- 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 three 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.
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....
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?