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...