Thursday, September 7, 2023

Right now, right now...

Richard Goldstein—Village Voice's "secret service man"—on the MC5 in 1968

In 1967 pop critic Richard Goldstein, in what might charitably be called a minority opinion, laid into the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. A longtime Beatles fan, he was bummed out by the record's grandiosity ("Like an over-attended child, this album is spoiled") and disappointed that the Beatles had disconnected themselves from everyday, gritty reality. "Nothing is real [in Pepper], and nothing to get hung about," he wrote in his New York Times review. "Too bad; I have a sweet tooth for reality. I like my art drenched in it, and even from fantasy, I expect authenticity," adding, "What I worship about the Beatles is their forging of rock into what is real. It made them artists; it made us fans; and it made me think like a critic when I turned on my radio." A year later in the Village Voice, hungry for a dose of real-world spectacle, Goldstein tuned in to the dangerous MC5.

I'm always eager to read on-the-ground, in-the-moment accounts of bands and artists whose presences were urgently felt. Goldstein begins "Kick Out The Jams" with a journalistic establishing shot. "Detroit may have gone for Humphrey, but it’s Nixon country—," he writes,

a vast, gray flatbed gone dour with the resignation of an industrial spa. The streets are straight, the houses frame, and the people—well, the best one can say is that they form a city of rank and file. It’s hard to guess whether the giant tire which hovers over the airport expressway is someone’s idea of an L.A. joke, or an authentic religious symbol. At very least, that plaster imitation of a rubber wheel is the totem of Detroit.

Half of Motor City natives with a pulse might have taken offense at the "rank and file" jab, and Humphrey supporters may have gotten their collective hackles up, but Goldstein does effectively dramatize the simmering cultural conditions of the teetering city. He was writing as an East Coaster, careful to avoid sentimentalizing the Midwest and yet open to its mythic charms, both the warm and the burned-out varieties. He'd dug the MC5's brave appearance at Lincoln Park in Chicago during the '68 Democratic convention, "a special kind of commitment bordering on joy," and the fact that the band members and hangers-on commune in a house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town where it's presumably easier to organize rabble-rousing ("around the taking of exams") than it is in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "For one thing, it's spacious, and for another, there are plenty of townies to offer tea and sympathy to a resident freak." Goldstein objectively reports: "The floors are clean, the stereo system is in good condition, and the dope facilities are excellent."

He offers a brief history of the band, highlighting, among their charms, their championing of "spasm rock" against the prevailing gentleness. "It’s been a lean time for raunch," Goldstein observes sympathetically, "what with the jazz-folk-raga blend in vogue. You couldn’t picture the MC 5 [sic] playing before an audience of 20,000 stoned love children—not with the fire and brimstone in their sound. No wonder they hate all ornate music, as well as the light and flower cosmology that goes with it. The whole hip circus is what kept them down." Goldstein then links the band's mammoth guitar riffs with the power they project, and assume, en route to a kind of strange observation: "Dissecting their music into riffs and fills, you sense an immense void in the area I can only call literacy."
We have been conditioned to accept experimentation in the guise of primitive music. The primacy of the recording studio, coupled with an abundance of stereo home equipment, has resulted in a compartmentalization of the rock experience. Today’s solos—even when they are improvised—sound diagrammed, as though the ebb and flow of energy were being fed through channels.
I'm not sure I understand here what Goldstein means by "literacy," maybe an over-intellectualization of rock and roll? That the MC5 are rendered toothless under too much analysis? I dig his take on the "compartmentalization of the rock experience" and the studious approach to guitar solos, both of which Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith sought to destroy. 

Goldstein was in Detroit on assignment and on a mission. He was there for the recording of the MC5's soon-to-be-legendary live debut album Kick Out The Jams at the Grande Ballroom in October, there to witness "[a]ll the tumult onstage ... compressed onto those everpresent spools of tape." He keenly recognized that there was "something symbolic in the subservience of this [mobile recording] studio" in that "it represents an astute recognition that the MC 5—if they are to matter at all—must matter live. All the mixing and mastering in Christendom won't improve their sound as much as an audience shrieking whenever the lead singer commands: 'Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!'"

In Goldstein's eyes the MC5 is "definitely a kid’s group" in that "far from the random ecstasy of a California freak-out, theirs is a highly directed release of energy. These are the children of insurgency; no wonder they expect their culture to coerce." He adds,
To watch them standing under the strobes, hands raised in youth-salute, is to understand how pop art can serve as a political mirror, refracting through slogan and myth. Undeniably, there is fascism in the the ecstasy they provide. Not just because they make to kill the foreigners (in this case, adults), but because they suggest the terrible relationship between right and might which is at the core of all art.
Goldstein concludes his piece with a glimpse of the MC5's post-Grande home life, where there's "music and dope and spaghetti cooking in the kitchen. Girls scurry about, brewing tea, changing records, making conversation." A neighbor arrives with two pumpkins as a gift. "And the group sits around an immense dining room table, rubbing their bellies and pounding their forks. They put my head into Huns. Warriors. The conqueror race."
I tell Wayne his music is very violent, because that’s all I can think of to describe fifteen minutes of sheer volume punctuated by the stab of a strobe light. He gives a soft, certain smile, and answers: “Well, that's rock 'n' roll."

"A good snapshot stops a moment from running away." That's Eudora Welty, relaying both truth and fiction. Time always slips from our grasp and goes galloping ahead. More than half a century later, Goldstein's takes on the MC5's rock and roll urgency and sonic voltage are still vivid, if naive. The depiction of the girls lounging around the commune like submissive figures from a Playboy cartoon date the piece, of course, though that's not all Goldstein's fault, and the immersive reporting is of-the-era in that it served the band's public manifesto, the revolutionary aims of which now seem quaint.

Kick Out The Jams
was released in February 1969, and the following few years would find the spasm rockers devolve into unhappy chaos, at times embracing their guru John Sinclair and The White Panthers' agenda, at times recoiling from it all in embarrassment, at times firing on all cylinders onstage, at times limping out a sapped version of themselves. The band's excellent dope facilities only got more excellent, and later Kramer and bassist Michael Davis would be candid about the harrowing depths to which their drug abuse and alcoholism brought them. The band never made it big commercially, and brutal diminishing returns hastened their early death. 

What Goldstein wanted in and from Sgt. Pepper's was more reality. He closed his review of that album by arguing that "We still need the Beatles, not as cloistered composer, but as companions," adding, "And they still need us, to teach them how to be real again." Goldstein found companions of a sort in the scruffy, beery, stoned-out, politically righteous MC5, guys he felt he could figuratively hang with from afar, a community that he saw forged, movingly, at the packed Grande, in the communal shrieks in response to Tyner and "spiritual advisor" J.C. Crawford's exhortations. That reality felt awfully real. The decades following have suggested that some of the reality that the Five were promoting was rifle-toting political posturing rather than daily, lived-in existence. "I only wanted to be in a rock and roll band," Davis confessed in his memoir, I Brought Down the MC5: "This crusade to forge a new world seemed ludicrous, a Quixotic lunge at an imaginary adversary."

