Wednesday, February 8, 2017

LO-FI ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE 1986-1990


I've already written plenty about the significance of cassette culture in my life on this blog in light of the recent tape revival. Hopefully some of you have learned something so far. Now sit back while I finally tell my favorite tape culture tale of all... one which burst out of its shell (so to speak) and into the streets.

The story begins with one homemade cassette demo and one meeting with William Berger. It was February 1986 and he'd just started a new radio program on WFMU called Lo-Fi, a half-hour show consisting entirely of home-recorded music submitted by listeners to his regular program. Bill was not the first WFMU DJ to play listener submissions on the station's airwaves. I'd been submitting my own tapes to the likes of Pat Duncan and Irwin Chusid for two years by the time Lo-Fi was launched. But Bill was the first DJ to shine a spotlight on the phenomenon of locally produced cassette recordings, and five minutes into the premiere episode I knew immediately I wanted in.

As fate would have it I went to the station's studios one Thursday night to visit Pat and Irwin, and lo and behold, Bill was there too. Wasting no time, I immediately introduced myself to him and found he was already aware of my existence. And it just so happened that earlier that day I'd been doing some recording in my basement, a fuzzy cover version of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn," and had brought the tape along with me to listen to in my car.  Bill was sold on it from the very first notes and immediately copied the new track onto one of his own cassettes. The next night, he began Lo-Fi with my cover of "Autobahn," then immediately came on mic and said he was originally planning to close the show with my number, but had ultimately decided it was too good to make listeners wait that long to hear it. Somehow I knew right there and then that Bill would become a friend for life. I'm confident I wasn't the only one who would come to feel that way about him in the months that followed.

Over the course of the next two years, the seeds for a wild and truly wonderful scene were planted largely through the Lo-Fi program. Bill had a very keen ear for talent and soon his show was regularly spotlighting the likes of select fellow home-tapers like Phoaming Edison, Particle Steve, Schooly Descartes, Jolly Ramey, Jet Screamer, the Modern Day Carpetbaggers, Bill's fellow DJ and dear friend Terry Folger, and Azalia Snail. Those first three acts also performed collectively as Fly Ashtray, and the last of these fine folks was the one who ultimately pitched the idea to Bill of a live "Lo-Fi Night" featuring performances by many of the show's talents. By that time Bill, Terry and I had all done our share of snooping and scouting around the east side, and were more than ready to give the idea a go.


The night of February 10, 1988, at a dive on First Avenue known as the Lismar Lounge, was one of the most memorable nights in the lives of every last person involved in it, myself included, and as far as I'm concerned, the official start of The Scene. Bill and Terry opened the show as Bad Jack and the Rope Trick, playing the Lo-Fi Theme as their first number, and Jet Screamer all of Fly Ashtray's side projects did their thing, as did Jolly Ramey, the wonderful duo of Madi and Steve winning me over instantly both as musicians and friends. Somewhere in the midst of all this, I donned a gold-lame vest my mother had sewn for me, and bravely took the stage myself not knowing how my performance would play out. I ended up playing the cheesy Bobby Sherman and Peter Frampton covers that were my forte back then to a crowd of fellow Lo-Fi-ers who responded with nothing short of sheer adoration from start to finish. In the course of that night at the Lismar, many new friendships were forged and many mutual admiration societies came full circle. It was the kind of magic night you just knew would become the birth of something special.

A week or two later I went to see Fly Ashtray at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ, and the band members instantly took to making me feel like a superstar. I admit I was a bit slower in feeling the same admiration for Fly Ashtray's music that they felt for mine, as I was, quite frankly, unimpressed with their first single "The Day I Turned Into Jim Morrison." But my fondness for the music of their various side projects convinced me that their work as a collective unit would soon grow on me. Which it sure did, to the point where their debut album "Clumps Takes A Ride" instantly became, and still remains to this day, one of my all-time favorite records not only from The Scene but all of rock & roll in general. James Kavoussi, a.k.a. Phoaming Edison, in addition to being a core member of Fly Ashtray, also ran the 16-track Toxic Shock recording studio on lower Broadway just off Houston Street, and James and Mike Anzalone a.k.a. Particle Steve, were soon jamming with none other than Bill Berger himself in another band they christened Uncle Wiggly. This band came into its own very quickly, led by the charge that was Bill's incredible guitar work, notable for its inventiveness as well as the fact that he played a right-handed vintage Telecaster left-handed without reversing the strings, Dick Dale-style.


