Friday, March 10, 2017

A COMPLETE HISTORY OF RAY BRAZEN'S GIGS AT CBGB


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 6, 2017

WRECKLESS ERIC, PART TWO


On March 3, 2017, I had the rare and precious honor of being Wreckless Eric's opening act at a show at Will's Pub in Orlando, Florida. It was a great experience to share the stage with a musician who has influenced me and my own music so deeply.

Sometimes I think there's not enough love in Orlando for the legends who matter most. I thought the show would sell out, but Will's would wind up barely half full for this one. A shame, especially since this is the guy who wrote "Whole Wide World." And lo and behold, there he was, Wreckless Eric himself, shaking my hand with a very firm and steady grip and welcoming me to his show. 'Twas a very strange feeling to be face to face with him again, particularly since I was his opening act this time, and naturally I felt humbled and shy in his presence most of the evening, though we did talk a fair amount and got to chat about mutual friends at WFMU, and even about that great Stiff sax man, Davey Payne.

Opening for Eric felt even more strange. Especially so when midway through my set, Eric suddenly wandered in fresh from his pre-show supper. I don't know how I managed to soldier on with the man himself in my audience, and didn't quite know what to do at the moment he walked in --- so in a bit of an attempt to impress him, I actually covered one of his more obscure numbers, "Waxworks," a move some in his fan base would later take into question when his humorous online remarks about it were taken a bit too seriously. But the man himself was okay with my little tribute -- "You got more of the chords right that I would have!" quoth Eric. Fueled by the situation at hand and the fact that we were playing my favorite stage in Orlando, Will's Pub, I somehow actually managed to play a good set, which was recorded and will be released as a live tape soon.

And then, of course, there was Eric.


Again, as with the first time I saw him 27 years earlier, just him and his acoustic and electric guitars. And though he's in his early 60s now, age hasn't mellowed him one bit, in fact he's even more fierce and cyncial now than he was in '78. He joked at length about Florida's turnpike and its abundance of pro-life billborards, and began "Reconnez Cherie" with some insight into how the song was written. He didn't play much from the Stiff days, doing only "Cherie," "Walking on the Surface of the Moon" (great to hear that one without the silly "Star Trek" effects!) and of course "Whole Wide World" with the crowd respectfully not singing along TOO loudly. There were songs from his excellent new album "AmERICa," and surprising experimental noise breaks which echoed the vibe of his very strange "Bungalow Hi" album and wouldn't have sounded out of place at the International Noise Conference in Miami. It was a different and even somewhat darker show than the one he'd played the first time I'd seen him, but seeing as how Eric and I are both aging now, there was that sense of mature wisdom this time that I found easy to relate to. Mark this show down next to the July '90 show as one of the best I've ever seen... and maybe the best I've ever played as well.


Eric was ever the gentleman to me and everyone throughout the night, chatting with all of us and signing my album and posing for a photo with me. And according to my collaborator and friend Joshua Rogers who was watching my merch table, Eric even stopped by there to pick up a copy of my cassette single. Pretty wild to think he owns one now! It was a once in a lifetime experience both to open for Wreckless Eric and to see him come through Orlando, and a lot of local people I know really oughta kick themselves for having missed this. It was truly one to remember, and one for the ages.


Thank you so much for playing, Eric. And thanks to Rich Evans for booking the show, and Alex Goldman for a great job with the sound, and Josh for doing his Broken Machine Films visuals during my set, and Rod Leith and Dave Scott Schwartzman for moral support. I couldn't have done it without you guys!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

WRECKLESS ERIC, PART ONE


Once upon a time, in the land of the Sex Pistols, there lived a little label called Stiff Records. This label was like no other before it. It was a true original both in its overall presentation and in the music it chose to release. I first heard of it one fine day in late 1977 on a visit to my favorite record store of all time, Sam Goody's at the Garden State Plaza shopping mall in Paramus, New Jersey, a ten-minute drive from my house. This store not only provided me with many of the first punk rock records I would own, but would soon become a full-on sanctuary from the difficult world I was growing up in. A true eccentric suburban outcast was I, facing opposition from all sides, especially the kids at my school. I had hardly any friends back then, nor did I care to have any. All that changed, however, when some of the workers at this record store began to take note of my frequent appearances in the store's import section. Their curiosity about me soon baffled them to the point where some of them began reaching out to me when I'd visit. What exactly did a skinny little tween like me want with such mature-minded music?