In short, things got far too real for all concerned in ways that Goldstein might've predicted. As a fading snapshot taken at the onset of earnestness and idealism before stubborn, everyday life takes over, "Kick Out The Jams" is an evocative, valuable piece of writing. The celebratory night before the morning of reckoning.


Incidentally, Wayne Kramer was twenty when "Kick Out The Jams" ran in the Voice, singer Rob Tyner twenty-four. In 1970 Goldstein gathered the piece in Goldstein's Greatest Hits: A Book Mostly About Rock 'N' Roll, his first book, the back cover of which features this gently-dated gem of a biography note:

Well, that's rock 'n' roll.

Photo of The MC5 by Leni Sinclair (Getty Images); photo of Goldstein via Richard Goldstein

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Melting like an ice cream bar

Why Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk To Fuck" is a perfect rock and roll song

Searching for "perfection" in rock and roll is a fool's errand, a contradiction in terms. Among the qualities of the greatest rock and roll is its threat to collapse in the next measure, the half-real fear that the instruments might leap from the players' hands and run amok, finally held together by a band or an artist by some combination of nerve, skill, and luck, a magic trick unveiled nightly on stages large and small. I could try and argue here about "the perfection in imperfection," but I'd bore myself and you. Instead, consider Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk To Fuck," a 1981 single that ranks as among the most perfect of rock and roll songs because it embodies, in under three minutes, just about every overheated fear that the first generations of rock and rollers raised in their shocked listeners. 

I can't remember precisely when or where I first heard the song. (Certainly not on the radio. I was out of range of WMUC, the station at University Maryland, where I'd have a show a few years later, if one or more of their DJs had the nerve to play it.) I bought the import 12" on Cherry Red Records on a whim, I think at Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville, Maryland, shortly after it was released. (I picked up the "Kill The Poor" single around this time, too.) I both really wanted to hear and was afraid to hear the song, and like so much punk rock, everything about the record both scared and thrilled me: the band's name, the audacity of the song title, the odd, striking graphics on the sleeve, the almost audible sound of a door opening into a room I wasn't supposed to enter but felt dragged into, where kids looked a lot different than the preps at my high school.

By 1981 I was drinking. A year away from having drivers' licenses, my buddies and I would hang out at the Country Boy market on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton, working up the nerve to ask someone to buy us beer, which we'd hurry into the woods near Good Counsel High School as the football game played in the distance and we got fucked up in the nearness. We'd drink in the woods behind Kemp Mill Park, hysterically losing track of what was the Cutty Sark and what was the Cragmont orange-soda chaser. (My head hurts writing this.) Once I wrapped my ten-speed bike around a tree on Arcola Avenue less than a mile from my house, discovered by my older brother who was sent out by my worried mom to find me. So I knew already both the irresistible temptations and the queasy dangers of drinking, one of the reasons the title "Too Drunk To Fuck" felt familiar yet also something I wanted to keep at arm's length.

The infamy of "Too Drunk To Fuck" hovers over the song as an eternal cloud. Fantastically, the Cherry Red 12" I bought hit #36 on the U.K. singles chart (listed therein, decorously and mysteriously, and lamely, as "To Drunk To"). As I recall the head-lifting experience of listening to the song as a teeanger, privately, in the security of my family's suburban home, so do many others. "When I first heard Dead Kennedys’ 'Too Drunk to Fuck,' I thought, 'This is great! Someone using the F-word in a song'," wrote Rusty Pistachio in the foreword to Rich Balling's Revolution on Canvas, Volume 1: Poetry from the Indie Music Scene.

I remember slam dancing around my government-subsidized apartment punching holes in the walls. It was the next best thing to saying, “fuck you” to your boss, your teachers, hell, even to your parents. At the time I didn’t even know the complete meaning of the song, I was hooked on the fact that the catchy chorus kept repeating the word fuck (it wasn’t your average pop radio love song). On closer inspection, I became more aware of the sarcasm and irony in the lyrics. It was a frat boy chant denouncing stereotypical frat boy behavior. I had a Punk Rock epiphany.

"Too Drunk To Fuck" is fairly secure in the pantheon of those filthy songs you were warned about, a tradition stretching back to the 1950s. In Reagan America many were rolling their eyes at the notion of such gate-keeping, but authoritative censoring, from your parents or from your Congressperson, feels fairly embedded in the human condition, and the song became ammo in the hands of teens. In his 2003 novel Two To Go Nick Earls describes the song's transgressive glamour at a high school where the conservative administration feels school dances "were a privilege, not a right." "Imagine trying to raise a rights argument at school," the narrator glumly remarks. "The right not to be tracked by searchlight when outside at school dances, for instance."

Try it and you’d be told what you were always told.... And the next [dance] would always be hanging on a thread, waiting for “one person to spoil it for everyone.” That was something that happened often at school. I think we lost the privilege of inviting St. Margaret’s girls for a while, because one person had spoiled it for everyone by getting the DJ to play the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck” when parents were turning up to take their daughters home.

It was referred to at the following school assembly as “that song” and, no, it wasn’t anything to laugh about. We were told that, too.

My relationship with the song was mostly private. I wasn't a punk, and didn't court the scene; as I've written about before I was a self-described poor-man's Mod with little interest in what I felt was the strident politicizing and wretched anti-cheer of punk. But I bought "Too Drunk To Fuck" and "Kill The Poor" driven by an urge to peer into the maelstrom of a world I wasn't at all comfortable in but which I intuitively felt might teach me a thing or two. Anyway I needn't have worried about the dark pull of "Too Drunk To Fuck"; it was—is—a blast. East Bay Ray's opening guitar riff gives the impression of a downed power line, throwing off a shower of sparks. You should keep your distance, but you can't, or you won't. Bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer D. H. Peligro approach the scene warily, before leaping in, Flouride doubling Ray's metallic leads and Peligro anchoring things from falling over. 

But the singer's already sixteen beers in as the song starts, so this'll be over quickly; Jello Biafra sounds like a demented afternoon cartoon character, which only exaggerates the foolishness. He's rolling down the stairs, to which the super-charged riffs are a comic soundtrack, joking about shooting out truck tires with someone's gun—it's that kind of party. But the story's main attraction is upstairs, in bed, and it ain't happening. He's a mess, he can't get it up, she's bawling "like the baby in Eraserhead." She blows him, but things gp downhill fast (his gentle suggestion to her: "Take out your fuckin' retainer, put it in your purse"). Disaster. The only saving grace is that he'll never see her again, and wouldn't remember her if he did.

The band's performance is electrifying, wire-tight. Among the hilarious East Bay Ray-led sonic touches in this comic opera are a riffing, sixteen-bar bridge that gives the impression of the singer trying to heroically rally against all odds, a key modulation later, just before he wearily admits "I'm about to drop," and the repeated, mock-dramatic chord ascension near the the song's close (at the line, "It's all I need right now, oh, baby") dramatically disclosing that the singer's now got...diarrhea. The song ends infamously with the graphic sounds of someone puking all over the floor. The Genius lyrics site politely describes this moment of audio vérité as "Ooh, gah!"

"Well, 'Too Drunk to Fuck'…how political is that?" winked East Bay Ray in Billboard a few years back. "They weren’t all political—you’ve got to keep some humor."