Meanwhile, Jet Screamer and I had become fast friends and were soon playing shared bills together up and down the Lower East Side, meeting a transplanted San Franciscan calling herself Jennifer Blowdryer at the first of these shows, which had been booked by John S. Hall of King Missile, a few years (and lineups) before their big hit "Detachable Penis." Ms. Blowdryer quickly booked Jet and myself into the legendary east side artist's space ABC No Rio, on Memorial Day Weekend 1988. Neither of us knew until we showed up to play that she had also booked a third act that night, an all-girl trio we'd never heard of before. I did my thing, Jet did his, and then... the Gamma Rays took over. We were totally unprepared for what happened next: by the time Sari, Julie and Lisa were finished, every heart in the place had melted into one big collective puddle on the floor. They were that good. So good, in fact, that when word got around they were playing a private party later that same night, we all followed them over there, and swooned over them in unison a second time.

And so the summer of 1988 came and went, much too slowly and traumatically for some. (I'll just say I was, thankfully, not in town the night of the Tompkins Square Park riot and move quite forward from there.) Labor Day Weekend, apart from feeling like a positively relieving end to that dark summer, was notable for not one, but two firsts, beginning with the inaugural edition of Wildgirl's Go-Go-Rama in Coney Island, the first of many, and a much smaller affair than the Go-Go-Ramas which followed. It was Wildgirl's idea to have me open the show with a short set, but neither she nor I gave any thought to the possibility that a team of teenage local wiseacres would show up expecting sleaze and react with extreme displeasure when I strutted onstage instead. I braved these hecklers for 20 minutes and then made way for the dancers, most of whom were friends and fellow scenesters, and all of whom my detractors didn't like either. It was still a fun night, though.


The following Monday saw the other historical event of that Labor Day Weekend, the live debut of the Gamma Rays' newly annexed rhythm section as part of Wigstock in Tompkins Square Park, consisting of a Japanese drummer named Osamu... and a glamorous, bass and cello playing virtuoso named Ursula. It wasn't long before she became, most unquestionably, the band's heartthrob, and I know for a fact I wasn't the only guy in The Scene with a big-time crush on her. The addition of Ursula proved the band's turning point, the move which took their sound and style to the heights the original trio's performances had promised, and beyond. Osamu, who also did some session work with Jolly Ramey, soon vanished (into thin air, or back to Japan?), whereupon the girls replaced him with another, more ferocious drummer (also of Oriental descent) named Genji, and with that move, the girls officially became a live powerhouse. Soon I was going to every Gamma Rays gig there was and screaming out "GAMMA RAYS RULE!" loudly between songs for all to hear. And indeed, they did. (This video appears to be the only online representation of this great, great band. This situation needs to be corrected, and soon.)

By now, with all of the abovementioned bands and artists involved, we definitely had a scene going, one with boundless creativity and talent behind it, and for me the icing on the cake came in the autumn of 1988 when it was suggested that Jet Screamer and I might make for a good musical partnership. With a November gig with the Gamma Rays looming, we decided to jam together a couple of times and found they were right. Thusly, that gig became the first live performance of Living Guitars, coming at the end of our usual solo sets with just four songs and three rehearsals holding it together. It went well enough that we decided to keep it going, and did so for almost a year and a half. I tossed out the Frampton and Bobby Sherman covers and moved in a more serious artistic direction at that point, and to this day I remain very proud of the music I made with Jet, some of the best stuff either of us ever did.


