. And now tapes are officially fun again, for me and for so many others, veterans and novices alike. As one who has pretty much bled recording tape for over 4 decades now and is positively and justifiably thrilled about the whole resurgence, all I can say is... tape on!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

THIS IS THE GODZ' TRUTH: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Part 1)


(This is a newly revised and expanded version of an article I originally wrote for my website THE FIRST CHURCH OF THE GODZ in 2003. It underwent an unpublished revision two years later that was to be featured in a booklet in a boxed set of the band's music which never saw full completion. The piece has undergone further changes since then and I am now proud and honored to present this greatly revised edition of my Godz bio to you here on the Brazenblog, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the recording session for the band's debut album, CONTACT HIGH WITH THE GODZ. Enjoy.)

On September 28, 1966, four young freaks from New York City entered A-1 Sound Studios with only a few very trashy acoustic instruments. They had just landed a recording contract with a New York-based record label on the sole basis of a audition in which they just banged on these cheap instruments and howled like feral cats in a streetfight. But this was no ordinary band, and they had signed with no ordinary label. And in just one single session's time, they would give birth to a whole new sound and style which has taken on many forms since then, but has come to be identified (by my old WFMU colleague Irwin Chusid) as "outsider music."

The Godz were at A-1 to record their debut album, Contact High, for Bernard Stollman's ESP Disk (ESP being an abbreviation of the "universal" Esperanto language, as opposed to "extra-sensory perception"). ESP was a pioneering independent label primarily devoted to documenting the avant-garde jazz explosion of that time (releasing several Albert Ayler and Sun Ra albums and introducing Pharoah Sanders, to name a few), and in a sense, the Godz' music was as close to free jazz as psychedelic. These days, weird bands and indie labels are a dime a dozen, and how many of them have that same underlying sincerity to them? But in 1966 the Godz, and ESP, were quite literally in a class by themselves.


The Godz existed at a time when rock music was just starting to become freaky, but they stood out among all the others as the absolute freakiest of them all. Many bands were beginning to experiment with strange sounds within song structures in the mid-1960s, but the Godz were experimenting with strange sounds as the songs themselves. The Godz deliberately stressed minimal instrumental ability in an effort to bring the raw expression of art to the forefront of their sound. Whether you could dig it or not depended upon how open your mind happened to be, either naturally or through the use of certain illicit drugs, but most often a combination of both. And you can't help but wonder how many folks bought into the serious, pensive looks of four lads looking just like any other group on the cover of Godz 2 in 1967, and took the record home, only to be shocked out of their unsuspecting minds when the strains of "Squeek" or "Crusade" hit their ears!

Now the Godz' truth can be told: it was all sort of an accident. These guys never thought they would become a band when they first met. They were just good friends who happened to meet on the job in New York City. In a recent telephone conversation with this writer, Larry Kessler recalled to me how he met Jim McCarthy and Paul Thornton when they all took jobs in the 49th Street location of Sam Goody's, which may be the McDonald's of record stores today, but in the '60s and '70s was a serious music lover's emporium. It was while working at Goody's that Larry caught word of a more unique career opportunity: "Bernard Stollman needed a salesman for ESP and he told one of the guys who was doing stock work in the basement -- I guess this was in '65. And he told Jimmy about it, but he didn't want it because he wasn't really the salesman type. So he asked me if I wanted it and I said 'yeah, I'll go talk to the guy.' I talked to Bernard and we seemed to hit it off pretty good, so I started working for him." Larry would eventually work himself all the way up to ESP's general sales manager position.


All three had previous recording experience under their belts. Larry had released a single in 1961 called "Wonderful Days" under the alias of Miles Standish, and Paul had two 45s of his own in 1964, "I'm No Rebel" (an answer record to "Hes a Rebel") and "Baby Be My Girl" (which was issued with two different B-sides, "Where's My Baby" and "Walk In Outer Space"). He and Jim were also members of the Dick Watson Five, who released one album, Baker Street, a rock interpretation of a Sherlock Holmes-themed Broadway musical. The two at first seemed content with their place in the NYC rock scene, until the fateful evening they ventured out to see an outrageous new local outfit calling themselves the Fugs. In a mid-90s interview with the fanzine 200 Lb. Underground, Jim recalled the lasting impression the Godz' future labelmates left on him: "The reality of their music caught me, and I thought, why am I fucking around singing other people's songs when I should be expressing my own feelings?"

Jim quit the Dick Watson Five right then and there, and so began the chain of events leading to the formation of his next band. Soon thereafter, his girlfriend dumped him and threw him out of the pad they'd been sharing, so he moved into Larry's apartment on East 11th Street for a short while. One day Paul came over to visit them, and the three gathered in Larry's living room to smoke a joint. What happened next was purely accidental, according to Jim: "There were all these percussive instruments lying around and out of total frustration, I got up and started shaking a tambourine or something like that, and that's how it all started. We all started to get up and make noise like a bunch of maniacs, expressing our frustration." It was an exhilarating moment for all three of them. But immediately afterward, Larry made a suggestion that had both Jim and Paul questioning his sanity: that the three audition this impromptu "band" for ESP. According to Jim, "He said 'Oh, Bernard Stollman would love this,' and I thought he was crazy!" But Larry was indeed serious, and went on to persuade ESP's art director, Jay Dillon, to round out the quartet, thus ensuring that John Sebastian could not claim the title of rock's only autoharp (psaltery) stylist.

Stollman remembered his first Godz encounter thusly: "They were all in my office, and Larry said 'Well, we're recording tomorrow.' I said, 'WE are recording?' 'Yeah,' he said, 'my group. The Godz.' I said, 'A group called the Godz?' 'Yeah. We're going into Herb Abramson's studio to record.' 'Who are the Godz?' 'Well, there's Jimmy over there, and there's Jay and me and Paul.' I said 'wow. Would you like me to hear it before you go record it in the studio?' 'Yeah,' he said, 'we're rehearsing at Natasha's tonight.' Natasha, my personal assistant! They were rehearsing at her apartment on the south side of Tompkins Square Park. So I went there, it was sweltering warm, it was hot, so we turned off the lights so it was cooler. And they did their song for me ("White Cat Heat"). I heard that, and that's all I had to hear. It was a ridiculous basis on which to give them a record session, but I couldn't say no. I figured, somehow they're into something. And I think it was because they were such rank individualists, that there was no danger of them doing anything conventional."


Larry claims his involvement in the Godz actually caused some friction with his new boss: "When Stollman found out I was in a band, he was really pissed at me personally, because I never told him I had anything to do with music, I had just told him I was a salesman. I was doing great as a salesman -- I got the Fugs' records into Korvettes and Alexander's (two now-defunct NY-metro-area department store giants of the time). I had long hair, I was freaky, and I was talking to people all over the country on the phone -- and I was doing a great job for him, he really liked me. But he wanted me to stay with ESP and not go off on the tangent of being a musician, 'cuz he knew how that was gonna end up."