All of which is to say that "Too Drunk To Fuck" is perfect—it's funny, fun, scary, gross, shocking, mean, generous, bitchy, cartoonish, sarcastic, satiric, and nervy, and it rocks like hell, borrowing from Link Wray/surf/garage riffology of the '60s, graphic and jaded decadence of the '70s, and heavy-lidded irony of the '80's, amping and speeding it all up. 

Photo of Jello Biafra, April 1981 via Michael Grecco Productions Inc. MGP, Inc.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

You get what's given to you

Thirty years apart, The Boys and The Hives sing the same side of the coin

"No future!" sounded the clarion call of 1977, and the Sex Pistols made it personal: no future for me or for you. As dramatic as that line was—is—and as simply and brutally as it articulated what so many were feeling, a lot of kids in the U.K. in the mid-70s had more immediately pressing needs than to fret over a bleak horizon: I got no money to spend now, fuck the future.

The Boys formed in London in 1975/76 after guitarist and singer Matt Dangerfield quit the band London SS and roped in keyboardist Casino Steel (late of Hollywood Brats), an art college friend and guitarist Honest John Plain and a couple of Plain's t-shirt printing company co-workers, bassist Duncan "Kid" Reid and drummer Jack Black. The Boys enact the old story of Missed Opportunities, never succeeding commercially yet rightfully looming large and influential down the decades as among the earliest and fiercest punk bands of the mid-70s London scene. 

The month the Sex Pistols detonated "God Save The Queen" on an unsuspecting British public, The Boys were holed up in a studio recording their eponymous debut album, which was released in September of 1977. "No Money" is one of the unheralded great songs of first-wave U.K. punk, a storming take on anger and anxiety with an ear cocked to Pub Rock and the excitable eighth-note riffing of cohorts The Damned. The song's details are site-specific, and also universal: the singer's broke, the General Post Office is threatening to cut his phone line, the landlady's breathing down his neck. No job prospects, unemployment's dried up, no food on the table in a freezing room, the future in doubt. Money's all gone. Sound familiar? 

You'd think that rock and roll would've solved all of this already—kidding—yet a desperate financial situation is among the commonest of through lines in music, from Delta Blues to punk, hip hop to garage. "Rock and roll is about the freedom to express yourself very loudly," observed R&R photographer Bob Gruen. Ok, I GOT NO MONEY! Countless songs are born, raged, sent into and/or form a community, and when the dust settles and the ringing in the ears fade, nothing's changed, except for the lucky few. In "No Money," Steel and Dangerfield complicate things when they look out the window of their shitty freezing flat and see the world in its unhelpful array:

Politicians shaking hands with the queen
Power kings with a power dream
Crawling forward on their hands and knees
For an OBE

Money men down on money street
Business men into business deals
Drive their Sunday colour limousines
Over you and me

Try counting similar items in similar lists of resentments conjured by folks in similarly dire straits in similar songs—the sheer volume of music devoted to railing about class injustices and monetary inequalities is testament to not only their sad relevance, but to their grim inexhaustibility. The Boys take a patented, spirited approach here—moving in all senses of the word—by turning up the noise and speeding up that noise until all that matters for one minute and forty-seven seconds is the fact of noise itself as a way of blotting out the world even at it takes that sorry world to to task. The song always ends, of course.


There will always been someone somewhere plugging in and howling No Money. (The Stooges did in 1969, only changing "money" to "fun" and saying basically the same thing.) The Hives hatched in Fagersta, Sweden sometime in the mid-1990s allegedly under the tutelage of one Randy Fitzsimmons, a far-northland Svengali who anointed the band's name and the band members' names. Three decades after The Boys, in vastly different circumstances, The Hives found themselves in a similar economically desperate situation on "Square One Here I Come," from The Black and White Album, released in 2007. 

The agitated, two-note riff in the opening bar is a sonic straitjacket, before crunchy, churning guitar riffs tear it open. The age-old dilemma, howled by Howlin' Pelle Almqvist: "Well, don't have no money 'cause I don't have a job." The—what shall I call it?—Reverse Evolution Theory presented in the opening verse is worth quoting in full; the impression, given the anxious melody and the tape effects that mimic collapse is that you're traveling backward in time, from zero to zilch, devolving along the way:

Don't have a job 'cause I ain't got no skills
Ain't got no skills 'cause I was not trained
I wasn't trained 'cause I didn't go to school
Didn't go to school 'cause nobody told me
Nobody told me 'cause nobody knew shit
No, nobody knew shit 'cause nobody knows nothing
Nobody knows nothing and that's just it
What can you do?

Answer: nothing. "Square One Here I Come," a kind of Theme Song to Economic Determinism, is one of the great rock and roll songs of the aughts, charging, anthemic, perverse, nearly menacing in its dry insistence on seeing things as they are: "You get what's given to you," Almqvist yells before sing-songing an anti-lullaby to Naturalism in the refrain, "Square one here I come, here I come square one!" As in "No Money," the supercharged riffs, here courtesy of dapper guitarists Nicholaus Arson on lead and Vigilante Carlstroem on rhythm, tell a wordless story alongside the lyrics, because the physical response to anxiety and anger is a compulsion to muscle the bad news into submission, or to ironically grin it away, or at least hold it aloft for scorn. This song absolutely rocks‚ and is incendiary onstage. ("It's about you!" Almqvist helpfully informs a packed, sweaty crowd.) And as in The Boys' spirit cousin, "Square One Here I Come" itemizes despair: 1.) no work, so 2.) no pay, so 3.) no bills to pay, so 4.) no home. Rock and roll as a logic problem. But more fun, for a while, anyway.

Things get a bit complicated in the third verse here also, where Almqvist admits that beneath the low ceiling he wants it all "for free," that he's on the search for "an easy way out." The song ends brutally, with a pile on—"Get down, you feel stupid! Don't try, you can't do it! Can't win! Don't you forget it!"—before a simple statement of facts closes down the song: you missed out and get what's given to you, sing with a sneer or a shoulder-shrug, I can't make it out through my speakers. I missed out because I didn't grasp an opportunity that was there, or because the opportunity was never mine to begin with? Somewhere, someone's writing another one, trying to answer that, trying another way out. 

Photo of The Boys onstage at The Marque Club, London, via The Boys Official Website; photo of The Hives via Getty

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Let's take a walk on Avenue A

Five songs about New York City from The Fleshtones
The Fleshtones have been banging around for nearly half a century now. A longtime New York-based band, these days only one member, frontman Peter Zaremba, lives in New York City (Brooklyn, specifically). Drummer Bill Milhizer and bass player Ken Fox decamped for upstate New York in the mid-2000s, and co-founder and guitarist Keith Streng spends most of the year in Sweden. Yet the city's bloodlines run deep. Zaremba and Streng are native New Yorkers, born and raised in Queens. Milhizer grew up in Troy, New York and Fox in Toronto but both lived in the East Village for decades. Any "local band" that debuted at CBGB in 1976 and hasn't had an inactive year since (even a pandemic couldn't stop 'em) is bound to be rich in regional flavors. The Fleshtones remain, in my heart, a quintessential New York City band. 

