- 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.
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."