THIS IS THE GODZ' TRUTH: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Part 2)



The Godz recorded Contact High just after Jim's recovery from a bout with hepatitis (during which time he shared a hospital room with none other than Lou Reed) at A-1 Sound, owned and operated by the aforementioned Herb Abramson, the very same guy who founded Atco Records. (Abramson in fact was very open minded to the Godz' strange ideas, and even appeared on their third album as a sideman of sorts.) Stollman wanted to release a 45, but the Godz wanted more, so they took it upon themselves: "He told us we could go in and do a single with two songs," says Larry, "but we really had eight or nine songs. Most of these songs were, like, skeleton songs, and we were one of the first bands to ever do a Hank Williams song ("May You Never Be Alone"). We went in and instead of doing the single, we just did one song after another. The engineer, Andrew (Burliner) even played on it, he got all excited and he loved us." By the time they were finished, the two-hour session ESP had set up for them had stretched to six hours, and they had recorded seven songs more than was expected of them. But when Stollman heard the results, he liked it all so much he finally gave in and agreed to release a full album, and Contact High was born.

ESP put Jay Dillon to work designing the album cover. He portrayed the Godz as serious, mysterious, and a bit spooky, with its photographic depiction of Jay being "lynched" by the other band members, using liner notes and photos taken of the group in front of a fireplace by Marc Crawford, a local photographer and black activist who "didn't like white people, but liked us for some reason," according to Paul. But Jim McCarthy wanted to design his own cover and portray the band as just a bunch of fun-loving freaks, putting studio shots on the front cover in which he appears to be holding a joint. In the best diplomatic interests of the band, they had a cover contest, with Stollman as the judge. When he couldn't decide which cover he liked best, he decided to release both simultaneously, giving the listener the unique option of choosing whether to view the Godz as serious or humorous.

To be fair, the Godz were a little of both, but they were never above making fun of themselves. Jim's self-penned liner notes proclaimed them "four New York freaks who can't play their instruments," and their only non-LP track, "I Want A Word With You" (the B-side of their first 45, "Lay In The Sun"), ends with the voice of one member suggesting they "should practice more." But even the Godz were subject to an earful of artistic advice from a label like ESP, particularly in regards to the wall of wailing cat sounds which would become Contact High's most notorious track, and which Stollman originally wanted to release as their single. Says Larry, "We had called that song 'Meow' and he said, 'Oh, you've gotta call that song 'White Cat Heat,' cuz you're white cats and you sound like you're in heat!'" Stollman also took it upon himself to name the album, and wanted the Godz to assist him in his championing of the so-called "universal language" which had given the label its name, according to Jim: "Bernard wanted us to sing in Esperanto! One time he brought us into his office and he had this old geezer in there, and he spoke with this Eastern European accent, and he tried to teach us Esperanto and we couldn't have cared less!"

Having an album in the stores meant an easier time getting gigs for the Godz -- never mind the fact that theirs was no ordinary album. Says Larry, "Nobody ever listened to it first, they just figured that since we had an album, we were just like everyone else!" This would probably best explain the band's participation in a benefit for Pete Townshend's favorite guru, Meher Baba, or an even more bizarre booking Larry remembers: "We played the Miss Greenwich Village Pageant! They were trying to get us off the stage and we wouldn't leave!" Adds Paul, "That was at the New York Coliseum. It was sponsored by a ski shop and they wouldn't let us onstage unless we wore ski sweaters, so we had to get in a taxi and go to their shop on the east side to get ski sweaters. And then, after our first song, one of the go-go girls went over to the manager and said, 'We can't dance to this!'" Jim recalls the Meher Baba gig: "We played the Civic Center in Durham, North Carolina, and it was a great show. There was a pretty good local blues band that opened up for us and they were baffled out of their minds that we had top billing over them!"

As you would expect, the Godz live were as free and freaky as they were on vinyl. "We were so outrageous for our time," Larry says. "We were pre-punk. Even the Fugs had some type of show, but we were just total anarchy onstage. We used to argue with the audience. They thought we were kidding when we came out with a psaltery and plastic flute and acoustic guitar and big drum sticks, and we would just tune up for half an hour! And these people would be yelling! The freaky people liked us, but the regular people who were going down to Greenwich Village from Brooklyn or wherever were looking for some kind of folk singer, and we would come out!"

"We certainly let mistakes work in our favor," says Jim. "Art is about taking things that occur and letting them go and seeing what happens, and that goes for any art form. All we did was try to express our feelings honestly. We wanted to show that you didn't have to be a music student to express yourself."

They played at the Scene, Café Wha, Gerde's Folk City (their live debut, which ended with a more-than-fairly inebriated Larry falling off the tiny stage), and Café-A-Go-Go (a gig Jim remembers primarily "because we were thrown out of there for smoking grass in the dressing room"), in addition to various "open mikes." They wreaked havoc on the WBAI airwaves and recruited the hosts of the show as their soundmen. When they played in New Jersey, someone called the police. They opened for the Fugs at the Bridge Theatre on St. Mark's Place (until just recently home to the pricey "punk boutique" Trash & Vaudeville), and were halfway to the stage when Larry realized he had forgotten his violin -- one which he had managed to persuade his reluctant grandmother to lend him. The instrument wound up in splinters when Jim accidentally kicked it down a flight of stairs in the midst of the resulting mad rush to retrieve it.

Somewhere in the midst of all this activity, the then-up-and-coming experimental filmmaker and visual artist, Jud Yalkut, who at the time was working at Sam Goody with the rest of them, made the Godz subjects of a nine-and-a-half-minute, eight-millimeter film short. Yalkut shot a couple of live performances and gathered them at Larry's apartment one evening to film them just hanging out and acting silly. You see Jay playing his autoharp and Jim strumming the very same acoustic he used on Contact High, perhaps the cheapest one ever built in guitar history, and the boys getting stoned and watching a football game on Larry's TV. Accompanying this silent footage is a long medley of "Lay in the Sun" and "Come On Girl Turn On," interspersed with plenty of improvisation, actually owing more to the overall feel of the second album than of the first. Today, this film can be viewed in its entirety on Youtube, complete with its soundtrack which to this day remains unreleased on vinyl or CD.


For their second album, the Godz sought to advance their sound a bit, and took their time doing so. While Contact High had been recorded in one day, the band took four months to create Godz 2, which appeared in the fall of 1967. "After the first album," recalls Jim, "our egos were really pumped up. Larry kept on insisting we could be the American Beatles! For the second record we got decent instruments -- Jay got an electric keyboard, Paul got a set of drums, Larry had my bass and I got a nice electric guitar. We played around with those instruments and got a different feel for the second record."

Paul Thornton claims nobody told him about the Ampeg endorsement deal which provided them with the equipment used on Godz 2, and was stuck with the same old kit he'd used on Contact High. He had, however, started taking lessons from famed 1960s east coast session drummer Gary Chester, whose beats propelled such hit tunes as "My Boyfriend's Back" and "I'm a Believer," amongst a million other oldies, and who helped Paul create the primitive and infectious rhythms heard (and played while standing) on "Radar Eyes" and "Soon the Moon." For the second of two very rare white-label promo 45s, they recorded "Wiffenpoof Song," an insanely catchy, anthemic garage-chant that's one of their finest moments, and backed it with a mono remix of "Travelin' Salesman," which added overdubbed crowd hysteria swiped from the Stones' Got Live if You Want It and run backwards.


The Godz were also taken under the wing of Michael Soldan and Judy Parker, who published the legendary Eye magazine (original copies of which now fetch fairly large sums on Ebay), designed and photographed the cover of Godz 2 (and went criminally uncredited for it), and added a light show to the band's live act. Says Larry, "He was a photographer from England and she was from Rhode Island, and Jay was very close to them -- he started working at Eye magazine. We used to rehearse at their loft, and they loved us. We were really getting good by then. They had 50 or 60 of our practice tapes." "She was a very aesthetic, lovely woman, slender, tall," says Bernard Stollman, "and Michael was short and boyish and charming, and they were such an exquisite, sweet pair. I just liked them both a lot." Larry recalls that The Godz' music also had an unusual influence of sorts on Soldan's photographs of British rock stars: aiming to get the wildest facial expressions imaginable out of his subjects, "they used to play our tapes for the English bands and the guys would freak out while they took the pictures! They never heard this sort of music before, and they would act nuts!"