Unsurprisingly, the boroughs have popped up often in Fleshtones songs. In "F-f-fascination," an early tune from 1979 cut with Clem Burke of Blondie on drums, Zaremba sings about going down to "the river" (presumably the East) to "look at all the weeds," searching for some of that titular enchantment. Favorite bars and hangouts routinely make appearances. In "The Return Of The Leather Kings" Zaremba sings—decorously—about being "down by the river" (this time, presumably, the Hudson) in the late '70s and hitting up various West Village and downtown discos, intrigued by men emerging from the mist "clad in black leather," some surprises among them, including old Kramer who owns the hardware store and an old high school gym teacher who's "knocked out" on the dance floor. In "A Motor Needs Gas," Streng's riff-driven tribute to dodging DUI's, the Greenpoint Tavern (Brooklyn) and Brownies and the Holiday Cocktail Longue (East Village) all get beery shoutouts, and in the hyper "Dig In" the fellas are center stage at the Continental on 3rd Avenue in the Village doing poppers. (Well, someone is, anyway.)

Toronto transplant Ken Fox wrote a swingin' appreciation of "New York City," a town that's too much for the singer's girl to resist. The Stones-y groove conjures the sex appeal of arriving in old time Manhattan in style, rocking short skirts, and "stomping at the Savoy 'till the break of day." He's hopeless, staring forlornly at the train leaving town with his girl on board: "C'mon New York City, show a little pity, send my baby home to me." Unlikely.

l-r, Fox, Empire State Building, Streng, Milhizer, Zaremba

Not all of the NYC references are cheery. In "Bigger And Better" Zaremba laments "wasting time" at the checkout line in Key Food, the venerable supermarket chain founded in Brooklyn nearly a century ago, where everyone's "slack-jawed, checked-out, and overdrawn." The recent "Spilling Blood (At The Rock & Roll Show)" tells a particularly tragic story set in New York. In the summer of 1971 Zaremba was a teenager working for the New York rock show promoter Ron Delsener, who'd booked The Who to play at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, in Queens. One of Zaremba's coworkers, twenty-two year old security guard George Byington, was stabbed to death before the concert (by, as Rolling Stone reported, "a recent parolee.") 

The show went on, yet as Zaremba sings, "The sixties were over, malaise swept the nation / I was looking for fun but got alienation." Something clicked on that fateful, sorry night:

Love was out of reach as the stage was tall
I realized I didn’t like arena rock after all
And high on the stage like they didn't know a thing
The Who went through the motions to play and sing


Here are five Fleshtones songs about New York.

1) "Take A Walk With The Fleshtones," Beautiful Light (1994)

This Kinks-like stop recounts a typical night-in-the-day for Zaremba, who lived for years on Fifth Street near Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. The tune commences at "11:11" as the singer's trying to catch some shuteye, but screw it, everyone's down on the streets about to "swing into action" at joints where they "can't stop the beat." As the night progresses he bar hops west, eventually ending up boozy and woozy on Avenue D in Alphabet City, in that era still a dicey area to visit, regardless of your purpose. The song ends with the singer wondering what the hell he's doing there. It feels like something's starting, too.

2) "Destination Greenpoint," Do You Swing? (2003)

This rocking two-minute ode to Zaremaba's neighborhood—adopted after a frightful rent increase sent his family (and countless others) over the East River from Manhattan—ought to have roared out of every bar in Brooklyn during the aughts. Where's the new joint? He's coy: "Here's a hint, I take the G and not the L." The appeal of Greenpoint, beside the cute locals, the kick-ass kielbasas, and plentiful bar stools? "The housing market there is such, I don't have to pay too much." He'll have to brush up on his Polish.

3) "Ruby's Olde Time," Take A Good Look (2008)

There's one place I'd rather be. In this feel-good tune, the fellas laud long afternoons drinking beers at Coney Island's venerable breezy bar on the boardwalk, opened by Ruby Jacobs in 1972 and long a band favorite. Zaremba's jolly organ solo evokes the amusements nearby—you can practically smell the salt air and Nathan's hot dogs—and the whole thing, again over in two minutes, celebrates the simple joys of a beloved New Yawk bar, where there's always a stool, where they set up your drinks without asking, and where it turns out that the suntanned regular sitting next to you spends his winters swimming with polar bears.

5) "End Of My Neighborhood," single (2016)

It's not all grilled meat and cold beers. Streng wrote this stomping tune as another in the line of recent Fleshtones songs bemoaning gentrification and cultural upheaval in their beloved 'hoods. From the sixth floor of his place on Bedford Avenue Streng implores us to take a good look at the speed-of-light changes, grieving, among other losses, the fates of Joe's busy corner ("not so busy no more"), the Domino Sugar refinery ("not so sweet anymore") and the legendary Coyote Studio, forced to close in the face of unconscionable rent increases. 

The Fleshtones' verdict: "North side, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it's worse than SoHo to me."

4) "Remember The Ramones," Wheel Of Talent (2014)

"You don't know what it means / to hit the Bowery and make the scene / for a rock and roller and a kid from Queens." Zaremba penned this tribute to the band that inspired him, Streng, and original bassist Marek Pakulski to start the Fleshtones in 1976, and to the thrills of the raw New York street rock scene where, as the band likes to make clear onstage before they launch into this song, they were there and they remember

In a rush and blur the impressionistic details evoke the Zeitgeist: CBGB where patrons were "packed like sardines" but "didn't care" and where folks stood on chairs to catch the bands, where Suicide "attacked the crowd" and where Zaremba swilled cognac with legendary music biz man (and head of the Fleshtones' first record label) Marty Thau. (Or was that Max's Kansas City?) In a history lesson disguised in a concise-as-a-Ramones tune, Zaremba reminds us that the Ramones were first but "more than this" they "re-lit the fire the music missed." A reminder, students: "The Clash and The Pistols didn't exist."  

Honorable Mention:

"New York, New York," Dictators Forever, Forever Dictators: A Tribute To The Dictators Vol. 1 (1996)

OK this isn't a Fleshtones song. "New York, New York" was written by Andy Shernoff for his band The Dictators, but it could've been written for the Fleshtones too, so in sync is it with both bands' humor and skeptical-but-proud Big Apple worldview. For this Dictators tribute album they dash through a cover of it with aplomb. A fun fact: Shernoff went to Flushing High School in Queens with Zaremba and Streng. Edumacation!

Photos by Anne Arbor

Thursday, August 17, 2023

What we were going through

 D.C.-based Slickee Boys were a "local band" in all the best ways

Photo ©Don Hamerman
The Slickee Boys were formed in the Washington D.C. suburbs in the mid-1970s by two guitarists, Kim Kane and Marshall Keith. Martha Hull sang lead and, after a couple of rotating bassists and drummers, Emery Olexa joined on bass and Dan Palenski on drums. In 1978, Mark Noone replaced Hull as lead singer, and John Chumbris would eventually replace Olexa, solidifying the lineup. The Slickee Boys released a handful of EPs and singles before signing with Twin-Tone Records in Minneapolis and releasing Cybernetic Dreams of Pi in 1983 and Uh Oh...No Breaks! in 1985. They released a final studio album, the aptly-titled Fashionably Late, in 1988 on the French New Rose label and a live album in '89, calling it quits in 1991, realistic about diminishing returns. After breaking up, they more-or-less annually reunited during the Christmas/New Years holidays to play shows with multiple lineups in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Those gigs ended a decade ago, yet the Slickee Boys remain beloved in their hometown.