These beautiful, beautiful angels of mercy soon found out I was the only son of a cosmetics dealer at Bamberger's, the department store adjacent to Sam Goody's. And no sooner did they determine that my interest in all things punk and progressive was real than they became my very first real friends. Two of them, a lovely pair of ladies named Diane Walsh and Carol Tatarian, would eventually offer to take me out on one of their frequent visits to Greenwich Village in NYC, where Bleecker Bob's and many other seminal punk rock stores had sprung up in the wake of the '70s punk explosion. Thus began a series of punk field trips over the course of the next two years from which I gained much of my early knowledge of the area. Diane and Carol, along with pretty much the entire Goody's staff, embraced li'l me and my taste in music with nothing but love, warmth and compassion, and to this day sentimental tears still form in my eyes whenever I think of them. They may have almost literally saved my life back then, and I am eternally indebted to them for it.

But anyway, back to Stiff Records. The first Stiff artist I heard was Elvis Costello. My first listen to "Watching the Detectives" was a game-changer. That was all I had to hear -- I was a Stiff fan for life. And not long after, the folks at Goody's began to notice my resemblance to the new Elvis and quickly coined the nickname "Little Elvis," a moniker that would ultimately stick with me beyond Goody's borders and remain throughout my high school years. Which brings me to Spring Recess, 1978. On that Easter week, Mom let me pick out an album as a present, and on the strength of Elvis' appearance on it, I chose "Stiffs Live." As the name implied, it was a collection of Stiff artists performing live. Preceding Elvis in the album's track sequence was another artist I had not heard of before that day. And just like my first experience the previous Christmas with yet another Stiff artist, the Damned, I had no idea what I was in for, nor was I the least bit prepared for how it was about to impact me.

Smack dab in the middle of side one of "Stiffs Live," after two raucous cuts by Nick Lowe, the strangest dude I had ever heard on a record album in my life up till then suddenly burst forth from my speakers. His voice was like sandpaper and gravel, he seemed to know only two chords on his guitar, and he and all the members of the band backing him sounded drunk as skunks. All at once this album began to sound like a different record entirely -- ragged, sloppy, totally oddball, and just plain sludgey. I was completely confused and baffled, almost aghast in fact. How on earth did this mess wind up getting pressed onto the same record as Elvis Costello, let alone get signed in the first place? I am not lying when I say I didn't get it at first. In fact, I wasn't even sure I wanted to hear it a second time. Oh, but somehow I couldn't resist going back to those two tracks and doing just that -- and that's when it got to me. That's when I heard the sheer, utter brilliance and defiance and complete disregard for all tradition that lay deep within this hot mess of music. And that, my friends, was my formal introduction to the man who called himself Wreckless Eric.


I never thought a short, scrawny little cat like me could ever wind up playing his own music until I heard another short and scrawny cat from England doing just that. After hearing Wreckless Eric, my perspective changed forever. If he could do it, I reasoned, then so the fuck could I! I sent my mom back to Goody's to fetch me his first album, pressed on lovely blue vinyl. It was a tad more produced than his live tracks, of course, yet it still sounded no less odd and ragged and raw, all in the best way possible. But bubbling underneath the surface were some of the greatest pop sensibilities ever displayed by a punk rocker. To this day Eric's debut remains one of my all-time favorite albums, and the single biggest inspiration on my own musical aesthetic. It contains everything from his biggest hits "Whole Wide World" and "Reconnez Cherie" to the eerie "Waxworks," the brash "Rough Kids," and even an uncredited cover of the Benny Hill theme, to my ears the best version ever, powered by the insane saxophone of Davey Payne of another Stiff fave of mine, Ian Dury and the Blockheads (Davey, where are you now?). It's a punk masterpiece for sure, but far more than that, its oddness was what really endeared me to it. It was a record which surely would make all my schoolmates throw up their hands in disbelief and lack of understanding if they ever heard it, but which I myself somehow understood almost entirely. Which, in turn, made me feel like Eric was MY music hero and no one else's, and that sense of exclusivity surely added to his charm.