But tragedy struck on Memorial Day in 1968, when Soldan and Parker set out on a fateful, LSD-fueled boat ride off Long Island Sound, went missing in a flash flood and were presumed drowned, their bodies never recovered. "Their deaths were devastating to us, because they were our mentors," says Larry. Jay Dillon was especially spooked by this loss as he was originally scheduled to accompany his friends on the voyage, and his grief was a major factor in his decision to leave the Godz shortly afterward. Additionally, says Larry, "he'd grown disgusted with our lifestyle. He was much more of an intellectual than the three of us." Jim agrees: "Jay was the one who wanted us to get intellectual with the Godz. He wanted us to go to schools and teach kids how to play music!"


Without Jay, the remaining Godz released The Third Testament in late '68, inviting several friends to invade the studio and freak out on a few numbers (a concept mirroring the Red Crayola's Parable of Arable Land), then filling in the rest with solo numbers by each member. Despite the band being in its final stages by this point, Larry proclaims it his favorite Godz album: "I really liked where that one went." He broke his neck in a diving accident the following year, and that was the end of the Godz... almost.

THIS IS THE GODZ' TRUTH: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Part 3)


Once out of the hospital, Larry successfully persuaded Bernard Stollman to give him back his salesman gig at ESP. He also started singing for a more conventional rock band called Seventh Street, while at the same time Paul was forming a new band with Leslie Fradkin and Bob Unger. In late 1971, the legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs published a major analysis of the Godz' music in Creem Magazine (later republished in the Bangs retrospective Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung). Says Jim, "Lester's was the definitive thing on the Godz. He really knew where we were coming from." (Jim was later asked to join Lester's band Birdland, but didn't like his music and so declined.) With the Creem article generating new interest in the Godz' back catalogue, Stollman suggested that Larry try to reform the Godz. The others weren't so sure they wanted to do it, so a compromise of sorts was reached.

"Godzundheit was Paul's band and some of my band members," says Larry of their rather nondescript final album. "Bernard thought it might be a good idea if we try to pull together, but we just did our stuff with our own bands. 'Whiffenpoof Song' was added (at the insistence of Bangs) to give the album some authenticity. It really wasn't us, it was just something that proved that we could sound just like any other band if we chose to." With ESP almost dead by then as well, only 500 copies of Godzundheit were pressed, on crackly, non-virgin vinyl -- perhaps just enough to go around for all the diehards.

And with the singer-songwriter formula being all the rage in the early '70s, Stollman finally gave in to Jim's solo aspirations and invited him to follow Godzundheit with a somewhat underrated (though still distinctly un-Godz-like) effort of his own, Alien, in 1973. Meanwhile, Paul joined forces with Godzundheit's producer Leslie Fradkin, veteran East Village eccentric David Peel, and (supposedly) even Paul & Linda McCartney to record the Pass On This Side album, on which "Walking Guitar Blues" from The Third Testament reappeared in a new, more polished version. Paul then joined Peel's Lower East Side and appeared on several of their mid-seventies albums on the Orange label, including Bring Back the Beatles, whose sessions were witnessed by a young studio apprentice named George Thorogood, years before he became a classic-rock icon. ESP stopped producing records in the mid-seventies (though it had been unofficially "out of business" since '68), and Stollman gave Larry the original master tapes of all four Godz albums. Some of these tapes were later sourced for Kessler's own 2015 retrospective, The Godz Remastered.

But we're still not quite finished with our story. In 1992, Stollman, after several years spent outside the music business as New York's assistant attorney general, resurfaced in Europe through the ZYX label in Germany. Suddenly the entire ESP catalogue began reappearing in CD form, though in poorly-remastered-from-vinyl editions. At this point, Leslie Fradkin stepped into the picture again and suggested that the Godz capitalize on the new interest generated by the reissues by attempting a reformation. He put Paul and Jim back together, and the three of them played a reunion show at New York's famous Bitter End. Jim left immediately afterward and thus ended the reunion.

Some time later, Larry registered The Godz as a trademark in his own name, then released a 5-track EP called Godz Revival in 1996. It included a heavy-metal remake of "Radar Eyes" as well as a 5-minute "Godz Techno Mix" incorporating samples from their first three albums. A few years later, Leslie and Paul managed to talk Larry into joining them for a new CD. Larry flew to California, tried to get something going with them, and bailed out as quickly as Jim had from the earlier reunion, leaving Fradkin and Thornton to finish it without him and release it as Godzology in 2000.

Jim McCarthy still lives in New York and has won acclaim for his music photography, which has appeared everywhere from the New York Times to Bob Dylan boxed sets. (In fact, his first experiences involved shooting publicity photos of some of ESP's jazz artists while he was still in the Godz.) Paul Thornton also calls NYC home to this day, and has made his mark as an TV and movie actor in recent years. Larry Kessler still lives in Baltimore, where he drives a cab and runs a used record store; he and Paul have played live together recently with a new Godz lineup, and more new recordings under the name have surfaced on the Manta Ray record label.

Sadly, Jay Dillon, who never spoke to the other members again after leaving the band in '68, passed away in 2002 after a quiet life in South Plainfield, New Jersey as a painter and graphic designer. So reclusive had he become that no one even knew of his death until I investigated his whereabouts while in the process of reuniting the Godz three years later.


In 2005, ESP finally relaunched independently in NYC after several overseas licensing deals went bust. Stollman's quest to reissue the label's entire catalogue included plans for a boxed set of all the Godz' albums with a bonus DVD of Jud Yalkut's forementioned 1967 promo film. To this end, the label called on none other than myself  to act as assistant project coordinator, after seeing my Godz fansite and learning I'd recently been in personal contact with Larry Kessler. Although many legal and personal battles ultimately canceled the boxed set, I nonetheless was more than happy to meet with the original members of the group, which in time did bring about a more proper Godz reunion which involved some new recordings and a settlement of their longstanding differences with Stollman, who died in 2015 of cancer. It was a dream come true to meet the Godz and I would like to thank Larry, Jim and Paul for their kindness and congratulate them on the 50th anniversary of a band that has greatly influenced me and many outsider musicians around the world.

Larry Kessler has the final word on what the Godz meant to him, and many others as well. "The Godz were just about being there for the time and we were being as honest as we could be. It might not have been pretty, but it was art. I knew that we were doing something artistically correct because there were so many people who didn't understand us, and if they would have understood us, then I would've felt that we were wrong. The music needs to grow in people's minds. There are so many things we did that broke new ground, and I'm proud of it."

Friday, July 8, 2016

THE RAYBRAZEN.COM STORY, PART THREE


The message began with a quote from the Beatles: "You know my name, look up the number." It was a charming way to start. The letter was lengthy, written in the best English the sender could summon, filled with the expected misspellings and bad grammar, but I was able to feel and to understand every word of his truly heartfelt response to my small but sincere tribute... to the very band he had founded and led for over 30 years in Mexico, Los Dug Dugs. Yes, indeed, there he was right in my email box on my computer, the one, the only, the legendary... Armando Nava. The very one whose name was the only clue on all those records I'd found.

