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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

CATHY VANPATTEN of THE POPTARTS: The 1997 BRIGHT LIGHTS Interview


L-R:  Meegan Voss, Susan Mersey, Gael McGear, Cathy Kensington, Margie Shears...THE POPTARTS!

With the ol' clock on the wall ticking closer and closer to our big 2016 BRIGHT LIGHTS! Syracuse new wave rock 'n' roll reunion party on July 3rd (as detailed here), let's dig deeper into the archives for some first-person accounts of the late '70s/early '80s local scene that BRIGHT LIGHTS! celebrates.  These interviews were conducted by me in 1997, as background for a Syracuse New Times article on The Flashcubes and other great bands playing around the 'Cuse during that three-chord-charged time frame; it was published the week of The Flashcubes' 20th anniversary show, which was also a release party for The Flashcubes' anthology CD Bright Lights.  The article itself can be found here.  This is the first publication of the complete interviews.

Hey, wanna go to the BRIGHT LIGHTS! show?  Of course you do!  Get yer tickets, man!

The very first song played on the very first edition of This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl was "I Won't Let You Let Me Go" by The Poptarts.  The Poptarts were one of my favorite groups in this Bright Lights scene, an all-female quintet whose embrace of the '60s girl-group sound filtered through British Invasion rock 'n' roll and the DIY spirit of punk--but all in a decidedly pop package--presaged the success of The Go-Go'sGary Frenay of The Flashcubes said that The Poptarts and The Ohms were his two favorite local bands, at least in terms of songwriting accomplishment.  The Ohms were far more accomplished musically than The Poptarts ever managed to be, but make no mistake here:  The Poptarts were a brilliant pop band, and they would have only gotten even better if their time hadn't run out.

There were but five Poptarts ever:  lead singer Gael McGear (Gael Sweeney), guitarists Meegan Voss (Debbie Redmond) and Cathy Kensington (Cathy VanPatten), bassist Margie Shears (Margie Fine), and drummer Susan Mersey (Susan Jaffe), with Flashcubes guitarist Arty Lenin sitting in on drums for the group's earliest gigs (while Susan was still learning to play; she was referred to as "featured dancer" at that initial stage).

Yep.  The Poptarts started playing out before their drummer was even ready to join them.  Forgive the expression--especially when referring to an all-female group--but man, that took balls.  The Poptarts were not the kind of band to back away from a challenge, not ever, no how.

My 1997 Bright Lights interviews included separate chats with Cathy VanPatten, Meegan Voss (the stage name she still uses today), and Gael Sweeney (the latter a joint interview that included Gael's husband, David Soule, who was himself a part of the scene as a member of The Tearjerkers).  Alas, the interviews came at a rough period in The Poptarts' history, as a proposed CD anthology of the group's demos had become a source of considerable contention.  The members of The Poptarts have since made amends, and I would prefer not to reopen old wounds.

But The Poptarts were a very, very important part of this scene, and their story needs to be preserved.  I will be taking another look at my interviews with Meegan and Gael (and David) at some point in the future, and will likely share at least a part of those interviews here eventually.  For now, though, let's make those lights brighter, and settle down for a conversation with the lovely and talented Cathy VanPatten.

The cover of a recent issue of Rolling Stone refers to The Spice Girls as "Poptarts."

Yeah, I know.  Actually, I didn't see it, but my husband saw it in the check-out line at the supermarket.

How did you come into the Syracuse new wave scene originally?

Yeah, it was through Mark Roberts, because he was the lead singer for The Tearjerkers as Buddy Love.  And actually, I don't know if I have the chronology straight.  Let me think here...yeah, actually we went out to see him, because he kept saying [we should].  It was Gael and Susan and I were roommates, we were grad students in the English Department, and we went to see him because he kept saying, "Oh, ya gotta come out, you gotta come out!"  And he was opening for, the band he was opening for was The Flashcubes.  And I think it was at The Orange.  And we went out to see him, and we thought he was great.  He had all these corny jokes, you know, about having cucumbers in his pocket and all that stuff [laughs].  And then he pulled out a cucumber, and I'm like, "Oh my God!" [laughs]

But I mean, they were just really refreshingly bad.  It was the sort of music that you just didn't hear on the radio.  Actually, I had stopped listening to music on the radio and goin' out to see bands, 'cause it was all disco and stuff, and I hated that stuff.  So I thought, "Eh, what's out there?  Well, we'll go out and see."  And it was really fun.  And it was fun to go out, and go out on a dance floor and actually dance to something that wasn't the Hustle.  And then The Flashcubes came out, and we really liked them, but I think at first we liked The Tearjerkers better, because they were more raw.  The Flashcubes actually, after The Tearjerkers, seemed to be pretty polished [laughs].

So we eventually though started to go out and see The Flashcubes as stuff to do, because The Tearjerkers didn't play all that much after a while.  And the way we got into The Poptarts was--though if you've talked to Gael, you'll probably know this already [laughs]--well, we had our own little pretend band, Susan and Gael and I, called The Ball Turret Gunners, which is an English major reference to a poem.  And Mark was giving a reading, and there was a party afterwards.  And we had heard stories that Meegan wanted to put a band together. But we barely knew her, so we didn't feel very comfortable comin' up to her and saying, "Hey, can we be in your band?  We kinda have our own pretend band here [laughs]."  We took a bunch of Beatles records, and on those old records you can turn the vocal tracks off, so you can just hear the music.  And, although Susan didn't sing on these, Gael and I put in our own versions of the songs, with a little different harmonies.  But we thought it sounded okay, and we made a tape of it.  And then at the party, after Mark's reading, where Meegan was at the party, Gael went and slipped it into the tape deck [laughs].  And Meegan said, "Oh my God, that's exactly what I'm thinking of!  We have to get together!"

So we literally picked up our instruments.  I mean, the only way I got to be a guitar player was because my brother had an electric guitar and an amp that he sent up to me from my home town in Virginia [laughs].  Otherwise, I was gonna be the drummer.  As it turned out later, I found out I had absolutely no aptitude for drumming, so it was probably a good thing [laughs].  So that's how it happened.  And I guess we played for...well, we practiced for about two weeks before we had our first job.  And I think it was opening for The Dead Ducks.  I think it was The Dead Ducks, I think it was.  Because I know it was in The Firebarn, and I even know what dress I wore [laughs].

Was it a mini the first time out?

Yeah, it was.  It was a red velvet mini dress with a big white Edwardian sort of bib detail on it, that I never wore again, because it was way, way too hot to be on stage in it.

Dead Ducks guitarist Dan Bonn mentioned a Poptarts gig at The Insomniac, where you all wore nighties on stage.

Oh yes, we did, actually!  And you know, Susan's parents were at that gig.  They had come up--she was from Florida originally, from somewhere near Miami--and they had actually been sort of footing the bill for her for a while, so she could spend all her time practicing drumming.  And they came up to see whether they were getting a return on their money [laughs].  And here they were in this dark, really loud club, and their daughter was up with a drum kit in her nighties [laughs], little short nighties.  Yeah, that's right.  Oh, man!

Tell me a little bit about some of the other bands playing around that time:  The Ohms, The Dead Ducks, The Penetrators....

Oh gosh, The PenetratorsThe Ohms, of course, was Ducky [Carlisle] and Zenny Caucasian and then...I can't remember the other.

Originally, it was Rick Suburban, and then Keith Vincellette replaced him.

Oh right!  He went out with Margie for a while.  It was a really incestuous scene.  The funny thing was, one of the things I remember was, depending on who was dating whom, or who was angry at whom for whatever thing they might have said about a band or a band member--you know, every week you needed a scorecard as to who was your friend, who wasn't your friend, who you were talking to, who you weren't, you know, who was cool, who wasn't [laughs].  It was really pretty hectic sometimes.

Well, let's see:  there were The Ohms, and of course The Dead Ducks, and Distortion...

I saw Distortion's first gig, and then never saw 'em again.

Yeah, that was...I don't know, it seems like Pam Tiger was around the scene a lot, but that was her real name.  And then she went by the name of Sheena.  She was the drummer.  The thing I remember most about Distortion, because I saw them a few times, a lot of times they would do group gigs, like if there were three or four bands on a bill with nobody headlining.  They'd be in on that.  But I remember their very first gig, they had a poster that said, "DISTORTION, with Three Bob, at midnight."  And for some reason I kept thinking the guy...shoot, I can't think of his last name.  Actually, the last time I saw him was in San Francisco, with Orbit and all those guys [who] were in San Francisco for a while.  And I kept thinking his name was Three Bob At Midnight [laughs].  Not that they were gonna play at midnight [laughs], that never occurred to me.