I discovered the Slickee Boys in the early 1980s in a well-worn fashion: through my older brother Phil and the radio. Phil owned a couple of the band's singles, and WHFS 102.3 FM, then based in Bethesda, Maryland, often played the Slickees' "Gotta Tell Me Why" and "Here To Stay," two ferociously great singles, as well as "When I Go To The Beach" (which video appeared in "light rotation" on MTV for a minute). If you were a rock and roll fan in the Washington metropolitan area, it was a rite of passage to see the Slickee Boys play. The band allegedly holds the record for most shows at the original 9:30 Club in D.C.—81 appearances—and by the time I got to catch them for the first time in 1983, they were legends on the scene, the biggest pop stars in the area, brighter even, at that point, than Tommy Keene (who would within a couple of years sign with Geffen Records, and eventually split Maryland for Los Angeles).

The Slickee Boys never achieved great commercial success, and so they remain the quintessential local band. (They do for me, anyway; you in your town have yours.) In the alternate reality so many of us live in, by choice or circumstance, the Slickee Boys were, for a while, larger than life, packing area clubs and theaters, opening for big bands, earning notices and reviews in the Washington Post and City Paper, consistently putting out records. They toured the U.S.—they were especially popular along the Eastern Seaboard—but wouldn't visit Europe until 1988, only a few years before calling it quits. 


This century has upended the notion of a local band. Extensive touring is still a bitch and a money-drainer (but fun!), especially if a band or artist doesn't have much merch to hawk or a dedicated fan base across cities and regions, but with live streaming from a backyard or a shitty apartment, uploading inexpensively-made home recordings to Bandcamp or Patreon, and maintaining a presence on socials, your favorite local band can now reach millions around the world, for what that's worth. Things felt—things were—much smaller in the 1980s, the ceilings lower, the walls nearer, a two-hundred mile round-trip for a gig in front of a half dozen folks a real commitment. A local band might print up a 45 in a limited run, might sneak onto a regional compilation, might get some radio airplay with adventurous DJs, but, looking back, might realize that regularly packing the bar on the corner was a hell of an achievement. And it was.

In the early 1980s I was coming into my own as a lifer fan of indie music, and beginning to shed the Police, ZZ Top, and other Top 40 stalwarts. Wide-eyed and eared-open, I'd spy local addresses on the Slickee Boys' records and press materials (Bethesda, Rockville, Arlington) and feel an exciting, tangible presence. Listening to their songs down the decades, that frisson of nearness has only deepened. My ears perk up when in "Disconnected" Noone (singing lyrics by Juliet Chats) reference Peoples Drug Store, a local chain where'd I spent countless hours of my adolescence, and "When I Go To The Beach," though lacking in specific geographic details, might as well have been the Official Unofficial Song of Ocean City, Maryland, and we all knew it. Even the store window mannequins in "Glendora," written in the 1950s in another world, evoke for me the tall windows on the old Hecht's department store along Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. "Kids"—with its lyrics about stealing candy, believing in God ("believe it or not"), learning "how to drink and how to drive" and "how to keep yourself alive"—felt so personal that I could imagine the precise places that Noone was writing about. If my local haunts weren't his, they were down the street.


"Here To Stay" 45 insert, 1981
I wear a scar on my right knee from when I went down hard on a jagged rock in the ground in front of the stage at a 1983 Slickee Boys show at LaPlata Beach, an outdoor area between dorms at the University of Maryland. Onstage the band was always a fun, dependable, showy blast. Noone, usually wearing a tuxedo jacket and dress pants, sang and danced, sweating, telling corny jokes, drinking straight from a bottle of bourbon with the panache of a cool older brother, or, in subsequent years, a cool, drunk uncle who's a bit wide in the middle yet powerfully pulls off one rocking song after another. With his his receding hair line and acne-scarred face, Noone looked a lot more like guys in the crowd than he did a pin-up rock star.

Kim Kane, lean as a stick, quasi-menacing with his waist-length hair, ass-length ponytails, and serious "Fu Manchu" 'stache and beard, wore Asian graffiti-art-inspired graphic shirts, long scarves, wraps, and serpentine arm bands (and a Kabuki-like mask during "The Brain That Refused To Die"), holding his guitar low and slinging it around as he played. Kane named the Slickee Boys after the slang term for hard Korean street youths, and once tagged his band's sound, curiously, as "Korean-viewed American music." (A visual artist, he designed all of the band's distinctive cover sleeves, and their logo, and issued the band's early releases on his own DIY label, Dacoit.) No one could quite nail down Kane's style: Mike Joyce in the Washington Post once described him as "Rasputin in Day-Glo trousers." For much of the band's existence Kane held onto his day job as a building services manager at an elementary school. I remember that rumor afloat on the local scene, and the dissonance of that incongruous, mysterious, hilarious image bewitching us.

Lead guitarist Marshall Keith (leaping, right) was the band's secret weapon, if you could describe someone who teased up his hair in a high Mohawk, wore skinny checkered pants, and played a bright-pink-and-black striped guitar a "secret." He played looking down at his fretboard and fingers as if thrilled by a science experiment. He was loud in many fun ways, and a terrific, inventive, and unique player, often adding witty, characterful lines in response to Noone's lyrics, and playing solos that sounded simultaneously studied and recklessly loose. Listen to his excitable leads in charging songs like "Gotta Tell Me Why," Here To Stay," and "Life Of The Party."

It's on a deeper Slickees cut from the band's third EP where Keith truly marvels. "Forbidden Alliance," written by Noone and Keith, tells an old story of the young couple who have to hide their relationship from their parents ("they didn't know what we were going through"), enduring weeks of "white lies and alibis," "short meetings and quick good byes," nervous phone calls, and that damaging note, "the one they found, the one you wrote," with "all the things we'd done and taken / all spelled out in an incriminating note" that "didn't leave much to the imagination." Keith paints a cinematic story board in his anxious solos, the tension and teen hysteria rising with each measure, culminating in the final bars when Kane kicks in on rhythm and the song explodes in delirium, giving the impression of a car taking a turn far too fast (which works as a metaphor for teen recklessness for me!). 

In the comical last verse, Noone, his eyes darting about, offers a breathless scenario:

I'm sneaking through your house, I'm hiding in your hall
Is that your daddy's voice? I'm out the basement door
I'm underneath your bed, our clothes piled on the floor
If I'm caught I'm dead, I'm out the basement door
Cue Keith's solo again—and you can virtually see the frantic couple in their room, the kid hiding out and then escaping through the door, his gf's Dad hot on his heels, Keith's solo conjuring silent-film frenzy. Fantastic.