Time froze. Shivers went up my spine as I read his words. Armando insisted he had cried tears of joy for 20 minutes while looking at my site. He gently corrected a factual error or two I had posted, and wrote a nice little poem in tribute to him, and us as well. The message ended with his full contact information, including the address of La Reunion, the Mexico City nightclub he owned at the time, and two phone numbers with an open invitation to call him and speak with him directly. This was all too much for me to take in at first! Whoda thunk my search for Los Dug Dug's, that band I found in a Mexican record store a decade earlier, would end up like this?

So, of course, now I had a really big news update, and what an update it was, posting Armando's letter with the promise of much more to come. In the process, I took another look at the front page of the site. "Los Dug Dug's Homepage." Ugh. That name just wasn't gonna cut it anymore, especially now that Armando Nava had seen it. I pondered the matter for awhile, and then remembered a 1960s Mexican movie someone from the Bomp board where I promoted the site had sent me on VHS which had an appearance by the band. I replaced the last word in its Spanish title accordingly, and knew I had a proper name at last -- "El Mundo Loco De Los Dug Dug's." Little did I know exactly how loco that world was about to become.


Admittedly, it took me awhile to summon the courage to talk to him, but a few weeks later, in mid-December '97, I finally got up the nerve to place a long distance phone call to Armando Nava at his nightclub in Mexico City. It was very late at night, about 2 in the morning, and he'd just gotten offstage, but was more than happy to talk for as long as I wanted. I couldn't believe I was really talking to the main man on those Mexican album covers. But there he was on the other end of the line, speaking in his best English (which was actually very good) about the band's entire history for almost a full 90 minute cassette. It was the first of many conversations we would have over the next several years.

It wasn't always easy to figure out some of the details Armando was trying to give about the band, but I somehow managed to write up a basic historical overview of Los Dug Dugs from what he told me. I thought it would be sorta cool to have him record a holiday greeting for the site, it being December by then, and he graciously obliged. He was a total class act in every respect, and so appreciative of my interest in his music. It's always a thrill when you talk to someone you've admired and respected and he turns out to be a kind and generous person who deeply regards his fans. And little did I know this was just the beginning of his generosity.

Armando told me he was going to send me lots of stuff. And he said he meant a lot of stuff. Initially he told me to just watch my mailbox. Three months went by with nothing from Mexico turning up in my mail. I'd heard Mexican mail was pretty unreliable so I thought that might be why I'd not received anything. Or maybe he was taking his time, I don't know. Me, I was just happy to have been so wildly successful in finding Los Dug Dugs. But I was getting a bit impatient just the same.


That's why, when I found myself coming across an original sealed vinyl copy of "Abre Tu Mente," their mid-80s singles compilation, at a prog-rock specialty shop in NYC, I thought nothing of the 50 bucks they wanted for it, for I wanted anything Dug Dugs now more badly than ever. Besides, the back cover was a whole mess of further clues about the band, including a long list of former members and a dedication to the bassist on their amazing second album SMOG, who had died around that time. I made the best sense I could out of it all and posted updates to the history I'd already begun.

Suddenly, El Mundo Loco had become a real website. I was cooking with fire now, with the main Dug Dug now watching over it all. Or was he? I hadn't heard from him in almost four months.

When we talked on the phone in December '97, I had given Armando my phone number and forgot about it. So it was quite a shock when a telephone message came for me in early April '98. It was from Armando, and he had some major, major news for me -- he was coming to New York the following week! He didn't even have to ask me to do the honors of picking him up at Newark Airport. I knew it was my absolute date with destiny calling. I had to catch my breath after this one for sure. In just nine months, what started as a simple inquiry as to who and what and where Armando Nava was, became a full fledged opportunity to meet him in person. I never, ever thought it would ever come to this. And it would get even better still.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

THE RAYBRAZEN.COM STORY, PART TWO


In early 1997 a young lady I was dating planted the seed in my mind that I should start a website. I, with my utter lack of computer literacy, thought she was nuts at first. But when I found out you didn't need much computer literacy at all to put together a basic site, I set about starting to learn how. My big mistake was paying $350 to this cheap trade school to learn HTML. It took less than one class for me to realize I could just teach that shit to myself. I finally took the "textbook" I could've just paid 20 bucks for at Barnes & Noble and did just that. (If anyone from Career Center in NYC is reading this, I still want my money back, you cheap scammers.)

Back in '97 the internet was a very, very different little beast. You had to tap into a telephone line to get online, and downloading took forever and a day. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Youtube, no Soundcloud. But the word was out that HTML was so easy a child could learn it, and the "homepage" craze had begun accordingly in earnest. Most of the people who were creating these pages had anything but talent and original ideas. Thus, you had 1,000 "websites" (I use that term VERY loosely here!) on the Beatles and Pink Floyd, and about half a billion Simpsons "homepages," all with the same damned completely generic content. The web in '97 was anything but a worldwide archive of everything that exists under the sun. There was no Google, only a gaggle of equally shitty search engines like Altavista and Lycos and I forget the names of the rest.


So of course, I went ahead and practiced my HTML skills by making a website about Los Dug Dugs, taking what few clues I had about them and getting to work. I honestly admit the premise seemed like a joke at first. With the web still in its infancy, I figured there was no sense in bothering to put Los Dug Dug's there. Who would even notice a tiny little site like this one, with hardly any information outside of what little I knew about them? But when I came across that ad for Geocities, the free web hosting site started by Yahoo, offering two free megabytes with which to put up my tiny test site, I began to take the idea a bit more seriously. It was obvious I had nothing to lose by putting it online, and besides, however horrible the quality of my site was, at least I'd be offering something different, instead of the 9 billionth useless Beatles fan site.

And so, on July 31, 1997, "Los Dug Dug's Homepage," the very first website devoted to a rock band from Mexico, premiered on the internet through Geocities, quietly and with hardly any fanfare at all. Naturally, creating it was the easy part. Now I was faced with the far more difficult task of promoting it. Had I started it today, I could've just posted it on Facebook, and wouldn't have had to lift a finger to get it listed on Google. Twenty years ago, though, you actually had to submit your URL to one of the lousy search engine sites I mentioned earlier, then wait several days and keep your fingers crossed that they'd get around to listing it. It took awhile, but soon my site was on Altavista and the other lame search engines of the day.

While waiting for this to happen, I took to these very same search sites to find other places on the web where I could promote the site. That's how I happened across the Bomp Message Board, a spinoff of the famed garage-rock label and fanzine where you could talk about all things related to punk and pyschedelic music. I figured it was as good a place as any to hawk my site, so I signed up and then began my first Dug Dug's site promo campaign there in earnest. This campaign paid off to a certain degree as I soon found myself entering into handshake deals with creators of other obscure rock-oriented websites, who would link my site on theirs in exchange for the privilege of their sites being linked on mine. That's how we used to do it!

It was all well and good that these linking deals led to my site being seen in countries such as Australia and the UK, but still I had my doubts that my work would ever be seen in the one country that really mattered in my search for Los Dug Dug's -- namely, Mexico. That's why I was very surprised and shocked when I received an email in early October '97 from a man named Marco Mejia. It appeared to originate from Mexico City and was in very bad English, but it was understandable enough for me to gather that this Marco worked near a bar where Los Dug Dug's played all the time and he was willing to tell Armando Nava himself about my site and my search for him. I was excited but skeptical, especially so when my initial attempts to reply to this email were all marked "undeliverable." So close, and yet so far? I kept trying and trying again, taking about a month until I finally got a message through to Marco successfully, by which time he had written again wondering why he hadn't heard from me. A few very awkward words in both English and Spanish were exchanged, and Marco told me to stand by, promising that someone "very important" with ties to the band would be in touch with me shortly. And so I waited.