Yeah, let's see...Distortion, and Dian Zain, who was kind of persona non grata for The Poptarts.  I mean, I never could quite figure out why she was so disliked.  She was never mean to me.  Although there was one time that I actually got a really horrible shock from a microphone, because the ground on my amp got somehow switched [laughs] from the soundcheck.  You know, it was okay in the soundcheck, and it seemed to be okay through half the set, and then at one point I just kind of leaned into the mic, touched it with my lips, and got thrown back about two feet.  And then we found out that somebody had switched the ground on the amp.  And then, of course, everybody was, "Well, it was Dian!  It was Dian!" [laughs] I'm thinking, "Well, how could she do that with nobody seeing her?" [laughs]

How about the post-Buddy Love Tearjerkers?

Oh yeah, I'm well-acquainted with them [laughs].  Yeah, they were a great band.  And of course Charlie Robbins was a fixture on the scene back then.

The Flashcubes seemed to be at the center of the scene.

Yeah.  The thing was, they were always...they were kind of the great white hope, sort of.  I think everybody just figured they were gonna get signed at some point.  And every other band sort of figured that they would go on the coattails, you know?  Especially in The Poptarts, when we started to get a little bit of label interest, we kind of learned from what had happened to The Flashcubes, that every time somebody was interested, everybody on the scene would know about it.  They'd be, "Oh yeah, the Atlantic guy is comin'!  Oh yeah!"  And they got let down so many times, and then they felt, you know, it was embarrassing and everything.  So I think we just kind of, whenever we got any kind of interest, we sort of kept it quiet.  Although, of course, we never had any doubts that we were gonna be the female Beatles or whatever [laughs].

How long were you playing before you started getting a serious notion that something big could come of it?

You know, it wasn't very long.  What happened was, I think it was maybe the fifth or sixth time we ever played out, we actually opened for a national act at Stage EastThe Laughing Dogs.  And I don't quite remember how we got that gig, if somebody was supposed to have it and pulled out.  But somehow we got it.  And there were some people traveling with them.  I was sick that night.  I had a fever, and I just remember feelin' really beat when we got off stage.  And I just said, "You know, I'm gonna go home.  I mean, these guys might be really good, but I never heard of 'em [laughs], and I'm just really feeling kind of bad, so I'm just gonna go home and go to bed."  So I got back to the apartment, was pretty much just ready to call it a night, when I get this frantic call, saying, "Oh my God!  Oh my God!  These guys from...."  I don't even [remember] what label The Laughing Dogs were on....

Columbia.

Right.  They go, "They're really interested!  And they think we're great!  And they're talkin' to us!"  And then I thought, well, should I go back, or what should I do?  [laughs]  But I think that was the first time that we thought, well gosh, maybe this could actually turn into something.  And then once [95X DJ] Gary Allen started managing us, and brought Harvey Leeds from Epic into the picture,then it was kind of a given. I mean, we used to make lists of all the things we were going to buy with all our money [laughs].  Lists that included hot pink polka-dotted, custom-made Flying V's [laughs].  And, of course, wishful thinking, but it was kind of a heady time.

I'm still mystified that no one from this scene ever got signed.

Yeah.  That kind of escapes me, too.  And not necessarily The Poptarts being the one.  I think eventually, there was a time before Screen Test actually did break up, as opposed to sort of all the incarnations that they went through after The Flashcubes, there was a point in time when they seemed to be attracting a wider audience.  'Cause you'd go out and see bands, especially Screen Test, and there seemed to be a much wider group of people.  There was Ed Hamell's band, The Works, which wasn't quite the same thing, but I was taking guitar lessons from one of their guitar players--and God, his name escapes me--so we would go out and see them.  But there seemed to be a lot of crossover.  But they had quite a different following.  They had sort of the new wave following, and then they had a sort of bar band kind of following.  And I think that if Screen Test and The Works started to play together, they started to attract bigger crowds.  But I think it was kind of a too little, too late type of thing.  By then, a lot of the excitement had sort of died down.  And a lot of the scene identity, I think, started to fall apart.

Raising the drinking age was certainly the death knell for a lot of clubs around here.

Yeah, and I think that when things like The Jabberwocky went under.

I'm still in mourning.

[laughs] Yeah, I know!  That was a great club,

All the clubs I went to are gone:  The Firebarn, The Slide....

You know what the greatest thing about the Slide was, though, from a band standpoint?  Is that it was right next to that bakery.  Oh, man!  You know, you'd go, you'd finish up your set, you'd strike everything, you'd load up the van, and then go over to the bakery and get the first loaf of bread of the day [laughs].  And they were so hot, and they were so good.  And then, of course, we'd go over to Serpico's and have frettas [laughs].

Why did The Poptarts split up?

I don't know exactly what Meegan's thoughts were on it.  And, in fact, I even played in The Antoinettes with Meegan and Margie after The Poptarts, and never quite got the full story of what she was feeling at that point in time.  But I think--I mean, this is my own opinion about it, so she could look at this and go, "Oh, this is completely wrong."  And Gael could go, "Oh, I don't think so." But I think there were a couple of things.  One was that Susan wasn't quite the drummer that the band needed.  Although the times that we would try to find somebody else, we would audition other people, and it just wouldn't be the same.  And we had kind of been given this ultimatum by the guy from Epic, by Harvey, who kind of said, "If you're gonna make it, you need to have another drummer."

And that was just horrible, because we were friends.  I mean, it was a thing that had started out kinda like a joke and a party band and "let's just do this!" kind of a [thing], like one of those Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney things.  And suddenly, it was business.  And we realized this was really gonna be a really hard and gut-wrenching decision, and nobody wanted to make it.  And nobody could bring themselves really to come clean with Susan about it, because how do you say that?  Especially when she had really been devoting so much time to it.  And when I listen back to the tapes that Gael had, I mean I hadn't heard those in years and years, and I listened to 'em and I thought, "Well gosh, that's not that bad."  I mean, I realize that a lot of it was recording, so we really got the best takes, but...I do remember actually getting angry with her when she would start to slow down or speed up [laughs].  But I think, of course, it's a moot point now, but I think she might have been able to make it.  But that was just putting an awful lot of strain on everybody, the thought that there's gonna come a time when we're gonna have to tell her what Harvey said about her.

And the other thing was, as it became more, as we started thinking more about actually being signed and making records and how the money gets distributed, the people who write the songs and have the copyrights on the songs get the money for it.  And the players are more like, you get paid for being in the band, but you don't get any extra.  And then, of course, we had the thing with originally Gael had been the singer, then Meegan wanted to sing.  And so pretty soon we had this thing where Gael did covers and a few of Meegan's early songs; Meegan was doing all her own songs.  And then Gael had to start writing songs if she was gonna keep singing, and so we would do this trade-off thing.  And I think a power struggle kind of developed between the two of them.  That's the way I kind of saw it.  And on one hand we had Susan and Gael and I living in one apartment, you know, we'd been pals all through grad school, then Meegan and Margie, who had been sort of the original two who had the idea for the band. And I think it just got to the point where there was just too much tension.  And I think a part of the band's actual on-stage appeal had to do with the mini-skirts obviously [laughs], and as I said the songs and the harmonies were pretty good, but there was also a certain tension there that kind of kept things [interesting].  And I don't think anybody on the other side of the stage, anybody in the audience, could really necessarily sense that there was any kind of friction or tension.  But I do think it kind of added a little bit of electricity on-stage actually, sort of in the way that Paul Armstrong, the way he would always get on the nerves [laughs] of Arty and Gary, would also kind of inject some [oomph].  And when he was gone, it just wasn't the same.

I think that's what happened, ultimately.  And we had played a whole week of gigs in Cleveland, which is Gael's home town.  And she had had an awful lot of attention, because we had been staying at her mom's condo, we'd been on some afternoon TV talk show where she got a lot of attention as the home town girl.  And I think finally Meegan just said, "I just can't deal with this any longer."  And, of course, she was also having romance problems, so [laughs] that wasn't helping at all.  And I think she just said, "I just want to end this.  I don't want to deal with the Susan problem anymore.  I don't want to deal with all this conflict any longer.  I just want to leave and go to Rochester, and start my life again."  And so I think that was at the core of it.  A couple different things happening at once, but I think that the Cleveland thing was kind of the catalyst.  That's my take on it [laughs].

Did you play with Gael's subsequent band, Only Desire?

Yes.

And you played a bit with The Antoinettes, as well.

Yep.  What happened was, after The Poptarts, Gael and I put together Only Desire.  But it was never the same feel.  It was a little harder-edged.  We didn't have the three-part harmonies, because only Gael and I were singing.  I don't know, it was fun, but it just wasn't clicking the way The Poptarts did, and eventually I started doing other things and getting other interests around town and stuff.  And also, Gael and I had been TAs and adjunct faculty members at SU for probably four years by then, and then they did a bunch of budget cuts, and we didn't get picked up for that year [laughs].  And suddenly, it was like, "Oh my gosh, I've gotta get a real job?  [laughs]  Oh no!"  And so I ended up working at Gerber [Music], which of course was the haven [laughs] for all those people on the scene, thanks to Charlie, really.  Because I was looking for a job and just was gettin' all these dead ends.  And he said, "Well, I could use somebody."  And I thought, "Oh, I have my master's degree!  I'm not gonna work for minimum wage at a record store."  But then I thought, "But I gotta pay the rent.  So okay, I'll do it."  So I was just workin' a lot, I didn't have a lot of time anymore to put into the band, and eventually I just said, well, you know.  In fact, they had gotten another guitar player, sort of to take up the slack, and I finally said, you know, "I'll just go and you can just use her."  But it didn't really hang together after that.