Early in a sweaty, beery 1992 reunion show at the 9:30 Club, Noone wryly announced to the crowd, "We're gonna do all the hits tonight," before adding, "But, you know, I like to look back at Slickee Boys songs as nothing but hits." Those who shared the same Zip and Area Codes as the band, in the crowd that night or dispersed now around the globe, could only agree.

Top photograph of the Slickee Boys by Don Hamerman (, Childe Harold club, Washington D.C., 1979; photo of Marshall Keith by Tom Shea

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Airplanes, flying, records, rotating

The Three O'Clock's magnificent "Jet Fighter" will never touch ground

In the latest issue of Ugly Things magazine, Ric Menck writes in his "Call Me Lightning" column about the early records by the Three O'Clock, a seminal band in the so-called "Paisley Underground" scene in southern California in the early 1980s. Menck's piece sent me back to the band's records, which, truthfully, I hadn't pulled out in a while. As usual, Menck's right: "I Go Wild" from the Baroque Hoedown EP does sound like "Revolver-period Beatles on steroids"; Earle Mankey's production updates the band's 1960s leanings without time- and date-stamping the sound; and the band's ecstatic cover of the Easybeats' "Sorry" was a bold choice in that it threw light on an obscure song, much as the Bangles' version of the La De Da's "How Is The Air Up There?" did the same year, ultimately sending so many of us scurrying to find the original on hard-to-find compilations of varying authenticity.

A song can bounce off you, or a song get in and stay there. Circumstance is everything. A shaft of sunlight, a gaze from another, depression or an anxiety attack, grief, a road trip: the contexts are fluid, and unimportant, yet when a song or an album's wavelengths pass through the wavelengths of that particular context, the music changes, and remains eternally alive no matter how many times you listen to it. When I hear the opening bars of "Jet Fighter," the lead track off of the Three O'Clock's debut album Sixteen Tambourines, I'm transported to a particular time and place. I selected "Jet Fighter" as the first song on my first radio show at WMUC at the University of Maryland. The details—3 am, Saturday morning, April, 1985—are only interesting to me. Few memories are more tactile, more dimensional than the moment when, my hands shaking and my heart racing, I spun that song.

WMUC flexed a robust 15 watts of transmission power, and the joke was that the signal didn't even reach all of the dorms on campus. There'd be the odd story that someone claimed to have picked up 'MUC in Washington D.C. "if the wind was blowing right"—the D.C. line was five or so miles from the station—or while driving somewhere on the Maryland/Virginia Beltway at dawn, yet at the moment I began my first show I didn't care whether two or two million were listening. Watching that turntable rotate, terrified that I wouldn't get the next song cued up—a laughable concern given that I'd memorized my opening set days earlier—swallowing my excitement for some measure of poor-man's (boy's) professionalism, and mentally preparing my first post-set "patter," I was thrilled in the aliveness of the moment, and I was hooked. I'd DJ at 'MUC, eventually moving to prime afternoon slots (see flier below), for my remaining years at college. (I titled my show "Innocent Startings," a ricochet off Colin MacInnes's 1959 Mod novel Absolute Beginners, which I'd read and was determined to love. It seemed clever at the time.)


Several years ago the University of Maryland curated an exhibit devoted to the history of WMUC, and I was startled to find included a photograph of me taken during one of my afternoon shifts (see right, if you must). I vaguely recall a photographer visiting the studio one day; I posed for two or three awkward shots, unsteadily straddling my late-college, collegiate cum Mod look. (Think Mick Talbot's younger brother.) Clearly I was "featured" because the photographer was available only during my slot. In the event, it was a blast nearly four decades later to see those studio rooms again, and the faces of many who I remember fondly.

My friend Don Smith was a DJ at 'MUC the same era I was; he started a year or so after me and so our time overlapped there. After I posted some old fliers on social media he commented on the headiness of our student DJ days, "special times for many reasons, from the camaraderie that we all held in the face of College Society—a lot of which we positioned ourselves for after 7+ years of 'Slobs vs Jocks' college movies, as well as the legitimate love of the music," he remarked. "And secondly, for me, was the sense at the time that our places in the future world could be endless."

Nobody knew what the future would hold and that's something really special about being 18, 19, 20, 21- your future opportunities are wide open and don't begin to narrow for years. That summer when the wall fell and all these people I knew went to Prague! We were inventing our own rules without the fences of the past. I think back to the times of interviewing Kurt Cobain and Björk or giving away tickets to Dave Chappelle and Wanda Sykes at the Greenbelt Comedy Club and knowing people would be big, but not really knowing how to actually get there....

"We were a crucible of 'all that was cool' around that campus," Smith wrote, before adding, "And some of those feelings are bittersweet too." 

At age 19, every morning I'd wake up and say to myself, "I can make a difference working in the music business!" At Age 29 I said to myself, "I lost 7 friends to drug overdoses and suicide, I don't ever want to work in music." It was a time when friends in music could be so much but then there was a time when we realized that friends in music isn't a paying job. A few snickers behind someone's back when their major label debut missed the mark, not realizing that the same tiredness I felt with aging grunge wannabes in 1995 also meant I was soon to get passed over for opportunities. But at...1986? The world was our oyster.

Indeed it felt that way, unbound in our cramped, crummy little station above a dining hall. I never had a desire to work in the music business, and the odd interviews I landed with bands were ham-handed at best, but I lived and breathed my sets, mentally running through potential segues while in class, jotting down songs I knew I wanted to play. (One summer I had a jazz show, and I tried my hand at literary programming, too, in "Meter & Frequency," the name courtesy of my then-girlfriend.) More than once during my three-to-six a.m. "graveyard shift" days I'd close a bar with friends in D.C. or Maryland with a shopping bag of albums and 45s at my feet. Then I'd drive to campus and spin records for three hours beneath tottering shelves stuffed with promo carts and albums until the sun came up, drive home, sleep a bit, wake up and head back to campus for classes. 


Those were marvelous, indelible times, soundtracked, for me, by "Jet Fighter." I listen again to the song's opening—guitarist Louis Gutierrez's curious, tantalizing sounding, the garage rock cha-cha laid down by drummer Danny Benair, Mike Mariano's twinkling keyboard figure, sounding like nothing less than sunlight glinting off a jet wing, Guitierrez's woosh of an ascending riff, the muttering of an air traffic controller, then Michael Quercio's wispy yet urgent vocals, "Jet fighter man, that's what I am, 'cause tanks go too slow"—and I feel as if I'm ascending, as I did as an excitable eighteen-year old kid, alive on the air, my future world, when I bothered to consider it, indeed feeling boundless as a plane in flight.

Interestingly, what I wasn't hearing in the song then was the blatant ambivalence—the evocative phrases "flying, yet I feel so low"; "protect the land that fills my hand with nothing to show"; "on the day when duty calls I don't think I will go"—in part because the music and the performance are so glorious and exciting, in part because I was tuned to so many emotional confusions at the time I had room for little more. A bit of an anti-anthem, or anyway an anthem to doubt, "Jet Fighter," like all great pop music, elates in itself and complicates things at the same time. Beneath the shimmering glimmer of Mankey's production, some mysteries: who's the singer? Are they off to war? Which war? (Hence the ambivalence?) And who are Mark and Ann? "Come watch me land, I'm sure that they would know"—what would they know?

