|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's. Gary 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 Penetrators! The 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 East. The 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....
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?
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.