And then, a few months later, I think it was at least half a year or nine months or so, suddenly Meegan and Margie show up at the store, and they want to put a band together, and would I be interested?  And I thought, well, okay, all right.  Because I did kinda miss being on stage.  The problem was I was the only guitar player, and I'd always been a rhythm guitar player, I was never much of a lead player.  Although I think at the time I could hold my own as a rhythm player with any band at the point of The Antoinettes and at the end of The Poptarts, certainly.  But what they really needed was a lead player.  I hung in with them until pretty close to the time they moved to New York. And that was the other thing; I didn't really want to move to New York.

Were you in any other bands after that?

No.  Never again [laughs].  Never since.

What do you think of The Poptarts' recordings?

I was really surprised at how well it held up.  And, in fact, the songs that held up kinda surprised me.  Actually, Gael reminded me of this, and I didn't remember it until she said something about it, and I was racking my memory trying to go, "That doesn't sound like something I would do."  But then I realized, "Oh yeah, I think something like this did happen."  One time, when we were playing in Philadelphia, we had run out of encores.  I mean, they loved us at this place [laughs].  We had just started doing one of Meegan's songs, which was "Boy Crazy."  And I don't know, for some reason I wasn't keen on it.  But [Meegan] suggested for the encore [laughs] that we play "Boy Crazy" again, and into the live microphone I said, "Aw, not that piece of shit [laughs]."  And I guess she really got upset.  And I guess we ended up doing it anyway.  But when I got the tape [of The Poptarts' recordings], and "Boy Crazy," I thought, "Well, I like that!"  And I especially liked the way it ended.  It ended on this really pretty chord.  And I thought, "God, why didn't I like that?" I can't think of any that didn't hold up pretty well.  I love the way "Pop Dream" goes, but I don't like the lyrics [laughs].  I don't like "hot pink bikini and a red beret"[laughs], I thought that was kind of silly. And something like "Sensation" I thought really held up.

You know, the funny thing about a lot of those songs was that, you know, a year, year and a half after the band broke up, and The Go-Go's album came out, and it was like we had songs that corresponded.  Like, they had this slow, kind of weird song, [and] we had "Sensation."  I remember going to see them in Rochester, when they were supporting that first album.  I didn't want to go, and then at the time I was going out with Tom Kenny, and he had a friend who had tickets [laughs].  And I'm like, "Oh, all right."  I didn't want to be a spoilsport.  But I actually enjoyed it a lot.  I thought they were great fun.

It's kind of like The Flashcubes going to a Romantics show.

Yeah!  Well, you know that was so weird, because The Romantics used to always come through and play with them.  And then suddenly they were like this huge [success].  I mean, by the time I was living in Boston, they were gigantic.  And I was takin' aerobics classes and they're playing "Talking In Your Sleep" in the aerobics class.

What do you want to say about the apparently aborted Poptarts CD?

You know, I think it's too bad.  I'm sure Meegan has her reasons.  I don't know that I understand what they could be, though.  I would have loved to have had it come out.  I mean, my stepkids are like, "So, when's the CD coming out?"  Because they've heard the tape, but a tape is a tape.  I could make a tape!  I guess my thought is that I can't imagine [Meegan] would ever want to use the songs for anything.

Did she write most of the songs?

A lot of it was co-written.  It was really kind of all over the place.  Because sometimes she'd bring in something that was completely done or...well, it was never completely done, because we always kind of hashed the harmonies out.  And actually I was responsible for a lot of the harmony arrangements, especially on those weird chords [laughs].  But I think sometimes it was a real group effort.  Like "I Won't Let You Let Me Go;" she had one part of it, and I think Gael came up with another part of it, and then I think--although I don't remember really clearly--I think I might have come up with the nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa, you know, "you try to lose me," that part.  I think I might have come up with that.  A lot of 'em were really collaborations.  As it became more an issue of who wrote the song, the collaborative nature of it got a little less.  So generally, after the first six months of the band or so, you can pretty much figure that if Gael's singin' it, she wrote most of it.  But I've heard a rumor that [Meegan] actually copyrighted most of the songs.  I don't know if that's true or not.  But, in that case, I would say, you know, not all of them were yours [laughs].  But, at this point, it's kind of a moot point.  I mean, who's gonna be usin' 'em?  I don't think anybody.

The way I figure it, [the CD] was never destined to be a money-maker.  It was never a profit, money-making thing.  I guess that's the sticking point with me.  I guess I don't understand why she would stop it.  I don't see how it could reflect badly on what she's doing now.  And I don't think there's any real chance that she would use the songs.  And if she owns the copyrights to 'em anyway, who cares?

Any closing comments on the Poptarts experience?

It was a really fun time.  I look back on it very fondly.  I think Syracuse at that point in time was a perfect place for something like that to happen.  It wasn't so rough that it was dangerous [laughs].  I think there were a few incidents in bar bathrooms.  The theme song came out of one.  But I don't know, I ended up with this really very cocky attitude, maybe because I'm so short, I figure nobody's gonna come after me.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

CHARLIE ROBBINS of THE TEARJERKERS: The 1997 BRIGHT LIGHTS Interview



With the ol' clock on the wall ticking closer and closer to our big 2016 BRIGHT LIGHTS! Syracuse new wave rock 'n' roll reunion party on July 3rd (as detailed here), let's dig deeper into the archives for some first-person accounts of the late '70s/early '80s local scene that BRIGHT LIGHTS! celebrates.  These interviews were conducted by me in 1997, as background for a Syracuse New Times article on The Flashcubes and other great bands playing around the 'Cuse during that three-chord-charged time frame; it was published the week of The Flashcubes' 20th anniversary show, which was also a release party for The Flashcubes' anthology CD Bright Lights.  The article itself can be found here.  This is the first publication of the complete interviews.

Hey, wanna go to the BRIGHT LIGHTS! show?  Of course you do!  Get yer tickets, man!

Charlie Robbins was there at the beginning of Syracuse's punk and new wave scene. He had previously been in a band called Fieldstone with Gary Frenay (soon to become one of  The Flashcubes).  As the DIY punk spark ignited in Syracuse, Robbins found himself playing guitar with Buddy Love and the Tearjerkers, where he was billed initially as Charlie Hamster, at least according to Poser fanzine.  

Buddy Love himself--aka Mark Roberts, aka B.D. Love--moved on, but The Tearjerkers continued, off and on, with varying line-ups for a few years.  I won't claim to have any true handle on who was in The Tearjerkers at any given time--Gael Sweeney of The Poptarts did a complex and comprehensive Syracuse New Wave Family Tree some time back--but I don't think there was any one person who was in every single incarnation of The Tearjerkers.  Charlie Robbins was the most consistent presence in the group, working with a revolving parade of talent that included Dave DeCirce, Mark Rotondo, David Soule, Gretta Gallivan, and future star voice actor Tom Kenny, among many others. Charlie sang lead on The Tearjerkers' only single, Gary Frenay's sublime "Syracuse Summer"(backed by DeCirce's "Jane" on the flip side).   When Tom Kenny joined as lead singer, The Tearjerkers recorded more, and a single of "Ronnie Can't Wait" was advertised in Creem magazine. Plans for the single were scotched in favor of a proposed album, The Tearjerkers Quit Their Day Jobs, but none of these recordings was ever released. 

A few years later, Charlie Robbins collaborated with Screen Test on a simply terrific solo track called "Heart Said Go," which was a staple of my mixtapes for a good long while. Charlie was also in a folk/roots combo with the future Maura Kennedy.  He managed Syracuse's near-iconic record store Desert Shore Records, and later opened his own store, Oliver's.  I haven't had any direct contact with the elusive Mr. Robbins in years, but he graciously allowed us to use "Syracuse Summer" on our most recent Dana & Carl rockin' pop compilation CD, This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, Volume 3.  I hope the rest of The Tearjerkers' recordings will likewise see the light of day...someday! For now, let's travel back to 1997, and talk with a Tearjerker.

I had been dating the start of the Syracuse new wave scene from The Flashcubes' first show.  Paul Armstrong and Gary Frenay both date it from a new wave party that The Syracuse New Times put on before that, with The Cuban Heels.