No matter. Quercio's voice and the words he sang were simply one more instrument in "Jet Fighter," one more moving part in an engine of bliss. It was pitch black outside the window that April early morning of my first DJ show. Inside the studio I was glowing, lit by more than lights.

Thursday, August 3, 2023


Our details may change, but our stories remain the same

All clichés are born unique. (Even that one!) Every shopworn phrase, gesture, or insight was muttered, made, or scrawled down somewhere for the first time, and whoever heard it, saw it, or read it felt as if the top of their head was coming off. And they told two friends, and they told two friends, etc..

I've had the platitude "the more things change, the more they remain the same" in my head for a little while now. Seneca wrote "On Noise," one of his late-life "moral letters," sometime in the early '60s A.D.. Gathered among more than a hundred such letters in the philosopher's Moral Epistles or Letters from a Stoic, "On Noise" is a brief complaint wrapped in a moral. Clamor, Seneca offers, shouldn't in itself prevent one from focusing or meditating or writing: the stoic inner self, calmed by reason, can flourish in even the noisiest of climates. (All well and good. But at the end of the letter the stoic acknowledges that he can't take the din and is splitting town.) 

Living above a bathhouse, Seneca's endured "every kind of sound that can make one weary of one’s years." In the opening paragraph he describes the commotion that drives him up a wall, such as,

When the strenuous types are doing their exercises, swinging weight-laden hands about, I hear the grunting as they toil away—or go through the motions of toiling away—at them, and the hissings and strident gasps every time they expel their pent-up breath. When my attention turns to a less active fellow who is contenting himself with an ordinary inexpensive massage, I hear the smack of a hand pummeling his shoulders, the sound varying according as it comes down flat or cupped.

Seneca piles on, he can't help himself: a ball player shouting out the score; someone starting a fight; someone caught stealing; "the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath;" the hair remover hollering about his services; "the man selling drinks, and the one selling sausages and the other selling pastries, and all the ones hawking for the catering shops, each publicizing his wares with a distinctive cry of his own."

Robin Campbell's translation nicely updates Seneca's language, yet, I remind my essay-writing students, and myself, this litany is nearly two thousand years old. How contemporary it still feels! I ask my students what current sounds they'd add to Seneca's complaints, and they oblige: someone loudly talking on a phone in a public place; car alarms; ring tones; loud television commercials, construction sites, etc.. 


Roughly 1,960 years after Seneca wrote "On Noise," Harmony released her single "Shoplifting From Nike." (The tune and video dropped last week.) In a squeaky synth-pop bubble of fun and angst, Harmony complains that "everything is boring, somehow," and that "vanity, it's all love" so "give me the thing that I want." A needy, grabby tune, "Shoplifting From Nike" (the title's a winking reference to Winona Ryder's old criminal troubles), drops one pop reference after another: Ryder ("I love that '90s shit," Harmony confesses); trending lipstick; Cronenberg; Marlboro Reds; "Sanrio girls on ecstasy ("they totally get me"), Tumblr, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The best lines—"Life's lived best in debt," and "I get so insufferable / I think it makes me whole"—get at the heart of the problem, the lie we still fall for that consumerism will enrich us. "I'm rich in my mind." Harmony logically states, "'Cause everything is mine."

Harmony's family was briefly homeless during the 2008 housing crisis, and she gets at the complications in a recent interview. Asked by Nylon to describe the songwriting process for "Shoplifting From Nike," she remarked, "I feel like it's owed to my teenage self a little bit, but it's also that mischief that still exists in me for sure," adding, 

I don't steal, but I used to when I was a teenager, a little bit, and it was right after the housing crisis. God bless the 2008 housing situation. The real heads will remember.... Because I have this opinion that materialism and spirituality are the same thing, and whatever people find fully is equally valid to anything else.

The song's pre-chorus kills me—

Then you watch a sad movie
With the girl that you're using
On my Hulu in airplane mode
—the way it tells an old-as-dirt story with the stuff of today, the super power of any great pop song no matter what time in history it's written. Will Harmony's song need footnotes to be understood a half century from now? Will the Genius website annotate it within an inch of its life? Probably, yet the song might endure anyway. It doesn't matter what we're watching, when we're watching, or how, there will still be mean, self-absorbed boys and unhappy, confused girls, and the other way around, and at all points along the gender spectrum. The more things change....

Wyldlife, l-r, Dave Feldman, Samm Allen, Spencer Alexander, Russ Barnett
Six or so years ago the New York/New Jersey band Wyldlife released Out On Your Block, a really good rock and roll album, '70s Glam/street rock updated for the new century. "Keepsakes" also tells an eternal story: she split. But ends are always messy beginnings in disguise. The things she left behind, the stuff that the singer can't let go of—her shoe, some baggies ("who took the drugs?"), bobby pins, pills, stray hairs, her T.Rex tee shirt, lipstick stains on a still-warm coffee mug—are intimately theirs, but curiously ours too, morphed into silhouettes of loss. And though they're tangible, holdable, they're also ephemeral:
You’re just a lost cause gone beyond a reasonable doubt
You’re a mystery that I couldn’t figure out
With your keepsakes

Subtract Marc Bolan, and the lyrics to "Keepsakes" might've been written any time in the last half century. Call it unoriginal, if you must, I call it enduring. The song, written by Feldman and Allen, places itself securely in the tradition of the baffled, heart-broken lament, and so the details matter less than the story, yet, as anyone who's been deserted knows, the details are the embers that never die out. I guess the musicians themselves don't matter either, only the song they're singing, though I'm glad Wyldlife got together and banged out this, a fresh take on an ancient tale. The arrangement, with its herky-jerky changes and stops, drums on the prowl, and eighth note bass, strives to remain upbeat, but Feldman's howling, and the song's pretty angry, actually. Fun songs about sad stuff is itself a clichéd description of rock and roll and pop, and a damn good one; my head lifted when I first heard it. Wyldlife, like countless before them, turned to that bromidic paradox in "Keepsakes," a good a move as any when you're  heartsick. 

Yet when the sad outweighs the fun, when the liveliness can't transcend the blues, you're in a timeless bind, stretching back two thousand years and earlier. Seneca was bothered less by the details around him—the yells and shrieks, the splashes and grunts—than the unhappy fact of noise itself, just as Harmony and Wyldlife, making and singing music in a world someone in the first century A.D, couldn't have possibly imagined, make their way through the thorns of last night's and today's stuff to get at something abiding. The more details change, the more heartache stays the same.

Top image via Getty Images/E! Illustration, photo of Harmony by Morgan Maher, photo of Wyldlife by Jason Yamauchi

Thursday, July 27, 2023

So I will heal

Thirty years on, Big Dipper's "Faith Healer" never fails to excite and intrigue me

When I'm feeling brave I like to revisit a song that meant a lot to me when I was in my late teens or early twenties. Half afraid of the cringe factor, I'm eager to see if the song still resonates for me, or whether it's hopelessly dated, a soundtrack for a life I'm no longer living.