Like I said, my site at the time was extremely primitive. Just three short pages consisting only of whatever album cover images I had of the band, accompanied by whatever little information I could gather from their records and an article which detailed my discovery and subsequent obsession with Los Dug Dug's and ended on a plea for anyone with information on them to step forward. As for streaming their music, all I could fit onto the tiny 2 megabytes of storage Geocities had given me to start with were a few short samples in WAV format. MP3s had come into existence by then, but with only a 56K connection through a phone line, the simplest of three-minute songs took an hour or more to download.

Indeed, my site was what it was, but ultimately, what little it provided would prove more than enough. On November 22, 1997, Los Dug Dug's Homepage received a very historic visit from the last man I ever thought would even find out about it. And that night, I checked my email before bedtime with the initial plan of just going right to sleep afterwards. When I saw what awaited me in my inbox, though, I wound up staying up half the night.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

THE RAYBRAZEN.COM STORY, PART ONE


It all began in Ensenada, Mexico on July 25, 1988. That was the day I first discovered the band that would ultimately lead me to the humble beginnings of one of my greatest projects... and greatest adventures.

I was on a weeklong safari in southern California with my parents, and had successfully begged them to take me to Mexico while we were there. Rather than risk driving, we opted to take a tour bus. It was driven by a wonderful Mexican guide named Val (pictured below with yours truly during a quick pit stop in Rosarito), who was almost as entertaining as the country itself. But I didn't want to just fritter around Tijuana for a couple hours and leave quicker than I'd arrived -- I wanted to dig a little deeper than that. And so we rode that bus all the way to Ensenada, down Route One along the Baja Peninsula, where I saw the biggest, most ferocious ocean waves I've ever seen to this day. Ultimately we arrived at our destination and a big shopping strip populated by roadside taco carts (which I was admittedly too wary of to try, much though they were very tempting), sad-eyed poor kids selling penny candy, and lots of stores.


Of course, I went right for the record shops, finding them practically by instinct. I already had a basic knowledge of the local rock music through bootlegs like "Mexican Rock & Roll Rumble," and was hoping to find some records by one band in particular, Los Locos Del Ritmo. There were none to be found in that strip in Ensenada, but in one particularly dusty bin I found another very mysterious album whose cover immediately took me by surprise. The front depicted three guys dressed in cool jumpsuits that were true '70s rock period pieces, playing amidst a haze of dry ice. They looked almost like Mexico's answer to Black Sabbath. The name of the album was emblazoned in big silver letters: "EL LOCO." When I flipped it over I immediately noticed that most of the song titles were in English. Two names in particular stood right out: "Stupid People" and "We Always Hate Your Manners."

That was it. I'd seen all I needed to see. It was obvious this album stood a pretty darn good chance of turning out to be some seriously heavy duty music. I paid six American dollars at the counter for it, and in a flash, my quest for Los Locos Del Ritmo was quickly forgotten. From that day forward, Mexican rock would be all about Los Dug Dug's for me.

There would be four agonizing days of obsessive speculation about what they might sound like before I would finally get to hear them. But on the night we returned home to New Jersey, no sooner had we brought in our suitcases than I pulled "El Loco" out of mine and went straight to my turntable. Side one, track one was"Stupid People." And yes, the song rocked, all right... but in a way I didn't see coming for a second. It was a very strange mix of hard rock and mariachi music! There was even a break in the middle of the song which featured the world famous Mariachi Vargas just wailing their butts off for 30 seconds! It was a weird sound to my gringo ears indeed. But you know what? It totally worked! Beyond the mix of local and international influences was a great song with beautiful playing. And again, it rocked. As did "We Always Hate Your Manners" and some of the other songs as well, which were considerably less mariachi and more straightforward hard rock. And the title track was a quirky instrumental prog-rock parody! The album also had a couple of slow ballads that I didn't care much for at first, but would come to appreciate over time. All in all, I couldn't have asked for a better record to bring back from Ensenada.


My interest in Los Dug Dug's might not have gone much further from there if not for a chance second brush with fate about a month later. I was browsing around in a used record store on St. Mark's Place called Sounds when suddenly I came across... another album by Los Dug Dug's! I mean, really now, what were the chances? It was proof they'd made more than one record for sure, appearing to be a "greatest hits" collection of sorts. There were several photos of the band that showed them in various stages of their career, and they added to the intrigue already created by the "El Loco" cover. And it was in the one dollar bin of all glorious places. Sold!

Upon bringing this second album home I immediately jumped to "Stupid People" simply because I was quick to notice it appeared to be a shorter version and was curious about it for some reason. I waited for the mariachi rock explosion to follow... only to be greeted by a totally different, balls-out garage-rock version that stood the "El Loco" version on its side! Then, going back to the beginning, I was greeted by the experimental strains of the intro to "Lost In My World," which then became a strange psychedelic waltz like no other I've heard before or since.

That did it once and for all. I was now officially obsessed with Los Dug Dug's and there was no turning back. I couldn't stop playing either album for trying. These were two of the most uniquely brilliant records I'd found in a long time, and to think I'd discovered them in Mexico. The only clue I could gather about them was that they were led by a man named Armando Nava, whose credits as writer and producer of both records were the only information given on either one. Whoever he was, Senor Nava was now offficially my new rock idol. Both albums had just as mysteriously been released only in Mexico on the RCA Camden (!) label, and I was very determined to find out more about Los Dug Dug's.

But remember, folks, we didn't have this here thing we call the internet in 1988. Back then, if you wanted to know more, you actually had to get out there in the real world and dig for it. I had but two options at that time: the first was to send a letter to RCA Mexico at the address on the album covers and hope that someone there spoke English. They never replied. The second was to alert two close friends I knew were going to Mexico at around the same time to be on the lookout for any and all things Dug Dug's while there. One of them did report back that they'd seen a poster for a DD's concert in Mexico City. Ah! At least I now knew they still existed in some form... if not much else about them.


It was during the early stages of this obsession that I purchased a copy of a fanzine called Kicks, published by the husband and wife team of Billy Miller and Miriam Linna who also run the great Norton label. I saw both of 'em around town a lot in those days, and while I never really became friends with them, I do recall them as very nice folks. And this strange zine they wrote was also to have a profound effect on me around this time. It had the Trashmen on the cover and a massive cover story and interview with all of their surviving members. It also introduced me to all these obscure artists they'd all discovered completely through massive crate digging. Billy and Miriam would find totally unknown '50s and '60s rock 45s, then actually try to track down the folks who made them! Whenever they hit paydirt they'd interview the artist extensively and then publish it in Kicks. I was immediately drawn to the stories of Billy and Miriam's exploits and I absorbed them all like a sponge. To me there seemed nothing cooler than going from some strange garage sale discovery to meeting the men on those old, dusty 45s in person.

It may not have had any articles on Los Dug Dug's in it. But Kicks magazine put the whole situation into perspective for me. It flat-out made me determined to have a similar moment of glory with the mysterious Armando Nava. It would take me almost a full decade to get it right. But ultimately I would. And in the most accidental of ways, too.