And so, 1988 ended and 1989 -- in my view, the banner year for The Scene -- began. It was a time when we all truly lived for our weekends together. And it was all too easy to forget by this point that this thing we called ours had all started with a weekly cassette culture radio show hosted by a bright DJ with sharp instincts as to which pieces fit together. Now it had a life of its own, practically independent of Lo-Fi and now even including a few artists who had never submitted a single tape to the show. Besides the Gamma Rays, this latter subdivision also included their friend Skinny Vinny, whom Jennifer Blowdryer was fond of referring to as "The Electric Black Donovan," and who played one of the best live shows I ever saw when he opened for Fly Ashtray at the Pyramid Club in Jume 1988. He also released a great self-produced single in '89 called "Open Heart Love," with its immortal chorus "Open your hearts and nostrils to love."

I was now a WFMU DJ myself, doing sporadic late night fill-ins and playing all the local bands on every show I did, with impassioned pleas urging listeners to support The Scene. I was also hanging out regularly on Saturday evenings before shows with Madi and Steve of Jolly Ramey, taking in her rock & roll fashion tips and his love of "Sinatra Saturdays" on WOR radio. Meanwhile, Bill Berger kept on playing our music on his show, bringing bands in to play live and and jamming with James and Mike in Uncle Wiggly. And he helped start yet another band with another contributor to Lo-Fi, this time acting as drummer for a lovely Virginia-bred gal named Linda Hagood, who made her own charming music under the name of Smack Dab. We played gigs at CBGB, ABC No Rio, the Pyramid and the Lismar Lounge, to name a few, but our favorite place to play was the Lizard's Tail, a loft space run by two very lovely European immigrants, Terry Dineen and Jean Francois and located in south Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in what was then a very seedy area of town.

The comraderie between all of us manifested itself not only in the sharing of gigs, but in the things that happened at these gigs: Terry Folger rewrote "Bennie and the Jets" as "Ray Zinnbrann and Jet" and played it at ABC as a tribute to Living Guitars. Uncle Wiggly named a bouncy instrumental tune of theirs "Living Guitars" as well, and once played a set consisting entirely of cleverly-arranged interpretations of songs by the other bands in The Scene. Bill ended a solo performance by inviting me up to duet with him on an acapella version of Gene Pitney's "Town Without Pity." Terry secured fill-in slots on WFMU and then invited us all to come to the station and play live on the air. He soon formed a band called Van Gelder, with two childhood friends, and debuted it live on WFMU on July 4, 1989. I became their drummer by accident and managed to stick around for about a month and a half and another gig. Man, there was all sorts of fun to be had.


Somewhere in the midst of all this, someone did the math and figured out that if 14 bands threw in 200 bucks each, we could release a vinyl LP compilation. James gave us all free studio time at his Toxic Shock studio and we recorded in the summer and early fall of '89. With tracks by Fly Ashtray, Uncle Wiggly, Living Guitars, the Gamma Rays, Jolly Ramey, Smack Dab and many others, The Phoaming Edison Tapes was finally released in the spring of 1990. Despite our best efforts, it sank without a trace, garnering just two reviews, one in New York Press, one in Option, both negative. Stray copies of this comp can be found on Discogs and Ebay; it's worth picking up and treasuring as the one definitive document of the times I've just described.

The Scene was never quite the same again after the album came out. Its failure to gain attention wasn't the only factor. By then, drugs and internal conflicts were taking their toll on our brotherly and sisterly bonds, and with the breakup of Living Guitars I drifted off into other artistic circles and underground music scenes. It was a sad and all-too-quick end to an all-too-short peak period for us. But the times we all had together were some of the absolute happiest times of my life. It all started with a few cassettes... and became a real live scene. Y'know, kinda like what tapes are starting these days.

2 comments:

  1. Dear Ray,

    Thank you. I agree.

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  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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