Big Dipper (above) formed in the mid-1980s in Boston, Massachusetts when guitarist and vocalist Gary Waleik, a former member of Volcano Suns, got together with guitarist and vocalist Bill Goffrier, late of Wichita, Kansas' the Embarrassment, to bullshit and jam on Sunday evenings on their front porch in the Allston neighborhood. Waleik soon invited bassist Steve Michener, another ex-Volcano Sun, and drummer Jeff Oliphant to hang out. Their first release was Boo-Boo, a six-song EP on Homestead Records in 1987. At the time I was a DJ at WMUC, the radio station at the University of Maryland, and though I hadn't paid a whole lot of attention to Volcano Suns, I was caught up in the hype when Boo-Boo arrived. 

My copy of the EP (which I bought years later) includes a tongue-in-cheek press release, which in presenting the Big Dipper origin story fully captures the band's sense of humor. After those "hootenanny" porch parties became too big for the porch, the neighbors started to complain, that old story:

Also included with the EP was a one-sheet with recording and contact information, "thanks you's," and the like, and this photo of the band in car, above which runs the copy, "Welcome to our first record. We hope that you enjoy these 6 big songs. 6 distinct thrill sensations. 6 poetic/scientific romps through the psyche. See ya soon."


The irony is thick, and funny as hell. In retrospect, it's that phrase "poetic/scientific romps through the psyche" that to me best describes Big Dipper's smart, nervy, idiosyncratic sound, particularly on "Faith Healer," the lead track from Boo-Boo, a song that sent me when I first heard it and still sends me over thirty years later. 

The tune begins with cheery D, C, and G chords bouncing atop a lively rhythm. This'll be fun, you think, turning up the song—and then the song falls apart and reconstructs in an instant. Things get strange and disconcerting very quickly, as new, unsettling chord changes and nervous, syncopated guitar lines start throwing elbows, churning up the surface of the song. It's as if a strange energy has entered and everyone's suddenly on alert. When the singer arrives, crying out his lines near the top of his range, the impression is that he's just trying to keep his head above water without going under.

The story's urgent. It's also mysterious. There's no establishing shot, as it were, but it's clear that he's at some sort of fair or carnival. He's entered a tent, entreating a faith healer therein for help, or for saving, that he desperately needs:

Shoving me so I will heal
While I am so weak I kneel
Begging she admire me
But she says "her work's not free," and he's only got ten bucks, so he heads to the next tent where a palm reader is plying her trade. "This will be a ten well spent," he says to himself, and then implores the fortune teller to
Grab my hand and with an effort
to read between the lines like you do
The chorus returns and we're back to those bright opening chords, but things sound complicated now, and the lyrics spell out the dilemma: "Dealing with the faith healer and trusting in the palm reader." Economics versus hope, business up against faith, and the tension's unresolved by song's end. 

In the more obscure second verse, the singer tries to connect with the palm reader ("Now is the time, we must get down when the healer's not around"), ecstatic in the wordlessness between them, yet he cools on her so quickly that it startles. "You're wonderful," he says to her, "but nothing new. The faith healer can do this, too." This?—what, fuck him? Rip him off? Or bullshit him? The faith healer sees through it all, anyway, and arrives "with a warrant" to close down the palm reader. After all, he sneers, "She's been around," and he "sees through you."

The arrangement is tightly-wound and agitated, the playing headlong, and the singer, searching, maneuvers among all of these discoveries and disappointments. He departs the tents no wiser, but probably more cynical. Maybe that's the same thing.


I didn't need a laying-on of hands or a session with a local palmistry enthusiast in my early-twenties, though I was searching for something. At times breathlessly depressed, walking in a fog, I resolved to see a counselor on campus; he was a soft-spoken, well-meaning graduate student in the Psychology Department fulfilling his field hours toward his degree, I guess, His overall, Leftist explanation for my depression was the vacuousness of then-President Reagan's "Morning In Amercia" campaign. That I could buy, but it didn't explain everything. My blues were bottomless, manifesting mostly as an intense self-consciousness, a suffocating, second by second preoccupation with myself that walled me off from everyone, a lousy, ill-fitting coat I couldn't shake off. (My metaphors here indicate just how difficult, still, it is to define what I was trapped in.) Some moments I felt helpless, staring at an endless, darkening abyss of myself that I couldn't imagine living with. 
I tried going back to the Catholic Church, and prayer, one sweltering summer night walking in a feverish trance two and a half miles to Holy Cross Hospital, where I was born, to sit in the cool chapel and beg for deliverance from myself. I lost myself in books, poetry, and art (and beer), a splintering relationship with my girlfriend J., but mostly music, where I found my confusion articulated and then blasted away, if temporarily, by the noise. Difficult ecstasies: the Windbreakers' "Nation of Two," the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action," the Primitons' "Don't Go Away," Elvis Costello and the Attractions' "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head," among many other songs from that era, soundtracked my gray days and, in different ways, shot flashes of redemptive light through them. I strove to live by a stoic, three-chord philosophy. Fortunately for me these depressive episodes eventually revolved, though they were destined to return.

And "Faith Healer" cut deep. At twenty-one, I missed (or, melodramatically, willfully ignored) the humor in this surreal narrative. What I heard was the very real desperation of someone searching for answers to questions so enormous that they threatened to erase him. I was searching one tent after another, weak on my knees. If the song spoke to my anxieties, however obliquely, the music helped me to shake off those anxieties, however temporarily. During one particular passage—the eighth through twelfth bars in each verse—the song feels as if it compacts so tightly that it might blow up, or anyway threaten to. The same occurs in the Buzzcocks' sublime "What Do I Get?" during the post-chorus lines:
I only get sleepless nights
Alone here in my half-empty bed
For you, things seem to turn out right
I wish they'd only happen to me instead
My blues weren't quite so frustrated or ego-driven s that, but I responded (I respond) so intensely to that passage it felt as if rock and roll, in thrilling chord changes, and ferocious playing and singing, had the capacity to translate for me my wordless interior, in the process cleansing, or draining, me of darkness. Helping me to press re-set, if for a moment. 

I couldn't avoid "Faith Healer" in 1987. If I were to hear the song for the first time now I imagine that I'd still love it, but I wouldn't need it. The manic energy you carry around as a twenty-something comes in contact with music and the music's zapped, its chromosomes forever altered in a way only you can hear. I wear different energy now and, though music is as vital and as nourishing to me now as it was when I was in my twenties, I don't feel very often as if I'm listening along a cliff edge anymore, thank goodness. For many years in DeKalb a palm reader operated out of a dingy storefront up the road from me, next to a video game joint. They've since closed shop, and I'd never felt the need to seek their services, yet the black silhouette of an upraised hand on the front door beckoned me, curiously. I wonder if my twenty-year old self would've felt wandered in, what he'd have found. 

I still grasp for answers in the dark. If the weeks-long anxiety attack I endured during the summer of 2020 is any indication, I'll be dropped to my knees on occasion still, unnerved when I least expect, or want, it. Now I know that the remarkable "Faith Healer" will be there for me if I need it.

Image of "Palm Reading Palmistry Gypsy fortune Teller Vintage Gothic Halloween Poster" via RedBubble