It was in 1994 that I heard about the internet for the very first time. I remember exactly how, too: my roommate at the time had a friend of his over and I walked into their conversation just as she was starting to describe it. Even before I ever got on it myself, I could tell by the fact that this friend said she spent hours on the damn thing that this was something with the potential for maximum time-wasting. About a year later, when my mother finally got online, I found that out for myself for sure. It seemed like you could look up just about anything on it. Anything, that is, except Los Dug Dug's.

Ultimately, it would be me who would fix that.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

BEACH BOYS & STEVE MILLER BAND, 1978


Seeing as how punk was influenced in part by surf music, it makes perfect sense that I was into surf music myself well before punk came along. When I was ten years old, my cousin Danny played me a little song called "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris. It blew my mind and sent me into a frenzy of discovering other surf groups like Jan & Dean, the Ventures (who became my all-time favorites), and finally, the Beach Boys. I started with "Surfin' Safari" and "Fun Fun Fun" of course. Then came the day I heard a later-period song of theirs called "Heroes and Villains." Whoa. This wasn't the Beach Boys I knew, but something else entirely. My mind was blown all over again, but in a different way this time.

The summer of 1976 was unquestionably the happiest of my entire life. America celebrated its Bicentennial that summer and the party was a total blast from July straight through to September. Swept up in the spirit of this nationwide shindig, my folks packed up the car, placed me in the back seat, and drove me to Florida, where I not only visited my current city of Orlando for the very first time, but also watched the premiere of the Beach Boys' NBC special on our hotel room's TV set. The music and the tropical surroundings combined to hypnotic effect, and there was no turning back.

Needless to say the Boys were my main soundtrack for the rest of that glorious summer, which culminated with the first two major concerts I ever attended, headlined respectively by Neil Diamond and Liberace. Those shows were a double consolation prize for my mother's inability to get me tickets to the show I REALLY wanted to see, Elton John at Madison Square Garden. Both gigs were fabulous, though, and they both greatly expanded my 11-year-old mind in different ways. I'll never forget Liberace's lightning-speed piano runs or his glittering jewels, nor will I ever forget Neil leading the audience in setting off the flashbulbs on their cameras in unison at the count of three. The resulting blinding light filled the entire stadium and to this day I swear that flash told me I was going to be an entertainer myself someday.

But anyway, back to the Beach Boys. At the end of that Bicentennial summer, Giants Stadium officially opened in East Rutherford, NJ, just on the other side of New York City. Initially intended as a football field, it wasn't long before the idea of having concerts there was successfully pitched to the powers that be. And on June 25, 1978, Giants Stadium held its very first concert, with the Beach Boys and the Steve Miller Band as headliners. A dream come true for me, as I adored both bands at the time. This time Mom was able to score the precious tickets, and so we made it my end-of-school year party. And what a party it was.

It was a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon just perfect for a Beach Boys show. We set out fashionably early and by the time we got to East Rutherford, the highway leading up to the stadium was filled with pedestrians hoofing it from the nearby bus stops to the show. Hitchhiking was commonplace in those days, and Mom and I figured we had nothing to lose by giving a small band of hikers a ride to the parking lot. The ones we picked up turned out to be a lovely, laid-back bunch of hippies who treated us like their long lost friends for the privilege. Once at the stadium, we approached the nearest t-shirt dealer in sight for a Beach Boys souvenir t-shirt. It turned out to be a totally bootleg, very badly silkscreened piece of sweatshop shit which hardly fit me despite a tag claiming it was my size. Oh well.

Our seats were in the upper tier, pretty high up but facing the stage with a nice view of the panorama of people spread out all over us. The loud, booming sound system ensured we'd get to hear everything. Some folks had brought binoculars for a closer view of the stage, and the folks sitting next to us generously shared theirs with us. The sun was beating down on us and it was hot, with Mom and I both dressed sparingly but foolishly not bothering to use sunscreen. This unwise decision would haunt us both much later.

The concert began with a local group bearing the unsavory name of Stanky Brown. Though they were briefly signed to Sire Records, they never found national fame, and with good reason -- their music was every bit as "stanky" as the name implied. We then had to endure a set by one of the lamest soft-rock bands of the '70s, Pablo Cruise, which was exactly what you would've expected, "Whatcha Gonna Do" and all. But then things got good. The buzz going around the stadium was that the Steve Miller Band's entire set was about to be broadcast live on WNEW-FM and other stations throughout the northeast. And when they began blasting 'NEW through the sound system as the stage was being set up for Steve, the crowd went fucking hog wild. The jumbo screens began flashing "HOW ABOUT THAT??? WE'RE ON THE RADIO!!! LET'S MAKE SOME NOISE!!!" And indeed, some folks were making noise as loud as possible, perhaps hoping their loved ones at home could hear them above the massive crowds. (And you thought my "radio debut" was on WFMU!)

It was the height of Steve's late '70s success with "Fly Like An Eagle" and "Book Of Dreams." Though I'd already discovered punk by then, I was still listening to some of what's now called classic rock, and I loved both those albums to death, especially the spacey, highly experimental synthesizer interludes opening and linking the songs. In that regard, Steve didn't disappoint me when he gave "Eagle" an extended space intro leading into a trippy ten minute version. He put on a great show from start to end, and I'll never forget the image of him playing guitar with the axe positioned upside down behind his neck. As much as I loathed Pablo Cruise, their bassist deserves some credit for saving the show by loaning his gear to Steve's bassist when his rig blew up midway through the set. The encore was an interesting one, starting on a new song called "Heart Like A Wheel" which wouldn't even be a hit until years later, and finishing on an honest-to-goodness reggae version of "The Joker" putting a welcome new spin on his well-worn standard. And their whole set was aired live on local radio, and I now have a bootleg CD of the original broadcast. It takes me back there every time.


By contrast, the day's headliners weren't aired live on 'NEW, and no recordings have surfaced of their set. But there they were, the group I'd waited so long to see... THE group, the classic Beach Boys lineup of Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, and Al Jardine. The REAL Beach Boys, not a cheap Mike-led knockoff. They came out and immediately launched into a killer set, filled with all their hits and then some. That shitty bootleg t-shirt I'd been scammed for in the parking lot at least now made a nifty banner to wave around in the aisles as I danced and sang my ass off. But this was no ordinary Beach Boys gig, I would soon find out.

After 45 minutes or so, everyone suddenly left the stage. Everyone, that is, except Mike. Then, a different backing band came out and suddenly it turned into the fucking Mike Love Show! Huh??? It was Mike's new, very short-lived side project, Celebration, who had a horrid new album out from which they played four whole songs. According to my sources, this was the one and only time they ever hijacked a Beach Boys show. I can't help but wonder if Mike strong-armed his cousins into letting his new band hog the stage like that. Fortunately, that part of the show was soon over and then Brian and his brothers came back and joined them and kicked right into "Heroes And Villains" of all songs, and all was well again. Of course you had the "Good Vibrations" singalong and "Surfin' USA" and "Fun Fun Fun," and I was on my feet in the aisles for the whole thing and it was awesome. I'll always be thankful I saw the classic Beach Boys lineup with all three Wilson brothers while they could still put on a rocking live show.

