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


Anonymous said...

Hello Joe! Great read during my TGV👍

May I ask a few questions (please feel free not to answer, I shall understand and accept)?

1) Why is “The end of my neighbourhood” barely played at concerts?

2) Is Keith’s Swedish drive due to a love partner / social security coverage is better / an end to The Fleshtones is near as he is happier with the rockier side of Swedish bands?

3) Can we consider that the current Fleshtones’ modus operandi is (in a period of two years)

A) About six /seven months of concerts (in around one month blocks) with campaigns / stops in Spain / France / Italy / Central Europe (Germany et al) / The Baltics (Sweden et al) / The US / an exotic destination
B) One month of recording (two weeks for an album / the rest for assorted singles)
C) Maybe a month all together to demo songs / catch up?
D) Around three months devoted for side projects and touring for them (Split Squad, Denniz Tek,…)
D) And the rest is used for the “day jobs” (whatever they are)?

4) Is this arrangement convenient for all parties or this is going to make the band look like The Rolling Stones (a totem where to go for unadulterated excitement and glories… but the artifact is getting emptier and emptier)?

I might look mean, but these are sincere questions and, again, please do not answer if you do not want to

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

For “Take a Walk With The Fleshtones” this French TV always gets me.