The Cuban Heels, yeah.  I was going to say it was The Cuban Heels.  It really wasn't The Flashcubes as much at the very beginning.  But obviously they also brought into it a pop sensibility, you know, Middle America could deal with.  Paul gave it the rough edge, certainly Gary and Arty didn't.

Tell me a little bit about the beginning of that whole scene, even before The Flashcubes.  

At that particular moment in time I was playing in a very bad cover band.  The name of this band was Blue Steel, doin' bad ZZ Top covers, Fleetwood Mac, and playin' bars in Madison, New York with big heels on, and the whole mid-'70s [thing]--that was the way the music business was.  It's funny, you've got all these little coffee house bands now, but if you want a regular gig at it, it's almost like you're back to doing cover stuff now.  It's an embarrassment.  So I really missed kind of the very beginning.  Gary and I lived together at the time, and his first wife.  And I had been working up here at Record Theater with him.  And he kind of got me together with Buddy and that whole crew.  And that's kinda where I entered into it.

I didn't jump on to the punk bandwagon like they did right away.  I was more...from the very beginning, The Sex Pistols were never my big thing.  I much more leaned toward The Jam and bands like that, Eddie and the Hot Rods, bands that had more of a pop thing happening with them.  I mean, it was fun initially.  I remember playing our first jobs, and the crowd wanted you to be obnoxious.  And it was fun to spit beer on people, but it kind of got sour real quick.  And we always played [the] Buddy and the Tearjerkers thing for more of a humor thing than a serious thing.  What broke that band up is the boys wanted to be more serious about it, and I said, "You be more serious about it, you lose the crowd right there."  And, I mean, I was the one who was tuning his guitar on stage.  I knew that if you don't keep the humor in it, then this band's going nowhere.  So I went back at that time to playing Blue Oyster Cult and Van Halen and all this shit for about six months.  And then kind of surfaced again with it.  But I wasn't, at the very beginning, I wasn't a big party-goer or hanger-out with the actual beginning of it.

How did you become involved with The Tearjerkers to begin with?

It was pretty much through Gary.  Gary put us all together.  I mean, Gary, even later on, introduced us to Tom Kenny.  I mean, I didn't know Tommy.  Gary did through The Generic Comics.  And the audition was hilarious.  He was so nervous, and such a mess.  But we knew immediately.  I have a pretty good ear for knowing when somebody was going to be able to do [it], and obviously he's gone on to much bigger things.  But it was fun.  It was a great amount of fun.

I remember seeing an ad for a Tearjerkers 45 that never came out.

It never came out.  We did an awful lot of recording, and we were not a recording band.  To be honest with you, it was way too much of a party.  Not necessarily on everybody's part, certainly, but a lot of the recordings--and I've got most of 'em--are just not up to snuff.  As a live band, I thought we were tough to beat.  We were definitely a band that could go out and deliver, and did.  I mean, the best parts that I remember, I mean really parts of the real key years for the bands, were the fact that you had Screen Test and you had us and you had--what was it?--The Natives.  We're talkin' a bit after the beginning; The Ohms were long gone and all that.  But the parts that were great was the fact that we were all spurring each other on to write.  Gary would come out, see us, and get inspired and write.  And I would do the same thing, be inspired by what they were doing.  I think that the competition thing was always good-natured.  There's a lot more backstabbing nowadays.  It was definitely a lot more fun to do.  You would see something, and you'd go, "Wow!  Yeah, we could do that."  And the other thing that we would always do, when we were doing every Monday night at The Lost Horizon, is we would always make sure we wrote at least one or two new songs every week.  Some of 'em would get played once and thrown away, and then some of 'em would stick.  But it was something we drove ourselves to do.

Prior to this scene developing, were there any local acts really trying to make a go of it with primarily original material?

Well, if it was somebody like Joe [Whiting] and Mark [Doyle], you know, the bigger guys.  I mean, if you were a big enough band--Bad Medicine or Out Of The Blue or any of those big bands back then--then you could start sneaking in one or two of your own tunes as it went along.  I think that probably the high point of that era for that kind of thing was probably 805, because they were big enough to be able to start putting their own stuff in.  And people were excited about it.  But it was not easy.  And even as far along as we were, you'd play a certain town...you couldn't play outside of the central areas.  The minute you got booked playing somewhere like Norwich--I can remember playing Norwich, of all places--and having them all night ask for Bob Seger.  Playing Mohawk Community College, and having them call us Devo. We were about as far removed from that as...!

The Flashcubes...it's funny.  Because I just, I guess I was too involved in trying to do it to think they were as major as they seem to be now.  I mean, they were a band, and we played, they played.  I mean, certainly we opened for them in the beginning an awful, awful lot.  And then eventually we didn't anymore.  And the best thing about Syracuse at the time was you had all these bands, and you could play on the same night, and you'd both make enough money to pay for everything.  And I tell the kids that work for me, we had played this town four or five nights a week, and done all right.  Of course, now these bands play, what?  Every six weeks?  And they're lucky.  I mean, it's a different world now, obviously.

Was it just the rasing of the drinking age that changed things?

There were two or three things that really put an end to it.  Jabberwocky.  Jabberwocky meant more to the new wave scene than any other club.  I know the Horizon was important at the time, It wasn't what it turned out to be later, and we certainly spent an awful, awful lot of time there.  But when you played Jab--and usually you were allowed one, maybe two times a semester--there was a crowd.  And at that point you could be a musician and you could do the kind of things that you weren't mentally able to do at the Horizon, or playing Norwich, or whatever.  You had the freedom to actually kind of in your mind be a big rock star, for lack of a better selection of words.  So, that going, [and] WAER [Syracuse University's free-form radio station].  When they went jazz--we'll call it "jazz"--that was another big nail in the coffin.  There were some great clubs for fun that we played early on.  The one over on Westcott....

Squires East!

Yeah.  Forty people was a crowd, but boy, you couldn't get a better crowd.

At Squires East, forty people was a fire hazard.

Yes, but it was a wonderful place to be.  And The Carousel downtown, and, of course, The Firebarn.  The Firebarn, it's a shame that ever went.  That was a wonderful...the only price was that if you were a band, it was a big pain in the ass to lug the equipment up and down the stairs.  You had the upstairs and downstairs.  We did all those New Wave Nights there.  I never really was big on The Slide-Inn, even though we played there a few times.  That was more like The Poor House North--it wasn't our stomping grounds at all.  I was never real comfortable there.  I was most comfortable either at the Horizon or Jab.  Of course, being up here, it was a university area, it was a lot more fun.  I mean, now they're puttin' 'em on at Chuck's [Hungry Charlie's], but it doesn't seem the same.  I don't know.  I had heard we were gonna see a little resurgence in the wave scene, but it doesn't seem to be happening.  Nothing is, though; you know that.

Everybody in their time, I guess.  Some people are able to move beyond that time, and some people aren't.  I mean, I for a long time wanted to play again, but I can't even picture it.  Me and an acoustic guitar in Borders books isn't gonna do it, you know?  I miss it.  I miss the guys.  I don't really talk to them anymore.  I haven't talked to Tom in a long, long time.

You and Tom Kenny played together for one song at the Swordsmen gig [a late-'90s one-off show at The Lost Horizon, with a parade of Syracuse new wave scene all-stars joining a core band of The Flashcubes' Paul Armstrong and Gary Frenay and legendary 'Cuse guitarist Mark Doyle].

 It was fun to go back out.

You looked like you were having a pretty good time.

Yeah.  I definitely was pretty happy with it.  I mean, Tommy and I very naturally fall into it.  That's probably part of the reason why I haven't been able to do anything since.  You've got to have somebody like Tommy to be able to do it from my end.  Because that's the kind of band I put together.

The other thing is that music isn't as much fun.  Everybody wants to make some kind of big statement about how miserable their life is.  That's why I like happy stuff.  There's not enough happy stuff.  I'm not saying that they don't have a right to do it, or that there's not reason to do it, but music to me is supposed to be kind of a joyous noise.  Frankly, being here in the store all the time, I get real tired of listenin' to 'em whine.  It drives me nuts.

Obviously I'm an itty-bitty little fish, but you wonder how some of these guys that were up the ladder a bit more, what the hell they do or how they keep their spirits up.  I mean, Marshall Crenshaw or somebody like that, who puts albums out, and the faithful few buy 'em.  Even, for that matter, somebody like Richard Thompson, who I followed pretty dearly for a while.  It's gotta be tough on the ego to keep trying to slog on ahead, and it really appears like nobody cares.  There have been some really good records in the last year that have just disappeared.  I think we talked about that Brian Wilson-Van Dyke Parks record, which was just brilliant.  I knew it was never gonna go anywhere.  It had everything it was supposed to have, but I knew it wasn't gonna go anywhere.

You know, it's hard.  You sit and watch TV, and get these Hits Of The '80s!!  Oh Jesus, not already.  It really doesn't seem like that much time's gone by.  And it really has.  The Tearjerkers last played...well, the reunion was in '87, and that's ten years ago.  It's pretty weird to think of that.  It just doesn't seem like that long ago.