The sun had been beating down on my mom and I for over six hours and again, we'd forgotten our sunscreen. And so we took home the worst sunburns of our entire lives. My burns were practically second degree. On our way out of the parking lot, screaming for some lotion to put on our legs, we came across the exact same band of hitchhikers we'd driven to the parking lot and gave them a ride back to their bus stop. They were such cool people. I still remember them vividly. The atmosphere throughout the whole day had been calm and peaceful. Everyone was there to have fun. I know I did. But damn, I thought my legs would never heal.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

SUN RA & HIS OMNIVERSE JET SET ARKESTRA, 1987


One of my favorite periods for new musical discoveries in my life was the mid-to-late '80s. It was just after I'd grown sick of hardcore punk and wanted something deeper. Inspired by my first Butthole Surfers gig to explore more adventurous and forward thinking music, I started listening to WFMU DJs other than Pat Duncan. Thanks to the connections I had there, I also started hanging out there regularly and getting to know the DJs I liked. God, I learned so much from them. Irwin Chusid turned me on to the Godz, William Berger introduced me to Krautrock, and on my own I discovered the Silver Apples and avant-garde jazz. One artist in particular stood out in that genre for me: Sun Ra, the Man From Outer Space.

From the first time I heard his strange music and read liner notes which claimed he was born on Saturn, I knew this was no ordinary cat even in free jazz! This was music that would have scared the daylights out of me if I'd heard it when I was ten years younger. But I was now grown up and no longer scared of what awaited me in the unknown. Not long after I began working my way through the Sun Ra section of WFMU's massive record library, a one-hour documentary about Ra and his Arkestra called "Making A Joyful Noise" aired on my local PBS channel. I taped it and watched it back over and over again, gripped both by its music and his unique philosophical musings and ramblings throughout the whole thing. And then, at the height of this burst of Ra-mania, I got the word that he was bringing his band to New York's Central Park for a free outdoor show on June 20, 1987. The timing could not have been more perfect for me to bear witness to one of the most extraordinary concerts I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.


(As an avid collector of bootlegs, I am always seeking out recordings of certain shows I happened to be in attendance at over the years. It just so happens that there is a partial recording available online of the very show I'm about to detail. I strongly suggest you begin streaming it now, before you read further.)

Things started with the Arkestra making their way onto the stage, all of them dressed in shiny, colorful robes. They immediately started into a long spell of joyful improvisation. It was hard for me not to get swept up in their happy cacophony, even as I began to notice that Sun Ra himself hadn't bothered to take the stage yet. The jam ebbed and flowed a bit before building to a loud, blaring crescendo led by Marshall Allen's saxophone squalls. And then... and then... June Tyson started to sing.


June Tyson was a fucking goddess. A powerhouse of a woman who should've been given much more to do with her voice in Ra's scheme of things. No sooner did she open her mouth than the crowd began to erupt in a sea of gasps. Her voice was so soulful and deep it was unreal. Soon everyone was moving and grooving and clapping their hands as she sang, "Outer space is such a lovely place, all spic-and-span, all lovely and grand..." Her lyrics were an open invitation to follow her to all the ends of the earth. Believe me, I would have done so immediately, without a second thought. Alas, she only sang that one song, then exited. Had she continued to sing for the next two hours, I would have stayed for every last note and not even cared if Ra never emerged.

No sooner had June finished her song than the percussion section went into a break that started subtle but grew in intensity as it went. By this point the show was already over fifteen minutes old and the Man From Saturn still hadn't shown his face yet. But suddenly, the horns joined in and completed a fanfare that sounded just as majestic as it was otherworldly and freaky. And then... Sun Ra finally made his entrance, walking very slowly, dressed in his classic space costume. He bowed to us, then turned to face his Arkestra. For what seemed like an eternity, he just stood there at first, completely motionless as the band continued playing. He stayed still, waiting for the band to reach a fevered crescendo. Finally, at the precise point where you were beginning to wonder if he was ever going to move, he raised his hand and motioned for the band to grind to a screeching halt. Then they paused just long enough to take just one deep breath... and plunged head first into the most amazing fucking jazz jam I've ever heard in my entire life to this very day.


Alas, the version of "Calling Planet Earth" they played that day is not included on the bootleg recording of the show for some weird reason. A great, great pity, because it was nothing short of transcendental. The members of the Arkestra got up and began dancing in time as the crowd followed suit, and soon, everyone was swept away in a tidal wave. We were all as one, band and audience, answering to a power higher than ourselves. The call-and-response soon began and we were all communicating one-on-one with the forces of space. If you weren't dancing by this point, you were most likely dead. No church service I ever saw in my younger years was half as rapturous as this. Central Park was no longer part of New York City -- it was now officially part of Saturn, and we were all residents of a new planet.

And that was just the first half hour of an almost three-hour show. Admittedly, the rest of the show after that would pale by comparison. It seemed quite unusual for Ra to go from that into -- wait for it -- a completely straightforward, extended version of "Mack the Knife," with one of the Arkestra doing his best Satchmo impression for vocals. It went on for several minutes and once again saw the band getting up and dancing around the stage in a circle before it was over. It was a good version, but it seemed like an awkward segueway from what we'd all just seen and heard. And indeed, much of the rest of the show was given over to standards like "Take the A Train." But even within some of these old chestnuts the occasional brief burst of outer-space freakiness would break free, just enough to let you know this was Ra and not Duke you were listening to. And now and then another free-form jam would show up in between songs, nothing as expansive as the one that opened the show, but just long enough to remind you where you were. All of it was well done and they finally ended on a note similar to where they'd started with "Space is the Place." When the ride was over, no one wanted to return to earth. Least of all me.

Five years later, on July 4, 1992, I had the privilege of seeing Sun Ra for the second and last time, again in Central Park. Frankly, this show wasn't half as grand as the first, with June Tyson nowhere to be found and Ra making a somewhat depressing entrance in a wheelchair with no big opening fanfare. He played for less than an hour and was still good, I guess, but clearly on his way out by then. Less than a year later both he and June were gone, Saturn having called them back home. I'm thankful to have seen them while they were still "calling planet earth" their home.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

CHRONOLOGY OF A BRAZEN CHILDHOOD, 1970-79


I heard my first garage punk record in 1970, when I was just five years old. My mother helped me start my record collection with these "grab bags" of cutout 45 RPM records she'd acquired from the department store she sold cosmetics part-time at. 10 singles for a buck, totally random selections, most of them totally obscure. In one of those mystery bags was a single by a group called Five By Five. One side was an even heavier version of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" than the original, with swirling Hammond organ added. The other side was a group original called "Hang Up." I took one listen and was changed forever. It was loud, raw, heavy and mean. Thusly, "Hang Up" became my very first favorite punk rock song. That's right, folks, I knew I was gonna like my music hard and heavy when I was only five. Can you say the same?


Around that same time, my then-Aunt Yvonne babysat me one fine Saturday afternoon at her apartment just two doors up the street from me. In an effort to entertain me, she put on a new record she'd just bought: "Unicorn" by what was then just a two-man group called Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Marc Bolan. It was totally unlike anything I'd heard in those grab bags. Its dark, mystic nature scared me a bit at first, but I was totally absorbed in it by the end, and I still couldn't forget it days later.

A week later, when Mom took me to the record store to pick out the very first album I'd ever own, I knew right away it had to be "Unicorn." To my delight, they had it. But Mom was a bit unsure of it at first. I still remember the conversation that ensued. "This isn't hard rock, is it?" "No, Mom." "Are you sure? Because I don't want you listening to hard rock." (Never mind that I'd already discovered it!) "Trust me, Mom, it's mellow, Aunt Yvonne played it for me." "Okay, I'll buy it for you, but if I don't like what I hear, I'm taking it back." We went home, I went to my room and put it on, and soon I heard a knock. "Is that the record I just bought you?" "Yeah, Mom." "Hey, this is good, I like it!" She and I are both huge T. Rex fans to this very day.