It took awhile for me to get up to speed on trying to play music myself. Initially I tried to sing in the same crazed, gravel voice as Eric, but ended up sounding like, well, a 13-year-old American kid trying to imitate him, and very badly so at that. I soon realized that I was definitely not Wreckless Eric, nor would I ever actually become him not matter how hard I tried. I finally realized, though, that it was still possible for me to be Eric somehow -- if I just borrowed whichever parts of his vibe fit in alongside my own equally twisted personality and outlook, and combined the two accordingly. An American Eric of sorts, if you will. Eventually I concocted my own persona, which I initially named Ray Zinnbrann, and that's when the pieces started to fit and I was able to put together an image and musical style that conceded to Eric's in some ways, but was ultimately my very own creation.

I freely admit to being a bit disappointed by the two albums which followed that monumental debut. I wouldn't blame it on Eric himself, to be fair. His songwriting was maturing quickly and in a very good way. But "The Wonderful World Of Wreckless Eric" still stands in my mind as one of the most grossly misproduced albums of all time. Its songs, like "Walking on the Surface of the Moon," "Veronica" and especially "Take the Cash" were very good, but would have been a hell of a lot better had they not been thoroughly vomited on by producer Pete Solley. To this very day I fantasize about sending out a lynch mob after the guy for his crimes against Eric, which include placing "Star Trek" sounds on "Moon" and adding chalkboard-screechy '50s-style female backing vocalists to "The Final Taxi." The "Hit And Miss Judy" EP was a fine return to form, but album three, "Big Smash" suffered a bit too, this time from Stiff's insistence on forcing Eric to collaborate with other writers, as if his work needed song doctors.


I do admit I let Eric fall off my radar after that. But he wouldn't elude it for too long. I still played his old records and sometimes wondered whatever might have happened to him after he left Stiff. I didn't have to wonder for too long, though. For in the summer of 1990, Wreckless Eric suddenly reappeared both when and where I would never have expected him -- at a music bar in the East Village called the Spiral. And one hot, sweaty July night, in the basement of that bar, he held me and an audience of fellow Eric admirers completely in the palm of his hand for almost two full hours.

When he walked onstage with just himself and a guitar and no band, I felt my heart skip a beat. "Fuck me, he's playing solo! How great is this gonna be?" I thought. Well, here's how great it was: the very first two songs he played were "Semaphore Signals" and "Reconnez Cherie." The very two songs he did on "Stiffs Live," the songs I didn't know what the fuck to make of when I first heard them 12 years earlier. Time froze, and stayed that way for quite awhile. So began my long, wondrous, magical journey through Ericland.

He told stories. He told jokes. And yes, he played songs on an old British Hofner guitar. All the hits, and some great new ones too. A particular highlight was my finally getting to hear "The Final Taxi" performed without those goddamn female backing screechers, in a new arrangement which finally brought its message home at last. And let me tell you, only Wreckless Eric can break a string, take almost ten minutes to fix it, and still not waste a single second of the audience's time. His stories were enchanting, his jokes were side-splittingly funny, and his slow, deep Cockney drawl could haunt you forever. And he still looked and sounded like Eric after all those years. For me the night was magic. I stayed out till 3 and joined a small group of revelers afterward whom Eric was kind enough to stick around and and entertain in the green room afterward. Just an unbelievable and unforgettable night in every respect, and one of the best shows I've ever witnessed.


(An interesting footnote: just a few months after that show, I saw a terrific and sadly short-lived all-girl band called the Shams perform at the Knitting Factory. One of the members of that band was a nice lady I'd met at WFMU a few years earlier named Amy Rigby. She's now Eric's wife. Quite an interesting parallel, eh?)

Fast forward to 2015. I'm now in Orlando, Florida, making a bit of a local splash with my somewhat Wreckless-inspired songs. My friend Dan of local comrades Yogurt Smoothness hits me up. "Yo, Ray, I've been wondering, have you ever heard of this guy named Wreckless Eric? I just got turned on to him and his music reminds me a bit of yours." WHOA. I aways knew I'd been a bit influenced by him, but I never knew just how deep a mark he made on me till then. I soon find out that many of my new Florida friends, most of whom weren't even born when "Whole Wide World" first dropped, are hip to him as well. And one fine day in this very year of 2017, a fine young local promoter named Rich Evans steps up to the plate and books Wreckless Eric into Will's Pub on March 3rd for his very first Orlando appearance, ever. The thought occurs to me -- does he need an opening act? I admit to being a bit bold in recording a cover of "Waxworks," posting it to Facebook, and publicly suggesting I might be the man. Rich, bless his heart, listens and agrees accordingly. And the next thing I know, I have a big, BIG date with destiny.


TO BE CONTINUED...