Would you do a Tearjerkers reunion now?

Well, if the people were around, certainly.  I had broached it several times.  I mean, Tommy's now married, and I don't know even where he is.  I don't hear from him.  He's trying to do his thing.  Mark Rotondo, of course, is doing a jewelry store downtown.  Joe Fabrizzio is in Boston last I knew, and Larry [Dziergas], he runs his parents' business.  Larry, I don't think he's touched a drumstick.  I might be wrong, but I don't think he's touched a drumstick in a good long [while].  It would have to be the kind of thing where Gary brought it up early enough for me to say, "All right, here's the Geritol."  You know, everybody better try to get with it.  You know, I keep my fingers up from time to time.  Like I've been telling you, it's depressing, so I tend not to do it.  I finally have the best equipment I ever wanted, and now there's nobody [laughs].

Why didn't anyone from this scene ever break out?

Because nobody would leave Syracuse.

Paul Armstrong did.  Arty Lenin did for a while.

Well, after a while, Paul didn't have the whole shot.  Paul was the catalyst in that band.  And a lot of people really, really, really hated that band when they fired him.  They all of a sudden...I mean, Mick Walker's a player.  He's a player, he's good.  But it wasn't the same.  It was very slick.  It wasn't even The Romantics; it was a step beyond The Romantics as far as slickness.  And it just didn't...with Gary and Arty forcing their view of what they wanted it to be, and unfortunately the rough edge was gone.  And part of the charm of that band was the rough edge.  I think at this point they know that.  A lot of people didn't think we would go anywhere when Buddy left, and we hadn't even started when Buddy left.

I kind of lost the muse.  I just didn't know what to do with it.  For one, I was very sheltered.  From about '80 through about '84, I could be a musician.  I worked at Desert Shore, I walked in when I wanted to, left when I wanted to.  We played a lot, so I spent a lot of time writing, I spent a lot of time playing.  And you're very sheltered in that, and I think in a way that's what you need to have.  One thing I never wanted to do, and I always said this from the minute I picked up the guitar, is I would never play a wedding, which I never have.  That's where Gary and I differ greatly, because he went on to do [his covers band, The Neverly Brothers] and all that, and I would never do it.  It wasn't being true to the music.  I mean, I got into the music because of The Small Faces and The Who and The Byrds, and all that meant something to me.  It wasn't like background stuff.  To me, the music was my life.  My whole life has been the music.  And unfortunately, all of a sudden, we made some stupid decisions.  Maura and I decided to move to Ithaca to be a big folk thing, and Ithaca's full of big folk things.  They don't need us.

Still, I could never understand why none of these bands made it.

We had management that would not...we had talked about going to play New York.  "You're not good enough.  You guys suck.  You'll never make it."  And after we broke [up] I went down with the boys; they played CBGB's, and I was bummin' around, had nothing to do, and Gary said, "Come on!"  So I drove down with them.  And they played, and I'm in there watching the other bands, and I'm going, "Fuck, we would have killed them."  And you don't know.  Again, we were so sheltered.  The Poptarts got out and played Cleveland.  And we just never...we went to Rochester.  And we did pretty well there.  But I talked to Mark Rotondo for a while about trying to get something together, and he basically said, "You know, The Tearjerkers were a good second-string band.  You had a good knack about picking good covers that we could do that fit in with what we were writing.  But we were never poised to go the whole distance."  And I don't know.

Going back to what killed it, also the fact that you could program everything into these computers and everything.  That killed it, too.  There was no freshness, there was no urgency to the fact that you could sit there and hit one button.

I wish I could have a more romantic view of the time, but I guess being in the middle of it, you know....  For a while, too, my excesses were doing me in.  I was drinkin' waaaaay too much, and indulging.  And that's one of the reasons I stopped.  I just decided enough was enough.

The other thing about [The Flashcubes] is they had every shot, every chance, everything that they could get, and it still didn't happen.  And we always said that if they took off, we'd be right behind 'em.  Because if [record labels] looked at the area, we'd all go.  There was no doubt about it.  We knew we could do it.  Just everything that they could get the chance to do, opening for The Police and all this stuff, and it just never clicked.  And you had to wonder; you had to wonder what it was.  What does it take? 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

THE DEAD DUCKS: The 1997 BRIGHT LIGHTS Interview

 
 
With the ol' clock on the wall ticking closer and closer to our big 2016 BRIGHT LIGHTS! Syracuse new wave rock 'n' roll reunion party on July 3rd (as detailed here), let's dig deeper into the archives for some first-person accounts of the late '70s/early '80s local scene that BRIGHT LIGHTS! celebrates.  These interviews were conducted by me in 1997, as background for a Syracuse New Times article on The Flashcubes and other great bands playing around the 'Cuse during that three-chord-charged time frame; it was published the week of The Flashcubes' 20th anniversary show, which was also a release party for The Flashcubes' anthology CD Bright Lights.  The article itself can be found here.  This is the first publication of the complete interviews.

Hey, wanna go to the BRIGHT LIGHTS! show?  Of course you do!  Get yer tickets, man!

The Dead Ducks!  Out of all the live rock n' roll bands I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing, I don't think I ever saw a group that just loved rock 'n' roll as much as The Dead Ducks love rock 'n' roll.  Guitarist Dan Bonn, bassist Paul Stephenson, and drummer Jim Spagnola might as well be The Monkees, because make no mistake: they are believers!  There was also an early member of The Dead Ducks--a guy named Bobcat Goldthwait--who left the band early on, and no one knows whatever happened to that guy.  It's a crime that none of the Ducks' music has ever been issued in any form, because they had great songs and the ability to execute 'em.  While Dan Bonn's cousin Dana Bonn has achieved internet stardom as co-host of This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl, let's go back to '97 for a chat with cousin Danny, all about the mighty, mighty Dead Ducks.

How do you recall the beginning of the Syracuse new wave scene?

It kinda like just crept up, as we're concerned, with the Ducks.  I remember me and Bob Goldthwait being in CVS drug store in Shoppingtown or something, looking at a Hit Parader with Johnny Rotten's picture on it, and like, "Whoa!  What's this all about?"  And it had interviews with The Ramones, so we had read about it a little bitAnd like Midnight Special and those kind of shows, all of a sudden we started seeing The Ramones and Cheap Trick, and Patti Smith on Saturday Night Live and that kind of stuff.  And so with the kind of stuff we were doing at the time, like old Who songs and Kinks songs anyways, all of a sudden The Ramones' stuff fit right in there, and Generation X and all that.

Were you already playing as a band?

Kind of, yeah.  We got together like September of '76, actually.  It was like the third day of high school [laughs].  But it took us about a year and a half before we got a line-up where we even played out.

I never got to see you until around '79 or so.

I don't remember when our first gig was, actually [laughs].  It was probably early '78 or so, like January or so.


Were you going out much to see bands locally?

Oh yes.  Yeah, it was great, because we ended up hooking up with The Flashcubes.  Somehow they had heard of us, and then we heard of them, and then Matt MacHaffie kind of became our manager.  And we were only like 15 or 16, and we could get into any bar in town, and that was pretty cool [laughs].

Do you recall a lot of hostility toward new wave at the time?

Oh, totally.  In high school, it was like, you know, we had what was called the Senior Wall [laughs], where anybody that was a senior could hang out and listen to music.  And we would bring in Ramones or something, stuff like that, and the principal would come over and make us shut it off 'cause the other kids complained [laughs].  Yeah, we got all kinds of hostility in school, 'cause they were listening to Journey and stuff [laughs], and Styx.  It just didn't fit in right.  But that just made us want to listen to it more.

Was Bobcat Goldthwait ever an actual member of the Ducks?

He actually was with us, probably like from October of '76 'til about when we started playing out.  We did a couple gigs with him, and he was already well into comedy at that point, too.  And he was doing routines in between our sets [laughs], and stuff like that.  And it got to a point where he was concentrating more on his comedy, and rightly so.  So it didn't work out as far as that.

The Ducks were you, Jim Spagnola, and Paul Stevenson.

Actually, Paul was the second bass player. The first one's name was Scott Huvey [2016 NOTE:  if anyone wants to correct the spelling of Scott's name, I'm all ears], but he only played with us a couple times.  We had another guitar player, a guy named Kenny Bennett.

We started playing with [The Flashcubes], actually it was our second gig.  I guess through Matt MacHaffie.  A friend of my sister's told Matt about us, you know, "Hey, there's another punk rock band in town [laughs]," aside from The Flashcubes.  So he came out and saw us with Paul Armstrong.  And Paul Armstrong came up and played "You Really Got Me" with us.  Pretty fun [laughs].  It was like at a church somewhere in Fayetteville.

Did the Ducks have long-term goals?