With school five days a week, Saturday became my go-to music day. I could've slept late, but that would've meant missing the Monkees rerun at 9:00 followed by the British glam-rock show Supersonic at 9:30, which featured T. Rex, the Bay City Rollers, and Roy Wood, among many others. Then, in the afternoon, Grandma would take me over to hang out with Vince Bailiff, my first music buddy. We bonded over Zep and Rush for awhile, but ultimately drifted apart after he disagreed with me about the merits of punk. Or sometimes I'd hang out downstairs in Uncle Joe's "apartment" listening to his records. One afternoon he and then-aunt Yvonne were telling me about how they were going to the local Mr. D's club (run by someone who lived right across the street from us) to see the New York Dolls. Not knowing who they were, I made jokes like "Oooh, are they cute? Can I come along?" The answer to both questions was no. The next day I asked Joe how it was. His two-word review: "Too loud." (He never liked heavy rock anyway.)

One Sunday afternoon in '76 I went with my parents to visit some friends of theirs who had a son around my age, the name of whom I've long since forgotten. We went off into the rec-room while our folks drank and talked in the kitchen. Fumbling for a way to break the ice, he asked me if I liked hard rock. Of course! "Well, wait until you hear THIS!" he beamed as he then lifted the lid on a piece of stereo furniture and pulled out a double live album by a new band I'd never heard of. He showed me the cover and I was mystified and baffled by the fully made-up faces, the outer-space costumes and the images of their bassist breathing fire, and quite taken aback by the music. It all looked and sounded like a comic book come to life and I fell right in love with it. And that was my introduction to Kiss. I adored them... for awhile.


Meanwhile, back at the department store, Mom's newest co-worker was a lady named Sue who moonlighted in the offices of a magazine distributor. I was heavily into Marvel Comics by then and soon I was blissfully getting them all for free, as Sue would regularly sneak big yellow envelopes filled with the latest Spider Man and Fantastic Four adventures out of the workplace and into my hands. Month after month I awaited the latest batch of Marvels, and Sue always delivered right on time. Then came the day I opened that big yellow envelope and saw that this time she'd thrown a music magazine in there too. It had Led Zeppelin on its front cover and its name in big neon letters: CREEM. This was the magazine that would inspire my lifelong writing hobby... and corrupt me forevermore in the process.


I loved my first issue of Creem so much, with its crazy writing and photo captions and off-kilter points of view and now-legendary writers like Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer, that I bought another issue with my own money. It was the July 1976 issue with Kiss on the cover, and it was even more insane than the last one in every way, with a thoroughly ganja-soaked account of Lester's recent trip to Jamaica, a chronology of rock & roll deaths, and bold ads for fake "legal highs." I knew Creem was something a tween like me shouldn't be reading, yet I still left it foolishly lying around the living room one day. My parents found it there, flipped through it out of curiosity, then promptly called me downstairs to watch them throw it in the garbage and hear them say "Don't EVER let us catch you reading this trash again!" Believe me, I cried all night long.

But where there's a will, there's a way, and I soon picked myself up, dried my tears, and called Vince Bailiff to ask if I could come over his house and read HIS copies of Creem! I was already hanging out with him every weekend anyway, so I didn't even have to concoct a lame excuse. For the next several months I continued to secretly enjoy my favorite forbidden zine at Vince's. Then came the issue that featured an article by Lisa Robinson on a new sound called punk rock and a new band from England called the Sex Pistols, just mere weeks after their infamous British TV interview. I read that piece and felt something click inside my brain. As if that weren't enough, the following issue had a piece about a recently disbanded Detroit-based band called Iggy and the Stooges, the first time I would ever hear of them as well.

Finally, after about six months, my folks found out I was reading Vince's copies of Creem. But by then I guess they figured it was too late, because not only was I not punished for it, but just before my next visit to Vince's house Mom pulled me over and whispered, "I don't mind if you read Creem, just don't let Dad know, okay?" The ban was lifted just in time for me to follow their monthly series of punk rock reports. But within mere weeks, a new ban would take its place... soon after Mom read the report on the Sex Pistols. Mind you, she didn't mind me listening to punk rock, either, and had even bought me the first two Ramones albums. But to her the Pistols were just too extreme to allow.

But the whole Pistols ban quicky proved as big a joke on her part as the ban on Creem, because not only were they getting occasional airplay on WNEW-FM by then, but I'd additionally made a new friend in school named Zoltan, whose older brother Laszlo was the first real punk rocker I ever met. It was through him that I received the access to the Sex Pistols I'd been denied at home. I was forbidden to buy their records, so I went to Zoltan's and taped them, then listened to them in my bed with the tape player hidden under the sheets. Once again my folks found out... and once again they just shrugged and figured it was too late by then. Damn straight it was. (Interesting footnote: a couple years later, one of Laszlo Papp's photographs of Stiv Bators would adorn the front cover of "Night Of The Living Dead Boys." I still remember the day he came home excitedly waving a copy of the album to show me.)

When Elvis died I remember being somewhat shocked by the news but not particularly saddened. But on that very bleak Saturday morning in September of '77, when I was sent around the corner to fetch the newspaper and saw a front page headline which read "Marc Bolan Killed In Car Crash," I cried my eyes out. Still to this day I consider Bolan's death the infinitely more shocking and significant of the two, and I will hear no arguments to the contrary.


Punk fascinated and gripped me to the point that I was soon buying every punk record I read about. In almost every case I'd never heard the band play a note beforehand, and almost every time I liked what I heard immediately or grew to like it over time. But even the Sex Pistols didn't prepare me for what fate had in store for me next. After being flat-out denied in my request for "Never Mind the Bollocks" for Christmas in 1977, I suggested the first album by the Damned as an alternative, and amazingly, my folks bought it. In retrospect they would've been better off just buying me "Bollocks."


The first Damned album scared the living shit out of me the very first time I played it. It was louder, heavier, faster, and more ferocious than anything I'd ever heard before. The musicians sounded like they would kill me if they had the chance to, and the production made it seem recorded in the depths of hell itself. And the whole album's vibe was dark, sinister and creepy, with songs like "Born To Kill" and "Stab Your Back." I listened to this monster just once... then put it back in its sleeve and handed it back to my mother shaking like a leaf and sheepishly moaning, "Uh, Mom, I don't like this record, can we exchange it?" Upon being told I couldn't, I then hid it in the deepest, darkest nether regions of my closet, where I didn't touch it again for an entire month. The day finally came when I summoned up the courage to listen to it again. It absolutely blew my mind in a million tiny pieces that second time, and from that point on, the louder, heavier, faster and more ferocious a new punk record was, the more I liked it.

The Damned, God bless 'em, still rage on to this day, but as we all know, the Pistols burned out quickly. I found out about Nancy Spungen's murder and Sid's arrest in conjunction with it on the school bus from Zoltan the morning after. A few months later, Mom called me from work as soon as I came home from school to inform me of Sid's death. I didn't cry that time, but when I suggested it was sad, she quickly snapped back with "You shouldn't be mourning him, son. He was a sick person." Yeah, maybe he was, but I still have my doubts that he was the one who killed Nancy.

That very same month, I discovered a new local band called the Misfits. But I've already told you that one, and anyway, I think that's more than enough bedtime stories for one night. Now get some sleep, kids, and don't ever let me catch you reading Creem again.