Oh yeah, totally.  The whole deal.  Do you remember Penny Poser?  [NOTE:  Penny was Diane Lesniewski, guiding force behind the local punk/new wave fanzine Poser.]  She had written an article on us once, in which she had a dream that we were on American Bandstand or something.

It was a really fun time.  The scene was incredible.  There were so many different bands.  Like, I remember another time, I guess the first time we played in a bar.  There was this place called Alfie's over on Erie Boulevard--I think it was next to Arthur Treacher's, now it's like a flower shop [laughs]--but we were in there, and the audience was basically all the bands at the time.  I think, like Buddy Love and the Tearjerkers, like The Drastics, the 'Cubes and The Ohms, all them.  I don't know, they just really liked us because we were like 15, like I said, and we couldn't really play that well [laughs].  Eventually we got it together more.  But I mean when we first started out, like listening back to tapes, our first guitar player, he could never really understand the concept of playing in keys [laughs].  I remember, they like smashed the pinball machine that night.  I think it was Chris Goss that did that [laughs].

I never had a chance to see The Drastics.

Oh, they were a great band!

The Poptarts debuted opening for you.

Yeah, I remember that.

How did that come about?

Um...maybe through Gary Allen. He was a disc jockey on 95X, and I was a cashier at Pricechopper [laughs].  And he came through one night wearing a Cheap Trick T-shirt, I remember, and I was like, "Ah, cool band!"  And we started talkin', and figured out who everybody was.  I don't know, probably through Matt, too.  Matt MacHaffie really did a lot for us.

Were The Flashcubes the center of the scene?

I would say.  Yeah, probably.  I mean, there were a lot of great bands.  They brought the most attention to it, for sure.

It's always amazed me that none of these bands ever really got to the next level, never got signed, just put out a couple of indie records.  And the Ducks never released any records.

Yeah.  We've got the tapes.  We recorded 'em and everything.  It was so expensive to put out records then, and we were still in high school [laughs].  I could only make so much money.

People didn't really appreciate what we had here.

Yeah, for sure.  Especially once it was gone, you really noticed it, how good a scene it was.  You kind of took it for granted.  At least I did, because I kind of grew up right into it, so I thought it was always there [laughs].  The vindication, I guess, was just seeing the scene that's still goin' on.  You know, when you see the punk bands that are out now and all that, it's really cool to know that you did your part.

Do you get to contemporary punk in Syracuse without tracing a line through The Flashcubes, Ohms, Ducks, et cetera?

Hmmm.  That's a good question.  Like some of the bands that are around here that are like that.  It's hard to say.  I mean, it might have happened anyways.

Somebody had to be first.

They would have been the ones to have the initial unacceptability of it all, and then ten years later it would have been some other band.

It was underground then.  It's practically mainstream now.

Right.  And it's almost at the point now where that's the Journey music of today [laughs].  I still like the music and everything, but when you look and there's like a million people listening to it because it's the cool thing that everybody else is listening to, you've gotta kind of wonder about that a little bit. But then, on the other hand, it is good music and it is vital music, and it's better to see people listenin' to that than Journey [laughs].  I have nothing against mass popularity, as long as the bands are still doing good music, and it's not all contrived stuff, like some Svengali puts together the perfect punk band [laughs].

Was it a mostly supportive scene?

In the beginning it was.  But eventually every band brought in their own little core following, and ended up goin' to see all the other bands and stuff.  So that worked out pretty good.  You know, [we'd] always play together and stuff.

The raising of the drinking age seemed to mark the end of that scene.

Yeah, totally.  That's what killed the scene, really.

Were you playing out in the mid-'80s?

No, not really.  Like little things here and there, but most of the time it was just writing and recording.

When did The Dead Ducks break up?

We broke up in like November of 1980.  It was like, we started like the third day of high school, and it went like four or five months past it.

What do you remember about The Ohms?

Oh, they were great.  They were probably one of my favorites.  "Teenage Alcoholic" was a great song.  "Chain Letter,""License To Kill."  [The Ohms'] Zenny [Caucasian] was the one who produced the one thing we did.

How about The Most?

Oh yeah, they were fun.  Dian [Zain] was cool.  Dian seemed to be the person that believed the most in what was goin' on.  'Cause she just kinda came from somebody that went to see the bands all the time, to being [in] one of the bands that everybody went to see.

It was just a great time.  And actually, this even went beyond the new wave scene, it was just the whole music scene in general.  'Cause there was a lot of, as it got to be like '79, '80, it opened up to be a scene that included, like I think the rest of the bands kind of like accepted the punk bands more and more.  Because I remember they used to have like these parties where they would close off The Poor House North and just have an open bar.  One year we had a roast for [95X DJ] Dave Frisina.  It was, I think, the first anniversary of Soundcheck [Dave Frisina's long-running local music show].  And everybody got up and said rude things about Dave [laughs].  It was kind of funny.  They had that a few times, and by that time it included The Works and Pictures.  It just became a Syracuse music scene, and it had all these different facets.  That got to be a pretty cool time.

Gettin' back to Bobcat.  He still did his routine a lot when we all played.  He was definitely as much a part of the scene as all of us.  He would do his routine in between breaks and stuff like that, like down at The Firebarn and all over the place.  One time I remember, like we had played our first gig or whatever, and this was the time when Matt MacHaffie had heard of us.  And then we met Matt, I think, and he told us about The Flashcubes and all that.  And Bob had smashed a tambourine [laughs] that first time we played.  So we hadn't met Gary [Frenay] or anybody yet, but we knew that [the 'Cubes] worked at Gerber Music up in Shoppingtown.  So me and Bob walk in there with this bag full of the tambourine that he had bought there.  And he says to Gary, "Um, I bought this tambourine here and it doesn't work anymore."  And Gary's like, "What's the problem with it?"  And Bob turns the bag over and all these little pieces of tambourine fall out [laughs].  And Gary just looks up at us and says, "You guys are The Dead Ducks, aren't you?"

I couldn't have asked for a better music scene to grow up into.  The fact that people are even still talkin' about it today, and it was just this stupid little band we put together in high school [laughs].

I don't know if Gael [Sweeney] told you about this one.  There was this club called The Insomniac; it was like an after-hours club.  It must have been opening night for the place or something, toward the beginning.  But we played there with [The Poptarts], and they came out, did their whole set in their nighties [laughs].  Because it was like three in the morning when they came on.

And what are you up to now?

I'm in a band called The Experiments.  And if it wasn't for that experience of the music scene, what it was like then when we were comin' up into it,  who knows if we'd even be doing it now.  I guess it's been tryin' to find something that cool again.     

Monday, June 27, 2016

This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio # 832






Hey, Meghan's back!  After a wonderful semester in London, my daughter has returned to tropical Syracuse for the summer, and returned to Westcott Radio to once again match wits and record collections with the intrepid Dana.  The result? Same as always: RADIO ALCHEMY!  Good to have her back!

NEXT WEEK:  You have two separate Dana & Carl options!  If you're in Syracuse next Sunday, July 3rd, you should--of course!--join us live at Funk N' Waffles, 307-313 S. Clinton Street in downtown Syracuse.  Why?  'Cause we're hosting BRIGHT LIGHTS! The Syracuse New Wave Rock 'n' Roll Reunion, with live sets by Tom Kenny, The Flashcubes, Screen Test, The Trend, The Dead Ducks, Maura & the Bright Lights, and a special tribute to Norm Mattice, as performed by The Richards (with Paul Armstrong, the Steele Brothers, the legendary Mark Doyle, and guest vocalist Ronnie Dark).  Show starts promptly at 7 pm, and we recommend advance-sale tickets from https://funknwaffles.ticketfly.com/event/1195607-bright-lights-syracuse-new-syracuse/  If you're outside the 315...well, our condolences!  But we still love ya, and we hope to use our magic powers to be in two places at once, and thus provide you with an all-new TIRnRR, with lotsa cool tunes from our Featured Act, The Bangles! But right now, this is what rock 'n' roll radio sounded like on a Sunday night in Syracuse.

This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl  streams live (almost) every Sunday night from 9 to Midnight Eastern, exclusively at www.westcottradio.org

TIRnRR # 832:  The Meghan & Dana Show 6/26/16

THE RAMONES:  Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio? (Rhino, End Of The Century)
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BABYMETAL:  Give Me Chocolate!! (RAL, Babymetal)
SONIC YOUTH:  Ca Plane Pour Moi (Caroline, VA:  Freedom Of Choice)
EMILY C. SMITH:  1234 (Cariad Music, Marina's Laughing)
PUBLIC IMAGE, LTD.:  Public Image (Virgin, The Greatest Hits, So Far)
RISE AGAINST:  Help Is On The Way (DGC, Endgame)
SWEET:  Action (Capitol, The Best Of Sweet0
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ADELE:  River Lea (Columbia, 25)
THE HUMAN LEAGUE:  (Keep Feeling) Fascination (Astralwerks, The Very Best Of The Human League)
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE:  Soul Meets Body (Atlantic, Plans)
THE SMITHS:  Heaven Knows I'm Miserable now (Sire, Louder Than Bombs)
BLINK 182:  I Miss You (Geffen, Blink 182)
THE VAPORS:  Turning Japanese (Captain Oi, New Clear Day)
--
JENNIFER NETTLES:  Playing With Fire (Big Machine, Playing With Fire)
ROMEO VOID:  Never Say Never (Columbia, Warm, In Your Coat)
BEAUTIFUL BODIES:  She's A Blast (Epitaph, Battles)
DEPECHE MODE:  Just Can't Get Enough (Reprise, The Best Of Depeche Mode, Volume 1)
ONEREPUBLIC:  Something I Need (Interscope, Native)
ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK:  Enola Gay (Spectrum, The Best Of OMD)
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SAINT ASONIA:  Let Me Live My Life (RCA, Saint Asonia)
X-RAY SPEX:  Oh Bondage, Up Yours! (Sanctuary, Germfree Adolescents)
COBIE SMULDERS:  Let's Go To The Mall (20th Century Fox TV, VA:  How I Met Your Music)
M:  Pop Muzik (Razor & Tie, New York, London, Paris, Munich)
BABYMETAL:  Doki Doki Morning (RAL, Babymetal)
A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS:  I Ran (Cherry Pop, A Flock Of Seagulls)
--
IMAGINE DRAGONS:  I'm So Sorry (Interscope, Smoke + Mirrors)
GARY NUMAN:  Cars (Beggars, The Pleasure Principle)
CARRIE UNDERWOOD:  Little Toy Guns (Sony, Greatest Hits:  Decade # 1)
THE B-52'S:  Rock Lobster (Rhino, Nude On The Moon)
EURYTHMICS:  Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (Arista, Greatest Hits)
MEN WITHOUT HATS:  The Safety Dance (Rhino, VA:  Millennium '80s New Wave Party)
--
MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE:  Bulletproof Heart (Reprise, Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys)
THE STRANGLERS: No More Heroes (EMI, Peaches)
FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH:  Hard To See (Prospect Park, War Is The Answer)
MODERN ENGLISH:  I Melt With You (Rhino, VA:  Millennium '80s New Wave Party)
FIRST AID KIT:  Stay Gold (Sony, Stay Gold)
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN: The Killing Moon (Rhino, More Songs To Learn And Sing)
--
FALL OUT BOY:  The Phoenix (Island, Save Rock And Roll)
THE PIXIES:  The Holiday Song (4AD, Wave Of Mutilation)
HALESTORM:  Apocalyptic (Atlantic, Into The Wild life)
THE STRAY CATS:  Rock This Town (Capitol, Greatest Hits)
SWEDISH HOUSE MAFIA:  Don't You Worry Child (Virgin, Until Now)
THE BANGLES:  Want You (Omnivore, Ladies And Gentlemen,,,The Bangles)
THREE DAYS GRACE:  Unbreakable Heart (RCA, Transit Of Venus)
MATTHEW SWEET:  Girlfriend (Sony, Playlist)
LINDSEY STIRLING:  Moon Trance (Lindseystomp, Lindsey Stirling)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Tonight on THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO

Well, it's gonna be chaos.  On the one side, you have my twenty-one-year-old daughter, fresh from a semester in London, eager to remind everyone of her wit and musical tastes; on the other side...well, there's Dana.  Yep, it's the long-awaited return of The Meghan & Dana Show, that unique radio alchemy of pop worlds colliding, record collections clashing, and generations competing, contrasting, and ultimately co-existing in some kinda loud harmony.  It's radio the way it oughtta be, and it's Sunday night, 9 to Midnight Eastern, only at www.westcottradio.org

Saturday, June 25, 2016

15,000 Blog Views Can't Be Wrong



It took this blog just over five months to pass the 15,000 view mark.  While this accomplishment pales beside, say, leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, or the thrill that'll getcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone, I'll take it.  The number isn't huge by any real-world standard, but it ain't bad for an unknown writer trying to force his opinions upon an unsuspecting world.

As my pal Rich Firestone is fond of saying, The Monkees have been good to me.  Traffic on Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do) just explodes when I write about The Monkees.  My review of the fab new Monkees album Good Times! is far and away my most-viewed blog entry; in fact, each of my top four most-viewed entries was about Good Times!, and so was Big Hit # 6 on the ol' Boppin' Parade O' Hits.  My piece on Main Street Records in Brockport is the only thing breaking The Monkees' hegemony in my Top Five.  (Though the above-mentioned Reechie Firestone thought my # 6 hit, The Monkees Bring The Summer: A Girl I Knew Somewhere, was the best thing I've ever written, so it wins, y'know, bonus points for that.)  Big thanks to the good folks at Monkees Live Almanac for sending so many Monkees fans my way.

I've always enjoyed writing about The Monkees.  When I was a teenager in the '70s, and a young adult in the early '80s, The Monkees were not considered cool at all.  So I got a lot of practice championing the group against dunderheaded nonsense that The Monkees were unworthy of praise, and I got pretty good at it, too.  We'll have more Monkee business here in the near future, beginning with a four-part series reassessing The Monkees' recorded legacy: with the critical and commercial success of Good Times!, how does this new material fit in with the group's body of work, and how much of Good Times! would need to be included in any updated consideration of the all-time Best Of The Monkees?  Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do) will assemble hypothetical four-disc, three-disc, two-disc, and single-disc Monkees best-ofs, and we'll see where we wind up.  After that, I have a major Monkees piece I'm kicking around, which oughtta be fun to do.

The July 3rd BRIGHT LIGHTS! Syracuse New Wave Rock 'n' Roll Reunion will be my immediate focus in the short term.  First, for God's sake, if you're anywhere near the 315 next Sunday, get to Funk 'N Waffles downtown for this show!  Tickets?  Here!  I've already posted my 1997 interview with Paul Armstrong and Gary Frenay of The Flashcubes, and my '97 Maura Kennedy interview. I'm currently transcribing my interview with Dan Bonn of The Dead Ducks, and I'll try to also get to my interview with the elusive Charlie Robbins of The Tearjerkers.  I may try to include my interviews with The Poptarts as well, but there are still some off-court logistics to navigate with those, so...no promise, no guarantee!

At the moment, I have two more Notebook Notions planned, revisiting vague ideas for writing projects from my misspent youth.  I have a number of Comic Book Retroviews in mind, and I continue to dig out old stuff from the archives, too.  Still toying with the idea of returning to complete my abandoned garage-rock history, "It Came From The Garage! Nuggets And The Rediscovery Of '60s Punk." My de facto autobiography, Singers, Superheroes, And Songs On The Radio remains on hold; I completed the 1960s some time back, but I've been reluctant thus far to take on the challenge of re-living the '70s.  If I do return to this series--and I think I will, eventually--I can state with certainty that it will end with the '70s; I am not writing about the 1980s.

Alas, I've discovered that my attempts at fiction get the least attention here. I enjoyed writing the beginning of my rock 'n' roll superhero novel ETERNITY MAN!, and I really got into my Batman and Aquaman pulp story The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze, but neither found an audience.  Ah well--we like what we like.

And I appreciate you liking what you like, and I'm pleased that may occasionally include whatever the hell it is I do here on Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do).  There will continue to be at least one post a day, every day, for as long as the will remains.  Death. Taxes. Construction on I-81.  Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do).  See, there are some things you can depend on.

Friday, June 24, 2016

MAURA KENNEDY: The 1997 BRIGHT LIGHTS Interview

 

With the ol' clock on the wall ticking closer and closer to our big 2016 BRIGHT LIGHTS! Syracuse new wave rock 'n' roll reunion party on July 3rd (as detailed here), let's dig deeper into the archives for some first-person accounts of the late '70s/early '80s local scene that BRIGHT LIGHTS! celebrates.  These interviews were conducted by me in 1997, as background for a Syracuse New Times article on The Flashcubes and other great bands playing around the 'Cuse during that three-chord-charged time frame; it was published the week of The Flashcubes' 20th anniversary show, which was also a release party for The Flashcubes' anthology CD Bright Lights.  The article itself can be found here.  This is the first publication of the complete interviews.

Hey, wanna go to the BRIGHT LIGHTS! show?  Of course you do!  Get yer tickets, man!

Shortly after our first BRIGHT LIGHTS! show in 2014, True Believer Scott "King" Cornish wrote, "If you could take all the love and the excitement and good vibes and enthusiasm and talent on hand at BRIGHT LIGHTS! and combine it all into one person...well, it'd be Maura Kennedy, wouldn't it?"  Testify, brother!

Maura and her husband, guitar wiz Pete Kennedy, perform together as the world-renowned coffeehouse-pop group The Kennedys.  Pete and Maura met as members of Nanci Griffith's band; their first date was a visit to Buddy Holly's grave site, so they are most certainly my kinda people. They're also two of the nicest folks in all of pop music. Back here in Syracuse, Pete and Maura participate in our BRIGHT LIGHTS! shows as members of Maura & the Bright Lights, alongside Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin (of The Flashcubes and Screen Test), plus lovely, talented, and unassailably cool veteran drummer Cathy LaManna.  I suppose it would be possible to have a BRIGHT LIGHTS! show without Maura & the Bright Lights--but why would we ever wanna do that?!

Let's go back before any of this.  Because in the '70s, before Maura Kennedy became the idol o' thousands, she was little Maura Boudreau in suburban North Syracuse, the kid sister of my friend Joe Boudreau.  I take full credit for hipping Joe to punk and new wave, turning him on to The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, and taking part (so to speak) in Joe's own fictional punk band, The Excrement Rifles, which Joe asked me to help him concoct as a humor piece for our high school magazine, The NorthCaster.   As we'll see below, Joe passed the melodic lobotomy bug on to his sister, and the rest is history.  Tell us about it, Maura!


How did you first hear about new wave music in general, and the Syracuse scene itself?

I told you about Sheena [Pam Tiger, later drummer for Distortion]'s dorm room.  I remember seeing a poster on her wall for 1.4.5.  And I thought that was hilarious, because I was a music theory student at high school, and that's like the most common progression.  But it's spelled in Roman numerals.  So when I saw this 1.4.5. spelled in Arabic numbers, I thought that was so funny.  And I laughed, and she didn't know what I was laughing at, because she didn't know theory.  She said, "They're the coolest band!"  So that's how I first heard about it.  And then I went to one of their shows, and found out about The Tearjerkers and all the others.  And also, the other thing--I was telling Pete about this--a really big influence on getting me involved with that, and not so much the local scene, but punk music.  I didn't like new wave music; I thought like Gary Numan and Blondie were more like new wave.  I wasn't really into that.  But I was more into the punk stuff, like The Ramones and stuff. And I found out most about The Ramones from my brother Joe [laughs].  My absolute first memory ever of hearing that music, and it will never go away, is my brother Joe chasing my little brothers around the house with a whiffle bat, singing, "Beat on the brat with a baseball bat!"  And I said, "What is that song?"  So that's the first time I ever heard The Ramones.  And also The NorthCaster, that had a lot to do with it.

Do you think this Syracuse scene has any meaning for someone who wasn't there?

Yeah, and I'll tell you why I think so.  Because when I moved to D.C., I realized that D.C. had a scene that was just like Syracuse.  It had a band that was like 1.4.5., called Switchblade.  It had a band that was kind of like The Tearjerkers.  And I realized that these little underground scenes were popping up all over the country.  And the only reason I would say that maybe yeah, the Syracuse scene would appeal to other people, was because the history of the D.C. scene really appeals to me.  And whenever there's a reunion of a band that hasn't played in 20 years, I go to see it, because I want to see which band from Syracuse it's the most like.

I was unlucky in that respect.  I was too young to have seen The Flashcubes, other than in reunions.

Tell me about your first band, The Antics.

It was a bad band, but I didn't care.  It's funny, because all the musicians back then that I knew, they didn't think there was any validity to bands that couldn't play.  I still do.  Because you've gotta start somwhere, and it's such a great form of recreation.

But to me, the most amazing thing about the Syracuse scene was that I always thought it was really normal and regular that people wrote their own tunes and put out their own records.  And I found when I moved around, as I looked around at different scenes nationally, I found that not everybody did that.  It was a really cool scene.  I remember one time, I think it was [at] Jabberwocky, and Dress Code played.  That was another band that wasn't very good technically, but I loved the Merseybeat kind of stuff. I loved 'em, and people gave me flack for being into that band [laughs].  But I remember one day they did the record release party, and Elliot [Mattice]--I think it was Elliott, or one of the guys--rented a limo.  And everybody gave them grief, and I thought it was so rock 'n' roll.

There was often a negative reaction to this scene, and this music, from people who weren't a part of it.

In high school there was.  I remember in high school, I used to get beaten up all the time.  I remember one time, I was sitting in the cafeteria.  I was a senior.  I was sitting with my friends.  So I'm sitting there, I think it was right when Rock 'n' Roll High School came out, or maybe it was a couple of years [after].  But I had my Rock 'n' Roll High School T-shirt on, with my Joey Ramone autograph right on the shirt.  And I had these glasses.  I used to go down to Marshall Street all the time, and I went down to Down Under Leather, and they had the coolest selection of rock 'n' roll sunglasses.  And they had this one pair that was purple, and they had these little V-shaped visors that came over each lens that were purple plastic, molded.  So that when you put 'em up on your head, you looked like Josie and the Pussycats.  I thought they were the coolest things.  So I saved up, from my paper route, to get these things.  And the very first day I had 'em, I wore 'em to school.  And there was a kid, Doug Pitaki, I'll never forget him.  Because he came up to the group of us--we weren't offensive people, we were just into punk rock music  But the jocks were really threatened by it for some reason.  And he came marching up to me, tore 'em off my head, twisted 'em in half, and said, "Fuckin' punk rock!"  "You fuckin' punk rock," like I was a rock, not a rocker [laughs].  He didn't even know the terminology.  So there were a lot of people who were real hostile to us as kids, only because it was an unknown.  That's the reason why there's racism, or any social problem, because there's an unknown.

My parents were real supportive.  I think [we] who were playing in bands had real supportive parents.  We always, no matter what band it was, everyone rehearsed at their house, or got a ride over in their Mom's station wagon.  It was always real supportive on that level.   Because they saw us when we were putting together the music, and they knew that we weren't doing drugs, or whatever everybody was afraid [of].  As far as the other musicians, there's always going to be musicians who for some reason or another put down other bands, either because they're insecure about their own thing, or maybe they feel like they worked really hard to learn all their scales [laughs], and these bands that are really exciting on stage don't have the technical ability that they do.  But they didn't want these bands to break up, they just didn't know why they had an audience.

But it was just a rock 'n' roll thing.  Everybody really just wanted to dance.  And that's what I loved about The Tearjerkers the most, because they never stopped between songs.  I've always imagined that way of performing, of being, you know--if it's a band, and you really want to keep the audience with you, you shouldn't have that dead space between songs that so many bands have, scratching their heads and saying, "Gee, what song do we do next?"  They really had it together.  You don't really have to be a real studied musician to be a good entertainer.

When I was 14--I was really underage--this was actually the first band I ever saw in a club.  And it was The Ramones, and they played at Uncle Sam's.  So I was 14 years old, and I just wanted to go to that show so bad.  And I'd never tried to get into a club in my life.  I didn't know you needed a fake ID [laughs].  And at Uncle Sam's, that place didn't usually have punk music. And I was all by myself, because I didn't know all the people I ended up hanging out with in high school.  I wasn't hangin' out with those guys yet.  So I went to this club, and I was a total nerd.  I had no friends, I had really thick bottle glasses, and I didn't look like a punk.  I was all by myself, I didn't have a plan or a clue.  So I'm standing in line while they're letting people in, and I'm getting close to the door and I'm watching them card everybody.  I'm thinkin', "Oh shoot, what do I do?"  I don't know how it worked, but as I got up, the person in front of me was getting carded, I took off my glasses and I started cleaning them on my shirt, looking down.  And I walked right in.  Not only did they not card me, but they didn't charge me either.  And I saw that show.

It was a really important thing.  If it hadn't been for this scene, I probably never would've gotten into music.  I mean, maybe I would've as a music teacher, but never as a performer.  Because I never would have known that I could write a song.  And then I saw all my friends doing it.  So it's a huge part of my life now, and my past.

But the scene ended when New York State raised the drinking age to 21, and all these nightclubs went under.

Well, that's when Jabberwocky died.  And it's also coincidentally when MTV started.  MTV started in 1980, the summer between my junior and senior year in high school.  And I remember watching it and going, "Oh my God, people aren't going to go out and see live bands anymore!"  Which wasn't true, but I was concerned about it.  I didn't think MTV was a good thing.

2016 POSTSCRIPT:  That Ramones show at Uncle Sam's that Maura was able to crash?  That was July 6th, 1979.  I was there, with Maura's brother Joe, and our mutual pal Jay Hammond.  The evening opened with the debut Central New York screening of The Ramones' new movie, Rock 'n' Roll High School.  The Ramones played a little later in the evening, but not until after an incredible opening set by The Flashcubes.  Maura may not remember all of the specifics, but she did indeed get to see The Flashcubes live, in their prime, and not just at reunion shows.  She'll get to see 'em again on July 3rd, and she'll even get to play on stage with some of 'em.  File this one under "Happy Endings."

Thursday, June 23, 2016